Tag Archives: Anna Quindlen

Four Days in Amsterdam, Fourteen Days in Central Europe and Three Books

John Betjeman statue (St. Pancras International)We’d already decided on another central European railway jaunt this year then Eurostar announced its new London to Amsterdam service. The idea of arriving in a city dear to both of us without setting foot on a plane was irresistible so we decided to extend our holiday to include a few days there. John Betjeman was kind enough to see us off from St Pancras International.

Gorgeous weather meant we spent most of the time outside, in contrast to our Christmas visit a few years ago. I’ve been to Amsterdam many times during most seasons but never in June when the gardens are at their best. Amsterdammers manage to get cottage garden flowers to grow in the tiniest of cracks in the cobbles outside their home. There was an abundance of climbing Hollyhock (Amsterdam)roses, wisteria and greenery everywhere but my favourite was the good old-fashioned hollyhock.

Sunday was spent wandering around Hortus Botanicus and on Monday morning we took ourselves off to the Vondelpark, a haven for bird life with its many lakes and wild areas including a couple of storks busy feeding their four young. The afternoon’s treat was tea at the Tassen museum taken in one of their elegantly decorated rooms overlooking the Herengracht canal. Our only other bit of culture was Our Lord in the Attic, a remarkable hidden Catholic church built within a merchant’s canal house at a time when Amsterdam proclaimed its religious tolerance but could not be relied upon to practice it.

Art Nouveau frontage (Leipzig)On to Leipzig the following day, a stone’s throw away from Dresden which we visited on our last railway holiday. Lots of Arts Nouveau and Deco to ogle here, run through with arcades full of ritzy shops, and some lovely green spaces to explore around the city. Leipzig’s slice of culture was the Grassi, a complex of three museums. We only managed to see the applied arts section – so extensive, beautifully organised and rich in treasures that it could give the V & A a run for its money but, mystifyingly, we had it almost to ourselves.

Next stop Görlitz on the Polish/German border where Wes Anderson shot much of The Grand Budapest Hotel using the interior of the vast Görlitzer Warenhaus department store as a stand-in for Gorlitzthe Grandhotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary. Unlike Leipzig, Görlitz escaped the devastation of WW2 bombing. It’s a little gem of a town much beloved by film-makers, from Quentin Tarantino to Jackie Chan. Inevitably it’s been dubbed Görliwood, I suspect by the local tourist board.

Our first Polish city was WrocƗaw whose name Botanical gardens (Wroclaw)sounds nothing like it looks to an English-speaker’s eyes. WrocƗaw is one of many central European cities razed to the ground in WW2 but, like Dresden, it’s been meticulously and beautifully restored with jaw-dropping architectural delights at every turn. It’s also home to botanical gardens that put Amsterdam’s in the shade plus an exquisite Japanese garden on the edge of town.

We lost around 14°C between WrocƗaw and Poznań which was something of a Craftsmen's cottages, Rtnek (Poznan)relief. Poznań’s grand square is a little smaller than WrocƗaw’s but its row of colourfully decorated craftsmen’s cottages marks it out. Every day at noon two mechanical goats emerge from beneath the town hall clock next to the cottages and butt horns twelve times to mark the hour. A chilly wind blew a light drizzle in our faces at the appointed hour but being British we’re used to that kind of thing and we were determined not to miss the show.

House of Nicolaus Copernicus (Torun)Our penultimate stop was Toruń which, like Görlitz, emerged from WW2 miraculously unscathed. It’s a small medieval walled city stuffed with Gothic and Gothic Revival red-brick architectural gems including the supposed birthplace of Copernicus (or Copper Knickers as we used to call him, sniggeringly, at school). H and I were both somewhat taken aback to find that it’s twinned with Swindon. Apologies to any Swindon-based readers but if you look to the left you’ll understand.

Our last two days were spent in Warsaw. The first thing we sawPalace of Culture and Science (Warsaw) when we walked out of the station was Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science looking oddly anachronistic and slightly menacing next to the many gleaming skyscrapers but still the tallest building in the city. As the museums close on Tuesdays and we’d arrived on Monday, we chose the Museum of the History of Polish Jews over the Warsaw Rising Museum and wished we hadn’t. Overwhelming multimedia and short quotes displayed without context resulted in an exhibition which lacked any coherence. Not a patch on the Jewish Museum in Berlin. I learnt nothing from it I didn’t already know.

We spent Tuesday ambling around the old town, beautifully restored after its WW2 bashing, and loafing in the stylish Café Bristol. After nearly three weeks away we were both ready for home and wondering if Mischief would still recognise us, let alone be pleased to see us. Then I remembered that we’d be arriving almost precisely at feeding time.

 And the books? Three of the six I took hit the spot:

Anna Quindlen’s Miller’s Valley, a perceptive, small town novel about a bright young woman whose future is clouded by family complications.Cover image

Megan Bradbury’s Everyone is Watching tells four very personal stories of New York from the points-of-view of Robert Mapplethorpe, Edmund White, Walt Whitman and Robert Moses the urban planner who shaped the modern metropolis.

Karl Geary’s Montpelier Parade, a heart wrenching, beautifully written story of a young boy’s love for an older woman.

