Tag: travel

There and Back Again (with books and art along the way)

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Home again, with the spoils of travel. The bag on the right is filled with contemporary fiction from Politics & Prose, a wonderful independent book store in Washington, D.C. The box on the left contains my treasures from Second Story Books, a rare & used book dealer whose warehouse is located in the suburb of Rockville, Maryland (SSB has a more polished retail outlet in downtown D.C.)

Now that Spanish Lit Month is winding down, and Women’s Lit in Translation Month is gearing up, I really should get busy on those reviews.  After all, I want to be ready for Simon and Kaggsy’s 1976 Club, don’t I?  Wait!!!  Are these events already over?  Are you saying it’s not August?  What happened to August?  And September?  It can’t possibly be October, can it, with November beginning tomorrow?  Oh, Halloween horrors!  Have I been in a time warp or something?

Well, the answer to my non-rhetorical question is — yes!  At the best of times, it’s difficult to stay focused down here in the U.S. of A.’s semi-tropics, a land of palm trees, sunshine and delightful concoctions embellished with little pink umbrellas and chunks of tropical fruit.  And these, dear readers, have not been the best of times for your scribe.  For several months I’d been staring at a surgery date, elective stuff, nothing too serious and certainly not life-threatening, but still . . . . Yuck!  Doctors!  Needles!  Nasty medicines!  Like the consummate ex-professional that I sometimes pretend to be, however, I decided to make productive use of both my pre- and post-surgery time.  Never waste a minute, that’s my motto! (which explains those wonderfully invigorating filing days, driving around urban Washington at 11:45 P.M. in search of a post office where I could date stamp my brief, thereby proving it was “filed” on its due date.  Ah, memory …)  I made a neat little grid of my putative late summer and early autumn activities.  While waiting for my surgery date (which didn’t worry me at all; not one little bit) I’d catch up on writing reviews and participate in a limited way in the blogging events I mentioned above.  I’d do my medical thing, or, rather, have it done to me, then use my recovery period to finish reading my various Challenge books; complete my zoom art history classes; and (finally) get started on that intensive Spanish review I’d been contemplating for some time (nothing like getting a grip on something other than the present tense, is there?)  Seriously.  I really, honestly thought I’d be doing all these things.  As I listen to the sounds of your gentle laughter, vibrating through cyber space, I’ll draw a merciful curtain over these severely delusional plans.  In reality I spent August and September sitting on my nice, shady lanai reading escapist lit of some type or other (Elizabeth Hand, anyone? bHer Cass Neary series is a great & very creepy read).  And October?  Well, I passed much of October sleeping, taking extra strength tylenol and watching some seriously good television.  In my more intellectual moments I also dipped into and out of various bookish blogs, since it’s a well established fact that it’s much, much easier to read & comment on other people’s posts than to write one’s own reviews.

Aside from the fact that I’ve now almost recovered, October did offer a bright spot in the form of a return trip to Washington, D.C. (my doctor’s located there), which happens to be an area where I’d lived for many years and that I still love in many respects. Although I visited Washington late last spring, severe covid restrictions were still the order of the day and most of the museums remained closed.  Since the area’s vaccination rates were up, and many attractions were now reopening, I decided to arrive a few days early to enjoy the sights and sample some ethnic fare (although not the rival of many cities, D.C. does have a wide variety of ethnic cuisines; it seems to get a new one every time there’s a new world crisis.  During this visit, I noticed that one of the Maryland suburbs now has an Uyghur restaurant).  I hate to pack, so I usually just throw a few things in a bag:

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Oops!  Guess I really shouldn’t have packed the cat!  Doesn’t Maxine look like a type of avant-garde, live action sweater?  Not to worry, however, I DID evict her from her new napping spot before zipping the bag . . . .

One of my very first stops when I’m in the Washington area is always Second Story Books’ warehouse, located in Rockville, Maryland, just a stone’s throw from downtown D.C.  I’ve written about Second Story before (because I’ve visited many times) but its wonders never pall.    

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This photo gives only a faint idea of the store’s huge size. Notice the “All Books 50% Off” sign.  That’s half off Second Story’s marked down prices!  A little lolly goes a long way at Second Story Books!  And — they’ll even throw in a box or a bag, depending on the size of the purchase!
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Luckily, the interior is organized by subject.  Fiction has its own very large section, semi-organized by authors’ last names.  On my last visit, I never made it past the letter “H.”  This time I’m determined to be more disciplined!

