North Korea Journal – Michael Palin (Review).

As I may have mentioned once or twice on past posts on this blog, I enjoy reading travel books and one of my favourite authors (along with Bill Bryson) is Michael Palin. His travel books usually accompany a TV series of the same name as his books. Since 1989, starting with his first ever travel book and accompanying TV show, Around the World In 80 Days, he was connected, almost at the hip it would seem, to the BBC. Usually, his travel series have multiple episodes. This latest book however, is presented alongside a TV show in only 2 parts, which has already been shown on British TV Chanel Five / ITV productions.

See the source image

The last time Palin was anywhere near North Korea was back in 1997 for yet another travel book and show Full Circle, but he only got a glimpse of North Korea from the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone. This time he gets a tour of the demilitarized zone from the other side and a frank discussion with the officer in charge. North Korea or we should call it the DPRK – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – lays out the welcome mat and Palin, now in his 75th year, gets to see one of the most secret and mysterious countries on the planet.

Of course he doesn’t get free reign to go where he wants. He has two official guides who go everywhere with him plus other “ministry officials” who make sure that his guides don’t allow Palin to wander too far off the official track.

See the source image
Photo by Harvey Sullivan – The Sun.

He gets to see pristine cities where the streets are almost empty of traffic, giant statues of past “Great Leaders”, and symbols and buildings commemorating the “Great Leaders”. He also visits a state of the art airport – with no planes and no flights, a street of tower blocks built within a year, that seem to house very few people and a massive, symbolic hotel with no guests what so ever. The DPRK seems to be as a country, much like a show home is to a yet to be built housing estate. Everything is there, it appears, as a front, but there is little substance and in some cases no actual function for the building/hotel/airport. As my grandmother used to say – “All fur coat and no knickers”. This was evident in the state of the roads. Within the capital city, the streets were first class, pristine if somewhat devoid of traffic. Once outside city limits though the highways were cracked and uneven – so that every journey felt like a ride inside a tumble dryer.

The first three days – which according to Palin felt like three weeks as it was such hard work to be able to achieve what they wanted and every step had to be negotiated – Palin, his director and film crew are under strict observation and are quickly shut down and moved to another location if anything occurs that may show the DPRK in a bad light. The people he gets to meet are, to begin with, all prearranged, preapproved and very much pro the ruling regime. After a while though, once Palin and company have proved themselves as willing to follow their minders guidelines, they are given a little more rope and get to interact with the general public – some of them rather the worse for drink – at a party in a park and also to enjoy the scenery of the hills and valleys on a hike in the countryside alone when their minders, not dressed suitably for the hike, leave them to it.

See the source image
Palin with farm worker and the all important little Red Tractor

At one point they visit a farm – where the workers are in military uniform – and Palin “helps” a female farm worker with some weeding. The shoot couldn’t begin however until a tractor had been moved into the background – to prove that farms are not all manual labour in North Korea and that machinery is available (even if the tractor in question was around fifty years old). When Palin asked the female farm worker how he faired as a farmhand, she quite straight forwardly told him that he was “unnecessary”.

Even with the loosening of some of the rules, Palin only had to hint at a question critical of the regime or of the history of North Korea and he was pulled up short and sharp. He told one of his guides that in the UK “we are able to be quite rude about our political leaders”. But, not wanting to get drawn in to this sort of discussion she countered with “That’s what makes us so different. Our leaders are very great. They are not individuals, but represent the masses, so we cannot criticise ourselves, can we?” One wonders at what he and his guides discussed off camera that didn’t get put into the book – for the safety of the guides themselves.

There are a few extra pages at the end of the book, written by director Neil Fergusson, which covers his own earlier visit to North Korea to meet with officials and to discuss their filming schedule, rules and regulations. He had sent the North Koreans a wish list of places and people he would like to film, but on his arrival the “official schedule” looked absolutely nothing like what he’s asked for. Several days of negotiations followed before a schedule that was acceptable to both sides was reached. Despite promises and signed contracts it wasn’t until Palin and the film crew actually stepped on to North Korean soil that they realised that the shooting or the North Korea Journal was good to go.

See the source image
Palin with his two tour guides – Li So Hyang and Li Hyon Chol – his constant companions.

In summarising the 15 day whirlwind trip, Palin says that although there are certainly some differences between how North Korea and for example Britain function as far as regulations and freedoms are concerned, there were far more similarities than he expected.

North Korea feels that it can’t let its guard down even slightly due to the ever present American military threat – no wonder it has the 4th largest army in the world. Almost a quarter of the entire North Korean population are members of the armed forces. These military personnel however also man the farms, the factories and the building sites, so you don’t see them all wandering around the towns and cities carrying weapons.

To directly quote a section of the final paragraph of the book, Palin says “…the trip has been an eye-opener, a chance to look behind the headlines and see this secretive country as few other westerners ever will. As Pyongyang recedes into the distance, we turn and exchange smiles. Of relief, but also of regret. One thing we all agreed on at our farewell meal last night is that none of us would mind coming back.”

All of the travel books by Michael Palin are of good quality and this one is no exception, except for being of smaller format than usual, as you can see from the photo below. It’s an easy and enjoyable read, witty and informative – filling in some of the unknowns about North Korea without being in any way controversial or overly critical. Palin is too nice a guy to stir things up just for viewing figures, or book sales. He was Knighted earlier this year (2019) for services to travel, culture and geography following his career as a writer and presenter of documentaries that have taken him all over the world. I do fear, having reached the age of 75, that this could be Palin’s last travel adventure. I hope not, but time will tell.

Some of Michael Palin’s books on my shelves.

As usual thank you for reading this blog…comments, questions, likes and follows are all very much appreciated.

Portland Oregon, capital of weird…..and Powell’s City of Books.

