Potrero Hill (and books and bookshops).

Heading west and up hill from the flatlands of the Dogpatch area is the mainly residential Potrero Hill which clings to the curves of the east facing hills, giving it a sunny disposition. The condition and quality of the homes here change with each street and sometimes with each cross street from swanky to shabby. Along with homes, this neighbourhood also has cafe’s and eateries and an interesting local music scene…..plus Christopher’s Bookshop which is on my “to visit” list.

Historically a working class neighbourhood until the gentrification of the 1990’s – you’ll now find a mainly working-professional and upper-middle class, family-oriented scene. And talking of scenes, due to the elevated position you have a wonderful outlook over both the Bay and the financial district skyline. I guess I could have lumped Potrero Hill and the Dogpatch together as the Spanish name for the Dogpatch area was Potrero Nuevo, but as you saw from my earlier Dogpatch post there was enough happening there to warrant a post of its own.

I’m not sure how much there will be here of interest from a tourist viewpoint as it is mainly residential and by San Franciscan standards very quiet…..but we’ll see. One benefit is that there is a Caltrain station here so that means easy access to and from the main city.

When ever we visit cities anywhere in the world, we usually seek out the parks and open green spaces for a break from the hustle and bustle to give us a chance to recharge our internal batteries. Potrero Hill has a few such areas. Mckinley Square, popular with children and dog lovers and contains several levels of trails that make up the official off-leash dog area. The park is pretty much on the crest of Potrero Hill and since my blog is primarily about books and writers, has a literary connection. Part of Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s novel “The Language of Flowers” describes the park.

Published in 2011 The language of Flowers is Diffenbaugh’s first published novel and is about Victoria Jones, an itinerant foster child who gets moved from home to home until at the age of 18 she becomes a flower arranger…..hence the title. According to Wikipedia, “The novel was inspired by a flower dictionary, a type of Victorian-era book which defines what different types of flowers mean”. It’s also love story, which is why I won’t be reading it, but for those who enjoy love stories with a heavy accent on flowers and their meanings…it is most likely a good read. In fact Goodreads (did you see what I did there??? Lol) rates it at four and a bit out of five and says “A mesmerizing, moving, and elegantly written debut novel, The Language of Flowers beautifully weaves past and present, creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable woman whose gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past”.

Around the corner from McKinley Square you’ll find Potrero Hill Community Garden which was established in the 1970s and has a panoramic view of the city. About 10 minutes walk from the Community Gardens is Potrero Hill Recreation Center. Renovated in 2011 – here you’ll find a baseball field, a tennis court, a basketball court, and another dog park. It seems like Potrero Hill residents love their dogs. Likewise, the Jackson Playground at the North Slope also has a baseball field, a tennis court, and a basketball court. And another loosely literary connection…there is a public library which was renovated in 2010 and is located on 20th St. and Connecticut St.

So what else other than homes and parks does Potrero Hill have to offer, I hear you ask? The answer is….not a lot. It’s mainly a residential area with a few shops and cafes to service the locals – which actually makes it quite a good place to visit….WHY? – no tourists and no crowds. From our son and daughter-in-laws apartment, the closest mini-markets within walking distance, of any note – mainly Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are in or along the edge of Potrero Hill so we have ventured into this area quite a few times since our arrival almost a week ago.

To get to Christopher’s Book Store means a steep-ish climb from the Dogpatch up 18th Street to the corner of 18th and Missouri, where you will find a lovely little shop (open every day 10am to 9pm) on the corner with a good variety of stock and a knowledgeable lady owner. The original owner “Christopher” who opened the store in 1991 has a New Zealand connection. Christopher Ellison was from Te Kauwhata (not too far from Hamilton, New Zealand) a very small town of just over 1000 people – serving an outlying area of maybe 10,000 people. He decided that what the Potrero Hill area of San Francisco needed was an independent bookshop. The current owner – Tee Minot – started off working for Christopher back in 1992 and has been here ever since, taking over sole ownership of the shop in 1996. As you would expect of someone who has owned a bookshop for over 20 years, Tee is very knowledgeable about her stock and the area of San Francisco that her shop is based.

The only thing I could even begin to be negative about this shop is that it’s not big enough to have a dedicated reading area. There are just 3 aisles of books – but a good selection. Tee herself said she wished that there was room for a couple of couches in there – sadly there isn’t – otherwise this shop would be just about perfect.

