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Remembering Jane Austen

I could not let today’s date go by without acknowledging the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s death. She died 200 years ago today at the age of 41. Bibliophiles around the world are celebrating her legacy and the new British £10 note featuring her image will come into circulation later this year.

Jane Austen lived in Bath between 1801 and 1806 — which is where I took this photo — and two of her novels are set there. I went to Bath because I’m a Jane Austen fan, but the city is well worth a visit regardless of your reading preferences.

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Canada 150: Neepawa

While I was on leg one of my cross-Canada road trip, I made a small detour to Neepawa, Manitoba. It wasn’t a long detour — certainly not as long as my first detour to the Bulkley Valley. But seeing as Neepawa is not on the Trans-Canada Highway, it was, technically, out of the way.

I remember it being a spur-of-the-moment decision. While studying the road map, I turned to my sister (who had by this time joined me on my cross-Canada road trip) and I said, “Hey, let’s stop in Neepawa!”

Why Neepawa?

Neepawa is the birthplace of Margaret Laurence, the much-lauded Canadian author. Back in the day, her novel The Stone Angel was required reading in most Canadian high school English classes. That novel put the fictional town of Manawaka on the literary map of Canada. And Manawaka was inspired by the town of Neepawa.

Our quick stop in Neepawa proved to be one of the highlights of that road trip. We didn’t know this until we got there, but the small town is an oasis in the middle of the Canadian prairie, filled with big, old leafy trees and big, old lovely houses. One of those houses, the one in which Margaret Laurence grew up, is now a small museum, which we made a point of visiting.

We also made our way to the cemetery where Laurence is buried and where the original stone angel stands. The statue is part of the headstone for John Andrew Davidson, a Manitoba politician who died in 1903. It has no wings, but apparently it was called an angel by the residents of Neepawa long before Margaret Laurence wrote her novel.

And here she is.

Happy Birthday, Laura Ingalls Wilder!

This week was the 150th anniversary of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birth on February 7, 1867, and the 60th anniversary of her death on February 10, 1957. I’m a few days late, but I couldn’t let both dates pass by without acknowledging them.

That’s because I owe Laura Ingalls Wilder an enormous debt of gratitude. She is the author of the Little House books that I devoured as a child and that had a lot to do with shaping who I am today.

But this is not a book blog. It’s a travel blog, and you would do well to wonder what the connection is between the books I read as a little girl and the travelling I do today. It’s quite simple, really. The Little House books ignited my fascination with the past and made me the history geek that I am today. And I think I’ve mentioned once or twice on this blog how it is my interest in history that often dictates where I go or what I’m interested in seeing when I’m off on walkabout.

So that’s the connection. Like I said: simple.

I was introduced to the Little House books by family friends from Iowa. (Like Laura, I also spent part of my childhood living in the American Midwest.) For the first few years after our move to Canada, these friends would send my sisters and me a birthday box. (My two sisters and I share a birth month.) Inside that box one year, along with socks that were far too small, were two books: Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie. I claimed one, my sister took the other, and my future as a lifelong booklover and history geek was sealed.

My mother used to tell us how, when we lived in Iowa, she could feed us kids platefuls of buttered corn on the cob for dinner and nothing but and we would eat it all. Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family lived in Iowa for a short time and so, based on that shared connection, here is a photo of Iowa corn, taken on the same farm where the family who introduced me to her books lived. I visited those friends with my parents some years ago, giving me the unique opportunity to reflect as an adult on what living in that community must have been like for my Canadian parents.

For the record: those stalks of corn are almost half as tall as me again. Which puts them at about ten feet high.

Now that’s fertile country. Corn Belt, indeed.

Iowa Corn

Robbie Burns in Central Park

Robbie Burns

Look who I bumped into during my walk through Central Park last month. It’s the Scottish Bard himself, Robbie Burns. And seeing that today is Robbie Burns Day, I thought I would share the photo with you.

This bronze statue has stood on Central Park’s Literary Walk since 1880. The reason the poet looks so anguished is he is portrayed while writing a poem to one of his loves, Mary Campbell.

Apparently Robbie Burns had quite a few loves. Some of them at the same time.

Armchair Traveller: A Year in Provence

a-year-in-provenceTo combat the rainy day blues I get every November, I’ve been basking in my sunny memories of a week in Provence and taking you all along for the ride. At the same time, I’ve been rereading Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, the book that put Provence on the map for most of us English-speaking tourists.

And I have a confession to make: this book almost stopped me from ever going to Provence.

It wasn’t the book itself. In fact, when I finally got around to reading it, I loved it. It’s a delightful read.