Many cities around the world have slogans that they identify with for example Los Angeles is “City of Angels”…..although I’m not sure how angelic L.A. is. Portland has a rather strange one – it’s “Keep Portland Weird!” Actually I found Portland quite delightful.

There you have it… the weird side of Portland.

First of all Portland is a foodie’s paradise. The food is some of the best, by which I mean locally grown, freshest and tastiest that I have had anywhere on my travels. Secondly they revere the art of making great coffee….and thirdly they have some awesome boutique breweries. Add to this trio, scenic surrounding natural wilderness, parks and formal gardens, a farmers market, a huge weekly art and craft market on the riverside and a great range of boutique shops and department stores to satisfy the most demanding shopper and you would think that Portland has it all.

BUT the crowning glory of Portland has to be the ultimate in bookstores – Powell’s City of Books – which occupies an entire city block and houses around a million books displayed in 3,500 sections in 9 colour-coded rooms, over several floors. When I say rooms I mean massive rooms of warehouse size.

I am a huge book lover….not that I am large and overweight….nor that I like over sized books….but you know what I mean. I’m a bibliophile. You’d think therefore that a store like Powell’s would have been a delight for me to wander through – right? Actually I was overwhelmed by the vastness of the place and the selection of books was mind blowing. It was sensory overload for book lovers. After a half hour of moving quickly – running like a headless chicken – with no real meaning or goal, I managed to calm down and slow down enough to start taking things in and having a proper look around. Up on the top floor…I think it was the top floor…was an amazing selection of books on photography, art, design and architecture. The phrase “spoiled for choice” doesn’t even cover it. Some of the prices were “up there”, but many were a lot cheaper than I’d be able to access at home in New Zealand. It was such a pity that having to fly home meant strict weight restrictions and so ruled out many of the large format picture books that I would otherwise have selected.

Powell’s have a computer screens and keyboards throughout the store enabling access to their huge catalogue of books. Key in the title of a book or an authors name and the computer will tell you the room and rack of books where they can be located. In the end I think I bought maybe 4 or 5 books from Powell’s, as did my wife. This sounds pitiful when there were a million titles at our disposal, but we’d already “shopped ’til we dropped” in the book stores of San Francisco so space, or more exactly weight, available for extra books in our suitcases was minimal. I’d love to take another trip there, this time with an empty case!

Unfortunately we were only there for one weekend, but if you read on you’ll see that we squeezed in quite a lot during our brief stay in the capital of weird.

One place we wanted to go to we pre-booked before leaving San Francisco. That was Stumptown Coffee Roastery. We’d booked in there for a guided coffee tasting….or coffee cupping also known as spooning….but not the cuddling kind.

We arrived early and were shown to a waiting area where we could sit on comfortable sofas and try hot coffee from a pumps….or iced coffees from the refrigerator. Wow what a choice there was. Also in the same area were a collection of old style coffee machines. All chrome and absolutely wonderful. By the time we were shown through to the “cupping” area I was already wired on caffeine.

We had maybe 15 people or so in our tasting group and the young lady who led the tasting was friendly and extremely knowledgeable. First of all she laid out about a dozen different coffee bean blends and we could examine the bean and smell it’s aroma. Next came the ground coffee…again to sniff at while dry. Then the hot water was added and we went along the line sniffing at each cup just after the water had been added and again after a few minutes…the difference in aroma was very noticeable. Finally we got to taste the various coffees. Some very mild…moving through mid range…to rich and strong. The tasting was done by taking a spoon – a cupping spoon…a little like a shallow soup spoon – and then slurping the coffee from it to make sure the flavour goes all around the mouth. You could choose to spit out the coffee or swallow….now where have I heard that before? We also got to know all about how they source their beans from all over the world – predominantly Africa and South America. It was quite a fascinating afternoon. My preference was toward the stronger, richer, chocolatey end. But having said that, I also liked a couple of the milder brews. The aftertaste flavours were almost peachy.

We hit a number of micro-breweries and bars to sample the amber nectar, and sometimes the almost chocolatey nectar too. One bar we went in, and I can’t for the life of me remember the name, had a deliciously rich chocolate Porter. Never have I tasted one so delicious. Another one called 10 Barrel Brewing had a tasting board where you could try all 10 brews. My son and daughter-in-law had a go at those while my wife and I settled for a pint. I must say, whilst in Portland, I didn’t meet a beer that wasn’t delicious.

The cafes were marvelous too – excellent coffees served at every single one we went to. Heart coffee/café was probably the best. But it would be a tight run thing as there were so many delicious cups of coffee consumed over the 3 days of our trip.

Another thing that Portland is famous for is donuts. If you want quality donuts try Blue Star Donuts, but if you want to put the weird into Portland’s donuts you have to go to Voodoo Doughnut. The choice of toppings for your donut is mind boggling. I went for the Portland Cream – basically a cream filled chocolate covered one. Very YUM! But you’ll see from the photo below that there are some odd toppings. They are very popular and we had to line up outside the shop for fifteen minutes or so before being served.

Evening dining saw us dining in a couple of restaurants. My favourite was Besaw’s. It was kind of 50’s style with high backed green leather booths. Excellent food…tasty and ample sizes…and the staff were attentive and friendly. I hate going to restaurants where you order your meal…a steak maybe, along with the several items that come with it…only for it to arrive at the table to look small and lost, sitting alone in the middle of a plate with swirls of ‘Jus’ around it and 3 little cubes of something, artistically placed to one side. The waiter comes along and asks “How did you find your steak sir?”….the reply – “I moved a pea and there it was!” They then sting you extra for ‘sides’ of potatoes and veg. Not here at Besaws. You order a meal and you get a meal. The bottle of 2014 Pinot Noir to accompany the meal, from Angela Estate in Oregon, was rich and delicious. And takes the award for best wine I tried whilst in Portland.

