Day Trip to Salzburg.

Decisions, decisions. With our ship docked at Linz, today the Tauckians had to decide between a tour to Salzburg or to Cesky Krumlov. Tough choice! We had solved it by planning a visit to Cesky Krumlov out of Prague so we wouldn’t miss out on this day in Salzburg.

20/20 hindsight, fwiw: Cesky Krumlov is not to be missed: the three-hour drive each way was arduous and meant losing a precious day in Prague; and thus, if I had it to do all over again, I might have skipped Salzburg. I know. I’m an irredeemable heretic. Wolfgang Amadeus, please forgive me.

Maybe it was just that point in the trip. Seems for me there’s always a day, usually at about mid-point in a journey, where an unbidden tinge of ennui creeps in and casts an ever-so-slight pall over my sense of adventure. Maybe I just kinda want to go home.  And this turned out to be that day.

It began with great promise – our drive to Salzburg would include a stop at a vista point for the exquisite Mondsee Lake. Unfortunately, every other cruise line’s river boat tour itinerary that day was hot on our heels and we played “dueling coaches” from beginning to end. One of my initial concerns about organized travel had been my aversion to the seemingly unavoidable “hive behavior” of tour groups. Tauck does a great job of splitting large groups into small ones so you never feel like part of a locust plague descending upon other tourists or townspeople. But not every tour operator does it like Tauck.

When we disembarked at the vista point, busload after busload of eager tourists from China traveling on a different line vied with us for the best or any view. And when I say vied, I mean jostled, elbowed, barked, and in general outbid us for a vantage point every time. As a tourist, it helps to have a different expectation of personal space than we do! Here is my most serene shot of the idyllic lake, with hundreds of other avid photographers conveniently cropped out of the picture:

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As our coach pulled up to the curb near the Mirabell Palace gardens, so did all our new friends, with apparently renewed zeal for their photographic quarry. Maybe they were fans of The Sound of Music, scenes of which were filmed on the garden steps. Or maybe they were having their own “off” day.  Whatever the reason, this was the one and only day of our tour that felt like an absolute crush of humanity. Seriously, Times Square would have seemed peaceful by comparison, although if one works hard at photo cropping, it can appear we had the place all to ourselves:

Of course, if we had skipped Salzburg, we would have missed out on Mozart’s birthplace:

And the Salzburg Cathedral:

And the Hohensalzburg Fortress, where you ride a funicular up the hill and are rewarded with a fabulous view of all those tourists in the town below (at least the ones who didn’t pour in the tram car along with you):

And the schnitzel…

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And, perhaps most importantly, the Mozartkugeln! Make sure you buy the “authentic” ones!

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Looking back on it now, okay, maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to miss Salzburg. The problem was, neither did anyone else. Maybe it was just the time of year or maybe it’s the time of man (Joni Mitchell is my Mozart…) Perhaps you’ll have a completely different experience if you go. I’ll just say that as we boarded our coach that afternoon to head back to the boat (with a few bags of Mozartkugeln in tow), it was with a small sigh of relief.

All cares melted away with a barbecue that evening on the sundeck of the M.S. Joy and a leisurely night time walk into Linz where we felt like the only tourists in town!

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Next post: Dürnstein and the Wachau Valley…

 

 

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Back on the boat: Is a river cruise for you?

I could talk about books forever (yeah, say some of you, you kind of did…) but now we can finally get back to the travelogue. Thanks to all the Tauckians for the thumbs ups – no more interruptions, I promise!

But let’s backtrack a bit: since we’d never been on a river cruise, we had some question marks in our minds about whether it was a good choice for us. In addition to the daunting concept of group travelwe had other questions about making this trip. And even though I spoke with our travel agent and with with Tauck representatives by phone, I had trouble getting definitive answers to my questions. Here are a few things I’d wish we’d known before we went:

How does a river cruise compare to an ocean cruise? Well, maybe like a house cat to a tiger, or a chapel to a cathedral. The spirit of the adventure is the same, but in a much, much smaller package. A hundred-plus-change passengers compared to thousands. One dining room – the Compass Rose – but a lovely one, indeed! There was also a separate bar and then of course the lively top Sundeck, where we whiled away many hours.

