Sunday, March 13, 2011

From the Bestseller List

I haven't had a lot of success finding good reads from the bestseller lists; I don't think those books necessarily sell well to intelligent readers.  However, I do occasionally find the rare gem in the list that I can't put down.  Here are a few of them.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog spent most of last year on the New York Times Bestseller list; it's a French novel published in an English translation by Europa, a publisher which specializes in this type of book.  The author, Muriel Barbery, is also a professor of philosophy, which explains a lot about the issues addressed in her story. 
This book shines a spotlight on an exclusive luxury apartment building in Paris; the two narrators are its most unusual residents.  Renee, the building's concierge, opens the book with her observations of the people she assumes she exists to serve.  However, it quickly becomes clear to the reader that Renee is not what she seems to the world.  Intermittently, the book shifts to the narration of Paloma, a young child who is also hiding something about herself, and the stage is set for the two of them to meet.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a wonderfully good translation (and, believe me, I've seen bad ones) and the writing just shines; however, Barbery does wax quite philosophical through Renee and Paloma, and not every reader can deal with that.  Another oddity is the strange enthusiasm her characters have for grammar, which isn't odd at all if you consider that they are, after all, French.  I found this book mesmerizing; I couldn't put it down, and I eventually bought it and read it many, many times. 
Another good popular book is the current New York Times Bestseller Room, by Emma Donoghue.  On the face of it, this seems to be just another version of the story in which young woman is abducted, kept captive for a number of years by psychopath, has child(ren) by said psychopath, eventually escapes, has to adjust to real world.  If that was the case, I wouldn't be directing you to this book. 
Room is unusual because of its unusual, innocent eye, point of view.  The story is narrated by Jack, the child who grows up knowing nothing but Room, the corrugated shed in the backyard of the man who abducted his mother when she was in college.  His only window on the world, other than the skylight (covered with wire mesh), is the television -- he believes it depicts outer space.  Jack, in other words, believes Room is the real world because he knows of no other. 
It's not a spoiler to tell you that they escape (I won't tell you how); the story becomes even more intense once Jack now has to face, literally, a whole new world.  We see through Jack's adjustment the difficulty his mother is having, and glimpse through his eyes the way his mother's loved ones are knocked sideways by the unexpected reunion.  I'll admit it -- I cried as I finished this book.  And then I read it again.

Stay tuned; later in the week I'll be posting some chick lit!