Reading Adam Gopnik began as an incident. It was another day strolling in perhaps Taiwan’s most lovely second-hand bookstore, Mollies, near National Taiwan University. There, in the basement, hidden within hundred of books stored neatly in two big black drawer, Paris to the Moon seemed oddly placed among some random self-help and politic books. Hard-cover with a black and white picture of a child playing in front of some French style building, it was hard not to looked at it.
But not until reading the advance praises for the book, written in the back cover, one truly felt that one finally found a treasure after a brief moment of random searching. No less than John Updike himself praised the book as having a “fireworks results, lighting up not just the Eiffel Tower.”
There were also comments from Malcolm Gladwell, Jeffrey Toobin, and some exotic name-at least in my ear- Francine du Plessix Gray, whom I’ve never heard before but turned out to be a Pulitzer Prize nominee and a literary critic. All of them are a writer or at least had been writing for The New Yorker. Indeed, Adam Gopnik himself is a writer for The New Yorker since 1986, and this book is actually his collection of essays published in the same magazine. For decades, The New Yorker deploys their staff to Paris, writing for Paris Journals section.
Well, a New Yorker sent to Paris to write about it. Wasn’t that interesting?
So Gopnik, with his family—wife, a son, and born-in-Paris daughter— lived there from 1995 to 2000. In the meantime, Le Monde praised Gopnik’s “witty and Voltairean picture of French life,” while Le Point wrote that, “it is impossible to resist delighting in the nuances of his articles, for detail concerning French culture that one discovers even when one is French oneself.” A little bit spoiler: in 2013, Gopnik was awarded with Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the Knight of Arts and Lettres by the French government .
Now, this is just shoot away from interesting to fascinating.
The book itself is divided into four-part: Winter Circus, Distant Errors, Lessons from Things and A Machine to Draw the World. It’s kinda hard to definitively differentiate one part from another. But more or less, this partition follows some chronological order, began with the time they arrived to Paris, and ended by the time they had to return to New York. And in between, you have a wonderful pieces of essays with a distinctive writing style.
Gopnik wrote about almost everything in Paris, from everyday life that seems so mundane like finding an apartment, electric plug, french cooking, finding a gym to a more serious things such as labor strike in Paris, Baudrillard’s philosophy, a trial of a war crime. But the beautiful thing about his writing is that he seems to never differentiate those two things rigidly, instead, Gopnik move back and forth between it seamlessly. When talking about electric plug, he can draw it into the globalisation issues. While examining the labor strike, he worried about his turkey supply for Thanksgiving.
He also showed a wonderful details of his subject yet he rarely sound cliché. He’s full of anecdotes, funny but offered a depth reflection at the same time. He can connect things and ideas that seemed unrelated. Once, he wrote about World Cup 1998 that was held in French, how it changed his American-loving-football-hate-soccer-self. In the piece, he described a striker who’s trying to get a penalty, hit by the defender and “immediately collapse, like a man shot by a sniper, arms and legs splayed out, while (he) twist in agony and beg for morphine, and (his) teammates smite their foreheads at the tragic waste of a young life.”
Gopnik didn’t forget to give this book some small touch of authenticity, letting some word in French untranslated. Most of the time, one doesn’t have to mastered French to understood it, because the sentence’s context provided the meaning, but sometimes, one do get lost. Perhaps this rooted from the fact that the writing was intended to be read by a New Yorker first, so there were some jokes or phrases that needed to be read more than twice to be understood, while some are unable to be comprehended at all. But it was still within a tolerable amount.
Some essays were particularly stand out. I really recommend Distant Errors, Christmas Journal 2; The Crisis in French Cooking; Barney in Paris, The World Cup and After. While Balzar Wars and A Handful of Cherries, perhaps were the best essays in the whole book. These two titles covered the story of what Gopnik thought as the best restaurant in the world, which plunged into a crisis because it was bought by Flo Group, thought to be “a symbol of restaurant consolidation, globalization, standardization, even Disneyfication.”
The faithful clients of Balzar was afraid it will turned out to be another kind-of-McDonald restaurant, threatening the restaurant’s authenticity and culture. So they tried to fight back. It was funny and touching at the same time.
In the end, I think, this book was never just about a Parisian or a New Yorker, it spoke beyond it. This was a conversation about city, love and family. It was so full of life.
Back then, when I first saw the book, I thought it would be just another ordinary book. It turned out I was lucky. Rather than just another handful of cherries, it turned out to be a basketful one.
And it tasted so délicieux, too.
Title: Paris to the Moon
Author: Adam Gopnik
Publisher: Random House New York, 2000
Hard cover, 338 pages