Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sarah Oppenheimer's Rome Prize

Sarah, at right, about to rip a giant hole in the floor for an installation.

This post, especially, conjures for me the title of this blog, New York Lost and Found, because Sarah Oppenheimer is a dear old friend from Santa Fe (we met in 9th grade) who I'd lost, then found in New York in my early 20s, then lost again, and recently, have found again. This latest reunion was bittersweet; we realized we've lived a few blocks away from one another in downtown Manhattan for a bunch of years (even though I like to think of my neighborhood as a little village where I recognize everyone, I must concede that this near-miss reminds me how vast NYC really is).

Back when we were 13 or so, Sarah donned white-girl dreads and listened to a lot of reggae. We were on the Junior Varsity volleyball team together, and she had a mean serve. I sucked, and got the "Most Improved Player" plaque, but I'm over it. With our friend Corinna, we made an inseparable tangle of creative and inquisitive angst. In my memory, we were an unusually uncomplicated threesome who basically just loved listening to Lou Reed and taking epic walks. Our favorite room at Santa Fe Prep, our small liberal arts high school, was the outbuilding that housed our beloved ceramics classes.

Those hours whiled away firing raku pots outside of the John Gaw Meem studio had a lasting impact: Sarah has gone on to have an important career painting, sculpting, and teaching in the art world. She's been teaching at Yale these last last few years, has installation credits that wrap around the world, and has just won the 2010 Rome Prize Fellowship. This will take her to one of my favorite places in Rome, Janiculum Hill in the Trastevere neighborhood, where she'll be able to get some good work done in between epic walks viewing Bernini-laden bridges. I shout from the rooftops beaming with pride, "I knew Sarah when!"

The Almost Corner Bookshop

This is the latest bookstore installment that ran on Publishing Perspectives, a charming little English bookstore in Rome that I hope to return to again and again...

The Almost Corner Bookshop

Trastevere, Rome

We migrated to Rome for a few days after spending two days with my mom and stepdad who'd done an apartment swap in Anzio (which, despite it’s somber WWII history, is a lovely little port and beach town in it’s own right. Caeser used to vacation there, after all…)

This was my third time back to the Trastevere neighborhood in Rome, and I don’t recall ever turning down the windy cobble-stoned corner that leads to the twenty-year old Almost Corner bookshop, located at 45 Via Del Moro. When I first caught site of it at nighttime, it was closed, but the windows were so charming and sated with books in English that I made a mental note to return. On my last day in Rome I had the chance, and I’m so very glad I found it again.

Dermot O’Connell is the lovely Irishman who moved to Rome from Ireland to take over the store 8 years ago. I can't compare the store to what it was before he took the helm, but his is the rare bookstore that you step into and the shelves spring to life, their titles intermingling in a way that recalls a thorough and vibrant conversation. Maybe this energy surges when a small store lovingly and frequently restocks due to a brisk business of loyal regulars. I sensed, and it was confirmed, that the Almost Corner plays host to a dynamic expat and transient summer college-program community. In a tiny space, the shop heaves with books that can suit anyone (“I always say there’s something in here for everyone,” said his loyal Scottish staffer, Anita), and she’s right. There's a solid mix of mystery, contemporary fiction, non-fiction, and classics. I asked them if they leaned toward any specialty or another and I got a confident “Books about Rome in English.” Dermot pulled down two titles that he said would never sell in the States, but that fly out his store daily. Ironic, because he has to import them from the states, but I digress…

