Feeling bookish

Last January my Goodreads app challenged me to set a number for the amount of books I would read for the year. I really had no concept of how much I was reading per year, just that it was a lot. I set the number at 50 and promptly forgot about it. Now it’s January again and there’s my app hollering for a goal in 2013. Beneath it, it claims that I read 65 books in 2012.

Maybe you’re thinking – holy crap that’s more than five books a month – or sounds about right – or damn, sister, get a life. I will just say two things: 1) I don’t have cable and 2) let’s remember where I live.

And a third thing: I love books.


Here are some highlights from 2012 (you can friend me on Goodreads for the lowlights):

* The Christmas Kid & Other Brooklyn Stories by Pete Hamill. I wrapped up the year with arguably the best book of 2012. PH is an author I know, and love. He writes about New York (which I also love) and paints pictures with words. These are short stories (which I usually don’t like) and quick slices of life, love and death in the city. Amazing.

* Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Haven’t seen the movie but happily read the book. I had no idea how the book was written and was pleasantly surprised. I feel like I can’t describe it any more without giving it away … so go read it. Prepare yourself for a ride.

* A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle. France is not my bag but Mr. Mayle makes me want to be there, and suffer the olive oils and the baguettes and every last wheel of cheese (bastard!). This is the book Frances Mayes could not write (yeah, I said it.)

* The Time in Between by Maria Dueñas. I’ve mentioned this before – an epic tale set in the Spanish Civil War set in Spain, Morocco, Portugal. I have not seen characters or scenes as clearly as I did with this book. What an impression she made on me with her storytelling. In 2013 I will track down a Spanish language copy.

* The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson. Whether you give a damn about Chicago or not, this is a seriously good read. I’ve heard critiques about it, but I thought it was a serious page-turner. Amazing, what people will do to each other at the height of their lives / careers / histories ..

* Bossypants by Tina Fey * audiobook is highly recommended. Picture me driving and snorting so hard I yank the wheel. This is why you need the audiobook. Tina Fey is freaking hilarious. Save this one for when you need a good laugh. It’s like sitting down with her for a beer and letting her give a monologue (and pick up the tab).

* The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. Sad, sad, sad. Dog lover or not, you will be moved by this book. And if you’re not, I don’t want to know about it.

* Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain. Hope you’re ready for cursing, food tips, recipes and a good lesson in kitchen Spanish. This is coarse, crude and hilarious – just like the author. (Now there’s someone else I want to have a drink with).

Honorable Mentions
* The Wishing Spell: The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer – Yes, the guy from Glee. Fantastical YA novel. Half Narnia, half Inkheart, altogether wonderful.
* Gregor the Overlander (Underland Chronicles) by Suzanne Collins. Yes – the author of Hunger Games. This series is much younger and as a result, far less dark, but enchanting nonetheless.
* A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway – For when you want to move to Paris and get drunk and write and live a very strange and wonderful existence.

Once Upon an Irish Library

In my earliest memories, my bibliophile mother was reading to me, taking me to libraries, teaching me respect for books and the power of the imagination. So of course, when I travel, these are things that mark my path through a new place. Where is the nearest bookshop? Donde esta la biblioteca? Point me to the books. Oh so easy to do, in bookish Ireland.

Here’s a quick peek down the stacks at the famous: Trinity College, the new: McClay Library, Queen’s University Belfast, the private: Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, and the old: Russell Library, NUI Maynooth.

Trinity College, Long Room. Courtesy of NYTimes Travel.

Trinity College, Dublin. This goes on most tourist checklists: Founded in 1592 as one of the Queen’s universities – and the oldest in Ireland. If you recall from my travel planning, I was loathe to pay 8.5 euros to see one page of an ancient  illuminated manuscript. Then I realized in order to see the famed Long Room, I had to pay up … and in I went. While the Book of Kells, penned in the year 800, is pretty epic .. the Long Room was for me. There, under high cathedral ceilings, I turned up my collar against the cold, and stared. Stared as though my eyes could not open wide enough.

A small exhibit marched along the middle of the room (that is indeed: long) – illustrations from long ago texts, explained in digitally reproduced images on giant posters among the stacks. A sedate velvet rope across each section was the only thing that stopped me from reaching out my bare hand to touch the spines of books. Tall books, small books, fat books. Leather or cloth, titles lettered in gold filigree or india ink. Wooden ladders leading high into the ceiling, to the uppermost shelves. I half expected Hermione to walk by me and release a book into the air, so it could nestle itself into place on the shelf.

Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. Courtesy of budgettraveladventures.

Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. While on the bus into Dublin, I sat next to a fellow book nerd who was most assuredly, a leprechaun. Before she disappeared into the city, she pointed me toward my next literary destination. Her eyes lit up as she talked about the private collection of Chester Beatty. I remembered seeing it noted as one of the free attractions in Dublin (and who doesn’t like free?), but didn’t know the details. She pressed her tiny gloved hand upon my arm, and insisted that I go. So I did.

Never ignore the advice of a leprechaun. The Beatty collection is tucked into the grounds of Dublin Castle (also free that day), and Paula and I wandered in and grabbed a floor plan. Sir Alfred Chester Beatty is in fact a native New Yorker who was later named Ireland’s first honorary citizen for his contributions to the country. Room after room displayed original texts, paintings, drawings, artifacts from Japan, Spain, Egypt, Korea. Eyes wide (again) and jaw wide open (again), we spent a long time walking through the collection, and admiring this man. What a beautiful way to share all of his precious collections with the world, and for free. Lonely Planet called the Chester Beatty Library the best in Ireland, and possibly the best in Europe. It has my vote, too.

C.S. Lewis Reading Room, McClay Library. Courtesy of QUB.

McClay Library, CS Lewis Reading Room, Queen’s University, Belfast. Again, on the advice of a good-natured Irish citizen, I found my way to the McClay Library at Queen’s University. Walking onto campus with my friend Nacho, he pointed out the greenhouse, and the gym in the distance. He mentioned the old library and the new, and I said, “we have to go to the new one.” He raised an eyebrow and said .. “you want to go to the library? Now?”

On the flight from Chicago to Dublin, my Irish seatmate Alan took note of the book in my lap and my interest in Belfast, and recommended the McClay Library. With a personal connection to it’s history and endowment, he mentioned that I should see the C.S. Lewis Reading Room … with the map of Narnia … and the door fashioned after the wardrobe. Again: eyes wide, jaw open. He chuckled and handed me his business card, in case I needed an in once I arrived. With a smile he turned and said, “I don’t think you’ll have any trouble.”

And I didn’t. Nacho announced us as a pair of study abroad professionals and the librarian opened the glass partition. The smell was new: new desks, new carpet, new gigantic Dell desktops. Students everywhere, studying for exams, not paying us any attention. Up the stairs and pushing through double doors, there was the reading room, guarded by a hand carved wooden door and standing open. Huge book nerd moment. You could practically see the lamppost in the distance, the snow gathering at the door. In the very modern circular room, a smooth glass tabletop protects a map of Narnia, and C. S. Lewis quotes adorn the walls. With the light dying outside the window, we had to move along .. get on to the Christmas market before the White Witch came calling.

Russell Library, NUI Maynooth. Courtesy NUIM.

Russell Library, National University Ireland Maynooth. This last one, a true bonus. While visiting the NUI Maynooth campus, my dear guide Jodi led me into another brand new library – just opened the day before. While winding our way up the stairs she narrated the history of the place, and I confessed my life as a book nerd. She laughed, and mentioned an older, much older, library on campus .. we’d need an appointment .. would have to call ahead .. but maybe. Call it the luck of the Irish, but we were admitted later in the day.

Stowing our bags, coats and malicious intentions towards books at the entrance, we walked upstairs and were asked to sign a guestbook. When I turned around, I was rewarded with a room that resembled it’s longer cousin in Dublin, with the air of the academic, and far less pomp and circumstance. High ceilings and short shelves with a wide table along the middle. This library clearly used more often, with foam book rests scattered about: You could picture a researcher here with white gloves, carefully turning pages. We saw family bibles more than a foot tall and as wide as my hand, tiny books with white cloth ribbons holding the bindings together – small bows along the spine like shoelaces. No mythical creatures hiding in the stacks, no swish and flick of a wand over a text. But it was magical all the same.

The Emerald Isle

Preparing to go on a trip often takes hold of me in the same way that a brilliant meal, a perfect wine, a good nap and a delightful book do. I am consumed, and I am immediately looking forward to the next great thing. I also like to do my research. If I’m traveling to a new city, even with the most basic lead time, I’ve probably looked up a) restaurants, b) bookshops and c) recommendations – in no particular order.