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Was a river cruise for us? An ocean cruise is verboten for us since the CE suffers from Mal de Débarquement Syndrome. The “pitch and roll” of a big ship seems to be the catalyst for the ailment, which leaves one reeling for weeks, months or possibly forever after a cruise. Oddly, it’s not about finding one’s “sea legs” on the ship, but rather a dysfunction that prevents one from reacquainting with life back on land. The CE was told after our second ocean cruise and a months-long bout with nausea and vertigo that another cruise could leave him permanently impaired.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that we boarded the river boat. Would he be similarly affected? Truth be told, we were both a little queasy at first. I hadn’t even brought any sea-sickness medication with me and for a few hours would have traded a little piece of my soul for a vial of Dramamine. But my brain caught up fairly quickly and by Day Two, I was fine. The CE managed his prescribed potions and I’m happy to report that both during and after the cruise he was fine.

What’s it like onboard? Our room compared nicely with an ocean cruise staterooms. Lovely Molton Brown toiletries – no need to bring your soap and shampoo, but there were no cotton balls or swabs, and there was no magnifying make-up mirror, so ladies, you are on your own there.

We were on the Joy’s “Diamond Deck” which is the uppermost level of cabins, affording us a lovely view from our room – while the ship was cruising, that is. As novice river cruisers, we had not realized that while in port, we would almost always be “boxed in” on both sides by other boats mooring alongside us. Some days we had to close our balcony door because of diesel fumes or draw our drapes to avoid a too-close encounter with crew members from the adjacent ship staring right into our room. But the views from our floor-to-ceiling windows while we were en route almost made up for it:

 

Would we – newbies to a tour experience – be bored or feel claustrophobic on a small boat? Emphatically no! For one thing, Tauck keeps you busy with daily excursions. Secondly, there is a comfortable sense of community that develops among the fellow passengers – quite literally you are “all in the same boat” and it just kind of works.

My biggest concern pre-cruise was accessibility. Bad back, long boring story. I’m fine on flat land, but steps and inclines can be an issue. Would the stairs on the boat be a problem?

I’d also read that for some people, crossing the decks from one boat to another while “boxed in” in port could be an issue. No problems there for us, everything was flat and manageable. And yes, there are some stairs on the boat, but I found them quite manageable. Tauck makes it clear that they cannot accommodate wheelchair users but I did see a few people with canes who seemed to do just fine.

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What about the motor coaches?

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One of the great things about the snazzy Tauck motor coaches is that you are enthroned so high you can see everything! But that also means a few high steps to climb in and out of your coach. I was assured by an agent on the phone that there would be a step stool to help with that first particularly high step. But the intel was wrong. There was no step stool at any point during our trip. I was fine, but if the pitch of a bus step is a problem for anyone, it could be a deal-breaker for a tour.

Other accessibility issues to keep in mind are that part of Europe’s charm is cobblestoned streets and steps, steps and more steps. One can always opt out of an excursion, but keep in mind that there will be challenges.

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River cruising is not exactly an extreme sport. There might have been a few couples in their fifties and a smattering of adult children along for the ride with their families. Tauck provided more challenging options like bicycling excursions along the Danube for the more adventurous passengers. Most of our group were, I’d say, were active folks in their mid-sixties to late seventies. I was probably among the less spry members of the group, but luckily, I managed to keep up just fine.

So. Here we are now, happily back on the tour.

After a memorable day in Engelhartszell, we re-boarded the M.S. Joy and sailed for our next port of Linz. The weather was divine, although rumors abounded that many cruises were being re-routed due to the Danube’s low water levels this fall. It made us appreciate every moment on the boat!

