The Biggest Little Book Festival in the World

Last week I visited the 20th edition of a remarkable Book Festival called PordenoneLegge. That translates to “Pordenone Reads. Pordenone is a small city (around 50,000 residents) in northeast Italy, not far from where I live.

It is simply a fantastic event. Over the years, I have met – and by that I mean had a one on one conversation with – superb authors. Included on that list are Margaret Atwood, the late Umberto Eco, John Banville, Jeffery Deaver, Peter Hoeg, Robert Harris and many more.

On any day during the Festival, you’ll see school groups (from little ones to university classes) attending author presentations. You will see hundreds, perhaps thousands of people walking around with a book in their hands, a rare sight indeed. Authors make presentations in majestic historical buildings, modern auditoriums, temporary festival tents, or even outdoors in open squares.

As I said, this was the 20th edition of the Festival, so it was well-hyped in anticipation. Here are a few interesting numbers:

  • 366 author presentation
  • More than 50,000 visitors
  • More than 10,000 books sold
  • 235,743 visitors to the web site (during the 5 days of the festival)
  • 6,000 Instagram followers
  • 30,000 Facebook followers
  • Top Facebook post had 684 “likes”
  • 8,000 Twitter interactions

So, yes. This Book Festival is a big deal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And it was a big deal for me, as well. Here is what I did.

I attended a press conference with Sara Shepard, author of the “Pretty Little Liars” series (in fact she has written more than 30 books).

Multiple best selling author Sara Shepard shared her experiences.

 

 

 

She talked about how much preparation she puts into her work. She begins with many weeks of research and outlining and planning before she ever begins to write. As an author of Young Adult fiction, she discussed the pressure that young people, not just in the US but all over the world, experience. Everything has become much more competitive to the point kids can’t just be kids anymore. They have to be perfect kids. That is exacerbated by the influence of so much social media, particularly on younger people, who might lack the maturity to be themselves rather than caving to peer pressure.

She believes nobody is perfect and everybody has secrets. Those are the traits she builds into her characters. She recounted a story where her mother once told her the thing she hated most was secrets. That maternal observation filled Shepard with a vivid imagination as to what kind of havoc secrets can cause. We have her 30+ books as a result and are thankful for that.

 

I also had the chance to sit down with international best-selling author Stuart Turton. His book, “The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is winning awards at an impressive rate and has been an enormous commercial success. You can read about my interview with him right here.

Stuart Turton in Pordenone Italy to release “The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle” translated into Italian.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maurizio di Giovanni signing a copy of one of his terrific books

 

 

I sat through a reading by Maurizio de Giovanni (who writes the crime series featuring Detective Commissario Ricciardi (“I Will Have Vengeance,” “Blood Curse” and “Nameless Serenade” to name a few). As he read passages from his latest work, he was accompanied by live music. It was a stirring event.

 

 

 

 

David Grossman signs one of his books

 

 

 

 

Finally, I attended the presentation given by multiple award winning and many times best-selling author David Grossman (“Duel,” “The Zigzag Kid,” “A Horse Walks Into a Bar” and “Life Plays With Me” among many others). I learned Grossman is a serious thinker. His presentation was called “The Sweet Reward for Writing,” a phrase coined by Franz Kafka. Grossman said the reward is writing itself. He elaborated by saying when he is writing, everything he observes fits; everything is interwoven into what he writes, from emotions, anecdotes, facial expressions, news events and on and on. He continued by saying everyone starts with many options for their existence but we narrow it down into – one gender, one language, one set of beliefs and so on.

Here are a few more pearls of Grossman wisdom:

  • There is no greater joy than to escape from doubt.
  • We should each look at our own memory with some suspicion.
  • We yearn to be seen by the understanding eyes of our enemy, the eyes that see our humanity.

 

Of course, this is Italy, so there was food involved, as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As happens each time I attend PordenoneLegge, I left with a renewed appreciation of the genius that is great writing and full of motivation to continue my own journey as a writer.

An Interview With International Best-Selling Author Stuart Turton

“We are never more ourselves than when we think people aren’t watching.”
“If this is not Hell, the devil is surely taking notes.”
(from “The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle”)

 

 

Stuart Turton in Pordenone Italy to release “The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle” translated into Italian.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stuart Turton, in his debut novel “The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle,” uses familiar themes from popular fiction and reworks them into something original and memorable.

This science fiction/murder mystery takes place in a decaying 1920’s country house called Blackheath. The story begins as our narrator wakes up with no memory of his own identity or how he came to be at the estate.

His name is Aiden Bishop, and he is here for a reason. A mysterious masked figure informs him a murder will be committed and Bishop has eight chances to solve it. He will relive the same day eight times, but each morning he’ll wake up in a different body, or “host.” He’ll remember his experiences from previous hosts, but if he fails to give the masked man the name of the killer by day eight, Bishop’s memories will be erased and he will start all over again.

Bishop finds he has two rivals, also occupying hosts and also tasked with revealing the murderer. Only one of the three can succeed and thereby be freed from the time loop to return to their real life.

And, just to keep your heartbeat elevated, Turton has Bishop being sought by a psychopath knife-wielding footman who targets each host in turn.

That summary does no justice to the mind-boggling complexity of the plot. There is a twist on nearly every page, and there are 500 pages.

Fortunately, Stuart Turton has done a superb job writing it. In spite of the complexity, the story never fails to be engaging and invigorating. His writing is tight and polished and “The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle” is a delightful read.

I had the great fortune of a one-on-one interview with Stuart Turton. He was visiting the small city of Pordenone, Italy during the annual book festival there (If you have never been, make an effort to visit this festival. I have met extraordinary authors including Margaret Atwood, (the late) Umberto Eco, John Banville, Jeffery Deaver, Margaret George, Robert Harris, Peter Hoeg and many more.)

Turton and I sat down in Hotel Moderno to discuss “The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.”