One of the titles was The Families Who Made Rome, by Anthony Majanlahti, and the other was the saucy Mistress of the Vatican, by romance historian Eleanor Herman (if you can call her that), author of both Sex with Kings and Sex With the Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers, and Passionate Politics. I learned that there was a woman named Olimpia Maidalchini, a self-made and driven woman from the 17th century, who collected taxes from prostitutes in the very neighborhood where I was standing for her brother in law (and lover?) Pope Innocent X. I was taken by the story of this "Scarlett O'Hara" figure who made her way hundreds of years ago among men and the almighty Catholic Church. Apparently, she would hang the family crest over the brothels to indicate them as safe houses; places not to be bothered by other tax collectors or any others from the old Roman Catholic morality guard. (The last few days I'd been mulling over a lot of tortured female Catholic martyrs whose lives hadn't ended up as satisfying … poor Saint Apollonia, who had a street named after her around the corner from the bookshop seemed to suffer the worst of it, and threw herself into a fire after having all of her teeth shattered and extracted.) Dermot told me about a walk he'd taken with an historian friend of his, who told him what the crest looked like, a dove with an olive branch hanging from it’s beak. In fact, he spontaneously took me around the corner and pointed up to the top of an otherwise beautiful but nondescript residential building, and there it was, her crest, still floating above the windows now filled with drying laundry. “What you’re actually looking at is a 17th century brothel.” And so it was; another copy of the book leaving his store, opening up a fresh spot for a new thoughtful placement.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Thought of Leaving

The picture above this post is the evening view from our Paris apartment-swap.

The thought of leaving Paris on Saturday makes my stomach drop. When I think about it, I feel queasy and sad. Here are just a few of the small things about being in Paris this summer that I've grown to notice and love: the way our wooden staircase smells, and the way it curves up to our apartment. Our small apartment and it's wooden floors, old moldings, separate kitchen, French windows that are always open, lacy wrought-iron gates across them. Of course, the pastries, especially the almond chocolate croissant. The way the cobblestones form these u-shapes in the streets (and in Rome, for that matter). Cobblestones, not potholes. Cemeteries stuffed with the beautiful graves of writers and dancers and artists and thinkers. Chimneys; who knew you needed 50 terra cotta chimneys on every rooftop? The markets. The sun (which we inexplicably had nearly every day for the last 5 and a half weeks). Not just Versailles, but Marie-Antoinette's little house and gardens, including the farm animals and happy French vegetable farmers. Waking up early while Jim and Jamie sleep in everyday. Taking a nap. Pink and red geraniums in the windows. Drip coffee, not machine made, and not sweating over the time it takes to make it. Not understanding what people are saying, but smiling and nodding my head idiotically. Reconnecting with the sweetest and oldest of friends. The sweetness, and patience, of Parisians once you open an exchange with their native tongue. Choosing which way to spend the day: park, walk, walk through the park, museum, cook, bookstores, writing about bookstores, getting lost? Not watching TV, or watching bad, dubbed TV. Reading a dense, non-fiction history. Le Metro. Climbing up and down the hills of Monmartre for hours. Evening walks taking us up to the Sacre Coeur, again and again. Listening to Jennifer pronounce Sacre Coeur. Watching Jamie play soccer with the future World Cup champions of Roma and Paris. Watching his new teeth grow in this summer. Watching him see Europe for the first time. Forgetting what day it is. To be continued...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tea and Tattered Pages

My latest bookstore adventure in Paris appears today on
Publishing Perspectives. I always tell my students that I don't spend much time writing about things I don't like-- whether books, films, restaurants, or anything else-- it feels like attracting bad karma, and there are so many things to write about that I love. That said, it's been a gig of mine to write about bookstores in Europe, and in the spirit of being a working writer, I decided to call this one how I really saw it. Coming up next is a store I loved, in Rome....

Tea and Tattered Pages

On a bright and sunny Wednesday in Paris, we set out to see the catacombs-- I should have guessed we wouldn’t be the only tourists heading over to Montparnasse for a glimpse of the deep macabre; problem was, we weren’t exactly expecting the line to literally reach around the block and number into the several hundreds. We had grinned and bore the hideous line at the Eiffel Tower and swore we would try our damndest not to repeat that. Getting in this catacombs line would have been a direct slap in the face to our solemn promise, so instead we improvised. It could become my afternoon away from the boys; an afternoon stomping around the 14th arrondissement, Montparnasse. After a quick make-good trip to the closest playground to appease my disappointed 7-year-old son Jamie, I was on my way.