I can buy books cheaper on line but, as I may have mentioned in earlier blog posts, I prefer to support the bricks and mortar establishments – particularly independents – when ever I can. Visiting San Francisco, I wanted to buy a book or two either by San Franciscan writers or featuring stories set in San Francisco. With this in mind, Tee recommended several books/writers and I selected two of them – Rebecca Solnit’s “Call Them by Their True Names” – American Crises (and Essays) printed in 2018 and which I have just started reading.

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Solnit, although born in Connecticut in 1961, moved to California when just a girl where she was educated from kindergarten to graduate school. She’s been an “independent writer” since 1988 and has published over twenty books covering everything from Feminism, History, Politics and Power, Social Problems, Travel, Insurrection, Hope and Disaster. This book however is a series of essays about, as she says, “the war at home” – referring to social injustice, climate change, domestic violence and of course the travesty that is Trump. The people at Goodreads rate this book as a 4 out of 5. I’m only about 20 pages in so far but she writes well – informs rather than preaches – so I will no doubt enjoy it.

The second of my book selections from Christopher’s is David Talbot’s “Season of the Witch”. Which according to the cover “tells the story of San Francisco in the turbulent years between 1967 and 1982 – and of the extraordinary men and women who led to the city’s ultimate rebirth and triumph”.

Paperback Season of the Witch : Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love Book

According to the Washington Post “An enthralling and harrowing account of how the 1967 Summer of Love gave way to 20 or so winters of discontent”.

So it should be a good read – at over 400 pages I am going to have to set aside some serious reading time for this one. Talbot was born and raised in Los Angeles, but now lives and works here in San Francisco. He specializes in “hidden histories” where his journalistic training is put to good use.

It scores a high 4 and a quarter on Goodreads but has been criticized for it’s racially singular accounts – being told by a white man basically from a white viewpoint about predominantly white people. I’ll keep an open mind when I eventually get to read it.

My wife Liz bought Jenny Odell’s “How to do Nothing” subtitled “Resisting the Attention Economy”. Unlike my two paperbacks, this is a very nice hard cover book with a colourful dust cover.

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Odell is another local writer, being based just over the bridge in Oakland.

Again this book is a 4 plus rating on Goodreads. “This thrilling critique of the forces vying for our attention re-defines what we think of as productivity, shows us a new way to connect with our environment and reveals all that we’ve been too distracted to see about our selves and our world”.

Where better to sit and peruse our new purchases than just over the road and slightly down the hill at Farley’s Coffee. Farley’s have really good coffee, by the way, so if you’re in the area you’ll be doing yourself a favour by calling in for a cup. The prices are much cheaper than in the tourist parts of the city too – a win / win situation. And the barista’s there are friendly and very good at what they do.

There are tables inside where you can sit and work / browse your laptop, or enjoy a bite to eat from their menu. We chose to sit outside in the sunshine beneath the Bottlebrush trees, sip coffee and read. This little seating area is right outside Farley’s door but is actually a kind of mini public park….or “parkette” if you like…where anyone can sit and while away a few minutes of a few hours, with or without a purchase from Farley’s.

Just a block further up the street from Christopher’s – which is quite a steep climb – there are some nice views of the city from this lofty vantage point on 19th Street.

Later on in the morning, passing the back of the library, the shutter doors were open revealing an area dedicated to selling used books – either ex library books, or donated by members of the public. Every book regardless of size, type or condition costs a mere $1. What a bargain. AND never being one to pass up a bargain I bought 4….and my wife bought 2. Our suitcases will be right up to that 23 kilo limit by the time we’ve finished buying books.

My picks were – Randy Shilts “The Mayor of Castro Street” about the life and times of Harvey Milk. A book of Essays edited by Jennifer Lee by American writers about their experiences in Paris – “Paris in Mind”. A pictorial feast of a book “Gertrude Stein in words and pictures” and my final selection was ironically by a guy who lives and works in my town of birth – Sheffield called Simon Armitage “Walking Home” subtitled “A Poets Journey”, which is about is attempt to walk the Pennine Way (the backbone of England).

My wife’s books were a paperback by Marianne Williamson’s “Healing the Soul of America”, and a cookbook by Terry Walters called “Clean Food”which is a nice quality hard cover book.