JS: Tell me about how you kept track of the sophisticated and complicated plot as you wrote. With so many different characters and plenty of time-jumping, it must have been quite a task.

ST: First, I spent three months planning it before I ever wrote a word. I wouldn’t allow myself to get to the dessert before I had my vegetable, so to speak. I had a massive Excel spreadsheet that detailed every two minutes of every character in the house. I started with the murder, for me that was the most important bit. The murder had to feel – not realistic because this is an Agatha Christie style mystery – but it had to be a murder that felt like one someone would want to commit for real reasons. And it had to be not solvable by a time travelling detective.

Once I had that, I did a massive map of the house and grounds in order to be sure an action going on in one place could be witnessed or overheard from another place.

Of course I did have lots of post-it notes and pages and pages of character notes. But then, working so long on it, I internalized it. So that once I had it, it was just in there. I knew every piece of it. I didn’t write chronologically, either. I wrote what excited me from one day to the next. Finally I built it all together.

I had to keep it fair, too. Like an Agatha Christie mystery, I saw it as a game. Everyone gets the same clues at the same time, and the murder gets solved fairly. I thought a few times about putting something else for a more dramatic moment, but had to remember that was not what I set out to do. I set out to be honest.

JS: In television and film, there is a person on the crew called Script Supervisor responsible for continuity in the story. I imagine that was an enormous task with this book. Did you have a team of editors who helped you with that?

ST: Yeah. When I finished the book, as any author does, I felt it was perfect. High fives, slapping myself on the back. Telling myself I am a genius. Well it got bought by my UK publisher and they brought in a timeline editor. So every time of day mentioned in the book, every hour, every minute, she mapped it all out to make sure it could happen the way I said it would happen. The amount of inconsistency she found was horrific. I spent two and half years doing this, I have a massive timeline in my house but she found these things. And of course every time I went back to fix one, another fell apart.

Then I had a copy editor, of course, and we had my brilliant UK editor, Alysson. She read every draft and corrected so much. Then after that, it has been sold in many countries. Each one had an editor and a translator and they all had questions. Finally we reached a point where there aren’t any more errors.

JS: I read that you described the process of writing it as “just awful.” I was going to ask you to explain that, but I think you just did.

ST: Well, not because of the planning bit of it, or the writing. I am not as a personality disposed to sit down in front of a computer all day. It’s just not what I do. I’m relatively active, I like being outside. But once you start writing, after a while you realize all you are doing is waking up at six in the morning and writing until sometimes two o’clock at night. You haven’t done anything else; you haven’t even left your house. And then when you do something else, you realize you’re adding days to the process. It’s getting longer. Every time you’re not working on the book you feel guilty because you’re not working on it. But you don’t want to only work on the book, either. Now that I am working on a second a book and the first one has done well, I have the ability to carve out a more reasonable schedule.

JS: So you don’t have deadlines from your publisher on the second book?

ST: Oh I do. I’ve sailed right by five of those. But I also had a baby. She is wonderful and my publisher has been very understanding. Stupidly, I didn’t think having a baby would impact daily work. “It will be fine, I’ll write at night while she’s asleep, she’ll have a nap during the day.” Honestly this was me two years ago. Incredible.

JS: Well congratulations.

ST: Thank you so much.

JS: The book is written in first person present tense. I have no statistics but it seems most novels are third person past tense. Did you find it difficult to write it that way? And did you even think there was an alternative?

ST: Not for this story, no. It felt like it was the only way this story could be told. With the multiple characters (all of them the narrator) first person present tense works better. I learned many readers don’t like reading first person present because they are not used to it. They don’t like it because it feels uncomfortable.

JS: That’s interesting. The book I am working on now is first person present. I am doing that deliberately because I feel it gives so much more immediacy to the story.

ST: Yeah. I agree. I absolutely agree. I recently did an event with the writer David Mitchell. He had a brilliant line about this. He said when he writes in first person present, he never has writer’s block because as well as he knows his characters, he can write in their perspective. When you write in third there is a distance (from the characters).

JS: The notion of redemption is a significant theme in “Evelyn Hardcastle.” It’s certainly important to the characters in this prison of Blackheath. Do you believe a horrific crime, such as what Annabelle did, can be forgiven? And do you believe a person truly can change?

ST: I think over a long enough period, yes. But I don’t think human life span is at the moment long enough. If you commit a horrific crime and go to prison, you won’t find redemption. That is not the aim of prison. The aim is to punish and destroy, basically. In our heart of hearts, that’s absolutely correct, the way it should be. I think fundamentally that is wrong. I think in terms of humanity what we strive to become, what we hope to become, incarceration should be with more social conscience. But we can’t carry on this way, we can’t keep throwing people into prison, we can’t keep building bigger prisons. It’s unsustainable. We’re going to have to come up with something. We need to get people through the prison system and back into society and not fall back into prison six months later. Recidivism is huge because once punished, always punished. The Annabelle thing was extreme but it had to be for the narrative. Do I believe she could be redeemed? Not in this lifetime not with the system as we have it. If we live longer, and technology is already providing that to some extent, but if we live longer, we can change. I am not the same guy now as I was when I was 20. I easily could have done something incredibly stupid when I was 20. Now I am not the same, but if we live even longer, then I can possibly really truly change. But at some point we have to start forgiving.

JS: I agree, but I am dubious that mankind is ready to have forgiveness become a more important part of our DNA. I don’t know if people are nice enough to do that.

ST: I absolutely agree. If Bin Laden had been captured rather than killed, put away for 60 years and released, it doesn’t matter. He’s still Osama Bin Laden. But I would like us to be that civilization where things can be forgiven. I come from a working class town in the north of England where sadly I know many people in prison. They are not bad people but there are not a lot of options left for them. It’s heartbreaking.

JS: Any thought of making a screenplay of this book?

ST: It’s been bought. A production company has bought it. There might be an announcement in a couple of weeks.

JS: Congratulations. Will you retain any input to that?