Next week – our excursion to Salzburg.

 

 

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Ten fewer stars in the sky: the best of the best.

Well, finally, here we are.

Still wheezing and a bit flu-befuddled but back on the home coast and able to lift our heads off the pillow. That’s a start! And at the very least, the scenery is a bit more cheerful than last week:

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And now the reading year has been duly sifted, the chaff removed and we are left with the best of the best, the books that astonished me, moved me, transported me and for which I am most grateful. A little panic sets in when I’ve finished a book like one of these. It is done, and there is now one less star in the sky. Blessedly, another seems to come along eventually and reminds me that while I scrabble away in oblivion, there is brilliance in this world.

I tried to put these in some sort of order but could not anymore than one can have a favorite child. Although perhaps I saved the best for last…

One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty (104 pages, paperback, published 1984)

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There is something in the air in the South that produces great writers. What I would give for just a whiff of it! Eudora Welty’s memoir of the Mississippi childhood that formed her as a writer is a slim volume and I savored every single page. Based on three lectures she gave at Harvard University, it traces the importance of family and sense of place in her development as a writer. “As you have seen,” she concludes, “I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (368 pages, audiobook narrated by Cherry Jones, published 1940)

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Carson McCullers also breathed the rarefied air of the South, and spun it into a cast of tender, grotesque, broken characters. She was, of course, one of them, and Mick, who inhabits the center of this tale just as Frankie does in The Member of the Wedding, is baldly autobiographical. She imbues hopelessness with a kind of beauty, and while her canvas is a small one, it is achingly memorable.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (198 pages, Kindle, published 1890)

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If you only know of Oscar Wilde through his plays or his sound-bite quotes, you might miss his real genius. It’s tempting to pass this book up, as I did for decades, as simply a period piece. But it is timeless. And there are plenty of sound bites to entertain along the way, among them “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it”, and “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.” Wilde was trapped in his time as Dorian Gray in his portrait and somehow he rose above it to leave us this jewel. My favorite of his quotes, although not in this book: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind by Ivan Doig (314 pages, paperback, published 1978)

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Whenever I travel to a new place, I try to find a book that celebrates it. Reading this memoir of Doig’s childhood in Montana’s Smith River Valley and in the hardscrabble environs of Dupuyer lent a sense of the sacred to my Montana pilgrimage last summer. Life was anything but easy for Doig and his widowed sheep-herding father, but each moment holds a kind of majesty beneath that “house of sky”.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (232 pages, audiobook narrated by Aidan Kelly, published 2017)

I was absolutely mesmerized by this book. Sebastian Barry touches words and they turn into gold. And his stark but gentle tale about an Irish soldier in America’s Civil War (the choice was either join up or starve) and the subsequent Indian Wars is a slice of history I was humbled to learn from someone on the other side of the pond.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey: A Novel by Thornton Wilder (131 pages, Kindle, published 1927)

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Over and over I’d passed up this Pulitzer Prize winner and No. 37 on Modern Library’s list of 100 Best Novels, thinking it must be archaic, anachronistic, like some sort of literary vestigial tail. Wrong again, as I so often am. There is a reason why classics are classic, and this one, a deceptively simple read, basically holds the meaning of life within its pages. I read it twice last year and it is a marvel.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene (220 pages, paperback, published 1940)

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I’d only read The End of the Affair and The Third Man and was more or less on the fence about “Catholic author” Graham Greene. Once again proving I know absolutely nothing about anything. This novel is based on Mexico’s 1926-1929 Cristero War during which Roman Catholics were persecuted almost to extinction by an atheist, socialist regime in the state of Tabasco. Greene’s hopeless and fallen “whiskey priest” is pitted against the Red Shirt lieutenant who is on a crusade to “free the people from God.” This book will make you uncomfortable whether you are a believer or not. Everyone worships something…

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje (128 pages, paperback, published 1970)

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Son Taylor’s friend Meghan gifted us this book, for which I will be forever grateful. Of course I’ve read and admired Ondaatje – The English Patient, The Cat’s Table – but I was utterly unprepared for this little book. Part narrative, part poetry, almost song, alchemy, really – it turns the concept of “book” on end. I suppose it helps that William H. Bonney or Henry McCarty or whomever “Billy the Kid” really was is so elusive and incalculable a folk hero to begin with. But this book! It is unlike anything you will ever read and you must read it!

