16 March 2009

Books, Books, Books, & Books

I've suspected it for some time now but my recent reading confirms it: Nick Hornby is one of my favorite authors.  I've read a few of his novels, which I would recommend to just about anyone, but it's his collections of essays written for Believer magazine that have won my undying devotion.  I'll confess straightaway that I've never picked up an issue of the magazine to read; rather, these essays came to me already in book form.  The first collection that I read, The Polysyllabic Spree, I stumbled upon in my bookstore.  The price was right (it was second hand) and I had an upcoming trip to visit my family in Wisconsin and thus would need plane reading, so reader, I bought it.  Each essay begins with two lists--books he bought that month and books he read that month (a format which I might adopt from time to time in homage)--and then meanders through his book adventures, all the while making this reader laugh with his witty cultural observations and wry self-effacements.

The second installation of essays collected from Believer is even better.  Housekeeping vs. The Dirt is funnier than anything I've read in a long time.  Possibly even funnier than the Stephen Fry book I'm currently reading.  I've also enjoyed it more because this time around he's been buying and/or reading more of the books that I've bought and/or read and he's got periodic shout-outs to indie bookstores.  He's currently my book hero, even if the stuff I'm reading is woefully out of date (Feb 2005 through June/July 2006).  Here's an excerpt: "I bought A Complicated Kindness at the Powell's bookstore in the Portland, Oregon, airport, after several fervent recommendations by the Powell's staff who looked after me at my signing.  Did you know that you [Americans] have the best bookshops in the world?  I hope so.  Over here in England, the home of literature ha-ha, we have only chain bookstores, staffed by people who for the most part come across as though they'd rather be selling anything else anywhere else; meanwhile you have access to booksellers who would regard their failure to sell you novels about Mennonites as a cause of deep, personal shame.  Please spend every last penny you have on books from independent bookstores."

Nick Hornby, folks.  Go read him now.  If you don't have any pennies left in this economy to buy the book at your favorite indie bookstore, go get his books from the library.  Or you could just ask to borrow my collection.  

In other book news, I wonder if anybody else has paired up Cormac McCarthy with the tv show Northern Exposure to write a book review.  If not, then you heard it here first, y'all.  Jim Lynch's forthcoming book from Knopf, Border Songs, is the most bizarre love child of Cormac McCarthy's westerns and the quirky characters from Northern Exposure.  Honestly, I can think of no higher praise!  There's a hint of menace lying under the surface of nearly every page but that menace is perfectly counterbalanced by one Brandon Vanderkool, a behemoth of a man who has recently joined the Border Patrol but who would much rather stay at home with his dairy cows and make shadow sculptures of birds.  His bumbling, awkward ways, which once made him the object of local ridicule, have freakishly come together to make him the best damn BP man on duty.  Brandon is infinitely endearing in his happenstances, whether he's making a bust on a would-be terrorist or discovering a hidden tunnel used for transporting drugs across the border from Canada to the US.  Mr. Lynch has delivered a book that is both warm & wary.  His sense of the ridiculous is tempered by the generosity he shows his characters, and I look forward to reading more from him.  The readers at The Odyssey Bookshop liked the book so much that we've picked it for our July FEC selection. 

11 March 2009

Something old is new again. Ahh, Bequia!

The weather really has me down.  Snow, sleet, ice, freezing rain, snow, more rain.  I took a comp day from work today and treated myself to reading some good fanfiction, re-reading a charming travelogue by Alice Steinbach called Without Reservations, and revisiting some of my own travel writing.  In particular I fell in love with the island of Bequia all over again and I must figure out a way to get there once more.  Here's my trip report from my first visit there:

BEQUIA       (pronounced BECK-way. Or BECK-weh)
Bequia was, in a word, delightful.  We used Barbados as our gateway to the Grenadines, primarily because I was able to secure one of our tickets using frequent flyer miles.  Our American Airlines flight was met by the SVGAir rep right inside the airport who took care of all of our immigration/customs/transit needs and sent us to wait in the departure lounge.  Where we waited.  And waited.  While BA, Virgin, Air Canada, and sundry smaller aircraft came and went.  And then our boarding time came and went.  And then our departure time.  Finally our flight was called.  This was definitely a flight worth waiting for – the windows on this low-flying plane provided stunning views of the region I’d been longing to see for some time, the Grenadines.  We landed first on Union Island (which my husband said reminded him of landing on St. Barths) and then went on to Bequia, where we experienced our shortest ever line going through immigration.  We popped outside and hailed a taxi to take us to the Frangipani Hotel in Pt. Elizabeth. 