ST: No. None whatsoever, I sold the rights and that’s that.

JS: I know you are working on your second book and it is a genre mash-up murder mystery with more horror to it. Not science fiction.

ST: In three weeks is my next (final) deadline. I am having a lot of fun with it.

JS: Who are your favorite writers?

ST: Arundhati Roy is top of that list. “The God of Small Things” is entirely wonderful. What she does with metaphor, rhythm and language is a Master Class in writing. David Mitchell, Franz Kafka and Agatha Christie, obviously.

JS: And what are you reading now?

ST: I am reading “The Dry,” by Jane Harper. A murder mystery set in the Australian Outback in the middle of a heatwave. It’s great.

JS: Well, that’s it. I want to thank you very much for your time.

ST: Thank you.

Venice Film Festival 2019

 

I spent five days at the 76th annual “Mostra Internazionale D’Arte Cimematografica,” otherwise known as the Venice Film Festival. Yes, that is Venice, Italy.  I know: I am very fortunate to live nearby!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have been going to this festival for many years and have watched it grow from a time when I could have a casual conversation with actor Tim Robbins (about 20 years ago) to an event so crowded I could not get within 50 feet of Meryl Streep.

The importance of the Venice Film Festival has also grown. Some recent films featured here later became multiple award winners. For example, in just the last few years I saw premiers of Academy Award winners “Gravity,” “La La Land,” “The Shape of Water” and others.

 

The Venice Film Festival even features “glam” police.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last week I watched 8 different movies. I think there are two potential “Best Foreign Film” nominees as well as some acting nominees in that list. It is probably by coincidence, but the films generally dealt with the difficult experience it is to be part of a family.

One film I saw was “The White Sheik” directed by Federico Fellini. This year is the 100th anniversary of the great Italian director’s birth, so a number of his works were featured at the Festival. “The White Sheik” was one of his earliest films, but it is full of Fellini signatures including great use of shadow and light, a few really bizarre characters and frenetic high energy scenes all supported by a good story with a strong message about trust and forgiveness in a family. Pretty sure you can find a copy through a streaming service such as Netflix. If you love cinema, it’s worth the effort to watch this one.

 

As for the other seven, here are my reviews, listed (according to my opinion) from worst to best.

 

  1. Ad Astra

I expected much more from this movie. I like Brad Pitt as an actor, I like Tommy Lee Jones as an actor and I like Donald Sutherland as an actor. Unfortunately they had little to work with in this really poorly done revision of “Apocalypse Now.”  It isn’t billed that way, but it’s a clear swiping of the “Heart of Darkness” story and so badly written it was almost funny. Almost, but not quite. It was just bad. Example: one bit of dialogue

“You have to let me go, Roy.”

“Roy, you have to let me go.”

“You have to let me go, Roy.”

“Roy, you have to let me go.”

Please, Roy, let him go. Put us out of our misery. Poor Tommy Lee Jones had to say those lines. And don’t even get me started about the killer space baboons.

Don’t go see this movie; don’t even bother to rent it to watch at home.

 

 

  1. Seberg

I had no knowledge of the story of Jean Seberg. She was an internationally successful and much loved actress being followed by the FBI due to her support for a radical organization called The Black Panthers. That was happening in the late 1960’s and her life and career were destroyed by FBI activity. She committed suicide in 1979. The story is unpleasant, harking to a dark period in the history of US law enforcement. But it is not told very well in this film. I felt the characters were flat and predictable. I remember the Black Panthers and “Seberg” offers no information as to why the FBI was suspicious of them. The film stars Kristin Stewart (she was in the “Twilight” films) who delivers a flat and predictable performance. I did like Anthony Mackie in his role, but the movie itself really had no impact on me.  It is worth renting but don’t go to a theater to see it.

 

 

 

BRIEF INTERMISSION FOR A BITE TO EAT!

During the festival, I always have a meal at Ristorante La Tavernetta.

Pasta stuffed with a pine nut basil filling and covered with smoked ricotta cheese. Now that is living!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can find other Venice dining suggestions if you follow this link.

 

 

 

 

  1. The Laundromat

This is a strange film, delivering another unpleasant (true) story about insurance fraud, money laundering and just general economic mayhem inflicted on the rest of us by a few unscrupulous super wealthy crooks.  Meryl Streep stars in this one, so of course she will get an Oscar nomination (she almost always does) and indeed she is terrific. Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas play the two crooks in a kind of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern characterization (from Hamlet –look it up, or just think of the two grumpy guys in the balcony of the old Muppet Show on TV). They both delivered half good performances, but I expect more from each of them, given what excellent actors they usually are. There are some interesting film tricks in this one so it is probably worth going to see.

The crowd lining up outside the theater before the premier of “The Laundromat.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. La Verite’ (The Truth)

This is a French film very heavy on very heavy dialogue. “La Verite'” is the story of a stormy reunion between a mother and daughter. It stars Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche. Both are excellent and deserve some award hype. It also stars Ethan Hawke who was completely overshadowed by the actresses. In his defense, the film is about the women and he really did not have much to do. However, if you like art house films that deal with the difficulty of family, go see this one.

 

 

  1. Marriage Story

This is another heavy-dialogue-difficult-family film as Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are experiencing their marriage fall apart. I think both of those actors are generally pretty good but they each deliver really superb performances in this move. I expect both will get multiple award nominations. The story itself is well told, offering both sides of a marriage destined to end. Go see this one because Johansson and Driver are really, really fantastic.

 

ANOTHER BRIEF INTERMISSION TO ENJOY A BIT OF VERY COOL ART

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Qiqiu (Balloon)

This film from Tibet tells a story of a family dealing with the (now revised) one child law imposed for many years by the Chinese government. The family struggles balancing the law with their religion and with their economic needs in a story that is both funny and touching. It is beautifully filmed and the performances are authentic and believable. If this film gets any help with international distribution, it will screen at art house cinemas. Go see it if you are lucky enough to have it come to your town. This is a truly excellent movie.

