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Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Lemon Table – A Rare Collection of Stories

Speaking of London Bookstores, which of course I mean the bookstores I painstakingly gave you a glimpse of in the last blog.  What?  Haven’t read it yet?  Fie on thee!

For my loyal followers (those that have read at least one of my blogs), I offer a book I picked up at South Kensington Books.

A disquieting book, The Lemon Tree, a grouping of stories.  Not disquieting because Julian Barnes (Flaubert’s Parrot, The Sense of an Ending) tosses out porno-erotic words like fuck and cunt – which one would think reasonably go together – but because the stories dissect one of life’s great mysteries and tragedies, growing old.  Life slipping over the edge.

There’s love, of course, sweet days of splendor-in-the-grass, as Wordsworth put it.  There’s also rapturous sex and promises of wondrous days to come, promises that slowly fade with the seasons of life, so slowly that no one notices until the promise has passed and winter is upon us.

Love.  Barnes relishes the stages of love in ways you may or may not find comfortable. Fresh blooms morphing into limp petals, petals floating idly in a last attempt to live.  The water in the bowl, a tepid, malodorous mix of the dead and dying, until the stench is poured down the drain and all that remains is a white residue of that which has passed.

Getting old.  A collection of things we did, no longer do, or no longer can do.  Ah, the pity, the depth of anguish these stories evoke.  And yet, some of them rise above the fading light and fog-like gloom.

“A Short History of Hairdressing dances in the delight of every age.  “Hygiene” sparkles with wit.  “Knowing French” sports a lyrical attitude in the face of the fading light.

I don’t often read a book of individual stories.  Not sure why.  Perhaps a book, be it novel or non-fiction, lends itself to dreams that put us aside from our selves.  Stories are a jazz riff to a novel’s concert.  When I say stories, I’m talking about short stories and short, short stories, all the way up to short novellas. An odd thing about stories is that they lend themselves to movies more readily than a book of say five hundred pages.  With a book, a writer and director are compelled to trim and chop, to turn a tree into a single branch, or even a toothpick.

Some of the tales in The Lemon Table run to twenty pages or more, some stretch to only a few pages.  With one reading you can easily imagine a movie.  A story allows you to build, to amplify instead of chop.  A good story is distilled, almost like poetry.

No matter the length, Barnes does a superb rendition of character construction.  In ‘The Revival,’ a tale of unrequited love, the description is so often simple, “But thirty miles was all they travelled together.”  And yet, you feel the aging man’s anguish and longing, love for the sake of love and the sake of living.

Barnes’ writing is so beautifully descriptive that my imagination leads me on, even when my heart screams “You don’t want to know this!”

Evocative is a word that comes to mind.  Perhaps ‘mirror’ would be even better.

A big question:  Is the book uplifting or depressing?  On the surface it’s a little of both, until you realize the tone is a call to action.  Make of life what you will.  Don’t let precious time wither.  There’s plenty to be happy about.  Don’t wait.  Use your time well.  Love.  Travel. Celebrate.  Do all those things, with people who make your life worth living.

Julian Barnes wrote a remarkable collection of stories.  Read them.  Use them well.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Finding London Bookstores! An Adventure

Besides pubs and theater, other musts for any worthwhile, thinking traveler to London, are the array of not-to-be-missed bookstores.  I’m not talking about the grab a novel newspaper stands in the airports, or the thin selection in American malls.  London is blessed with tome filled islands of wonder that lure you inside and steal your hours, soaking in the smell of printed works, reveling in the atmosphere of rebounding knowledge, in the presence of brilliant minds.  Speaking of brilliant minds, in my benevolence, as you might guess, I have a few personal treasures to share.

Foyles Books on Charing Cross Road.  Five stories high.  There are Foyles outlets all over London.  But, you’re going to Leicester Square to pick up theater tickets anyway, so why not wander down Charing Cross Road, which is noted for its array of second hand bookstores.  Forget the musty stacks for now…although they do have the charm and elegance of gray haired men, with frayed cuffs and knotted ties.   Time is short.  Let’s keep going down a few blocks and step into the Foyles flag ship.