I’ll leave you with a few more photos of buildings that caught my eye – this time showing the bottom of the hill, back on the flat easy walking streets….and I’ll throw in another shot or maybe two of Christopher’s Books for good measure, since it’s such a great little shop.

Next post will be of the Mission District Murals.

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The Dogpatch – no longer a dog of a place.

This is the first of what will surely turn out to be many posts about the City of San Francisco featuring photos and hopefully interesting information taken/collected by me and my wife on our recent visit to this amazing city. I have been here before, firstly in 1986 and more recently in 2012. Now that our son and daughter-in-law have moved here and SF is their new home town, we’ll no doubt be visiting more often. I hope so anyhow.

Why choose the Dogpatch as my first area to blog about here in this very interesting and beautiful city? It’s where my son and daughter-in-law live, and where we’re staying, so it makes it a natural start point for our investigation of the city. So let’s have a quick look at the history of the Dogpatch and that of San Francisco its self.

The first people to live and hunt in and around this area were the native American tribes – Miwok, Wintun and Wappo. This was prior to San Francisco and indeed most of California being under Mexican control from the early 1700’s until after the Mexican-American War, which ended in 1848, when Mexico ceded California to the Americans. Two years later in 1850 it became part of the Union. It wasn’t until 1847 that San Francisco came into being – before that it was called Yerba Buena by the Spanish and Mexican settlers. So I guess that when Mr Trump talks of throwing the Mexicans out of “our country”, he’s overlooking the fact that the Mexicans were here before the USA officially existed and so, the USA kicked the Mexicans out of what was part of THEIR country…(Independence day wasn’t until 4th July 1776)….and before California became part of the USA (1850). But he’s still hell bent on building his wall.

So, why call this area Dogpatch? Truth is no one is quite sure and there are several thoughts….1) The area was originally covered in a plant called Dogfennel….2) The area had slaughterhouses and so used to attract packs of dogs searching out scraps of meat and offal….and 3) It was named after Dogpatch, the fictional middle-of-nowhere setting of cartoonist Al Capp’s classic comic strip, Li’l Abner (1934–1977)…..Dogpatch is also a colloquialism describing an under developed backwater, which I guess San Francisco’s Dogpatch was. It was an area mostly taken up by warehouses, industry and shipyards. Part of the land here used to be marsh and has been reclaimed. Only the poorest of workers used to live here by choice as it was a very low rated, low rent area. This later attracted the “art community” so set up studios here, in old warehouses, which in turn brought the “hip” and “trendy” who converted warehouse space to fashionable lofts. It’s now an up and coming neighbourhood but still has the benefit of slightly lower than normal San Francisco property prices and rents…..but it’s catching up fast!

There was little redevelopment up until quite recently, as this was one of few areas to escape damage from the huge 7.9 San Francisco earthquake of 1906 so, from an historical viewpoint, the architecture is worth checking out.

Within a few blocks of where we are staying there are bars, cafes, art galleries, breweries, the waterfront and of course dog parks…..San Franciscans just love their dogs. There are a lot around, all being pampered and well loved by their mostly apartment dwelling owners – maybe another reason why this is called the Dogpatch?

We’ll start with the two breweries we have called into so far. The first of which was Triple Voodoo Brewery on 3rd Street, who have a rotation of 16 boutique beers on tap – and are dog friendly (the brewery, not the beer), what would you expect here in the Dogpatch? They offer a flight of beers to taste – you can have a flight of 4 or of 6 of beers of your choice from their menu. Or you can have a glass of beer served in a choice of glass size and this is reflected in the price. My wife and son both opted for a glass of Czech style “Anxiety Pils” where as I opted for a flight of 4 consisting of – “Inception” – a Belgian style golden strong beer of 8% alcohol rating, which was one of the nicest tasting beers I have had for a long time. Strong but smooth and very drinkable. Next up was “Season of the Boch” described as SF Giants IPA. SF Giants are the local Baseball team and this is a big hitting 7% IPA with very nice fruity citrus notes. If I hadn’t already tried the “Inception” I would have been totally won over by this beer. Next came “Summerwood” described by the brewer as Grisette aged on wood – it’s brewed using the “wort” from pressed grapes. This was my least favourite beer – and at 4.5% the weakest – as I just didn’t care for the taste at all. Call me weird if you like, but as far as I am concerned, grapes are for making wine, not beer. My 4th and final beer was “Corpse Paint” – described as a black common lager – at 5.3% alcohol it’s a nice seasonal dark beer with flavours bordering on a stout but without the heaviness. The brewer says it’s his favourite and I can see why….but for me it came in at number 3. Back home in NZ, MOA brew a very similar product…..equally tasty. Anyhow, below is a photo of my, already partially sampled, flight of four.

