It was one of those glorious Thomas Hardy “summer face and winter constitution” type days last Sunday, just begging me to get out and explore some small part of London I had never been.
So after hoisting myself off the comfort of my West London underfloor heating I braved the whims of weekend public transport to head north to a place I’ve been promising myself I’d go for, oh, I don’t know, about a thousand years – Highgate Cemetery.
Perhaps most famous for being the final resting place of legendary philosopher Karl Marx, the cemetery has a peculiar fascination for Londoners (and those tourists willing to explore beyond the more central haunts of Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square), who are attracted to the famous names buried there, as well as its eerie, and often beautiful, Gothic funerary architecture.
With London’s inner-city cemeteries in a bad state in the 1830s — overcrowded and hazardous, with bodies sometimes buried in the spaces in between houses and taverns (think decaying matter leeching into the water supply and causing disease epidemics) — the powers that be decided upon the grand plan of opening seven new cemeteries on the outskirts of London. Highgate was one of them.
The cemetery is divided into two parts. In the East, you can wander around freely after paying a small entrance fee, but in the West (the oldest part), you must take a guided tour. I loved getting all the gory stories and historical know-how from our knowledgeable guide, but it is always a little frustrating to have to limit your photo taking to snatches here and there so you can keep up with the group and to stifle your desire to wander off and do your own thing. Such exploration is strictly forbidden in this part of the cemetery on safety and conservation grounds; much of it is overgrown, crumbling, and laced with sharp spikes of ironmongery amongst the undergrowth – a fashion much favoured by Victorian grave-designers it seems.
Other things I learned…
– It’s actually really challenging to find someone specific in a cemetery such as this. There are A LOT of graves here, mostly crowded haphazardly amongst the muddy paths and undergrowth. And there’s only so long you can concentrate hard enough on reading the fading inscriptions before your eyes start glazing over with the effort. In the East cemetery you are provided with a map of sorts, but unless your grave of interest is on the actual path, you will need a fair bit of time to find it.
Take a gander at this video as world traveler Vic Stefanu walks through some the less accessible areas of the cemetery. You only need to watch the first minute or so to get the idea, though it does make strangely compelling (almost meditative) viewing if you carry on. Note that Vic is doing this on what looks like a fine and sunny day; the cold, mud and general fear of slippage during my visit made me much less inclined to explore too far off the standard routes.
– Someone lives in a glass house in the cemetery. Read more here – it’s a whole story in itself, with an amazing coincidence at the end.
– Victorian surgeon Robert Liston was known as “the fastest knife in the West End”, renowned for his ability to amputate a limb (without anaesthetic, naturally) in 28 seconds.
– In conversation, I find it almost impossible to say “Highgate Cemetery”, for some reason it always comes out as “Highgate Ceremony” – bizarre!
– The cemetery (or ceremony if you like) was originally a profit-making, commercial operation run by the London Cemetery Company. It was initially a great success, but come the end of the Victorian era people were less keen to spend big money on the business of mourning and by the 1930s it began to fall into disrepair. The company declared bankruptcy in 1960 and the gates were eventually shut. In 1975 the Friends of Highgate Cemetery came to the rescue and started the massive task of clearing the undergrowth and repairing some of the memorials. That work continues today and you don’t begrudge having to pay an entrance or guided tour fee so much when you know this is where the money goes. Read more about the history here.
– There are now around 170,000 people buried at Highgate, but amazingly you can still score a spot for yourself, as long as you have the money and you are ready to use it immediately (you have to be over 80 or terminally ill if you want to book it in advance). I haven’t been able to find a price list!
But what does all this have to do with things literary?
Well there are, inevitably, some literary-type resting places here. I managed to track down George Eliot, Douglas Adams and Beryl Bainbridge (photos below) and I particularly liked this gravestone by one avid reader, Jim Horn – apparently NOT a partner at Penguin, but obviously a great admirer.
What to read before you go…
And as with most things Packabook there is some fitting fiction to inspire you to visit Highgate for yourself.
Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier (who I am a little in love with right now, of which I will write more about in a future post). Inspired by a trip to the cemetery, Chevalier began doing some volunteer work to get to know the graveyard better. She then wrote a novel set at the very end of Victorian times in which two families, with conflicting views on the new modern era, get to know each other because their loved ones are buried in adjacent graves. I enjoyed reading what she had to say about Highgate on her blog.
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (she of The Time Traveler’s Wife fame). Niffenegger also became a volunteer tour guide at Highgate and the result was this novel built around 20-year old American twins who have inherited their aunt’s beautiful flat which overlooks the cemetery (you will see some of the stunning residences in the area yourself as you walk up the hill to the graveyard gates). But the inheritance comes with conditions, and while Aunt Elspeth may be dead, she doesn’t seem too keen to leave the women to their own devices.
There’s lots about Highgate and her volunteering exploits in this radio interview with Niffenegger, while in this video (unfortunately not brilliant quality) the two writers talk about how they met while doing their bit for the cause.
I am most pleased with myself for heading out into the cold for my short bout of Highgate hijinks and highly recommend it as an item on your London itinerary should you be visiting this fair city anytime soon. Don’t worry, there’s no rush, none of the Highgate residents are going anywhere!
I will leave you with my two favorite graves of the day…
Just a quick one today…
I am often disappointed by the Kindle Daily Deals on amazon.com – there’s a plethora of fantasy, paranormal and dull romances (sometimes all in the one novel), but if I do come across a good deal, I usually put in on the Packabook Facebook page.
I know you are not all fans of Facebook, and even if you do follow Packabook there, the chances are the Facebook gods won’t show you the posts in your news feed anyway, so whenever I see a good deal on something I think you might like, I’ll send you a quick email as well. These will always be the kinds of books I wish someone would alert me to when they see them, so trust me, it won’t be that often! And I’ll always put ‘Kindle Deal’ in the subject line, so you know you need to act quickly if you are interested (or, of course, delete it quickly if you are not!).
They will be short and sweet. Just a picture of the book, the Amazon description, and the price – unless I’ve read the book myself of course, in which case I’ll tell you why I think you should buy it! I hope you find this useful…
Please keep in mind that the prices change quickly and without notice, so please always double check it’s the price you want to pay on the Amazon site before you buy it. As always, these links are affiliate links, which means I make a tiny percentage from Amazon if you click through from here, for which I am eternally grateful!
So here’s our first one – Last Train to Istanbul by Ayse Kulin
BOOK DESCRIPTION FROM AMAZON: As the daughter of one of Turkey’s last Ottoman pashas, Selva could win the heart of any man in Ankara. Yet the spirited young beauty only has eyes for Rafael Alfandari, the handsome Jewish son of an esteemed court physician. In defiance of their families, they marry, fleeing to Paris to build a new life.
But when the Nazis invade France, the exiled lovers will learn that nothing—not war, not politics, not even religion—can break the bonds of family. For after they learn that Selva is but one of their fellow citizens trapped in France, a handful of brave Turkish diplomats hatch a plan to spirit the Alfandaris and hundreds of innocents, many of whom are Jewish, to safety. Together, they must traverse a war-torn continent, crossing enemy lines and risking everything in a desperate bid for freedom. From Ankara to Paris, Cairo, and Berlin, Last Train to Istanbul is an uplifting tale of love and adventure from Turkey’s beloved bestselling novelist Ayşe Kulin. Right now it’s $1.57
Amazingly, despite two trips to Venice in my lifetime, I have never ridden in a gondola. This is something I will have to remedy after my latest read.
Laura Morelli’s The Gondola Maker takes us to 16th century Venice and the world of its craftsmen and water workers. Luca Vianello, who comes from a family of gondola makers, is forced to flee his home after a family quarrel and accident, and soon finds himself working as a boatman for a painter. Luca becomes entranced by a woman he sees in one of his master’s paintings, and while she is well out of his class, tries to find ways to meet her.