 

 

 

And the best movie I saw last week at the 76th Annual Venice Film Festival…

 

  1. Bik Eneich (A Son)

“A Son” is a marvelous Tunisian movie. A 10-year old boy needs a blood transfusion and liver transplant after he and his parents are caught in the crossfire of a terrorist attack. A very dark family secret is revealed and the parents are left to deal with law, religion, paradoxical rules in a rapidly changing society and their own past mistakes. A remarkable story, superb performances by everyone in the cast and simply stunning filming add up to a near-masterpiece of cinema.  In the 20-plus years I have been attending the Venice Film Festival, this movie earned what is possibly the longest standing ovation I have seen. I expect this movie will win many awards and score wide international distribution.

See it. Maybe see it twice, as it is that good.

 

Small Town Book Festival Goes Big – Again! (Part 1)

Each year the small town of Pordenone, in northeastern Italy, hosts a book festival. It’s called “Pordenone Legge” (Pordenone Reads). It just ended on September 23rd and and I was fortunate enough to visit on two of the five days of the event. Let me tell you about my experience the first day.

But first, a little bit about this festival. The town of Pordenone has a population of around 50,000. During the festival this year, an estimated 250,000 came to visit. The event is divided into various themes, which include Children’s Books, Travel Books, Art and Architecture, Current Events, Science, Philosophy, History and more. Huge tents are built where thousands of books are for sale, each day tens of thousands of people wander the charming streets in search of their favorite author.

Authors speak to the public from multiple venues ranging in size from a few hundred to a few thousand.

I love it when people wait in line to meet an author!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Authors from all over the world come to speak to the public about their latest work (generally they are talking about a book that has just been released in Italy). Those presentation venues range in audience size from 150 to 3,000. In the ten years I have participated in this festival, I have rarely seen a venue that was not completely full. I love it.

And just to give you an idea of how this small town book festival is growing in stature, in 2013 there were 263 authors present. This year there were 600. And I am not talking about authors like me who few have ever heard of. Most of those invited to present here are famous, established, well-respected and successful masters of the craft.

Irish novelist John Banville is interviewed on the streets of Pordenone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All of this happens in the historic downtown of Pordenone, sometimes in centuries-old palaces, sometimes right on the street. It is a very cool book festival.

Here are the authors I met on Saturday.

John Banville

Irish born Banville is a novelist, screenwriter and teacher. He was awarded the Booker Prize (UK equivalent to the Puliltzer) for “The Sea” in 2005. This year, he was presenting his latest work called “Isabel” in Italian where the English title is “Mrs. Osmond”. It is a sequel to the Henry James masterpiece “Portrait of a Lady.” I sat at a press conference when Banville was here in 2013 to present his work “Ancient Light” and found him interesting and with his dry wit, very entertaining. I am happy to say my impression has not changed.

John Banville listens as an interpreter translates a question from a journalist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are a few of the gems he shared with the small group of journalists who sat with him at his press conference this year.

Social phenomenon come and go but the essentials of life remain the same. As a novelist I believe art must be permanent, even if it reflects those current phenomenon.
Writing about current events is for journalists, not novelists.
A happy ending is not how life goes, so books should end with some ambiguity.
I write novels but am not very good at ideas.

You can see he is a serious writer who does not take himself too seriously. A pretty good lesson for all of us, I think.

 

Elizabeth McKenzie

American Elizabeth McKenzie is the senior editor of the Chicago Quarterly Review, a terrific independent literary journal. Her book “The Portable Veblen” published in English in 2016 has been translated to Italian under the title “L’amore nel Tempo degli Scoiattoli” which translates to “Love in the Time of Squirrels.” It is a strange and original story about finding the source of our actions and attitudes while struggling to mesh our beliefs with the world around us.

Elizabeth McKenzie at the start of her press conference. 600 authors participated at the book festival this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She had some interesting things to share at her press conference.

We thrive creatively by facing difficulty.
Writing can be a way of getting revenge.
If you have something you are angry about, that’s the start of your novel.

I confess I do not entirely agree with her on any of those observations, but her background and life experiences are clearly very different than mine. Nonetheless, this book is definitely worth reading.

 

Margaret George

Margaret George is an American historical novelist who specializes in epic fictional biographies. Her incredibly well-researched works include “Elizabeth I,” “Mary, Called Magdalene,” “The Autobiography of Henry VIII: WIth Notes By His Fool, Will Somers” and others. Each is a unique look at her protagonist, steeped in detail and written in a style that brings her subject back to life. She was presenting the Italian version of her “Confessions of Young Nero.” The sequel to that will be released in the US on November 6, called “The Splendor Before the Dark.”

Margaret George poses behind the first of her books about Nero, just released in Italian.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She is keen to debunk the myths about Nero whom pretty much everyone pictures playing his violin as Rome burned around him. That image is completely false and she presents him as a brilliant and complex figure who has been maligned by history. I believe her as she talked about how thoroughly she researched her subject before writing more than 900 pages (the two books combined) in an effort to tell the story more accurately.

With help from a interpreter (left) and a moderator (right), Margaret George presents her first “Nero” novel to the Italian public.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On that note, as I am working on a historical biography, I asked how she avoids becoming paralyzed by too much research. Her answer was that she follows a set rule: the first half of her work is research, the second half is writing. She gave me some tips on how, as research is gathered, to catalog things so the writing part flows more easily. I wish I had met her about five years ago when my research started, but not to worry, I am well on my way writing now!

 

Robert Harris

English novelist Robert Harris was a journalist before taking up novels. Some of his work is pure fiction (I recently finished “Conclave” which was excellent) and others are fictional accounts of historic events. That is the case in the book he was presenting, “Munich.” It is set in the Munich Conference of 1938 in which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met in secret with Adolph Hitler in what was probably the first example of shuttle diplomacy. As an aside, I met Harris on September 22, the 80th anniversary of that conference.

