Monday, November 26, 2007

Through the Children's Gate, Adam Gopnik

Through the Children’s Gate is Adam Gopnik’s ballad of New York and as such, it is surprisingly beautiful and moving. The New Yorker writer moved back to Manhattan from Paris with his wife and two small children in 2000 before the September 11 attacks. This series of essays covers five years in America’s most famous city, exploring what makes it unique and introducing us to his family, friends and acquaintances along the way.

A number of the essays focus on his children, Luke and Olivia, but where in less skilled hands they could have turned into boring parent brags, Gopnik has produced thoughtful, witty pieces of writing using the children and their thoughts and feelings as a basis and then extrapolating to the rest of the city. He is taking the advice of his late friend, the art historian and sometime football coach Kurt Varnedoe: break it down and then build it up again.

The inter-related essays cover a range of subjects, from the death of a friend to the death of Olivia’s goldfish, from the games children play to the games adults play. “Last of the Metrozoids” is particularly moving. It is the story of Varnedoe's slow death from cancer, even as he composes a set of wonderful lectures on the history of art and builds a football team that never plays a game.

"Bumping into Charlie Ravioli" is a fascinating look at the crazy pace of New York life as perceived by a three-year-old. Olivia's imaginery friend is one Charlie Ravioli, a boy of her brother's age who is working on a TV show and never has time to actually play with her. She just bumps into him, jumps into a cab, grabs lunch - until he becomes so busy that he no longer has time even to speak to her. Then the relationship is conducted through his personal assistant.

The attacks on New York are always there in the background, but Gopnik shows that life goes on even in the face of fear and uncertainty because there is no other choice. This is an entirely different New York than that shown by Candace Bushnell in her Sex and the City stories: less glamorous but all the warmer, more intelligent and real for it.

The only part of the collection that is off-putting is the introduction. I nearly threw the book aside in frustration in the first 10 pages at the writing style. It was as though Gopnik had challenged Henry James to a convoluted sentence contest and came horribly close to winning. But the essays themselves are another kettle of ravioli. The writing is simple and evocative and shows a complete dedication to his family that is touching without becoming cloying. It is hard to believe that stories that take as their bases subjects such as baseball cards, a school play of Peter Pan and a children's chess tournament could be so revealing of adult life, yet Gopnik has managed it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

November 07: Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion

Howdy all - red here. Milly Moo is trapped in a parallel dimension with no portal to the interwebs, so I've posted this for her. But before you get into her terrific review, we needs halp! Scorpy is flat out like the proverbial ferret surfing and hasn't had time to give the book for December any thought. Would someone else like to move up the list and trade spots with Scorpy? Let me know in the comments. Anyway, on with the review.

As with the movie ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ reading this novel in 2007 feels just as vivid and striking as it must have been for readers nearly forty years ago.

Didion’s most acclaimed novel is entirely new to me, and reads very sparsely, instead relying on what is unsaid or expressed through the desert landscapes, empty stretches of highway and driving nowhere fast.

The story is (mostly) narrated by the main character, Maria Wyeth, a 31 year old, newly-divorced, washed up actress who is struggling to work out what her purpose in life is. Set in late 1960s California, it depicts a morality-free Hollywood full of drink, drugs and movie industry types in which Maria is still a part, yet trying to escape. She tells us, “I have trouble with as it was……I try to live in the now…..Nothing applies.”

She and her ex-husband, Carter, have a daughter, Kate, who is institutionalised for a medical and physical illness that it not fully explained in the story. Maria regularly visits her daughter and hopes to ‘get her out’ and one day live a simpler life. Maria’s love and concern for Kate seems to be the only ‘real’ thing in her life; much more important than her dead marriage, previous boyfriends or one night stands.

Maria falls pregnant by a friend of her husband (Les Goodwin) and is encouraged to have an abortion by Carter. Try as she might in her world of casual sex, vacuous friends and the ever-availability of drugs, she is unable to rid herself of the guilt surrounding her abortion. This is still easy to identify with today and must have been a pretty daring subject to tackle back in 1970 when abortion was frowned upon (and often illegal). Didion writes sparsely but expertly: “She bought a silver vinyl dress and tried to stop thinking about what had he done with the baby. The tissue. The living dead thing, whatever you called it.”

Didion’s Maria may have long rejected a conventional and moral life, but she has not been able to replace the old values with anything sustainable. Didion’s prose is very sparing and the desert landscapes, freeways and air conditioning units read almost like a film script: it is easy to imagine how ‘seeing’ such scenes could even more effectively depict the emptiness and despair of Maria’s life.

Maria’s friend (and sometime lover? Swinger? Drug supplier?) BZ kills himself; possibly assisted by Maria – at least that what his wife Helen and Carter believe. She is not officially punished or set free by this event, but ‘gives up’ and seemingly willingly enters a hospital to recover and retreat from the world.

As I am not familiar with Didion’s other novels – or the literary set she belongs to – I can only go by my own knowledge. The characters in ‘Play it as it lays’ remind me of those in the ‘Great Gatsby’: frenetically busy drinking, fornicating, shopping, talking of nothing – money to spend but with lives of no meaning. It also reminds me of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the road’ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’ with similarly detached and seemingly brief views of lives lived without purpose or moral compass to guide them by. Perhaps these comparisons are obvious to the rest of you readers, but to me this book deserves a place amongst them.

I found it a very sad and disturbing read. Despite Maria’s irresponsible actions, I felt a lot of pity for her. No career, no loving relationship, a child that she can’t look after and no future that she can see for herself. She wants to tell us, her readers, that she doesn’t care about her past or future, but many comments betray her.

After the abortion, Didion writes, “She drove as far as Romaine and then pulled over, put her head on the steering wheel and cried as she had not cried since she was a child, cried out loud. She cried because she was humiliated and she cried for her mother and she cried for Kate and she cried because something had just come through to her……there must have been a relentless count somewhere, because this was the day, the day the baby would have been born.”

I think I need to read it through it again; and this time savour each sentence. I’ll conclude by saying that this is the sort of book that deserves several reads, and is one of those that is likely to have generated/will generate more words about it than the book itself contains. Lacerating, moving, tragic.

Milly Moo

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Help Me, Drunkards!

I'm sorry, this isn't a review. I have several reviews in my head at the moment that I keep forgetting to write due to time/exhaustion etc. but this isn't one of them - as such, Redcap, please feel free to delete this post if it doesn't fit the drunkard ethos.

In the meantime, I'm after some help from all the Paper Drunkards out there - namely, I need reading suggestions.

See, in a couple of weeks I'm taking off to one of those 'tropical island paradise' thingamys. There will be no TV and no interwebs and just lots of sun and lounging and a bit of drinking. While I'm a big fan of the sun and the lounging and the drinking, I also get bored easily, so ample reading material is a big fat must.

Sadly when I hit up my local bookshop the other day, everything seemed either too heavy for beach-reading, or so light it would fly away in the slightest on-shore breeze.

The holiday read is a peculiar beast - it has to be something that will keep you happily occupied for a few hours at a time, but not something so engrossing that you're skipping fun stuff just to keep reading it. It can't be too dark or depressing, but nor can it be so cloyingly light and bright that it makes even lying on a beach in the Pacific seem crappy. If they're too short and/or too easy, you finish them too fast and don't have anything for that last day when you're totally sick of the ocean - if they're too hard or too tedious (there really is no such thing as too long in my world) you're likely to give up on them halfway through and go waste your money on cheap airport novels.

So, with that criteria out there - I ask you, Drunkards, if you were heading off to an island for a week, what books would you take with you, and why?

Your assistance is much appreciated.