25 September 2010

Japanese Porn Makes the Germans Look Well-Adjusted, or What I Learned from Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain.

I received two simultaneous texts from friends this morning while I was reading in bed, both checking in to see how I was handling the news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide, when in fact they were the ones who broke the news.  I was sad, of course, but perhaps not entirely surprised.  Is anybody truly surprised when larger-than-life personalities who haven’t been shy about broadcasting their demons commits suicide?

I had the pleasure of meeting Anthony Bourdain and spending about an hour in his company, back in the days of his No Reservations show, which I adored.   Since meeting him, I’ve tried to adapt his outlook on travel, and it’s no exaggeration to say he’s had more influence in how I comport myself when in another country than anybody else. Tonight when I get home from work, I will raise a glass to the man who broadened the horizons of the readers and viewers who were lucky enough to have him for an armchair traveling companion. Until then, here’s a resurrected blog post from many years ago.

Last night, some fellow booksellers, my buddy Liz,  and I were working at the Anthony Bourdain event in Springfield, MA.  We'd been invited by the folks at Symphony Hall to sell his books before, during, and after his event, as well as at the VIP reception immediately following his presentation.  As a reward, we, in turn, got to attend the event for free, meet Mr. Bourdain, and get our own books signed.

What did I learn from Tony?  Other than he's taller in person (6'4") and just as irreverent as his television persona?  Well, for starters, I learned that Japanese porn is apparently very disturbing (it "makes the Germans look well-adjusted").  But that's neither here nor there.  He's still angry with his usual targets: the Food Network. Celebrity cooks who have laid claim to the un-earned title of "chef." The dumbing down of the American palate, courtesy of chain restaurants that have muddled simple, traditional cuisines beyond all recognition: Chili's. Applebee's. Macaroni Grill. ( Or in the words of Tony himself: "The Olive Garden--sure, it sounds Italian.  So does 'chlamydia.' Don't be fooled. It's not Italian, and it's not good.")

He's still not too happy with Alice Waters, either.  Or with the King, the Clown, and the Colonel.  Bourdain is neither burdened by politesse nor inclined to mince words.  But just because he's playing to an audience for shock value doesn't mean that it's not riotously funny and thought-provoking by turn.  I missed a good 30 minutes or so of his presentation because our staff members were rotating in and out of the auditorium to keep watch over our bookselling tables, but I did get to hear his rules for travel, and I have to say, I couldn't agree more.

1. Be curious.
2. Be polite.
3. Be grateful.
4. Observe local custom.
5. Dress appropriately (Tony's reaction to underclad tourists on a trip to Istanbul: "Presumably you wouldn't wear a Speedo to the Vatican. So why the hell would you wear booty shorts where half your ass hangs out to the Blue Mosque?").
6. Eat everything.
7. Drink everything.

Hear, hear, say I.

I received a comp copy of his new book, Medium Raw, last week (thanks, HarperCollins!)--just in time to get it read for last night's event.  Much of his show is derived from the book, and in turn the tone of the book is as conversational as his show.  Occasionally Bourdain shows a brilliant turn of phrase, but most of the time it just feels like he's talking to the reader without much forethought, but what he lacks stylistically he makes up for with his colorful language.  Though I grew weary with his macho, sexually charged metaphors and I zoned out a bit during the long chapters about chefs I've never heard of, I found the book to be engaging, for the most part.

If my worldview and Bourdain's worldview were depicted as a Venn diagram, the intersection of our circles wouldn't be particularly large, but it would showcase some of the areas in which I am most passionate, and growing more so by the year--food, travel, and the way I want to comport myself on this planet.

Where A=As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and B = Bourdain

Check out this guest blog that Bourdain did a few years ago.  It pretty much sums up the extent of his snark.