Novelist Robert Harris, with an interpreter, talks at his press conference. After, he signed my copy of “Conclave.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He had worked for BBC and helped make a documentary on the 40th anniversary of that event, so confesses it has been something of an obsession with him.

Ideas he shared:

History gives you the facts, historical fiction tells you the story.
Do we learn from history? Maybe, maybe not. But unfortunately we do not learn to not make mistakes.
We are clearly living in a revolutionary time today. A full-blown cyber war is going on yet many do not recognize it.

Coming soon is Part 2, where I met novelist Lisa Halliday and former Obama speechwriter David Litt.

 

 

Ask a Local: Three Days in London, England

To be honest, I have been to London maybe 100 times (really, I have). Usually for short visits, sometimes as long as one week. During the Summer Olympics of 2012, I was in London for more than three months.  I am going back there next week, too!

 

 

 

 

 

So I sometimes get a little big-headed and think “I know London.”

Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha

Fortunately, I also have friends (Dimi and Lisa) who have lived there many years now. Whenever I travel back, they give me great ideas of new things to see and new places to eat.

Shameless plug: I often visit the London Gallery to see this painting. It is also the cover of my novel, “The Salome Effect.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is what happened my last visit!

I made a late decision to go so had trouble finding a reasonably priced place to stay in the center (more accurately the west end, where I usually sleep). Not to worry, I found Hampton by Hilton London Docklands. Nice hotel, really great breakfast buffet, excellent staff there, too. A slight drawback was that the commute was close to an hour from downtown, although very easy (use the DLR or Docklands Light Railway: clean, efficient, fast, and on time!). Also if you are planning a late night, watch the times of the final train or you might get stuck with an expensive cab fare!

Bletchley Park (Home of the Codebreakers)

If you saw the terrific film “The Imitation Game” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, or are (like me) a bit of a military history geek, you know what Bletchley Park is. During World War II a super secret base located north of London (that would be Bletchley Park) housed a bizarre machine designed by some very smart people and operated by England’s military forces (actually most of them here were women). The machine, called ENIGMA broke the codes used by Germany in all their radio transmissions. In a war, there are many moving parts, for certain. But it can be pretty easily argued that breaking the German secret codes and thereby understanding everything they were doing played an absolutely crucial part in the Allied victory.

 

 

 

 

 

The high level of secrecy surrounding ENIGMA and Bletchley Park have only been relatively recently de-classified. Opening the once secret installation to the public and turning it into a fascinating museum is part of that process. I spoke to some of the staff who told me there are expansion plans still in the works that will make the place even more interesting.  But for now, I highly recommend a visit to this glimpse into the past. It is both a grim reminder of the cost of war and a celebration of the achievement of very smart, very dedicated people.

 

Museum of London Docklands

I think most visitors to London these days pretty much ignore the non-royalty history of one of the world’s most important cities. London was (still is, actually) a port city. Goods, food, and people flowed through London to get to pretty much anywhere else in the world. That activity dates back centuries and continues today. This museum tells the story of the docks, once the vibrant business center of London. A portion of the exhibit explores the darkest aspect of the trade through these docks – the movement of slaves. Another portion discusses the brave men and women who continued their vital work in the face of massive air raids of World War II. Yet another recounts the lively, bawdy night life that you would expect to find. The modern revitalization of this area is also presented.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you google “stuff to do in London” or something like that, my guess is the Docklands Museum doesn’t show up too high on the list. That is unfortunate, in my opinion. It is a well put together museum and the staff are eager to answer questions and improve your experience. If you visit London, make a point of going here.

 

The Ferryman

I went to the Gielgud Theater on Shaftesbury Avenue to watch this stunning play. I warn you, even though there was a live goose, a live rabbit, and a live baby on stage (not all at the same time, mind you) this is not an evening filled with laughter. It tells a difficult story of love, loyalty, ambition and betrayal. As a writer, I think “story” is most important. But the performances I saw by a talented line up of actors, and the staging by a superb crew were simply off the charts great. The Ferryman has been running in London for more than a year, so no telling how much longer it will be there. But if you are a person who likes the theater, add it to your list.

 

OK, now it is time to talk about food and drink.

Dishoom

This is a hot new line featuring Indian cuisine. There are (I think) four different Dishoom restaurants in London, but I went to the one near Covent Garden. Very nice inviting interior, simply fantastic wait staff and food that was crazy good. Check the web site to get the details about making reservations. Certain times of day they don’t take them at all, other times they do but only for groups of 6 or more, etc. Not to worry, if you show up with no reservation, you can wait in their cocktail bar!

Bintang

In Kentish Town which is northwest London, you can find plenty of fun things to do. Funky old stores line the main street, I found one of the best international supermarkets (called Phoenicia) I have ever seen (they had ten different kinds of za’atar and an amazing display of baklava) and I had a great lunch at Bintang. They told me they offer Pan-Asian fusion cuisine. I told them they offer amazing food.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gordon’s Wine Bar

I admit this is a pretty well-know drinkery. Meaning it gets crowded. But wow is it fun and they really do have an impressive wine selection. There is some snacking available, and I can recommend the cheese plate. But go there for the wine. And then stay there for another one!

 

I am fairly certain most people do not need too much convincing to visit London. But I do think if you travel to less known attractions and dine in smaller, cozier restaurants you will have more fun!

 

 

 

 

 

Ask a Local: Three Days in Suceava, Romania

After three days in bustling, busy Bucharest, I needed to find someplace with a bit more peace and quiet. That place was Suceava.

Nestled peacefully in the northeast corner of Romania, Suceava was once the capital of Moldova. Today around 100,000 live there making it large enough to offer plenty of interesting things to do but small enough to not be overwhelming. I set myself up in the very comfortable Daily Plaza Hotel at the end of Suceava’s very nice pedestrian walkway. Nice breakfast and excellent air conditioning (hey, I was visiting in the summer and it was hot!).

