Hemingway, Browning, and Stark in Italy

“One can only really travel if one lets oneself go and takes what everyplace brings. . . . I suppose that is the difference between travel and tourism.”
–Freya Stark
About a 90 minute drive north of Venice lies a plain that fronts the pre-Alps, highlighted by Monte Grappa and the towns beneath it, particularly the enchanting Bassano del Grappa, known for its walled city and medieval wooden bridge.


The TV1 Trail offers a panoramic route from the Grappa. Early on the path, the massive Cima Grappa Ossuary or mausoleum stands out. At the conclusion of the war, the various temporary graves on Mount Grappa were emptied, and the remains interred in this single monumental shrine that contains the remains of almost 23,000 soldiers—20,000 of them unknown. When we hiked the Valle San Liberale, we saw remnants of the war: caves that provided refuge from gas attacks, aqueducts that held water that had to be carted up the steep mountainside by donkey to the soldiers, who held back the Austro-Hungarian soldiers—somewhat.

 


Bassano is home, unlikely as it may seem, to the Hemingway Museum, and the timing of this visit at the centenary of the Great War seems a good opportunity to revisit his classic A Farewell to Arms, which was reissued recently in a beautiful edition that includes the dozens of draft endings. Most folks know the story of how Hemingway at 18 volunteered as an ambulance driver and served in Italy. He saw the disastrous defeat of the Italian army at Caporetto, in which 40,000 soldiers perished and over 250,000 were taken prisoner by the German army. He was also wounded and fell in love with his nurse, which formed the basis for the narrative in his novel.
Today, the hilltop towns seem calm and serene. Asolo is capped by Rocca, a 13th century stronghold accessed by a steep climb past charming flower-bedecked stone buildings. img_5790Off the main square, the homes of actress Eleanor Duse, poet Robert Browning, and travel writer Freya Stark can be found.

Duse was a contemporary of the fabulous Sarah Bernhardt and her rival; the play Ladies of the Camellias, which I saw at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival some years ago, speculates that the two leading ladies were playing the role of Camille in competing, adjacent theatres. Robert Browning was so taken with Asolo that he titled one of his poems, Asolando. The amazing travel writer, legendary for outings in the Arabian desert, Freya Stark, died in Asolo at the age of 100 (1893-1993); both she and Duse are buried in the St. Anna cemetery.
We had seen a part of Asolo while on a trip to Florida a few years prior; the historic 18th century theatre of the town had been disassembled and reinstalled in Sarasota in the 1950s in the Ringling Brothers museum complex and today hosts a vibrant repertory schedule.
Books that might provide good reading for this part of Italy include Hemingway, of course, plus Virginia Woolf’s portrait of the Brownings through the eyes of Elizabeth’s dog, Flush. A biography of Stark, Passionate Nomad or Stark’s own volumes of travel, Alexander’s Path or the intriguing Valley of the Assassins, reveals an astounding personality who found a home in Italy thanks to the generosity of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s son, Pen, who owned three houses in the rewarding village of Asolo.

Advertisements

Death Valley Days and Books

 

Death_valley_days-1-550x301

I blame 1950s television. When my family acquired a TV in the latter part of the decade, one of the shows we watched was the popular western, Death Valley Days, hosted by the likes of “Old Ranger,” Ronald Reagan, Robert Taylor, and Dale Robertson, and even for one year—while Reagan ran for governor—a woman, Rosemary DeCamp. Weekly, the 20-Mule Team harnessed up to bring housewives the important Boraxo laundry detergent–the show’s sponsor–to do the hard work of keeping the family clothes clean. Historically, the mule teams pulled two massive wagons of borax plus a third wagon with enough water to supply both animals and drivers for the ten-day, 165-mile grueling trip.

My image of Death Valley was all about alkaline wastelands like Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the U.S.A.

But Death Valley is so much more than salt flats. We found colorful, geologically diverse slot canyons, snow-capped peaks, and the extraordinary Zabriskie Point. Hiking was extraordinary.

