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Winter 2001 book reviews 

& lt;i & Paris to the Moon & lt;/i & by & & Adam Gopnik & & & r &


& & Reviewed by Marty Demarest & & & &





In 1995, Adam Gopnik, a writer for The New Yorker, moved with his wife and infant son to Paris -- the city that had dominated his imagination since childhood -- for what Gopnik refers to as a sentimental reeducation. During the five years abroad, in addition to writing pieces on various New Yorker-y subjects, the magazine published his series of personal essays on life, living and raising a child in Paris. A large selection of these, along with the inclusion of several personal journal entries from his Parisian Christmases, makes up the book Paris to the Moon.


Gopnik has a gentle approach, aiming more to etch scenes and moments in pencil-thin lines than to belabor the emotional resonance of his subject. Many of the pieces take on the topic of an American -- cue the music -- in Paris; that was, after all, the idea behind the cushy job assignment. But the contrast between the two cities, cultures or mindsets is usually presented with a clarity that doesn't cripple the situation's naturally moving and graceful humor. It's like a still-hilarious-but-grown-up counterpart to David Sedaris's recent writings from the same city.


There are bemused reflections on soccer versus any other sport, and bafflement followed by insight over haute couture fashion shows. Some of the best moments achieve a sort of high comedy: Gopnik serves a self-cooked traditional French meal to American uber-chef Alice Waters while the Starr Report arrives, via fax, page by page in the next room. Gopnik joins a group of diners to officially protest the sale of one of their favorite restaurants. (He was, after all, in a country where an entire region officially protested the Acad & eacute;me Fran & ccedil;aise's definition of a cherry cake, and succeeded.)


But while Gopnik's funny-enough-to-be-American, but witty-enough-to-be-worldly tone works wonderfully in The New Yorker, it can be wearying in a book. Nearly every paragraph ends with an epigram wherever possible, a one-line everywhere else. So at their worst, the essays have a forced, punchline-laden neurosis, like Woody Allen fulfilling a contract. In one, Gopnik kvetches about his son's affection for Barney, the big purple dinosaur. Despite being surrounded by the sentimental wonders of his father's Paris, the young Luke persists, without explanation, in repeatedly watching tapes of the show. Oddly, this wide-eyed, irrational love escapes the elder Gopnik. Or perhaps he fears that one day, as an adult, Luke will take his own wife and child on a five-year Barney-watching pilgrimage.


However, the book's portraits of contrast do succeed, piercingly and without fail, in Gopnik's Christmas journals. These are the honest and unforced observations of a writer writing for himself - the type of things that one senses drew Gopnik to Paris in the first place, such as his son's pleasure at playing pinball in a Paris caf & eacute;, or finding the portrait of a poet on a sugar cube. There is the revelation of how well French social medicine works when your child is sick and you have no idea what is wrong, and the clear image of what American tourists in Paris really do seem like when they enter into your daily bus ride.


In one of the essays originally published in the magazine, Gopnik bittersweetly acknowledges the inevitability of change, and the need to accept it while progressing. Pages later in his journal, he worries about the alterations made to his son's favorite puppet show -- an institution in Paris's Luxembourg Gardens for decades. It is a sort of contradiction, but also honest, unexplained and human.


At the end of this collection, Gopnik himself finishes like his paragraphs: an anecdotal and witty Paris-centered New Yorker. And that tone, along with those moments of perfectly rendered detail that make travel writing so enjoyable, is what gracefully launches Paris to the Moon.





& lt;i & How All This Started & lt;/i & by & & Pete Fromm & & & r &


& & Reviewed by Kris Dennison & & & &


Once in a while you have an experience reading a book or watching a film in which, when the story's over, you want more. You want to spend more time with these characters, get deeper inside their heads and hearts, and see a little more about what they will do. In Pete Fromm's last collection of short stories, Night Swimming, he gave readers such an experience. The first story in that collection introduced us to Abilene and Austin, a sister and brother whose story hinted at both passion for life, and inevitable tragedy. Fortunately for us, Fromm must have wanted to spend more time with these characters, too, because his latest book, How All This Started, picks up their story again.


