San Francisco beckons

I’ll soon be heading off to San Francisco to catch up with my eldest son and his wife….and aim to visit as many of the amazing independent bookstores there as I can. Immediately Green Apple Books, City Lights, Alley Cat Books and Dog Eared Books spring to mind, but there are dozens more scattered around this awesome city. Since my blog is primarily about books, writers, and bookstores, this will form the “bones” of my trip, but I’ll also flesh it out with lots of other bits and pieces and pursue my other passions of photography and travel…..not to mention the cafes and boutique breweries, bars, restaurants, galleries and shops. Speaking of galleries, there will be visits to photography galleries and art galleries plus there is a lot of art in public spaces outdoors such as the hundreds of murals in the Mission district. Then again, San Francisco also has some wonderful parks and open spaces to explore too, so after exhausting ourselves in the parks on this side of the bridge, we’ll probably head over the Golden Gate Bridge and see the mighty Redwoods in Muir Woods and since we’re almost there already… there are the vineyards of Sonora to check out.

We’ll also be spending a few days on the Monterey peninsula and a long weekend in Portland, Oregon – where I’ll spend some of my time in Powell’s bookstore – the biggest independent bookstore in the USA.

If anyone has any other tips on “must see” things in San Francisco, OR if you have any requests for things you’d like me to check out and blog about while in SF, please let me know in the comments below. I won’t be going to visit Alcatraz as I have already been there twice – once a few years ago and once back in 1986….but any other suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

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Art for art’s sake….a slight detour.

I apologize in advance for some of the puns and some of the pictures. But please bear (or is it bare?) with me…..please continue in good humour (or humor if you’re in the USA) – I don’t mean to offend anyone.

Have you ever started off writing a blog post and then been reminded of something else along the way, so have taken a detour instead? It happens to me all the time. I just started writing a post about Nice in the south of France where, among other things, we visited the Marc Chagall gallery – or to give it its correct name the Musee National Marc Chagall….and it sent me on a tangent or a detour to blog about art, or my own attempts at art, instead.

Some museums don’t allow photography at all and others allow it as long as you don’t use the flash. The Marc Chagall museum fell in the latter category which was a good thing as my wife loves his paintings – they are very colourful, bright and child-like – and she wanted me to photograph a couple of them with a view to getting large prints made when we went home, to display on our lounge wall. Here – below – are a couple of Chagall paintings to give you, who haven’t seen his work before, an idea of how he paints.

Long story short – since we’d decided that they would look better printed on canvas than on paper – it was going to cost us around $300 to $400NZ for a print. So I rather foolishly suggested, as an alternative, that perhaps I could buy a blank canvas and produce my own “Chagall look-a-like painting”. My wife surprisingly agreed. So that’s what I did and here it is below…..it’s colourful anyhow.

The problem with that is that I’m not much of an artist. I loved to draw and paint as a kid (back when dinosaurs ruled the earth), but since then have only dabbled now and then when I liked a painting by a famous artist but didn’t have the money to buy a print of it….never mind the millions of dollars for the original. So I’d have a go at painting my own in a similar style…..or as similar as I could manage.

I started off with one that even I couldn’t fail at (or so I thought) – a Jackson Pollock style abstract splatter painting. I used some old acrylic house paint and felt it was coming along quite well with blue and green splatters of paint, but when I needed another colour, to contrast the blue and green, all I could find was a creamy-white…..so on it went one “whoosh” of a splatter at a time. It didn’t quite have the effect I was looking for and looked more like……er….well, it looked a little like….how can I put this tactfully? Actually I don’t think I can think of a polite description – I titled the piece “love comes in spurts.” Enough said.

What a load of “pollocks!” – my attempt at a Jackson Pollock splatter painting.

Needless to say, it didn’t stay on our wall for too long before it was consigned first to the garage and later to the rubbish dump.

Another attempt slightly more successful was my version of Pablo Picasso’s picture of an artist, his model and for some reason a yellow bull and a pink horse….trampling on a light blue horse which was laying on the bed of the artist and model. I know…I know…..I thought the same thing. Why do I do bother?

Pick Ass Oh! – my attempt at Picasso’s “artist and model” series.

My friends are no help either, in fact they push me toward my artistic endeavours….or should that be artistic follies? This is almost 20 years ago, but one of my co-workers, with whom I usually discussed books we were both currently reading, told me that she had recently started going to “life drawing” classes and that I should go along. Initially I thought she meant “still life” classes – you know bowls of fruit, flowers and the like. I was quite taken aback when she explained that what it actually entailed was to sit in a circle around a model and draw or paint that person who would be sitting, standing or laying there completely naked.

After checking if the “model” is usually male or female and getting the reply that nine times out of ten it was a female, and she’s usually someone from the art teachers yoga class, I said “yeah, okay….I’ll come along and give it a go” trying my best not to sound too keen.

