Thursday, January 7, 2010

books I'm reading and enjoying

The Age of Comfort, by Jean DeJean
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Hardcover, 304 pp. Color photo gallery, many illustrations--I would not recommend an e-book for this reason. I don't think it's available in electronic format, even.
ISBN-13: 9781596914056

Many of the things we now expect in the course of daily life--comfortable sofas, easy chairs, flush toilets, heated rooms, clothing that does not restrict movement--were first popularized in France in the 1670s and 1700s. All of this happened in a burst of creativity fostered by a few architects, designers, and decorators in response to demands from Kings Louis XIV and XV and other tastemakers such as their many rich relatives and associates (including famous mistresses such as Madame de Pompadour). Also,interestingly, a few capitalists/business people began influencing taste as well since they had gained the money that gave them access to the decorators and architects. This book covers the development of the various innovations as they emerged, and of the evolving concept of "comfort": there are chapters on inventions in heating, flush toilets, comfortable chairs, sofas, and then some on interior decorating, smaller rooms (bedrooms, boudoirs), and the idea of making space/rooms private. Used to be, you went to the bathroom in front of everyone (as the kings did), and people felt no need (and had no opportunity) to be alone during the day. With the advent of comfort, smaller rooms, and private spaces, expectations about everyday living (and privacy/subjectivity) changed radically--people began to expect comfortable things and clothing, and the idea that we all require privacy became essential to subjectivity and to house design. It's a fascinating shift in history, and this book traces it really well for a general reader like me. It is very nicely written, has pretty color plates and lots of illustrations besides. It's made me interested in furniture, architecture, interior design, and toilets. Who knew? I am really enjoying it; highly recommended.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog
By Muriel Barbery. Translated by Alison Anderson

Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN-13: 978-1933372600
Seems to be no e-book edition, alas.

"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" (143).

Two narrators: (1) Madame Renee Michel, the concierge in a ritzy hotel/apartment building in Paris, who has a rich inner life but works hard to seem perfectly bland and uninteresting on the surface; and (2) Paloma, a young girl, age 12, daughter of one of the tenants in the building. Paloma is brilliant but hides it from her family and is saddened/troubled by the apparent meaninglessness of life. She plans to commit suicide at age 13. Paloma and Mme. Michel become friends with each other and the newest tenant in the building, M. Ozu, who is Japanese. Great interior monologues, character sketches, very pleasurable reading. The Paloma parts are meant to begin with haikus--and I bet they are, syllable-wise, in French--but they are not translated as haikus in the English, so some of that poetry is lost. However, I bet it's not linguistically possible to translate them directly and preserve the syllables/etc. without rewriting them, so no fault on the translator.


  1. Oooh, those both sound wonderful. And look at us, updating the blog! We probably deserve a treat.

  2. I think I will have a delicious truffle with sea salt--they are so excellent.

  3. I've looked into reading the Elegance of the Hedgehog. Partly because it felt interesting, mostly because of my pet hedgie Layla.

    Awesome to have a book powered blog in #LNK.

  4. K. Chet -- you have a hedgehog?! I demand pics!! Is it like having a gerbil or hamster? How big is she?

    Thanks for reading/commenting!

  5. I do have a hedgie, and she is awesome. Logically named Layla, because of Clapton, not the Dominoes.

    She's about Guinea Pig sized. Pokey on the out side soft like a gerbil on the bottom.

    Here are some pictures from Twitpic:

    Layla 1

    Layla 2

    Layla 3

    Layla 4

    Layla 5

    Layla 6

  6. Layla is adorable--and elegant, of course. ;)