Paris, A Moveable Feast and a Literary Pilgrimage

I was in Paris in September, for four sunshine filled days, stalking the very same streets that Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce and Stein wandered, browsing the same bookshops and drinking in the same cafés. It’s a complete cliché, I know, but Paris was astonishingly, almost ridiculously, beautiful. The buildings! The wine! The bookshops! Bookshops everywhere! I’m terrible at directions, but I found my way back to my hotel at night by memorising the bookshops on the route.

Continuing with my list of Parisian clichés, my visit to one bookshop in particular took on a pilgrimage like seriousness. Yeah,  you guessed it. Shakespeare and Company. Now I am well aware this isn’t the original establishment that the likes of my 1920s literary heroes frequented. The original was opened by Silvia Beach on Rue de l’Odéon (the current one is just opposite the river from Notre Dame). It was part shop, part lending library and loaned books to struggling writers. It closed in 1941, during the Nazi Occupation. The current shop still plays its part in encouraging and garnering talent, as writers can sleep there for free if they help out around the shop.

“We would be together and have our books and at night be warm in bed together with the windows open and the stars bright.”
Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

 

I visited on a busy Sunday afternoon and the narrow corridors, crammed with books and tourists were at times hard to navigate in the crowds, but oh what a joy to be there! I purchased Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, and just finished it recently. Now I feel sad and nostalgic for a Paris of the past, one that I could never know. It reminds me of the film Midnight in Paris where Gill is in love with the Golden Age of Paris and literature, in the 20s, yet comes to realise that anyone living in any age will always hark back to a ‘better’ time.

Hemingway’s writing is lovely, stark and simple yet I find it evokes deep and dark emotion from any topic that he writes about. The book is about his early years in Paris with his first wife, Hadley, and this is the period of time when they had little money and he was breaking away from journalism into fiction. There’s something ludicrous yet delightful in the dialogue between Hemingway and Hadley, it is like two children playing at being grownups. My favourite sections are those about other writers, in particular Fitzgerald, and how with hindsight, it was obvious the tragic paths that Scott and Zelda were leading themselves down.

Hemingway also writes about Gertrude Stein, the woman who had an art collection that would be the envy of many  a modern day Russian billionaire, and the woman that launched countless writers. Stein is the one who coined the phrase the ‘lost generation’ about Hemingway and his fellow writers.  They were the generation that came of age during World War One and came home from war to an unstable Europe, and a fragile future. It is no surprise they turned to the comforts and hedonism of jazz, alcohol and Paris! I wonder what my generation might be nicknamed in the history books of the future? I fear it won’t be complimentary.

Speaking of which, I don’t think I can bring this post to an end without acknowledging recent world events. I really enjoy studying current affairs, history and politics are my favourite subjects, but this blog is about literature and I’ve always thought I would keep politics and opinions far away. That being said, sometimes  events and circumstances can arise that are so colossal that they cannot be ignored. Over the past year I have seen populist opinion in my beloved Europe lurch worryingly to the extreme right.  I have witnessed poor refugees denied the sympathy and assistance that they deserve, instead being met with a hatred that is inexplicable and illogical. I have seen my beloved Britain turn its back on the European Project, a flawed masterpiece, but a masterpiece all the same.  And now, I see America elect a privileged, white man who advocates sexually assaulting women upon greeting them, writes off whole religions and openly mocks disabled people on television. I am heartbroken, but more than that, I am angry.

History teaches us that popular opinion and events are cyclical in nature, yet when our world is taking one step back from all the progress we have made, when there is a pull away from intellectualism and a step toward “endarkenment” we must fight it with every last breath, every fibre in our bodies.