The flight was priced at $11 and the small glasses of beer at $5 each but the very nice lady bar teller only charged us $17 all up….so got a nice $3 tip. We win and she wins.

The other brewery we tried was Harmonic Breweries on 26th Street – just a few blocks down the street. Walking distance there and staggering distance back! Here they also offer tasting flights, but instead I opted for a full sized glass of beer and tried the “Harmonic Kölsch”. I had no idea what a Kölsch was so thought I’d try it. According to Wiki – Kölsch is a style of beer first brewed in Cologne, Germany. It is unusual because although it is warm fermented with ale yeast, it is then conditioned at cold temperatures like a lager. It’s a 5.8% lager and is a smooth easy drink…..maybe a little too easy! My second beer here I went for an oatmeal stout – “Cold-Press Stout” – at 5.3% it still tasted full bodied enough to be a stout, but I thought it was fairly similar to the “Corpse Paint” I’d tried at Triple Voodoo, and that was a black lager, not a stout.

Harmonic is another Dogpatch, dog friendly brewery and there were a couple of dogs sitting patiently under the tables while their owners imbibed and even one at the bar hoisted on its owners shoulders. I’m not sure what the prices were as my son and daughter-in-law kindly bought the beers.

Just 8 minutes walk away at 1275 Minnesota Street is the “Minnesota Street Project” – a collection of 13 art galleries in a warehouse space. The galleries are spread over 2 floors and are of various size and content with a large open space in the middle of the building which is very industrial like. Art of course, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder and I’ll be honest about this – there are somethings that people call art that I just don’t get at all. For example the short videos where nothing at all happens, or you get flickering light across the video screen so you can’t really see what’s going on. Conversely I really enjoyed visiting the Rena Bransten Gallery which featured, in one room, paintings by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in celebration of his 100th birthday. Ferlinghetti is best known as a poet of the beat generation and also as a publisher and owner/founder of City Lights Bookstore. His paintings are somewhat childlike but I still enjoyed them.

In the other room was a display of photos – all but one in black and white and the centre photo on the walls was in colour – by photographer Louis Stettner (1922-2016). Coinciding with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective Louis Stettner: Traveling Light, curated by Clément Cheroux’s, the works in this exhibition represent fifty years of Stettner’s prolific career and illustrate many of his most frequented subjects: people in pairs, workers, bodies in transit and rest, and cityscapes. Again, art is in the eye of the beholder and I am a photography nut so loved this exhibition. The photos below show the outside of the gallery building – as I said it’s very industrial both outside and on the second photo showing the open space in between the galleries. The individual galleries are either side of this open area over two floors. The third photo is of my wife standing outside the Rena Bransten gallery with one of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s paintings on the wall behind.

Scattered through a number of the galleries were works of Iranian artists now living in the USA. Many of the designs look like Persian carpets and are offered in a variety of colours – for example with an emphasis on the colour yellow or the same picture but in the colour red. They are quite beautiful. The galleries are free to visit as they are there to promote the artists and to sell their wares. Some of the gallery staff are more friendly and welcoming than others.

Along Indiana Street in the other direction is a small open area outside a nice little cafe – where I am told you can get a very tasty brunch. This open area for better or worse is called the Dogpatch Arts Plaza. They have in the past held some outdoor music events here, but looking at their website – last updated in mid 2018, it doesn’t look very promising for anything happening during our visit. There is quite a nice sculpture occupying space in the middle of the plaza though. See photo below

As you can see it looks like a cross between Centaur meets the Terminator. I quite like it.