My friend Andrea today lives in Italy but was born and raised in Suceava. She was pretty excited about my going there so I followed her advice. Here is what I did.

Painted Monasteries

One of Romania’s most loved treasures, the Painted Monasteries are collectively on the UNESCO World Heritage List, a well-deserved recognition of the history and beauty of these 15th and 16th century churches. Each one sports elaborate frescoes painted on the exterior of the church. Actually each set of frescoes follows a specific religious theme. Beyond the churches themselves, the grounds of the monasteries had beautifully tended gardens and respectful cemeteries. This made the site of each one a peaceful and tranquil space where thoughtful meditation comes quite easily. I was visiting about a week before the start of the high tourist season and imagine they do get pretty crowded, but that was not my experience. The were, simply put, beautiful and peaceful places.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suceava Citadel

A very pleasant walk through a natural park ended at the 14th century citadel. In its history, the structure has been both a fortress and a royal residence, sitting on top of a hill and overlooking much of the present day city. Recently renovated and repaired, a high tech museum is now situated in the citadel. Not much information was available in English (other than books at the gift shop), so I likely missed some of the cooler historical facts. None the less, it is striking and picturesque. Well worth a visit.

A walk in the park was a great way to get to Suceava’s citadel.

And the citadel itself was stunning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course, an important aspect of all my travels is the food. Suceava did not offer the variety or quality I had experienced in Bucharest, of course, but I did find some good meals and fun place to sit with a drink and watch the central pedestrian square.

Latino

An Italian restaurant just around the corner from my hotel. I have lived in Italy more than 25 years now, and consider myself pretty much an Italian food snob. So normally I don’t eat Italian while travelling.  But I did this time and was happy with it.  I consider that a pretty good endorsement.

Centru Vechi

Probably the best known of Suceava’s traditional restaurants, Andrea had suggested it before my trip, and the staff at my hotel did so as well. It had a very nice atmosphere, the staff were friendly and accommodating, the service was excellent. The food was adequate in my mind, but given the other things I just mentioned, I recommend a visit here.

Lovegan

I am a vegetarian and have been since 1993. I am not militant about it, and do not need to find a strictly vegetarian restaurant to be happy. But in Suceava, I was surprised and pleased to find this one (vegan, actually – not vegetarian). My experience with vegan restaurants has been lukewarm, I would say. But since I found Lovegan in Suceava, I thought I would give it a try. Great choice. It was the best meal I had during the three days I was in town.

After three different kinds of hummus, I ate a really terrific veggie burger! Yum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oscar Wilde Pub

They had a food menu here, but my purpose was simply to enjoy a cool drink and watch Suceava’s central square. It seemed like most of the 100,000 residents wandered through sometime during the three afternoons I sat there. They all seemed happy and content to enjoy thier lovely city. And I was sitting with a nice glass, so what’s not to like?

Locally brewed Silva beer was a winner!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My visit to Suceava gave me what I wanted – a slow down after the hustle of Bucharest. The painted monasteries are truly a thing of beauty and worth making a special visit to see.

 

Ask a Local: Three Days in Bucharest, Romania

About ten years ago, I was riding a train from Venice to Turin.  I shared the cabin (this was one of the old-style trains that had little cars with seating for six) with two Italian businessmen. Over the course of the six-hour trip we talked about many things. One of them was Romania.

Romania was interesting to me as one of the lead characters in the novel I was writing at the time (The Salome’ Effect) was a Romanian woman living in Italy. Romania was interesting to the two Italian gentlemen because they were terrified by the massive economic potential there. Upon learning that, I made it a goal to visit. And I am happy to say I have finally done so.

First stop, naturally, was the capital city of Bucharest, where I spent three nights. I set myself up in a centrally-located three-star called Relax Comfort Suites Hotel. Pretty simple place, really. Nothing fancy but it was both clean and air conditioned. I met a woman named Raluca (she worked behind the desk) who was Bucharest born and raised. Based on her advice, this is what I did there.

 

 

 

 

 

How cool is this National Library?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herastrau Park

In the northern part of the city, easily reachable by subway or bus, this enormous (187 hectares) and lovely green space surrounds a beautiful lake and offers a simply wonderful respite from the hustle of city life. Trees, gardens, walking and bike paths, plenty of eating and drinking options, boat tours on the lake, and an elaborate museum honoring Romanian village life are just a few of the reasons to spend a few hours here.

A bar/snack bar/bookstore is one of the many relaxing offers in Herastau Park.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parliament Palace

OK. It is huge. It is the second largest administrative building in the world (largest is the Pentagon). From a standpoint of size and imagination, I guess it is worth seeing. But the impression it left on me was of the sheer folly of it. Romania’s long time crazy and cruel dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu started construction in 1984, trying to copy or at least pay homage to, the great European palaces of the 17th and 18th centuries. Thousands upon thousands of people were employed and much of the small treasury of the country was squandered on construction. It was never used by the Romanian government under Ceauşescu. He called it the People’s Palace, but the people wanted nothing to do with it or him and he was overthrown in a popular revolt.

It does house Parliament offices today but for the most part sits empty, a looming monument to the danger of placing too much power into the hands of one very egotistical man.

It is big and pretty much empty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The National Museum of Art

I confess I can normally visit an art museum for about one hour, maybe 90 minutes if I am in a good mood. This stunning collection kept my attention for almost half a day. The building itself is beautiful, a palace dating back to the early 1800’s. But the collection of works from all over Europe were the real star of course. As I have lived in Europe a long time, and spend many one-hour visits in other art museums, I focused on Romanian artists. Plenty of those, for sure, but look up Theodor Aman. I had never heard of him before, much less seen any of his work. The 19th century master was a painter, engraver and history professor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am no art critic, certainly. But his oils were so life-like and believable. They had an almost ethereal 3-dimensional look to them. Really something.