But sometimes, when it is all a bit too much, and the news channels make you cry, it is also OK to curl up on the sofa, brew a tea and read about Paris in the 20s.20160925_171612

Focus on Bookshops: Kok Antiquariaat, Amsterdam

I love my local Waterstones. It’s the biggest bookshop in the North of England with three huge floors of books and a delightfully quiet cafe on the third floor. However, I still prefer browsing in second-hand bookshops. The smell is always gorgeous, (if you like musty, old paper smells) and you can’t go in there with an idea of what you’re going to buy, because you’re not going to find it. You have to just rummage around and see what you discover, and bear in mind that if it’s an Oxfam bookshop you’ll have to wade past hundreds of awful 50 Shades copies until you get to the good stuff. Can I put rummaging for used books down as a hobby?! My best haul was probably impulsively buying 10 books in the Oxfam in Chester and then enlisting my very patient other half to help me haul them back to the car.

Anyway, I digress. I thought I would do a post, albeit three months late, about a wonderful little place I discovered in Amsterdam, called Kok. (I’ll just wait here for you to stop giggling.) It occurred to me to write this post as I’m in Paris later this month and was noting down the address for Shakespeare & Co, which I am so excited for!

Kok is located pretty centrally, on Oude Hoogstraat 14-18, not too far from Dam Square and has been selling second hand and specialist books since 1946! We were drawn in because the other half and I were looking for a nice souvenir for ourselves and the apartment, preferably one that wasn’t an ashtray emblazoned with lady parts and marijuana leaves. The shop was displaying some old maps, some of which were of Amsterdam’s canals in years gone by. We went in and I couldn’t believe my luck! Shelves and rows of wonderful, dusty books. Lots of them were in Dutch, of course, but they had quite a few English classics. It was perfectly quiet and we took some time to wander the rows. It had that ideal quality of a used bookshop where some of the books clearly hadn’t been moved for a long time. There was a further floor where they kept rarer books and specialist topics, but our flight was that afternoon so we didn’t have enough time to browse for too long.

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I’d definitely recommend anyone visiting Amsterdam to check it out. We didn’t buy any books in the end, just this lovely print of an old map of  Amsterdam, which we still need to find a frame for, but if we had had more time that day I would have picked up a classic to take home as a memento.

Why I couldn’t get On the Road with Jack Kerouac – Book Review

On the Road had been on my to-be-read list for many years. Just the title itself is attractive, conjuring up images of my own experiences of the road, watching the world from behind a window. From childhood, every summer, my family and I drove from the UK, across Europe to our homeland in the Balkans. This yearly pilgrimage inspired a love of the road in me. From the unnerving flat lands of Belgium, past the gloriously dark forests of Germany at night, and the heavenly, looming peaks of Austria, I knew the road could bring untold mystery and opportunity. Ever since, I’m always happiest when going somewhere, starting a journey. So I think I projected my own experiences and desires onto what I thought that this book should be like, what it should be about.

When it arrived in my post box, I delved straight in.  And then I pretty much hit a brick wall.

In short, On The Road is the story of Sal Paradise, a struggling writer in New York (*sigh – they’re always struggling, and they’re always in bloody New York*) who yearns for the open road, the endless highway and finally takes the leap thanks to his generous (and in my mind, long suffering) grandma. Throughout the book Sal takes a number of journeys back and forth across America and finally, years later, taking a journey with his best friend (and prime idiot) Dean Moriarty through Mexico. This sounds like it could be great, right?

It’s not. First of all, it was difficult to get into. A few pages in and I’d started thinking about what was for dinner that day or, even worse, my to-do list at the office. The writing seemed disjointed, clunky. I appreciate that Kerouac’s writing style is intentionally like this, and is a post WW2 response to the conservative America of the war years . Maybe it’s just a matter of personal preference but,  for me, the story just didn’t flow.