Just to round off our Dogpatch experience this far I should also mention Piccino restaurant just around the corner from the apartment on the corner of Minnesota and 22nd streets. It’s located in an old weatherboard building painted bright yellow on the outside, but with an open and modern interior. It’s obviously THE place to be around here as it was very popular on the evening that we dined there. The food was divine. I am usually a very predictable eater in that I know what I like and usually stick to it. BUT for once, encouraged by my son and daughter-in-law I decided to try a few things that I wouldn’t normally try and much to my delight, enjoyed everything put in front of me…..including the raw fish and the cooked octopus. The food is presented on shared plates so it’s easy to try different things. The highlights in my opinion were the Octopus (which was far from the rubbery experience I expected), the Short Rib (that was melt in the mouth delicious) and my dessert – which the menu describes as “zeppole, huckleberry, white chocolate pudding”. I had no idea what zeppole or huckleberries were but was attracted by the white chocolate pudding. It was a taste sensation of light and fluffy mini-doughnut like balls of yumminess with the semi-sharp, semi-sweet fruity berries and the smooth creaminess of the white chocolate pudding. The wine list is what I would describe as being on the expensive side, but accompanied the food perfectly. The staff there are knowledgeable about the food and wines on offer and very attentive. And of course the company my son and daughter-in-law, plus my lovely wife made for a wonderful evening. Sorry – no photos of the food or the restaurant – I was too busy eating!

Next up is our “Mission” to find murals in the very colourful Mission District.

Movies we keep coming back for.

I guess we all have our favourite movies – you know the ones we’re able to watch time and time again without becoming bored with them. What’s your favourite? Let me know in the comments section at the end of this post. One of our favourites is without a doubt THE WAY – written, produced, directed and co-starring Emilio Estevez, with his father Martin Sheen in the lead role wonderfully supported by Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt and Yorick van Wageningen. Other extended family members of the Estevez clan get minor roles making it a real family affair.

Although the movie starts off in California, 95% of it is filmed on location in south west France and northern Spain. It’s worth watching for the scenery alone, but the main story line and the back stories of the characters that become apparent along the way, and indeed along THE WAY, is what makes me and my wife watch this movie on a regular basis.

If ever we need to be reminded about what’s good about life….on goes the DVD. It’s definitely a feel good movie – even though Estevez’s character is killed off very early on in an accident in the Pyrenees while hiking “The Way of St. James” – also known as the Camino de Santiago – from St Jean Pied de Port, France to it’s destination at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, the final resting place of the earthly remains of St James – one of the apostles of Jesus.

In the story, Sheen and Estevez – real life father and son – play father and son. The father being a successful dentist in California and the son breaking the news to his father that he no longer wants to pursue his doctorate at university but instead wants to experience life on the road, travelling the world. We can assume from earlier exchanges between the two that there is some friction between them and they haven’t seen eye to eye since the death of Estevez’s mother – Sheen’s wife some years earlier.

Sheen takes Estevez to the airport to see him off on his flight to Europe and there is still tension between them when they part. Sheen’s character says to his son something along the lines of “You may not think much of my life, but it’s the life I chose” – referring to his weekdays as a dentist and his weekends spent playing golf. His sons come back to this remark is “You don’t choose a life Dad, you live one” – meaning that there is a whole world out there to discover and to feel alive in. Jump forward a few weeks. Sheen, whilst on the golf course with his other Dr buddies receives a phone call from a police inspector in France who tells him that his son is dead. Killed in an accident. Sheen shocked, puts his business on hold, for a week, and sets off for France to bring back his sons body.
“So what’s so feel good about that?” I hear you ask. I am getting to it, really I am.

Sheen’s initial plan is to fly to France, identify the body and bring it straight back to the USA, but once there at the foot of the Pyrenees, at night in his hotel room going through his dead sons belongings, he has a sort of epiphany and decides instead to have his son cremated and to complete the hike on his sons behalf, taking the ashes along the way. He contacts his secretary at his practice and tells her he’s going to be a little longer and to delay all appointments for a month. This delay gets longer and longer as the movie progresses.

They filmed the movie over 40 consecutive days along the Way – with the movies characters walking along side regular people also completing the long hike. Sheen discreetly leaves little piles of his sons ashes at points along the 800 kilometre (500 mile) hike. It’s the things he sees and does along the way and the people he meets and interacts with….and the way his character softens and mellows that brings the feelgood factor. He has a major shift in attitude and about what’s important about life in general.

