Books In The Time Of Corona

Image

Books In The Time Of Corona

“That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.”  Jhumpa Lahiri in The Namesake

I think you are either a person who reads or a person who doesn’t. If you read, you are going to want to do it more. If you don’t, I’m not going to be able to convince you to put down the remote. I decided to use some of this time we have been given to read great books that I had missed. Here are ten of them.

Nostromo Joseph Conrad

At the beginning of the quarantine, I took on the daunting task of reading Nostromo. I was greatly intimidated by the very long prologue to one of Joseph Conrad’s greatest and most complex novels. Once I started, it became a compelling adventure story with profound psychological insights and political implications. Nostromo tells the tumultuous history of the fictional South American country of Costaguana. Written at the time of the development of the Panama Canal, Nostromo is set in the imaginary province of Sulaco, which secedes from the federation of Costaguana in order to protect its natural resource, the silver mine. The parallels with the ‘revolution’ in Panama by the United States in 1903 are striking; just as Panama seceded from Columbia to satisfy the material interests of the canal builders, so the secession of Sulaco serves the material interests of ‘the Gould company. Conrad creates the “perfectly incorruptible”” Nostromo who we don’t get to know until the second half of the novel. He is an Italian immigrant and a heroic symbol within the community. Nostromo, is the only man who can save the silver in the San Tomé mine and secure the independence of the province of Sulaco. The question is whether his morals and integrity are as unassailable as his reputation. Will he stand firmly in his ideals once the fate lies in his hands?

Angle of Repose Walter Stegner

Angle of Repose is a classic of American Literature. Lyman Ward is a recently divorced, wheelchair-bound retired history professor (aged 58) struggling to find his way through the turns life has taken. Determined to write a biography of his beloved and famous artist/author grandmother, he moves into his grandparent’s long-empty home in Grass Valley, California in 1970. Most of the book is about Susan Ward an accomplished writer and illustrator, who found herself an accidental pioneer of the western United States during the 1870s and 1880s.The character development in Angle of Repose is exceptional. Wallace Stegner shows great incite about two groups of people that can be hard to understand – the physically disabled and strong, complex women, of the Victorian era. His words do justice to the great beauty of the American West. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 and no wonder because the prose is beautiful.

The Movie Goer Walker Percy

The Movie Goer written in 1961 is about John/Jack/ Binx Bolling, a Louisianan who drifts along. He is in a line of work that he finds interesting, but he has no real purpose in life. Like Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, he finds meaning in movies. Little things he sees remind him of different films or actors—and the films are always more interesting than his routine life. He is single and about to turn thirty. Most of the story is about John drifting through Mardi Gras and his life in New Orleans. It is a nice little tour of New Orleans neighborhoods and some of the nearby coastal bayous and by the end of the book John has matured. It is a coming of age story. You can’t help but draw comparisons to Holden Caulfield with his eye for identifying self deceit and insincerity (though in a much more Southern genteel way).The book remains current because of the alienation and despair that persist in both good and bad times and the power of language and humor to give them meaning.

Americanah Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

On a simple level, Americanah is a love story set in Africa, Europe and America. As you turn the pages, you quickly realize that Adichie uses the novel format as a social commentary about race. Protagonist Ifemelu ironically discovers that she is black as she leaves a politically tormented Nigeria for the United States. There are shrewd observations about repatriation, sizing up and distancing between African blacks and African Americans, the value of dark skin in Caucasian societies, the arrogance of white savior mentality and the fascinating world of African hair. The novel is filled with insightful blog posts by Ifemelu as she experiences America.

The Overstory Richard Powers

The Overstory is a huge novel about trees, cleverly structured around roots, trunk, branches and seeds. Richard Power’s ability to make us see something we take for granted is really special. Blending fiction, historical writing, scientific description and literary prose, he writes a story of climate catastrophe and hope. The plot of The Overstory focuses on people’s various intergenerational connections with trees. It is a human story in the context of environmental loss from climate change. The lonely broken people of Power’s story seek other people to save the trees and ultimately our world. This is a reminder that it is everyone’s problem. It was the winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

A Gentleman In Moscow Amor Towles

At the age of 33, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to house arrest for life in the elegant Hotel Metropol in Moscow’s Theatre Square. Instead of his familiar suite, his new abode is now a tiny room in the attic.The book covers Russia’s turbulent years from the 1920s to the 1950s. Rostov witnesses the momentous changes in Russia, not Tolstoy-style through the debate of powerful men and the clash on the battlefields, but in the detail of everyday life in the hotel as he quietly observes the changing guests and procedures. We are left to imagine the mentality of the new regime’s leaders and life outside the hotel. I love the character of Alexander Rostov with his old school manners, adaptability, kindness and quiet dignity.The writing is elegant, effortless, beautiful and funny. I really enjoyed this book.

