Books and Writers


The LAST WEEK of MyBigWalk (year one)

My father used to say I was impatient. Even as s a little girl  I hated waiting for things to happen.

“If you need an answer right now,” he’d say, “then the answer is no.”

My father was a patient man. He knew things happen in their own time, that  sooner or later you have the answer to your questions and you reach the end of the journey and finish the job — even if it feels like you never will.

For two months now it’s felt as if the END of MyBigWalk Year One would NEVER COME.  It’s sort of like those Frog & Toad books I used to read to my kids when they were small. My favorite story was the one in which Toad plants a garden. Toad, you may recall, is the less wise, more impatient friend in the pair. He wants a garden as lovely as Frog’s and so he plants and waters his seeds just as he’s supposed to.

But Toad can’t stand to wait for the garden to grow.  He wants the time to hurry by. He plays music to the silent soil, he shines a light on the garden all night long, and he despairs when nothing happens.

When they were small I read that story to my children night after night hoping they’d learn patience. Patience, I knew, would make them happier people.  The fact is that I certainly raised children who are more patient than I am.  But I never fully taught that virtue to myself. It’s not that I mind doing the work it takes to get somewhere or to get something I want.  Like Frog, I don’t mind shining lights on the dark soil all night long; I’d gladly play the violin long past midnight if the serenading would make tomorrow dawn exactly as I wish it would.

But the day can’t be controlled. Some seeds will be planted and they won’t sprout. Some, as Toad fears, will be too scared to grow. But either way, you end up with a garden. That’s the moral I always tried to take away from the story.

I’m sorry to say this year of walking didn’t teach me patience. But it has been a time for me to constantly remind myself that I have to take each step in order to get from here to there. It taught me that sooner or later, you will reach the end of the road.

And then, of course, you’ll have to decide where to go next.

“Don’t rush things,” I can hear my Dad saying. “You don’t have to be deciding things all the time.  Sometimes you just have to wait to see what comes up next.”

Boy, I wish my Dad was here to tell me that in person.

Day 360

OK, I’m confused. I started this walk on October 1, 2009 and planned to finish up the year on October 1, 2010. But by  my own calculations I’m on day 360….and it’s only September 20th.

Clearly something’s gone wrong!?

On the one hand I’d really like to attribute this error to my aging mind. You  know, over 50 and all. But I know people who are really old — say, 56 or even 57 —  who can balance their checkbooks, mentally tally the bar tab, and  keep track of the tennis score while we’re playing while they’re beating me and so  I’m pretty sure my incorrect calculations are not due to the ravages of time and age.

Luckily I’m a creative writer and therefore at no loss for an explanation.   In a world where anything is possible I’ve truly managed to log 360 days of walking in 355 days: I’d call that the James-Frey-memoir style of walking. Then there’s the magical realism explanation: I have walked 360 days in 355 calendar days because my reality and your reality are not necessarily the same. I’d call that the  Carlos Castaneda way of things only without the mushrooms. Or, if you prefer, the Wittgenstein version of truth as I understand it: in this room 2+2=5 because numbers are language and language is a construct and so if I say 350 + 4 = 360 who are you to differ?

Perhaps numbers don’t matter at all? Or  wishful thinking erased five days from this calendar year? Or Einstein was right and imagination really is more important than knowledge.

Wait wait, I know.

I just messed up.

Walking  toned my thighs. But it didn’t do a damn thing for my math skills.

Day 297

Yes, Jessica, there’s still time to go for another walk with me before my year-long walking adventure runs full circle.  I can hear you breathing a sigh of relief so thanks for asking and yes, guys, I am back in New Jersey. Walking. Can you hear me breathing a sigh of relief now?

Well, breathing just a sigh, I guess.

Since tomorrow’s walk will consist of driving my car to Foreign Aid automotive, talking with Zen-mechanic Albert for a little while, walking home, and doing it all again at the end of the day…I thought it would be better if I kept posting about my trip to Eastern Europe for just a little while longer. Like maybe for the rest of the week.

Here’s something I posted in Shelf Awareness about a lovely English-language bookstore in Prague. Which I walked to…of course!

A BEER AND A BOOK. OR TWO

Patrons at the Globe Bookstore and Café in Prague don’t have to choose between books and drink: here they can find both.

“In Prague, beer is cheaper than water,” manager Kaja Curtis (at right, with a customer)

Look - she's buying a copy of THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING!

said. “But the culture of literature and the arts is alive and well. There’s a lot of emphasis on books and literature and on education here. That’s always been the Czech tradition.”

Stepping into the Globe and entering its quiet, wood-, sun- and book-filled sanctuary, it’s clear the indie bookstore is thriving in Prague. The city’s first English-language bookstore, the Globe was founded 15 years ago and has welcomed a marquee of literary legends from Klima to Roth and caters to ex-pat poets and writers who’ve made this capital city their home. The storefront is stacked with titles on two levels and across a wrought-iron balcony; the rear is a spacious bar and café with a lively garden and American-style food.