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (223 pages, paperback, published 2018

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It was November, and even though months had passed since our sweet dogs had passed away in the summer, I still woke every morning with a hurting heart. So maybe this 2018 National Book Award winner would be a tonic, “a book about a woman who inherits a friend’s dog after his death.”  It sounded so simple. But once unpacked, this book grows and grows. If anything, it made me sadder, but at least my aching heart was filled for a moment. Nunez is a writer’s writer, and while it may seem at times she is meandering and that what you are reading isn’t exactly a novel, she is absolutely in control and will demonstrate how a novel is constructed, thank you very much. It is and is not about a dog. And about New York City. And about writing. And also about suicide. It is a fine, fine book, and I especially appreciated, on the heels of having re-read The Unbearable Lightness of Being the month previous, Nunez’ mention of how Kundera describes human relationships with animals: “It’s through our love and friendship with them that we are able to reconnect to Paradise, albeit by just a thread.”

 

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (190 pages, Kindle, published 1927)

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Time literally stops when you read this book. You must slow yourself to Woolf’s experimental pace: the entire book takes place in the space of the two different days on the Isle of Skye. It is as if Woolf holds up an exquisitely cut diamond – the semi-autobiographical lives of Mrs. Ramsay and her family – and minutely examines each facet. I felt like I held my breath for all 190 pages, When it was done, I dreamed one night that I followed Virginia Woolf into the river and took the stones from her pockets, so badly did I want her to live and to write and write and write.

My first read of 2018 was Billy the Kid and I actually feared that it would all be downhill from there. How could anything match that? And then as the year wore on, thankfully there were other stars to pluck from the sky. When I finished To the Lighthouse on the last day of December, it felt like a whole meteor shower swirling about. How can any light remain in the sky after a book like that?

But onward to 2019 – my “to-read” list is already long and I know something special awaits. I can still see stars!

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Bookmark.

Watch this space. Turns out I cannot blog and be bedridden with the flu at the same time. Currently on day four of fever, chills, cough, etc etc. The CE is on day seven and still not out of the woods. We didn’t think it could be flu because he had the flu shot. So much for that…

I will do the Top Ten book post as soon as I’m able to sit at the computer without contemplating imminent death.

Oh, and the weather doesn’t help. Current mood:

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2018 Reading Re-cap: The Best of the Rest, Part II

I have these recurring moments of panic when I realize that “too many books, too little time” is not just a bumper sticker quote but a real conundrum. I will never read everything I should, let alone everything I want. Let alon everything on my nightstand, bookshelf or in my Kindle library.

Which makes re-reads a particularly painful undertaking. How do I force myself read a book again when all those unread ones are calling out to me? I instinctively resist every re-read, but truthfully, once I dive in, I always find something that passed me by the first time. My two re-reads in 2018 were time well spent:

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (144 pages, audiobook narrated by Dan Stevens, published 1818)

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A towering classic. I was even more impressed with it the second time around. The catastrophic outcome of unbridled ambition is the theme that entranced me the most in this reading. Victor Frankenstein laments “Like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained to an eternal hell.” And the complexity of Frankenstein’s grotesque creation touched me more this time around, as well. Pitiable, yet truly monstrous. There is something of each of them in all of us. Highly recommended.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (512 pages, Kindle, published 1943)

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A lighter classic, but a classic nonetheless. I first read this as a teenager, yet all these years later the magic was the same: I turned the first few pages and somehow inhabited once again the young Francie Nolan stealing time to read on her Brooklyn tenement fire escape. Francie wouldn’t believe the current rent prices in Williamsburg, but everything else in this heart-filled coming-of-age novel remains timely and timeless. There is Katie, and her mother, who loves Francie’s brother best “Francie went to the back of her mother’s heart.” And Johnny, her father, a drunk who “lived in a half-dream world”. Francie’s goal at age 11 is to “get out of that place” and some day go across the Williamsburg Bridge. Spoiler alert: she makes it! Highly recommended.