Apart from the main characters, the majority of the extras in the film are simply tourists and travelers out doing the hike for themselves. Sheen’s character is tested a number of times along the way especially when he almost loses his sons ashes….twice, but under very different circumstances. Has trouble with gypsies, almost drowns in a river and has serious doubts about his religious beliefs. He also spends a night in police cells. His patience is tested by his other supporting actors characters as they attempt to find out why it is that Sheen is doing the hike in the first place. But by the end, this ramshackle group of individuals, who would have never met in their “normal” lives become a tight band of friends.

That’s not a spoiler by the way. It’s how the story and characters develop that is so interesting and heart warming. The very end is also quite unexpected and very uplifting – (I think so anyhow). If you haven’t seen it yet, here is a trailer for the movie to whet your appetite.

And don’t forget to leave a comment and tell me what movie you can watch over and over without becoming tired of it. Thank you and goodbye until next time.

An inspiring story of a determined woman.

My local independent book store Wardini’s in Havelock North had an author event a couple of weeks back that I was fortunate enough to be able to attend. A very sprightly, articulate and entertaining octogenarian lady by the name of Robin Robilliard was there to give a talk about her book “Hard Country” – A Golden Bay Life.

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It tells the story of how she and her husband Garry arrived in Golden Bay in 1957 and took on a rocky, rundown marginal property aptly called “Rocklands” and their attempts to turn it into a successful sheep farm. They arrived there with a baby, only a few months old, armed with very little money but a lot of determination and a willingness to work hard.

The three previous owners of the land had gone bust but over the years Robin and her husband came to love this “nightmare land” and sixty years on still call Rocklands home.

She was a delight to listen to. Not only had she and her husband raised 3 children and battled the elements to make a go of their farm, but she had also worked as a nurse and later as a journalist during which time she travelled the world.

It’s a fascinating book and has sold over 10,000 copies so far. Robin says she has another book coming out soon. If it’s anything like this one, it should sell well and the best of luck to her.

She very kindly signed a copy for me and added a little personal dedication. What a lovely lady.

The Lost Pages – a novel by Marija Pericic

This novel is about the relationship between Max Brod and Franz Kafka. I hate to be cruel to any writer, but in this book’s case…in my opinion the pages should have remained lost.

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Although the premise of the book was a bold one, I believe that writers are always going to be on very thin ice when it comes to writing a fictitious story about 2 people who existed in real life, knew one another and were friends. Mixing fact with fiction is a dangerous thing to do. To then, as Pericic attempts to do in her novel, write a story which insinuates that Max Brod was mentally unhinged and may have actually killed Kafka by putting a pillow over his face, because he was jealous of the man both physically and intellectually – which is, if history is to be believed, a complete about face of facts – makes the book as President Trump likes to say “Fake News!”

No, I haven’t missed the point that it is a novel and therefore a work of fiction, but I found nothing redeeming at all in this story. The characters were more like caricatures, the writer insinuated conflict where there was none, the plot was frustrating to say the least and the dialogue was not believable. Brod’s character was so insecure, self pitying, jealous and full of doubt about every aspect of his life – including his relationships with other people and the quality of his own work – that I wanted to either strangle him or, alternatively strangle, Pericic.

In “the Lost Pages” novel, Brod does everything he can to keep Kafka’s work from being published, and yet we all know that it was Brod, during Kafka’s lifetime, who did everything in his power to get Kafka’s work into print and, after Kafka’s death, it was Brod, who compiled/edited Kafka’s work and in some cases even completed unfinished work in order to get it published and out into the public arena.

About the only thing that Pericic didn’t try to twist was that Kafka worked for a time in an insurance office and Brod for the Post Office. Otherwise the rest of the story was quite tortuous to read.

Pericic insinuates that Brod, although an accomplished writer before he met Kafka was, after meeting Kafka, so insecure about his own abilities that he could never write anything notable thereafter. That Brod went on to publish 83 titles seems to have escaped her. Again, YES I know it’s a work of fiction, but I like fiction to entertain me….not to frustrate and annoy me.

However, the book won The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award and others on “Goodreads” (where it rates 3.5 starts out of 5) have reacted positively to the story – for example “From the very beginning, I was drawn to the vulnerability and fragility of her protagonist, the anguish of an artist who never feels good enough, who is eaten up by his own insecurities, and whose low self opinion is sorrowful enough that we forgive him the gravest of errors against others.” AND “A clever weaving of fact and fiction, I was left wishing for an Author’s Note to disentangle the threads. Powerful and compelling, this is easy to read and hard to forget.” – Sadly for me, I wish I could forget it….and quickly. Had she written it about 2 fictitious people instead of real people it may have been marginally more readable.

