Tag Archives: The Animators

Thirteen Days in Poland, Half a Day in Slovakia, Two Books and the Ghost of Another 

H and I enjoyed our time in Poland last year so much that we decided to go back, this time combining a bit of gentle urban exploration with a few walks in the mountains. We started off in Gdansk whose beautiful old town reminded me of the Baltic States. All meticulously rebuilt, of course: like so many cities in Central Europe, Gdansk was flattened during the Second World War.

Given this summer’s dismal start in the UK, we were hoping for sunshine and we were in luck, spending much of the first few days lolling about on our riverside apartment’s balcony, wandering around the market buying things for supper with the odd outing including one to Oliwa Park, a particularly lovely stretch of green space. Sadly, the botanical gardens seem to have turned into a building site but there were gorgeous wild flowers flourishing in little patches of scrub all over the city, the kind of display that British gardeners spend years patiently coaxing into existence.

Towards the end of the week we took ourselves off to the small seaside town of Sopot, a short train ride away. It was sweltering by the time we arrived. Trudging to the end of the pier and back was distinctly unappealing so we turned off down a leafy path instead, ending up in the next small town by way of a delightful, ever so slightly rundown café for lunch.

We didn’t get up to much in the way of culture in Gdansk although we did visit the Polish Post Office, defended by its staff against the invading German Army who attacked it on September 1st 1939 in one of the first acts of the Second World War. It still operates as a post office – we bought some stamps there – and there’s a tiny museum attached which tells the story with no fuss or frills.

On Saturday morning we caught the super-fast, comfy train to Kraków for a night, spotting storks along the way. Despite its reputation as one of Poland’s finest sights, we preferred both Wroclaw and Poznan’s squares to the Rynek much of which we’d last seen under wraps for restoration. Sunday morning was spent ambling around Planty, the elegant tree-lined circular park which encircles the city, after dawdling over a particularly delicious breakfast at a pretty café before setting off for Zakopane in the foothills of the Tatras where we planned to spend a week walking although the heatwave put the kybosh on much of that.

Zakopane turned out to be delightful away from the main drag which is stuffed full of stalls aiming to flog tat to tourists. The town became popular as a resort in the nineteenth century and is full of quaint timber houses sporting a plethora of steeply gabled attic windows in the Zakopane Style developed by Stanislau Witkiewicz. The Jaszczurówka Chapel, gorgeously carved both Zakopane Style cottageoutside and in, is a particularly lovely example but it was the cottage hidden away in the woods across the road from our hotel that charmed me.

Far too hot for hiking crowded trails on our last day by which time we’d walked almost every square inch of Zakopane so we slipped over the border into Slovakia, driving to Levoča, a small UNESCO-listed town, beautifully restored. We’d spent a couple of uninspiring days in Bratislava three years ago but Levoča and the lovely countryside surrounding it made us both wonder if Slovakia might be worth another look some time. One last breakfast buffet and it was time to come home, bringing the dirty washing mountain with us.

And the books? I’d been planning to readCover image something by John Boyne for some time and A Ladder to the Sky looked as if it would fit the holiday reading bill nicely. Boyne’s literary anti-hero, Maurice Swift is an opportunist, a beautiful young man, obsessed with writing but lacking in the storytelling department, who will do anything to succeed. Stuffed full of literary allusions, Boyne’s novel is a witty, intelligent read which pokes satisfying fun at the book world.

Cover imageFriendship is the theme of Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators which reminded me a little of Rachel B. Glaser’s Paulina and Fran with its story of Sharon and Mel who meet at art college and go on to make a name for themselves as edgy cartoonists. Childhood secrets, thwarted love and the ravages of fame run through Whitaker’s debut which, although a little patchy at times, earned its place in my holiday luggage.

I had been expecting to include Anna Quindlen’s Every Last One here but when I opened it I found my copy had been misbound. Inside was a different book from the one promised by its cover, and not one that particularly appealed, leaving me in a fit of fretfulness about whether I had enough to read for the rest of the holiday.

Books to Look Out for in January 2017: Part Two

Cover imageThe first part of January’s preview roamed around the world taking in Pakistan, Poland, Estonia, Ghana and the UK – home for me. This second part has its feet firmly planted in the US, beginning with a debut which has caused quite a stir in my neck of the Twitter woods. Emma Flint’s Little Deaths takes a crime committed in 1960s New York and fashions it into a novel. 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.

Addison Jones’ Wait for Me, Jack is set on the other side of the continent from Little Deaths near lovely San Francisco. Jack and Milly were married in 1952, caught up in the wave of optimism that swept through post-war America. Sixty years later, having weathered infidelity and disappointment, they’re still together despite sharing little in common. In what the publishers describe as ‘a love story that tells the truth – or one or two truths – about love and marriage’ Jones’ novel charts a long relationship and the social change that has transformed Jack and Milly’s world. Sounds very appealing to me.

I first spotted Nathan Hill’s The Nix back in the summer in a Berlin bookshop. I would have bought it then had we not been at the beginning of the holiday – it’s quite a doorstop. Samuel hasn’t seen his mother since her departure from the family home when he was a child. Now she’s everywhere, accused of committing the kind of crime that captivates the media who are painting her as a radical hippie. Samuel is inveigled by his publisher into telling his mother’s story but first he needs to get his hands on the facts. In a novel which ‘moves from the rural Midwest of the 1960s, to New York City during Occupy Wall Street, back to Chicago in 1968 and, finally, to wartime Norway, home of the mysterious Nix. Samuel will unexpectedly find that he has to rethink everything he ever knew about his mother – a woman with an epic story of her own, a story she has kept hidden from the world’ according to the publishers. Sounds right up my alley.Cover image

The two friends at the centre of Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others would have pounced on Faye’s story with glee, I’m sure. Film-makers Meadow and Carrie grew up together in Los Angeles. When Meadow becomes involved with a woman whose seductive powers of listening become the subject of one of her documentaries, she sets in train her own downfall. ‘Heart-breaking and insightful, Innocents and Others is an astonishing novel about friendship, identity, loneliness and art’ say the publishers. It sounds intriguing.

Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators also explores friendship, coincidentally in the film world. Both from the rural South and both fanatical about comics, Sharon and Mel are visual arts majors at a snobby East Coast liberal arts college. Ten years after graduation they’re living and working together in Brooklyn, doing well for themselves in a small way. Their first full-length film is based on Mel’s childhood, making the private public which inevitably has consequences. ‘Sweeping and intimate at once, the novel is an exquisite portrait of a life-defining partnership. Whitaker captures the shifting dynamics between Mel and Sharon—between all the characters, really—with such precision and sharpness that it’s hard to let them go’ say the publishers which puts me in mind of Rachel B. Glaser’s wonderful Paulina & Fran.

Michael Chabon’s Moonglow ventures into that same public/private territory, 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 Philadelphia 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.

Cover imageMy final choice might well backfire horribly. In Everybody’s Fool Richard Russo revisits the down-at-heel town of North Bath a decade after the events of Nobody’s Fool, picking up the story of ‘Sully’ Sullivan, now beset by health problems. It sounds as if there’s a good deal to entertain in Russo’s novel, including an escaped cobra, but returning to the scene of a much-loved book is always a dicey game for a writer. The publishers promise ‘a novel which is a pure pleasure to read – genuinely funny, enormously heartfelt and imbued with the warmth and wisdom that are Richard Russo’s stock in trade’. Let’s hope they’re right.

That’s it for the goodie-packed January. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis if you’re interested and if you’d like to catch up with the first part it’s here. Paperbacks to follow shortly…