No, it was the hype around A Year in Provence that almost stopped me from going to Provence. The book got so much attention when it was published in 1989 that it put me off. I figured if the only travel book anyone was talking about was about Provence, Provence was going to be overrun with tourists and I didn’t want to go anywhere near the place.

Heh. So what changed my mind?

It was actually a travel blog by friends of a friend who spent six months in the Luberon (the area Peter Mayle wrote about). I followed that blog faithfully during this couple’s stay in France and was intrigued by their descriptions of the region. (It was also the first time that a seed was planted in my mind that, hey, maybe I could spend six months somewhere in Europe, since my work is “have laptop, will travel.”)

But what sold me on Provence, specifically, was a post this couple wrote about Collioure in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France, just next door to Provence, and which I had visited a few years prior to my decision to visit Provence. Collioure is a lovely little fishing village right on the coast of the Mediterranean, almost in Spain, and this couple described it as far too touristy for their taste. Too touristy? Collouire? If that was their assessment, then Provence must be far more devoid of tourists than I had been led to believe by the success of Peter Mayle’s books. Maybe I should check the place out after all.

I highly recommend A Year in Provence. As the title indicates, Mayle describes a year of living in Provence, month by month, as the seasons change, and as his visitors come and go. It’s truly a book about the people of Provence rather than a travelogue.

Apparently Peter Mayle was encouraged to write the book by his agent when he kept sending letters filled with excuses of why the novel he was suppose to be writing was going nowhere because of all the interruptions he was experiencing from his builders and his neighbours.

“Tell me more about those builders and neighbours,” his agent said.

And the rest, as they say, is l’histoire.

Happy Birthday, Charlotte Brontë!

Haworth Moors

Not that I need a reason to travel, but I often select my travel destinations based on the books I’ve read. A setting comes alive in a way that it never can, quite, in a book. You don’t completely understand Sinclair Ross’s short story “The Painted Door” until you’ve witnessed a prairie blizzard. And I didn’t realize how much small-town Ontario influenced Robertson Davies’ fiction until I saw small-town Ontario for myself, many years after being introduced to his work.

And so it was when I saw the moors near Haworth.

Haworth Moors and Fields

Haworth in West Yorkshire is where the Brontë sisters grew up. And the moors in Yorkshire just might be the bleakest landscape in all of England. They are certainly not what you picture when you hear the words “English countryside.”

And that is why I had a new appreciation for the Brontë novels after walking the moors by Haworth. I realized that the despair Jane felt when she walked away from Thornfield Hall was mirrored by the landscape she found herself wandering through, and I understood Heathcliff’s angst and turmoil after feeling the wind blow across the moors. (Wuthering, incidentally, is a Yorkshire word for “stormy weather.”)

Haworth Crossroads

Of all the Brontë novels, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is my favourite, and today is the 200th anniversary of her birth. Which is the reason for this post.

Happy birthday, Charlotte Brontë!

And thank you.

Armchair Traveller: The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry

The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry

Several years ago, a friend gave me a copy of Kathleen Flinn’s The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry as a Christmas present. She said she knew I would like it.

She was right. I devoured the book.

I picked it up again last month when I was writing my post about the film Julie and Julia. I flipped through it, rereading bits here and there, but was stopped cold by this sentence near the beginning of the book:

With that, I lost a job I was desperate to quit.

I immediately sat down and began to reread the book from start to finish.

Kathleen Flinn wrote The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in 2005. A journalist by trade, she based her account on the journal entries she wrote during her time in Paris, the audio tapes she recorded during demonstration classes, and the interviews she conducted with students, school staff, and alumni. The result is a highly entertaining and enlightening account of one American student’s experiences while studying at one of the top culinary schools on the planet.

Studying at Le Cordon Bleu is not for the faint of heart. The curriculum is daunting, the expectations are high, and the classes are taught in French. Flinn completed the three-part Diplôme de Cuisine (Cuisine Diploma); each part (Basic Cuisine, Intermediate Cuisine, and Superior Cuisine) is three months long. One can also study pastry and complete a three-part Diplôme de Pâtisserie, or do both cuisine and pastry, and receive Le Grand Diplôme.

The binder of more than a hundred recipes each student is given at the beginning of the course contains only lists of ingredients. Students are expected to make notes during the demonstration class, then repeat the recipe ― exactly ― during their practical class. Like I said, not for the faint of heart. When Flinn explains to the chef she has never filleted a fish before in her life, he replies, “I can tell. You should practice ― at home.” Another chef yells at her after a particularly trying class, “Vous perdez votre temps!” (You are wasting your time.)