20 September 2010

A new novel for those who love classical music and historical fiction

Richard Harvell's The Bells, one of the more interesting books I read on vacation this year, was just released this week by Crown Publishing.  Born to a deaf mother amidst the peals of the loudest bells in 18th-century Christendom, Moses Froben is a boy whose extraordinary sense of hearing is matched only by the altitudinous beauty of his soprano voice.  Dark events in his young life lead him to seek sanctuary at the Abbey of St. Gall, where even darker events lead to the forced castration that will preserve his exquisite voice and rend him asunder from his true love.  (Or will it?) All musical roads eventually lead to Vienna, and there he finds solace with friends old and new in this fascinating retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.  An impressive debut that will delight historical fiction and classical music fans alike!

19 September 2010

Seven with one blow: my life as Jack, the Giant-Killer; or why fanfiction is sometimes better than "real" fiction

Textbook rush is over, which means I now have energy left at the end of the work day to read, and I've been playing catch-up with a vengeance.  Although it's one book shy of friend and former co-worker Emily RM's legendary blogpost, I'm proud to say that I'm concurrently reading seven different books right now--killing seven in one blow, in a way.  One of them is already available (Anthony Bourdain's Medium Raw).  Five of them are forthcoming later in the publishing season (from Harper, Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Algonquin).  And one of them hasn't been "published" at all.  It's a novel-length work of fanction, Harry Potter fanfiction, to be precise.  I'm at least 75 pages into each of the "real" books and feeling various levels of compulsion to finish them, but not a single one can hold a candle to the draw that the fanfiction has on me--a work, I should point out, that I have read several times already, including once already this year.

So why does the fanfiction keep me coming back for more, when there are so many other titles on my roster?  For starters, Roman Holiday, written by a woman known simply as Anna, is a master of the genre, starring Hermione Granger as one tough, smart, sexy Gryffindor who isn't ashamed to flaunt her Slytherin side.  Anna is a very good writer, and unlike most serial fanfiction of its length, this novel is so well-edited that you don't want to pare it down 100 pages or so when reading it one sitting.  Her blend of humor, romance, angst, action,  adventure, and everyday life makes for superb pacing.  And did I mention the sexy talk?  Anna's not afraid to be graphic, though that's not where the power of her eroticism lies.  No, that power is grounded in the strength of the writing itself, with metaphoric language that is at once arresting in its originality and perfect in its aptness. 

Anna also preseves the nitty-gritty kernels of character that J. K. Rowling created, and though she frequently takes them places the creator would not approve, she rarely takes them out of character.  Hermione's ruthlessness and Draco's insecurity are grounded in canon, as is Severus's bitter sense of humor.  (Although, to be honest, once you remove the Harry Filter, you could arguably do just about anything with most of the HP characters and make a case for yourself, since the boy was just so bloomin' unobservant.)  And though there aren't any important original characters in Roman Holiday, Anna ups the ante by re-interpreting Salazar Slytherin in a way that's reminiscent of the treatment of Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ, Superstar (or the gnostic gospels, if you're inclined to take it that far).

You can find Roman Holiday, as well as some of Anna's other works, at www.witchfics.org.  It's the first part of a trilogy that is, and will likely remain, incomplete.  The completed middle work, also novel-length, is called Jewel of the Nile, where Hermione leaves Hogwarts a year early to pursue independent research in Cairo.  While it is still better than 99% of the fanfiction out there, it feels just a little bit too otherworldly for my personal taste.  However, she does introduce some interesting original characters as well as put a new spin on old ones, namely Professor Trelawney and Gabrielle Delacour.  Last Tango in Paris, part trois, stops a little past the half-way mark, and the fanfiction world is all the more bereft for it.

If you like Harry Potter fanfiction at all, you should really read Anna's work.  She's one of my two favorite fanfic writers and, of the two, the only one whose work is still available to read online (Sara Rees Brennan is the other one, and when she published her first for-profit novel last year, she pulled all of her online work).  Her writing is literary, insightful, inventive, and full of lemony goodness, not to mention plot devices that are so far superior to most of Rowling's that before long, you'll be re-arranging your memories of the Harry Potter series to incorporate Anna's visions. 

Be warned: HG/DM, HG/SS (and one more HG pairing that would give too much away if I included it here), eventual character death.  Harry, Ginny, and Ron are secondary characters, albeit good ones, and everybody else pretty much plays second fiddle to Hermione. 
Found this image here

18 September 2010

Let's go to the hop, oh, baby!