When we weren’t on the trail, we hung out at the historic Furnace Creek Lodge, a high-end accommodation with a price that is only justified through its stunning palm-studded gardens and silky water swimming pool.

What to read when in this unique national park? The pickings are, frankly, slim. Let’s start with Badwater (2013). Move over forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver (Aaron Elkins’ amateur detective). Enter forensic geologists Cassie Oldfield and Walter Shaws, the product of author Toni Dwiggins’ series. Radioactive waste and terrorism link up to provide some terrifying moments in a narrative that delivers plenty of local color.

Frank Norris’ novel McTeague (1899) features a cruel dentist who eventually kills his wife and then escapes to Death Valley. According to The Writer’s Almanac, “the book galvanized readers and critics, some of whom called it ‘stomach-crunking’ and ‘vulgar.’” Norris is in the family of naturalistic writers. I recall one of my English professors explaining the difference between realism and naturalism: realism is when the author describes the street scene and everyone and everything in it; naturalism is when the author describes what is in the gutter.

Wanderer in the Wasteland (1923) by Zane Grey is the story of a young man, Adam Larey—a real greenhorn—is betrayed by his older brother, Guerd, a gambler. Adam shoots his brother and escapes to a mining town and later the desert—Death Valley—where he grows into a responsible adult, a person respected in the West. He falls for a woman in Death Valley who is married to a despicable husband. Classic Zane Grey. The landscape—magnificent yet hostile–is a featured character.

For the real story of the lowest and hottest point in the United States, check out Death Valley in ’49, the memoir of William Lewis Manly, one of the survivors of a wagon train that thought it could take a short cut. When the travelers were finally rescued, the story is that they looked back and said, “Goodbye, Death Valley.”

Other possible books  include Ghost Riders in the Sky: The Story of Stan Jones, the Singing Ranger; Death Valley Scotty by Mabel; Jack Longstreet: The Last of the Desert Frontiersman; and the more recent Daniel Arnold’s Salt to Summit: A Vagabond’s Journey from Death Valley to Mount Whitney. A poem about Jack Longstreet is on display at the wonderful Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge near his cabin, which includes a separate section of the Death Valley National Park.

Andrew Jackson Longstreet

Notched his gun for each man killed

Local sheriffs were not thrilled

Five grooves placed upon that gun

Jack regretted only one

Built a cabin in Ash Meadows

To hide out from the posse fellows

Stones piled high to save his head

From pistols spinning white-hot lead.

This poem is but one treat in the under-rated Ash Meadows.

What looks like scrub desert is punctuated by blue pools of lively, tiny Pupfish, an endemic species that has survived in spite of living in harsh conditions. (Check out

SaltCreek pupfish

Salt Creek, DVNP

another variety of Pupfish in Salt Creek in Death Valley.)

We were walking along one particularly lovely creek where we found a sign that in the recent past, the wetlands were scheduled to be developed for condos and casinos. Thankfully, a protest saved the area. Edward Abbey put it succinctly in his Desert Solitaire, “There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.”

In addition to the geologic wonders of Death Valley, the environs include some funky stops: the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, founded by Marta Becket, a NYC showgirl whose car broke down in the desert in the 60s and who lived and performed here until her recent death in early 2017. (Check out her story and obituary here: http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-marta-becket-20170201-story.html.)

Tecopa features Death Valley Brewing in town and China Date Farm a few miles distant, down a rather awe-inspiring road to the oasis where delicious dates and hiking trails can be found. Seriously, try the date milkshake after returning from a walk in the canyon.

Then there is Goodwell, an open-air museum and sculpture garden in the ghost town of Rhyolite, where one historic home is constructed with bottles. Seriously, Belgian artists have created sculptures of The Last Supper, a mosaic couch, and a larger than life prospect with a penguin(?) in this desert setting. http://goldwellmuseum.org/.

Goodwell is between Death Valley and Pahrump, a gateway to the park with a really decent winery and restaurant.

