Good morning, Budapest!

In Germany, it is the Donau, in Slovakia, Dunaj. Hungarians call it the Duna. Napoleon called it the “king of the rivers of Europe”. We know it as the Danube, and just as we felt we had just begun to relax into dreamily meandering its serpentine curves through Germany, Austria and Slovakia, reality intruded. We had hardly boarded back onto the ship in Bratislava when the next day’s itinerary was delivered, reminding us to pack up our bags and don’t forget the passports! What? The dream was coming to an end.

Fortunately, we had one last evening to savor the river, with a sundeck reception as we passed through the locks at the Gabčikovo-Nagymaros Dam at sunset.

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It was with real affection that we had our last shipboard chats with the friends we had made during the cruise. We toasted the good fortune that we were one of the few boats to actually make the final leg to Budapest – the majestic Danube was so shallow due to drought that many cruisers were arriving Budapest by bus rather than boat. Here was our first glimpse of “the Paris of the East” early the next morning:

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Our by-now beloved tour directors made sure we didn’t have too much time to mourn our departure from the ship, gently prodding us to be on time for our visit to Budapest’s grand Central Market Hall. What an immense, amazing place!

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Accessibility check: yes, there were stairs!

On the upside, there was also plenty of Hungarian paprika. And the famous national brandy known as pálinka, which The New York Times has described as tasting “like rubbing alcohol with a hint of fruit.”

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Yes, we’d had to say goodbye to our boat, but it was a brand new day and we were in Budapest, with many more adventures in store. Leave it to Tauck to save the best for last…

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Bratislava, briefly.

Tourists don’t linger long in Bratislava, perhaps because its past woes seem to overshadow its present charms. Slovakia has endured a long history of insults: the most recent – and aesthetically displeasing – blows were inflicted by the Soviet Communists, preceded directly and unfortunately by the impact of the Nazis.

Before that, Bratislava was an unheralded addendum to the 1920 creation of Czechoslovakia after a long history under the thumb of Hungary and the Habsburgs.  Its name has varied with its fortunes: the Germans called it “Pressburg”, the Slovaks knew it as Prešprorok, for the Hungarians it was Pozsony, the Greeks called it Istropolis and long, long ago, the Romans christened it Posonium.

In fact, it’s not even quite settled whether Slovakia is East or West. Some historical purists claim that “East of Vienna, the Orient begins.” But Martin Sloboda, our knowledgeable, Bratislava-boosting on-ship presenter that morning insisted that Slovakia belongs to Central, not Eastern Europe. Wandering its old-town streets, we saw evidence of both:

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Slovakia has struggled for its hard-won identity and is greatly heartened by its recent economic boost as a member of the EU. But as Andrew Beattie says in The Danube: A Cultural History, “It will take decades for cities such as Bratislava to rid themselves of the visual blight inflicted by socialist city planners for whom functionality and cheapness were everything, while anything that could be seen as a nod towards an aesthetically pleasing environment in which people could live was frowned upon as dangerously bourgeois.”

There was the charming old town, and one lovely boulevard a few blocks from the river dotted with outdoor cafés; but beyond lay a distinctly unappealing jumble of Communist-era blocks looking as much as anything like the house of cards that period in history represented. Like every other guide we encountered on this trip, the one who shepherded us through the cobblestoned streets of old-town Bratislava spoke in hostile tones of Communism and what it did to Slovakia’s economy.  As for the 1993 “velvet divorce” of Slovakia and the Czech Republic – well, “it’s complicated”, but we were told “most people didn’t want it.”

We are simple creatures, though, and what we will remember of our few hours there was the oft-photographed sculpture that redefines “manhole cover”,

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the forbidding Communist-era Ludovit Stur statue,

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an excellent capuccino

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an introduction to “Bratislava rolls”,

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and the earnest tinge of patriotism we felt when we saw our flag waving outside the American embassy. Our brief experiences in these countries so recently and tragically trampled by the Soviets and the Nazis, we were reminded that freedom can never be taken for granted.

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We had a 3:00 p.m. “All Aboard” call, and soon we were underway again, the beautiful late September afternoon marred only by the awareness that we were heading toward our final port of call. We were sailing for Budapest!

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Vienna, redux.