I learned some interesting bits of trivia while reading this book. For instance, did you know that quiche comes from the German word for “cake”? Or that the sharper your knife when you dice onions, the less likely you are to cry? (Cue the book’s title.) Provençal cuisine ― with its olives, olive oil, tomatoes, and saffron ― has its origins from the time of the Romans, who occupied the region and named it Nostra Provincia (our province).

Back to the beginning: Flinn lost her job and enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu (using up all her savings to do so) with the encouragement of her then-boyfriend (now husband) who remembered it was something she had always said she wanted to do. When she protests that she knows no one in Paris, he merely says, “You’ll know me. If you want me to, I’ll go with you.”

(Sigh. Not only is this book a food/travel memoir, but it’s a love story as well.)

“Living is like driving. You have to pick a lane,” Flinn’s grandmother used to tell her. At the start of Basic Cuisine, Flinn wonders if she picked the right lane, but by the end of this book, you know she has. The chef who told her she was wasting her time becomes her greatest mentor and she thanks him, in the end, for being so tough on her. She was already an accomplished food journalist before studying at Le Cordon Bleu; her culinary studies only cemented that career and proved to her she had found her bliss.

So why did the sentence I read earlier this summer (“With that, I lost a job I was desperate to quit”) make me drop everything and reread this book in pretty much one sitting?

It’s because earlier this summer I found out I was going to lose my job ― a job I didn’t know I was desperate to quit until I lost it. This past winter I was sinking deeper and deeper into a funk about what to do about this job I thought I wanted, and the only thing that was giving me any enjoyment was cooking.

Yup. I’ve been spending my weekends recuperating from my day job by hunkering down in my tiny condo-sized kitchen. Sadly, the most appealing aspect of all this cooking was that I was alone. Somewhere around Easter I realized I needed to avoid all contact with people on weekends, for the simple reason that when you’re an introvert, and you work in a small, high-energy office, it takes you two days minimum to recover before you are ready for Monday morning. Obviously, that’s not a tenable situation if you want to have any kind of social life.

Yesterday was my last day at work. I don’t exactly know what I will be doing next, although I’m pretty sure I won’t be running off to Paris to go to cooking school anytime soon. But this much I do know: there will be a lot more writing and travelling in my future.

And probably some cooking, too.

If you’re even minimally interested in cooking, I recommend you read The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry. (Yes, there are recipes, too.) And if you’re at a crossroads in your life and are wondering what lane to choose next, I highly recommend you read it.

Reel Life: Julie & Julia

Julie & JuliaI had the opportunity this past week to introduce some friends to the film Julie & Julia. I was secretly pleased when they selected that DVD out of the pile I had brought, but I had no idea when I grabbed it at the last minute that most of the group had never seen the film.

Julie & Julia was Nora Ephron’s last film and stars the legendary Meryl Streep and the charming Amy Adams. It was Ephron’s producer who had the brilliant idea to combine into one screenplay two memoirs published around the same time. Julia Child’s My Life in France is about her life in post-war France, and Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen evolved from Julie Powell’s blog about cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in post-9/11 Queens, New York. Beyond their names, Julie and Julia had in common the love and support of a devoted husband, a love of food, and the need to find some meaningful work to fill their days.

Early in the film, Julie Powell’s husband declares that “Julia Child wasn’t always Julia Child” ― and that’s precisely what makes the film so entertaining. Although I’m as fascinated as the next traveller about the daily routine of life as a New Yorker, the depiction of Julie Powell’s long subway commute and soulless work cubicle ring a little too close to home. But when the action switches to France, you’re transported to another time and place to witness the transformation of Julia Child, ex-pat American wife, to Julia Child, chef, author, and TV star.

Julia Child’s introduction to French food ― mere hours after she arrives in France ― is sole meunière. The epiphany she experiences in the look, smell, and taste of that first meal is, for me, the essential moment of the film. And it reminded me of the moment when I had my own epiphany about French cuisine. It was in a small restaurant in Perpignan where two friends and I shared a meal after a long day of sight-seeing. I ordered a tomato salad. It looked so simple ― a single layer of tomato slices on a small plate, sprinkled with an herb vinaigrette ― but I knew with my first bite that I was tasting something unlike anything I’d ever tasted before. The French don’t make simple tomato salads; they create spectacular tomato salads.

As much as my friends enjoyed Julie & Julia, they were a little more circumspect than I about the film; one remarked that she wouldn’t have reacted nearly as well as Julie Powell if the first words out of her partner’s mouth after disappearing for two days following a heated argument were, “What’s for dinner?”

As for me, whenever I’m homesick for French food, I’ll be (re)watching Julie & Julia.

Happy Birthday, Ringstrasse!

I’ve had Vienna on my mind for much of the past few months ― and not only because I recently posted about Salzburg.