Death Valley and its environs might be considered a wasteland by some, but it’s a remarkably diverse landscape and a delight for a mid-winter escape.

Coda: En route home, we stopped at Eli at the Northern Nevada Railway Museum, where we were treated to a terrific tour by curator Sean Pitts. Overnight at the All Aboard B&B and Cafe was a fitting complement. Not a bad way to spend a Spring Break.

Eli RR

 

Inka Exercise Plan

Inka Exercise Plan

cloudyoverview-mp

Machu Picchu

ollyantambaya-sv

Ollantaytambo

The abiding perception of touring Peru’s marvelous Incan sites is steps and more steps. Surely those amazing engineers of sites like Machu Picchu, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Saqsayhuaman must have developed calves of steel. While Machu Picchu is the bucket list venue, many, many other sites vie for impressive.

moray-sv Take the agricultural terraces at Moray, a kind of experiment farm set in a natural bowl at 11,000’ elevation. From a Utah perspective, it reminded us of Spiral Jetty, swirling down the sides of the circular hill, with rock retaining walls into which has been set cantilevered stone steps. To make a terrace, the Incas first built the retaining walls on the hill or mountainside and then filled the areas with small stones, finally covered with dirt and compost for intensive farming or gardening. Excessive rain drained through the stones, continuing to the next lower layer of crops. Leave it to a farmer’s daughter to find this engineering marvel of particular interest.

Peru Potatos-Pisac Market

Peru Potatos-Pisac Market

terracedhills-sv

Terraced fields in Sacred Valley

And speaking of farming, Peru is renowned for its 4000+ species of potatoes, some of which look like green peppers while others are purple and knobby. PBS has a terrific website based on Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, which features a video clip (#7) of the Pisac Market.

 

Corn on wall at Chica bar

Corn on wall at Chica bar

Corn has an equally amazing variety, ranging from sweet purple to gigantic white Incan. Fermentation results in Chica, a kind of beer. In the USA, fewer than 2% of the population farm while Peru has a stunning 43% engaged in farming.

salt-sv

Don’t miss the amazing salt mines where families have owned their own salt ponds for generations; they actually predate the Inkas. Culinary or bath salts can be a good, if heavy, souvenir. Modern Farmer published an excellent story about this salt industry in 2016.

Hiram Bingham, the controversial anthropologist who first publicized Machu Picchu to the world in 1911, and who is said to be the model for Indiana Jones, published his own quite readable version of the discoveries in The Lost City of the Incas. The more popular choice is Mark Adams’ travel book, Turn Right at Machu Picchu, published a century after Bingham’s discovery, in which this novice hiker retraced Bingham’s route with the expert help of a tough-as-nails Australian guide. The book takes a frustratingly long time to arrive at Machu Picchu, but the journey is often worth it. Historic and contemporary photographs in the book’s center provide useful context. Adams followed the pathway that Bingham took—along the Urubamba River—where a farmer helped him bushwhack up the mountainside to the ruins. The river trail, which today is also the train route, is the sole way to enter Agua Calientes, the village that lies below the mountaintop citadel. Tourist buses wind their way up a hairpin road—named for Bingham—that is not for the acrophobic. The extensive site itself has drop-offs, and the unwary tourist could quickly be history trying to get the perfect selfie if not careful.

An aside: Our accommodation while visiting Machu Picchu was the Inkaterra Lodge, an eco-resort that featured bird watching–including the stunning national bird of Peru, the Cock of the Rock–and orchid walks. We also visited the Spectacled Bear rescue center. The resort’s developer was driven to protect this beautiful landscape, a former tea and coffee plantation, and looking at the overbuilding in the adjacent village nearby it’s clear that protection was needed.

A guide is essential to understand the site, which housed nobility and priests. The Sun Temple and the Temple of the Condor are just two of the important points; many people trek up the Inca Trail to the Sun Gate, about a 90-minute walk, to see where altitude-challenged hikers enter the city. A few intrepid tourists get permits to hike up the precipitous Mount Machu Picchu and its sister mountain, Huayan Picchu. Another good book for understanding the rather brief reign of the Incan Empire is The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie, which chronicles the Spanish conquest and the beginning of colonialism.