In May, the store held a launch for The Return of Kral Majales, a hefty collection of English-language ex-pats’ poetry, fiction and short stories edited by Louis Armand. The Globe hosts a biweekly book club, poetry readings and music performances, as well as free English-language movies every Sunday.

The café drives the business, but the bookstore is the heart and history of the place, general manager Eva Regulyova said. When I stepped off Pstossova Street into the store on a hot weekday morning, I literally dropped into a café chair, pulled out my notebook and started writing down titles I wanted to read.

From my perch I could see the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, any number of magazines from National Geographic to Vogue; Alain de Botton’s The Art of TravelThe Art of Living by Epictetus, The Big Short by Michael Lewis and Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin, to name a few.

Literature looks different when you travel. Fiction by or about Balkan, Czech, Hungarian and Bohemian people jumped out at me. Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst and The Glass Room by Simon Mawer–how could I have overlooked these titles at home when here they seemed like essential reading? Ditto The Shadow of the Sun and Travels with Herodotus by ex-pat Polish journalist Ryszard KapuÅ›ciÅ„sk.

Once a month there’s a folk singer in the Globe’s café. She was there when I went back for a second visit and had a lovely chat about literature with Kaja. She was singing “I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and it was hard not to feel a little melancholy because I’d be leaving soon, too.

Day 292

I walked (and lugged my luggage) all over the capitals of the Hapsburg Empire in Eastern Europe – you already know that. But what you probably don’t know is that everywhere I went, I bought books.

What an ass! In Vienna alone I bought four books; not to mention all those reporter’s pads with my carefully-penned scribbled notes. Each place, another book. I even bought lovely decorative notebooks for myself, Ro, and Melissa, in a little store at the base of the Charles Bridge in Prague.

It got so bad that I had to ask Rosemarie to slap me if I tried to buy another book.

“Slap you?” she asked.

“Yes – if I try to buy another book.”

“Oh! Don’t worry, I will slap you.”

My resistance was made all the more difficult by my editor at Shelf Awareness (aka MyBigWalker Just-So John), who agreed it was a great idea for me to visit English-language bookstores in each city, and write up some pieces for his magazine.

Which I did.

Here’s the one I wrote from Vienna.

***

If you stumble into the inviting International Bookstore on the Naschmarkt in Vienna on a rainy July morning, you’re likely to find manager John Mayer overseeing two floors of extensive English language books and magazines. This indie bookseller stocks much more than the requisite travel books and genre paperbacks. In addition to the plump train/plane read, the stacks here include Bolaño’s 2666, Stockett’s The Help, and Verghese’s Cutting for Stone in paperback, surprisingly deep classics and philosophy sections, and a shelf of Obama baseball caps (just in case?).

Business is changing every day. Yesterday it was bad, today it is excellent,” Mayer said. Could be the rain, he said – then again, maybe it’s not. “I did a lot of statistics and I can’t determine any reason one way or the other.”

His customers are changing, too, Mayer noted. This summer has brought more Australians and Brits into the store, while his year-long customer base has grown to include many Americans who’ve moved here to work — often for the United Nations, which established an international office in Vienna in 1980.

One of six International Bookstore locations in the city, Mayer’s store is situated along Vienna’s most popular outdoor market, where a good book can be followed up with a perfect glass of chilled Grüner Veltliner wine and any number of specialty meals. The great Viennese café tradition of reading, eating, and drinking lives on.   (This piece ran in Shelf Awareness July 16, 2010)


Day 253

Austrian Danube image from World Walks (see below for link)

Matt Gross, the New York Times “Frugal Travel” writer, set out to walk 180 miles from Vienna to Budapest in March of this year. His plan was to follow in the footsteps of 18-year-old Englishman Patrick Leigh Fermor, who in 1933 set out from London on a German-bound ship intending to walk 1,400 miles from Rotterdam to Istanbul. Fermor wrote two apparently-classic books about his yearlong adventures — A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods — and at 95

Matt's route from Vienna to Budapest

is called, according to Gross, “Britain’s greatest living travel writer.

I’m not exactly sure how Fermor described the inevitable side-tracks and travails that make traveling and travel writing occasionally risky, often tedious, and a failsafe inspiration for great personal revelations and cultural discoveries. But I do know how Gross made out, because he wrote about his two-week adventure in the New York Times, in which he said…

My ankles were swollen but not too painful, and throughout the morning I enjoyed the scenery: the small mountains through which the Danube snaked before turning due south. But after three hours, I noticed, my ankles had become lightning rods of agony. I arrived in Visegrad in midafternoon and pitched my tent (for the first time) at a roadside campground, knowing that tomorrow, after visiting Visegrad’s mountaintop castle, where Hungary’s royal crown had once been sheltered, I’d board a bus for Budapest.