Used books on Charing Cross Road
Teenage brothers, William and Gilbert Foyle failed their Civil Service Exams and decided to sell their textbooks.  The rest of the story reads like a script for a Hollywood movie.  Bought used textbooks, sold them for a profit.  Opened a store, outgrew it, opened another, etc.  Finally settled in the current location in 113-121 Charing Cross Road (1929!).  See, even in a depression, there are those who roll their money to the bank in wheelbarrows!  Foyles has branches all over the world, but I always prefer the original.  By the way, Foyles is still family owned and operated.  (

You step through the door into the world of books.  First thought.  This shop isn’t so big. Hahahaha…you’re only in the new book section, surrounded by a few thousand selections.  Traipse upstairs, or downstairs.  There are more worlds to conquer.  Now, get to it.

Hatchard’s  has been selling books from the shop on Piccadilly since 1797!  Prime location, right next to Fortnum & Mason.  Now owned by Waterstone, Hatchard’s is still a fabulous bookstore of high, polished-wood shelving, and there’s no way I can think of stepping into the food emporium next door before I gaze over a few new titles, and browse the never-ending stacks that stretch through fiction, non-fiction, art, travel, and god only knows what else.  It’s a wonderful place to get lost in your dreams.  Hatchard’s often features book signings, with significantly famous authors.  (

Daunt Books, 83-84 Marylebone High Street , is not easy to find.  ( By the way, the street is pronounced Mar-lee-bone.  Nearby are Marylebone Road (huge), Marylebone Rd (small), and Marylebone Street (tiny) Follow my directions closely:  Take the underground to Marylebone Tube Station. (Baker Street Station is closer, but who knew?) Get out of the underground and up to the road.  Look perplexed.  I scratch my head.  Ask a few people for directions.  Watch them scratch their heads. Unfold my map and notice that London is a tiny dot, while the rest of England unfolds endlessly.  Notice the huge Landmark Hotel.  Race inside.  Get a better map from the concierge and let him mark the spot.  Walk down Marylebone Road until I’m blocks past Madame Tussaud’s.  This isn’t turning out well.  Did the concierge say to turn at Madame Tussaud’s?  Maybe.  Memory isn’t what it used to be after that last pub.  I wander the several blocks back to Madame T’s.  Turn at the spot I think I remember and find myself on Luxborough Street.  Keep walking he said.  I had several pints of beer an hour ago.  This is beginning to be troubling.  Rain with a chance of soggy socks.

Luxborough Street is a looooong street.  I pass the point of bladder control and am headed toward the abyss of self-control.  I hurry back to the Landmark Hotel, which is several blocks behind me, but offers the only faint hope I’ve got.

The Landmark gents room is a lovely place.  All polished marble and mirrors.  I spend an hour there, holding my own, idly watching people come and go as I continue to unleash a torrent of after-market beer.

I begin again.  Past Madame Tussauds and a hard right turn.  Looks familiar.  Oh, yeah, been here before.  Seems like only moments ago.  Luxborough Street, check.  Somewhere, the hip bone has got to be connected go the thigh bone.  I run into Crawford Street.  But, since this is a T intersection, I’m faced with a dilemma.  With great trepidation (and half my brain calculating how far it is back to the Landmark), I chance a left turn.  This may be the longest walk since Chairman Mao took his first step on the thousand mile journey.

My need to find Daunt Books has changed from sunny joy, to golden rapture (at finding a men’s room), to steel gray determination, to the red heat of passion.

I once again stop and ask directions.  The lady backs off a few steps and wraps her arms protectively around her child.  It’s over there, she points and I hear the click of her heels as she speeds the kid to safety.  Was it my tone, or the perhaps the way spittle flew in wide arcs?  It’s getting dark.  If this fucking place is closed…

I catch a glimpse of heaven.  The magic words, Marylebone High Street.  I ask again, just to be sure.  Daunt Books, I say so calmly I don’t recognize my own voice.