Abilene and Austin, along with their mom and dad, live in the middle of the West Texas desert. They are as close as two siblings can be, united by a disdain for the mundane life their parents have chosen, and for a love of baseball. In particular, they share a love, bordering on worship, of pitcher Nolan Ryan, nicknamed "The Fireballer." Both Abilene and Austin are incredible pitchers themselves, but the elder Abilene has been denied her day in the sun by a sexist baseball team who refused to play if she pitched. Her revenge on the team will be the secret weapon she has trained to pitch even better than she did: her brother Austin.


In a world that has rejected her gifts, Abilene's unconventional behavior seems, at first, to be understandable. It begins with nighttime drives through the sagebrush, intense pitching practices at an abandoned bomber base, and reckless vandalism of the local high school baseball field. But soon, it escalates into behavior that hints of more dangerous intentions, and eventually becomes undeniably self-destructive. Much of the action of the story is moved by Abilene's spiraling mental illness, diagnosed as bipolar disorder, and the reader is naturally drawn to the drama she provides. But at the core of the story is the novel's sensitive narrator, Austin. It is 16-year-old Austin's growth and decisions that ultimately concern the reader. He worships Abilene for her boundless energy, imagination and recklessness. Even as her behavior begins to frighten and frustrate him, he denies that her behavior is a problem in any way. Austin walks a tightrope of loyalty to his sister, balanced with his increasing understanding that being like Abilene comes with a price.


Eventually the turmoil subsides, and Fromm's ending will seem, for some, a happy one. But the underlying questions he raises about medication, about mental illness and about whether we value the unique point of view of those who live much closer to the edge than most of us may leave the reader with a restlessness about the ending that is one of the hallmarks of Fromm's work.


The novel's title refers to a dilapidated story about Abilene and Austin's names, which their dad pulls out for anyone who will listen. But it also forms a rhetorical question for the reader about how the unexpected and often tragic events of life unfold. How did Abilene get the way she is? And how does a family reach the breaking point this one does? In this book, the reader gets few answers about either how things begin, or how they end, but in between there is a moving and important story to be told.





& lt;i & Brunelleschi's Dome & lt;/i & & & by Ross King & & & r &


& & Reviewed by Ted S. McGregor, Jr. & & & &


In the Middle Ages, architects were anonymous. The builder of the abbey of St. Denis -- the first Gothic-style structure -- remains unknown, and the masterminds of the cathedral at Beauvais are only remembered as the First Master, the Second Master and the Third Master. But perhaps that was by design, for as far back as Cicero and Seneca, architects were viewed as the lowest form of artisan. But with the Renaissance came a newfound respect for the architect, especially after the exploits of Filippo "Pippo" Brunelleschi in Florence in the early 15th century.


Ross King's new book about that man and his enduring accomplishment -- the cupola, or dome, of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral in Florence -- goes well beyond a simple architectural appreciation as it brings Florence and Italy to dramatic life at the dawn of the Renaissance.


King, the British author of Domino, a novel of 18th century intrigue that was a hit in Europe, tries his hand at nonfiction as he introduces us to an almost rural Florence in the mid-1300s. Trade would make the city-state wealthy, and dyed wool was its main export. The powerful Wool Guild became the city's chief benefactor, and it endeavored to build a cathedral befitting Florence's rising prominence. Although the Wool Guild's hired men began to lay the foundation in 1296, the project would go on for a century and a half.


In fact, as King points out, the whole project was a massive leap of faith, as the dimensions of that foundation called for the construction of the largest dome ever built.


"The unbuilt dome of Santa Maria del Fiore had therefore become the greatest architectural puzzle of the age," King writes. "Many experts considered its erection an impossible feat. Even the original planners of the dome had been unable to advise how their project might be completed: they merely expressed a touching faith that at some point in the future God might provide a solution, and architects with a more advanced knowledge would be found."


Enter Brunelleschi, the son of an upper-crust Florentine who grew up in a house that looked out on the slowly growing cathedral. The challenge he would ultimately be faced with? The construction of a dome that would ultimately reach 300 feet into the sky and span more than 130 feet across (by comparison, the cupola of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., is 95 feet across). What made it even harder was that nobody knew how to accomplish such a task, as one never been undertaken before.