As you can see, a trip to SSB’s warehouse is akin to a treasure hunt, as you never know just what you’ll discover; naturally, some visits are more fruitful than others, depending on turnover.  This time I hit the jackpot (hence the overflowing box in my first photo) as I found numerous novels by Penelope Lively, Anita Brookner and Louis Begley (an American writer I’ve been fond of in the past), along with some unexpected things such as works by Laurie Colwin (brought to my attention by Jacquiwine’s recent & excellent review of her work).  I was a little disappointed not to find much by Louis Auchincloss, one of my favorite authors when I’m in the mood for a traditional, well-written tale of life among my country’s elite but — there’s always the next visit!  (A note to those who may be visiting D.C. but staying closer to downtown, Second Story also has a store inside the city proper, in a very lovely and walkable area.  The setting is more genteel and the selection is great but IMO prices are a bit higher.)

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A small portion of my riches from SSB’s warehouse. The fellow on the left seems to be having second thoughts about being part of the shield wall at Hastings, doesn’t he?
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Although they were rather scarce, I also found a few Virago Modern Classics.  Ivy Litvinov, an English writer who married into the upper reaches of Soviet society, looks very interesting, as does this (previously unknown to me) work by Miles Franklin.

After rooting around Second Story Books for several blissful hours, the following day it was off to D.C.’s great independent bookstore, Politics & Prose.  When I first moved to Washington in the mid-1980s, there were a great many wonderful small bookstores catering to a variety of tastes.  Although many of these have disappeared, Politics & Prose seems to be thriving.

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Conveniently located near a metro stop, P&P is absolutely not to be missed for book loving visitors to D.C.!  Stocking literary fiction, the latest best sellers and offerings from indy presses, P&P also makes major efforts to recognize BIPOC voices as well.

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A small portion of P&P’s interior . . . the coffee house is downstairs.

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My treasures from P&P:  Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads; Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Stories; Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend (a replacement copy for an old read); Kathryn Davis and Evelio Rosero from, respectively, the always interesting Grey Wolf and New Directions publishers and last, but far from least, Drifts and The Talented Miss Farwell, a couple of fun, impulse purchases.

I can never totally skip the museums when I’m in D.C. and this trip was no exception.  Thankfully, most museums have reopened and while the number of visitors seemed a little down to me, life is returning.  Nothing’s sadder than an art museum with no visitors to look at the paintings. 

A street view of the National Galley (courtesy of Mr. Janakay), my favorite museum in the entire universe!  Although I always visited occasionally when I worked a couple of blocks away, I really began to haunt the place after I began my second career as an art history student.  Only a quick visit this time, a single afternoon, to say “hello” to some of my old favorites . . . .
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If you’re lucky enough to have access to some of Europe’s great museums, well, you can see a Leonardo.  If you’re in the Americas (north or south) your one shot is this oil portrait of Ginerva de’ Benci, acquired by the NGA from Liechtenstein’s royal family in the mid-1960s . . . rumor has it that the royal sellers needed some extra cash for a son’s wedding!
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I love this fantastical, demon-haunted landscape (The Temptation of Saint Anthony) painted by an anonymous artist of the 16th century.
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Mr.Janakay, on the other hand, favors the rationality and drama of Rembrandt’s The Mill (painted in the 1650’s).

The following day it was off to the Phillips Collection, which bills itself as “America’s first museum of modern art.” The Phillips began life in the 1920s as the private art collection of Duncan Phillips, who had access to one of America’s great steel fortunes. Working from an eclectic definition of “modern” (his collection contains an El Greco), Phillips used his impeccable taste and private fortune to build an amazing, not-to-be missed collection.

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The Phillips Collection is still housed in part in the original brownstone, which is located in one of the most scenic parts of the city . . . .

Between one thing and another, it had been some time since my last visit to the Phillips. I was a little disappointed to see that much of the collection had been temporarily rearranged to accommodate some new exhibitions but — not to worry! Everything was still on view, even if located in an unfamiliar spot.

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Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, the favorite painting of all who visit.  I’m not much of a Renoir fan, but even grumpy old me agrees it’s quite the masterpiece.  Its new, temporary space somewhat dampens its impact but even so it packs quite a wallop!

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Part of the original brownstone, the music room is still used for chamber music concerts (it was the site of Glenn Gould’s American debut in 1955).  If you look hard, you can just see Renoir’s Boating Party in the left rear of the room (usually it’s upstairs in the new annex, with an entire wall to itself).

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One of my personal favorites in a museum filled with great art, Franz Marc’s Deer in the Forest I.  It was painted in 1913, when Marc was at the height of his powers.  Killed at Verdun in 1916, Marc was later denounced by the Nazi regime as one of the so-called “degenerate” artists.