Right over there.  The man points across the street and down about fifty paces.

I race.  Blessed sweet mother of angels, it’s open!  I gander at endlessly long oak shelves, stare up at the high gallery, peel back a few covers, browse until my eyes ache.  Find tales I simply cannot live without. Daunt Books specializes in travel, but they have everything.  Although parts of the building date to 1912, the owner and the name date only to 1990, when the shop was purchased by a former banker, James Daunt.  No matter the date or pedigree, this is another London treasure.

It’s now pitch black outside and I have no remote idea how to trek back toward any known tube stop, or bus stop, or where I might find a frightened mother and child to clear the path ahead.

Ah, but all is well.  Diagonally across the street is a championship pub. Prince Regent, reads the sign over the heavy stone front.  Better yet, the bar is not crowded and they have my favorite, DOOM Ale on tap.  It may be raining outside, but in here it’s sunny as a warm day on the beach with a bosom buddy, and the gents toilet is only a short glance from where I’m celebrating with a few pints.

Before I finish this thumbnail sketch of London booksellers, I must mention one small bookshop that never makes anyone’s list.  South Kensington Books is just steps away from the South Kensington tube stop.  It’s small, it’s independent, but two things make it really special:  price and selection.  Most of the books, which include best sellers and many prominent authors, sell for half price or less.  We’ve all seen half-price bookstores, but I’ve never seen one that grabbed me and made me walk out the door with three books under my arm.  Only an iron will and the airline’s baggage limit stopped my free-fall toward financial ruin.

Don’t for a minute think the South Kensington underground station is out of the way.  Right on the Piccadilly, District, and Circle lines.  Very artsy, quaint area surrounding the tube stop, including pubs, coffee shops, restaurants, and ice cream parlors.

As was famously said, A man who’s tired of London is tired of life.

Remember this short list of bookshops.  They’re my favorites.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Marché de Noël: Christmas Markets in Metz

The historic city of Metz is only about thirty minutes across the border from Germany…not that there is any longer a border, which if you haven’t been to Europe lately, you’d soon discover.  The European Union is pretty much under the economic thumb of Germany, except for Great Britain, and the northern European countries.  Sound familiar?  Anyway, drive to France or Belgium or Luxembourg, or any of many other continental countries and forget about showing a passport or answering a snooty border guard’s invasive questions.

Lorraine, where Metz sits  (the other big city is Nancy), has been the ball in a game of military Ping-Pong between France and Germany (including Prussia).  1870 – Advantage Germany.  1918 - Treaty of Versailles, advantage France.  1940 – Advantage Germany.  1945 – Game, set, and match France.

Lorraine even has its own Germanic language, although French is the legal tongue.  So, you’re saying, don’t keep me guessin’, Bro!  How many people speak this that and the other?  Well, about 20+ percent speak a regional dialect, but nearly everyone speaks both French and German.

Ok, ok.  So, let’s get to the Christmas Market part!  Why would anyone cross the border when there are so many Christmas Markets in Germany?

By the way, the French and the Germans have different names for their Christmas Markets, naturally.  Christkindlmarkt (German), Marché de Noël (French).

I’ll give you the best reason:  They’re different.  Different foods, different art & crafts, different atmospheres.  Plus, I like to hear the romantic lilt of the French language, which even makes ‘soup of the day’ sound like an invitation to follow mademoiselle back to the warmth of her fireside, wrestle on a bearskin rug, and sample all things French.

In the food department, the German markets have a lot more sausage, roasted meats, and beer.  In France, they lean toward crepes, wine, and cheese, made from either goat or cow’s milk in equal measure.  In arts and crafts, in Germany there’s a lot of woodcarvings, while in France find the shopper finds more woolens, ceramics, and jewelry.

Hot, spiced wine??  Glühwein!  Also, hot chocolate!

Gotta say, there’s not a hard and fast division.  But, rather than rattle on, let’s take a little tour of Metz’s fabulous Marché de Noël, or rather six or seven of them!

1 Euro is about $1.25

You can't go to Lorraine without stopping for some Quiche Lorraine!  Delicious!

