I alluded yesterday to a certain genre of book I've been reading lately, wherein people write memoirs of their lives after they make fairly drastic changes, like moving to an entirely new locale and taking up a new lifestyle. Here are some brief notes on two such books, plus a third that partly fits that description.
First I read Piano Girl: Lessons in Life, Music, and the Perfect Blue Hawaiian. This book reads as something of a companion piece to the movie Mr. Holland's Opus, in which a guy who wanted to be a serious composer ends up taking a job as a music teacher, just for a little while, to pay the bills until he can make money composing -- and next thing he knows, he's been teaching his entire life and found a life of meaning in it. The author of Piano Girl, Robin Meloy Goldsby (official site), tells how she fell in love with the piano, learned to play it well, looked to become a classical musician for a time -- but instead made a career out of playing the piano in cocktail lounges all over the country, and later, the world.
Goldsby's book is basically a collection of short vignettes relating tales from her life as a cocktail lounge pianist, and she tells these stories mostly with a lot of charm and wit. She is openly aware that her work does not require tremendous musical skill, but she also reveals that being a fine lounge musician requires entirely different sets of skills -- voluminous knowledge of the songs, social skills for dealing with patrons and management, and so on. I'd always figured that places like the Hyatt in Manhattan just hired any old out-of-work pianist to play in their bars; I had no idea that such musicians are also represented by agents in a highly competitive environment. Not a profound book, but an entertaining look into a musical world we usually don't much consider.
Then there was Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris, by Sarah Turnbull. Turnbull was a journalist from Sydney, Australia who was traveling in Europe when, while in Bucharest, she met an intriguing Frenchman named Frederic. First she agrees to spend a week with him in Paris, and then she ends up moving in with him and, eventually, marrying him.
Almost French focuses less on Turnbull's relationship with Frederic than on her relationship with Paris and with France itself, although there is a great deal of relationship stuff here. France is well known for being less than cordial to foreigners, and Turnbull's experience is no different. Much of the book details missteps Turnbull takes in her attempts to break the ice with various French acquaintances, and her growing realization that she can live to ripe old age in Paris and she will still always be a foreigner.
If you don't like France, nothing in this book will change your mind. (Anyone tells me what kind of pants I should wear just because it's not nice for the bakery guy, my response is, "F*** the bakery guy".) I certainly have less interest in visiting Paris after reading Almost French; Turnbull makes it seem like a society where one is supposed to simultaneously rigidly conform to social norms and still not care one whit what other people think of you. It's a strange thing. But I did like this book.
And just this morning I finished a wonderful book, Little Chapel on the River: A Pub, a Town, and the Search for What Matters Most, written by Gwendolyn Bounds (official site). Bounds is a writer for the Wall Street Journal who lived in an apartment building in lower Manhattan when 9-11-01 happened. With her apartment rendered unlivable after the attacks, Bounds and her room-mate end up moving to a little town called Garrison, fifty miles up the Hudson River from NYC, where Bounds becomes part of the daily life in a bar and convenience store called Guinan's.
Little Chapel on the River poses an interesting contrast with Almost French. Where Sarah Turnbull can never become a part of Parisian culture, Wendy Bounds becomes part of Garrison's culture very easily, and her gift for making that little bar come alive shines on every page. Seriously, folks, this book is as good an evocation of a setting as any I've ever read. We're talking Lord of the Rings quality here: in the same way that I come from Tolkien feeling like I've physically been in Middle Earth, I come away from Bounds's book feeling like I've been in Garrison, and that I've met the denizens of Guinan's bar: Fitz the ex-Marine, Jane the hard-luck woman who helps out, Walter the next-door neighbor who constantly toes the fine line between "frugal" and "skinflint", and above it all, Jim Guinan the aging bar-owner and his adult children with whom he doesn't always get along so well.
This book is funny, bittersweet, and encouraging; it is one of the best books I've read in a long time.