We never made it to the Farmers Market, but did get to the Saturday arts and crafts market by the riverside. Lot and lots of stalls to wander around all selling hand made items…plus the usual buskers and food stalls. Some of the prices were ‘up there’ though, due to the poor exchange rate with the NZ Dollar.

I was also very impressed by some of the murals on the side of buildings. Excellent quality art. And there was a wide range of architecture….the old and new sitting side by side.

The only thing that let Portland down was the weather. One day was sunny but two days showery and cloudy. I guess that’s what you get in the Pacific North West. Fortunately it was a fine day when we explored Portland’s parks and gardens. The Shakespeare gardens with it’s Rose Garden was beautiful, high on a hill overlooking the city….and would have been even better if the roses had been in bloom! We were maybe a month early. Afterwards we had a wander along a little trail through woodland back down to the city…..eating Blue Star Donuts along the way.

Weird or not, Portland Oregon is a great place to visit for a weekend…..but be warned, if you’re a book lover, you need a week to explore Powell’s Book Shop.

The Thing About Prague – Rachael Weiss – book review

A few months ago I was looking at the books in my book cases and had one of those “aha” moments. The majority of my books were by male authors, very few were by female writers. I hadn’t consciously been avoiding women writers, it was just one of those things. I found it really quite odd, and wondered why subconsciously I may have been avoiding them.

When I was in San Francisco earlier this year I’d read, not only a women writer, but also a feminist woman writer – Rebecca Solnit’s book ‘Call Them By Their True Names‘ (American Crises And Essays) – and thoroughly enjoyed it.

So, I am now consciously trying to read as many women writers as I do their male counterparts. With that in mind I recently picked up Rachael Weiss’s memoir about her time in Prague ‘The Thing About Prague’ – printed in 2014. Suddenly waking up to the fact that she was not only still single, but also ‘middle aged’ and having nothing better to do at the time, she decides to pack everything up and move to Prague.

The Thing About Prague

Prague is one of my favourite cities in the world, alongside Paris, so I hoped that in reading Ms Weiss’s book it would bring back some happy memories. It did, kind of, but Rachael was there long term as a resident and owner of an apartment, doing the things that residents do….like living their lives… where as I was simply there doing touristy things for a week.

Rachael’s relationship with Prague was more meaningful in that she became, or tried hard to become, part of the community there. She left her home and her pet cat back in Australia to head for the birthplace of her father, to carve out a new and more satisfying literary lifestyle. Her frustrations with the Czech language and with pedantic Czech bureaucracy comes to the boil, overflows even, numerous times as she battles officialdom – what was left over after 40 years of communist rule – trying to firstly obtain her resident visa and then to sort out the mess made by another bureaucrat who changed her job description….trying to be helpful, but in doing so created a mountain of problems for her.

It’s a nice easy read. The words and sentences flow well. She doesn’t feel the need to impress us by using complicated words that would require a quick dip into the thesaurus. It’s simply a straightforward look at the three year period of her life spent living in Prague….a city that whilst bohemian, historic and magical is anything but straightforward.

Her adventures, or should that be mis-adventures, find her doing jobs that she doesn’t like, for people she would rather avoid, but also inexplicably becomes romantically fixated on (like Leonard who foams at the mouth when excited, and spits when he talks – a real catch!)…saw her somehow leading services in a Jewish synagogue – which was more a case of ‘forgive me lord for I know not what I do’…..find her lost in the woods on a hike with a very unattractive Kyrgyzstani who has cannibalistic fantasies….and she spends lots of time in bars partaking in the traditional Czech pastime of drinking copious amounts of alcohol. All while trying to find the time, and to create the right atmosphere, for writing that all important novel.

But it’s her need for romance, to find Mr Right….or even to spend a night with Mr OK, who’ll do for now, that bring us both laughs and intense frustration. It appears, for Rachael, that the phrase ‘desperate times mean desperate measures’ defines her love life. It never ceases to amaze me how a woman who is obviously intelligent and talented could define her self-worth based on whether she has a man or not.

This is Rachael’s third book. Her second book Me, Myself and Prague (2008) was about her first attempt at living for a year in Prague….armed only with an old 1973 guide book. And her first book Are We There Yet? (2005) is another travelogue about a road trip taken with a girlfriend in a land dominated by couples having fun. I haven’t read either one yet, but intend to. Other than her books, she says that her only other claim to fame is coming fourth in the 1996 New South Wales Scrabble Tournament.

The people at Goodreads currently rate The Thing About Prague at 3.31 out of 5. I’d rate it up nearer 4 out of 5. But then I am a sucker for books about writers struggling to write THE novel. Looking on line, it would appear that since these 3 books are the only ones attributed to Rachael Weiss, she is still to write her novel. I sincerely hope that she hasn’t given up her dream.

Travel books – explore the world from your armchair.

One bookcase of travel books.

I love books and I love to travel, so it’s no surprise that I have, over the years, acquired a good number of travel books.

My favourite way to travel is by train. I only wish that I’d been able to travel more by steam train than by the modern electric or diesel trains. There’s so much more adventure or even romance on steam trains. As a passenger travelling by rail I can relax, let someone else take care of the driving, kick back and either watch the scenery flash past the window, chat to fellow travellers, or lose myself in a good book. I can take a walk if I get bored…or feel the need to exercise…or I can make use of the onboard buffet or bar. For me, the journey is just as enjoyable as the destination…sometimes, more so.

I have several books specifically about rail travel, a few of which are in the photo below, and will tell you a little about each of these 5 books pictured.

Just five of my books about train travel – there are more.