I had been waffling back and forth between wanting to stay in town and wanting to stay at the beach at Lower Bay and opted for staying in town on our first visit, especially since we were only there for five nights.  I booked a Deluxe Garden room at the Frangipani, which was located at the top of the property, the upside of which is that we had a splendid view, the downside of which is that we risked a heart attack every time we returned to the room.  At only US $120/night it was certainly a good price (sidebar: it was the first time I ever paid the rack rate for a hotel) for what it delivered – a beautifully crafted room of wood and stone with pitched ceilings, large bathroom (shower only), nice dressing area with a mini fridge, and a spacious balcony with a table, two chairs, and two padded chaises longues.  In addition to the king bed, the sleeping area also had a writing desk and a comfy padded chair with ottoman.  The bedroom opened onto the balcony with double doors that folded back, proving a seamless transit between indoors and out.  The balcony view was westerly over the harbour and we had great fun in the evenings watching the sailboats, ferries, and other vessels coming and going while sipping our cocktails and watching the sun in its downward progression.

The room had no air-conditioning, but it was well designed to catch the breezes, aided by a ceiling fan and a standing fan.  All of the windows were wooden louvers.  The room would have been just about perfect except for one thing: lack of screens on the windows or doors.  We were provided with a mosquito net over the bed, but even so my husband woke up the next morning with over 100 bites.  Fortunately for me, I had covered myself in a 25% DEET bug spray for dinner the night before that clearly lasted through the night, for I woke up with just a few bites.  Our remaining nights we both coated ourselves with the OFF! spray before going to bed, which certainly cut back on the mosquito bites, but also made us feel a bit icky & sticky in the bedsheets.  I have to say that the mosquitoes put a serious damper on the trip.  It seems to me that installing window screens would be a relatively inexpensive and easy addition to make to the rooms, one that would reap exponential benefits for guests.  Other guests were also plagued by the mozzies, so we weren’t the only ones.  It seems to me that the garden rooms are far too nice an accommodation not to take that extra step to make them that much nicer.  To be fair, we made friends with folks staying next door at Gingerbread, and the mosquitoes were just as bothersome.  And when we casually mentioned over breakfast one morning that our mosquito net seemed to have a few small holes in it, it was replaced by the time we returned to our room that afternoon.  Were it not for the lack of screens, I would give the Frangipani an unreserved recommendation.  As it is, I still recommend it, but with the condition of bringing plenty of good repellent. 

 Our very first morning we embarked on a daysail to the Tobago Cays on the schooner called Friendship Rose.  We had intended to go out with them on our second day in order to rest ourselves from the long day of travel, but they changed their schedule and that was our only available day if we wanted to see the Cays.  The dinghy dock where we got picked up was a short walk away from the hotel, and by 7:30 we were on board and feasting on a lovely breakfast of croissants, pain au chocolat, fresh fruit, juice, and French press coffee.  There were about 25 people on board—enough to make mingling fun but not so many that one couldn’t get away for a quiet moment if so desired.  We were a truly international bunch.  DH and I were two of only four Americans.  The rest were British, Barbadian, Canadian, Belgian, French, and Portuguese.  During the three hours we were under sail we had a fine time chatting with the crew & passengers and watching the crew put up the sails—an amazing display of choreography, really.  Periodically a crewmember would circulate with an offering of biscuits, sodas, water, rum punch or fruit punch. 
 Upon arrival in the Cays we had the option of going ashore to one of the beaches that was deserted when we got there or to go snorkeling.  Well, duh.  I haven’t been dreaming about visiting the Cays with the idea of sitting on a beach, that’s for sure.  We were preparing ourselves and our snorkel gear when oh, no!  The strap on DH’s prescription snorkel mask snaps off, and the little pin with it.  Alan, who I believe is one of the owners of the FR, heard our cries of dismay and then spent a full 20 minutes below deck improvising a way to reattach the strap.  Success!  Once we were out on the reef we were even more thankful that Alan had found a way for DH to see everything—it was really beautiful out there.  No big fish, at least not where we were, but the coral looked healthier than anyplace I’ve snorkeled, and the fish were everywhere!  At one point we were surrounded on three sides by a large school of blue tang, which was pretty magical. It was over all too soon and we had to head back to the boat for lunch. 

