The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart

I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a non-fiction book so much. Non-fiction isn’t always my thing, and I often find autobiographical-type books either pretentious or boring (or both) but this one was neither. Imagine my surprise!

Naturally, I was drawn in by a book about pianos — one about a second-hand piano shop in a city as big and as globally central as Paris. Some neat pianos could go through a place like that!

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank book reviewCarhart tells the story of how, after living in Paris with his family for a few years and walking by the same piano shop (atelier) many times a week, he plucked up the courage to go inside.  As a reader, we then get to follow Carhart’s journey as he buys a piano and wedges it into his family’s tiny Paris apartment, rediscovers playing, and makes new friends through the piano shop.

It still took me two library renews to get through this (have I mentioned that I struggle with non-fiction?) but I enjoyed having this around to pick up in between my fiction books. It was a nice, real-world balance to the teen fantasy I’m so fond of, and it’s nice to read about regular folks (non-professional musicians) who love music, too. Carhart is a talented writer and does a good job of keeping the reader interested. There was one point in the book where he started to talk about the history of how a piano came to be what it is (how it’s made), which I found a tad boring… it kind-of stalled the personal narrative momentum he had going. But that’s ok, it picked up again.

The wonderful thing about library books is that you occasionally get to know something about the others who have read the copy of the book before you. In this one, Carhart is at one point discussing the more technical aspects of music theory  — something about diminished 5ths or 7ths and minor keys  — and there were pencilled-in margin notes, very neat, by someone who said something like, “There’s no such thing as a diminished 7th but we forgive you because you’re such a good writer.” Cute!! (As I’m sure you can tell, if you know music theory, my knowledge in this area is seriously limited so please understand that this is something *like* what the note said. Don’t ask me if a diminished 7th exists. I have no idea.)

Anyways, I highly recommend this one to those who might find the topic of pianos, or rediscovering a love of playing and learning as an adult, interesting.

The Feast Nearby by Robin Mather

I thought this book was a great idea — it’s a collection of essays mixed in with recipes.

The story is, Mather moved to her cabin in Michigan and tried to live off food sourced as locally as possible for a year (or longer – perhaps she is still doing this). As a former food writer, Mather knows a great deal about cooking and what tastes good. She also knows a tonne about food preservation – canning, etc. – and thus how to eat seasonally and make locally produced food last into the winter. The book is divided into four sections; one for each season.

I’m not always crazy about this kind of non-fiction but I found this a great read for when I only had small snatches of time. Since I got it out of the library I am not going to have it around to look up recipes, and I couldn’t muster up the effort to copy out the ones that interested me. I felt satisfied with the little tidbits of knowledge I gleaned while reading that will make a difference in how I do a few things in the kitchen — for one thing, Mather suggests that when you buy fresh ginger, grate up the whole dang thing and freeze whatever you don’t use. That way you always have fresh ginger on hand for recipes but you aren’t constantly buying it and watching it go bad in your fridge between ginger-licious recipes. Good one, Mather.

On the Outside Looking Indian by Rupinder Gill

I picked this one up based on someone’s recommendation posted on the cbc reads website after they asked who were Canada’s funniest female writers.

The book describes Gill‘s year-long quest at the age of about 30 to fulfill a list of her childhood dreams — learning to swim, going to Disney World, and living in New York, to name a few. As one of four children raised by strict immigrant parents, she missed out on the quintessential North American childhood milestones and decided to make up for it in a year of her adulthood.

Gill is a great writer. I find that these kind of autobiographical non-fiction books aren’t really my thing, though. I wasn’t wowed. Even though Gill is super talented, and the idea for the year of her life (and thus the subject of the book ) was an interesting one, the book kinda made me think, “They will publish books about anything.” Perhaps part of the problem is that I don’t identify with Gill as an adult. I love nature and books, not TV and junk food.

some non-fiction for the crowd

I’ve made it through a couple non-fiction books lately:

A Year of Living Generously: Dispatches from the front lines of philanthropy by Lawrence Scanlan, and The Legacy: An elder’s vision for our sustainable future by David Suzuki.

Non-fiction isn’t generally my thing. Sure, it’s interesting, but I’ll admit — as much as I want to, I still haven’t made it through Guns, Germs, and Steel. But every so often I get sucked into something that looks interesting. I had a few friends that volunteered with Canadian Crossroads International, one of the organizations that Scanlan volunteers with, so when I read about the book in D&M’s catalogue I was interested. Scanlan takes a year off from his job and volunteers for 12 different organizations over the course of the year, one for each month (roughly). The most important thing I learned in reading this was that I don’t think of volunteering with NGOs as synonymous with human-centred organizations; I think of it as environmentally centred ones. Interesting, no? Ok, maybe not. But I will admit I was slightly dismayed to learn halfway through the book that 11 of the 12 organizations that Scanlan volunteers for are about helping humans. I’m a bit of a curmudgeon about humans. My experience has been that most of them are meanies. I’d rather help the environment. But I digress. The book itself was ok. Scanlan’s a good writer, no doubt, but I didn’t feel particularly inspired by anything he learned from his time. Props to the man for doing this, though. I remember being much more motivated by Naomi Klein‘s Fences and Windows and John Stackhouse’s Out of Poverty and into Something more Comfortable, but I read those 8 years ago while volunteering in India with CIDA so… it’s possible I’ve changed since I was 23. Possible.

I read Legacy on my e-book reader, and realized part way through that I’m pretty sure it’s just a written version of a talk that I saw him give. Who doesn’t love David Suzuki? I’ve read a few of his other books (Good News for a Change) and found them very … non-fiction.

I’m also reading The Orange Trees of Baghdad: In search of my lost family by Leilah Nadir, albeit at an incredibly slow pace. It’s well written and compelling but not exactly uplifting, if you know what I mean, so I have stopped reading it before bed (my usual reading time). Perhaps if I move it off my bedside table and onto the coffee table, I’ll have more success getting through it.

Other good non-fiction I’ve read semi-recently: The Perfection of the Morning by Sharon Butala. This was one of the books I got for free (!!) when I did the Book Editing Immersion Workshop at Simon Fraser University in summer 2009.