Even the Russians get involved!

Mouth watering yet?

Tasty Nougat!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Going Down the Tubes! London

Unless you’ve spent time in a big city…I mean a REALLY big city, chances are you don’t understand the complexities of the transport problem.  Think of Los Angeles.  I had a friend who lived there, a music lover and concertgoer.  I figured he was pretty much in musical heaven.  Not so. From where he worked in L.A., it took him five hours to get to many of the venues.  But, L.A. has no underground metropolitan railway. 

Now check out London.  Huge city.  Bustling with possibilities.  Huge Metro system, known affectionately as The Tube.  In central London, you can get almost anywhere in thirty minutes or less…usually less.  Hey, the average speed of the trains is over 20 mph.  And on the Metropolitan Line, trains can reach 60 mph.  Try doing that in London traffic.

How big is the whole Tube setup?  249 miles.  So how does it rank in size?  Right behind Beijing and Shanghai.  Busiest in Europe?  Right behind Moscow and Paris.

Sometimes the distances are really short.  The trip from Leicester Square (home of discount theater tickets) to Covent Garden (setting for the film, My Fair Lady) only takes 20 seconds.  It may be the most popular 20 seconds in London.

We stayed on the southeast side of London, right near a tube station.  Matter of fact, I pick my hotel based on the proximity of a tube station and how many metro lines pass through it.

But, wait a sec.  I’m getting ahead of myself.  You probably don’t know how extensive the London Metro system is.  Here’s a glance:

The Piccadilly, Circle, Central, and District Lines pretty well cover the town.  Circle Line (London’s Oldest  circa 1863) makes you think it goes in a full circle.  Well, it did, but not anymore.

 The Tube system is dead easy to use.  Buy an Oyster Card and load it up with a few Pounds Sterling.  Any time you need to add more money, it’s also a no-sweat operation to check your balance and add more.  The cards are electronic and so are the card readers found in every tube station.

At peak hours, about 57,000 pass through the busiest station, Waterloo, and last year over a billion folks used the tubes.  With that many passengers, you know the tube system has GOT to be easy to use.

 Tube maps are also posted in every station, as are a list of the stops for each of the lines.

Trust me.  Even if you have never used the London Underground before, you won’t waste more than five minutes figuring it out.

But, what if you want to go to a specific location, Harrods Department Store, for example, and have no idea which tube stop is nearby? Just ask an attendant, or check your city map or guidebook.  All the big attractions list the closest tube stops.  When you finish your journey, the names of the big attractions are also posted, so you’ll know which exit to take.

What if you’re looking for that special pub, or that quaint little boutique?  The Internet will give you the tube stop.  For pubs, I also recommend a wonderful book, fancyapint, which gives reviews of hundreds of pubs, and also lists them (with a map) for each tube station.  For even the most convinced Beer-a-holic, there’s no reason to go without a brew, no matter where you are in London.

 Besides convenience and economical transportation, another reason to use the tube is the sheer history of the Underground system.  After all, it’s been around for more than 150 years.  During the Second World War, the tubes were not only used as air raid shelters, but as an aircraft factory that stretched over two miles.  The War Cabinet met in the Underground until their permanent bombproof quarters were finished.

Part of the Piccadilly Line closed during the war and treasures from the British Museum were stored there.

Here’s another tasty historical tidbit:  Aldgate Station (Circle and Metropolitan Lines) rests on a massive plague pit, containing more than 1,000 bodies.

Want to win a bar bet?  What are the tube station markings for the London Underground … the red circles, with a blue stripe through the middle called?  Roundels.

 What’s the only line to connect with every other line?  The Jubilee Line, built to commemorate Queen Elisabeth II’s twenty-fifth year on the throne, 1977. It wasn’t finished until 1979, which may hint at a universal truth about government workers.

Enough, we could go on and on about the longest, the first, the this and that.  Suffice to say, the London Underground is a marvel of convenience and safety.  I’ve already got my Oyster Cards ready for my next visit to my favorite city.