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Remember when a while ago I mention that life was happening on this side of the line, leading me to a blogging and book-slump? I meant that literally. Here’s the proof!
Now that I’m done with the first trimester I’m returning to life and doing Things again. Things that don’t imply eating, sleeping and watching past episodes of Project Runway and Doctor Who, that is.
Meanwhile I also did a bit of travelling. Had a conference in Orlando and then took a few days off to go on a road-trip around Florida. So now that I’m back in already-chilly Brussels, hopefully blogging will return to regular programming.
Happy Fall/Spring (depending of where in the world you are)!
The perfect parking spot for my rented car.
Fort Myers entered history as the location of my first Gulf of Mexico swim.
One of the descendants of Hemingway’s cats at the Hemingway House, Key West.
Reading A Farewell to Arms where it was written.
One of best beaches I’ve ever visited – South Beach, Miami (reading Moab is My Washpot by Stephen Fry).
Simulation of Apollo 11′s launch, Kennedy Space Center.
Trekking on the Etna volcano, Sicily
Things have been quiet here chez The Sleepless Reader, but I’ve been travelling a lot for both work and pleasure (it’s a tough life!). Three weeks, five countries and a variation in temperatures between 13 and 42C.
Normal service will resume next week, hope you’re still out there!
I was in lovely Verona last week for work, but still had the time to visit some of the city’s literary locations.
Shakespeare’s statue on Verona’s Wall, put there the Juliet’s Club, the association who answers all letters to Juliet. The inscription quotes Romeo and Juliet:
“There is no world without Verona walls,
But purgatory, torture, hell itself.
Hence-banished is banish’d from the world,
And world’s exile is death.”
Just returned from a literary weekend in London. The utter-amazingness of it I’m sure would not be easily understood outside the book blogging community.
On Saturday met a group of fellow Dorothy Dunnett enthusiasts to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Game of Kings. As with other such gatherings around the world, we made a toast at exactly 1PM with an exquisite smokey whiskey.
On Sunday had a yummy brunch with a group of fellow book bloggers, who I’ve got to know online over the past 1 1/2 years. After eggs Benedict we chatted our way to the National Portrait Gallery to see Jane Austen’s famous portrait by Cassandra, the Brontë sisters, a young Dickens, a handsome Tennyson, a slightly-creepy Thackeray and other literary portraits.
Just before heading off to the train back to Brussels (sniff) I needed to spend my left-over pounds, so we had no choice but to head-off to the nearest Waterstones for an early 5 o’clock tea and to buy The Downtown Abbey Companion. Had no idea it even existed, but as soon as I saw it, I knew it had to be mine!
O how I love London, where billboards advertise the latest books and not just detergent and car insurance *sigh*
Usually my birthday gift from André is a road-trip to a place of my choice. This almost always involves literary locations, mostly connected to Austen. We did Winchester, Steventon and Chawton one year, Bath in another and this year I dragged him to Lyme Regis to see the famous steps.
PS: Dear American readers, I know you’re going through a heat-wave so feel free to send some our way. Several countries in Easter and Northern Europe are having a terrible summer. Today in lovely Brussels: 14C/57F.
I jumped, but alas, just like Louisa Musgrove, there was no Captain Wentworth to catch me.
Inside The Booklovers B&B in Lyme Regis. We had a lovely time there. It stands in the same place as the Hiscott’s Boarding House, where Austen stayed when she visited in 1804. Afterwards the Three Cups Hotel replaced it and welcomed Tennyson, Longfellow, Belloc, G.K. Chesterton and Tolkien before it burned down in 1844.
Family photos on the piano at Greenway, Agatha Christie’s beautiful holiday home.
Plaque at Exeter’s Cathedral: “To the memory of Sarah Price Clarke (…). Her mind possessed an energy which does not often mark the female character.” Priceless!
Lovely St. Ives.
… and finally, the ruins of Tintagel Castle, the mythical birthplace of the mythical Arthur Pendragon.
Uff – It’s good to be back home! I’ve spent some days in New York for work and the day after I got back I had to fly to Munich for a big trade fair. In NY I had time to walk around and do some book shopping, visit the Public Library (thanks for the tip Wallace!), but unfortunately I only got a few glimpses of Munich through the window of several taxis.