Lunch was simple but very tasty fare with tuna, rice, and provision, followed by a type of fudge that I didn’t much care for.  After lunch the crew hung a few hammocks for folks who wanted to relax, but I opted to head back to the water to snorkel around the boat.  The other American couple had reported lots of turtles there in the grass, so I went off in search of them.  Well, I didn’t see “lots” but I did spy one large one that let me get very close.  At first it surfaced right next to me but after it submerged again I followed it for some time.  I also passed through a few dozen small squid, which was pretty fun.  All in all, I would give a B+ to the snorkeling in the Cays.  My only disappointment was that I couldn’t spend more time in the water, as we still had a three-hour sail back to Bequia.  

All of the crewmembers we met were engaging and knowledgeable and we were sad to see the day come to an end.  There was one handsome young man from the crew who would cross our path again, but his story will come later.  Of the other travelers we met that day, we became particularly friendly with two couples, frequently running into them for drinks, meals, or activities around the island. 

 We spent two days exploring different beaches on Bequia.  One morning we opted to hike over to Princess Margaret Beach.  We started off walking along the Belmont Walkway (a waterside path that starts just north of the Frangipani and fronts various hotels, restaurants, and shops) and started climbing a staircase cut into the rock face.  Very soon we realized we were in over our heads.  The hill itself wasn’t too bad, but all too soon the stairs gave way to a footpath, one which required the use of both hands to scramble up in parts.  It probably wouldn’t give any trouble to avid hikers, but we are not avid hikers, nor were we shod as such.  What’s more, it was raining when we started out and the footing was quite slippery.  What’s even more, my poor DH was suffering an attack of gout, which made every step increasingly painful. 
I am pleased to say that Princess Margaret aka Tony Gibbs Beach, was worth the trouble. 
It was a fairly long stretch of sand and we were the first to step foot there that morning, or so it seemed.  We walked to the far end, spread out our towels and damp clothing on some tree stumps to dry, and proceeded to explore the cave and grottoes that the large boulders formed.  It was great fun!  We whiled away a few happy hours there, mixing our reading with swimming and snorkeling (which was just okay, but it still made me happy) and chatting with the various locals who always stopped to greet us on their way to Lower Bay.  

When we ran out of water it was the perfect time to walk to Lower Bay, the path there being much easier than our earlier walk, we were assured many times.  We stopped first at De Reef for a cold drink and thought about having lunch there, but only the bar was open.  We ended up at Dawn’s Creole for lunch.  Since it was slow, she kindly let us use her chairs and umbrella for the rest of the afternoon.  Lower Bay was also beautiful and is very likely where I would want to stay for future visits.  I did quite a bit of swimming here and walked to both ends for snorkeling.  This beach was a bit busier than Princess Margaret, maybe a couple dozen folks all told.  There was some natural shade provided by sea grapes near De Reef, which always improves my impression of a beach.  All in all, it was lovely, including playing with the small packs of island dogs that wandered up to us.
On our last full day we spent several hours at the beautiful Industry Bay.  This is probably close to my ideal beach.  A sweeping cove, lined with coconut palms on one end, and completely deserted, with a swath of sand leading to the small inn, which was closed but whose kitchen  was open for lunch.  The water was beautiful, the setting was serene, there was plenty of shade available, good food and drink from Crescent Beach Hotel, a good book to read, and good company in my DH.  I only saw three rooms right on the beach there, but it would certainly be a place I would consider staying on a return trip, especially if I were looking to get away from it all.  There was a good bit of surf on this beach, which I loved listening to while I read, but it did make swimming in a straight line a bit of a challenge.  In the end I just gave up and did some body surfing.  After all, I knew I’d work off plenty of calories just walking up to our room that night.  
We had perfect weather while were there, with big storms every night and occasional brief rain showers during the day.  Despite being so close to the equator, I don’t remember a single time when we were out during the day or sleeping at night when it was hot to the point of discomfort.  In fact, we were more comfortable on this trip in July than just about any other Caribbean island we’ve visited during the summer.
 One morning we hired Ramzay to take us up to Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary, which turned out to be a real highlight of the trip.  Brother King runs the place with a dedication and a softspoken passion that belies his steely determination to operate his sanctuary in the face of a government who is not only not interested in conservation of these creatures, but in some cases acting against them.  He is self-taught in the ways of the hawksbill and green turtles and tells fascinating stories of things he has learned on the fly (in addition to sharing a few hair-raising tales of his skin diving days and coming face to face with tiger sharks).  We met Miss Busybody, a large hawksbill who sometimes goes swimming in the open sea with Brother King.  We met the newest Old Hegg, a turtle whose flippers are deformed and cannot propel itself forward the same way other turtles can.  We came away from our time there extremely impressed with Brother King and his operation, and in my opinion this is a not to be missed experience on Bequia. 