King makes his case for Brunelleschi's heroic status early, pointing out that he lived in Rome for many years, where he was among the first to study the Roman ruins. His observations there would undoubtedly allow him to tackle the project back in his hometown. Throughout the book, King tries to nudge Brunelleschi into our consciousness as perhaps the greatest architect ever. Maybe King thinks Brunelleschi is too overlooked, and if so his book serves as a reminder of the man's genius.


Obviously, his accomplishments were not lost on his peers, as there appears to be a lot of good source material here, including two biographies written shortly after his death. Still, Florence in the 15th century was teeming with artists, and Brunelleschi had to first win the competition to construct the dome. In winning the job, he had to beat his lifelong rival, Lorenzo Ghiberti -- a great artist in his own right -- and convince the Opera del Duomo -- the committee overseeing the completion of the cathedral -- to accept his radical proposal.


While the tale of the building of the cathedral dome is often less compelling, as it is filled with jargon-laced details, King's parallel stories keep things lively. Still, the raising of the dome is the driving force of the narrative, and it is filled with its own drama. Brunelleschi has to not only create a design that won't collapse of its own weight (as some cathedrals did in those days), but he also had to devise ways to get thousands of pounds of materials up high and be able to place them precisely.


But it's those parallel stories that give the book texture and make it all the more memorable. He reviews the impact of plagues on life in the Renaissance, he relates an elaborate practical joke Brunelleschi played on a friend and he even discusses the role of gays in the Florentine military. But his best work comes when he strays from the great man theory of history and tells what life was like for the common laborers who made Brunelleschi's dream real. The scene sounds familiar, with walkouts over wages and lunch breaks where vendors sold wine (cut with water for those working up in the highest reaches of the dome).


Another delightful aspect of the book is King's depiction of the competition and camaraderie between the artists. While Brunelleschi was close friends with the likes of Donatello, he had detractors, too. In Florence, aggrieved rivals usually resorted to writing strongly worded sonnets to sway public opinion and put down their enemies.


King also follows every bit of historical serendipity related to the structure, including one thread that leads all the way to the discovery of the New World. Toscanelli, a friend of Brunelleschi's, convinced the Opera del Duomo to allow him to place a small mirror in the lantern of the dome -- the elaborate opening to the outside at the top of the cupola. Using measurements from the precise sundial that mirror created, he refined the understanding of the sun's motion, making navigation much more accurate. Later, while making a new map of the world, he settled on a theory that would change everything. He put that theory to paper in a letter to a friend in Portugal who passed it along to one Christopher Columbus. The theory was that you could reach India by sailing West into the Atlantic, and although the theory was off by thousands of miles, Columbus did embrace it and Brunelleschi's dome played a role in the discovery of the New World.


In 1446, with Brunelleschi's design for the lantern finally built and the dome -- all 37,000 tons of it -- completed, the cathedral was dedicated. A month later, Brunelleschi died and was later buried under the floor of the cathedral -- a treatment usually reserved for saints. Still, if King's book has its intended impact, he may be remembered as a kind of patron saint for architects, geniuses and problem solvers everywhere.





& lt;i & Quarrel & amp; Quandary & lt;/i & by & & Cynthia Ozick & & & r &


& & Reviewed by Andrea Palpant & & & &





Every good book deserves another, and Cynthia Ozick's latest demands nothing less than Webster's dictionary as a necessary partner to her tongue-twisting, mind-bending collection of essays, Quarrel & amp; Quandary. Best known for her novella The Shawl and her columns in The New Republic, the title and text of her latest book inspire more than a few alliterative responses, among them something like "strong sinews of syntax" and "montage of metaphysical meanderings."


In other words, this woman knows how to craft ideas. Through 19 distinct essays, Ozick explores everything from linguistics to ladles to politics. Anyone looking for self-indulgent, petty prose had best look somewhere else.


The philosophical premise of this collection finds itself in a question she poses in the introduction: "Is politics a distraction from art, or is it how we pay attention to the life that gives rise to art?" Her response is multi-layered and ruthlessly perceptive.


The first essay, entitled "Dostoevsky's Unabomber," delves into a striking comparison between Raskolnikov -- the Russian novelist's Crime and Punishment character -- and the infamous U.S. Unabomber, claiming both of them as "visionary murderers" caught in a kind of "messianic utilitarianism" (not the only polysyllabic mouthful she throws at readers).