So as not to bore you all too much I’ll try to keep my summary of each book as brief as possible…just a few sentences.

Railway Stations – Charles Sheppard is a 1996 publication and looks at railway stations that are “Masterpieces of Architecture”. Some of the standout stations being New York’s Grand Central Station, Saint Louis’s Union Station, and Paris’s Gare du Nord is worthy of inclusion for its facade alone. All of which I am happy to say I have visited over my years of train travel. Moscow’s subway is also included, its passageways more ornate than many luxury hotel lobbies, and deserving of the title ‘Masterpiece’.

Amazing Train Journeys – a lonely planet publication (October 2018). Divided into neat sections – Africa, The Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. Experience 60 of the world’s greatest and most unforgettable train journeys, from classic long-distance trips like Western Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer and Darwin to Adelaide’s The Ghan, to little-known gems on regular commuting lines. Personally I’d probably choose some of the small privately run railways in the UK that have preserved and operate steam trains – such as the short 2 hour trip from Fort William to Mallaig in Scotland – this is the line that the Hogwarts Express chugs along in the Harry Potter movies.

Chris Tarrant’s Extreme Railway Journeys – (as seen on the UK’s Chanel 5) published in 2016. The text in this book is by Chris Tarrant, accompanying the many colour photos. The problem is that the majority of the photos feature Tarrant’s face mugging for the camera. There are a few pictures simply showing scenery or trains from a distance, but anything close up has the man himself blocking the view. I realise it’s HIS TV show and HIS name on the book….but really, how many photos of Chris smiling do we need to see? There are some helpful maps showing the routes of the 14 Extreme Rail Journeys covered. The text is informative and easy reading, mixed in with a lot of moaning by Tarrant about trains not running on time, being overcrowded and uncomfortable in the third world countries he visited – however he was overjoyed and waxing lyrical about the Japanese Bullet train. The efficiency, comfort and the fact that the staff bow to customers scored points with him. Tarrant, it seems, prefers his “Extreme Journeys” to be accompanied by a large dollop of comfort and luxury.

Great Railway Journeys published by the BBC in 1994 accompanying the TV series of the same name, is in my opinion a far more interesting and better presented book than the one by Chris Tarrant. What makes it so is firstly, that Tarrant is not involved at all, so we can enjoy the beautiful photographs in peace, and secondly that each of the 6 Great Railway Journeys covered is narrated by a different celebrity travellers, who barely make one complaint among them. Mark Tulley takes us through Pakistan from Karachi to the Khyber Pass. Lisa St Aubin de Teran travels in South America, from Santos in Brazil to Santa Cruz in Bolivia. Clive Anderson takes us from Hong Kong, via Shanghai through to Ulaan Baatar in Mongolia. Natalia Makarova is on the Bolshoi Express from St Petersburg in Russia via the various ‘Stans to finish in Tashkent. Seasoned traveller and former “Python”, Michael Palin has a shorter trip from Derry in Northern Ireland to Kerry in the Irish Republic, and finally it’s a South African rail trip for Rian Malan starting in Capetown and ending eventually in Bophuthatswana.

More Great Railway Journeys again published by the BBC, in 1996, is more of the same….This time the celebs are Benedict Allen, Chris Bonington, Henry Louis Gate Jr., Buck Henry, poet – Ben Okri, comedians – Alexei Sayle and Victoria Wood. They journey through the middle east, Africa, the UK, Canada, Argentina and the final journey is from London to Arkadia in Greece. As in it’s predecessor, great photos and informative and witty text make this book another winner. Each journey, each story, has its own unique character, written especially for people who love slow travel….who savour the experience of the journey….rather than rushing as fast as possible to the destination. The only negative thing that I could mention about this follow up book is that there were no maps showing the routes taken. But all in all another marvelous BBC publication.

Do you enjoy the adventure of travelling via rail? What’s your favourite route? Please let me know in the comments section.

I saved the best to last. Cinque Terre. Part 3 – Vernazza. A photographic journey.

Vernazza village – Cinque Terre’s crown
Pastel houses cling to cliff tops
Steep streets take us down
Into the winding narrows
, of Vernazza’s heart
And from this place of beauty
You will never want to part.

Vernazza is a sight to behold. It’s a photographer’s dream and also a photographer’s nightmare. It’s such a lovely place, scenic, colourful – that it’s almost a sin if, as a photographer, you take a bad picture of it. Not even a bad picture….just a picture that doesn’t reflect the full beauty of the place. It’s so difficult to capture…my photos don’t do it justice (in reality the colours are so bright they “ping”)…you must go and visit yourself.

Sure it’s a little shabby in places. Some of the buildings have paint peeling from their facades but it’s a kind of shabby beauty….beauty with age maybe. I loved it here. I spent so long wandering the streets, in and out of alleys and buildings, that I missed out on the final 2 of the Cinque Terre’s villages. But it was worth it.

From the train station you can either wander straight down to the little harbour – the heart and soul of Vernazza – from which everything else radiates, OR do as we did and climb upwards instead. Up the steep stone stairways and narrow paths that bring you out on the hilltop above the village, with spectacular views over the church steeple and down to the harbour of this gorgeous little fishing village. It was exhausting but well worth the climb to the top. Only after drinking in the beauty of the place from this vantage point did we venture down into Vernazza proper.

When in a catholic country like Italy you can’t help but notice the churches and religious icons – especially in these small villages – dotted here and there in quiet corners. A chance to pass on your thanks to the powers that be…..if that’s what your beliefs are….or just enjoy the moments solitude away from the tourist throngs.

Of all 5 villages of Cinque Terre, Vernazza is the only one with a natural port. It has no car traffic either which, if you can get there early and beat the other eager tourists, adds a special tranquility to the place.

