Krakow – Literary Lion

Medieval Krakow is a delight. Some of the city walls, the Barbican, and the Florianska Gate

The Barbican

The Barbican

Florianska Gate

Florianska Gate

survive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

To get an excellent overview of the city’s history, visit the Rynek Underground archaeological museum that lies beneath the main square’s Cloth Hall–the Sukiennice.The archway on the exterior of the Cloth Hall offers cafes and the opportunity to listen to folk music at festivals in the square or hop in a carriage led by elegantly-adorned horses. HorseCarriage folkmusic

ClothHall

Cloth Hall

 

 

In addition to revealed cobblestones and stalls are helpful brief films about Krakow’s history–including why a bugle–the hejnal–sounds on the hour from the left tower of St. Mary Basilica.

St. Mary's Basilica

St. Mary’s Basilica

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Collegium Maius Courtyard

Collegium Maius Courtyard

Yet another famous clock is found in Collegium Maius, one in which important historical figures parade at 11, 1, and 3. The university’s stunning historic library is on view by tour, but the Professors’ Garden is freely accessible through a decorated archway. Copernicus is the star pupil, and the scientific instruments on display are stunning.

WawelCastle

Wawel Castle

LadyErmineDaVinci

DaVinci’s “The Lady with Ermine”

One of the treasures of Krakow is DaVinci’s “The Lady with Ermine” painting, which is temporarily housed in Wawel Castle while The Arsenal museum is being renovated.

 

It is the portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, Her intelligence and writing drew comparisons to the famous rhetorician of antiquity, Aspasia, wife of Pericles. Unfortunately, none of the writing of Gallerani survived.

I was sufficiently overwhelmed by the Auschwitz reading that I failed to dip into Krakow literature beyond the Holocaust. Entering the city on a street named for Joseph Conrad, Polish author who is undoubtedly one of the most highly regarded writers in English language, I recalled this oversight.

Fortunately, The Culture Trip offers suggestions in its Literary Tour of Krakow.

http://theculturetrip.com/europe/poland/articles/a-literary-tour-of-krakow/

And the In Your Pocket guide offers this post about UNESCO’s official City of Literature, designated in 2013:

http://www.inyourpocket.com/krakow/City-of-Literature_73251f

Wisława Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996 for poetry, and her medal is on display in the Collegium Maius Library; the 1980 Nobel Prize laureate was writer Czesław Miłosz. Hanna Krall looks to be a contemporary Polish writer worth reading; her novels and journalistic books are published in English: Chasing the King of Hearts; Shielding the Flame. No doubt: Krakow has been indelibly scarred by the Gestapo and Stalinist occupations.

 

Auschwitz: Writing through the Pain and Horror

The number of books that center on Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration CampAuschwitzbooks is truly astounding, but then writing is often used as a way with dealing with pain, conflict, and the inexplicable.

Elie Wiesel’s Night may be the most widely read memoir, and Primo Levi authored his autobiographical account, Survival in Auschwitz. Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski’s concentration camp stories, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, is yet another endurance story.

GirlRedCoatThe memoir that I chose was The Girl in the Red Coat by Roma Ligocka. Those who recall the harrowing black and white film of Schindler’s List remember the one splash of color: the little girl in the red coat, who tries to hide from the Gestapo in the Krakow ghetto, unsuccessfully. Schindler sees her walking on the street, and later, it is her red coat he recognizes among the pile of corpses. When Ligocka saw the film, she recognized herself as the little girl who wore a strawberry-red coat in Krakow. Her memoir reflects how her mother bleached her hair to make her look more Aryan, how people were shot in the streets next to her, how furniture and luggage were strewn outdoors. In fact, a Holocaust memorial in Krakow is an arrangement of empty chairs. She and her mother were harbored by a Polish family while her father was imprisoned at Auschwitz.

Naturally, Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List (originally entitled Schindler’s Ark) is the most recognizable of the novels set in Krakow and its surroundings. After Spielberg’s film was a run-away success, Krakow purchased the enamelware factory where Schindlerjuden worked and were saved; it’s a museum that documents the history of an enigmatic person who took over an Aryanized factory and came to be an unexpected hero.violinAuschwitz

The Violin of Auschwitz, a short novel by Catalan writer Maria Angels Anglada, is an unusual Holocaust work as it focuses on music and the craftsman who created a stunning musical instrument in the midst of misery. It is a touching novel that begins with a moving violin performance in 1991 and then tells the backstory of its creator.

As many Holocaust novels and memoirs that I have read over the years, none truly prepared me for a visit to Auschwitz. The dozens of “block” housing are brick construction; their permanence spoke volumes. The extermination of Jews, gypsies, communists, trade unionists, homosexuals, disabled, prisoners of war, and traitors was to be long-lasting and complete. A factory of death. Many of the “blocks” are dedicated to special exhibitions, too numerous for a single tour: the story of the Roma; the story of Belgian Jews; the story of Hungarian Jews; and so on and so forth. The typical tour recounts the arrival of those immediately assigned to the gas chamber and then moves into part two of those who were photographed and documented to serve as prisoners and workers. One hallway includes row after row of men and women, each one named with birth date, arrival date, and death date. In several instances, death followed a short time after their coming to the camp—even though the camp physician had singled them out for work.

The material goods of those arriving are on exhibition in yet another building: thousands of pairs of shoes, eyeglasses, combs, brushes, and even tins of shoe polish. Most sickening was the hair. Mounds, kilos, pounds of human hair that would be baled and sent to Germany to be made into material, rope, and other items.

