Non-fiction

Book Review – THE GOLDEN DOOR by A A Gill

The Golden Door by A A GillThe Golden Door Synopsis

Where were you when John F. Kennedy was shot? Today the answer more often than not is going to be ‘not born’. You have to be some way past 45 to know where you were when Kennedy was shot in Dallas in 1963. A generation later, you could ask the same question about the World Trade Centre. Where were you when the plane hit the twin towers on 11 September 2001? But this book is about what happened between those two moments. The world’s perception of America changed between those two waves.

AA Gill’s book is about the things he’s always found admirable and optimistic about the United States and its citizens. Two of the happiest times of his life were spent living in New York and the mountains of Kentucky. The contrast between the two couldn’t have been more complicated and different. The America he found was contradictory and elusive, not the simpletons’ place he’d been led to believe. It was still a list of raw ingredients rather than the old stew of Europe.

Now AA Gill takes another look at the America he knew in the Seventies, a place that seemed to hold promise, practical energy and a plan for the future. How did it become the political magnetic north against which the liberal intellectuals from the rest of the world set their opinions. Why is it so easily mocked, so comprehensively blamed, so thoughtlessly hated? (Amazon

BOOK REVIEW by Tony Ziemek

The Golden Door: Letters to America starts with this proud and familiar quotation:

‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
‘Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’ –Emma Lazarus

And then we have the opening sentence:

‘My father told me about the family buffalo over breakfast.’

We instantly know that an intriguing journey has begun.

British readers need no introduction to Adrian Gill. His restaurant, television reviews and travel pieces are essential reading in The Sunday Times. In Australia we at least get a monthly column in Gourmet Traveller magazine about food, travel or both. Readers of The New York Times may have also recently read his fond perspective on London, aimed at Olympic tourists.

But for those who are new to Gill, you need to know that in his writing he illuminates his subjects from surprising angles, is erudite, funny and precise and to my mind the best writer of English prose alive. And he’s dyslexic.

He also seems to know just about every famous person. They quietly pop into his columns as restaurant guests, in a way that adds a little sparkle or an authoritative view that is always the opposite of Michael Winner’s fatuous name-dropping. At a late stage in The Golden Door he describes a visit to a family friend, one who

‘was an Englishman, born in Lancashire, who’d come to America as a young reporter and gone to Hollywood, where Charlie Chaplin suggested he’d make a great light comedian. He’d interviewed every president since Roosevelt… reported through the Depression, the war, the civil rights movement and Vietnam. He’d reported Nixon’s impeachment, the tune-in-and-drop-out-hippies….’

The family friend is the journalist and broadcaster, Alistair Cooke. He gave generations of British people a personal and authoritative perspective on America. It is Cook who first points out that to understand Americans, you need to understand the Germans. What? Yes really, and then Gill goes on to explain why. One simple reason is that fifty-eight million Americans identify themselves as German in origin. ‘That’s 18 percent of the country, one in four of the white population.’ It’s also more than the Irish, the English or the Africans, if you pretend it’s a country not a continent. That’s the sort of unique perspective from which Gill writes.

Disclosure: If you click a link in this post and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission.

The collection of linked essays from AA Gill that comprise The Golden Door: Letters to America, frequently reveal new insights on the broad subject of America.

It is personal, warm and affectionate on (to me) surprising places like Kentucky. There are new things to say on familiar subjects like New York and a thread of family history that enlivens the general historical detail of this fascinating and at-times-exasperating country. The prejudices of non-American readers are neatly and amusingly skewered in a way that changed how I think of the USA. I suspect that many Americans would also find a few fresh ideas and perhaps a little renewed pride at a time when the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, reprised above, may ring a little hollow.

Some subjects though are beyond sympathetic treatment. For example, the American love of guns is placed in an understandable context but ultimately Gill has nothing good to say about the obsessions and fetishes of gun culture. He does give us a new word to describe it, though: ‘technopomorphism’, meaning treating inanimate objects as though they had intelligent life. A mouthful of a word, but like so much of this book, it is an arrow of an idea that goes straight to the heart of the matter.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4.5 / 5 ; The Writing  5 / 5

~ Tony Ziemek is the lead editor of Ed Fresh Editorial Services.

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BOOK DETAILS: The Golden Door (TheNile – Aus); The Golden Door (Amazon);  The Golden Door (Kobobooks)

Genre: Non-fiction

Author Information: A. A. Gill was born in Edinburgh. He is the award-winning TV and restaurant critic for the Sunday Times and a contributing editor for Vanity Fair. He lives in London and spends much of his year travelling.

– Read Gill’s interview with The Australian on The Golden Door

Some other reviews of The Golden Door: No Sacred Cows, The Lady