An essay on the Biblical character of Job deals with the spiritual angst of a man's search for meaning. Calling him believer and atheist, consummate prophet and violator, Ozick addresses the role of doubt in religion and probes deep into the violent human hunger for divine justice.


Diving into the politics of history, Ozick addresses in various essays the difference between fact and fiction and the dilemma of representing past events for present, mass consumption. What earns imaginative license for art's sake, and what verges on appropriation of fact?


In "Who Owns Anne Frank?" for example, Ozick claims that Frank's story has been misrepresented by playwrights -- watered down into a sentimentalized version of what originally was the dark, sharp and angst-ridden account of an adolescent's encounter with human evil.


In this essay and others, she deals extensively with the Holocaust -- our perception of its story, as well as our attempt to understand and depict it in artistic form. Providing an acute critique of various novels -- including Sophie's Choice by William Styron -- she offers up a question: What are the rights of history, and what are the rights of the imagination?


Ozick also addresses the space and psychology of the artist's life. Using T.S. Eliot and Henry James as figures of study, she calls the elusive, self-engrossed James "a monster for art's sake" and makes the statement that "the cause of art inevitably favors -- promotes, urges -- selfishness."


And never fear, the author didn't forget to throw in a few thoughts about the ladle -- that "great guzzling inebriate" and "ultimate cosmic receptacle" that symbolizes the gathering up of intellectual ponderings, celestial poetry and, yes, soup.


Her last essay, "The Synthetic Sublime," launches into a lengthy description of New York City -- its landscape of concrete, glamour, money and grandeur -- providing a deft portrait of a city's will to power and urge to exceed.


While the first segment of the book tends heavily toward the intellectual and at times seems verbose and dense, Ozick's assertions, questions and insights -- many of which are deliberately debatable -- compel the reader to think on a deeper plane.


In the last half of the book, though, she lightens up a little -- perhaps out of sympathy for tired, inferior minds -- and lets us wander with her through journeys of her own, taking us into a strange obsession with a British mathematician, a failed summer job and a tale of two parents and a drugstore during the Depression.


But the quintessential essay of Ozick's collection is an essay about, well, nothing other than the essay. Fluid in movement and rhythm, this lyrical piece might just convince the most diehard skeptic that the essay as a written medium is the boldest, the freest and the most incisive of all.


Her own thoughts on the essay are a fitting summary of the experience of reading Quarrel and Quandary: "For the brief hour (or ten, I might add) we give to it, we are sure to fall into surrender and conviction."





& & What they're reading & & & &





& & Spokane Mayor John Powers & & & &


Lately, I've been reading a lot of briefings from my transition team and going over the 2001 budget. But aside from all that, I try to find time for pleasure reading -- sometimes I can get through a book in a couple days, sometimes in a couple weeks. My mother just gave me a biography of Appellate Judge Learned Hand [by Gerald Gunther]. His first practice was in matters of insolvency, but the book shows he was just a real persistent guy. He was never the fastest starter, but his life shows that persistence pays off -- even when it's in areas that aren't glamorous." & &





& & Artistic Director of Zephyr & & & &


I'm reading three books. The one I just finished is The Road From Coorain by Jill Ker Conway. It's just a wonderful autobiography about living in the bush country of Australia and about being an intellectual woman in the '40s and '50s. The book I just started is called The Truth About Dogs by Stephen Budiansky. Anyone who knows me knows I'm just crazy about dogs. The book I'm reading for the upcoming Dada Zephyr concert is Kiki's Paris, which is about Kiki of Montparnasse. A friend lent it to me so I could research her life and the whole Dada movement." & &





& & Jack Phillips, Executive director of the Spokane Civic Theatre & & & &


When I'm not directing, I go through a novel or two a week. I love mysteries. Right now I'm reading three books simutaneously. In preparation for Macbeth, I'm reading Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention Of the Human. Because quantum theory looms large in this production of Macbeth, I'm reading The Fabric Of Reality by David Deutsch to be sure I have a basic understanding. I have also started Post Captain by Patrick O'Brian. The series is about the British navy at the turn of the 17th century. I've always wanted to read them and have finally started." & &

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