Reviewed: Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

 

Let’s be honest, as much as I’d like to live in a world that is cover-blind, the harsh reality is that my desire to pick a book up increases when cute packaging is involved. (Incidentally, this is also why I consistently leave Target with items that I don’t actually need.)

Even before the book released, I saw ads for Tell Me Three Things everywhere and each time I made a mental note* to put it on my Goodreads “To Read” shelf. And because my reading stack has grown to a height that…shall we say…is no longer structurally sound, I needed an excuse to pick it up right away. The only way forward? A sneaky book club move. I suggested it for our next gathering and smugly moved it to the top of my pile.

But before we get too far, here’s a quick synopsis (if you’re into that kind of thing).

TellMeThreeThings_QuoteAbout the Book:

What do you do when your dad decides that dragging you across the country and inserting you into a different high school ecosystem is the best plan of action? You cautiously accept the friendship of the anonymous guy who promises to help you understand the preppy landscape of foreign-ness that is a Los Angeles private school, of course. 

Still reeling from the loss of her mother and the challenge of navigating a newly combined family unit, Jessie gets an email from SN (Somebody Nobody). Homesick and desperately trying to make her way in this new world, Jessie takes a leap of faith and accepts his help. Amongst advice about the best way to interact with her new classmates, they begin to build a solid friendship by exchanging answers to the prompt: tell me three things…

But who is SN? And will an in-person meeting make their friendship stronger or destroy it altogether?

Let me tell you three reasons why I loved this book (because that seems the appropriate thing to do):

(1.) It reminded me of Ann Brashares’ The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series. Just like the Sisterhood books, this book was deeply grounded. Far from a frivolous teen book, the issues Jessie deals with: the death of her mother, tentatively forging the bonds of new friendships, adapting to a different school, trying to assimilate into a family that doesn’t feel quite right, and processing through the tangle of emotions that all these things realistically require of her…well, let’s just say that I shed a few tears. Okay, maybe one-fourth of a tissue box’s worth of tears.

(2.) It delivers on the premise. Much like Meg Cabot before her, the author is amazingly skilled at using the email/IM plot device to move the story forward. There was just enough light-hearted banter and high school shenanigans to keep the balance of a good YA novel. The highest praise I can offer is that I never felt like the book was heavy-handed or trying too hard. In fact, I found myself smiling like an idiot in public places while reading. Now I need to do some serious damage control to re-establish my street cred.

(3.) It’s well-written. That might sound like a simple compliment, but I think this book was brilliantly paced, expertly woven together, and insightful as heck. I never use a highlighter in fiction books, but I found myself marking a few lines along the way.

“How strange, I think, to be called both ugly and beautiful, two words I rarely hear, in the same day. The former because most people are neither that mean nor that truthful, the latter because it has never applied to me…Hot seems to be about guys liking you. Beautiful is about liking how you look.”

“My mom will not be there to nurse me back from this. There is no longer a person in the world who is interested in everything I have to say just by virtue of the fact that it comes out of my mouth.”

“When my mom died, Scarlett and I sat on my bed, and before she started the full-time job of distracting me from the pain–which she performed admirably and with such skill I never even noticed how much work she must have put into it–she said the only thing that made sense at the time, maybe the only thing that has made any sense since: Just so you know, I realize that what happened is not in any way okay, but I think we’re going to have to pretend like it is.”

Bottom line: I don’t need to tell you three things – if you’re looking for a book to break a reading slump and love a good YA coming of age story (with a really cute cover), I have one single piece of advice: get your hands on this book and read it. Posthaste.

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*The sad reality is that my mental notes are a lot like those cute sticky notes that you can buy in the dollar section at Target – they have more style than substance.

Reviewed: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

hedgehogsFirst, just in case you’re wondering, this is not a book that sheds any light on care and keeping of hedgehogs. If you’ve been long harboring a desire to keep a hedgehog as a pet and pick this book up for insight, you’ll be very surprised in the first few pages. Fair warning.

First, a brief summary to bring you up to speed, courtesy of Amazon.com:

Renee is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building, home to members of the great and the good. Over the years she has maintained her carefully constructed persona as someone reliable but totally uncultivated, in keeping, she feels, with society’s expectations of what a concierge should be. But beneath this facade lies the real Renee: passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives. Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Renee lives resigned to her lonely lot with only her cat for company.

Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbors will dramatically alter their lives forever.

The book’s New York Times bestseller moniker is deservedly earned. The writing is beautiful and the concept of the book is charming. Originally the book was written in French, but let’s not kid ourselves, I read the English translation. A little honor where honor is due: The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been praised by The Washington PostLos Angeles Times, The New York TimesChicago Sun-TimesPublishers Weekly and Elle (Italy), to name a few.

I’ll be honest, I found the book fairly dense. The cadence of the writing was hard to enjoy, even though the chapters were all short. To be fair, the accounts of Renee and Paloma’s lives are actually quite interesting, if difficult to relate to. However, in between snippets of the story we as readers are “treated” to long soliloquies about their thoughts on philosophy (who cares about phenomenology?) and the mundane (how much can one say about a rugby player?) for pages and pages. At times I thought, “This writing is really beautiful.” But most of the time, I found myself so tangled up in verbiage that I could not have recounted what was happening for any amount of money.

The back cover copy makes it sound as though the book is a tale of an older concierge and the younger charge’s friendship. In reality, very little of that happens until the last several pages. The last 60 pages or so did keep me riveted but I wouldn’t have made it that far without the desire to keep myself from bringing shame to my family’s name by flunking out of book club.

On a positive note, because so much of the book is the rambling thoughts of these two articulate characters, The Elegance of the Hedgehog certainly is quotable. I made notations of words and phrases that stuck out to me as delicate thoughts that I’d like to remember. Here are a few of them:

The title phrase:

From Paloma’s POV: “Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary–and terribly elegant.”

Paloma on grammar:

“Personally, I think that grammar is a way to attain beauty. When you speak, or read, or write, you can tell if you’ve said or written a fine sentence…But when you are applying the rules of grammar skillfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language.”

“And on the way home I thought: pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language.”

Renee on reading:

“I have read so many books…and yet, like most autodidacts, I am never quite sure of what I have gained from them. There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, wearing together all the disparate strands of my reading–and then suddenly the meaning escapes, the essence evaporates, and no matter how often I reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with each subsequent reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she’s been attentively reading the menu.”

Bottom Line: If you’re a person who likes a literary read and your bookshelves already have your fair share of translated, acclaimed works of fiction you’ll appreciate the refined turns of phrase. However, if you feel as though life is too short to read discourses on phenomenology and poetic musings on rugby players, better to pass on this book altogether.