The only reads that make me cower more than re-reads are short story collections. How fiercely I resist them! I find something jarring about them, careening from one tale to the next, but sometimes they just demand to be read, like these two:

Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor (320 pages, audiobook narrated by Bronson Pinchot, Karen White, Mark Bramhall and Lorna Raver, published 1965)

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Peak Southern Gothic and family dysfunction on steroids, O’Connor’s characters are an every-deadly-sin parade of gargoyles. There are weak, resentful grown men tied sullenly to their mother’s apron strings, bitter and angry men and women, and children who solemnly bear the burden of suffering the sins of their fathers and mothers and grandfathers. The stench of the human condition is burned into every one of these stories like a cattle brand. I won’t say they are a fun read, but they are classic Flannery O’Connor and therefore recommended.

The Son of the Wolf: Tales of the Far North by Jack London (169 pages, audiobook, narrated by John Chatty and Jim Roberts, published 1900)

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I mostly try to steer clear of Jack London’s stories simply because I cannot bear the casual cruelty to animals that haunts his works. And yes, one of these stories made me weep, but it’s the price one has to pay to experience this astonishing collection of London’s work. The backdrop is a permafrost white-out of the inhospitable 19th-century Yukon Territory and the characters are roughhewn, peculiar and sometimes contemptible. It is altogether spellbinding. Highly recommended.

Another genre I rarely read these days is children’s literature, but two good books literally dropped into my lap this year:

The Poet’s Dog by Patricia McLachlan (96 pages, hardcover, published 2016)

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My stepdaughter, Tina, handed me this book and said she thought I might like it. If she had told me it featured a talking dog, I might have declined to read it and so would you. But Teddy, the Irish Wolfhound, only speaks to children and poets, and that’s a horse -or dog – of a different color. What a sweet story. Recommended.

The Case of the Disappearing Kisses by Rosanne Ullman (32 pages, paperback, published 2018)

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A little girl can’t go to sleep because she is afraid her parent’s goodnight kisses disappear. This book is especially dear to me because its author is a longtime precious friend of mine. I’m so proud of you, Rosanne!

And lastly, a trio of novels:

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (496 pages, Kindle, published 2017)

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This National Book Award finalist is a family saga so sweeping it made my head spin. The central theme is the struggle of early 20th century North Koreans eking out a life in Japan where they are treated as perpetual outsiders. Each of the family’s four generations could have peopled a book of their own and sometimes this read felt to me like ten pounds of book stuffed into five pounds of pages. But it is very well written and deserving of the kudos it as received. Recommended.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (256 pages, audiobook narrated by Emma Thompson, Douglas Booth, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ella Purnell, Jeremy Irvine and Lily Cole, published 1817)

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This was an “Audible original” meaning that it sacrifices somewhat the unabridged book to an audio performance, so it is not technically pure Austen but it is sufficiently satisfying. Set in the social scene of 19th century Bath, England, it is sort of a comedy of manners and somewhat silly and frothy, but a pleasurable listen nonetheless.

The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty (192 pages, paperback, published 1972)

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A book club friend gifted me this fine read, published first in 1969 as a story in The New Yorker magazine, then refined in book form where it went on to win the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Part of Welty’s genius is her detached but generous sympathy for her characters, even the unsympathetic ones. Protagonist Laurel McKelva comes home to New Orleans and copes with two calamities: the death of her beloved father and the baggage from his recent marriage to a much younger woman who can best be described as a “piece of work”. Laurel struggles to take possession of her place in her childhood home and of her family memories while tussling with her appalling stepmother over the family bread board. Recommended.