It all began with Frederic Morton’s A Nervous Splendor: Vienna, 1888–1889. The book was required reading for my Modern Europe history course a couple of decades ago, and I enjoyed it so much that I later bought Morton’s other book about Vienna: Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913–1914.

And then promptly packed both books in a box for one of my (many) moves.

This winter I finally got around to pulling both books off the shelf. I reread A Nervous Splendor and then, for the first time, I read Thunder at Twilight. (I’m about three-quarters of the way through the latter at the moment.) A Nervous Splendor tells the story of the last few months of Crown Prince Rudolph’s life and his suicide, while Thunder at Twilight tells the story of the last few months of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s life and his murder. Both men were heirs to the Austrian-Hungarian throne until their untimely deaths. The suicide of Rudolph was the beginning of the end for the Austrian-Hungarian empire, and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 ― we all know what happened after that ― was the nail in the empire’s coffin.

Both non-fiction books read like novels, and both are useful if you want to learn something about the waning decades of nineteenth-century Vienna and the city’s role in the build-up to World War I.

(Coincidentally, I found out just a few days ago that Frederic Morton, an Austrian-American writer, died two weeks ago in Vienna.)

In addition to my Viennese reading, I recently enjoyed Vancouver Opera’s performance of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, which transported me to 1870s Vienna, if only for a few hours.

And a couple of weekends ago, I saw Woman in Gold, a Hollywood film that far surpassed my expectations, which tells the story of an Austrian-Jew who took the Austrian government to court to get back the paintings stolen from her family by the Nazis.

All of this adds up to an awful lot of Viennese armchair travel. And, except for my reading of the Morton books, all of it was unintentional.

But unintentional armchair travel is a good excuse for posting about Vienna.

Vienna was one of the cities I hit on my first European walkabout by Eurail. Initially I found it rather overwhelming; my travelling companion was ready to leave almost as soon as we arrived.

But there is a spectacular majesty to Vienna that I came to respect before we moved on a few days later and I now think the city is too often overlooked. The seventh largest city in the European Union, sandwiched between Bucharest and Budapest, it gets far less attention from tourists than London, Berlin, Madrid, Rome, and Paris (aka Europe’s Big Five).

At the heart of Vienna’s majesty is the Ringstrasse ― a 5 km ring of boulevards that forms a semicircle through the heart of Vienna. Emperor Franz Joseph I, father of the above-mentioned Crown Prince Rudolph and uncle of the above-mentioned Franz Ferdinand, was much influenced by Napoleon III’s demand that Paris be transformed by Baron Haussmann. In 1857, Franz Joseph ordered that Vienna’s decaying walls be torn down and replaced with a series of grand new buildings.

The Burgtheater was completed in 1888.

The Burgtheater was completed in 1888.

And so began one of the largest construction projects ever completed in Viennese history: neo-Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical buildings sprouted up along on the Ringstrasse over the next several decades. These include the Vienna State Opera, or Wiener Staatsoper (1869), the Votive Church, or Votivkirche (1879), the Palace of Justice (1881), the Austrian Parliament (1883), the Town Hall, or Rathaus (1883), the University of Vienna (1884), the Imperial Court Theatre, or Burgtheater (1888), and the twin museums of Natural History, or Naturhistorisches Museum (1889) and Fine Arts, or Kunsthistoriches Museum (1891). Only the imperial palace, the Hofburg, is older than the Ringstrasse.

I initially started writing this post about Vienna because of all the recent happy coincidences I described above, but while doing my research, I discovered another happy coincidence: it was 150 years ago today, in 1865, that Emperor Franz Joseph I officially opened the Ringstrasse. Hence, the title of this post.

The Naturhistorisches Museum and the Kunsthistoriches Museum are mirror images of each other.

The Naturhistorisches Museum and the Kunsthistoriches Museum are mirror images of each other.

I think Franz Joseph was perhaps a tad premature in opening the Ringstrasse ― it would be some years before the construction of all those grand buildings would be complete and who wants to promenade past a noisy, dusty construction site? Not me and I speak from personal experience. But eventually the “Ring” was to become an enjoyable city promenade for Viennese and tourist alike ― as I learned during my first visit to the city ― and has remained so for 150 years.

All of the world’s large cities have ring roads, but only Vienna has a Ringstrasse.

The Austrian Parliament Building is one of the largest buildings on the Ringstrasse.

The Austrian Parliament Building is one of the largest buildings on the Ringstrasse.

Through My Lens: Doors of Dublin

Dublin Doors

Not the best of photos, but it will do for Bloomsday, I should think.

This year is also the 100th anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Dubliners — a collection of short stories I’ve not looked at since my university days, but thoroughly enjoyed then.

Methinks it’s time I recommend to my Book Club that we read some Joyce.