I’d also like to announce that during this trip I’ve discovery another benefit of being a bookworm! I’m not an easy air traveller and turbulence always makes me anxious. Usually I get distracted with music, movies and games, but this particular plane had no individual screens and my iPod quickly ran out of battery after an hour of playing Patience. So what did I decide to do at a time of turbulence? I opened my computer and tried to list by memory my entire TBR list, all 172 books. You’ll be happy to know that I managed 152 and it did relax me. I remember at one point trying to write “White Oleander” and not really managing for all the shaking. :S
So here’s my New York loot. I tried to get books set in the city as much as possible.
Washington Square by Henry James. I ate an ice-cream there on the first day of my trip, so when I spotted it at the 5th Av’s Barnes & Noble, I knew it had to be mine.
“The plot of Washington Square has the simplicity of old-fashioned melodrama: a plain-looking, good-hearted young woman, the only child of a rich widower, is pursued by a charming but unscrupulous man who seeks the wealth she will presumably inherit. On this premise, Henry James constructed one of his most memorable novels, a story in which love is answered with betrayal and loyalty leads inexorably to despair.” (GR)
The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt. The first time I was in NY I stayed at the Hotel New Yorker, so I also couldn’t resist this one when it looked at me from the shelves of The Strand.
“From the moment Louisa first catches sight of the strange man who occupies a forbidden room on the thirty-third floor, she is determined to befriend him.Unbeknownst to Louisa, he is Nikola Tesla—inventor of AC electricity and wireless communication—and he is living out his last days at the Hotel New Yorker.” (GR)
Away by Amy Bloom. I bought Away for a bit of the gritty Lower East Side.
“Panoramic in scope, Away is the epic and intimate story of young Lillian Leyb, a dangerous innocent, an accidental heroine. When her family is destroyed in a Russian pogrom, Lillian comes to America alone, determined to make her way in a new land. When word comes that her daughter, Sophie, might still be alive, Lillian embarks on an odyssey that takes her from the world of the Yiddish theater on New York’s Lower East Side, to Seattle’s Jazz District, and up to Alaska, along the fabled Telegraph Trail toward Siberia.” (GR)
Cordelia Underwood: Or, The Marvelous Beginning of the Moosepath League by Van Reid. Why hadn’t I heard of this one before? It sounds right up my alley.
“In the summer of 1896 in Portland, Maine, several people are embarking on adventures of a most audacious and entertaining nature. Cordelia Underwood finds, in the newly discovered sea chest of her late uncle, the deed to a large parcel of land. Cordelia and her family soon suspect that a mystery surrounds her land, that something on it might hold the key to a secret two centuries old.” (GR)
Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. This was the only book in the loot that I actively looked for. I first saw it on GoodReads’ list of best books set in New York. Really looking forward to it.
“New York City is subsumed in arctic winds, dark nights, and white lights, its life unfolds, for it is an extraordinary hive of the imagination, the greatest house ever built, and nothing exists that can check its vitality. One night in winter, Peter Lake—orphan and master-mechanic, attempts to rob a fortress-like mansion on the Upper West Side. Though he thinks the house is empty, the daughter of the house is home. Thus begins the love between Peter Lake, a middle-aged Irish burglar, and Beverly Penn, a young girl who is dying of consumption. Peter Lake, a simple, uneducated man who, because of a love which at first he does not fully understand, is driven to stop time and bring back the dead.” (Wikipedia)
Forever by Pete Hamill. I’ve heard of Pete Hamill before, always associated to NY, so it seemed like an good choice. This city is a good place for a bit of magic realism.
“Epic tale of an extraordinary man who arrives in New York in 1740 and remains … forever. Through the eyes of Cormac O’Connor – granted immortality as long as he never leaves the island of Manhattan – we watch New York grow from a tiny settlement on the tip of an untamed wilderness to the thriving metropolis of today.” (GR)
Have you read any of these?
The plan was to go to Japan. We’d been dreaming about it for months, all the reservations were made… and then disaster struck.
So with the blessing of British Airways we re-routed to Thailand and a bit of Malaysia-truly-Asia. I’ll leave tomorrow for two weeks of hard travelling and bits of dolce far niente.
I’ve chosen four books to take with me, which is a bit ambitious considering how much I usually read while travelling, but I’m counting on the days we’ll spend belly-up at the beach.
Until soon! A.
- The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. A “bio-punk” science fiction novel set in 23rd century Thailand. It was the winner of the Nebula Award in 2009 and Hugo Award in 2010, both for best novel.