We knew going in to our visit that this would be difficult. We have been to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC and to other Holocaust Memorial sites around the world. Auschwitz is particularly grim. My husband’s father’s sister, her husband, and their two children perished here. They had remained because of business interests when their two siblings escaped—one to the USA and one to

Budapest streetname

Budapest Street, where the Lanci family lived.

Australia. David’s cousin, John Balint of Sydney, writes, “My Aunt Anne, Uncle Feri, and cousins Pisti and Rosalie were deported in June 1944 from Subotica in Serbia, where they had a business, to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were murdered.”

The parents of the three siblings were hidden by friends in Budapest and survived the war; however, shortly thereafter, when they returned to their summer home on Lake Balaton in Hungary, my husband’s grandmother called out the names of the two grandchildren who had been killed, and then collapsed.

 

Cemetery at Lake Balaton

Cemetery at Lake Balaton.

Gravestone of Ilona Kohn Lanci (1887-1945) and Felix Lanci.

Gravestone of Ilona Kohn Lanci (1887-1945) and Felix Lanci.

 

 

She is buried nearby, the parish priest allowing her to be interred in the church cemetery. Her husband survived, living with his daughter and her family in Australia and then eventually with his son and his family in Pennsylvania, passing at 97. His son took his ashes back to that small cemetery in Hungary.

Prague Prose

IMG_4244I admit it. Franz Kafka didn’t seem like pleasure reading for a vacation. I also gave Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being a miss even though I found the Daniel Day Lewis film of that novel, well, incredibly touching.

Instead, I opted for anniversaries: May 8 is the celebration of the end of World War II in Czechoslovakia, following by a day the official surrender of Germany. It’s also the end of Holocaust Remembrance Week. What better story to read than The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman (2011). It’s possible to read a sample of a novel on Kindle before purchasing; for this novel, I did that. The story begins in New York City in 2000. An elderly grandfather anticipates the wedding of his grandson; at the rehearsal dinner, he’s seated next to the maternal grandmother, and he believes that she looks familiar. He sees a mark on her wrist beneath the lace and lifts her hand. “I am your husband,” he tells her. Sold.

The main of the novel takes place in Prague, a truly beautiful city with Art Nouveau IMG_4215buildings that didn’t suffer the ravages of World War II. Would that the same could be said for the large Jewish population. The two primary characters, Lenka and Josef, come from well-to-do families. She is an art student, and he is in medical school. They fall in love and marry, but she refuses to leave her family even though the German army is on the march, turning down the visa that has been procured for her. Josef and his family depart, promising to get passage for Lenka’s entire family as soon as possible.

IMG_4245

Pinkas Synagogue

IMG_4253

IMG_4246Visits to the Old New Synagogue, the ancient Jewish cemetery, and the old Town Hall evoke the scenes where Josef and Lenka courted and sipped on chocolate along the Vitava River.

IMG_4221

Prague Castle looms on the hill above with its Golden Lane, where Kafka lived with his sister.

Crystal, puppets, and garnets grace the windows of shops on cobble-stone winding streets. Drawings from the children imprisoned in Terezin grace the Jewish Museum. Of 660 children, 550 perished. Lenka reflects when her family is being deported to Terezin that she recalls citizens freeing the swans who are held captive in ice on the river during the winter, but no one comes to their rescue.

Tours to Terezin, the “model” concentration camp that the Red Cross visited during the war are possible from Prague, and there is a wealth of literature about the camp. The young readers’ books are especially moving and help us “never forget”: The Cat with the Yellow Star: Coming of Age in Terezin; Fireflies in the Dark (the story of the art teacher to the children); and others found on this Mighty Girl site: http://www.amightygirl.com/blog?p=11586.

Perhaps Kafka might have been easier after all.

For something lighter, try The Doctor Dines in Prague (2003) by Robin Hathaway, #4 in the Dr. Fenimore mystery series, about a cardiologist in Philadelphia, who solves crimes. In this volume, the doctor travels to Prague to determine what’s happened to his cousin, husband, and child, who have vanished. This is an excellent light romp—no matter that there are lives at stake—as the doctor, even while solving the mystery, visits numerous touristic sights. The famous marionette theatre of Prague comes into play, too; take in a show while in Prague. We saw Don Giovanni, “directed” by a rumpled bewigged Mozart.

For a more serious mystery, Bernie Gunther, a Berlin detective, visits Prague during World War II in Prague Fatale (2010) by Philip Kerr, another series. It focuses on the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the notorious Reichsprotector of Bohemia and Moravia—the terms used for Czechoslovakia after the Nazi invasion. Heydrich was killed by Czech resistance fighters, and the small village of Lidice paid a horrific toll when it was believed that one of the assassins may have come from there.

While it may seem strange to recommend a memoir about an Idaho farm for travelers to the Czech Republic, I heartily endorse Weeds: A Farm Daughter’s Lament (2013) by Evelyn Funda. Her mother escaped Czechoslovakia in the 1950s in the false bottom of a wine barrel, and her father’s parents were Czech immigrants as well. Several of the chapters focus on their Czech legacy, and in one chapter, Funda herself travels back to the homeland to discover her cousins in a touching finale. Along the way, she explains much about Czech history, including the martyrdom of Jan Hus and the Battle of White Mountain. Understanding the latter is very helpful in decoding the monumental paintings, The Slavic Epic, by noted artist Mucha, housed in the Trade Fair Palace in Prague. She also recounts the story of Lidice village and its obliteration movingly.