Morelli obviously has a great deal of knowledge about this time in Venice and the daily life of artisans like Luca. She reveals fascinating detail about the process of gondola making, as well as other crafts, while giving us a window into Venetian life; especially that of the often unscrupulous boatmen!
While the novel starts in a (literal) blaze when a gondola is deliberately set on fire to punish a boatman who has earned the disapproval of the city’s rulers, I found the following few chapters slower than I would have liked. Morelli becomes a little bogged down in the detail and not much happens until Chapter 5. But if you can persevere past this point, you will be part of a gently flowing story that takes us from teeming ferry stations filled with crates of chickens, to the palaces of the wealthy, and of course the canals – those highways upon which the boatmen ply their trade.
Venice is a popular location for many fiction writers, and there is much we can learn about the city from its novels. So let’s take a look at what parts of Venice we can explore with The Gondola Maker by our side.
Base yourself in Cannaregio
“The oarmaker’s shop sits on a high embankment above the Sacca della Misericordia, the basin on the north side of Cannaregio, which affords an expansive view onto the canal and beyond to the island of Murano… These apprentices have the pleasure of watching boats pass while they work, and even glimpse naval ships in the distance headed to Corfu and Cyprus.” (Loc 387)
Luca’s family squero – or boatyard – is in Cannaregio, the most northern of Venice’s six historic districts. Traditionally a working class and manufacturing area, today, it maintains its working-class nature and is a welcome respite from the more tourist-driven areas of the city. Many feel Cannaregio is one of Venice’s ‘hidden gems’, allowing visitors to see how ordinary Venetians live, while still providing bars and restaurants aplenty. And in less than half an hour, you’ll be able to walk to San Marco. These comments on Trip Advisor are typical of those who say they have discovered the “real Venice”.
“A walk through Cannaregio enables visitors to see and sense another aspect of Venice, away from the the tourist trail. The whole atmosphere of the area is tranquil and seemingly locked away in its own world.”
“Cannaregio as a whole has an authentic Venetian atmosphere and the canals are “living” waterways, bustling with commercial traffic all day long. At night it is quieter but with some great restaurants and a peaceful feel to the evenings.”
“Had an apartment for 6 nights in Cannaregio, right on a quiet canal. Wonderful area, quiet, with great restaurants and cafes, beautiful churches, and no cruise ship crowds.”
And this article in the Guardian is glowing with praise for Cannaregio.
You can even stay in a former squero…
“In spite of its renown, the Squero Vianello, our family boatyard, is little more than a haphazard conglomeration of buildings surrounding a boat ramp. Its three structures – the workshop, the storehouse, and our home – have been standing longer than anyone remembers.” (Loc 237)
Venice Squero – Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
To really put you in The Gondola Maker mood, why not stay in a former squero when you are in Venice. Allo Squero is a bed and breakfast in Cannaregio, with a garden which was a former shipyard. There’s no reason not to pretend you are staying in Luca’s family squero. We’re allowed those sorts of flights of fancy at Packabook!
Allo Squero gets some great reviews.
Wander along the Misericordia
“I decide to travel the quayside of the Misericordia canal, observing the variety of boats docked there as I walk: rowboats covered with tarps, several plainly outfitted gondolas, and many rafts.” (Loc 457)”
The Fondamenta Misericordia, is the street running alongside the Misericordia canal, and it’s a fabulous spot for small restaurants and bars as well as carpenters, boat repairers and sculptors.
A favourite restaurant for many is the Trattoria Misericordia, especially if you are a lover of seafood. Take a seat, enjoy the meal, watch the traffic on the canal and think back to Luca’s own walk along this little piece of Venice.
Admire the ceiling in the The Church of Sant’Alvise
“I know I am close when I reach the church of Sant’Alvise and begin to hear the ringing sound of hammering on metal. Members of the blacksmith’s guild, including the family of Annalisa Bonfante, cluster in the streets surrounding the squat old church.” (Loc 421)
This is the church near where Luca’s betrothed, Annalisa, lives with her family and their blacksmith foundry. And it may be a “squat old church” (even in Luca’s time), but it has a ceiling that attracts people from all over the world as well as three paintings by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo a prolific, and highly successful 18th century painter and craftsman.