The first place I found myself was the Cimetière du Montparnasse, where I paid tribute to Simone de Beauvoir and her man JPS (did you know they were buried together?). Then I found Eugène Carrière, an artist, because I noticed he was there and we’re staying for six weeks on a block named after him. I said a quick hello to Ionesco, and then a longer one to Samuel Beckett (and his wife Suzanne, who died the same year he did) before making my way to section six to see Charles Baudelaire. I was most excited about this part of my pilgrimage, since I used to, for kicks, check out different translations of Les Fleurs du Mal and sit them up against the other to see the differences… okay, I did it once at 19). Unsurprising, I found two teenaged boys sitting next to his family gravestone, who in their sweet and choppy English told me about how he hated his stepdad because his opinion had differered from his own about the military, but he had to be buried with him anyway. They asked me if I’d seen Serge Gainsbourg (I had) and on my way out, I found Marguerite Duras to say a quick "Thank You" for The Lover.

On to my next stop: another English bookstore called Tea and Tattered Pages (got made loads of fun for wanting to visit this one). Online, this teashoppe seemd to be a comfortable and bookish place to linger amongst fine company and hospitable cups of Earl Grey.

I walked a short ten minutes from the cemetery and found the store Rue Mayet. On the outside, it’s cute and inviting—the exterior moldings are painted red, and labeled with a signage that recalls brightly painted shops in London. I walked in, and at once was stared at by the curmudgeonly shopkeeper behind the desk. “Wow, an English bookstore!” I said too enthusiastically, apparently. “There are lots of English bookstores in Paris,” she growled. “That shouldn’t be a problem.” Um, okay. I was feeling properly dressed down, and had quickly lost my taste for wading through her stacks of as-promised tattered pages, whose publication dates rarely moved beyond 1987. There was a laminated page of Pulitzer Prize winning books hanging up, but I didn't see many as I scoped through the stacks which were heavy on mass market paperbacks.

To the immediate left of Ms. Meany's desk hangs a sign that reads “Unattended children will be sold as slaves.” The second sign I saw, which hangs over the staircase leading to the crappy collection of paperbacks in the basement (Primal Scream 1 and Primal Scream 2 take their place in the forefront of the psychology section), was a sign that said “Please leave your bag at the front. And do not steal. Our prices are already cheap.”

About those prices… Ms. M explained to me that they were listed on the inside of the cover. I was casually looking for The Ebony Tower by John Fowles, because in a romantic moment my husband had told me that it was a beautiful small novel set in Normandy where we’d just come back from visiting. Plus, I loved The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The only copy I found was a tattered hardback for 7 euro; not bad, I figured. High for a used hardback in terrible shape, but for a relevant read in English I’d spring for it and downscale the next meal or something. After I’d moved my way through the store to pay to make my singular purchase, Ms. M opened up the jacket and told me that there had been a mistake. “The book should be marked 10 euro; I didn’t mark this. It should be 10 because it’s a hardback. I'm sorry.”

“I’ll pass.” I said, and made my way out into the sunshine, where I promptly dropped 10 euros on a lovely tea that I hadn’t been offered or, for that matter, anywhere in sight in the languishing den of hospitality, Tea and Tattered Pages.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Shakespeare and Company

Many thanks to the publishing online trade magazine Publishing Perspectives for running blog entries about my trip (insofar as visits to bookstores go!). Here's my first entry...

I've gotten to the point during a long summer apartment swap in Paris where the Lonely Planet France and Paris books aren't going to cut muster for much longer. It all begins to sound the same... one bland historical reference after another (how exciting can a single sentence be?)... it was time to hit a bookstore for some reading material (in Anglais).

Enter the renowned Shakespeare and Company, the storied writerly haunt on the edge of Paris's Left Bank. Last night, on a warm Monday evening, I headed over for my pilgrimage with husband and 7-year-old son in tow, and was greeted by a crowd beginning to get seated outside for some event or another. Turns out I'd picked the one hour of the week when some famous and amazing Prize Winning writer is invited to do a reading. Last night we stumbled into a beautiful short story byNathan Englander , author of the collection "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges", for an NYU reading series that the store hosts. It was packed with students and tourists alike, clear into the cobblestone street that overlooks the Seine and Notre Dame. Englander's 20 minute reading was too short for me, and probably a tad too long for my kid. Fortunately, I lucked out as he found a black labrador to fawn over during the "consummation with the prostitute" section. He did look up at me at one point to ask me what the story was about, and I said "Well, this guy gets sick of his wife", and he says to me, "And he kisses another lady and the wife gets jealous?" Yep, in a nutshell. Now go back to petting that labrador, will you?