For fantasy lovers, Bartimaeus: The Golem’s Eye (2004) by Jonathan Stroud, offers insight into the folkloric characters of the golem and djinns. The former is a Jewish creature, created out of clay that was said to save the Jews of Prague in medieval times. The golem is referenced in The Lost Wife, where it so obviously doesn’t save anyone. Djinns are something like genies and have made appearance in other books I’ve read for travel, particularly The Caliph’s House, set in Casablanca.

Finally, I recommend two films worthy of viewing: The Shop on Main Street, which won an Academy Award for best foreign film in the 1960s; and Zelary, about a Czech resistance fighter who must seek sanctuary in a mountain village and marry a local man to save herself. Both films are about World War II and persecution by Nazis.

 

New York City: Washington Square and Greenwich Village

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
–Edna St. Vincent Millay, “First Fig” (1920)

Washington Arch

Washington Arch

It’s difficult to walk even a few steps in this New York City neighborhood without facing a literary landmark. A perfect place for an English professor. Let’s start with Washington Square (1881) by Henry James. I admit I’m no fan of James’ fiction, but this short novel does a good job of setting the scene of late 19th century New York society when more well-to-do folks began the trek of moving uptown and farther away from ethnic immigrants. Dr. Sloper, a flourishing physician who marries well, does exactly that. The house he has built is probably similar to the one James knows intimately: his grandmother’s, which stood at 18 Washington Square North. Death carries away his son and beautiful wife, leaving him with a dull-witted daughter, Catherine, who cares more for sugary treats than education, and who is pursued by a young man, Morris Townsend, who is interested in her dowry. This is a novel with singularly unattractive characters.

Manhattan Transfer (1925) written by John Dos Passos a few doors down at No 3, is a much more interesting novel, one of the first to use a multi-genre approach: narrative interspersed with newspaper stories, obituaries, film reviews—almost a scrapbook that illuminates its many characters. It is precursor to his USA Trilogy, which is in the same vein. (Dos Passos is portrayed in the rather unfortunate film Hemingway and Gelhorn.) Edward Hopper, the painter, also lived on this side of the square facing the famous Washington Arch, designed by Stanford White. A film, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, details the “crime of the century”—the murder of White by Harry Thaw, who discovered that his wife, Evelyn Nesbitt (played by Joan Collins), had an affair with the playboy architect.

Poet E. A. Robinson, painter Jackson Pollack, and the namesake of the Whitney Museum all lived nearby. Robinson won the first Pulitzer ever awarded for poetry and went on to win three Pulitzers in all, including one for his book length poem Tristram. Eleanor Roosevelt lived at 29 Washington Square in the 1940s. The Washington Square Hotel—a comfortable boutique establishment with a fine restaurant—has played host to both Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan. The former expired at a much too early age drinking at the White Horse Tavern (567 Hudson Street).

The New York University campus includes the building that was the scene of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (1911), which killed 146 workers—mainly young immigrant women. The fire is the subject of two young adult novels: Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix and Threads and Flames by Esther M. Friesner. Check out the Asch Building at 29 Washington Place; plaques note the site and the effect of the tragedy on improved labor conditions.
A little distance from Washington Square is the excellent Tenement Museum (https://www.tenement.org/), which offers insight into the living conditions of Irish, German, and Jewish immigrants; it includes one floor that functioned as a garment factory. IMG_4002Near this museum is Kossar’s Bakery, which is mentioned in the wonderful The Bialy Eaters, a nonfiction piece by Mimi Sheraton that traces this tasty concoction on a worldwide tour. A bialy is only a dollar and well worth it, particularly when freshly warm. A few blocks from the Tenement Museum is the Merchant’s House Museum IMG_4006(http://merchantshouse.org/). Irish domestics lived in the attic bedroom, and the comfortable accommodations for the merchant and his family are stark contrast to the cramped rooms in the Tenement Museum.
But back to Washington Square and its neighbor Greenwich Village. My favorite author of the Village is Calvin Trillin, who grew up in Kansas City, but who has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1963. In fact, he leads an annual food trek during the October New Yorker Festival that has been on my bucket list for years: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/06/nyregion/06trillin.html?_r=0 . He writes equally well with humor or dead seriousness. His James Thurber Prize honors his Tummy Trilogy, three fabulous books about eating in America, while Killings features essays about murder and death. His About Alice is a four-hanky read about his wife. In honor of Trillin, check out Murray’s Cheese Shop or cafe at 254 Bleeker Street.

Edna St. Vincent Millay House

Edna St. Vincent Millay House

My authors pilgrimage included seeing the very narrow—only nine feet across—house of Edna St. Vincent Millay whose poetry inspired the line “burning the candle at both ends.” Millay wIMG_4021as the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. Irving Washington wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” at his sister’s home (11 Commerce Street).

 

 

 

Northern Dispensary

Northern Dispensary

Edgar Allan Poe sought relief for a head cold at the Northern Dispensary at Waverly and Grove Streets. By the way, Waverly is named in honor of Sir Walter Scott and his novel Waverley although the sign maker didn’t quite get the correct spelling.

Nearby is George Segal’s sculpture in a triangular park that IMG_4027commemorates the Stonewall Inn uprising that signaled the Gay Rights movement. Down the block is Three Lives Bookstore—a nod to Gertrude Stein—where readers might find some of the books mentioned here.