Not a book that I would recommend to a friend – I would even balk at recommending it to an enemy.

Writers as protectors of freedom. A review – my thoughts on Ivan Klima’s biography – My CraZy Century.

I have been fortunate to live in “Free” countries. I was born in the UK and 30 years later moved to New Zealand in 1989 – a significant year in world events…but I’ll come back to that. Both countries have free and democratic elections and yet I have taken to the streets with thousands of others – in both the UK and NZ – to protest political policy – both domestic and foreign.

Although as a protester I came into conflict with the police – I was not arrested and was certainly not “disappeared” – a fate that befell many dissenters of political policy in other, less lenient, countries.

I have just finished reading Czech writer Ivan Klima’s biography titled My Crazy Century. On the cover of the book the C and the Z in the word Crazy are in red. A reference to the many years of communist rule in Czechoslovakia. I highly recommend that anyone and everyone reads this book.

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The book gives us a clear insight into not only the conditions imposed on the Czech people under the Nazi’s……concentration camps and all….during the German occupation in world war 2, but also those enforced by their communist liberators – who in turn became their dictatorial masters during the post war era – right up until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist Block in 1989.

The people in power, both Nazi and Communist, feared the influence (on public opinion) of intellectuals, artists, writers, anyone who held political opinions other than theirs, so did all they could to silence them. This was done – in the extreme – by killing them, imprisoning them, exiling them or putting them under constant fear of their lives by harassing them day in, day out. Writers like Klima and his contemporaries who dared to have ideals other than those of the ruling party were banned from publication. Their previously published works were confiscated and burned and their scripts for plays etc were not allowed to be performed. They would be subject to sudden searches by the secret police who would ransack their homes and take away any written materials….and then they would be taken away to be “interviewed”….interrogated.

Under the control of Nazi Germany they suffered the horrors of not only living in an occupied country but also of being hauled off to concentration camps for extermination. Their jubilation of being “freed” by Russian troops at the end of the second world war was short lived as they came under the rule of the Czech Communist Party – who were little more than puppets, controlled by Stalinist Moscow. Anyone who didn’t fully accept the new regime and tow the line were punished. In the case of Klima it meant losing his job, being put on a list of banned writers, being constantly followed and harassed by the secret police and more. His father was also imprisoned for several years under the communists. Others were tortured, murdered or simply disappeared. Their fate unknown.

This treatment and further threats and mind games did not stop Klima and his circle of friends, meeting to discuss the political situation, writing essays, articles, novels and plays expressing ideologies in direct conflict with those of the ruling party – and smuggling these works out to be published in the UK, Germany, Holland and Switzerland.

Being a writer – particularly one who does not tow the party line – as ridiculous as it seems in this day and age, was a very dangerous occupation. The fact that these writers persisted for so long in such restrictive and dangerous circumstances to continue to produce their work is admirable to say the least….and ultimately contributed to the overthrow of the Communist regime.

Only 3 months before he took over as president of the country, Vaclav Haval was still in prison, being persecuted for his political beliefs. It’s amazing how, after so many years of ruling with an iron fist, a dictatorial regime could be overthrown, so quickly and without bloodshed.

The whole “revolution” happened in a period of 6 weeks. It earned the name the Velvet Revolution due to the relative ease that the transition took place. It had been unthinkable that a former banned and imprisoned poet would become leader of the country – and yet….it happened. You should never under estimate the spirit of the people, the right action, at the right time, in the right place, by the right person/people, or the power of the written word.

Klima’s book spans six decades that include war, totalitarianism, censorship and the never ending fight for democracy. He looks at the way that “this crazy century” has led mankind astray and impacted not only Klima’s generation, but also today’s generations still struggling against totalitarian societies around the world.

Klima recounts first hand what it was like to be of Jewish heritage, confronting along with his family, the inhumanities of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, the treatment dealt out by the Nazi thugs….who were replaced by four decades of Communist thugs….and finally after years of harassment, persecution and censorship, the sweetness of the Velvet Revolution – when the time was right for such an ideal to thrive.