So I was putting off going to sleep last night, going for one last stroll through the various blogs and travel forums that I follow, when I got a very big, very pleasant surprise:  Rebecca Fabian, author of the incomparable Afterthoughts blogs, had mentioned my blog as part of the third book blogger hop she participated in.  Rebecca is what you might call a mover and shaker in the children's book world--she's bright, knowledgable, hard-working, and her star is definitely on the rise.  We used to work together at the Odyssey Bookshop, where she was the manager of the children's department and I was (and still am) the assistant manager and one of the buyers.  Now she's working as a children's editorial intern at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and in between her full time internship, her work-for-house-and-board arrangement, and her reading, she still manages to find time to keep up her blogs and her book reviews.  She's either borrowed a time turner from that insufferable, know-it-all Gryffindor or she's learned to bend the fourth dimension to her will in other ways.  Thus it was that I was absurdly (and probably disproportionately) pleased for her to mention me.

Though I started my book & travel blog in January 2009, it's only been for the last few months that I've updated it with anything like regularity.  Mostly because I've discovered that I enjoy doing it, as opposed to merely feeling like I ought to be doing it.  It also helped that at least one person who wasn't related to me or who didn't work for me or who hasn't ever been my roommate finally started following it this summer.  It was about two weeks ago that I discoverd the "Stats" tab on the Blogger dashboard, and ever since I've been a tad bit obsessed with discovering who in the world might be reading my blog.  Apparently I'm all the rage in Latvia, Ukraine, and Russia.  That is, if you interpret "all the rage" rather loosely to mean that more than a dozen people a week in those countries are reading it.  Or perhaps the same person, a dozen times.  I'm not sure.  Still, it thrilled me more than I should probably admit that somebody, somewhere, was actually reading my blog.  I mean, come on.  Latvia!

But I digress...my original point was to talk about the Book Blogger Hop, taking place this weekend, which you can read about here. It's like the cool clam bake for book bloggers, where you can meet & greet and find other like-minded book people to read & follow. 

According to the rules, in order to include yourself on the Book Blogger Hop, you must also post about it in your own blog as well as give a list of some of your favorite book blogs.  I already listed Rebecca's above, but I don't follow too many others, and those I do already are well known: Bookdwarf, for one.  The one from Algonquin publishing, for another. So go to the Hop.  Socks optional.  Towel required, especially on Thursdays (not to be confused with Thursday Next).

17 September 2010

Bored on Virgin Gorda? Not us!

L-R: DG, DH, and me

 Nevis. Bequia. Virgin Gorda. Anguilla.  I'm frequently surprised by the number of people who wonder why we're not bored on our favorite islands.  No casinos?  No large scale all-inclusives with nightly entertainment? No duty-free shopping?  No booze cruises?  What can we possibly do with all of that time on our hands?  Well, here's what we did in Virgin Gorda, and we barely scratched the surface:

On one of the days we visited Spring Bay, we had the pleasure of watching several local youngsters climbing one of the boulders and jumping into the water.  We took a few photos, and the next day when we came back the granddaughter and I decided to jump into the water ourselves.  DH took a few shots of each of us and we had a lot of fun!
Same rock formation as above, but I shot this one from the water.