Other writers to consider for a literary-based trip to this area, acknowledging that this is still a limited list. . .
UptoIMG_0826n Sinclair, author of The Jungle, lived in the Village. Notably, the Meatpacking District lay just north. Today’s visitors should take a walk on the High Line, the elevated walkway, formerly a railroad line that transported livestock, which begins at the new Whitney Art Museum and extends for 1.5 miles north.
Walt Whitman, America’s “Great Gray Poet,” was one of the Bohemians who hung out in the Village. The later “Beats” continue this legacy: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg.IMG_4019
Cherry Lane Theatre, started by Edna St. Vincent Millay and friends, is located in a charming area of short streets. Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee, Lorraine Hansberry, and Samuel Beckett are just a few of the playwrights whose work has been performed there.
On St. Luke’s Place, poet Marianne Moore lived at 14 St. Luke’s Place. Her neighbors included Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio) at number 12 and Theodore Dreiser (Sister Carrie, An American Tragedy) at number 16.
Sometimes places and history come together at just the right time. The February 27 entry from The Writer’s Almanac focused on Lincoln’s 1860 anti-slavery speech, which made him famous and secured the presidential nomination. http://writersalmanac.org/note/feb-27-on-this-day-abraham-lincoln-give-an-anti-slavery-speech-at-cooper-union/
I immediately walked the few blocks to Cooper Union Foundation Building at Astor Place. Buildings take on much more significance when paired with a good read.

Hemingway in Cuba Reads

I’m keeping this list from The Thread (Minnesota Public Radio) for when I visit Cuba.

http://www.mprnews.org/thread
Kerri Miller’s Must-Reads: The Hemingway in Cuba Reading List

House I’m about to embark on a journey to Cuba with a posse of other curious, adventure-seeking radio listeners. I think of it as a traveling book club.

(I’m not sure how Ernest Hemingway, who spent a lot of time on the island, would have felt about the trip — apparently he wasn’t a big fan of traveling with new friends. He warned, “Never go on trips with anyone you do not love.”)

Even if you can’t tag along, books are always a marvelous way to travel. Here’s my reading list for the trip. Every one of these books will give you new insights about the legendary writer and a place that many Americans are only now able to explore.

Hemingway’s Boat
by Paul Hendrickson
Buy this book

This unconventional biography is filled with “sentiment and speculation,” according to The New York Times.

Influencing Hemingway
by Nancy Sindelar
Buy this book

This is also a unique biography about the places and the people that shaped Hemingway’s writing. It’s interesting to discover how much of the geographical detail in places like Italy and Cuba ended up in his fiction.

The Old Man and the Sea
by Ernest Hemingway
Buy this book

The quintessential novel draws on Hemingway’s appreciation for Cuba. The story goes that Hemingway was out fishing when news that he had won the Pulitzer Prize was sent over the ship’s radio.

Mrs. Hemingway
by Naomi Wood
Buy this book

This is a fun and well-researched novel about the various women Hemingway somehow persuaded to marry him. The scenes that take place in Cuba are delightfully evocative, and Wood’s writing is charming.

-K.M.

Oaxaca Christmas

Poinsettias at Market

Poinsettias at Market

Oaxaca is justly famous for its Noches de Rabanes, “Night of the Radishes,” which occurs just before December 25. Radishes—yes, radishes—are carved into crèches and other tableaus. Mind you, these are not typical radishes but an unusual variety that grows longer and narrower.

Zocalo and Band

Zocalo and Band

 

 

But take almost any night in the weeks leading up to Christmas in Oaxaca, and one would be likely to find a calenda (parade), Guelaguetza (folkloric dances), or posada (a procession of people seeking shelter—party–associated with “finding room at the inn”). On a single evening, a marching band fronted a group of children in costume with one representing Mary on a burro; another band with stilt walkers led the way to the cacao exhibition and tasting; and still another opened the December expo stalls on Calle M. Alcala. These Band drummer childrenNativity marching bands are in addition to the music on the Zocalo (town square), where almost every night about 6:00 pm, music is on the venue. On Wednesday nights, Danzon, a Cuban fusion dance that is a mix of box step and cha-cha-cha brings out old and young light—many in high fashion—to demonstrate their talents. December 18—and the two days priors—features the Virgen de la Soledad, Oaxaca’s patron saint.

Another fascinating aspect of the abundance of music is the wealth of children and young people performing. Several bands featured these young artists. The Casa Cultural of Oaxaca offechildren dancered folkloric dances on a Sunday morning with charming, colorfully dressed youngsters. This venue had free concerts almost daily. We moved from there to the San Pablo Cultural Center to listen to a brass band, while having brunch at the SP Café on its open-air second floor. By the way, the Textile Museum nearby is worth a visit.

However the Rufino Taymao Museum was our favorite, a stellar collection of pre-Columbian artifacts chosen with an eye for their aesthetic appeal and an ethic of protecting them from export or illegal trade. Each room is color-coded and offers written guides in English—unusual for most museums in the city.

MonteAlban

Monte Alban

Mitla

Mitla

ethnobotanicalgarden

Ethnobotanical Garden

The cultural museum located in the historic cloister at the Santa Domingo Church provides artifacts re-located from the famous Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban.

 

ZapotecFigureBoth it and Mitla are worth the trip out of town. An accessible archaeological account is Michael Lind’s Ancient Zapotec Religion (2015), which has an excellent chapter on Mitla and its fascinating architecture. The ethnobotanical garden is adjacent to the Santa Domingo Church.