The store itself is much the same as I found it roughly 8 years ago (and I suspect much the same as it's opening day in 1951). Beautiful editions of modern paperbacks take front seat, while upstairs the warren of rooms remain dusty and inviting. This time around, I was newly grateful for the cushioned bench in the children's corner; Jim could read Anatole the Parisian mouse to Jamie while I poked around, trying to remember what my earlier poetess years felt like moving through the stacks for a bit. Sadly, the black cat I'd fallen in love with during my last visit was missing, and I fear the worst as it was in its gentle older years back then...

The one thing we remarked on when leaving was that it seems like the last time we made a visit, we were greeted by enormous stacks of reasonably priced used paperbacks-- perfect for travelers with one carry on bag and a budget to stick to. This time around, the bulk of the selection seemed to be handsome Vintage-esque Modern Library types, on sale for the cover price and beyond. Still, the collection of used books are strewn about, shelved both downstairs and upstairs if you feel like digging around. I found a small paperback for 3 euro of Rebuilding Conventry, Sue Townsend's first book, post Adrian Mole series.

The Underwood typewriter perched on a little alcoved desk upstairs is still a sweet touch, yet this time around felt sort of contrived. A sign tacked above it said something along the lines of "sit here and meet your muse", and I felt slightly embarrassed considering the possibility that I would actually do this while Nathan Englander was downstairs preparing to read from his Pushcart winner.

The store has just begun to put out its own literary journal, The Paris Magazine, and I picked that up for later reading. It's an attractive and hefty journal, well priced for the store at 6 euros. They've also launched a prize (roughly $12,000) to be given out every other year for a novella written by an unpublished author. The store, after all, has a record of supporting up and coming writers through the decades, and maybe in a few years I can come back, sans le bebe, to revisit that Underwood and hang out for awhile.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Second Books

Many months ago I was wandering around the Strand Bookstore, looking for something to read, when it occurred to me that every second book by an author that I was picking up looked bland and uninspired. Was it me, or was the sophomore slump a real problem? I set out to talk to scores of people about this, from four different angles: author, editor, agent, and publicist. I'm grateful to for picking up this feature and setting out to cultivate this conversation...

Omaha Beach

We rented a car and went up to Normandy to see Omaha Beach, the American Cemetery, and see the 1,000 year old Bayeux Tapestry. Omaha Beach was incredibly moving. On a beautiful day we looked out over the dunes from the bluffs, and it was impossible not to get chills thinking about those beaches being littered with corpses, the water turned red from blood. Behind me sat all of the meticulously lined up graves of the thousands of American soldiers, medics, chaplains, and more who lost their lives on that beach to free France.

The beach itself is one of the prettiest I've ever seen. The water is clear, and a much deeper shade of blue than our Atlantic back home.

When we arrived, we watched a film about the aftermath of the invasion. Survivors and their relatives were interviewed, and especially poignant were the siblings who lost their little or big brothers on, or shortly following, D-Day. It's strange to see them age, and then go back to snapshots of their brothers in uniform, captured forever at such a young age, their whole lives ahead of them in their expressions, but in reality encapsulated in just a small bit of time, cut far too short to make any sense at all. It's hard not to be sappy about this, particularly when you see old veterans being pushed around the stones in their wheelchairs. There are so few veterans left now.

Watching Jamie take his shoes off and run through the water gave me a feeling that is hard to put into words. It was impossible for me to separate what had happened on the shores with the vulnerability of my own son. We can do our best to protect our children from war and violence, but this planet of ours isn't the safest place in this vast universe of ours, is it?