 

 

 

All that exploring works up an appetite, right? Well, I found Bucharest has both plenty of traditional fare and an exciting international dining vibe. These were my favorites.

Aubergine

 

In the historic (and touristy but also fun) Old Town part of Bucharest. Kind of a fusion between Romanian and Middle Eastern cuisine, everything on my table was fantastic. Among other things, I enjoyed three kinds of falafel and the best baba ganoush I have ever eaten.

 

 

 

Blue Margarita

 

It was not a short trip (a metro ride of about 20 minutes and then a walk for another 20) but this South American restaurant is run by a young couple who had lived in Texas for 6 years. The menu is mostly but not exclusively Mexican, but Mexican is what I chose. And I was not disappointed at all. Plus the margarita was really terrific!

 

 

Caru’ cu bere

This is perhaps the best known of Bucharest’s traditional restaurants. I have to say the food was really terrific. But the place was hyper crowded as large tour groups (I am talking multiple groups of 30 -40 people at a time) were there. The name means “The Beer Wagon” so that’s a good start. The historic building was purpose built as a brewery and they still make an excellent line of beers. But now it is a also a restaurant that offers traditional Romanian fare from simple to gourmet. The inside is very Art Nouveau, so take your camera along with you. Worth a visit, for sure, but my advice if you are there during a tourist season is to avoid peak hours!

I really enjoyed Bucharest. I recommend not driving in the city. Ever.  But it is a vibrant place with plenty to offer no matter what your taste.

As for the two Italian businessmen I met on that train so long ago, Romania has not yet realized its full economic potential (there is still a good deal of corruption in the government, it seems), but I am pretty confident it will someday. It is already worth a visit – a return visit, in fact. So don’t wait – go there soon!

Ask a Local: Three days in Zagreb, Croatia

In mid-October, we traveled to Zagreb, Croatia for a long weekend. We had never seen it, but had heard plenty of good things about it, so it was time to see for ourselves. My advice: go there. Do it soon!

 

 

 

 

 

Zagreb is the capital of Croatia, a county teeming with beautiful scenery, terrific beaches and exciting cities. In Zagreb, you’ll find very nice 18th and 19th century architecture from the Austro-Hungarian empire. There is a majestic Gothic cathedral in the center of town, and the charming and lively Tcalciceva Street, full of bistros, bars, and cafes.

Zagreb Cathedral

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our lodging was at a place called Zig Zag Zagreb. It offers either traditional hotel rooms or small apartments right in the center of the city. We drove to Zagreb, so it was a bonus they had a private parking garage, as well. We chose one of the apartments as it was equipped with a kitchen where we were able to make breakfast each morning.

We found the reception office, located with their hotel rooms and the parking garage, with no problem. Check in was fast and easy, and getting to our apartment was a three minute walk. The young woman working there was Neda Pontoni.  She was born and raised right in Zagreb so became the local we would ask for advice. Since it was our first visit, our questions dealt with restaurants and museums. Unfortunately we had come to the city on the weekend of a national holiday AND the annual Zagreb Marathon, meaning many of the museums were closed. No matter, the restaurants were open, so our main focus was dining.

We also found some cool graffiti.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And that dining did not disappoint at all. Here is where we ate.

Pod Zidom (Pod Zidom 5, +385 99 3253 600)

Yes, the restaurant shares the same name as the street, just a few steps away from the city’s main market. I loved my stuffed eggplant while my wife had a couscous dish with a mint yogurt topping. Yum.

 

 

 

 

 

Vinodol (Teslina 10, +385 1 4811 427)

We had lunch here and returned later in the day to enjoy a glass of wine. The bar was a little smokey, but the wine was a nice (and inexpensive!) Malvazia.

 

Mundoaka (Petrinjska 2, +385 1 78 88 777)

Small, very cozy, and a very inviting place to eat just around the corner from Zagreb’s central square.  A delicious pumpkin curry soup was just off the charts great! You must try the fresh made bread, too. The service here was really terrific.

 

Royal India (Ivana Tkalcic 1000, +385 1 4680 965)

We always like to try foreign cuisine when we travel. As the name implies, this restaurant serves Indian cuisine. The kitchen is staffed 100% by folks from India, they use Indian imported spices, cook nine different kinds of naan bread right there, and use only seasonal fresh veggies and produce. I have lived in Europe more than 25 years, and outside of London’s Brick Lane scene, this was the best Indian meal I have found.

We also found a terrific wine bar called Basement Bar (Tomiceva 5, +385 1 7774 585). It’s not really in a basement, although you do go down a few steps to enter. The vaulted ceilings make a nice setting to sample from a very impressive selection of (mostly) Croatian wines.

The very cozy Basement Bar is at the foot of one of Zagreb’s funicular trains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We did manage to find one art exhibit open. We rode the funicular train (just outside Basement Bar – very convenient!) up to the Galerija Klovicevi dvori. They had a retrospective of wood carvings by Vasko Lipovac. Fun and funky, to say the least!

What happens in Croatia stays in Croatia, right?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So we saw some art and ate very well. In other words we had a good time and will return soon!

 

 

 

I Did it Again! (Venice Film Festival part 2)

This time I’ll talk about the disappointing movies I saw at the Venice Film Festival two weeks ago. I don’t like to dwell on negatives, so promise to be brief.

In the meantime, the pictures I have included in this post are shots of various pieces of graffiti I have found in Venice.

 

 

 

 

 

Normally I love short films. Unfortunately, unless you live near an art-house cinema they can be hard to find. One of my favorite features of this terrific film festival is access to many, many shorts. This year I watched 14 of them but I was not impressed. Here is a list (title, country where it was made, director’s name).