A Long Petal In The Sea Isabel Allende

I am a huge fan of the author and so I was glad to pick up her latest book. The story starts in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. The first part of the book is captivating, and emotional as the reader is introduced to the various characters. After joining half a million refugees walking from Spain to France, the leading characters Victor and Rosa are accepted on the rescue ship M/S Winnipeg chartered by the famous Chilean Nobel-prize winning poet and politician Pablo Neruda bound for Chile. (fact) They have the same problems fleeing refuges have today and they are among the few lucky ones that make it to Chile. They begin a new life and later they are swept up in the Pinochet reign of terror. Victor and Rosa escape to Venezuela who welcomes all refugees fleeing from Chile. They return to Chile and again start a new life as Pinochet dies and Chile slowly returns to democracy. As the book headed towards a heartfelt and compelling conclusion, I found myself reading slower, not wanting to leave the book, its story and characters.This is a stunning historical literary novel and one I cannot recommend highly enough.

The Orphan Master’s Son Adam Johnson

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2013, ‘The Orphan Master’s Son’ tells the story of Pak Jun Do’s journey from life in a North Korean state orphanage to professional kidnapper to a career in Pyongyang at the heart of Kim Jong ll’s regime.  It is an intriguing and sprawling story which explores several aspects of life in one of the most secretive countries in the world. Since there is no way of knowing how authentic it is, the line between fiction and nonfiction is blurred. I found it a carefully crafted, elegantly written, fascinating book to read.

The Assistant  Bernard Malamud

The Assistant was written in 1957 and won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. It is about a Jewish grocery store owner in Brooklyn in the 1950’s and the Italian assistant who works for him. The story is a tragedy about the Jewish immigrant experience in America at that time. It is also about Frank Alpine, a man trying hard to change himself. It’s a fight that each of us might be familiar with. We know what to do to be good yet we often lose ourselves to temptation, to take a shortcut to to have it easy. Malamud can write. The simplicity of the prose and dialogue and the depth and complexity of the plot make the Assistant a special book.

To Kill A Mockingbird Harper Lee.

Atticus Finch is my number two literary crush and so I reread To Kill A Mockingbird every once in a while.(Howard Roark is my number 1). The book offers so much more than the picture of a small Southern town in the depression era filed with prejudice, injustice and the bond of love between family members and neighbors. So many issues that Scout points out, in the book, are still very real problems today. Lee’s characters define themselves every time they open their mouths and so they stay in your mind long after you finish the book. Atticus is the epitome of the literary hero, quietly dignified, moral, and unpretentious, standing alone, if need be, to do what is right. When you reread the book, you see that Scout, Jem, Boo, Tom, Calpurnia, the judge, the doctor and the neighbors who take care of each other, bring something to the human, heroic response to the world. Because we as a culture have gotten so good at rationalizing our bad behavior, we often forget “to do what’s right”. That’s why so many years after this book takes place, our world is still broken, so I thought it was time to read it again.

Stay safe,

JAZ

Things I Have Learned In Russia

Things I have Learned In Russia

“They’re professionals at this in Russia, so no matter how many Jell-O shots or Jager shooters you might have downed at college mixers, no matter how good a drinker you might think you are, don’t forget that the Russians – any Russian – can drink you under the table.” Anthony Bourdain

Russia is the biggest consumer of heroin in the world. It started in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and started a 10 year war. This kickstarted the Afghan opium trade to fund the Afghanis in the war. Though it was sold all over the world, the Russians became the main consumers.

Russians never shake hands over a door way, they believe it leads to arguments.

For fans of The Master and the Margarita  (I am) there are walking tours and maps of Bulgakov’s Moscow.

Chelsea is the most famous Russian football club in the world. The club was founded in 1905 and later on in 2003 was bought by Russian businessman Roman Abromovich. I stayed in the hotel with them in Moscow. That was cool.

The Urals are the oldest mountains in the world.

The Russian State Library is the biggest in Europe and second in the World after Library of Congress in the USA. The Russian State Library is located in Moscow and was founded in 1862.

Screen Shot 2015-07-18 at 4.17.03 PM

Moscow actually has more billionaires living in the area than any other city in the world.

St. Petersburg was known as Petrograd from 1914 to 1924 and Leningrad from 1924 to 1991.

The Church Of The Savior Of The Spilled Blood was built by Alexander III in St. Petersburg on the same spot where his father Alexander II was murdered in 1883. As beautiful as the outside is, the inside is covered in breathtaking mosaics commemorating the story.

IMG_1516

Screen Shot 2015-07-19 at 7.48.20 PM

The Metro of St. Petersburg is the world’s deepest subway (about 100 m deep).