After so much art, and so many books, it was time for a little nature viewing.  Before the yucky medical stuff, I did have a couple of wonderful afternoons in the Maryland countryside, checking out a few of my old birding spots:

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This spot in Montgomery County Maryland is always lovely, but I’ve never seen it looking so gorgeous.  One of Mr. J’s very best nature shots IMO! 

Finally, after a few days of recovery, it was time to return home  . . . . 

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I know I’m home when I see my own little palm tree . . .  
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My, Pooh Bear’s certainly been busy while I’ve been away . . . . wonder which one of these she liked best?

Midweek Miscellany: On the Road Again! (Books! Museums! Springtime!)

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Most of the books I read during my road trip last week are in this pile, securely anchored by my little hedgehog friend (there are several pottery studios located near my new home & I find it difficult to resist the wares).

While I’m working up the energy for my next book posting, I thought I’d do a Miscellany just to keep the creative juices flowing.  As this Midweek Miscellany is even more miscellaneous than usual, you’ll miss nothing by skipping over whatever you find boring.

First Miscellany:  Travel and Books

I’m positively giddy with excitement, dear readers, after returning from a (very) limited little road trip, my first real outing since the start of the horrible pandemic last spring.  Nothing fancy or extreme, you understand, and undertaken for serious reasons as it was prompted by unfinished business in my former home in the Washington, D.C. area.  Back in the day when Mr. Janakay and I were birding in exotic locales, this little outing would have been a total nothing-burger, but after a year of being confined pretty much to one area it was (almost) a treat, despite the fact that I spent much of my time running errands and attending to boring old medical things.

Aside from the novelty of being in a different area (although I love palm trees it is nice to see a little variety in the flora), my little trip was quite a morale boaster in another way as well.  When I moved last April, and again during a short business-related return trip last summer, the D.C. area was very different from its usual bustling, busy, self-absorbed self.  Restaurants and movie theaters were closed; very few people were about on the street; the performing arts had disappeared; there were absolutely no tourists that I could see (you’ve never experienced a real tourist town, dear readers, until you’ve fought your way through a gaggle of tour buses all headed towards the tidal basin and the April cherry blossoms); museums were shuttered and — gasp! most telling of all — the beltway and commuting routes were a snap to navigate.  The whole experience was uncanny and depressing; I found my mind wandering to all those college history readings about plague cities and so on.  Sad! (to quote a former unnamed U.S. president.  Don’t worry, dear readers; such a quote won’t happen again on this blog).  On this trip, however, there were signs of life and recovery, albeit somewhat guarded ones.  An increased number of restaurants, with patios draped in plastic to create “outdoor” dining spaces, were open; limited numbers of people were sitting about outside in socially distanced groups and enjoying the weather; a few museums were doing timed-entry admissions and there was, generally, a feeling of life returning, even if not to the same level as BC19 (before Covid-19).  It was so heartening I didn’t even mind the increased volume of traffic.  “Bring it on” I exclaimed to Mr. Janakay, as he dodged an oblivious lane-shifter who was simultaneously running a red light!

In addition to being a morale booster, my little trip was very handy for knocking off a few more titles from Mount TBR, which is increasing at an exponential rate (not my fault! Y’all shouldn’t be writing such great book reviews!)  Since I’m far from ready to entrust myself to air travel, I had quite a lot of car time, physically tiring but great for getting through that satchel of books I always travel with (you would have blushed, dear reader, to have heard Mr. Janakay some years ago when we were packing to go to New Guinea!  Although it’s blindingly obvious to any book blogger, Mr. J simply could not grasp why I needed so many books for a birding trip).  From my early childhood, when I was yanked from my comfortable bed, plunked down in the back seat of a car and exposed to the dawn’s frightful light (my family took many, many long road trips and dad was a fervent believer in an early start.  I still shudder at the memory of those dreadful sunrises), I perfected the art of reading during a car trip.  Between travel and hotel down time during my actual stay in D.C. last week, I not only finished a Challenge book or two but also indulged in some spontaneous selections chosen as “light” relief (I’m using quotes because I don’t altogether buy into the typical categorization between literary and popular fiction).  It’s ironic, however, that my three spontaneous choices were, with the exception of the Margery Sharp novel, so disappointing that I didn’t bother to include them in my pile.

In no particular order of preference, my week of wonderful reading included:

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Any Valerie Martin readers out there? This tale of a declining family of Italian aristocrats, property theft and sibling rivalry set in Mussolini’s Italy deserved its glowing review in The Guardian.   Although I don’t think it’s quite at the level of Martin’s Property (winner of 2003’s Orange Prize) it’s pretty darn good.

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My second Szabo novel (the first was her wonderful The Door), this story of the intertwined lives of four Hungarian families torn apart by WWII was a wonderful read from beginning to end.  An added attraction is the fact that I’ve finally read it, after twice failing to do so as part of the Back to the Classics Challenge!