For another look at Bingham and his legacy, Kim MacQuarrie offers “The Rise and Fall of Hiram Bingham,” in his excellent Life and Death in the Andes. Bingham’s discovery resulted in the first official support from the National Geographic Society and launched the version of the magazine that readers know today. Professor Bingham parlayed his success as an explorer into a political career, but the ethical issues that began with his removal of artifacts continued with the result that he is one of a few U.S. Senators who has been censured.

Culturweaver-svally rich in both historic and contemporary ways, Peru offers stunning handicrafts. Particularly high quality textiles can be found in Chinchero, the site of Nilda Callanaupa’s women’s cooperative. These weavers continue ancient patterns in rugs, clothing, and other products for the home. The weaving process, beginning with the wool and continuing througalpacas-cush the dying process with natural coloring products, is explained by these self confident women in colorful village costume who demonstrate throughout. Alpaca wool products are omnipresent. Vicuna is rarer and thus more expensive.

Mummy Blanket

Mummy Blanket

We were on the verge of buying a table runner when we saw a “mummy blanket for Juanita” that we could not resist. That evening, I turned to MacQuarrie’s chapter on “Ice Maidens, Volcanos, and Incas.” He interweaves the stories of a young Incan girl selected for sacrifice with the story of Nilda and her master weavers plus two young American anthropologists who happen to move to Chinchero and influence Nilda and her life course. The sacrificial girl, wearing beautiful clothes and wrapped in a colorful blanket, was discovered in a volcano in 1995 by anthropologist Johan Reinhard. The bus from Puno to Chivay/Arequipa stops at the 15,000′ summit, where the volcano can be viewed. The “ice maiden” was christened Juanita in honor of her discoverer, Johan. Her body was transported to Arequipa, where she can be visited in a museum. Seeing the diminutive mummy was the capstone experience. The synchronicity of purchasing the Juanita mummy blanket and then reading the story behind it reminds me of why I select books for the road. I get goosebumps when touring and reading come together so wonderfully.

MacQuarrie’s goal in Life and Death in the Andes was to begin at its northmost point and travel to the southern tip. Several chapters focus on Peru. He reveals the capture of the leader of Shining Path, which occurs in Lima—a great detective story. (When in Lima, do not miss the Museo Larco, a fabulous collection of pre-Colombian ceramics, including a gallery of erotica. I also resonated to the Casa de la Literature Peru, which includes masterworks by the country’s authors; a large section is devoted to Nobel Prize winning novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa.) Pair the chapter about Shining Path with Ann Patchett’s award-winning novel Bel Canto, which fictionalizes the actual event of terrorists overtaking the Japanese Embassy and holding hostages for several months. The president of Peru was supposed to be in attendance but was absent. In Patchett’s deadpan version, the president is at home watching his favorite soap opera. The leader of the terrorist group can actually believe that is true as even those in the jungle fret about the fate of “Maria,” the queen of soaps.

Bel Canto’s approach is similar to Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel of 1927, The Bridge of San Luis Rey: chapters are devoted to getting inside the lives of several characters. In Wilder’s novel, several interrelated people die when an important bridge collapses into a gorge. In Bel Canto, both terrorists and hostages are analyzed, some of them charmingly, such as the French Ambassador, who true to form, turns to cooking during the long detainment. Both are terrific reads, one set in 1714 Peru and the other in the 20th century. Wilder’s novel has long been a staple of school reading, but it received new attention when Tony Blair, Prime Minister of England, drew from it at a memorial for the British who perished in the 9-11 attack:

“But soon we will die, and all memories of those five will have left Earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love. The only survival, the only meaning.”