Thanks to those of you who’ve stuck with me through this very long post, and to H who planned the whole adventure and who’s already thinking about another. Back to books and brevity on Friday…

Paperbacks to Look Out for in August 2017: Part Two

Cover imageThis second batch of August paperbacks kicks off in New York with a surefire bestseller then wanders into smalltown America before briefly taking off around the world, offering a few more out-of-the-way books to explore. Emma Flint’s Little Deaths takes a crime committed in 1960s New York and fashions it into a novel which I’m pretty sure will turn up on a quite a few beaches this summer. In the heat wave of 1965, Ruth Malone wakes to find both her children are missing. Paying more attention to the wagging tongues keen to emphasise Ruth’s colourful life then they perhaps should, the police jump to conclusions but a tabloid journalist new to the job thinks otherwise. Crime fiction isn’t my usual territory but the setting and premise of this one makes me curious.

Anna Quindlen’s Miller’s Valley takes us out of the city and into smalltown America, a favourite setting for me. Looking back on her life spent in Miller’s Valley, the town her family have lived in for generations, Mimi Miller ‘confronts the toxicity of secrets, the dangers of gossip, the flaws of marriage, the risks and inequalities of friendship, loyalty and passion. Home, she acknowledges, is somewhere it’s just as easy to feel lost as contented’ according to the publishers who raise the bar extraordinarily high by comparing the novel with Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I’m a Cover imagefan of Quindlen’s fiction so expectations are high, but perhaps not that high.

Gregoire Delacourt’s novels are often written in a delightfully playful style yet deliver acute observations. His last novel, The First Thing You See, took a mischievous swipe at celebrity culture all wrapped up in a sweet love story but We Saw Only Happiness sounds much more sombre. Antoine is determined that his son and daughter will have the perfect childhood, a far cry from his own. He’s convinced he’s found the secret of a happy life but tragic circumstances turn him into someone he no longer recognises. This may not sound a particularly inspiring premise but I’ve enjoyed all the novels by Delacourt I’ve read so far.

Enrique Vila-Matas’ The Illogic of Kassel sounds entirely different. A writer is invited to take part in Documenta, a contemporary art exhibition held in the German town of Kassel every five years. All he has to do is to write every morning in a Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of town. ‘Once in Kassel, the writer is surprised to find himself overcome by good cheer. As he strolls through the city, spurred on by his spontaneous, quirky response to art, he begins to make sense of the wonders that surround him’ say the publishers. Paul Auster’s recommendation is the lure for me here.

Cover imageI’m not sure what Auster would think of it but I’ve seen lots of recommendations from bloggers for my final choice. Chibundu Onuzo’s Welcome to Lagos is about five runaways who’ve left their home for the metropolis in search of a better life. They’re a disparate bunch made up of a private, a housewife, an officer, a militant and a young girl. ‘Soon, they will also share a burden none of them expected, but for now, the five sit quietly with their hopes, as the billboards fly past and shout: Welcome to Lagos’ according to the publishers.

That’s it for August. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for anything that’s caught your eye. If you’d like to catch up with either August’s new titles or the first batch of paperbacks, they’re here and here.

Still Life with Breadcrumbs: A touch of the Anne Tylers

Still Life with BreadcrumbsNot so long ago I had a run of heart-wrenching reads so it’s a pleasure to report that Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Breadcrumbs is in the opposite corner. Not that there were any guarantees that it would be – I remember two of her previous books, Black and Blue and One True Thing, being quite harrowing at times – but this particular novel reminded me of Anne Tyler: acutely observed, entertainingly  written and a pleasure to read.

It opens with what might be a gunshot, although it turns out not to be. Rebecca Winter is lying in the bedroom of the rundown cottage she’s rented for a year. Divorced, almost sixty and with ailing parents, she’s sublet her New York apartment in an attempt to eke out her meagre income from her diminishing royalties. Rebecca’s a photographer, made famous by the eponymous photograph of her kitchen after yet another impromptu dinner sprung on her by her then husband who never felt it was part of the deal to help clear up. The gunshot, she realises, was the springing of a trap set by the local roofer, Jim Bates, to capture whatever was making the skittering noise on her roof the previous night. Urban to the bone, Rebecca find adjusting to small town New York State hard but money is tight and needs must. She gets to know Sarah, an anglophile tea shop owner; Tad, a professional clown with an operatic voice and of course, Jim, the taciturn roofer. She begins to find things to photograph, the most intriguing being a series of white crosses adorned with memorabilia. Then, one winter’s night when the snow is so deep she’s unable to open her door, Jim arrives to dig her out. There are no real surprises in the way things turn out but the way we get there is thoroughly enjoyable.

Quindlen has a nice line in wry observation and a smart turn of phrase: Rebecca’s dilapidated cottage is the ‘real estate version of online dating, built atop lies, leading downhill to disenchantment’. Dry, often very funny, asides and observations on characters and what happens to them are woven through her narrative together with lots of pleasing little trails leading off into side stories often finishing ‘but that was later’. Every character has a story and the loquacious Sarah makes sure that Rebecca knows them all. All of this lifts Quindlen’s novel well above the sentimental while remaining firmly in heart warming territory. It’s a treat, and it’s made me want to pick up her backlist and read the ones I’ve missed.