By The Pool, Lithuania, Laurynas Bareisa

Aria, Greece, Myrsini Aristidou

Tierra Mojada, Columbia, Jaun Sebastian Mesa Bedoya

Mon Amour Mon Ami, Italy, Adriano Valerio

It’s Easier to Raise Cattle, Malaysia, Amanda Nell Eu

The Knife Salesman, Australia, Michael Leonard

8th Continent, Greece, Yorgos Zois

Astrometal, Greece, Efthimis Sanidis

L’ombra della Sposa, Italy, Alessandra Pescetta

Ant Killers, Brazil, Joao Maria

Gros Chagrin, France, Celine Devaux

Himinn Opinn, Iceland, Gabriel Sanson

Death of the Soundman, Thailand, Sorayos Prapapan

Futuro Prossimo, Italy, Salvatore Mereu

 

 

 

 

 

 

My friends appreciated “L’ombra della Sposa” citing the special effects and the artistic filming. The dialog is a poem written to pay homage to the victims of a boat that sank between mainland Italy and the island of Sicily during WWII. I felt it was over dramatic to the point I stopped feeling sympathy for those victims and just wished they would shut up. But that’s just me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The one I liked most – or more accurately disliked the least – was “The Knife Salesman.” It was comical, dealing with a door-to-door knife salesman visiting a the home of a frustrated housewife and mother. Plenty of clever sexual innuendo to keep the story fresh and interesting.

All told, though, the shorts this year were less than mediocre.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also saw “Into the Night,” part of honoring the great director John Landis (“Blues Brothers” “Animal House” “American Werewolf in London” etc.). Made in 1985, it starred Jeff Goldblum and Michele Pfeiffer, with cameo appearances by Dan Aykroyd, Paul Mazursky, David Bowie and many others. While it was fun to see those actors young again and there were some funny bits, the story was really pretty stupid. I never cared much for Goldblum as an actor and this movie gave me no reason to change that opinion. I do think Pfeiffer is quite good, but this had to have been one of her first big roles and she was just OK. Best part of “Into the Night” was the soundtrack that featured lots of songs performed by the late great B.B. King.

 

 

 

 

 

 

NEXT:

Part 3 (the last one!): The Best Movie I Saw

I did it Again! The Venice Film Festival (part 1)

As I do pretty much every year in late August – early September, I headed to Venice for the annual “Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematographica” or Venice Film Festival. Over the last nearly 20 years I have attended, the festival has grown more glamorous (measured by the star power present), more important to the industry (measured by the number of big studio premiers), and more expensive (measured by violent wallet shrinkage). Nonetheless, as a film festival Venice continues to deliver.

I’ll be writing three separate posts about my experience this year. In them, I’ll add gratuitous pictures of Venice or of the food I ate while there. I do that not because it has anything to do with movies but because I get how lucky I am to live less than an hour away from that beautiful place.

In this, my first post, the focus is on the big release films I saw.

 

 

 

 

 

DOWNSIZING” written and directed by Alexander Payne (best known for “Sideways”), starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, and Hong Chou.

This film deals with an interesting solution to global problems of overpopulation, depletion of resources, and environmental deterioration.  First, shrink people to about six inches tall, then set them up in Utopian societies where resources are plentiful and problems are few.

I rate the movie as pretty good.

Needless to say, the things that make humans interesting, irritating, endearing and – well, human – exist if we are six inches tall or six feet tall. Fortunately the story in “Downsizing” does not get preachy about social consciousness themes and sticks instead to the character traits (or flaws?) that make us who we are.

 

 

 

 

 

Technically, Payne has put together a proficient movie. The special effects that juxtapose downsized people into a full sized world are seamless and clever. Look for the delivery of full sized wedding rings to a small Matt Damon.

Damon and Waltz both give adequate performances. A disappointment to me was that Kristen Wiig is only on screen for maybe 10 minutes. Hong Chau, on the other hand, is terrific. She has a great role and simply nails it. I predict she’ll earn a well-deserved Oscar nomination. She really carries the movie.

Again, pretty good.

 

 

 

 

 

LEAN ON PETE” directed by Andrew Haigh, starring Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigney, Steve Zahn.

This is a film about a 15 year old boy (Plummer) who wants a home, some food, and to be on his High School football team. Stability is hard to find though, and he ends up taking a summer job with a washed-up horse trainer (Buscemi). He befriends a kind jockey (Sevigney) and a failing race horse named Lean on Pete. Based upon the novel by Willy Vlautin, the story is about refusing to give up hope.

I also rate this one as pretty good.

The story is moving, at times difficult and at times tender, but never too sentimental or sappy. Director Haigh cites a John Steinbeck quote, “It is true that we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome. But if that is all we ever were, we would millenniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth.” I don’t know what that has to do with this movie, but if John Steinbeck said it, it is worth repeating, right?

The directing is good, but (not being a film maker) I don’t think it was too challenging – most of the film is short scenes with the boy talking either to an adult or to the horse.

As for acting, don’t get excited about seeing Steve Buscemi or Chloe Sevigney, or Steve Zahn. This is a movie for Charlie Plummer. I had not seen him in anything before, but have looked up his body of work and say this: he has really strong potential. For me, the young actor is not ready to take on a role where he is in every single scene, but he does indeed have talent. Look for him in a few years to be a big Hollywood star.

 

 

 

 

 

OUR SOULS AT NIGHT” directed by Ritesh Batra, starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.

Two elderly folks living alone across the street from each other decide to hook up. Really.

I rate this as OK.

Let’s face it. The story does not matter, the directing does not matter. This is a vehicle for Redford and Fonda to once again light up the screen. They both have had extraordinary careers and have earned respect for their work.

The writing is too sentimental and sweet for my taste, almost saccharine. Nothing special about directing in this one, just point the camera at the two actors and stay out of their way. Of course these two have made a number of really terrific movies together, and I am happy to say they still have it. The chemistry between them works and you believe they care for each other. Their performances are very good indeed.

A friend of mine who saw it with me (widow, in her late 50’s) said she could relate to the need for companionship, so she liked the movie. Me (early 60’s, married), I think it isn’t much more than a sappy film with two great actors.

 

 

 

NEXT UP: what wasn’t very good…