I wasn’t actually sure if I could, for want of a better term, handle it. I mean sitting there in front of a completely naked woman and to be expected to draw her without allowing my nervous, trembling hand holding the pencil to tear big holes across the paper as I quivered, stared and drooled! I know…I know…right now you’re probably thinking “for F##ks sake how old are you FIVE?” I’m pleased to report that once I was there, in the class, I was perfectly well behaved, totally in the moment and fully concentrated on my attempts at capturing the model on paper…..as opposed to kidnapping her in the carpark afterwards! ( I write this very much tongue in cheek….my cheek that is).

I really enjoyed the lessons. I know, you’re thinking – “Who wouldn’t?” But once you’re there you don’t actually see “a naked woman….or on one occasion….naked man” – you’re too busy trying to get the angles, curves and shading right. Our tutor got us to try different media and styles of drawing/painting. Sometimes we’d use a pencil, sometimes charcoal or chalk or pastels or poster paint or water colour. Other times we’d try to paint by using something as simple as a piece of cardboard dipped into ink. It was all very interesting.

By now, having seen my Chagall, Pollock and Picasso attempts you know not to expect too much of my “art” – a few of my attempts from the life drawing class follow…..you have been warned! Some of these we had to produce in a few minutes, others we had a longer pose to get onto paper…..he said, trying to come up with excuses.

So there you have it…the bare facts about life drawing. Click on any of the pictures to enlarge it. They have been automatically cropped by the computer to fit nicely side by side in the gallery above. As I said, various media and various styles. And yes, one of the drawings is of a pregnant lady. She was wonderful to draw….very curvy and very patient with the class….and it was extremely brave of her in that late stage of her pregnancy, when many women would have body image issues, to bare all. All in the name of art. Art for art’s sake.

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.

Just passing through…..a life’s journey.

New Zealand writer Peter Wells (died 18 Feb 2019) signed off with a book about his own death titled “Hello Darkness”. It follows the last year and 4 months of his life, after being diagnosed with prostate cancer in November 2017. The book broke new ground in that much of it was written on his own Facebook page and the writing was accompanied by his own photographs.

But that is typical Wells. He has always been a breaker of new ground, of being a leader and not a follower. He was one of New Zealand’s first openly gay writers and was writing about gay topics as far back as the 1980’s. In 1998 he was co-founder of the “Auckland Writers Festival” and also co-founded in 2016 “Samesame But Different” – New Zealand’s first LGBTQI Writers Festival. His goal was for the festival to be “an exciting event that makes people think about sexuality, difference and community, stretches their understanding, gives them a few laughs and creates a slightly magic space for two days in February.” This years festival finished on February 10th. It was Well’s 4th and last.

He was a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, but from the 1980’s onward also made films and documentaries predominantly about historical and/or gay themes.

His own blog site says this on his profile page…. “Peter Wells writes books and makes films. His films include idiosyncratic documentaries about conserving at-risk architecture like a flamboyant 1929 picture palace, or a shoe-obsessed gay man who tells his life story through women’s shoes (made with friend and fellow film-maker Garth Maxwell). He co-wrote and co-directed ‘Desperate Remedies’, a feature film described as ‘Jane Austen on acid’. His books include award winning short stories and novels. ‘Iridescence’, for example, about an Englishman with a secret hiding in Victorian Napier. His memoir Long Loop Home looked back at his New Zealand childhood with the wry glance of loss and affection.”

All of which brings me around to my reason for writing about him. Whilst he was without doubt a talented writer and film maker – my reason for writing about Wells is his connection to Hawke’s Bay – where I live. He lived for some time in a house on Napier Hill where he wrote what became known as his “Napier Trilogy” – comprising of his highly rated book “The Hungry Heart” – about William Colenso, the very knowledgeable clergyman/missionary who was also a printer, botanist, explorer and politician – but who was also a recluse, “Journey to a Hanging” which was a racially charged book about the horrific death of the Reverend Carl Sylvius Völkner in 1865…killed by Kereopa Te Rau, a Maori leader, who was found guilty of killing, beheading, eating the eyes and drinking the blood of Völkner and was subsequently hanged for the crime, and finally “Dear Oliver” – subtitled “Uncovering a Pakeha History” – which was a book written about his own family history, followed back in time in snippets of historical memories. It was hailed as a masterclass in writing history.

He was also partly responsible for the birth of the appreciation of Art Deco architecture in Napier and the start of what has become a phenomenally popular annual event “Napier Art Deco Festival” with his 1985 documentary film “Newest City on the Globe” which he wrote and directed and in doing so brought the architectural splendour of Art Deco Napier to the world. Shortly after this film was released, film crews from the USA visited Napier to record in this Art Deco jewel of the south pacific. After that Napier was no longer a secret tourist backwater.

The first Napier Art Deco Weekend Festival was in 1989 and with each passing year the event grows bigger and bigger and is celebrated by locals and tourists/art deco aficionado’s from all over the world.

For all this and more – Peter Wells – we salute you.