Visit the site of the world’s first Jewish ghetto
“I scan the room for someone wearing the kind of red hat that Jews are required by law to wear in order to identify themselves, but I do not see one. I wonder why there is a Jew out at this hour at all and can only guess that his status must be special enough to allow him dispensation from the curfew that requires Jews to be in their homes inside the ghetto after nightfall. I imagine their dark eyes peering out from behind iron gates in their neighborhood in Cannaregio, not far from where I was born.” (Loc 2238)
Like so many other places in Europe at the time, Jews in Venice suffered from anti-semitism which saw their movements, work and dress regulated. In 1516 the rulers of Venice decided to confine Jews to a particular area, creating the world’s first ghetto. Residents were only allowed to leave the ghetto during the day, and were locked in at night. Today the ghetto remains a centre of Jewish culture, education and worship.
It is well worth a visit to the Museo Ebraico where you can buy a ticket for a guided tour of three of the five synagogues (very difficult to find on your own), the best way to fully understand the history of this tiny and unique part of Venice. After the tour, wander around the antique shops, bakeries and cafes and enjoy one of the most tranquil areas of the city.
Read more about what visitors think here.
But what about the gondolas?
“Beyond, a cluster of mooring posts painted with red and black spirals stands just off the ramp in the water, marking the entrance to the squero. In the summer, we take frequent leave of our work to walk down the ramp and splash our faces with cool canal water.” (Loc 270)
So far we have not moved from Cannaregio, there is so much to see there. But we will have to move out of this district to Dorsoduro if we are going to find the two remaining working squeri in central Venice where you can see gondola makers at work.
Squero San Trovaso – While there are no formal tours of this squero, the gondola makers don’t mind you watching them work from across the canal, and it seems lots of people like to take this opportunity. If you have a group of 25 or more, then you might be able to arrange a visit, but the owners tell me it is not always possible.
You could also try Oltrex tours which is based in the Hotel Daniele just off Piazza San Marco. They apparently do a two-hour tour to a gondola workshop, though it’s not clear which one.
Like so many novels, The Gondola Maker gives us an insight into a world very different from our own AND provides some great clues to encourage us to visit parts of a city we might otherwise ignore. The plot is not complex or overly-compelling, but the gentle storyline combined with the wealth of detail and atmosphere makes this a worthy read for anyone considering a trip to Venice in the future – it will most certainly add to your experience there.
And I’m now actually pleased I have not yet ridden in a gondola – because when I do, I will be taking a lot more notice of the craft involved than I would have done before coming across this book. Have a read, and I’m sure you will do the same.
P.S. I received a complimentary copy of The Gondola Maker from iRead Book Tours in exchange for an honest opinion of the book. This review is part of a Book Tour around several blogs, so I highly recommend you read the views of other bloggers by following the tour schedule here – this gives you a great all-round view of the novel.
If you are still hankering for more books set in Italy, you’ll find many more to choose from here!
So, I am back home after a fabulous few days in New York, and thankfully I did manage to read the two books I took with me, so am happy to report my findings.
Today, we’ll look at The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath…
Along with countless others I think this was a fabulous novel, and it wasn’t as depressing as I thought it might have been. In fact, there was a wry humor I hadn’t been expecting.
The novel is semi-autobiographical, giving us the story of college student Esther Greenwood as she takes up a month-long guest editorship of a women’s magazine in New York, and detailing her failing mental health after her return home. While I knew the book mirrored Plath’s own life, I hadn’t realised quite how much so. This article and this describe some of the many facets of the novel which match Plath’s own experience.
I loved some of her analogies and observations, such as “My secret hope of spending the afternoon alone in Central Park died in the glass egg-beater of Ladies’ Day’s revolving doors.” (p38) and “the tropical, stale heat the sidewalks had been sucking up all day hit me in the face like a last insult” (p16), and while some people appear to be uncomfortable with discussing humor in a novel about mental health, I found myself loving the dark comedy Plath gives us.
