Tag Archives: Karl Geary

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 September 2017: Part One

There’s an abundance of paperback treats coming up this September, so many that I’ve split them into two posts. Top of my list is Jake Arnott’s rollicking tale of thieves and whores, The Fatal Tree, set in 1726. Told to us by Billy, a confessional writer with his own story, it’s about Edgeworth Bess, banged up in Newgate Gaol awaiting trial for possession of stolen goods which may well lead her to Tyburn’s gallows. Replete with period detail, salaciousness and vivid descriptions, Arnott’s novel is both nicely taut and very funny at times. A wonderful piece of historical storytelling as atmospheric as Michel Faber’s The Crimson and the White.

Nathan Hill’s The Nix is an entirely different kettle of fish, although parts of it are set in 1968, certainly classed by my contemporary historian partner as history. Samuel is an assistant professor in his mid-thirties when the story of the Packer Attacker breaks: a woman in her sixties is facing prosecution for throwing stones at the Governor of Illinois. The woman turns out to be Samuel’s mother who left the family home when he was just eleven. Hill takes Samuel and Faye’s stories from the heady liberalism of the ‘60s to 2011, the world still reeling from the global financial crisis. Riveting stuff for me, full of striking writing and it’s very funny, too: Hill hurls well-aimed barbs at all manner of things from social media to advertising, publishing to academia – the latter spot-on according to H – to mention but a few.

Michael Chabon’s Moonglow also takes a long hard look at American history by the sound of it, drawing on stories told to him by his grandfather. The novel takes the form of a deathbed confession in which an old man tells his grandson stories long-buried, revealing a life far more adventurous than the grandson could ever have expected. ‘From the Jewish slums of pre-war Cover imagePhiladelphia to the invasion of Germany, from a Florida retirement village to the penal utopia of a New York prison, from the heyday of the space programme to the twilight of ‘the American Century’, Moonglow collapses an era into a single life and a lifetime into a single week’ say the publishers. Given Chabon’s storytelling skills this should be unmissable.

The next three titles are on a much more domestic scale beginning with Karl Geary’s Montpelier Parade described by the publishers as ‘luminous and moving’. Set in Dublin, it’s about Sonny who falls for Vera, both of them from very different backgrounds. ‘Unfolding in the sea-bright, rain-soaked Dublin of early spring, Montpelier Parade is a beautiful, cinematic novel about desire, longing, grief, hope and the things that remain unspoken’ say the publishers which sounds very appealing.

Gwendoline Riley’s Baileys Prize shortlisted First Love could be described as exploring similar territory although the relationship between Neve and Edwyn may not seem like love to everyone. Neve is a writer, working at home and living with Edwyn who is much older than her, often cranky and unpredictable. As we learn more about Neve’s life we begin to understand why she puts up with the stream of insults hurled at her. Riley leavens her spare, pin-point sharp novella’s bleakness with spikes of humour. Unsettling and thought-provoking, it ends on a note of frail hope.

Cover imageLove and its difficulties also runs through Laura Kaye’s engaging outsider’s view of rural life, English Animals, about a young Slovakian woman who leaves London to work as an au pair for a couple at Fairmont Hall, the house which is both their home and a financial millstone around their necks. Mirka arrives to the sound of bickering but despite their turbulent relationship, Richard and Sophie warmly welcome her into their home where she is surprised to find herself learning taxidermy, Richard’s new money-making scheme. A thoroughly enjoyable novel, peopled by well-observed characters and very funny at times although the squeamish may want to skip the more detailed taxidermy descriptions. I’m delighted to see that the publishers have kept that striking jacket for the paperback edition

That’s it for the first instalment of September’s paperbacks. Should you wish to learn more, a click on a title will take you to a full review for those I’ve read, and to a more detailed synopsis for Moonglow and Montpelier Parade. And if you want to catch up with September’s new titles they’re here. Second batch of paperbacks to follow soon…