Screen Shot 2015-07-18 at 4.19.18 PM

The Trans-Siberian Railway  (connecting Moscow and Vladivostok) is the longest railway in the world.

The largest McDonald’s in the world is in Moscow and in Beijing (700 seats per each).
(a McDonald’s)

IMG_1523

The first Starbucks in Russia
 was in Moscow on Arbat St and I was there. I had a hard time ordering food in Russia since no one spoke English and everything was written in Cyrillic (several years ago) . I would just point and eat whatever I got. But in Starbucks I said soy latte with sugar-free vanilla and it was correct.

IMG_1549

The most famous computer game –Tetris – was created by Russian programmer Alexei Pazhitnov in 1985,

Russia has some of the best art institutions in the world, like Bolshoi Theater and Pushkin Art Gallery in Moscow, and Mariinsky Theater and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. My favorite dance company Eifman Ballet  is there as well. (Maryinsky Theatre)

IMG_1428

The Hermitage is one of the largest and oldest museums in the world. It was founded by Catherine the Great in 1754. The Hermitage has over 2.7 million exhibits and displays.The Museum is made up of six different buildings, including the Winter Palace (formerly the residence of Russian royalty.

Screen Shot 2015-07-18 at 4.31.05 PM

In Russia there are 10 time zones because of the enormous extent of its territory, from west to east.

The Moscow Cat Theater is a traveling circus that showcases cats. Cat theatre is very popular in Russia – not so much in other places.

Kremlin means fortress in Russian and was the biggest medieval fortress in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.(I had really bad hair in Russia but how often do you take a photo with the Kremlin in the background?)

IMG_1545

The Great Bell Tower is located on the north-east corner of the Kremlin and is said to mark the geographic centre of Moscow. Completed in the 1600s, it is it was the tallest structure in the city until the Russian Revolution. The Tsar bell is the largest bell in the world. It was broken during casting, and never rung.

IMG_1586

The Kremlin was home to the Tsar’s and presidents including Lenin and Stalin. (St. Basil’ Church)

IMG_1557

It is surrounded by some of Moscow’s best known sites, such as; St Basil’s Cathedral, Lenin’s Mausoleum, the Red Square, Kazan Cathedral and the State History Museum

IMG_1558

Communism is referred to as the time of the Soviets. There are retro trendy Communist cafes and restaurants – a certain nostalgia for “the way we were”. I had lunch at Stalin’s bunker. It was weird.

IMG_1527

Russian language uses the Cyrillic alphabet instead of the Latin and is one of the 5 most spoken languages in the world. (I believe this says Welcome To Stalin’s Bunker. I did a lot of fake translating in Russia. There was not one sign in English when i was there.)

IMG_1526

Peterhof is a royal palace built by the Peter the Great in the year 1710. The palace features buildings and gardens and these structures are known as “Russian Versailles”.

IMG_1482

There are about 176 operating fountains (including 40 huge fountains) and 5 cascades in Peterhof, located in the suburbs of St.Petersburg

IMG_1483

After an 18-month tour of Europe, Peter found himself extremely impressed with western traditions and customs. As a result, he decided to issue an annual tax of one hundred rubles for those who refused to shave their beards.

The renovation of the Amber Room at Catherine’s Palace took 24 years to recreate the amazing Prussian artistry.

Screen Shot 2015-07-18 at 12.36.45 AM

Built during Stalin’s rule, the seven buildings of Moscow, now the Hotel Ukraina, the Hotel Leningradskaya, Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Apartments, the Kudrinskaya Square Building, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Red Gates Administrative Building, and the main building of the Moscow State University, have identical architectural style. These buildings are evenly spread around the city and are known as the Seven Sisters in English and Vysotki or Stalinskie Vysotki in Russian. The typical architectural style is called Stalinist Gothic. The original idea was that people would work and live in one place. The idea of locking people up in the buildings appealed to the Soviet architects and the Soviet government.

Screen Shot 2015-07-18 at 12.39.45 AM

You never drink alone in Russia. It is abnormal and antisocial.Never drink without eating a bite of something immediately. If you are drinking vodka (and why wouldn’t you be?) it should be salty – olives or herring perhaps.Never sip vodka and never add ice or tonic. A shot of vodka is the only way.

There is a vodka museum in St Petersburg. Vodka is a drink ‘close to the human soul”. It is an all-purpose irreplaceable drink used in both joy and sorrow throughout Russian history.

Russians produce some of the best caviar in the world. You eat it from a metal caviar spoon with vodka of course, But be careful when buying it. Buy from a reputable vendor where you might pay a bit more, If you don’t read Russian you don’t know the quality you are getting and there is also lot of illegally produced caviar in Russia. (cruelly and unsustainable). Fresh caviar is sold in bulk in the open markets and fun to try there. You can only bring a small jar to the US and nothing that is not prepackaged. (Grand Hotel Caviar Bar St Petersburg)

Screen Shot 2015-07-18 at 4.38.19 PM

The Moscow metro which was opened in the year 1935 is famous for its elegant architecture with art, murals, mosaics, and elaborate chandeliers. The Moscow metro has a total of 182 stations, which boast of one of the deepest subway systems and Europe’s longest escalator in Park Pobedy.

