Mstation Book Reviews
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Fri, 29 Feb 2008

Through the Children's Gate

Adam Gopnik, Through the Children's Gate, Vintage

You might have heard of Adam Gopnik already. He's worked for the New Yorker and the International Herald Tribune and while the Paris correspondent for the latter, he wrote Paris to the Moon, which the publishers say is a bestseller.

The children's gate in the title refers to one of the gates into Central Park in NYC. Gopnik recently returned to NYC to live after his decade long assignment in Paris. He and his wife and two children returned with some delight and this book, a collection of stories, looks at aspects of NYC, including Gopnik's relationship to it, with great fondness and quite a lot of humour.

If the mention of the New Yorker and the IHT suggests to you lovely crafted prose in the polite idiom, that's exactly what you get here and fans of NYC will spend a nice few evenings chuckling and shaking their heads at different aspects of the place - the eternal change, the gentrification and ridiculous rents, the largely successful war on criminals, and the effective banishment of the odd to the outer boroughs - all this plus a small feature on being (not very) Jewish today in NYC. There's a hilarious tale of his understanding of what LOL means and a nice short Jack Benny joke - 'Your money or your life!' the robber says to Benny. 'I'm thinking it over' is his reply.

In all of this he is a fond yet unsentimental observer - things change. It's almost an opposite to Plus ca la meme change, plus ca la meme chose - something that might be said often in his last hometown.

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Banana Yoshimoto, Amrita

Banana Yoshimoto, Amrita, Faber and Faber

We first came across Banana Yoshimoto (great name!) in one of Foyle's shops in London and this book came, a few weeks later, from a second hand shop in Berlin. It was first published in English in 1997.

If you're familiar with a strand of Japanese writing that started in the mists of the past and progresses to now through such as Akutagawa and Murikami, you'll know about the rich worlds that include large doses of spirituality and the bizarre. Yoshimoto is more than just a "now" version of this however. For one thing, she has a delightfully positive take on the lives of her characters rather than the "shit happens" darkness that is commonplace in the works of the other two mentioned. Perhaps Banana's femininity is a factor here - we don't know.

This book traces the life of a young woman and her family, as her sister kills herself, she loses her memory and regains it, and her younger step-brother is found to have special powers. There is quite a lot of interior examination which proceeds like a trickle of clear water trying to find its resting place ... the adjective "lovely" springs to mind, and, if you're lucky, perhaps her memories will evoke something within yourself that speaks of sun, a warm breeze, and special friendships.

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NYC Rock

Thunderfinger has a look at Mike Evans 2003 book NYC Rock in his column.

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Tue, 05 Feb 2008

Cubicle Toys

Kaden Harris, Eccentric Cubicles, O'Reilly

This book is from the Make: Projects series and really doesn't need to be related to cubicles at all: Anywhere a handy tabletop cigar guillotine will go ...

There are a number of projects in the book which mostly have a retro-futurish look and so have a visual interest alongside some kind of warped utility - like a thing that will fire objects across the room, or the gubbins that will let your desk be a bass instrument, or how about a fog machine?

These are quite complex objects too and need a fair bit of building and a few tools as well. Kaden Harris starts off by giving us some general build and materials hints and then goes through each project in a fair bit of detail and with lots of diagrams and pictures to help along. If you're already good with your hands in this sort of way, you should be quite OK. Complete novices should be OK as well but a few of the projects would be a bit of a leap.

A nice side-effect of the book might be to further ways of improvisational thinking as he's forever using things to do something that were designed to do something else. When you get to that stage you can do the fun thing of surveying a pile of junk to see what interesting and unlikely products can come of it all.

The only minus for some people will be the tone, a sort of pally, slang-ridden patois which can get on your nerves in about 20 seconds.

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