Here we are, ready to give it a shot ourselves!
One day we went to the Baths because seeing them on a daytrip from Tortola in 2005 was what made us choose VG for this trip.  It was late afternoon on a Sunday and the place was really crowded, which was a turnoff for us.  What’s more, we had to pay $3 per person (admittedly not a big deal) for the privilege of setting up our beach chairs there, when we had a lovelier setting at Spring Bay that was free of charge.  The snorkeling was disappointing compared to Spring Bay, too, so the best thing about our afternoon at the Baths was doing the crawl through to Devil’s Bay, which we hadn’t done on our daytrip in 2005.  That really was a lot of fun, I must admit, and we got some fun pictures there, too.  In the future we’ll probably skip the Baths or just come really early or much later in the day, or just go all the way down to Devil’s Bay instead, which was much less crowded.
This is the beautiful, iconic, primodial-womb-like entrance to "the Crawl"
One of the many staircases along the way.  You also have to duck, balance, climb, and crawl your way through to get to the end.
 After driving around the island, we stopped off at Savannah Bay one afternoon on our way back to the villa.  This is a really gorgeous stretch of sand and from the looks of it would have pretty good snorkeling just off shore.  The beach was nearly always deserted every time we drove by.  There are a few thatched umbrellas on the beach there, but they are not very strategically located—they’re so backed up against the sea grapes and shrubbery that by afternoon there would be no room on the sand in the shaded parts.  I would recommend this beach in the morning.
Beautiful, deserted Savannah Bay.  I'll have to spend more time here in the future!
 We drove out to the abandoned copper mine twice, once close to sunset and once in mid morning so that we could shoot it in two different lights.  We were fascinated to wander through the ruins and watch the surf pound below us.  I’d definitely recommend this place as a pit stop when you’re already down near the southern end of the island.  We spent around 30 minutes there, but you wouldn’t have to linger as long as we did.
Copper Mine, in the gloaming
Copper Mine in midday
The pounding surf was beautiful here and quite loud, too!

Sometimes we just stopped to watch the world go by.  Or paused to eat ice cream.  Or make a new friend.  From tiny little take-aways that dot the main road to full-on formal resort dining, Virgin Gorda has you covered.  One place in particular won us over, though.  It's called the Flying Iguana and it's located smack-dab next to the itty-bitty airport.  Puck is the man who runs it, and we had a great time visiting with him over the course of our various meals there.  He introduced us to his two parrots, who always kept us entertained.

The Flying Iguana, seen from its parking lot.  Doesn't look like much from the outside, but just wait...

View from the Flying Iguana, across the runway to the water.  Isn't that water gorgeous?
Watching the world go by, one small aircraft at a time.

Puck's two parrots at Flying Iguana
Ice cream always tastes best in casual places like this!

Hiking – on Sunday morning, granddaughter and I got an early start around 6:30 am and hiked up Gorda Peak.  There’s a little dirt road you turn off of the North Sound road where there’s a car park and a sign that indicates the hike to the top is about 50 minutes.  We’d had a pretty heavy rain the night before and the trail was wet in places, and in fact there was a light, lingering rain for the first 10 minutes or so we were walking.  I’m not in especially good shape, but I didn’t find the trail particularly challenging.  The hardest part was negotiating the slippery rocks on the way down.  Unfortunately the sky was still really overcast when we got to the top, so we didn’t see the jaw-dropping views everyone mentions, but it was still lovely.  We rested there and took photographs for about 20 minutes before heading back down.

Hazy view of the BVI seen from Gorda Peak
View looking south over the island from the turn-off to Gorda Peak
Pausing for our breath and a quick photo op on Gorda Peak
Bored in Virgin Gorda?  Why, no, we weren't, thanks for asking!  Hiking, swimming, snorkeling, exploring, making new friends, all tempered with large doses of snacking, reading, and eating, kept us feelin' groovy for our entire trip.  And now I'm missing it like crazy--maybe I can somehow plan a return trip in 2011...
This shot was taken on our villa balcony.  I think it pretty much speaks for itself.

15 September 2010

Snorkeling around the Fat Virgin

Virgin Gorda trip report, continued...

One of the many reasons I love traveling to the Caribbean is my love of snorkeling.  And on the trips that I've taken with DG, we have snorkeled up a storm--my estimate is that we swim/snorkel more than a mile each day on vacation together.  Despite the heavy bleaching of the corals found in the Caribbean and elsewhere (thank you, Global Warming!), the snorkeling we did on this trip is the best we've encountered so far. 