We’d come full circle. Our trip had begun with a blurry, jet-lagged handful of days on our own in Vienna before meeting up with our Tauck tour in Prague. Now we were back, but this time under our professional tour guides’ professional purview, complete with coach, the ever-present Vox Boxes and a meticulously planned itinerary.

Which way is better? If you’re in the “decidedly-averse-to-group-travel” category as we’d always been, well, of course, you’ll want to go it alone. We had a lovely (if sleep-deprived) time stumbling about the city on our own those first few days. But if, just if, you’re a person of a certain age and have become a bit weary of lugging your suitcases from city to city to city, you might be surprised to learn you won’t hate a tour.

“Oh, we’ve already seen Vienna” was the thought that sprang to mind. But right off the bat, our Tauck coach tour of the Ringstrasse provided sights we had not yet seen. First, a passing view of the lovely Jubilee Church, completed in 1913 and so named to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria.

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Then a glimpse of the Prater’s iconic ferris wheel, revered by devotees of The Third Man and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise:

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The subsequent walking tour brought us back to some familiar sights – the Pestsäule, or Plague Column, on the Graben being one of them:

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and we opted out of the Naschmarkt tour since we’d toured it during our previous visit. Feeling a bit müde after all our touring, we also opted out of the afternoon visit to the Upper Belvedere Palace, which was a HUGE MISTAKE – it is a must-see for fans of Klimt. I will always regret that I passed on my opportunity to see The Kiss. Lesson learned: go see everything!

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We had decided to rest that afternoon because Tauck had a big night planned for us. “Dress up”, they said, for a special evening at the Palais Pallavicini! This was most definitely something we would not have experienced on our own – a beautiful Viennese feast, never-empty glasses of Grüner Veltliner, and entertainment by local musicians, singers and dancers. And yes, there was no avoiding it,  The Blue Danube Waltz was played…

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Next day we had a fabulous Tauck-sponsored tour of the Schönbrunn Palace, marred only by some elbow-poking from fellow tourists who looked suspiciously like those we encountered in Salzburg. The Schönbrunn is a very busy place that receives well over a million visitors annually..

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Then a bit of free time where we said our farewells to Vienna over a lovely lunch at Café Imperial…

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and then, it was time to move on.  We had a 3:00 p.m. “All Aboard” deadline for departure to our next stop… Auf Wiedersehen, Vienna!

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Dreamy Dürnstein.

On a successful trip, there’s always a moment or day that sifts into your memory to be instantly conjured up far into the future. You can be doing some sort of drudge chore (ahem, chicken-coop cleaning in my case!) and suddenly that golden moment appears like a gift:  I remember that! And you see it like you were there anew. On our Danube river cruise there were many such days, but one of my favorites was our visit to Austria’s Wachau Valley and the exquisite village of Dürnstein.

First memory moment that day was cruising silently through the morning fog from Linz and watching the sun rise over the Danube as we sipped lattes in our stateroom:

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There was a festive brunch that morning:

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and then we were reminded to take in the sights of the gloriously picturesque Wachau Valley as we headed toward Dürnstein:

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We were not the first to discover it. The Celts were planting grapes here in the fifth century, B.C. And the Romans, whose soldiers reportedly preferred to be paid in wine, cultivated some of the area’s first vineyards. Riesling and Grüner Veltliner are the best-known wines to come from the Wachau Valley.  In the twelfth century, Richard the Lionhearted, returning from the Third Crusade, spent a season here under ransom by Duke of Austria Leopold V. If I’m ever going to be in captivity, please, let it be in Dürnstein! It won’t be solitary confinement though – more than a million visitors come to this tiny town each year. Luckily, our time there was relaxed and uncrowded. It was a perfect day!

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After a walking tour, we peeked into the former Augustinian monastery:

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Its tower is a Dürnstein landmark.

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And offers the best views in town:

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If we are ever lucky enough to return, we’ll stay at the Hotel Sänger Blondel, where we found a magical shaded garden café after our tour.

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Because Tauck always thinks of something special, we were treated to a wine-tasting:

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If the grape is not your passion, the area is also famed for its marille – the prized apricots they add to their famed jams, stews and brandy:

An accessibility note: walking down the hill to the boat was much easier than walking up, for those of us with “issues”. All I can say is it was absolutely worth it – don’t miss Dürnstein – it is the stuff dreams are made of…

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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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