From Amazon: In a future Thailand, calories are the greatest commodity. Anderson is a calorie-man whose true objective is to discover new food sources that his company can exploit. His secretary, Hock Seng, is a refugee from China seeking to ensure his future. Jaidee is an officer of the Environmental Ministry known for upholding regulations rather than accepting bribes. His partner, Kanya, is torn between respect for Jaidee and hatred for the agency that destroyed her childhood home. Emiko is a windup, an engineered and despised creation, discarded by her master and now subject to brutality by her patron. The actions of these characters set in motion events that could destroy the country.
- The Rice Mother by Rani Manicka. A family sage set in Malaysia during WWII.
From Goodreads: At the age of 14, Lakshmi is married off to Ayah, a man more than twice her age. Led to believe Ayah is rich, Lakshmi is surprised to learn he is actually a clerk wholly lacking any sort of ambition. Lakshmi makes the best of her situation, bearing six children, including a set of twins, in five years. But Lakshmi is dogged by a prophecy that predicts heartbreak from her oldest son and the loss of one of her other children. She is a ferociously protective mother, and when the Japanese invade Malaysia during World War II, she hides her three daughters away. At the end of the occupation, part of the prophecy comes true, permanently splintering Lakshmi’s family.
- One Day by David Nicholls. I want to know what the fuss is about and read it before the movie comes out.
From Goodreads: Emma and Dexter meet for the first time on the night of their graduation. Tomorrow they must go their separate ways. So where will they be on this one day next year? And the year after that? And every year that follows? Twenty years, two people, ONE DAY.
- The Sea Star by Joseph O’Connor. The first book I’ll read from the five Joanna’s chosen for me.
From Goodreads: Making a wintry voyage from Ireland to New York in 1847, the Star of the Sea is a ship filled with passengers whose range from humble folk fleeing the ravages of the Irish Potato Famine to bankrupt aristocrats trying to outrun the secrets of their past. Beneath these class differences lies a web of connections marked by betrayal and hatred that spans generations and is about to turn murderous.
Arrived Sunday night from a mini-vacation in Istanbul, which was confirmed as one of my favorite European (and Asian) cities (if not really the favorite).
Of course there was some book shopping involved, this time at the Robinson Crusoe bookshop in Beyoglu’s main street. It’s reputedly “Istanbul’s best foreign book shop” and it has a great vibe, with its tall shelves in dark wood. I especially appreciated their section on Turkey and came out with three souvenirs, all ideal for my Istanbul/Constantinople/Byzantium theme of the One, Two, Theme Challenge:
- The Flea Palace by Elif Shafak
- The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk
- Strolling Through Istanbul: The Classic Guide to the City by Hillary Sumner-Boyd and John Freely
Why were plane tickets to Stockholm in January so cheap? Because it was cooold. Beautiful! But cold!
See that boat over there? It was our hostel, the af Chapman and highly recommended. Went into several bookshops looking for books in English by Swedish authors to get as souvenirs (as I’ve done in the past), but everything seemed to be dominated by Stieg Larsson. Only read the first in the trilogy and although I found it hooking, I still don’t get why the big fuss.
I’ve been making my way through Fables ever since reading the first volume back in November. It keeps getting more and more addictive. I wonder is Bill Willingham already knows where he wants to go with the story or if he’s just playing it by ear. In the long-term the first option of course works better (think Lost), and it’s especially rewarding as a reader to see certain details being slowly explained over different volumes – why is Bigby always smoking? Why is Flycatch always doing “community service”?
Another thing I really like about the series is how in every volume a different artist is invited to draw a short-story about the past of one of the characters. Favorite so far: War Stories, about Bigby during WWII.
Only volume 4 and 5 are valid for the Graphic Novel Challenge as they were the only ones read in 2011.
There are spoilers all over this post as from this point, so read on at your own peril!
Animal Farm (Volume 2)
We discovered in the first book that Fables who don’t look human and can’t afford to (or don’t want to) look human live on “The Farm”. Now we travel there with Snow White, on one of her regular control trips. She takes Red Rose with her as an attempt at a reconciliation after what happened in Volume 1, and the story develops after they discover a plan by some Farm animals to invade the Homelands and defeat the Adversary.
More than in the first book I was impressed by the double-page scenes where hundreds of characters seem to be moving independently. It’s great to spend 10 minutes on just one of these pages, trying to identify each Fable. It’s like looking at a painting by Bosch.
Still, it was probably my least favorite of the books so far, mostly because there’s not nearly enough Bigby and Snow’s naivety starts to border on stupidity. Everyone could feel the building rebellion except her, the cunning woman who single-handedly runs Fabletown.
