October 31, 2011

Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik

The title of this book is from this very cool old drawing called "A Railroad: From Paris to the Moon."

I'm having a lot of luck with my books this year. Paris to the Moon is a beautiful memoir of five years during which the author, his wife and his son live in Paris. Gopnik is a journalist for The New Yorker who developed a great love for Paris as a child, when his family lived there for a time, and this is something he wants his own child, who was just a baby when they moved, to experience.

The book meanders between deep reflections about French culture to intimate descriptions of the author's family life in Paris. Both Gopnik and his wife are devoted to their child's experiences. Early on he says "The romance of your child's childhood may be the last romance you can give up."

Gopnik considers Paris to be the most beautiful place in the world, and although it's a place that's never been high on my travel list, he is convincing and of course now I'd like to go. "We love Paris," he says, "not out of nostalgia, but because we love the look of light on things, as opposed to the look of light from things, the world reduced to images radiating from screens."

This latter really struck me recently while having a conversation with a friend. Quite often when I related an experience, she responded by comparing this to something in a TV show or a movie. This irritated me partly because I haven't seen any of these shows and so don't understand the allusion, but partly because I too prefer the look of light on things as opposed to the look of light from things.

Gopnik's depictions of French culture are extremely detailed - so nuanced that you'd have to have been there and know it at least to some extent for it to make sense. And he uses quite a few French words which I should have immediately looked up but didn't so lost some meaning because of that. The book was written as journals or articles while they lived in Paris between 1995 and 2000, so it reads a little bit historically by now. At times I found myself wishing I'd read it 10 years ago. But it is a lovely, rich book which will stand the test of time. The author is unashamedly in love with Paris, a true romantic, and I recommend Paris to the Moon to anyone who has ever been intrigued by the romance and fame of the City of Light.

October 18, 2011

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

Truman Capote is what I would call a masterful writer, and one I have never read before. Breakfast at Tiffany's is a short novel and then the book also contains three stories. The best of these is "A Christmas Memory," a sad but beautiful story of an intergenerational friendship. It inspired me to get out my fruitcake recipes:

The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days our work is done. Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whisky, bask on window sills and shelves.

This is one of the few Christmas stories I would dare to compare with Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales.

A Vintage Affair by Isabel Wolff

Another highly readable romance with the addition of vintage clothing on nearly every page - descriptions of gorgeous fabrics and colours that are almost as good as reading about food. I love the setting - London, and the story-line keeps you reading happily along. A few romantic interests are incorporated with a mystery dating back to World War II. The Daily Mail(UK) calls this a "lovely book" and I agree.

October 4, 2011

A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

This is a great read by an author I am just learning to appreciate. The book is set in a London boarding house, with all the boarders interacting, similar to Alexander McCall Smith's Corduroy Mansions. Spark's boarding house, like Smith's, makes me a little claustrophic at times - narrow stairways, attic rooms, hotplates (maybe not, but that's how it feels). But Spark is a master of character development, and she does a great job here with her main character, a 28-year-old widow called only Mrs Hawkins for most of the book until near the end. Her nemesis is also an incredibly well-drawn character - an oily type who floats in and out of the story and sometimes just hovers unseen in the background like a malevolent mole. The ending is very satisfactory.

October 1, 2011

Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster

I did something with this most excellent book that I think I have not done before. I read its 13 chapters out on the deck over 26 days, reading a chapter one day, and making notes on it the next. It was a lovely and peaceful highlight of my summer. The book outlines 12 disciplines for spiritual living, the purpose of which is to bring us closer to God.

The book was originally written in the late 70s and revised twice over the next two decades. Foster is a Quaker and you might think this means super-Conservative, but it is a very freeing book, not contradicting in any significant ways my reading of Rob Bell over the summer. Foster emphasizes over and over that there is no use in practising the disciplines for their own sake, and that doing so will lead to bondage and religiosity. You practise them because they are the way to understand and know God and that's what you want to do. They are all biblical and historic ways in which people have learned to experience God. Foster says you keep doing them because they work.

This was the most unique aspect of the book. Discipline sounds rigid, but the book is all about freedom. So for instance, yes, you can make a list of people to pray for, but ideally a person is on that list to begin with because you feel compassion for them (or love, as in a family member) and that's your indicator that you want to pray for them. In all the disciplines, Foster emphasizes that they are not about adding work to your life, but about doing things differently. So for instance in the discipline of Submission, you practise simply not always charging through a door first but often holding the door for somebody else. It's not a lot more trouble, just a different way of approaching things.

One of the disciplines that I really liked was Simplicity. He has nine beautiful practical ways for how to live simply(resist gadgets, learn to enjoy things without having to own them), and also offers three inner attitudes: Receive what I have as a gift from God, know that it is God's business to take care of what I have, and consider what I have as available to others.

I picked this book up from a pile of used books being sold for charity at an insurance office where I was buying my ICBC sticker. What a lucky find.