Cinque Terre part 2 – Riomaggiore village – a photographic journey.

Riomaggiore is the first of the villages you’ll meet if you approach Cinque Terre from La Spezia. It isn’t, in my opinion, the most beautiful of the villages but is still very pretty and very much worth visiting.

From the railway station you can either, follow the coastal path around a headland to get to the village, or take a short cut through a pedestrian tunnel that takes you directly into the heart of the village. Although the coastal path is picturesque and rugged, on a hot day like it was when we visited, the cool of the tunnel is the preferred route.

The villages of Cinque Terra. Part 1. Manarola – A photographic journey.

Since my last post – a black and white photographic journey through Paris – was so well supported I thought I’d try you all with some colour photos of the villages of Italy’s Cinque Terre. The villages are such a riot of colour that it would not do justice to their beauty if I presented photos in black and white.

The villages of Cinque Terre cling to the rocky cliff face along the north west coast of Italy. The can be accessed either by rail – from the nearby city of La Spezia – just 10 minutes by train to the south, or by following the pathway cut into the cliff face. The railway and the pathway link all five villages that make up the Cinque Terre. I thought that I’d be able to get some spectacular photos from the train as we made our way along the rugged coastline…..BUT – there’s always a BUT – because of the physical limitations of the geography here, the railway cuts through many, many tunnels so glimpses of the ocean are few and far between. However, the villages, as we discovered on departing the train, more than made up for the disappointment of the journey.

The buildings are close together due to the physical limits of the geography of the area and are painted in beautiful pastel colours. We spent a day exploring just 3 of the 5 villages. Here is a look in pictures at the second smallest of the five villages – Manarola.

San Francisco’s independent bookshops.

There are an amazing number and diversity of bookstores in San Francisco and during my recent visit I wanted to call into and browse books in as many of them as possible.

Prior to leaving my home in New Zealand I had a look on-line and made myself a list of around 40 bookshops, in the San Francisco area, to explore. However time limits, transport logistics and the risk of what of spending our entire holiday inside bookshops would do to my marriage, forced a compromise of sorts. As a result, what follows is a review of the shops that “we” visited (with a rating of each shop) and the books bough in each.

Our ratings are based on a number of things such as range of books, condition and price of stock, the layout of the shop (was it easy to get around/pleasing to the eye?), the welcome or lack of welcome we received from the staff, the helpfulness/knowledge of product of the staff, was there somewhere to sit and peruse a potential purchase and was sitting and perusing frowned upon or encouraged – to name but a few.

The first bookshop we visited in San Francisco was Christopher’s Books – about which I have already blogged in a post titled “Potrero Hill (and books and bookshops)”. However, Christopher’s Book shop and it’s owner were such a delight that I want to say again what a lovely shop it is, despite its small size it has a huge heart. Except for the fact that there is no space to sit and peruse and that most of the books are full retail price – although I did get 20% off my purchase because April was Poetry month and if you presented the shop with a piece of your own poetry, which I did, you qualified for a 20% discount – I would have given this shop a perfect score. 4.5 out of 5 is the most I can give mainly due to there being no seating area. An excellent shop, and friendly and knowledgeable owner, all the same.

Although technically not a book shop, certain branches of the San Francisco Library have sales areas for discarded books/over stocked books/public donated books. These rooms are run by volunteers who have little time for arranging the books in any kind of sequence so you’ll find best sellers mixed in with cook books, kids books in the middle of political history etc. It’s a mess – and the area that the books are sold is a very stark, plain concrete walled room with little space and the books on trestle tables. BUT the staff were pleasant and tried to be helpful AND the books were all a dollar each regardless of condition. Again this one was covered in the same blog post as Christopher’s Bookshop. A score of 2 out of 5 for value and nice manners of the helpful staff is the best I can manage here.

On a wander through the mission district on the trail of the colourful murals there we called into 3 bookshops. The first was Alley Cat Books at 3036 24th Street.

Inside Alley Cat Books – looking toward the front of the store.

This is a bookshop and art gallery combined. The gallery is in the back part of the bookshop and is worth a look. But we were here to check out their range of books, of which they had a good variety and a range of prices. They had a couple of tables with sale books on for the cost of just a few dollars. I bought two books from here – Jack Kerouac’s “The Town and The City” – this was the famous Beat writers debut novel released 7 years before the book that made Kerouac famous, “On the Road”. And James Baldwin’s “The Devil Finds Work” – which is one of Baldwin’s book-length essays. Baldwin wrote mainly about racial, sexual and class distinctions and his experiences of being a gay black man growing up and living in America. He was described by many as a genius. Each book cost me a little under $7 each on sale. There were a lot of interesting books on sale and I had to exercise restraint to keep it to just two purchases. Had I lived in the USA and didn’t have to bring my haul of books back to New Zealand in my suitcase I would have really stocked up here. Helpful sales girl behind the counter was available to help, but left us to browse in peace. Very nice store and there were chairs to sit and peruse the books should you feel the need. I’ll rate them 4 out of 5

Next along the way was Dog Eared Books – which is owned by the same people who have Alley Cat Books. (Below are two photos – one interior, one exterior of Dog Eared Books, which is at 900 Valencia Street).

Again a nice store with a good selection of new and used books, but due to already having a heavy backpack (2 books, lunch, extra sweat top, camera etc) and still a long walk ahead of us, I resisted the urge to splurge on more books here. There were a couple of hard cover photography books here that caught my eye, but I couldn’t justify the extra weight. There were a couple of chairs in a corner for perusing books, but both were occupied by homeless guys – who, despite smelling a little ripe and muttering to themselves, were harmless enough and the store owner was happy for them to sit and shelter for a while. Nice store and stock, but the staff didn’t seem interested in their customers so I will only rate them 3 out of 5.

