Literary Adventures in Prague

Literary Tourist in Prague

We experimented with Airbnb in Prague, for the first time. It was an unmitigated success. A beautiful apartment, high ceilinged, modern fixtures, clean, close to two bookstores, across the road from a crazy restaurant/hotel,

around the corner from this wonderfully warped whatever

And here I thought Austin was weird.

One of the shops, The Globe Bookshop and Cafe, sells English books. In fact it’s the largest of its kind in town.

It was here that I first met Stephan Delbos, an American poet who teaches at Charles University, is the editor of From a Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology, and founding editor of the online international literary journal B O D Y. I later joined him at his apartment to interview him for my podcast on books, passing this incomprehensible sign along the way,

and this monster church

Here’s our Biblio File podcast conversation.

Among other things we talked about the great poets in From a Terrace in Prague and it functioning as a literary guide to the city; prolific surrealist poet Czech Vítězslav Nezval; the importance of reading and translation to the Czechs and Europeans, and famed Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. After the interview we made for Stephan’s local, and a couple of quick cold Pilsner Urquells, passing this statue of Czech poet Svatopluk Čech in the dark along the way.

Not surprisingly, Prague is shrouded in the Kafkaesque, filled with fascinating,

mysterious,

disturbing statues.

There’s the Kafka Museum situated upstairs, dark and mysterious, under a stooped roof, with its piss artists

complete with people picking coins out of its waters,

another English language bookstore close by, Shakespeare & Co. – not to be confused with its more illustrious Parisian namesake; the Mucha Museum, with the famed Czech Art Noveau artist’s Sarah Bernhardt theatre posters (yes, he also illustrated books) and, although I missed it, the not to be missed

Library at Strahov Monastery.

My other big Prague adventure involved tracking down a legend. A last minute decision to email his agent put me in touch with Ivan Klima’s son Michel who set up the meeting. Now, all I had to do was to get a hold of his memoir, My Crazy Century. Since it was too late to get anything from the publishers, and not stocked by any independent bookshops I’d visited, my last shot was to scour some second hand shops in Oxford, where we’d stopped prior to travelling to the Czech Republic. At the very ‘Last Bookshop’

I chanced upon it, yes: another biblio-coincidence. Downstairs in the biography section it was. Every book in this extraordinary shop was priced at three pounds. My lucky day.

Klima’s house is located on the outskirts of Prague, right across from a little forest, copse really. After getting off the tram, hiking up a winding road for about 10 minutes and asking several people for directions, I finally found the house. It had these plaques on it

Ivan’s wife greeted me at the door and led me upstairs to where I found Michel and his wife, and Ivan himself. The three of us then started to talk. Here’s the conversation:

Love and Garbage is Klima’s ‘best,’ and most popular novel. It probes the waste, dishonesty and hypocrisy found in authoritarian regimes, and examines the challenges that those inside experience trying to ‘live in truth’ and freedom. Other important authors connected with Prague include, Kafka, of course, who imposed his dark, tortured world-view on the city with depictions of helplessness in the face of aggressive, incomprehensible bureaucracy; Jan Neruda, whose Prague Tales (1877) about the tumultuous, loving lives of ordinary citizens, was very influential (he’s been called the Charles Dickens of Prague; Chilean poet Pablo Neruda adopted his name); Jaroslav Hasek and The Good Soldier Svejk (1923), a satire flagging the futility of war and stupidity of military authority; Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel.

For more visitor information on Prague, click here.

Photo of David Cerny’s Mimina Babies by Caroline Liguori Beale.

Salem Massachusetts Before and After

Literary Tourist in Salem

This is a before and after story. Before: We’d first visited Salem some years ago primarily to check out The House of Seven Gables. It’s New England’s oldest wooden mansion, and inspired

.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel of the same name. Hawthorne’s cousin, Susanna Ingersol, had inherited the property from her wealthy sea captain father in 1804, the year Hawthorne was born. Later on, Nathaniel used to visit the house frequently between 1845-1849 when he was a surveyor at the nearby Custom House. During this time he wrote his first critically acclaimed and best known work, The Scarlet letter.

We learned all of this, and a lot more, from our tour guide. She was terrific, and made all the difference. I’m kind of ambivalent when it comes to writers’ houses. Many of them can seem fake and contrived. Tourist traps. If, however, the guide is informative, animated, and funny, the experience can be really enjoyable. This, as I say, was the case with ours.

Gift shops are always fun. And this place has a dandy. It sells lots of funky literary stuff, including this tea pot

Salem is also home to an evocative cemetery

where Nathaniel’s ancestor John Hathorne is buried. And yes, Nate changed the spelling of his name to avoid any connection with the old judge, the only one involved in the Salem witch trials who never repented of his actions; plus there are some truly beautiful old ships docked here,

beside which you can

Anyhow, getting back to before: when we were first in Salem I took great pleasure in browsing through the Derby Square Bookstore.

It’s one of the most overstuffed floor-to-ceiling shops I’ve ever visited. Not that the stock was all that interesting. It wasn’t. And even if it was, there’s little chance of being able to pull much out, without taking down the entire stack.

Hard even to see who you were paying your money to.

For presentation alone however: Most memorable!