I am a firm believer in the recommendations of those that have gone before me. Although, let me say it here: those of you reviewing hotels on Hotels.com and saying things like “I would have liked softer pillows” or “the television was too small” really are not doing anyone any favors. I usually seek out multiple references about a place, in hopes of finding the most well-rounded picture and gaining access to hidden gems, beyond the hyper touristy places.

For example – when heading to Austria, everyone said sacher torte had to be on the menu, and an argument about which restaurant provided the best delivery of said sweet ensued. In the end, I relied on a local to point me to the best venue. She did just that, and although I was not fond of the cake, the experience was memorable.

sacher torte

I should have bailed when she picked carrot cake!

Now I have two major trips before me, both in the month of December. First on tap is Ireland, to present at a big conference that I am over the moon about. Professionally, it’s a tremendous opportunity and personally, Ireland is somewhere I’ve never been. So where to turn?

1. Friends. Several friends have visited Ireland before, including colleagues who just visited there last summer with a group of students. I also have a dear friend living in Belfast who I plan to visit / travel with while I’m in-country. Bonus!

2. Fodors. With all the travel guides floating around in the world, I have grown comfortable with the Fodors guides* and what they offer. Additionally, I am grateful to their active online community of travelers. When I first stumbled out onto their website in April 2011, I was planning a trip to Greece. Thanks to a kind woman from Philadelphia, we had almost our entire itinerary planned for us, with her every recommendation. *Yes, I still purchase hard copy guidebooks.

3. Literature. You know I’m a freak for books. So it should come as no surprise that I’ve amassed a little Ireland-related collection on my bookshelf. These include:
* McCarthy’s Bar by Pete McCarthy, which I reviewed in an earlier post.
* Dubliners by James Joyce, Dublin native
* Trinity by Leon Uris, recommended to me by a Barnes & Noble bookseller
* 44 Dublin Made Me by Peter Sheridan, which spoke to me from a used bookshop shelf.

How do you prepare for a trip? Are you a planner? Or do you wing it?

How to Travel Without Traveling

Good books in small doses. Spectacular foods in small plates.

Places have tastes.

Whether you’ve already been, you’re planning to go, or may never make it: it’s more than possible to travel, or revisit a place, without moving your feet. My former boss (a Spaniard) once confessed she’d been carrying a packet of cinnamon gum for more than a year. If she closed her eyes she could picture herself back in a high school in California where she first discovered it.

Quelle surprise! The education abroad professional is telling you NOT to travel? Ah non. I’m offering an alternative. For frequent travelers, it’s a way to sustain your most favorite experiences. For the homebody, it’s an affordable way to explore. Let’s be honest, it may increase your odds of traveling,  or at the very least, add to your knowledge.

Case in point: A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle. As a book nerd, I typically sprint through a book. Those Harry Potter tomes and Game of Thrones stories are a thousand pages, and (if it’s interesting) all I need is a weekend. I’ve always been a quick reader, and with hundreds of new books to devour, why slow down? Well Monsieur Mayle has succeeded in making me put on the brakes. So, too, has my wicked work schedule, but we’ll give 75% of the credit to M. Mayle.

Through Bookmooch, I received a dogeared and coffee stained copy of the 1989 travel book about France. You’re thinking: Que pasa? She loves Spain, not France. Pas de problem, mes amisI love travel.

This book hunkered down on my shelves between Hemingway and Chris Stewart, lingering there in it’s vintage cover waiting to capture my attention. Say what you want about the fanciful minds of the literati, but every book has it’s time. So here in harvest season, I’ve landed on a book that is more than ten years old and a mere 200 pages.

I am enamored. In the hands of a good author, anything is possible. You’re happy, you’re sad, you’re invested in the characters. The timing is perfect, as I had just returned to the cornfields from a brief jaunt to my hometown and was mildly crushed by the experience. Flipping through the first few pages of A Year in Provence, I was reminded of my other home in Seville, Spain. As always, memory neglects the unsavory and unhappy  and assaults the traveler with everything beautiful. Remember the guy at the market where you bought your produce? The cafe where you drenched your tostada in oil. The pasteleria with the unmistakable chocolate con churros. And so on, and so forth.