Just one block further along is Borderlands Books at 866 Valencia Street.

Boarderlands specialise in Sci-fi books, fan-fiction and rare editions. Since Sci-fi isn’t really my thing and my wife can’t stand it, we didn’t hang around here for long. They had a good stock of books in good condition and the prices were reasonable. 3.5 out of 5.

A couple of days later we were in the Central Business District of San Francisco and on our way to lunch in Yerba Buena Gardens we called into Alexander Book Company at number 50 2nd Street.

We got a nice welcome from the staff there and set about exploring the shop. It’s set over 3 floors and is just brilliant. Upstairs are some very comfortable chairs for sitting and reading your potential purchases and we were left undisturbed to do just that, having selected several books between us from the ground floor tables and bookshelves. We can’t resist bargains and I think, from memory, that all our purchases here were reduced in price. I was remarkably restrained yet again and bought just 2 books.

Image result for the adventures of henry thoreau

My first choice was Michael Sims “The Adventures of Henry Thoreau”. In keeping with my intentions to buy books by American writers – Sims, born in Crossville Tennessee is a noted writer of American non-fiction. In this book, he charts the life of Henry David Thoreau from being a rowdy adventurous child in the mold of Tom Sawyer, moving on to his time at Harvard University, the years spent living in a cabin by Walden Pond…..through to becoming an icon – one of America’s most influential writers, ardent environmentalist and proponent of nonviolent activism. I haven’t had time to read it yet, so it remains on my to be read list for now. Goodreads gave it a middle of the road 3.8, but I think it’s going to be a really good read.

My second book was actually a photography book – or a book of photographs – of one of my favourite cities in the world – Paris. “Forever Paris”- subtitled “Timeless Photographs of the City of Lights”, is produced by Flammarion. The photos are all black and white and cover the period from 1930 through to 1970. Some are of everyday people and street scenes, others are iconic Paris landmarks, such as the Eifel Tower and there are even stars of the stage, screen and art world, such as Audrey Hepburn, Josephine Baker, Nina Simone and Salvador Dali. This book is a winner, as far as I am concerned, for anyone interested in Paris, black and white photography, street photography and/or celebrity photos. And as it was reduced to just $4.50 it was more than just a bargain.

Image result for An Inconvenient Sequel:_Truth_to_Power book

My wife outdid me at Alexander’s. Her haul of 5 books made my 2 look insignificant. For anyone interested in the environment and climate change, Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth (which was released as both a book and a movie documentary in 2006) was a landmark book as it put climate change in layman’s terms for us all to understand. The follow up book to this – An Inconvenient Sequel TRUTH TO POWER – was the first of my wife’s book haul from Alexander’s. It’s sold as an “action handbook – to learn the science, find your voice and help solve the climate crisis”. Again written in laymen’s terms with accompanying diagrams and photographs, I will be borrowing it from my wife, at some point, as I believe that in these times of unusual weather phenomena, extremes of weather and rising sea levels, it pays to be informed.

Image result for her brilliant career

“Her Brilliant Career” (written in 2013), subtitled Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties, by Rachel Cooke. To quote the blurb on the back cover “Rachel Cooke goes back in time to offer an entertaining and Iconoclastic look at ten women in the 1950’s – pioneers whose professional careers and complicated private lives helped to create the opportunities available to today’s women. These intrepid individuals – among them a film director, a cook, an architect, an editor, an archaeologist, and a race car driver – left the house, discovered the bliss of a career, and ushered in the era of the working woman.” Just having a flick through and browsing some of the stories in this book, I may have to borrow this one too. It looks quite interesting.

Image result for humans are underrated book

Geoff Colvin’s book “Humans Are Underrated” – “What High Achievers Know that Brilliant Machines Never Will – takes a look at what’s happening in the automated workplace. The unavoidable question – will millions of people lose out, unable to best the machine? – is increasingly dominating business, education, economics and policy. Doris Kearns Goodwin (Pulitzer Prize-winning historian) says of the book “Beautifully written and deeply researched, Humans Are Underrated is one of the most creative and insightful leadership books I have ever read. It is a triumph!” Again, just flicking through a few pages and reading random paragraphs, it seems like an interesting and thought provoking book and YET ANOTHER to add to my to be read list.

Image result for Reality if not what it seems book

“Reality is Not What it Seems” – The Journey to Quantum Gravity – is another of the books my wife selected. This one written by Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli. “What??? ” I hear you ask…..”sounds like a real page turner!” But Rovelli’s earlier book “Seven Lessons on Physics” was actually a best seller and was translated into more than forty languages, so there must be something to it. Add to this, that one of our sons is a Harvard trained theoretical physicist – and this makes it a must read book for both of us…..so we can keep up with what our son usually talks to us about, instead of it going right over our heads – as usual. Do time and space really exist? What exactly is reality? Rovelli tells us how our understanding of reality has changed over the centuries and how physicists think about the structure of the universe today. He takes us on a wondrous journey from Democritus to Albert Einstein, from Michael Faraday to gravitational waves and from classical physics to his own latest work in quantum gravity. We’re invited into a world where space breaks up into tiny grains, time disappears at the smallest scales, and black holes are waiting to explode – a vast universe still largely undiscovered. So that’s four from four of my wife’s selections that I will have to add to my reading list. Not so however with her final choice.

Image result for Reza Aslan God: A human history cover

Reza Aslan’s 2017 offering is GOD: A Human History and is about the history of religion and how we as humans over the centuries have given our God – what ever our religion – human traits and emotions. Aslan says we should stop doing this. It is a book that will make us reflect and reconsider our assumptions about God and religion. He says “We bestow upon God not just all that is good in human nature – our compassion, our thirst for justice – but all that is bad in it: our greed, our bigotry, our penchant for violence. All these qualities inform our religions, cultures and governments.” My wife has an interest in religions and spirituality so will probably find it interesting. For me, the only redeeming quality of this hard cover book is that it is a first edition and the author has signed it – and so added to the collectability value.