Despite its small size, we really just touched the surface of Bequia in our 5 nights there.  My DH experienced most of the island in a fog of pain and thus feels that he needs to visit the island again to make any kind of meaningful assessment, which I agree with wholeheartedly!  For my part, I loved it for its charm, its people, its beaches, its scenery, its laid-back vibe, and for retaining the flavor of what was best about the old Caribbean.  I am extremely eager to return.

Industry Bay, seen from above
cute dogs at Lower Bay
Underwater shot at the Tobago Cays

06 March 2009

What I'm reading now...

LAST NIGHT IN MONTREAL by Emily St. John Mandel

Mandel's debut novel, which is intense and subtle in equal measure, has left me completely dazzled.  Lilia, abducted by her father at the age of seven, grows up to be a wanderer, utterly incapable of forming lasting attachments or understanding the concept of home.  When she quietly leaves Eli behind, he traces her to Montreal, where Lilia's past and present collide in one mysterious young woman whose training as a tightrope walker stands in sharp counterpoint to her unbalanced mental state.  Ultimately this is a novel about urgency and restraint and about both the tragedies and rewards that we reap when we try to push beyond the limits of meaning and understanding.  Mandel resists the temptation to tie all three storylines up too neatly, leaving a couple of them to unravel as they may, and I think we can expect great things from this author in the future. 

It's from a small publisher, Unbridled Books, which has been quietly making good books for the reader for I don't know how long, but which came to my attention a little over a year ago when they published Margaret Cezair-Thompson's The Pirate's Daughter.  We picked that book for our First Editions Club in December 2007 and now I hope to pick Last Night in Montreal for our June 2009 selection.  Ms. Mandel is incredibly young--she looks like she would be carded non-stop for a night out on the town--for having turned out such a fine, sensitive first novel.  It's not just the careful details she crafts for each character, it's also what she chooses to leave in shadow, crediting the reader's own imagination, that sets this book apart.  I can't wait for the book to be published so that I can put it in the hands of as many readers as possible.  

And now for something completely different...

Stephen Fry, Stephen Fry, oh, how I love thee!  I was sadly unaware that Mr. Fry had come to America to visit every last state, filming and writing as he went along, and thus was not able to become his fangirl.  I've admired his humour for years and now that Harper Collins is publishing the US edition that accompanied the BBC series he filmed, I can enjoy his writing, too.  This book won't be published until December 2009, so you'll probably see me mention it from time to time as I dip into it throughout the year.  It's tempting to read the book straight through as I started to do, but I think I'll change that.  For one thing, one runs the risk of busting a gut, as they might say in my old home state, from too much consecutive laughter.  But also because it's nice to have to look forward to (I'm the same way when people give me gift certificates for things--I'll put off using them just so that I can have the pleasure of anticipation).  So now I'll apportion perhaps one or two states to read, every few days.  It won't last until December, certainly, but it will get me through the dreary, muddy months of what passes for early spring in New England.  

On a side note, was anybody else holding dear to the hope that the Harry Potter movie franchise would be casting Fry as Professor Slughorn and Hugh Laurie as Rufus Scrimgeour?  Wouldn't it be lovely to see them onscreen (sort of) together again with the super-duper special effects budget that Warner Bros has lavished on HP?  Say what you will about the Harry Potter movies (and I've said plenty, believe you me.  Although Prisoner of Azkaban was, like Elizabeth Bennet's teeth, tolerable, I suppose), they sure do provide the pleasure of seeing so many of the great actors of our time--Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, (Dame) Maggie Smith, Gary Oldman, Ralph Fiennes, Richard Griffiths, Julie Walters, Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton, Helena Bonham Carter, Kenneth Brannaugh, Robert Pattinson (heh--just kidding.  I was checking to see if you were paying attention!), really the list does go on a bit...

Anyway, the series would have been the richer for my casting preferences but nobody asked me.  I find that *that* is increasingly what is wrong with the world today.