For shoppers, Oaxaca offers enormous opportunity although finding high-end interpretations of ethnic clothing is more difficult. (Somehow that colorful embroidered shirt just doesn’t look the same in Oklahoma as it did in Oaxaca. Perhaps that is why there are so many ethnic clothing items on sale at e-bay.) The historic markets at 20 November and Benito Juarez as well as the Artisan Market nearby are well worth a visit. The textiles for tablecloths and “matrimonial” covers (bed spreads) are particularly appealing. Likewise, the wool rugs that come from Teotilan del Valle can be lovely.

Rug Dyes

Rug Dyes at Teotitlan

Prices vary according to whether one purchases from a vendor in the street (literally in the pedestrian street of Alcala after 10 pm when license police have turned in) to the tourist stores. State-run stores like ARIPO (809 Garcia Vigil) or Casa Artesanias (on Matamoros a block from Alcala) offer an overview of crafts. The women’s cooperative on Cinco de Mayo 209 also features a procession of rooms, each with a different craft. High end stores such as Voces de Copal on Alcala are also high end on prices, but the displays are much more attractive with the painted figures cunningly displayed—as opposed to being crowded by the hundreds at other locales.

Oaxaca is about music, festivals, and color, but it’s also very much about food, particularly moles, ranging from Mole Negro to Mole Verde. Tlaycudas offer a mega-quesadilla, and standard quesadillas aremarketsquash blossom also in evidence. It’s possible to spend several hours of a day in a cooking class like those offered at Casa Crespo or at the home of famed cookbook author Susanna Trilling, author of Seasons of My Heart. Our cooking class at the former began by making tortillas from scratch—the corn, which had soaked overnight, was taken to the local grinder, and the pail of dougmarket organich that was returned was formed into regular tortillas and also varieties stuffed with plantain or squash blossom flowers. A trip to the market to acquire local ingredients is generally part of the class.

 

The Amante Book Store on Alcala is a good source of finding reading material although, as usual, I had stocked up prior to departure from the USA. My plane reading included Oliver Sacks charming Oaxaca Journal (2002), purportedly his report on a botanical trip he took to study ferns, but much more than that, including his observations on Oaxacan life. Oaxaca is both city and state. It’s a quick and enjoyable read.

Because I’m an English professor, I also picked up D. H. Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico (1927), his musings about living in Oaxaca while completing his novel The Plumed Serpent (1926). Not that it’s possible to tell it’s Oaxaca from the text, which has no real details about where it is set. Lawrence wanders out on walks in the countryside, offering his opinion on their houseboy, who is torn between city and his home village. It’s an atmospheric read but not one that will appeal to many, and that includes me.

Just out in late 2015 is a fascinating graphic novel by Peter Kuper, Ruins. It follows the Ruinstravails of George and Samantha, a New York couple taking sabbatical leave. They happen to land in Oaxaca coinciding with the infamous teacher strike of 2006, which effectively closed the city to tourists for some months and resulted in deaths of strikers and one American journalist. The couple’s story is paired with the flight of a Monarch butterfly making the journey from the USA back to the breeding grounds of Oaxaca; these scenes offer social and cultural critique that proves a picture is worth a thousand words. Kuper, a well known writer and illustrator, first published a nonfiction version of his family’s time in Oaxaca, Diario de Oaxaca. It is also worth rePerfectRedading.

“Mexican gold” is the term given to the legendary red dye derived from the cochineal, and A Perfect Red is the fine history written by Amy Butler Greenfield that describes how Europeans sought out this import from the 16th century. It is to Mexicans what tulips were to the Dutch.

The Old Gringo (1985) by Carlos Fuentes is a terrific novel about Ambrose Bierce’s last days in Mexico, when he gets entangled with the Revolution, Pancho Villa, and General Tomas Arroyo. Bierce is the author of such acerbic works as The Devil’s Dictionary and the short story that every high school student must surely read, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” (Bierce has been appropriated as a detective in a series of mystery novels by Oakley Hall set in San Francisco at the BenitoJuarezturn of the 20th century.) Oaxaca features the childhood home of Benito Juarez, the only indigenous president of the nation. Find it on Garcia Vigil near the Carmen Convent. And then have a mescal cocktail on the rooftop terrace of Mezquite nearby and watch the sun set.

Noted author Richard Ford set his The Ultimate Good Luck (1987) in Oaxaca, the story of a Vietnam veteran who travels to the city to get his girlfriend’s brother out of jail. The reviews term this “a guys’ book,” and one character is called a “suavely sadistic drug dealer.” Frankly, cocaine is not the subject of a relaxing vacation read, so I gave this one a pass.

Oaxacan author Daniel Sada (1953-2011) penned Almost Never (2008) about a lonely agrarian accountant who seeks sex in a brothel and then love and marriage with a virginal girl he meets by chance at a wedding. Set in 1945, it has disconcerting notes about Hiroshima and the atom bomb. Although critically praised, it is sexually explicit and may not be everyone’s cup of tea.posada-del-cacao

One other book we must recommend: Viva Oaxaca (2012) by Robert Adler and Jo Ann Wexler. This guidebook provided excellent advice on what to see, where to eat, and where to shop. Likewise, the Oaxaca calendar website, overseen by Margie Barclay, delivered excellent information on events, museums and gallery, and restaurants. Unfortunately, she has given hot chocolatenotice that she will quit early in 2016. One hopes a successor will take on this overwhelming job; otherwise, travelers may be reduced to studying the numerous posters along the streets to find out what’s on when. But then, what a good excuse for early walks around town after a breakfast that includes the city’s stunning hot chocolate.