For those taking the luxury train, the Andean Explorer, from the historic city of Cusco to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca, MacQuarrie’s chapter on the boat builder from this area, who assisted with Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra II, will be of interest. Artificial reed islands—Uros–on the lake include rustic residences and hotels. It’s a rather strange feeling to walk on the somewhat squishy reed matting of the islands. uros-tit

The lake itself at 100 bytaquileboy 50 miles is the highest navigable body of water. We much preferred the real island of Taquile, an UNESCO Heritage site, where men are the knitting kings, producing their first cap at the age of 8.

Finally, it’s important to read authors of the country when traveling, and it was an easy choice: Mario Vargas Llosa, the 2010 Nobel Prize Winner for Literature. Choosing which of his many novels to read, however, was another task. I settled on The Discreet Hero, another deadpan, tragicomic narrative that moves back and forth between two men who face challenges from extortion and thugs. This one is much more “macho” in its language and tone, yet entertaining. Set in Piura and Lima, eventually the two narratives come together in a happy resolution.

Our high-altitude hotels offered oxygen—either in bursts or actually piped into our rooms. I preferred to breathe in the heady mixture of words and places.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Mansfield, Ohio: Literary and Conservation Mecca

Mansfield, Ohio doesn’t immediately rise to the top of a list of literary meccas, but, rather surprisingly, it has two notable entries. The first is Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and the Sprisonhawshank Redemption, which is set in Maine but filmed at the Ohio State Reformatory. The popular film starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman is represented in 14 Hollywood filming sites along The Shawshank Trail, a drive-it-yourself tour.

Most notable on the trail is the historic prison, a reformatorywardendining for boys housing 1900 inmates, built in the early 20th century. A sign above a classroom door reads “Ohio’s University of Second Chances.” While the Warden’s Dining Room is decorated splendidly, the bone-chilling cellblocks are not so inviting.

leslie-redTourists can have their photos snapped with life-size cardboard cut-outs of the actors or sit at the warden’s desk where he would have seen the cars coming up the lane to arrest him for financial fraud.

Malabar Farm, south of Mansfield, provided sites for the film, too, including its rustic Pugh Cabin, where the film opens with Andy (Tim Robbins) sitting in his car contemplating his wife’s betrayal. The famous oak tree along Pleasant Valley Road where Red (Morgan Freeman) looks for the treasure that Andy left him is rather crumpled after a storm in 2011. The farm itself is home to the second notable literary connection in Mansfield: Louis Bromfield. Winner of the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for his novel Early Autumn, Bromfield was a prolific author of more than 30 books, both fiction and nonfiction. He lived in France between the wars, authoring The Farm (1933), a multi-generational story of an Ohio farm that called to mind fond memories of his own childhood. Returning to Ohio to avoid the coming war, he purchased several farms to combine them into Malabar, a name derived from his travels in India. With funds from his best-selling novels and the films made from them, he termed his buildings “the MGM cattle barn” and “Twentieth-Century Fox sheep barn” as he wrote in his 1943 memoir Pleasant Valley. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall spent their honeymoon at Malabar.

While Bromfield’s novels are not well known now, his influence as a conservationist and farmer is still felt. With the Depression and its devastating Dust Bowl still disturbingly close, Bromfield took worn out farms and began implementing French agricultural practices. Following in Thomas Jefferson’s philosophy, Bromfield writes that “A good farmer must be many things—a horticulturist, a mechanic, a botanist, an ecologist, a veterinary . . . but knowledge alone is not enough. There must be too that feel of all with which Nature concerns herself” (148). This short video provides an overview of Bromfield, the farm, and sustainable practices.

To find Bromfield’s books and other area authors, visit the excellent Main Street Books: “Real Books, Real Readers, Real Local.” Nearby is the bench where Brooks, a released inmate from Shawshank Prison fed the birds. And after that, hop on the historic Carousel to grab the brass ring in downtown Mansfield, a town that exceeds expectations.