If you want to find out more about the man and his work, Links to Peter Wells blog, his Wikipedia page, the Auckland Writers Festival, the Samesame but Different site and the Napier Art Deco Trust web page are below.

http://www.peterwellsblog.com/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Wells_(writer)

http://www.writersfestival.co.nz/

http://www.samesamebutdifferent.co.nz/

https://www.artdeconapier.com/

Quotes to inspire

Other than my wife and family I have three main passions. They are writing, photography and travel. So I thought I’d hit you with my favourite quotes to do with writing, photography and travel

“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.”
–Franz Kafka

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
–Robert Frost

“Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”
–William Faulkner

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
— Elliott Erwitt

“If the photographer is interested in the people in front of his lens, and if he is compassionate, it’s already a lot. The instrument is not the camera but the photographer.”
— Eve Arnold

“My life is shaped by the urgent need to wander and observe, and my camera is my passport.”
— Steve McCurry

Anatole France –
“Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe.”

St Augustine –
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”

Mark Twain –
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

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.

A visit to the library….

A visit to the library was called for after an on-line chat with an author friend of mine who lives in the Czech Republic. We’d been discussing the “Lost Generation” of writers – they include Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Stein etc. and he had asked me if I had read anything by Max Brod.

Brod (1884 – 1968) was a prolific writer in his own right, but is mostly remembered as the friend of Franz Kafka, who, when requested by Kafka to destroy all his writings at his death….refused to follow the writer’s instructions and had the works published instead. So it’s thanks to Brod that so much of Kafka’s writings saw the light of day.

Brod was a German speaking Czech Jew – who later moved to Israel to escape the Nazi take over of the then Czechoslovakia. He died in Tel Aviv in 1968. He was an author, journalist, translator and a composer of music. A very talented man. He first met Kafka, at Charles University in Prague where they both studied, in 1902. The rest as they say is history.

Naturally my friend’s insistence that I read Brod had me intrigued so I set off for my local city library feeling for sure that they would have at least one of Brod’s books. How wrong could I be? Not a single book written by Brod on their shelves. Deciding to check out on-line book sellers when I returned home, I set about searching the library’s catalogue of books for anything at all mentioning Brod.

The only book I found at the library with any mention of Brod, was a novel by Australian based writer Marija Pericic called The Lost Pages – which is a fictional story about the relationship between Kafka and Brod. I picked it up anyway and will have a read of it later. I also picked up 2 other books. One about New Zealand writers who – although not as famous as the main members of “the lost generation” of writers – were New Zealand expat writers living overseas during the same period of time – called “The Expatriate Myth”, by Helen Bones.

The other book – the one I decided to read first – is by another Czech Jewish writer who went through the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, the short relief of the end of the second world war and the subsequent take over by the communists under Stalin – by the name of Ivan Klima. It’s his autobiography titled “My Crazy Century” – with the C and Z of the word Crazy highlighted in Red – giving you a red Cz – I assume symbolic of the many years that the Czech’s were under communist rule. I’m about a quarter of the way into this 534 page memoir – enjoying it, but horrified at how people were treat – first by the Nazi’s and then by the Communists. I will probably do a review of the book once I finish it.

Back at home I googled Bron’s books and was surprised at how few were available in English. It seems that the ones concerning the diaries of Kafka are available in English, but little else. The two main books of Bron’s that my writer friend recommended were only available in German. One called “Prager Kreis” (Prague Crisis or Prague Circle) printed in 1967 and the other “Streitbares Leben: Autobiographie, 1960” (literal translation being – Quarrelsome Life: Autobiography, 1960 – although there may be another meaning). I may try to get them anyway and struggle through with my basic schoolboy knowledge of the German language.

Whilst at the library, much to my wife’s dismay, I was perusing the discarded books on the “for sale” table. Four books caught my eye, so for the princely sum of $2, my own library has grown by 4…..even though – as my wife was quick to point out…..my shelves are already overflowing. Those books were – “Now and Forever” by Ray Bradbury which is a collection of 2 novellas – “Somewhere a band is playing” and “Leviathan ’99”. Bradbury is of course best known for the novel Fahrenheit 451. “Extreme Rambling” by Mark Thomas – a travelogue about hiking through troubled areas of the world. “New Scottish Writing” – which is a collection of short stories by writers from Scotland – printed in 1996, so not in actual fact all that “New”. The final book was “Afterlight” by Alex Scarrow which is a post apocalyptic/dystopian story – set in Britain in 2010…. after the oil ran out. I must say I do like a good dystopian novel….hopefully this one won’t disappoint.

So there we have it. The library failed to deliver on what I went for in the first place, but the books I chose – both to borrow and the ones I bought -should expand my knowledge and entertain me. I do love the library!

Please do make use of your own local libraries. In these days of belt tightening and reduced budgets, city councils will cut funding if they think the libraries are not being used by sufficient people. So please get out there and borrow some books. And I’d like to say a little thank you to all librarians and library volunteers who keep the libraries staffed and open. Well done, you are appreciated, and thank you very much.