 

Biking, Walking, and Reading Vancouver (British Columbia)

Stanley Park in Vancouver is a delight, a joyride for a bicyclist. I rented a bike from a nearby shop and took off on a counter clockwise path that traces the seawall. The 9 km ride was so much fun that I did it a second time. The trail goes by several landmarks, including a 1972 sculpture that is Vancouver’s version of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid: Girl in a Wetsuit. The path passes by Brockton Point Lighthouse, gives a glorious view of Lions Gate Bridge high overhead, and reveals Siwash Rock around a bend. The Nine O’Clock Gun occurs early in the path, a cannon placed in the 1890s, and shot at nine pm each night so that ships could set their chronometers.

Nine O’Clock Gun is also the title of two novels, the first written by Roland Wild (1952) and a more recent gumshoe detective novel by Jim Christy (2008). 9oclockGun

The book by Wild begins with 80-year-old Neil McKay, a Scottish immigrant, reflecting on his life in Vancouver from the late 1880s to post-World War II. In so doing, he traces the history of the city from its start as Gastown (created by “Gassy” Jack), then to Granville, and finally to Vancouver. Ever wonder why Vancouver is not on Vancouver Island? Blame the owners of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. When they pushed the transcontinental railroad through, the government of British Columbia acceded to their wishes to rename the city for Captain George Vancouver, much to the dismay of the inhabitants of Vancouver Island, already named for the 18th century explorer.

Wild’s novel begins on Howe Street; as it happened, I stayed in a hotel located on the same avenue. Recognition of places within a narrative is one of the real treats of reading literature set in the locales where one travels. The statue of Gassy Jack and the Steam-Powered Clock in Gastown mean more after reading pleasurable titles set in the area.

Granville’s name resides now on an island, where a fabulous public market offers local food, arts, and crafts. Another Granville is the main character in The Silk Train Murder (Klondike Era Mystery Series, 2007) by Sharon Rowse. Set in 1899, it features a little known historical factoid, that the silk imported from China to make its way to the eastern seaboard was more valuable than gold and required special train cars for transport—trains that needed protection, and thereby hangs the tale.

For a more contemporary look at Vancouver, read Stanley Park (2001) by Timothy Taylor, that follows the trials of chef Jeremy Papier, whose new restaurant Monkey’s Paw Bistro is on the brink of financial ruin. Surely Kiwi Frederique, a bleeding-edge restaurant critic who appears late in the narrative, is one of the best creations by a novelist. Taylor’s satiric and often comic critique of contemporary cuisine is biting and fun. A subplot involves Jeremy’s anthropologist father, who is living in Stanley Park to study the homeless. Yet another subplot focuses on the unsolved murder of two children whose bodies were uncovered in the park.

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Bill Reid Sculpture at MOA

Vancouver offers much to see and do: take the charming ferries on False Creek from the city to the market on Granville Island; visit the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia to view the grand totems and Bill Reid’s wonderful centerpiece sculpture of Raven creating the world; follow up with a visit of Reid’s Art Gallery downtown (readers can see his illustrations in Raven’s Cry, a novel by Christie Harris about the Haida of Queen Charlotte’s Island); dine at one of the many restaurants in Yaletown. yaletown

Two used bookstores deserve mention: MacLeod’s and the Paper UmbrellaShopHound, both with helpful staff, and both located on Pender Street. The street is also home to the charming Umbrella Shop (with two other locations, one on Granville Island). In business since 1935 in a city where people own multiple umbrellas, The Umbrella Shop is a delightful stopWeeds. And then there is Weeds, a chain store devoted to the bud.

 

Walking the streets of Vancouver or biking its 28 km seawall are enhanced by reading these novels to get a sense of its past and present. For more great reads set in Vancouver, check out this article, “Top Ten Books about Vancouver,” by George Fetherling, Vancouver Sun, April 8, 2011: http://www.vancouversun.com/news/books+about+Vancouver/4524537/story.html. Next up on my reading list: Legends of Vancouver by E. Pauline Johnson, a free e-book that recounts Squamish legends in the prose of the time (1911).

 

 

Victoria, British Columbia: Illuminating Emily Carr

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The Fairmont Empress Hotel

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Water Taxi

A tour guide quipped that Victoria, British Columbia is home to newlyweds, the nearly dead, and flower beds. Honeymooners, retired folks, and gardeners—as well as many others—will find much to like in this lovely city with its Inner Harbor dominated by the stately Fairmont Empress Hotel. Floatplanes take off and land at the rate of thousands per year. It’s even possible to fly into the cove near world-famous Butchart Gardens to check out the recovered limestone quarries that display formal and informal landscaping. Checker Taxis of the water kind dart about the harbor carrying passengers.

ForestLoverMy favorite way to enter a new landscape is through books. Victoria did not disappoint. Susan Vreeland’s The Forest Lover, a fictional account of painter Emily Carr, provides history and art simultaneously. Who was Emily Carr? Often paired with Georgia O’Keefe and Frida Kahlo, Carr (1871-1945) is considered a truly Canadian artist who depicted First Nations people and their culture with sensitivity and emotion. The youngest of five sisters, only one of whom married, she was a rebel who defied family to study art. Her family, and, in fact, Victoria and Vancouver society at large, could not understand her fascination with “Indian things.” She did not carry with her the prejudices that permeated her social class.

Living on next to nothing, in spite of a trust that was gripped in the iron hand of elder sisters, Carr traveled—a woman alone—to remote native villages to capture in water colors the totem poles and other figures that were rapidly being sold or taken to museums and collectors.

“My mind was made up [after seeing what had been done as a tourist site at Sitka]. I was going to picture the totem poles in their village settings, as complete a collection of them as I could.”