Screen Shot 2015-07-18 at 4.23.30 PM

Easter is the most important holiday in the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1884. The Russian Jeweler Peter Carl Faberge made an egg for the Tsar that became a gift for Tsarina Maria. They agreed that Faberge would make an egg for Maria every year. This continued on through their sons. They were inspired by historical works of art from his travels or the Hermitage. Fifty six Imperial eggs were made of which only 44 were found. Some were on display in the Kremlin Armory (now a museum) but a Russian billionaire bought the collection and opened a Faberge museum in St Petersburg.

Screen Shot 2015-07-18 at 12.34.49 AM

Lenin has never looked better. Russia is obsessed with keeping his body intact and has used new experimental embalming techniques. The focus is to preserve the body’s physical form but not necessarily its biological matter. There is definitely some plastic involved. Queues are very long. (Lenin’s mausoleum)

IMG_1563

Many things in Russia are almost impossible to explain, There is a very good saying that you will hear over and over again as first response to your questions: “Rossiyu umom ne ponyat” which can be translated as “Russia cannot be understood with your mind” (a quotation from the poet Tyutchev).

Безопасно путешествовать (I think)

JAZ

Where Is The Starbucks?

“The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, non-fat, etc. So people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing or who on earth they are, can for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee, but an absolutely defining sense of self.” Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail, Nora Ephron

Where is the  Starbucks ?

It started  as a gift from Beijing. It was my first.Yes, im a Starbucks girl.I get free soy and flavorings when I can find my  gold card.   I know it’s a lot trendier to drink Intelligentsia or French Press , but I am an iced grande soy  three pump sugar-free vanilla latte.

When I started traveling after many years, I was surprised to see Starbucks. The world had gotten a lot smaller. I bought a mug in Athens, Edinburgh and London that summer. Now  I had the beginning of a collection.

It gives me a bit of a plan in a foreign country. I check when I arrive  if they have Starbucks (yes,there are some places that still don’t)  Sometimes its easy. In Tokyo and Madrid they were right downstairs from the hotel. In Sevilla  and Osaka they were across the street.

The only Starbucks in Russia at that time was in Moscow on Arbat Street.  I walked with some friends past the Kremlin and statue of Gogol to find it. I took a picture of the Starbucks sign in Cyrillic.  No one spoke English in Russia in most restaurants. I said iced grande soy sugar-free vanilla latte.  They gave it to me. That was the only thing in Russia I could order without  serious hand motions. I had no idea what I was ordering  most of the time.

In Vienna I was telling the owner of the Starbucks store about my Russian Starbucks experience. He offered me a few hundred dollars for it . He also had a collection.They were out of Starbucks mugs in Lima . It didn’t taste as good as their regular coffee.

Spending a long amazing  day with Anna in Hiroshima and Miajima, I was too tired to go to Starbucks but Anna pressed on so I have a Hiroshima Starbucks mug –pretty incredible considering our history.  I brought home Starbucks mugs from every city in Japan  – between the coffee and tea, that country is fueled by caffeine.

The Dublin one came from one of the many bookstores.  I was shopping on Oxford Street  in London and stopped in for  Starbucks and found all the U.K .countries.. In Bangkok it was near  No Sex Thai Massage.  Changing planes in Hong Kong I picked one up on the way.  My friend Lisa brought me one back from Munich and the following year I went with her.  My daughter took me to the one near her room  when she was studying in Prague. The tour guide in Hanoi had never had Starbucks before. I bought him his first one.

Their mugs travel well. You just  wrap them in a t-shirt and throw them in your suitcase. They don’t break.

The stores look exactly the same as they do here – complete with the same people sitting with laptops.  It always reminds me of one of those dreams where you are in a place that you know but you don’t.  The food is different. .  There are  interesting  fresh juices  and fabulous thick hot chocolate in Spain.  The UK  has my favorite ginger cookies.  In Japan, there are beautiful green tea desserts and it is all about shorts ( a discontinued size here) . There are excellent looking pastries in Vienna, Prague and Germany (where afternoon is always cake time) The Starbucks are always crowded.

I drink coffee from one of the mugs every morning.  All the mugs have a story and stories last forever.  Sometimes it is a friend’s story of a place I haven’t been to yet.  It is the perfect gift for me.  This blog was written  this morning while drinking out of a New Zealand Starbucks mug.

Fly Safe

JAZ