Almost done with 2018! Next week I’ll wrap up the re-cap with the best of the best, my top ten reads. Stay tuned – and send me your recommendations for my 2019 list!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2018 Reading Re-cap: The Best of the Rest, Part I

“Acquiring even simple pieces of information physically alters the structure of our neurons”   writes John Medina in Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (264 pages, paperback, published 2009) Maybe this is why I love to read so much – I can almost feel the little clicks and whirs scritching away with every paragraph. I’m not big on the self-help genre, but this was a book club assignment and I ended up really enjoying it. Medina’s book is sort of “Oliver Sacks light”; less cerebral perhaps, but pithy and practical.

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More of the best of the rest of my 2018 reading:

Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (The History of NYC Series) by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace (1416 pages, Kindle, published 1998)

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Yes, one thousand four hundred and sixteen pages of NYC history. This 1999 Pulitzer prize winner was my most ambitious read of the year. When I walk the streets of Manhattan now, it is with an awareness that the Lenape Indians once trod here, that the Dutch settlers were beaten out by the British, that immigration problems are nothing new (the history of German, Irish and Chinese immigrants in NYC is fairly hair-raising) and that, unsurprisingly, political corruption has a very long and very rich history here. More a chronological encyclopedia than history book, it is still a must-read for any earnest student of the world’s greatest city.

Nothing Like it in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 by Stephen Ambrose (432 pages, Kindle, published 2000)

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I’m glad I read this book. But I didn’t exactly enjoy reading it. It is a bit terse, a bit dry, and I felt like it took me as long to read it as it did to build the railroad. Ambrose’s insistence on packing every technical detail into the race to lay track from west to east and east to west somehow managed to dull the excitement of the incredible achievement that was the transcontinental railroad. Still, it gave me a much better understanding of that period of history and of the route of Interstate I-80, which traces the railroad’s hard-won path.

Advise and Consent by Allen Drury (622 pages, audiobook narrated by Allan Robertson, published 1959)

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I read somewhere that this 1960 Pulitzer Prize winner holds up as the iconic primer for understanding American politics, and so it does. Yes, it’s a bit of a period piece – our world was a somewhat less cynical place back in the 1950’s – but the give and take, the tit for tat, the sweeping and sometimes ruinous ambitions of those who are drawn to Capitol Hill remain the same over the decades. A major thread through the book is about who might be consorting with the Russians. Everything old is new again (eye-roll).

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (449 pages, audiobook narrated by Heather Lind, Norbert Leo Butz and Vincent Piazza, published 2017)

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Not that Manhattan Beach, Californians. This novel by Pulitzer prize-winning author Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad) takes place on that patch of beach by the same name at the tip of Brooklyn. The 1930’s, gangsters, a poignant father and daughter relationship and WW II-era divers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard are the subjects Egan weaves into this winsome and immersive tale. She is a real talent. Of the character Eddie, remembering his daughter Anna as a child: “Her small, warm hand slipped inside his own. It was always there, that hand, like a minnow finding its crevice.”

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (560 pages, audiobook narrated by Dean Robertson, published 1998)

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Finally got around to reading this. I’m in that very tiny minority who are not avid fans of Barbara Kingsolver, but I have to say this was an absorbing listen. Everything Kingsolver disdains about God and man is wrapped up in her character of Nathan Price, the megalomaniacal holy-roller free-lance missionary who drags his wife and daughters from Georgia to the Congo with disastrous results all around. The prose is luscious and lyrical, the spiritual and political underpinnings of the novel less so. But it is memorable for its characters, one of them being the Congo itself, which Kingsolver presents in all its dark, relentless mystery.