Canadian government outlawed totem poles for nearly 70 years (1884-1951). The painful history of subjugating First Nations culture surfaced in Truth and Reconciliation talks in June, 2015, particularly the horrific treatment of children in residential schools, leading government officials to apologize for past offenses.

Carr painted initially in watercolor as oil was prohibited for women. Eventually, she studied in Paris with post-Impressionists, who influenced her later work. The “Group of Seven,” artists who had been accepted by the Canadian Establishment touted her work.

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Emily Carr Childhood Home & Museum

Vreeland traces her history from outcast to highly regarded artist representing Western Canada and British Columbia. She fails to note, however, that Carr, unsuccessful as a painter, made her name first as a writer. (And, Vreeland takes some license with facts in this novel.) A visit to the Emily Carr Family Home in Victoria reveals that Carr penned multiple books, some featuring the hapless tenants of her boarding house and others focusing on her own life: Klee Wyck, The Book of Small (1942), The House of All Sorts (1944), and (published posthumously) Growing Pains (1946), Pause, The Heart of a Peacock (1953), and Hundreds and Thousands (1966). The cats in residence continue her legacy through a blog! Her work is to be found in her childhood home, the Victoria Art Gallery, and the Vancouver Art Gallery. The Royal Museum of British Columbia in Victoria also has a good collection, but it may not be on view. Carr’s work can fetch as much as $1.5 million in the current art market.

In addition to the work about and by Carr, several book titles illuminate Victoria’s past and present.

  • The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed by Jack Valliant (award winning nonfiction)
  • Read an excellent essay in The New Yorker about how Hollywood star John Barrymore stole a Totem Pole (which eventually wound up in Vincent Price’s backyard) to understand how native peoples so often lost their heritage. (This particular totem pole was from southeastern Alaska, but the same story is played out time and time again at coastal villages.)   Source: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/04/20/the-tallest-trophy.
  • Before I Wake, Robert J Wiersema, 2006 (seems to be about a tragic accident involving a child but then turns supernatural)
  • I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven. This is a classic book about a terminally ill priest who goes to live in a First Nations Village. Admittedly, I have some difficulty with the disastrous consequences of Christianity imposed on native peoples, but this is a beautifully written story about one man coming to terms with his own death. A film was made near Tofino in 1972.
  • Stanley Evans writes “Touchwood Mysteries” series, featuring Silas Seaweed, a Coast Salish cop, and these are set in Victoria. Seaweed on Ice (2010) focuses on the recovery of Nazi-stolen works of art.
  • Rebecca Godfrey writes realistic, young adult novels such as The Torn Skirt (2008). Victoria is not all manicured flowerbeds.
  • Voyages of Hope: The Saga of the Bride Ships by Peter Johnson, the story of women from England, who in 1862, sailed into Victoria as potential brides.
  • Carol Anne Shaw writes mystery/supernatural books for young readers: Hannah and the Spindle Whorl and Hannah and the Salish Sea.
  • Innocent Cities, by Jack Hodgins (set in 19th century)
  • Vancouver Island Scoundrels, Eccentrics, and Originals: Tales from the Library Vault, by Stephen Ruttan (2013)

A geographic note: Victoria is on Vancouver Island; however, Vancouver is not. It is on the mainland. Victoria can be reached only by sea or air and has no connecting roads or bridges–which is how the city wishes it to remain.

Tuff City Books: Tofino, British Columbia

IMG_3133Tofino, British Columbia is literally the end of the road—Highway 4—on Vancouver Island, but until 1961, no road existed. All transportation was by boat. Now, the village of 2000 has been discovered, featured in travel magazines for the best surfing in North America, demonstrated by Surf Sister, an outfit that specializes in getting more women on boards.

 

IMG_3142The Pacific Rim National Park provides short (1-2K) hikes, but these are eclipsed by the dramatic, privately developed (by Oyster Jim) Wild Pacific Trail that starts near the “other” town on this western coast: Ucluelet. Stunning old growth cedars and rockIMG_3143y headlands look out onto the “Graveyard of the Pacific.” The lighthouse, celebrating its centenary, was erected the year after a four-masted steel boat sank within sight of shore in 1905.

 

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Revolution Market

Fresh seafood can be found in the fish & chip joints (e.g, Wildside Grill) and the upscale restaurants (e.g, Wolf in the Fog, Shelter)—even gooseneck barnacles. The hippie holdover culture is also evident in such places as Revolution.

Whale and bear watching trips are common on board charter boats, and up to 100 people a day may take the boat ride to Hot Springs Cove for a 2K boardwalk hike followed by a mellowing dip and then lunch at the seasonal Copper Rose docked at the government wharf.

By the way, almost all hikes are on boardwalks. The Wild Pacific Trail is an exception as is the Tonquin Trail near Tofino.

It’s only natural in such a watery environment that boat books triumph. A lusty, funny memoir by Andrew Struthers, The Last Voyage of the Loch Ryan (2004), integrates his own story with lore from Torino and the surrounding towns and villages. It’s a great way to learn about Tofino, its surfing devotees, and the characters who populate the place. Why is there a metal truss around the Elk Cedar near Jamie’s Whaling Station? Struthers reveals the back-story on this and many more insider facts. He is also the award-winning author of The Green Shadow, which recounts the tussle between environmentalists and business interests in the 1990s. His latest book, Around the World on Minimum Wage, includes some Tofino stories.