So that brings to a close our purchases from Alexanders Books – a shop definitely worth a visit. Due to the great range of books, friendly staff, pleasant layout and great seating area I give them 4.75 out of 5.

I was hoping to go to an author reading event at Green Apple Books, but regrettably I never got to set foot in their main store at 506 Clement Street which has over 60,000 new books and over 100,000 second hand books on its shelves. We did however manage to call into their second, albeit smaller shop – Green Apple Books on the Park – on the southern edge of Golden Gate Park at 1231 9th Ave.

A smallish, long and narrow shop with knowledgeable staff, a good selection of fiction and nonfiction and a chair here and there on which to sit and read. The sale books were particularly worthy of our attention. Another 4 out of 5 rating from me.

Image result for Olympia Provisions by Elias Cairo and Meredith Erickson book

From here, my wife bought a beautiful large hard cover book about American Charcuterie put out by Olympia Provisions of Portland Oregon. We had only recently visited Portland a few days earlier and indeed the charcuterie – quality meats – on sale there were second to none. It has some lovely photos and simple to follow recipes and instructions on how to make, cure, preserve, cut and serve meats that will be the envy of your friends. The cover price of $40 US Dollars had been reduced to a bargain price of $15 – it would have been a crime not to buy it. I will be writing a separate post covering our weekend trip to Portland all about the quality food, drink and of course Powell’s City of Books.

Related image

My purchase – yes, just the one – was again in keeping with my quest for books by local writers. Dave Eggers – writer, editor, publisher and philanthropist – although born in Boston, now lives and writes in San Francisco, so his nonfiction book “Zeitoun” which follows the fate of a couple caught in between two of America’s worst policy disasters: the war on terror and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, was an apt choice. Timothy Egan of the New York Times Book Review wrote – “Imagine Charles Dickens, his sentimentality in check but his journalistic eyes wide open, roaming New Orleans after it was buried by Hurricane Katrina….suspense blended with just enough information to stoke reader outrage and what is likely to be a typical response: How could this happen in America?….Fifty years from now, when people want to know what happened to this once-great city during a shameful episode of our history, they will still be talking about a family named Zeitoun.”

A book shop that we visited but didn’t buy anything was the Castro District branch of Dog Eared Books. Since we were passing yet another San Francisco book store we felt we just had to go in for a look, but by this point in our trip we were totally “booked out” having reached maximum weight for both our suitcases. The shop was well laid out and there were the usual sale tables. There was also a crate of free books just outside the door of the shop. Back inside, and this being the Castro District, the subject matter was slanted toward the predominantly gay/lesbian/transsexual clientele with the largest collection of material by LGBT writers that I never knew existed. There were also some rather explicit photography books and other picture books that I think I may have had problems getting through New Zealand customs….another reason not to buy. Some of the books would have made interesting reading of that I have no doubt. The shop itself was small, but well laid out. Due to the limited subject matter, the fact that the rainbow coloured plastic strips across the doorway made it look like a rather cheap ‘Adult’ shop, and the rather sullen girl behind the counter, the most I can rate this store is 2.5 out of 5. Definitely worth calling in for curiosity sake though.

No post about independent bookstores of San Francisco could be considered any where complete without a mention of, and a visit to, City Lights Bookstore. Home of the beat generation of writers, this shop has been around since the 1950’s and is probably the most famous book store in the whole of California. Original co-owner – poet, publisher, painter and social activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti still calls into the store every now and then, but sadly wasn’t there when we called in. It’s a pity really as his presence may have made the staff a little more approachable and less “up themselves”. Sometimes working in a famous store goes to people’s heads. The shop is a warren of rooms and bookshelves but very pleasant to walk around and browse the huge range of subject matter. There are a lot of “social issue” type books, in line with Ferlinghetti’s freedom of speech/freedom of expression mantra. The making one of the upstairs rooms exclusively for poetry, complete with a desk and a couple of chairs is a welcome refuge in which to read in peace. My rating of 3.5 out of 5 reflects the attitude of the staff and lowers what would have been a much higher score.

jacket, A Coney Island of the Mind

Despite the vast and interesting range of books I limited myself to a single book purchase here – Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s modern classic “A Coney Island of the Mind”, a collection of what is recognised as some of his best poems written during a short period in the 1950’s.

And that brings our little trip around a few of the many San Francisco Independent Book Shops to a close.

GLIDE along to San Francisco’s Tenderloin.

The choir and band at Glide Church in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District.

One of the items on my wife’s “must do” list, when we visited San Francisco recently, was to visit a church where the choir sang Gospel music. A quick ‘Google’ recommended Glide church in one of San Francisco’s seedier areas – the Tenderloin. I wasn’t all that keen on attending a church service but went along to make sure she was safe on the streets.

Neither of us are overly religious and don’t attend church on anywhere near a regular basis at home (usually weddings and funerals), nor follow any particular religion, but for some reason when we travel overseas we tend to visit quite a few churches, chapels, temples etc. – mainly from an interest in their history and architecture. We do however feel a certain degree of spiritual uplift after visiting these buildings, particularly if there is a service on at the time of our visit.

We were in the UK a couple of years ago and, as is our habit when overseas, visited a few churches there. We were told the same story where ever we went – falling congregation numbers and churches closing or having services every couple or more weeks instead of every Sunday. In one village we visited in Cornwall, the church officials outnumbered the congregation, us included. I believe that, although modern day people live busier lives than in the past and the internet has made knowledge more accessible – particularly about “the Creation” and scientific alternatives – the main reason for falling congregation numbers in the UK is because the church still sticks to its format of old. It has not moved on, has not evolved.