Our first full day on the island we went on a daytrip with Double D Charters on their motor yacht for $95 per person, plus tip.  This was an excellent trip with four snorkeling stops: Peter Island, Norman Island, the Indians, and the wreck of the RMS Rhone.  Our captain for this trip was Corinne, and she was terrific—skilled, engaging, and informative.  Big kudos to her for making the trip even more enjoyable. Peter Island was mezzo-mezzo in terms of coral and fish, but Norman Island and the Indians were excellent, in my opinion.  It was extremely cool to be able to swim in and out of the caves at Norman Island, and we could have spent a good bit more time in the water than our allotted 45 minutes.
The Caves

Close up shot of anemones on wall in one of the caves
Inside one of the caves
The Indians were amazing, especially when rounding the far end where there was a huge explosion of color and fish.  We could have spent more time there, too. 
The Indians, seen from the boat

One of the colorful areas of The Indians
The wreck of the Rhone was a bit more interesting in theory than in practice.  It was submerged in 25 feet of water and there weren’t a ton of fish there that day.  It was still pretty neat, but it was the only snorkeling spot that day where I felt that I had time to see everything in the 30 minutes we had there. 
Looking down into a smokestack (?) on the wreck of the RMS Rhone

The snorkeling at Mahoe Bay was also pretty good in my opinion.  While there was significant bleaching of the coral, the sea fans looked healthy and there were fish everywhere.  There were also very interesting pinnacle-like coral formations, some of which came within a few inches of breaking the surface.  We snorkeled there for a total of about 4 hours over different days and still didn’t feel like we exhausted everything to see. 
One of the pinnacles off of Mahoe Bay
Healthy sea fan at Mahoe

Our favorite snorkeling was the coastline running south from Big Trunk Bay to the more southerly of the Spring Bay beaches.  We also had the water and beaches mostly to ourselves, which was divine.  We snorkeled with sea turtles and saw the largest fish I’ve ever been in the water with—a huge barracuda that was about four feet long (NB: I have, since the trip to VG, swum with larger fish, namely tarpon, but in 2007 that barracuda was a personal best).  The water clarity was excellent and the colors of the sealife were vibrant—partly because we had less overcast weather on the days we were at Spring Bay.
The coast of VG is dotted with these boulder-strewn grottoes.
The sundappled effect on the snorkeling is magical.

Brain coral near Spring Bay
A school of Blue Tang near Spring Bay
A barracuda --believe me--it looked bigger in person!
Some healthy sponges at Spring Bay
Elkhorn (staghorn?) coral at Spring Bay
Riding home on the Double D: DG (left) and me (right)
To be continued...

(NB: photo credits belong to Emily Crowe, Emmaline Martin, or Barry Moser)

11 September 2010

The Fat Virgin calls my name...and I respond!

View of Mahoe Bay, Virgin Gorda, from Adagio Villa
 A couple of weeks ago I got an email from the good folks at Fodor's, letting me know that I had been quoted again for their Caribbean 2011 travel guide.  If this sounds like a big deal, let me reassure you: it's not.  Despite my little jig upon hearing the news, it really only means that I spend far too much time chatting on online travel forums, particularly the Fodor's one, so it's just a small matter of running the odds to know that they were bound to pick me for something.  This year, my quotation was for Virgin Gorda, an island I've visited exactly once, but which will haunt my dreams until I return.  Though I may not be an expert (one visit, remember), I frequently raise my voice in passionate recommendations for this island to everybody who cares to listen, and no doubt to quite a few people who don't.  Too bad for them, eh?

Yesterday my complimentary Caribbean 2011 guide arrived from Fodor's, so naturally the first thing I had to do was skim the section on the British Virgin Islands to find my name in lights.  Or at least set aside in a tiny, shaded gray box:

"When you go to the Rock Cafe, be sure to make reservations for sitting outside on the deck with the waterfall--there's only one table there and it's very romantic. We had a great meal there." ~ ejcrowe  

Yes. With sage, yet strategic, advice like that, I'm pretty sure it's only a matter of time before mine is a name bandied about with reverence among travelers: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Lawrence of Arabia, Freya Stark, and Emily Crowe. 