You can read the rest of his piece here. And rest assured that when I visit Prague, Vienna, and Budapest at the end of this month I’ll be seeing the cities on foot, by bike and — if my daughter has her way — on roller blades.  I might even check out a walking tour put together by World Walks. But I will not most definitively be taking a plane, train, and a hydrofoil boat on the Danube, to go from city-to-city.

Day 248

Even those of us who walk regularly have to take time out to read a book once in a while, and so I have a special place in my heart for  Raging Bibliomania blogger Heather Figearo who posted this wonderful review of The Miracles of Prato on her site Memorial Day weekend. Check out all of her reviews, and remember to shop at your independent bookseller whenever you can. Thanks!

Book CoverWhen the beautiful Lucrezia Buti and her sister Spinetta arrive on the doorstep of the Convent Santa Margherita, they are admitted with open arms and ushered into the simplicity of cloistered life. But for Lucrezia this new life is one of sadness, for until her father’s unexpected death, she had been expecting to marry a handsome merchant and live her life as a wife and mother. As Lucrezia comes to fully understand the sacrifices demanded of her, she meets the monk and painter Fra Filippo Lippi. Fra Filippo is also the chaplain to the convent and during one of his routine visits he comes across the stunning Lucrezia and is immediately captured by her beauty. Wishing to use her as a model for several commissions of the Madonna that he is to paint, Fra Filippo inveigles an arrangement for Lucrezia to visit his home and workshop so that she may model for him. But Lucrezia’s visits are not going unnoticed by others with great power. As Fra Filippo begins to paint the young woman, he becomes hopelessly in love with her, a dangerous situation for a monk and a novice to find themselves in. As the two become conspirators in art, unseen hands begin to threaten both of their futures, and Fra Filippo and Lucrezia begin a frightening downward spiral amidst the wondrous paintings that their forbidden union creates. In this lush and dark creation, two people long to give their souls to each other but find heartache for they have already given them to God.

When I was offered the chance to review this book for my site, I was surprised to discover that it had in fact been written by two bloggers! I know there are probably a lot of bloggers out there who are working on novels of their own, or wish to, but I have never had the pleasure of reading something written by a member of my own community. I was pretty excited about reading the book, and in the end, I felt like the collaboration between Albanese and Morowitz made for a wonderful and engrossing read.

When I began this book, I had a feeling that I would already be familiar with the story it tells. A pair of young girls is brought to a convent against their will after their father dies and leaves them penniless. I thought back to Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant, a story that had a very similar beginning. But as the story progressed, I found that this was a very different story indeed. First of all, though Lucrezia did not want to be held as a captive in the convent, she starts to conform into a chaste and virtuous woman very early on. She is humble about the situation that she finds herself in, and instead of fighting with all her might, decides to pray for enlightenment and acceptance. I found this to be a rare attitude, for I can imagine that being placed in a convent and watching your prospects dwindle away would probably be maddening and upsetting, but Lucrezia takes it all in stride and acts with grace.

Fra Filippo was a different creature entirely. As a monk, he is forced to live a chaste life. This is very hard for him to do, and the reader is led to believe that the monk has had several indiscretions with easy women, problems with his finances and a lot of trouble actually completing the commissions that he has been hired to work upon. Fra Filippo is a lover of beauty, and upon seeing Lucrezia for the first time, his soul is rapturous. He has trouble concentrating on his duties as the convent’s chaplain due to his hypersensitivity to Lucrezia’s face and body. Though he doesn’t dare dream about breaking his vows, he has trouble controlling his excitement and ardor for the young girl and works out his own arrangements to have her model for him. Though things begin in innocence, the two are quickly led astray when they realize that their interest in each other is not merely platonic. During these early scenes, I found a lot to admire about Fra Filippo. He had some slightly loose morals at times but he strove to keep himself in check and do what was expected of him as a monk and chaplain…(read more)

Day 236
Shelf Awareness : Daily Enlightenment for the Book Trade

I am happy to report that I spent 3 days in Manhattan walking in some of my most fashionable shoes. I carried the sandals that make me look like I’ve escaped from the kibbutz but I only put them on once!

Pam, who also covered the book expo for the publishing media, says I should line up all my shoes, take photos of them, and let them tell their own little stories about life on MyBigWalk.

I think that’s a wonderful idea — watch for it next week.

Meanwhile, On my last day at BEA I covered a library panel because my favorite editor, Chuck Adams, was scheduled to be there. He wasn’t. But I met a very wonderful writer — Joseph Skibell — whose newest book, A Curable Romantic, is set in Vienna and elsewhere in the Jewish diaspora of eastern and northern Europe between 1890 and 1940, and I think it was a serendipitous meeting ( I’m going to Vienna in another month myself, to begin research on a new book).

And as we know, guys, serendipity is the spice of life.

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