No such problem, it seems, in America. Some churches maintain the status quo, others are more progressive and not only maintain congregation numbers but in some cases have increased them. And I add – slightly tongue in cheek – one can’t help feel that more people are praying these days as a result of who is in the White House.

Glide church, in one of the poorest areas of San Francisco, has two services each Sunday to accommodate everyone who wants to go – one at 9am and another at 11am. We went to the 11am service, or should I say “celebration”? Prior to the “celebration” we had mistakenly wandered into another room, downstairs in the church building, used to help both feed those in need and help to rehabilitate and offer assistance to people with addictions. We were greeted by a man of about my age who was obviously there to be helped, but also made a point of making us feel welcome. He gave us his life story and then shed tears when telling us how much he misses his parents who died in 2012. A lady helper then told us that if we were looking for the Sunday Celebration…..it was upstairs in the church proper.

It was certainly an interesting and surprisingly emotional experience. Being a “gospel” church, and I know I am being stereotypical and for that I apologize, I expected a black preacher. The main preacher here is white…..but delivered the sermon with a sense of humour, even if it did seem like he was using “dad” jokes. He made sure the emphasize that this is a church that is fully inclusive and supports the community it serves, by being a community. Every day they need 70 volunteers to help in the task of feeding the homeless. They also run rehabilitation programs for those dependent on drugs, alcohol or gambling. They care and they try their best to make a difference. Of course there was the usual plea for folks to “give money”, but when you see what they are doing with it and the programs they have to help the needy you don’t mind digging deep to put something into the collection plate.

San Francisco has a huge problem with homelessness. Except in the rich areas, where I’m guessing the streets are policed a little more strictly, you will find the homeless sleeping in shop doorways, the middle of footpaths, or even in some cases in makeshift tents on the median strip of busy roads. Most of them with cardboard signs asking for nickels and dimes “anything you can spare to help”. It’s bad enough in the middle of the day, but the “body count” increases once the stores close and more of the homeless take up their usual spot, wedged into alcoves against shop doors, to find as much shelter as is possible, from the weather, for the night. The weather is one of the reasons that San Francisco has such a high population of homeless people. The temperature range here is fairly constant – no extremes of heat or bitter cold – making outdoor living at least bearable, if not comfortable. Other cities, such as New York, constantly hassle the homeless and move them on as quickly as possible – in some cases they even bus them out of the city so that they become someone else’s problem. Not so in San Francisco.

And not so at Glide church where everyone is welcome regardless of your status, skin colour, gender (or gender choice), religious beliefs, social problems, health or mental state etc. So, as you can imagine, there is a diverse cross section of the community here and ALL are warmly welcomed and embraced into the heart of this church. Very early in the service – or celebration, as they call it here at Glide – the preacher gets everyone to shake hands (or hug) someone that they haven’t met before. It was something very much out of my comfort zone and not an inherently English thing to do, but after the initial pang of discomfort I couldn’t help but warm to the feeling of love and belonging that these folk – the congregation here – exude.

Before the “celebration” began a lady circulated though the pews offering either a fan or a tissue to each of us. It was quite chilly in the church anyhow so there was no need for a fan and I had no idea, at the time, why she thought we might need a tissue – other than to blow our noses on. However I could have used that tissue later on. I was emotionally affected by the whole experience – the sermon (which wasn’t much related to the usual biblical texts that I have been used to in more staid Church of England services) was more about life experiences and struggles that ordinary people have to get through to survive….not just those on the street, but working families where mum and dad are both having to work two jobs – drawing minimum wage – just to pay the bills.

The American Dream lifestyle of the 1950’s and 60’s has become an American Nightmare for many in the 2000’s as the gap between rich and poor continues to widen at an alarming rate, enslaving many in a seemingly unbreakable cycle of debt. Combine this with the singing of the choir and a talented bunch of musicians, playing everything from keyboards, drums and guitar to a brass section…..add in the words of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” – the choir and band did a brilliant job of this number – experience being in this tumble dryer of humanity and humbleness and next thing you’re dabbing away tears of emotion and gratitude.

The celebration featured many things other than the choir and the sermon. At one point a gentleman was asked to step up and talk briefly to us from the stage. He was 27 years sober, thanks to the support of Glide church, and a former member of the choir. He spoke most eloquently and you could see that he was in a good place both literally and figuratively speaking – very comfortable in his own skin and in addressing the congregation – interesting to listen to.

The “Fabulous” Stacy with friend, and at the lectern the Preacher.

We also had an appearance on stage from another member of the congregation – a transexual called Stacy – who was very flamboyant and totally ‘out there’ – and her favourite word was “fabulous”. She was on stage to announce a LGBT event coming up in May where everyone was invited “including straight people”….but they have to dress up and of course “be fabulous”.

Former Minister delivers his crucifixion story.

There was a short sermon by a former Glide minister (he also covers for the current minister when needed) – this time a black man, or man of colour (I don’t mean to offend but never know when to use the word black or colour so I’m using both to cover all bases). He delivered a very modern take on the crucifixion and why God didn’t save his son from the suffering of the cross. He said it was due to modern day pressures. God was holding down 2 jobs, had already taken time off work to help his troubled son out previously and was going to lose his job if he left his work station to take yet another call from him asking for help. He related it to the lives of every day working class Americans and the message came across very clearly. Another eloquent speaker.

It was a very humbling, moving and uplifting experience during which we weren’t merely visitors or tourists – we were part of the congregation and community….and I am glad that my wife dragged me along.

The link to the Glide church web page is
https://www.glide.org/