So since I'm not far enough into any of the books I'm currently reading to give a real review, and since I've already blogged about my latest trip, and since I'm in the mood to blog (It sure beats the pants of housework.  Every. Single. Time.),  I'm resurrecting an older report from our trip to Virgin Gorda in '07 in honor of my forthcoming fame.

 Ummm, yeah.  That was the sarcastic part.  You got that, right? 

My companions for this trip were DH and our 15 year old granddaughter, and we stayed at the Adagio Villa in Mahoe Bay for 5 wonderful nights (NB: Per my agreement with the owner, I cannot disclose the amount we paid, but it was decidedly less than the published rates. He offered me reduced rates renting directly from him after he noticed that I was an active poster on www.traveltalkonline.com.  Sometimes membership really does have its privileges!). We had taken DG on a special trip in 2005 for her 13th birthday, a tradition we do with all of our grandchildren, and she was so smitten with the Caribbean that she asked what she could do to go again.  We told her that if she raised enough money to pay her own way ($1,000), that we would take her on another trip.  We assumed that, as with many teenagers' passions, this, too, would pass, but less than a year later she informed us that she had saved enough of her money to go again.  My husband's and my finances couldn't accommodate a trip in 2006, so we took close to a year deliberating (DH would say agonizing over) all of our Caribbean choices.  Since DG and I love to snorkel, and since all three of us wanted something a little more off the beaten path, and since it's difficult to resist an island whose name translates to Fat Virgin, in July 2007, we were finally Virgin Gorda-bound.

As usual, we flew out of BDL on American Airlines and connected in San Juan to Tortola's Beef Island aiport.  We had a wait of close to two hours in Trellis Bay for the North Sound Express, which we spent exploring Aragorn’s art studio and drinking Ting at the internet café.  After a 30-minute crossing, both the villa rep and the Mahogany car rental rep met us at the dock and got us squared away.

Aragorn's sculptures in Trellis Bay on Tortola
DG on the ferry tide from Trellis Bay to VG

I had arranged with a catering company to have some provisions left in the villa, so we quickly unpacked, fixed some drinks, and proceeded to explore the villa and its grounds, complete with our own swimming pool.  The villa was airy and gracious, comfortable without being fancy, and the view out to the Dog Islands during the sunset was just lovely.   Considering the deal that we got on the rental rates, we should have been gobsmacked over our good fortune, but the long travel day, combined with the preprandial cocktail, left us instead with a feeling of utter contentment that seemed to go soul-deep.  Island time at last!

Sunset over the Dog Islands. 

10 September 2010

I did! I did taw a puddy-tat!

In other words, it really *was* Andrew Zimmern from the Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods show whom I saw last year on summer vacation (see here for the original reference).

I'm sitting at home recovering from a long, hard week at work (mostly 10-12 hour days, mostly on my feet, mostly saying the same thing--over and over--to Mount Holyoke College students who flock to the Odyssey to buy their textbooks).  Despite my poor, tired feet at the end of each day, I really do enjoy the energy that the students bring with them, at textbook rush and throughout the year.
From the Travel Channel website: Andrew Zimmern

But I digress...as I was saying, I'm sittin' my lazy bum down at home, rotating through a delicious cycle of napping, reading, websurfing, sipping tea, cuddling with my cats, giving woogies to my dog, and watching the Travel Channel.  At this very moment I'm watching Andrew Zimmern eat his way through Puerto Rico, and as it turns out, I actually DID see him when I was there last June. DH and I were touring El Morro fort when, looking down from the ramparts, I could have sworn that I saw him on the lower level, attended by a camera crew.  By the time I dragged my husband away from taking pictures of the big breakers, the crew had disappeared and he didn't believe me.

Seeing all of this wonderful Puertoriqueno scenery and food is fueling both my hunger and wanderlust--is it time for lunch yet?  To hell with lunch, what about my next vacation?  Yummmmmm...mafongo, tritterie fritters, tostones, and corn ice cream!  And the less Bizarre foods of Puerto Rico are good, too--coconut flan, coconut shrimp, coconut water, coconut ice cream, coconut egg nog, pina coladas.  (Are you picking up on a theme yet? Is it too early to start imbibing?  Nah!)