Save

From Russia with Books

Winston Churchill said, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Russian Poster for Singer Sewing Machines

Russian Poster for Singer Sewing Machines

Figuring out what to read on a 1000 mile cruise that extends from Moscow to St. Peterburg is also a puzzle. Russia has produced some of the great literature of the world. Here are a few of the usual suspects:

  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The 19th century author of The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment.
  • Leo Tolstoy: More massive novels in the form of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. (For an interesting take on Tolstoy, check out this New Yorker article on how and why Tolstoy learned to play tennis and ride a bike late in life.
  • Anton Checkhov, who is said to have invented the short story, but is better known for his plays Uncle Vanya, The Seagull, and The Cherry Orchard.
  • Ivan Turgenev, author of Fathers and Sons.
  • Pushkin Statue

    Pushkin Statue

    Alexander Pushkin, a poet and author of Boris Godunov and Eugene Onegin (probably best known for their operatic versions), who was so revered

    Church of Dimitry of the Blood

    Church of Dimitry of the Blood

    that the Tsar’s Village outside of St. Petersburg, where Catherine Palace stands, was renamed Pushkin. The drama in verse, Boris Godunov, would pair well with the village of Uglich, where Ivan the Terrible’s younger son Dmitry was murdered at 8 years of age in 1591, most likely at the order of his foster father, Godunov. The Church of St. Dmitry on the Blood was built in late 17th century on the spot where his body was found. His epic poem, “The Bronze Horseman” describes the iconic sculpture of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. (A possible pairing is the romantic trilogy set in World War II, Paullina Simons’ The Bronze Horseman.)

  • Nobel-Prize winning Boris Pasternak, whose Doctor Zhivago couples romance and Russian Revolution and became a glorious film in 1966 with its haunting “Lara’s Theme” music. Those of us of a certain age recall Omar Sharif in the title role with Julie Christie as his love interest.
  • Alexander Solzhenitsyn chronicled the life of prisoners in Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.redstar
  • Nikolai Gogol, whose absurdist satirical stories such as “The Nose” pokes fun at bureaucracy.
  • Mikhail Bulgakov continues the tradition of satire in The Master and Margarita. Imagine that the devil comes to Moscow.

    View of the Kremlin

    View of the Kremlin

 

 

 

 

RasputinCafe

Some of the chronicles of Russian history are equally well-written and well-known, particularly Robert K. Massie’s popular Nicholas and Alexandra that describes the last days of the last Tsar. He returns to this subject in The Romanovs: The Final Chapter. He turned to an earlier tsar in Peter the Great. His Catherine the Great is yet another meticulously researched tome on the unlikely woman who survived a disastrous marriage to imbecilic Tsar Peter III and went on to serve as Russia’s longest-ruling woman (1762-1796). Catherine II was known for her intelligence, her devotion to Russia—although Prussian, she learned Russian quickly and loved her adopted country—and the cultural advances she brought to a country considered backward. More infamously, she was also known for her sexual liaisons.

Readers, I chose titles other than these that allowed me to read several books over the course of ten days in country, novels that also correlated to the journey. But, first, a look at the geography covered on this trip.

One of Russia’s great challenges has been its lack of sea access. As early as the 18th century, Peter the Great—who was truly a visionary—envisioned a series of waterways connecting St. Petersburg, which he founded on the Gulf of MAP_2015_WaterwaysTsars_956x690_tcm30-9956Finland, to Moscow. The realization of the Volga-Baltic Waterway did not happen until the 1930s when Stalin used Gulag forced-labor prisoners to dig 80 miles for the Moscow Canal. Today’s passengers on the popular cruise from the two cities that have alternated as capital pass through 11 locks. “Mother Volga” at 2,000 miles is Europe’s longest river.

Mother Volga Statue

Mother Volga Statue

The “Golden Ring” cities visited along the cruise are Russia’s oldest towns,

Wooden Church with No Nails - Kizhi

Wooden Church with No Nails – Kizhi

home to important cathedrals and kremlins (fortresses).