“Finally I decided that if it was so difficult to find a red-blooded intelligent man who was still pure by the time he was twenty-one I might as well forget about staying pure myself and marry somebody who wasn’t pure either. Then when he started making my life miserable I could make his miserable as well” (p77) and “Usually after a good puke you feel better right away. We hugged each other and then said good-bye and went off to opposite ends of the hall to lie down in our own rooms. There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.” (p41) are two great examples.
BUT – much as I enjoyed this book, I don’t understand why it is on several lists as a quintessential New York novel. Only half of the book is set there and while we certainly do see bits and pieces of the city, it is not as large a character as I would expect of a novel appearing in lists such as these.
Having said that, I certainly enjoyed the bits I did see, and could even relate to some of Esther’s dilemmas about the city.
“I could have called down and asked for a breakfast tray in my room, I guess, but then I would have to tip the person who brought it up, and I never know how much to tip. I’d had some very unsettling experiences trying to tip people in New York.” (p49)
Let’s not forget I am Australian, the child of a country in which tipping is highly unusual and I too find myself a little paralysed by New York’s tipping culture. I am always wary of tipping too much or too little – a problem my sister solved on this most recent trip, by just asking people if she was supposed to tip them and how much! Simple!
If you do want to use The Bell Jar to help you explore New York, there are a couple of places you could visit.
The Amazon Hotel
“It wasn’t a proper hotel – I mean a hotel where there are both men and women mixed about here and there on the same floor. This hotel – the Amazon – was for women only, and they were mostly girls my age with wealthy parents who wanted to be sure their daughters would be living where men couldn’t get at them and deceive them.” (p4)
While the Amazon Hotel has never existed, the Barbizon at 140 E. 63rd St certainly did, and it is where Plath lived during her month in New York in 1953. Just as she describes, it was a female-only hotel until 1981 and had strict rules on how the women dressed and behaved. There is a long list of famous women who stayed there over the years, including Lauren Bacall, Joan Crawford, Liza Minelli and Grace Kelly. The hotel was renovated in 2002, becoming The Melrose Hotel, and then just three years later, it was turned into apartments. Such a shame – it would have been great to have been able to stay there today. The video below is actually a promotional film by the company involved in the window restoration of the building, but it does gives us a bit of a look around.
The United Nations Building
“Constantin drove me to the UN in his old green convertible with cracked, comfortable brown leather seats and the top down… And while Constantin and I sat in one of those hushed, plush auditoriums in the UN, next to a stern, muscular Russian girl with no make-up who was a simultaneous interpreter, like Constantin I thought how strange it had never occurred to me before that I was only purely happy until I was nine years old.” (p70)
You may not be given your own private viewing of the headquarters of the United Nations with a good-looking simultaneous translator, but there are guided tours available. It’s an opportunity for a behind the scenes look at the place where delegates from around the world tackle some of the trickiest political problems on the planet.
The UN complex would have been very new when Esther visited with Constantin, the buildings designed by an international team of architects including Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer were only completed in 1952. The complex is on the banks of the East River, on 1st Avenue, between 42nd and 48th street. It is actually built on international territory, and you can get a stamp in your passport when you visit. Don’t just turn up though, or you will be disappointed. You will need to book tickets in advance.
Plath’s New York
If you’d like to discover a few other places related to Plath’s (and Esther’s) time in New York then you can use this map as a guide.
It was put together by Teri Tynes from Walking Off the Big Apple, a blog dedicated to strolling around New York. She has several other theme-inspired walks on there as well and the site is a fabulous resource for visitors and residents of the city alike.
As much as I don’t feel this novel really belongs on a list of the top ten books set in New York, I’m not sorry to have read it on this trip. I do however wish I’d had a chance to go and have a look at the Barbizon and wander past 575 Madison Avenue, the address of Mademoiselle magazine where Plath did her own placement. It will have to go on the list for next time.
Luckily though – I did manage to accidentally run into the famous Strand bookshop near Union Square – one of the many on my bookshop bucket list!