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The Girls of Slender Means is another perennial entry in my Classics Challenge; it’s so satisfying to finally get around to it.  Another fabulous read and a timely reminder to me to always remember that Muriel Spark is not quite like any other writer!

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I’ve long been curious about Paula Fox’s work and had resolved this year to read Desperate Characters, her best known novel.  For some reason, however, I packed her debut novel instead.  Its New Orleans setting was very appealing (many years ago I lived in the city for a brief period) and . . . what’s that thing about the best laid plans?  The novel has some flaws (what debut novel doesn’t?) but I’m now convinced that Paula Fox should be much more widely read than she is.  Luckily for me, she was reasonably prolific, so I have five more novels to look forward to (including Desperate Characters!)

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Fun, fun, fun!  My first Margery Sharp but it certainly won’t be my last.  A delicious coming of age/finding one’s voice story, combined with an oh-so-wicked sendup of the (pretentious) intellectual life.   Who cares if the message at times may be a bit retro by current standards — after all, shouldn’t a period piece reflect its period?

SECOND MISCELLANY:  Museums

To my great disappointment, most of  Washington’s major museums remained closed last week, including my very own personal favorite, the National Gallery, with the only Leonardo in North America and its four Vermeers (well, maybe three!  One’s an “attributed to”).  I was nevertheless able to get my fix by a short drive up Interstate 95-North to Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love and the home of the Barnes Foundation, which is allowing timed entry visits under very strict restrictions (capacity, for example, is severely curtailed).  I’m very fond of the Barnes, although I’m far less familiar with it than my old home town museums.  It has a fabulous collection, noted for its Impressionist, post-Impressionist and modernist art.  Sixty-nine Cezannes!  Fifty-Nine Matisses!  One hundred and eighty-one Renoirs! (my apologies to Renoir lovers but IMO that’s one hundred eighty too many).  In addition to all this, there are also numerous works by de Chirico; Gauguin; Picasso; van Gogh; Degas; Rousseau; and Seurat, with a scattering of old masters (Hals, Rubens and Titian) as well.  Dr. Albert Barnes, who founded the museum in the 1920s, was also far ahead of his time in collecting African and Native American art.  The Barnes is a fascinating place and one of the few museums that continue to reflect the vision and eccentricities of its founder.  If you like art and you happen to be in Philadelphia, this is not a place you want to miss.

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The visitor approach, lined with gorgeous Japanese Maples (I think! My knowledge of plants is limited).  In addition to the fabulous art, the building and its setting are lovely.

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Another exterior view.  The building is surrounded by a shallow, pebble lined pond, which is a great favorite with the local birds.

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Inside of the museum, looking out; this gives you a sense of scale.

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An example of a Barnes “wall ensemble”, which combines paintings of different styles & time periods with objects such as furniture, jewelry, iron work and sculpture.  The observant among you will note the absence of any helpful wall text; Dr. Barnes believed viewers should examine, reflect and form their own opinions about the art in his collection.

In addition to all the great art, the Barnes Foundation has a strong online presence.  Its numerous lectures and course offerings have kept me going throughout the pandemic.

THIRD MISCELLANY:  Nature

For a major metropolitan area, Washington and its adjacent suburbs have quite a bit of green space.  It was a real joy to spend a couple of afternoons re-visiting one or two favorite spots, particularly as spring was well underway.  I love my new climate — for one thing, it’s warm and Washington was quite chilly for most of my stay — but I must admit it’s difficult to tell that the season has changed by looking at a palm tree or a hibiscus plant, which pretty much blooms year round.

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This is actually a very small urban park.  A green space located in a dense residential area,  the park makes a great “migrant trap” during the spring, when traveling birds use it to rest and refuel. In pre-pandemic Mays it was quite common to see folks wearing business suits & binoculars (I once saw a semi-famous retired cabinet secretary who was quite excited about a Blackburnian warbler — and well he might be) using their lunch hour to spot interesting migrants coming down to the stream to bath and drink.

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Can you find the chipmunk? He’s on the left of the flat concrete slab. This one needs to exercise more caution, or he’s liable to be something’s lunch!

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One of my very favorite spots, only 25 miles (40 km) or so from downtown Washington.  Because this series of impoundments is close to the Potomac River, the paths can be a little swampy at times . . . 

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Where there’s a swamp, well, there are swamp critters!  Luckily these were well off the path.

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A much nicer image than those snakes, n’est-ce pas?  In a few weeks, these will be in full bloom.

Enough for tonight!  Time now to do a real book review, only — what should I choose from my recent reads?