Chasing Clayoquot (2004) is a transcendental meditation by David Pitt-Brooke on the Clayoquot Sound on a monthly basis, twelve essays for the year. We kayaked on the Sound, finding osprey, juvenile Bald Eagles, stars, bull kelp, and burrowing cucumbers—as well as industrial barges.

IMG_3100Typically, my travel books are e-editions, easier to pack and carry, but for this trip, I could not resist supporting Mermaid Tales Bookshop. With an excellent selection of local books, it also has a fine stock of books overall as well as whimsical kites.

Tofino attracts interesting individuals, and many of them seem to have finally written the books inside them. Several that follow are self-published. It’s grand that people can get their work out to audiences, but sometimes the lack of professional editing does show.

Tofino and Clayoquot Sound: A History, by Margaret Horsfield and Ian Kenn

Voices from the Sound: Chronicles of Clayoquot Sound and Tofino, 1899-1929 by Margaret Horsfield

Road’s End: Tales of Tofino

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Salt in Our Blood

Clamming Up (Kate O’Malley Series Book) by Lee-Anne Stack

Rumours

The Wild Edge

Women of the West Coast

Silent Inlet

Murder in Parksville; Confusion in Tofino by Jennifer Lafortune

The Sobo Cookbook (from the restaurant of the same name)

Children’s Books:

May Leads the Way: Trouble Near Tofino (featuring the dog, May the K9 Spy, Book 3), by KC Frantzen and TW Vanya

The Oyster that Looked at the Sky by Darcy Dobell

It’s no wonder that Tofino with its dramatic shoreline, thick forests, and beautiful Sound—coupled with the culture of First Nations and a working community—increasingly is becoming a  vacation destination.

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Arty Books for Amsterdam

I’ve often said that I like my history as fiction, and after a visit to Amsterdam and The Hague, I’m going to add art to the list. Art abounds in The Netherlands, and Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and Mauritshuis in The Hague have recently reopened after renovation.

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Mauritshuis

Seeing the Mauritshuis work in a traveling show at the Frick in NYC over Thanksgiving, 2013, while restorations were taking place back in The Netherlands, whetted my appetite to visit the site. It is an elegant gem, home to stellar works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and other masters.

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The Anatomy Lesson by Rembrandt

GoldfinchIts “Goldfinch” became increasingly popular with Donna Tartt’s 2013 novel.

The work that became meaningful for me, though, on this trip was Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp,” said to be the painting that made Rembrandt’s name; it’s the first work that he signed “Rembrandt,” rather than RHL.

The back-story, found in the novel of the same name by Nina Siegal (2014), is fascinating. The points of view of Aris Kindt (the body), his girlfriend, Dr. Tulp, the corpse finder and preparator, the painter, and others involved offer a fuller picture of why this is such an important painting. It also gives readers insights into 17th century Dutch culture, where one public dissection was allowed annually. Difficult to imagine, but the event was a popular social event—with a lavish banquet afterward. Tulp was not the physician’s real name; it was changed from Claes Pieterszoon when he adopted the tulip as his heraldic symbol. The tulip was so popular that when people saw the good doctor in his carriage with its tulip emblem, they naturally began calling him Dr. Tulp. He did not demure.

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Curio Room at Rembrandt’s House

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Rembrandt’s house and its fascinating curio room is a good locale for getting to canalpicknow this important painter. His penchant for collecting the weird and wonderful is a theme in the novel. Follow the wonderful cobble-stoned streets along canals to climb the narrow stairs of his home.

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Bulbs for sale at the flower market

The history of the tulip and its economic stardom plays out in the last novel Alexandre Dumas wrote: Black Tulip (1850). A competition with a significant winner’s fee is set for the first person to produce a black tulip. In the Rijksmuseum, I happened upon a grotesque painting of two statesmen–brothers Johan and Cornelius de Witt—crucified and disemboweled. It was unsettling, but in that wonderful synchronicity that occurs when reading for travel, I found that their execution opens Dumas’ novel.

Tulip Mania occurred some 30 years prior to the black tulip contest. Think of it as the dot.com bubble of the 17th century. Tulip Fever (1999), a novel by Deborah Moggach, who also authored The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, focuses on a love triangle in which the painter hired to portray the wife of businessman falls in love with her, and they enter the risky speculative tulips market.

Tom Stoppard wrote the TulipFeverscreenplay for Tulip Fever, which premieres in 2015. By the way, Moggach wrote the TV adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, most likely the #1 read for anyone visiting Amsterdam and the heartbreaking attic rooms where the family lived until being arrested during World War II.

PearlEarringVermeer’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring is the subject of the admired novel (Tracy Chevalier, 1999) and film of the same name. Susan Vreeland also enters Vermeer country with her Girl in Hyacinth Blue (1999). While not a novel, Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World is historian Timothy Brook’s argument that globalization began in the 17th century with explorations taken on by the Dutch and Portuguese in particular.

Other books that may appeal to travelers to Amsterdam and The Netherlands: Chris Ewan’s comic whodunit series, which begins with The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam (2007), and the satiric The UnDutchables by Colin White and Laurie Boucke (2013). The latter may help understand a culture where the Red Light District is marked on the map, and shop stock ranges from condoms to ducks, while “coffee shops” post signs “No Tobacco Allowed,” but quite obviously from the aroma, other smoking is.

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Chef ducks, doctor ducks, Elvis ducks, . . .

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"Coffee" Shop

“Coffee” Shop

Coda: The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey (2005), although not related to The Netherlands, is yet another excellent read about an artist: Gustav Klimt. It’s particularly timely with the film Woman in Gold (2015).