 

 

 

An article in The Guardian pointed out that the “masters” of Russian literature still top the list of Russian literature. Part of the reason fewer contemporary writers are mentioned is the fact that until glasnost—and even after—fear exists about what literature is sanctioned by the government. Writers are notorious for taking on injustices, which may not fit party lines. Boris Akunin, the pen name of a political activist, is also the author of two series of detective novels. The first features Erast Fandorin, a wet-behind-the-ears police investigator, who is introduced in The Winter Garden. Erast’s family lost its fortune through his father’s card playing, but his native intelligence, eager beaver attitude, and indestructible luck quickly make him a star. There is a bit of James Bond about him as he travels from Moscow to London and St. Petersburg. Moscow is featured with its 12th century fortress—the Kremlin—literally a collection of government and church buildings inside a wall with the stunning St. Basil’s outside.

Market Spread with Cucumbers

Market Spread with Cucumbers

At one point, Erast calls another character “as fresh as a Yaroslavl cucumber.” I read that line the night before our stop in Yaroslavl; a village 14 kilometers away is famous for its cucumbers and its pickles, which are kept over the winter under the ice. And, I got to sample some of them at the town’s lively market.

SisterPelagiaThe second sleuth, Sister Pelagia of the early 20th century, is a cross between Miss Marple and Father Brown. Her role as a gymnastics teacher stands her in good stead when she goes under cover to solve a mystery as she does in Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk (2008). It’s a perfect pairing for the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery that looks more like a fortress in its lovely setting on White Lake, near Kuzino.

monasterylake

Monastery on White Lake

 

From a nun’s story to a bodice ripper. Rebel Princess (1953, 2015) by Evelyn Anthony is the first of a trilogy that focuses on the woman who would become Catherine the Great. It’s a quick and lively read that recounts incident after incident when her life was in danger—reminiscent of the story of another monumental leader in world history, Elizabeth I. It was Catherine the Great, one of the most prolific art collectors of history, who started the amazing collection at The Hermitage—the name associated with five buildings, including the Winter Palace—in St. Petersburg on the shores of the Neva River.

The Hermitage on Art Square

The Hermitage on Art Square

By the way, the extraordinary collection of Impressionism and post-Impressionism paintings, which came out of the vaults in 1995, are now housed separately in a wonderfully remodeled General Staff Building across Art Square from The Hermitage.

 

 

 

Speaking of The Hermitage, its cats are famous—about 50 felines who protect the works of art from mice and rats—introduced by Catherine the Great, who ordered the fierce Kazan mousers. The Day of the Cat is celebrated May 21, and visitors are allowed into the cellars to meet the feline stars. The Hermitage Cats features both real and artistic cats in its pages. In 2016, the museum also put on display illustrated books of the genre “How the Mice Buried the Cat,” a folkloric story of the clever wife of a recently-deceased Tomcat who has no funds for a funeral and thus invites mice to host it.

Mice-burying-the-cat

An aside: The Russian alphabet is also celebrated annually in May. A bit of a challenge with its 33 letters, some of them adopted from Greek and Hebrew, it’s useful to know as it’s helpful in recognizing words such as Россия, which is Russia.

From cats to dogs: for younger readers, the graphic novel Laika by Nick Abadzis tells the story of the street dog made famous as the first astronaut. It would pair well with a visit to Moscow’s Cosmonaut Museum.

The list of Russian notables has notable gaps in women writers. An exception is the 2015 Nobel Prize winning Svetlana Alexievich, whose works are being translated into English, including Secondhand Time. She takes what might be recognized as a Studs Terkel approach, interviewing people and then weaving a narrative from their voices.MoscowMetroSubway

Books set in Russia abound, as its puzzling nature and closed society have made it an intriguing setting. John Steinbeck with photographer Robert Capa produced A Russian Journal (1948). John Le Carre set many spy novels during the Cold War as did Ian Fleming, and Martin Cruz Smith’s detective Arkady Renko is featured in several novels, including Gorky Park. It’s a huge country with an equally impressive list of literary choices.

 

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.