It was only after some Googling that I realized that Red Rose is not actually Red Ridding Hood. She was Snow White’s sister in the original story, but (Disney’s fault?) somehow didn’t made it into present-day lore. This is a major issue in Red Rose’s life, especially because Fables physically resiliency increases according to how much they’re remembered by mundanes (similar to fairies and believing in them). It made me wonder about the amount of fairy-tale characters which have fallen into oblivion and give a mental thanks to Bill Willingham for reviving them.
Highlight of the book: Reynard the Fox. He’s cunning, witty, utterly charming and I hope we get to see more of him in the future.
Storybook Love (Volume 3)
A mundane journalist who’s too smart for his own good, threatens to expose what he thinks is Fabletown’s secret: they’re a vampire society! Bluebeard is for outright murder, but Bigby get his way and comes up with “softer methods” which involve very cleverly crafted blackmail.
The tension between Blackbeard and Bigby, which has been an undercurrent in past books, really comes out here and culminates in Blackbeard’s attempt to get rid of Bigby and Snow by obliterating their memory, dumping them in the middle of some far-away woods and ordering Goldilocks to kill them.
The scenes where both of them are in the woods are beautifully drawn using complex backgrounds and unusual arrangements of the boxes. It was the perfect setting to get to know them a bit better and see their relationship evolve. Another character that also gets some attention and growth is Prince Charming, who starts becoming more than a womanizer. He doesn’t really change, we just get to know him better (didn’t Elizabeth Bennett say something similar about Mr. Darcy?).
The enormous possibilities offered by the Fables world is further exploited in the two short-stories in this volume: “Bag O’ Bones” about Jack’s adventures during the Civil War (you can almost hear the Southern accents!) and “Barleycorn Brides” which can teach you a thing or two about preserving an extinct race
The storyline introduced in Animal Farm about the plan to attack the Adversary is not further developed in this volume, but you do get a lot of juicy character development.
March of the Wooden Soldiers (Fables 4)
My favorite so far. It has action, adventure, romance and tragedy, and above all, a very pregnant Snow. A pregnant heroine in an action comic book: how cool is that?! She’s even coordinates a battle through binoculars, walkie-talkies… the whole shebang! Right after Cuddy from House, Snow is the woman I want to be when I grow up!
The humor was top-notch. Although most fans elected as their favorite LOL scene the “Young Republicans” comment, I beg to differ and offer this one instead:
Bigby: I don’t believe you got mugged. You’re up to something and I don’t have time for it.
Jack: I am not! Look at me!
Bigby: You’re lying now because you always lie.
Jack: Not this time!
Snow: Jack, did you ever hear about the boy who cried wolf?
Jack: Sure Snow. He lives up on the seventh floor. So what?
The story starts in the Homelands, with Little Red Ridding Hood riding for her live as she tries to reach the last safe refuge against the Adversary. The Fables trapped in this last Castle know they have no chance to resist the Adversary for much longer, so they plan one last journey to our World before closing all gates to the Homelands.
Ridding Hood is though to have been killing during that last escape, until she shows up in Fabletown with a story of enslavement and escape. Her gazelle eyes fools everyone except Bigby, who smells fowl (pun unintended).
There are a lot of parallel story lines going on in this volume, from the election for Mayor of Fabletown (Prince Charming vs. King Cole) to the appearance of three ruthless, mysterious, sadistically-funny men who are just the start of a full-blown invasion by the Adversary. The final battle scenes were exciting and I was glad to once again see the Crow brothers, who stole my heart during the story of the Last Escape.
The Mean Seasons (Fables 5)
While “The March” was all action and adventure, this volume is much more subdue, but definitely out to pull at your heart-strings.
Snow gives birth to not-so-human babies, so they need to be raised at the Farm. Bigby on the other hand, is not allowed at the Farm because of his less than pleasant dealings with some of the creatures living there. To top all, both Bigby and Snow have been fire by Prince Charming, the new Mayor of Fabletown.
In the end, they decide, on less than friendly terms, to go their separate ways – Snow and the babies to the Farm, Bigby to an unknown location away from mundanes. I confessed I found it this decision a bit implausible, especially considering Bigby’s character – would he really be able to abandon Snow with 6 kids to raise?!
Though not so good as the previous one, I still enjoyed it more than the first volumes. I got a kick out of seeing Prince Charming’s struggle with the reality of running a Government and thought it a great twist the appearance of Bigby’s father, the North Wind (love the hair!), in the Farm to give Snow a much needed hand with raising her pups.