Next, I really took issue with the content. I had anticipated adventures, a rich plot, the stuff that bourbon and 1950s jazz are made of (and that’s what the blurb on my Penguin copy promises!)  But it was all a bit of an anti-climax. The first trip across America is pure boredom. Sal left New York City for this? Miserable hitch hikes with little food and no fun?  When he eventually hits San Francisco, Sal mulches around a bit with his idiotic friends. There are a few similar cross American trips like this in the book, back and forth, and I forget how many times Sal does it because they all blend into one. Sure, he and his friends go out, get wasted a lot, but they’re just drunk idiots. It’s not enlightening or paving a new lifestyle. They’re just grown men and women who never actually grew up. Yeah, I hate Sal’s friends.

The characters are all awful. I really didn’t like anyone.  I mean, there’s plenty of books I’ve read where the characters are despicable but interesting and likeable. Here, they’re all just annoying, self obsessed idiots who are totally hapless at life. They’re all terrible friends and worse parents. Each of them is infected with this horrendous attitude of being completely selfish, being capable of abandoning their child and wife to drive across the country to pick up an equally selfish friend to just drive about a bit more with no purpose whatsoever. And I’m really not criticising people who choose not to take root or settle down. I think it’s inspiring and brave to travel the world, live on the road, and in the right circumstances, take your children along for the ride. But these hapless idiots aren’t enviable world travellers, they’re just wasters.

Perhaps I’m missing the point? And there will be staunch defenders of the book. I don’t profess to know very much about Beat culture so maybe I would appreciate On the Road more if I learnt about it. But I wanted to be inspired here, wanted to taste that freedom, almost feel the wind in my hair as I went along for the ride. I think the problem is me. I think I wanted this to be travel writing, when really, it is a lifestyle guide for those wanting to break free from society’s constraints.  So maybe it is my fault, but I really wanted to learn about America, feel the  atmosphere of 1950s night life in NYC, jazz bars in New Orleans and the roars of the pacific by San Francisco. Instead, On the Road left me with my feet firmly on the ground and my imagination still very much in Northern England.

Exploring obsession with David Grann and The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z is a non-fiction account of author David Grann’s research of, and consequent obsession with, the story of Colonel Percy Fawcett and his mysterious search for an ancient lost city in the depths of the treacherous Amazon.

I rarely read non-fiction but this found its way onto my reading list thanks to my bi-monthly book club. I’m pleased it did. Grann mastered the ability to switch his narrative from Fawcett’s story to his own, and back again between chapters, keeping me interested and never annoyed. Most books that switch between narratives too often can get tiresome to read and break the thread of the story but The Lost City of Z didn’t suffer that problem.

The story itself was intriguing. I know a writer has captured my imagination when I hop onto Wikipedia the moment I finish a book in order to read further into the topic. I’d never heard of Fawcett and, ignorantly, didn’t realise that there was still enough earth left to explore in the 1920s!

The Lost City of Z focuses on Fawcett and his character. Grann studies Fawcett’s first tastes of exploration when he was stationed in Ceylon and follows his life from then on. Fawcett starts exploring and mapping South America and quickly develops a reputation for being the most resilient explorer in the world, with no patience for slow walkers or injured members of the exploration party. Through Grann’s research into letters and interviews we discover some unsavoury snippets of Fawcett’s personality. We see how this approach leads him to his fateful final expedition, where he takes his son and his best friend in the hopes of discovering the city of Z and along with it, fame fortune and the eternal glory of his name in the history books. They never returned.

For would be explorers, this story alone is interesting enough but what really pulled me in was the fact that an estimated 100 people lost their lives looking for Fawcett after he and his party went missing. Why, why did they do this? Why risk everything? Then it occurred to me that we live in a different age now, there is little real exploring to do on earth, and the world is so small. But if someone offered me a trip to space, would I turn that down, what with all its risks and unknowns? Of course not, and neither would I hold back a family member if that’s what they chose to do. That’s why Fawcet’s wife, Nina, didn’t ever dream of stopping her husband and son from embarking on the perilous journey but rather spurred them on and raised their profiles with the media. Human curiosity is a natural thing, and is to be celebrated.