The Secret Scripture: A Novel by Sebastian Barry (304 pages, audiobook narrated by Wanda McCaddon, published 2008)

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The elderly Roseanne McNulty has been housed in a Sligo mental hospital so long she doesn’t even remember when or why she came there. Or so she says. “No one even knows I have a story”, she thinks, but the psychiatrist Dr. Green, who is charged with her care, becomes curious about her past and thus the story begins to unfold. Barry is a spell-binding storyteller and so tender in his use of language that I hung on every sentence of this tale of Irish politics and family secrets.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky: A Novel by Mark Sullivan (460 pages, audiobook narrated by Will Damron, published 2017)

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Sullivan, a long-time collaborator of author James Patterson, has said he was at a personal low point in his life when someone told him in passing about Pino Lella, an Italian freedom-fighter in World War II. Sullivan found the seventy-nine-year-old Lella, fictionalized his story in this novel and felt his own life redeemed in the process. Some of the feats attributed to Lella in this tale left me wondering how much was true. How one young man could be so Zelig-like, appearing everywhere in Italy at the most pivotal of moments during the war, was a bit curious to me. However, the story is a compelling one, and my very favorite aria, Nessun Dorma, is prominently featured, so I’m not complaining.

Next week – the rest of the best of the rest. After that (finally) the year’s Top Ten.

Happy reading!

 

 

 

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He Said, She Said: Memoirs and Biographies, Part II

Alas, I will never travel to most of the nooks and crannies of the world I’d like to see, but sometimes I’m tempted to buy one of those travel maps and put pins in it for the places I’ve gone in my reading. For this half dozen memoirs and biographies I traveled to gymnastics meets, spent time in chilly Boston winters and lush Maine summers, wandered the hills of Tanzania, rattled across Asia by train, soared in the winds above Kitty Hawk, North Carolina and rode the rails with hobos.

I was also transported to places you can’t find on a map. To places where the soul is buoyed by scripture or haunted by mental illness. To the place of reveling in solitude and also to the one of despairing in loneliness.  I watched the wings of ambition take flight and felt the exhilaration and loneliness of life on the road.  Let me take you there with me:

Unfavorable Odds by Kim Hamilton Anthony (280 pages, paperback, published 2010)

We’d been invited to a very special awards ceremony sponsored by Athletes in Action and Kim was the emcee, flawlessly herding a room full of basketball greats with impeccable aplomb. I watched in wonder as this incredibly poised woman ran the show and I wanted to know more about her. Lucky for me, her book was on sale at the event.

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Kim was the first black woman to be recruited and awarded a gymnastics scholarship to UCLA. The obstacles she overcame to reach that achievement make a vault or balance beam look easy peasy. She grew up poor in Richmond, Virginia. Dad was unreliable, locked in a struggle with drugs.

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Somehow, the family came together over Kim’s gymnastics dreams, cleaning gymnasiums in barter for her lessons. Kim went on to be 1987 NCAA Floor Exercise Champion and 1989 NCAA vault champion, but she would probably say her greatest achievement is her walk with the Lord. Her book is a humble and moving testimony to her faith and an inspiring reminder that “with God, all things are possible”.

Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character by Kay Redfield Jamison (522 pages, Kindle, published 2017)

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The author is highly esteemed for her professional standing as a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University and a visiting professor at Harvard University and the University of Oxford. She also happens to be intimate with bipolar disease, having suffered from it throughout her life. So no wonder her study of Lowell was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV was born with a silver spoon (think Lowell, Massachusetts), growing up in Boston with his “monstrous” mother and belittled father. He was, from an early age, obsessed with greatness, and a malignant sense of grandiosity blossomed along with his poetic talent. Considered one of the most important post-war American poets (he won the Pulitzer in 1947 and 1974, his extravagantly manic episodes haunted and in strange ways dovetailed with his genius. He spent much of his adult life in and out of hospitals and only with the advent of lithium treatment in the late 1960’s did he experience any real relief from his illness. The highs were exceedingly high and the lows seriously so. The only real peace Lowell seemed to find was at his family retreat in Castine, Maine, a place so idyllic that it’s now on my to-visit list. The book is not a snappy read but an absorbing one, although the author’s bedazzlement with her subject sometimes seems to leave objectivity behind.

Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey by Jane Goodall, Philip Berman (304 pages, Kindle, published 1999)

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This is a congenial memoir, and who wouldn’t want to read about Goodall’s groundbreaking work with chimpanzees? Goodall’s open-minded powers of observation allowed her to transcend “scientific” constraints of the day and also to wonder out loud “How sad that so many people seem to think that science and religion are mutually exclusive.” Her spiritual beliefs are somewhat inchoate and she has a poor grasp of some of the scripture she quotes, but her thoughts on the biblical texts of man’s dominion over animals is something I will always remember fondly from her book: “many Hebrew scholars believe the word ‘dominion’ is a very poor translation of the original Hebrew word v’yirdu”, which actually meant to rule over, as a wise king rules over his subjects, with care and respect.” What I will also remember are her cherished solitary rambles through the Tanzanian bush: “always I have enjoyed aloneness”, she shares.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough (337 pages, Kindle, published 2015)

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Another pleasurable read from David McCullough, who truly knows how to tell and pace a story. Everyone knows that Wilbur and Orville were first in flight, but McCullough tells the story behind the story of these “two workingest boys” from Dayton, Ohio. He patiently describes their childhood and family and years spent tinkering in their bicycle shop and how they dreamed of flight by studying the minute behaviors of birds on the wing. Unlike their flashier competitors with hefty bankrolls behind their efforts, the Wright brothers worked so quietly and independently that it took years for the U.S. government to realize how significant their accomplishment would be to future defense efforts. A worthy read.

The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train through Asia by Paul Theroux (352 pages, Audiobook, narrated by Frank Muller, published 1975)

I saw this book recommended on a travel web site and thought perhaps it would be a palliative for my self-diagnosed dromomania (favorite new word!) And it sufficed, although I think Theroux must have been writing this book at a dark-ish time in his life. He is a bit more cranky and sullen than wryly observant, but then, maybe I would have been, too, if I’d spent four months on a series of ever creakier trains. Thanks to Theroux, though, I was able to travel in complete comfort to Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, (slightly friendlier places in 1975…) Pakistan, India (where in Calcutta he observed “…the city seemed like a corpse, on which the Indians were feeding like flies…”, Ceylon (Sri Lanka today), Singapore, Vietnam (where fried locusts were on the menu!), Japan and the long, long train journey through Siberia. “Train travel animated my imagination” wrote Theroux, and mine as well through reading this book. Technically, it may be more a travel book than a memoir, but Theroux’s ego spills sufficiently into the narrative to make it quite a bit about him.

The Road by Jack London (126 pages, Audiobook, narrated by Michael Baker, published 1907)

Not to be mistaken for the dystopian book of the same title by Cormac McCarthy, this is a much more cheerful tale by that great storyteller Jack London. If Theroux experienced discomfiture during his time on the trains, it was nothing compared to this memoir of London’s time “riding the rails” during the economic depression of the 1890’s. The life of a tramp was not a romantic one, yet London writes a good-hearted primer of how to be hobo. The thrill and the dangers of “decking”, “riding the rods” and the “blinds” are amply described, along with pro tips for begging a meal at a front door and pointers for comfortably passing the time in jail for a vagrancy conviction. But since this is London, there are also his sharply drawn observances of casual cruelty, as when a gypsy chieftain whips a woman and no bystander raises a hand to stop him. “Man is the only animal that maltreats the females of his kind”, he notes.

“I went on the road because I couldn’t keep away from it” says London, a consummate dromomaniac if I ever saw one.

Where will you be book-traveling next? If opening a book isn’t sounding like a page-turner to you, here are some lifehacker tips from Reddit to build your book-reading habit. Happy reading!

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