Law and Conversation

March 26, 2010

Fun is the best reason to learn something!

I played piano for years as a kid and got to be reasonably proficient.  Though I loved playing, I stopped taking lessons on high school graduation and assumed I’d never take lessons again.  Since I wasn’t going to be a professional musician, there was no point to taking lessons after that, was there?

 What wrongheaded notions we can seize on and maintain for years and years, and how lucky we are if we run into someone or something who jolts us into questioning them and, perhaps, realizing that they make no sense.

 I am lucky to have had all kinds of jolts on different ideas, including taking piano lessons as an adult.  28 years after high school graduation, I realized that wanting to take piano lessons as an amateur adult was the best reason in the world for doing so.  So, I enrolled in a local music school and was assigned to the best teacher I’ve ever had.  He’s worked with me on unlearning some bad habits and learning new good habits and pushed me to get a really good piano of my own, not to mention to find time to practice, which is always a challenge for me.  After nearly four years of studying with him, in my assessment (and in my mother’s, who was not only my first piano teacher but, for many years, my only one), I’m playing better now than I ever did as a teenager, though back then I was practicing far more. 

 I know several other adults who are also taking lessons on musical instruments.  Some had the courage to start learning a completely new instrument in midlife, just because they’d always wanted to, and even though they all hold down demanding day jobs that often require long hours.  I know others, including several lawyers, who play professional gigs after long days in the office or in court.  Making music is great brain exercise, not to mention FUN, especially when you get to play with others.

 Here are five fun books to read about the piano, the first three of which are memoirs by writers who decided to take up or resume piano lessons as adults:

 1)      “Piano Lessons:  Music, Love and True Adventures,” by Noah Adams.  Yes, the same Noah Adams who reports and anchors for NPR.  At the age of 51, he decided to take piano lessons because he’d always wanted to do it.  The book is his memoir of one year of lessons.  (Listen to Charlie Rose interview Adams at 

 2)      “The Piano Shop on the Left Bank,” by Thad Carhart, an American writer who lives in Paris, about how his investigation of an initially mysterious piano shop near his home led to his purchase of a piano and resumption of lessons as well as to learning about pianos, their history, and their technicians. Read interviews with Carhart here and here and check out his website at

 3)      “Grand Obsession,” by Perri Knize, a memoir of the writer’s search for the piano of her dreams and, once she finds it (and dubs her “Marlene” for her marvelous tuning), her quest to get the tuning back so she can fall in love again.  Listen to Knize play Marlene at

 4)      “Piano Girl,” by Robin Goldsby, a delightful memoir of how she became a cocktail pianist.  Originally from Pittsburgh, Goldsby now lives in Germany with her family and appears to have a wonderful life and career.  Check her website out at

 5)      “Men, Women, and Pianos,” by Arthur Loesser, a fascinating book about the history of pianos and the people associated with them.

 If you’ve ever thought of resuming music lessons or singing or playing in a group, or of learning to do something that’s always intrigued you, remember that the best reason is just because you want to, and the best time to start is NOW.  If you have any interest in pianos, pay a visit.  Its message boards are troves of information, especially if you’re considering purchasing a piano.  And if you’ve been holding onto some assumptions since you were small, consider whether they make sense and whether they’re helpful to you:  if you challenge them, or seek out people or situations that might challenge them, you might discover that they don’t make sense and you’re happier and better off discarding them.

March 19, 2010

Eleven great memoirs

For literary pundits, the memoir genre is one of the subjects du jour.  I’ve been listening to serious debates on a number of podcasts on whether it’s OK for writers to include fictional events in books that they then dub as “memoirs.”  One memoirist referred to her own as “true,” but not necessarily “factual,” a distinction that I frankly don’t buy (much as I did enjoy her books).

Here are eleven memoirs I’ve enjoyed and which, as far as I can tell, are both truthful and factual:

 “How I Became Hettie Jones,” by writer Hettie Jones, who married LeRoi Jones, n/k/a Amiri Baraka.

“Minor Characters,” by the writer Joyce Johnson, who was a minor character in Jack Kerouac’s life, though he was a major character in hers.

“Shakespeare and Company,” by that Parisian bookshop’s owner, Sylvia Beach, who published James Joyce’s “Ulysses” when nobody else would (and who largely supported Joyce and his family while they were in Paris).

“Baltimore’s Mansion,” by Canadian writer Wayne Johnston, about growing up in Newfoundland.

“Wishful Drinking,” by Carrie Fisher, a delightful transcription of her current standup routine.

“Love By The Glass,” by Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, a married couple who write for twelve years, until December 2009, wrote the wine column for The Wall Street Journal.

“The Road From Coorain,” by Jill Ker Conway, president of Smith College from 1975-1985, now a visiting professor at MIT, originally from Australia.

“The Glass Castle,” by former gossip columnist and writer Jeannette Walls.

“Never Have Your Dog Stuffed,” by actor and director Alan Alda.

“Kitchen Confidential,” by bad-boy chef, travel host, and writer Anthony Bourdain.

“Dreams From My Father,” by, of course, our President, Barack Obama.

A bonus:  I don’t know any of the authors, but I’m pretty sure none of these books were ghostwritten!

March 12, 2010

Happy reading!

Reading is probably my favorite activity in the world and always has been.  In fact, it’s so important to me that I notice I’m less happy when I get busy with other matters and let reading fall by the wayside.  If I schedule time for pleasure reading as I schedule time for business and family activities, I read more.  So one of my goals is to spend most evenings between 8 and 9 reading with my family.

Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” has been on my very long reading list for more than a year, since a close friend and my husband read and recommended it.  Before I’d even finished Diaz’s 7-page introduction (complete with footnotes on the history of the Dominican Republic), I was hooked.  Diaz breaks a few rules–and breaks them very well–by, among other things, writing in Spanglish!  His energetic, honest, in-your-face prose reminds me of Sherman Alexie’s, whose “Ten Little Indians” and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” my husband and I both enjoyed and admire immensely.  Now that I’m on chapter 2, I’m finding it close to unputdownable and can’t wait for 8 PM.

 Those who, like me, find it hard to squeeze time in for pleasure reading might like to take advantage of DailyLit.  The site, , has a number of books, short stories, foreign language lessons, and other offerings available by daily e-mail installments for FREE.  You can read for a few minutes each day or save them up and read several together.  If you find yourself with more time available, or you just can’t wait 24 hours for the next installment, you can have the next one sent immediately.  And if you get too busy even to read one e-mail a day, you can suspend the service for a while and tell it when to resume sending them to you.  I recently finished the 12th and final e-mail installment of one of Alice Munro’s short stories from her recent collection, “Too Much Happiness.”  No affiliation with the site—I’m just a happy reader.

What Writers Need

Filed under: Books and writing — Helen Gunnarsson @ 2:01 pm
Tags: , , ,

Love Matt Shoard’s post here  on The Guardian’s Books Blog on what he thinks writers need.  Contrary to what Virginia Woolf said, it’s not money and a room of one’s own:

 Real writers need frustration. They need embarrassment. They need cold, uncomfortable rooms, miles from a mobile [ed. Or Internet!] signal. There should be an infestation of at least one parasite, a backlog of warnings from the Student Loans Company and just enough coffee for what Don DeLillo calls “an occasional revelation”.

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