Speaking of Nina, there’s a story I would like to hear more about. Nina sacrificed everything for Fawcett’s adventures. She went from a comfortable life with a wealthy family to almost living in poverty whilst Fawcett spent years away at a time exploring. She raised their children alone and never floundered in encouraging his explorations. She expressed wishes to accompany him but this never happened. I can’t help but feel sad for Nina, after years spent supporting her husband and never getting a chance at exploring herself, she spent her life after the disappearance of her husband and son still eagerly believing that they would be found.

One criticism I might level at the book is that the author never seems to face up to his own obsessions. Grann pursues researching Fawcett’s story extensively, to the point where he leaves behind his wife and newborn in order to look for  Fawcett and Z himself. Grann does not train or prepare himself for this undertaking, he can’t even pick out his own equipment in a shop. Although its apt that in his research and writing Grann himself becomes one of the obsessed, (and it is a very tidy way for the story to work out), it does seem irresponsible. Although Grann gets a local guide, and, due to extensive deforestation, is able to drive down much of the path that Fawcett would have had to trek through, his blind pursuance of the story seems  a little mad. Grann’s linking of Fawcett’s story to his own, and the way the switching of the narratives feels like Grann is chasing Fawcett through the pages of the book, is a sure sign that Grann too had become a little obsessed, he never actually owns up to it, never just says, wow, what I thinking!

All in all though, this is an absorbing read and I learnt a lot about the history of the Amazon. I’d highly recommend this if you’re looking for some non-fiction to read but still want a story out of it.

The only travel guide I use

A bit of an alternative book review post, here. I’m off to Amsterdam with my partner soon for a few gorgeous spring days in May (top tip – most cities in Europe are at their nicest in May). We’ve been planning an itinerary for our trip with our Top 10 Amsterdam, DK EyeWitness Travel guidebook, and I realised that I haven’t been on a trip since 2007 without buying one of these!

Now, some people might be aghast at the idea of putting together a detailed travel itinerary, preferring instead to meander the cobbled streets of Europe getting lost and whiling away time in cafes and old bookshops. Now all that is lovely, and I wish I was a little more relaxed like that too, but I bear my badge as a holiday dictator with pride.  I can’t imagine going abroad, setting foot in a brand new city and not having a clue where all the things I want to see are. And often with city breaks, your time is so limited. I’ve been known to drag my friends out of bed at 7am in the heat of  mid-summer to get a head start in Barcelona, only to find everything shut and the streets deserted for another few hours.

Anyway, onto the Top 10 Guides. The layout of the guide is always the same. First, the guide lists the top ten sights in the city, with a double page spread for each attraction, with plenty of photographs. I’ve occasionally browsed other guidebooks but so many have no pictures and just long lists of hotels and restaurants. Really not that useful!

The guide then breaks the city down into quarters or districts, with the low down on the best bars, cafes, restaurants and attractions in each quarter. There’s also a street-smart section on safety tips and local customs, as well as my absolute favourite which are these detachable fold out maps. The maps are easy to read and highlight all the attractions and are cross referenced throughout the guide, too.

The other great thing about these guides is that they’re peppered with facts about the history and culture of the city. That way, you’re not just looking at a pretty building, you’re looking at a pretty building and understanding why it looks the way it does or what part it played in history. In addition to these guides, I always make sure to start any trip with a three or four hour walking tour on the first morning (ok, ok, even I’m starting to think I’m weird). The walk will get you your bearings and you know what parts of the city you really want to explore properly and which parts you can live without. The tour guides always have a few snippets of great local knowledge too, like which bars are the most authentic, or which restaurants the locals actually go to. The best walking tour I ever took was in Berlin, during a snow storm in December. The tour was 4 hours, and I was wearing suede wedge heeled boots! But our guide had so much knowledge and passion, I learnt so much more about Berlin than I ever could have if I’d just  meandered around alone.

Anyway, I don’t want to preach! Holiday however you like, but if, like me, you’re a bit of a planner, these guides are fab, cheap and won’t take up much luggage space!