The ending was a bit of a blow – didn’t see that one coming! – sad in a beautiful way (or beautiful in a sad way?) and it made me go straight to BookDepository to order the next volumes.
I’m a big fan of historical novels, they’re more than 1/3 of what I’ve read in the past 5 years, and if I had to take only one genre to a desert island that would be it. As far as that makes me an expert (!), believe me when I say that Dorothy Dunnett is the best. No one can put me there like she can.
I’m always surprised at how she’s not more famous – I only know two people in person that have read her and not that many more in the virtual world. No… to be honest, I’m not that surprised, because I’m always afraid to recommend her, especially to people who don’t read much (sounds snobbish, but it’s not, believe me!). Dunnett can write the most satisfying books, but they’re not a light read. The plot is intricate and there are many characters, at times you don’t know what’s happening until two chapters later a character says something and then there’s glorious light. Dunnett never spoon feeds you and makes you work for your rewards… but oh the rewards!
The House of Niccolò series was written after her first books, the Lymond Chronicles, but follow one of Lymond’s ancestors: Nicholas vander Poele, an apprentice in a dye shop in Bruges who, with mathematical precision and the clever use of his dimples, climbs the proverbial corporate leader until he becomes head of the company. In the Lymond Chronicles, each book is set in a different place (Scotland, France, Malta, Turkey, Russia), and Nicholas also treats the world as his oyster. Book 1 starts in Bruges, with glimpses of Geneva, Venice and Milan, and this second book takes us further East.
In 1461, 20 years-old Nicholas is in Florence, where he persuades Cosimo de’ Medici to back him up on an ambitious trade journey. He will sail to the Black Sea until Trebizond, last outpost of the Byzantine outpost, and the last jewel missing in the crown of the Ottoman Empire. But things of course never run as smoothly as they should: Nicholas’s younger stepdaughter, 13 year-old Catherine, elopes with his rival in trade: a Machiavellian Genoese who races ahead of Nicholas, setting traps at each port he lands. Trebizond is a key trade connection to the East, and home to a decadent court who refuses to admit that at any moment they may fall to the Turks. Not all traders in the city are that blind and the plot is mined with political and commercial intrigue.
As always, Dunnett shows off her meticulous historical research and ability to blends historic characters with fictional ones. The meeting with Cosimo de’ Medici was especially well done - Nicholas gets into the old man’s good graces by enchanting his grandson Cosimino with a yo-yo he made himself. But the highlights are really her descriptions of the wonders of Trebizond, the incense in the air, the languid day-to-day life of its court, the hot-baths, the arrival of the camel caravan.
Also, in this immediate-world we live in, I’m also always fascinated by a past where news traveled at a slow pace. People could take months to arrive in Trebizond from Europe, a letter just little under that time, if a ship heading for the destination you want happens to pass by. It really makes me wonder how could anything outside one city could work and… be done. But it did and Dorothy Dunnett, better than anyone, gives you a glimpse at how trade, politics and personal relationships developed in the expanding borders of the mid-XV century.
I’d like to go to visit Trebizond – maybe to a trip around the Black Sea? The closest I’ve ever got was the entrance to the Sea, when we went to Istanbul. We were close to the ruins of a Fort that might have been the one in Dunnett’s description:
Then, three weeks on their journey, they reached the end of the Black Sea and faced its only exit: the waterway of the Bosphorus, lined by the guns of the Turks. They chose to sail through it in daylight. The ponderous Anadolu Hisari on the Asian shore and, on the right, the massive round towers of Bohasi-Kesen, its new partner. The throat-cutter, they called it; or the strait-cutter; because no ship could survive between the mouths of the two sets of cannon. They entered the Bosphorus, and the gun from Bohasi-Kesen fired.
Where Lymond was about dramatic escapades and a world changed by the ideas of the height of the Renaissance, the Niccolò series is about trade, the delicate balance of power it builds, and how it ultimately started globalization. In The Spring of the Ram, the journey undertaken by Nicholas is portrayed almost as a quest, right down to the mythic parallels. The sign of the Ram (or Aires), is the first in the Zodiac. Aires sometimes represent the Golden Fleece, sought by the heroic Jason and his Argonauts, whose steps Nicholas follows on his way to Trebizond. Dorothy Dunnett liked to play these little tricks. In Lymond, the titles were all chess moves and the story reflected it, and with Niccolò they’re all references to star signs. The next one, Race of Scorpions, will take me to Cyprus. I could go straight to it, but I want to make them last. You can only read Dorothy Dunnett for the first time once.