Monday, September 22, 2008

The Piano Shop On The Left Bank

I have just read the third book in a row which was a first publication by the author. None has disappointed me. When CJ and I were in a charity shop browsing through the books as we are wont to do I came across The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, subtitled The hidden world of a Paris atelier, by T E Carhart an American living in Paris. I was attracted to the book but for some reason let it lie and CJ acquired it. However it prayed on my mind and I eventually 'borrowed' it from him. I use the parenthesis 'cos he has allowed me to keep it after I fell in love with it.

Rarely have I read a book of such charm which has completely captivated me. Not just as a read but as an inspiration to look more closely at things. Carhart's subject is pianos but he could have brought a similar insight to some other subject. Around the subject he weaves a charming, quiet story of people, relationships and music.

This would not have struck me as a book which would have made it into the top selling lists but it would appear to be into its third paperback edition at least and when a friend saw it on the breakfast bar last week she, too had read it and was full of praise.

It is also quite a coincidence that the importance to the author of his piano was a very strong part of the story in C'est La Folie which I so enjoyed and blogged about a few weeks ago. And I learned from both books that it is the French custom when one's hands are wet or grimy to offer one's right forearm to shake instead of a hand.

I was amused by the Guardian's Reviewer's opening paragraph: "Picture the scene had Carhart taken his proposal to the more ruthlessly commercial kind of publisher. "Well, I want to write a book about how I hung around in Paris, and got friendly with a piano restorer," mumbles the author uncertainly. "Then I buy a piano from him, start playing again myself after 20 years, and think quite a lot about pianos." The publisher fixes him with a disbelieving stare. "And that's a book? .................." "

The Observer's reviewer concluded "Perhaps the best recommendation of his book is that it makes you want to reach immediately for Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, Bach, Scarlatti and the other composers whose names litter the book; if his aim was to inspire in his readers a renewed love for the music, he has succeeded admirably."

I'm not necessarily suggesting that you read this book. Unlike the last two I've mentioned this may not be to everyone's taste. However I thought it was both enjoyable and inspirational.

"Life is a river" he once told me "and we all have to find a boat that floats."

"Ah, I never wait for 'eventually'."

I hadn't considered the suite, as the French put it, the follow-through to circumstances and events that lend life its air at once poignant and meaningful.

...on a modern grand piano [there is] a combined torque [on the strings] of over thirty thousand pounds across an entire keyboard. [Wow]

..even Voltaire dismissed the piano as late as 1774: 'The piano is a boilermaker's instrument compared with the harpsichord'. [Another of Voltaire's statements for me to take issue with with Fiona]

More than any other composer's, Chopin's music addresses the central paradox of the piano: how to make a percussion instrument sing.

'There are many ways of doing things, but there is always one way that is natural.'

'A polytechnicien knows everything, but nothing else.'

'We have to accept that things are ambiguous.'

I wanted to thank him. I wanted him to play more, but finally I saw that the sincerest form of homage would be to follow his lead and talk about the instrument. He knew that we knew [how great his playing was], and the rest was noise.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Before I Die

I can't remember (so nothing new there then) whether friends who had read Jenny Downham's novel Before I Die and extolled me so to do, did so before or after CJ had read it and blogged it on A Book Every Six Days. Anyway it makes little difference because this week I read it. I am so glad that I did.

The book is ostensibly written for the teenage market. How many teenagers would appreciate it I'm not sure because the possibility of dying or even the idea of dying is too far away. The Before I Die website précis describes the novel thus: Tessa has just a few months to live. Fighting back against hospital visits, endless tests, drugs with excruciating side-effects, Tessa compiles a list. It's her To Do Before I Die list. And number one is sex. Released from the constraints of 'normal' life, Tessa tastes new experiences to make her feel alive while her failing body struggles to keep up. Tessa's feelings, her relationships with her father and brother, her estranged mother, her best friend, her new boyfriend, all are painfully crystallized in the precious weeks before Tessa's time finally runs out.

Looking back over Andy's fight against cancer I see similarities of attitude on occasion; flashes of acceptance, optimism, anger, bitterness and so many more emotions that someone who has not faced the imminent probability of death by illness (and specifically by cancer) must find hard to comprehend. I certainly do. For most of us, the reality of someone young facing these emotional challenges is incomprehensible. But somehow the author guides us through the last days of Tessa's life with an astonishing understanding from all perspectives.

This is a book that everyone should read. I won't give a reason: there are too many. But, whoever you are, make sure that you have a large box of tissues to hand.

I want to live before I die. It's the only thing that makes sense.

How long can I stave it off? I don't know. All I know is that I have two choices - stay wrapped in blankets and get on with dying, or get the list back together and get on with living.

'What will happen if anger takes you over Tessa? Who will you be then? What will be left of you?'

I feel a strange warmth filtering through me. I forget that my brain is full of every sad face at every window I've ever passed.

'You want some sweet and lovely things, Tessa, but be careful. Other people can't always give you what you want.'

I want to die in my own way. It's my illness, my death, my choice.

I want to be empty. I want to live somewhere uncluttered.