Books do that. I’m rationing this book, and all of its reminders of life in Europe, like a really good bar of chocolate. The author mentions young white wine and I’m in the cellar of a bodega listening to Sr. Andrade explain the life of a grape. Then I buy white wine and have a glass with the next chapter. Mayle and his wife discover a small town restaurant – a well kept secret and a culinary explosion. I am in a back alley in Athens with the taste of feta on my tongue and my eyes closed in delight. The next day I find myself at the market with a basket full of kalamata olives and feta cheese. Anything to recreate the moment.

greek salad

Currently, I’m hibernating in the book’s November chapter; pages awash in the story of olive oil – shiny, unmarked liters of cold press traveling home in the couple’s car. “Before dinner that night, we tested it, dripping it onto slices of bread that had been rubbed with the flesh of tomatoes. It was like eating sunshine.”

I’m off to buy some olive oil.

Summer bookshelves

One thing this 100 degree summer offered was plenty of down time. With temperatures soaring and AC working overtime, I spent a lot of time in my living room. On some weekends, I sprinted through 2 or 3 books at a time – some boring, some interesting, some endearing. Here’s a quick run down of some high (and low) -lights.

A Passage to India: E.M. Forster – two stars
This was not a good start to the summer reading list. This book sat on my shelf with it’s golden yellow binding and pristine font, beckoning just like a sunrise over the Taj Mahal. Then I started reading. Bear in mind this was written in 1924, and you may understand why I struggled. There were far too many times in this book that I read a descriptive paragraph, read it again, and read it one more time just to see if I could paint the picture in my mind. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Oof.

franklin flyer Franklin Flyer: Christopher Nicholas – four stars
Set in the tumultuous times of the Great Depression, this story is about a young inventor and traveler. Two parts history, one part imagination it is a colorful human tale. As Publisher’s Weekly noted: “If Graham Greene collaborated with the creator of Dick Tracy, the result might read like this…” The cover alone was enough to tempt me: a yellow fedora whirling through the canyons of what could be a black & white Manhattan.

Sima’s Undergarments for Women: Ilana Stanger-Ross – three stars
While surfing Bookmooch for my next title, I stumbled on this little gem. In a basement lingerie shop in Brooklyn, you meet a determined (and conflicted) woman and her new hire. Through the trappings of silk stockings and the tricks of fitting, the author breathes life into a saleswoman, wife, Jewess and woman with a lot to give.

Chocolat: Joanne Harris – four stars (followed later by sequel The Girl With No Shadow). After many years of stalking this book, I finally came across a copy and devoured it, as it’s title required. This was not my first brush with Joanne Harris, as she debuted in my Spanish apartment with Gentleman & Players. She paints a beautiful story, with food and it’s accoutrements, and a wee bit of magic. Shortly after finishing the book, I rented the movie. Let’s be honest, Johnny Depp also added a little something to the story. (The sequel is equally enjoyable, in a different way).

the time in betweenThe Time in Between: Maria Dueñas – five stars
This is the book of the summer, and possibly the book of a lifetime. Set in yet another wicked time period – the Spanish Civil War – the book is lightning fast and full of intrigue and emotion. I’ve recommended it to friends left and right saying, “It’s like reading a movie.” I originally thought she was writing in her second language (English) and was blown away. I’ve since discovered it was originally authored in her first language (Spanish) and I’m still blown away. Often times translated books struggle to get their point across, but this one is a grand exception. (El Tiempo Entre Costuras is high on my list of Spanish novels). As opposed to my brush with Forster, I was re-reading paragraphs in this book for sheer joy. Por favor, Doctora Dueñas, write us another.

McCarthy’s Bar: Pete McCarthy three stars
Inspired by my upcoming trip to Ireland, I picked up what I thought would be an intriguing memoir about the country. And it is, in it’s own way. One of McCarthy’s cardinal rules: Never walk past a bar with your name on it. You can imagine his success with this rule on the Emerald Isle. Spurred on by questions about his heritage (half English, half Irish), he circles around the country with a wry sense of humor and a taste for Guinness.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Rebecca Sklootthree stars
This was the freshmen reading selection at my university this summer, so I was surprised to find a copy at the local public library. Knowing at least half of the story, I hopped right into the complicated plot of cells, cancer, family, and privacy. It’s clear a significant amount of research went into the novel, although sometimes I question the delivery. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for the breakdown of this book.

Any good reads (or bad ones) for you this summer?