Next time we’ll have a look at the other novel I read on this trip – The Easter Parade by Richard Yates
See you then,
I’m very exciting to me writing this post at Heathrow Airport, about to board a flight to fabulous New York.
As we all know the most vital part of trip planning is choosing which books to take with you, so I thought I’d update you on my selections for this trip. I’ll only have a few days, which will mainly be filled with catching up with people and drinking cocktails, so I don’t imagine I’m going to have a great amount of time to read. But hey, that’s what seven hour flights are for!
Given the trip’s brevity, I chose just two books for this adventure, one physical book (so you are not stuck during that most valuable of reading time before take-off and landing) and one on the kindle.
The trouble with books set in New York is that there are thousands of them, so where do you start? It’s overwhelming. How can you make sure you choose something which really sums up the New York experience?
In the past I have taken Edward Rutherford’s New York as a perfect choice for a grand overview of the city, and Between Two Rivers by Nicholas Rinaldi, which gives us a series of intertwining stories set around a Battery Park apartment building. Both provided lasting memories and still spring to mind as I pass various Manhattan landmarks.
But what to choose this time?
Not yet having a definitive and expansive list to peruse up on Packabook (must get on with that!!), I had to resort to other ‘books to read in New York’ type lists online, which I often find frustrating. It’s usually only a selection of about 10 on each list, and I find they are heavily weighted towards very worthy books you SHOULD read, but not necessarily the most entertaining and/or contemporary reads available.
Some I’d read many years before (The Catcher in the Rye, Edith Wharton’s novels, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and while I’m sure they deserve a re-read, I wanted something new for this trip. I’d also read Bonfire of the Vanities some time in the dim, dark past and really didn’t like it, so that was definitely off the list, though perhaps I’d enjoy it more if I tried it now. Others were focussed on locations outside of Manhattan, and while I’m very tempted, they are just going to make me want to go to places I am probably not going to have time to explore (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Tóibín’s Brooklyn and Dreamland are some examples).
So what did I end up with? Well, two not very uplighting choices I admit, but sometimes these things are a little random!
Not being a huge lover of poetry I have never read any Sylvia Plath, so I have decided to take this opportunity read her novel The Bell Jar, the story of a woman’s descent into mental illness after taking up a work placement at a fashion magazine in New York.I know, it’s a pretty heavy choice, but hey, it DOES appear on lots of those lists , and if you are going to read something so confronting, perhaps it’s best to do it in the place you are visiting.
I had never heard of The Easter Parade by Richard Yates, but it popped up on one of my searches and I was intrigued. This novel published in 1976 is the story of the “unhappy lives’ of two New-York based sisters over forty years as they struggle to overcome their family past. It gets extremely good reviews and hey, I always like a story about sisters.
I am actually going to be spending my time in New York with MY sister, but I assure you we will be drinking cocktails and shopping at Macy’s rather than dwelling on any unhappiness in our past – with only a few days in the Big Apple, there’s no time for dwelling!!
I’m really not sure if my choices are the right ones… but I’ll let you know when I get back.
Here’s some other ones I was tempted by – but I’m going to have to wait for the next trip to indulge in these…
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann – The story of a mysterious tightrope walker running and leaping between the Twin Towers in 1974, while below a cross-section of people affected by what is happening live their lives. Based on a true event, it’s considered an homage to the city in the 1970s.
The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud – Three friends heading into their 30s attempt to make their way in New York City. They are spoiled, pretentious and unlikeable; examples of a certain kind of “entitlement” which exists in the city. The novel gets very mixed reviews, but probably worth a try.
Open City by Teju Cole – A young Nigerian immigrant doctor walks the streets of Manhattan, providing us with a fresh view of the city as he loses himself in his thoughts.
What about you? I’d love to hear your New York favourites – especially if they are just great, enjoyable reads filled with the life of the city. Don’t feel they have to be on the ‘worthy’ list! Let me know in the comments, and I’ll update you on these ones when I get back,