Tuesday, 27 February 2007


Okay, so I kind of cheated already. One of my New Year's resolutions was to this year only read books I hadn't read before. I'm a terrible re-reader. As much as I know that discovering a great new book or author is better than reading a book I already know, a lot of the time the risk that a new book is going to be rubbish kind of outweighs that balance, and I end up going for something I already know I'm going to enjoy. Also, I read every night before bed, and if I've finished the last book but haven't hunted out a new one, chances are I'll reach for something already in my bookshelf. And that's what happened this time. Although it wasn't such a bad slip, because I'd only read this one once before, rather than countless times like most of my other books. Also, after Nausea, I think I deserved something predictably enjoyable. Actually you can see that for yourself, based on how long Nausea took me to hack through compared to this one.

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by T.E. Carhart is just such a beautiful, elegant book. It's kind of novelised non-ish-fiction, and follows the author in his rediscovery of his love of the piano. It's partly about the history of piano making, partly about the personal meaning we imbue these big machines with, partly about the process of playing and enjoying music, and partly a story about Paris and the people the author meets as he rediscovers the piano.

Carhart's journey begins when he discovers a piano atelier near his home - an idiosyncratic workshop and salesroom where one needs an introduction to even get past the front door - and meets Luc, a piano repairer and the owner of the shop. Chapters of the author's experiences in the atelier, discovering all about different kinds of second hand pianos and about Luc's approach to his life and work, provide structure for the book, and are interspersed with chapters about various other matters: moving his new piano into his tiny first floor apartment, having his piano tuned, beginning piano lessons again after a 20 year hiatus, taking his daughter to her first lessons, travelling to a new piano factory, nostalgic reminiscences of his childhood.

In a sense, this book could've been about almost anything, because in a way the piano is just the focal point for the characters the author meets, the idosyncracies of Paris, the history of people and music. A similar book could be written about anything sufficiently old and widespread and revolutionary - books themselves, for example. But in another sense, the piano is completely inextricable from this book, as the author shows us how crucial the piano has been in the history of the last few hundred years, and how many different roles it plays. The piano is at once a piece of furniture, a sign of social status, a musical instrument, an invention made possible by the industrial revolution, a tool of entertainment, all made out of pieces of wood that could be up to half a millenium old.

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank is beautifully written. It's not really plot driven but it flows along gently and you will want to know what happens next. Carhart strikes a fine balance between the nostalgic and romantic aspects of these instruments, and the practicalities of the business. Although those who have played the piano or even music in general would identify more strongly with various aspects of the book, I think almost anyone would enjoy this book, because it's at once an insight into an aspect of our culture as well as a beautifully told story of people and Paris. It's just such a beautiful, elegant book, and one of my firm favourites.

I've been putting off seeing Finding Neverland for quite a while now. I kind of had the impression that it was some weird merging of story and storyteller and that Peter Pan would be totally ruined by it. I think I was also a little scared that Johnny Depp was going to do his usual slightly creepy thing and firmly burn his weird interpretation of a well-loved childhood classic onto my brain (the same reason I'm afraid to see the new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Thankfully my fears were totally unfounded and I actually really enjoyed it: Finding Neverland is the (basically true but dramatised) story of how J.M. Barrie came to write Peter Pan - through his close friendship with the Llewelyn-Davies boys.

It's actually a pretty sweet story - Barrie's creative spark is rekindled when he teaches the boys to imagine, and in turn he becomes a kind of father figure and helps the boys deal with the loss of their father, and other traumas (I don't want to give away the ending). It's really just a nice story of kids and adults interacting and learning about both about the joys of childhood and the cold hard reality of life. It's well done, Johnny Depp seems pretty much like a normal person, and the kids are great. It's a wonderful little story, and, ok....it made me cry. I don't know if that says anything, because I seem to cry at lot in movies these days, but I guess it proves it wasn't complete rubbish. The one thing that did annoy me about this one though, was that afterwards I went and looked up the 'real' story, and of course there were a few details that Hollywood left out in its search for a sentimental happy ending. I don't think they necessarily apply to the timeframe described by this film, but if you enjoy it and don't want it ruined by reality, then don't go looking for it like I did. Der.

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