Personally for me, the events of this book are recent history – having been born in 1959, I recall many of the main points in the book, but I did not at the time realise the full horrors of what was going on “behind the iron curtain”. The official channels and the media only provided a sanitised version of the news….and to this day continue to do so. As the number of independent news organisations disappear and are swallowed up by larger conglomerates – the easier it is to control the news. When the TV news comes on in the evening and the presenter says “Here is the news”…..what they really should be saying is “Here is the news that we want you to know about…and this is OUR version of it”. We are being digitally lobotomized.

Although the so called “Free World” was not directly responsible for the suffering of the Czech people, we were guilty of complacency….of inaction….of doing nothing but raising “an official protest” in the United Nations at the time of such atrocities. As Klima and his fellow banned writers proved, when governments fail to act it’s up to writers – ALL of us – to get the word out there, no matter what the personal cost.

Green Book

If you haven’t seen the movie Green Book, I’d like to recommend that you do.

It’s been both lauded by the film critics and also panned for historical inaccuracies. However, I believe that it IS worth watching. It’s based on real life events…real people. I’ll put a link to the trailer at the end of this post.

It highlights the racial tension of the 1960’s in the southern states of the USA and follows the life of Donald Walbridge Shirley – born in Florida in 1927 to Jamaican immigrant parents. But Don is no ordinary black man. He is something that people particularly in the deep south don’t understand…..he is a musical genius AND more importantly a highly educated, intelligent and sophisticated black man. He held doctorates in music, psychology and liturgical arts and could speak 8 languages fluently as well as being an extraordinarily gifted pianist who started playing the piano at the age of 2 and was invited to study music theory at the Leningrad Conservatory of music at the age of 9. He was also a talented painter.

The movie begins with Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga – a New York nightclub bouncer applying for a job as a driver for Doctor Shirley. He is shocked to find out that Doctor Shirley is a negro and that he wants Tony to be not only his driver but also his protector for a tour of venues in the deep south of the USA, where the Don Shirley jazz trio will give a series of musical performances…….to rich white folks. There’s a scene early in the movie in Tony and his wife’s apartment where a couple of black work men are given a drink of water by Tony’s wife and Tony puts the glasses that the guys have used into the trash rather than washing them and using them again. He accepts the job because he needs the money and reluctantly sets off with Shirley armed with the “Green Book” which gives the movie it’s title.

The Green Book in question is a guide for blacks who travel in the south and lists motels and restaurants where they will be welcomed. There are not many…..and those that do accept blacks are shabby and run down.

The movie highlights the racial problem and also the differences between the northern united states and the south. The people of the south are willing to shake hands with this musical genius and are eager to be entertained by him, but don’t want him eating with them in the same restaurant – even though he is better dressed than most of them, better educated and better mannered. Nor do they want him using the same toilet as them.

It’s funny how blacks used to be employed by whites to prepare their meals and even look after their kids…..but they weren’t allowed to use the same bathroom. I forget who said it, but someone once said that you knew when the great depression really hit the white folks…..it was when they used to have to look after their own children.

The police in the south, just like those in the north, are meant to “serve and protect” and by the terms of the US Constitution – to treat everyone equally. “No State shall… abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” BUT it seems that in the deep south, “any person” doesn’t apply to blacks and we see Dr Shirley obstructed and abused by both the good old white folks and the police.

Racism is bred from ignorance and fear of the unfamiliar or unknown. In the movie we see Tony’s attitude toward Don Shirley change as he comes to know him better. It’s a life lesson.

I’m not going to spoil it for you by giving away the whole plot, but it is worth watching just to see how the relationship between the two men – from totally different backgrounds – changes as the movie progresses.

Don Shirley is a misfit. He’s black…..but doesn’t fit in with black society because of his education and sophistication. BUT neither is he accepted into white society due to the colour of his skin. This feeling of isolation drives him to drink and he becomes an alcoholic. It is also insinuated that Dr Shirley is a homosexual which only adds to the tension and prejudice against him.

Here’s the official trailer of the movie to tempt you.

Official Universal Pictures trailer – Green Book

It’s a movie that both entertains and informs. Sad and frustrating in parts and funny and uplifting in others. It’s a relationship movie….a road trip movie…a lesson in life….it has action, great music, great actors and a good script (written partly by the real Tony Lip’s son……who incidentally also plays one of Tony’s family members in the movie). I thoroughly enjoyed it.