Now, however, after, when we visited last month, the store is much changed.

Bookshop, Salem

I was pleased to see that the building was still occupied by a bookshop, but it’s nowhere near as remarkable.

***

While my companions followed the scarlet brick road (okay line) around town – no double inspired by Hester Prynne’s walk of shame – I decided to do some writing/surfing at this fine local, dog-friendly,

dog motiffed

coffeehouse. The service was spirited

as was the coffee. Lots of electrical outlets, wooden floors, good music, artisan beer – the perfect writers’ hangout. As for the name,

Gulu, Gulu, romantically, “Marie Feldmannova and her husband, Steve Feldmann, named their quirky place for the cafe in Prague where they met.”

For advice on what to do and when to do it – Halloween and witches cast a spell over the place in October – check out Salem Tourism’s website here.

The day didn’t start off with a bang

Literary Tourist in New York: 

The day didn’t start off with a bang. Quite the contrary. The early morning meeting I’d set up had been cancelled. I was stranded down at 5th and 14th with several empty hours yawning in front of me. I decided to stroll up 5th Avenue towards Times Square to see what I could see.

This was a good start

After passing a sign of the times,

I hit Broadway where I re-encountered Rizzoli Bookstore at it’s newish location. It was for years on 57th Street in an elegant six story townhouse, here it continues to specialize in illustrated books on architecture, interior design, fashion, photography, cookery, and the fine and applied arts, as well as literature, and foreign language books; the store also carries European magazines and newspapers and a delightful selection of note cards and stationery.

Further along Broadway I came across this appealing combination: free books and free music

This walk along Broadway reminded me of my first visit to NYC back in the eighties with my friends Pat Grew and Ann Stoner. It was late at night. We had the street to ourselves. Starting right at the bottom of Manhattan we walked all the way up to and past The Lincoln Center. It was hot and Ann’s shoes were bothering her, so she took them off and went barefoot. You should have seen the colour of the soles of her feet by the time we got to our destination. Soot black they were. No idea how long it took to get them back to normal. Months I’m sure.

It began to rain, so I decided to hop on the subway (I’m likin’ some of the art

that decorates the walls) with my convenient three-day pass, and check out one of the places where writers must hang out in New York: the lobby of the Ace Hotel at 20W 29th Street, just off Broadway.

All the seats in the pit were Continue reading “The day didn’t start off with a bang”

It started at the New York Public Library

Literary Tourist in New York

We decided to park the car at the hotel, stay overnight in Poughkeepsie N.Y., and take the one hour train ride into Manhattan the next morning; not however, before visiting the Bocuse Restaurant at the American Culinary Institute that evening. It’s recognized as ‘the world’s premier culinary college’, and is beautifully situated in what was once the St. Andrew-on-Hudson Jesuit novitiate in nearby Hyde Park. Though nothing about our meal really stood out, the food was uniformly good, the price was reasonable and the setting, as I say, was very impressive. Well worth a look at the $45 fixed menu.

Next morning the train took a bit of a milk route; it wasn’t full, so we gathered deep breaths, stretched out, and enjoyed the Hudson Valley scenery. The train went right to Grand Central station. This

reminded me a bit of the famed Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station in London, although here you don’t have to run into a wall to catch the right train.

First stop on the big apple literary itinerary was the New York Public Library at 42nd St and Fifth Avenue.

It’s pretty well impossible to tell Patience

from Fortitude. These are the names Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia gave the library lions back in the 1930s. They were the qualities he felt New Yorkers needed in order to survive the Great Depression.

Inside I was greeted by this punchy quote

perfect slogan for the book podcast I host called The Biblio File.

One of the things I love about the bookstore at the NYPL is that it sells ex-library and donated books, cheap.

NYPL Bookstore, ex library

If that’s not your thing, there are plenty of other fun, bookish accessories to go round. For example, you might want to adopt this Justin Trudeau ‘library look’

Down the hall there’s always something interesting going on in the special exhibition space. Today it was a sixties revolution exhibit

filled with powerful images of protest and complaint (Napalm was manufactured in the U.S. by the Dupont Chemical Company – 388,000 tons of the disgusting stuff was dropped on Vietnam between 1963 -1973).  In 1964 millions of middle-class young white kids started rejecting their parents’ infatuation with money and status. They created what would be called the Counterculture, and became ‘flower children’ looking for “meaning in Eastern spirituality, communal living, and free love”. Struggling against the system, they believed, would bring on a ‘New Age’ of peace and love.

This is the main – Stephen A. Schwarzman Building – branch of the NYPL

(Schwarzman is an etched in stone billionaire friend of Donald Trump’s, but let’s not hold that against him), here you’ll also find a Rare Books room, the Berg Collection of English and American Literature, and a Children’s Center, home to the original stuffed bear Winnie-the-Pooh and his four closest friends: Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga, and Tigger; plus, LIVE from the NYPL a regular conversation session with ‘notable writers, artists, and leaders’, hosted by Paul Holdengräber.

On a nice day it’s worth venturing around to the back of the building. It opens up onto a lovely square, called Bryant Park. Here you’ll find a large patio where you can read your new/ex book acquisitions and enjoy a refreshing squeezed orange juice, or something.

To be continued.