domingo, setembro 06, 2015

Les Rois Maudits - Le Lis et le Lion et Quand un Roi perd la France, de Maurice Druon

These are the two final volumes of the Rois Maudits saga. Le Lis et le Lion finishes the story of the cursed progeny of Philippe le Bel, and Quand un Roi perd la France tells the follow-up, until the battle of Poitiers, one of the lowest points for France in the Hundred Years War. It's a well written historical novel, with plenty of intrigue and infamous characters, a very good read.

quinta-feira, agosto 13, 2015

The Silence of the Sea, by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

This was one of the books I bought in Iceland; I had heard about Yrsa Sigurdardóttir before as the epitome of the Nordic thrillers and still hadn't tried it. I like Jo Nesbo very much, and Henning Mankell, not so much Stieg Larsson or Camilla Lackberg. The Silence of the Sea is a nice book, with a clever and often intriguing story, but it didn't thrilled me that much - the writing and the characters are passable but not very good, and the atmosphere is not particularly noir or engaging. Better than Camilla Lackberg, but miles behind Nesbo.

terça-feira, agosto 11, 2015

Inside the Dream Palace - The life and times of the New York's legendary Chelsea Hotel, by Sherill Tippins

I first heard about the Chelsea Hotel in the famous Leonard Cohen song. Later I read about it in memoirs, like Gore Vidal's Palimpsest or Patti Smith's Just Kids, and saw it in movies like Factory Girl. So, when I read somewhere a review of this book, I was curious, and ordered it on Amazon. It is a very good read, informative and entertaining. I didn't know the Chelsea had been built as a kind of experiment in urban lodging in the 1870s. Since then, it was the home of an incredible number of artists, from Mark Twain and John Sloan to Patti Smith and Dee Dee Ramone, with residents including Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, Arthur Miller and so many others. The Chelsea Hotel was in the centre of the New York art scene, particularly after WWII until the 1970s. The book tells a lot of interesting stories, mostly interesting, and the author is very passionate about its subject. Sometimes it's a little boring, and it gives a lot of space to people like Andy Warhol - one of the biggest frauds in the art history, in my opinion, but then it was a big part of the Chelsea's history. And there are a lot of funny anecdotes, like when Christo invited someone for dinner and wasn't sure it the wrapped cutlery was a work of art...

domingo, agosto 02, 2015

O Lugar Supraceleste, de Frederico Lourenço

I have read most of Frederico Lourenço's books for many years. I like his writing - cultivated, clean and clear - and I think he's one of the few young(ish) Portuguese authors worth reading. And it's funny how I enjoy it even if I disagree of his opinions lots of times and have different tastes about lots of things. But still there are many issues where I feel he's telling it exactly how I would put it, and mostly I like the way he questions things, how he analyses himself and looks for his place / meaning in the world, which is something that always resonates with me. And I feel mostly in tune with his answers, if in a different key. It's one of those cases when even if the ways are different, the quest and the inner core are very much the same.

domingo, julho 19, 2015

Tales of Iceland, or Running with the Huldufólk in the Permanent Daylight, by Stephen Markley

One of the things I like to do when I travel is to buy books from local authors, or about the places I'm visiting. So, in Iceland last month, I bought a few Icelandic books at one of the Eymundsson bookshops, and as I was browsing the shelves, this little book about a trip to Iceland by a young American caught my eye. I bought it, read a few random pages as I was travelling across the country, and after coming back home read it from beginning to end. It's a nice book, an account of three young Americans' trip to Iceland and their impressions of the country. Loving to travel and to compare opinions, I found it mostly funny and entertaining, even if the twenty-something-ish kind of experiences and humour are quite far from my own. Maybe sometimes it gets a bit too silly, but all in all I enjoyed reading it. And through it I discovered the Give Live Explore project of one of the guys, Matt Trinetti, that is very uplifting and interesting, and to which I subscribed and plan to follow online. So many different things one can get from travelling!

So, website suggestion:

The Wire - Season 4 (and the other seasons are also great)

I don't remember when I last posted about a TV series - I watch a lot of them, and some are quite good, others just visual chewing gum or eye candy, but almost all forgettable. Then, in the last few months, I have been watching The Wire, after a friend highly recommended it to me, and I'm liking it immensely. It's great televised fiction, rough and poetic, realist and idealistic. I have liked all the seasons so far, but the 4th stroke me particularly - focused on education, it's really heartbreaking. The script is incredibly strong, the performances all top notch. It's so good to watch a series that is certainly not forgettable, like one can't forget other old series (Brideshead Revisited comes to mind, in a totally different key). I highly recommend it.

terça-feira, julho 14, 2015

Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe, tome 2, de François-René de Chateaubriand

I like to read memoirs and biographies, and I absolutely love the French language. I started reading Chateaubriand's Mémoires d'Outre Tombe a few years ago on the internet, in project Gutenberg, but then they didn't have the second volume, so the reading was interrupted; I bought the second volume in Paris and it had been on my shelf for a couple of years, and now I read it. It's a very good read; Chateaubriand's conservative and religious convictions are sometimes very annoying, but he's a very keen observant and the period through which he lived is fascinating. This second volume deals mostly with the Napoleonic period, and what an incredible time it was. I guess Chateaubriand would be a kind of social democrat today, he valued freedom and morals above all. His descriptions are always vivid and he writes in the most beautiful French. I will order the other volumes of his memoirs soon.

A trip to Iceland

I had been wanting to visit Iceland for a long time, and this year I finally made it. I chose the end of June, to take advantage of the light all day long and because it's not too cold, and I loved the trip. Iceland is a kind of amplified blend between the Azores and Norway, but with its own unique character.

We arrived at Reykjavik at night, but it was light, since the sun doesn't set at this time of year. In the morning, we headed from our hotel to the city, guided by the bulky silhouette of Hallgrimsjirkja, a church that is so much bigger than the city around it that can be seen from everywhere dominating the city landscape. With a design inspired by the geometric basalt formations ubiquitous all through the island, the church is a beautiful building, with a spacious and very brightly lit interior and a terrific view from the tower over the city: the colourful houses, the blue sea and the snowy mountains in the horizon, a good introduction to Iceland.

From the church, we strolled down through the city to the harbour, then up again to the Parliament square and the lake; Reykjavik is a small city but with a cosmopolitan look, with all the tourists and the terraces of the cafés, and in a strikingly beautiful setting by the sea. It was sunny and warm, so we enjoyed the outdoors and spent some quality time sipping drinks in café terraces. The next day it wasn't so sunny - the weather in Iceland is very windy and it changes often in a matter of minutes - so we visited the Settlement Exhibition, the Iceland national Museum (both very good) and the Art Museum dedicated to contemporary art (mostly awful). We strolled by the seaside from the Harpa modern building to the beautiful Sun Voyager sculpture (with the inevitable Japanese tourists taking selfies) and the next day started our road trip around the island.

The car rental girl told us about the insurance conditions, how it covered gravel scratches - lots of gravel roads in Iceland - but not sandstorms' accidents and, before leaving, she said casually "Oh, and be careful when you open the doors, if the wind rips them away, it's not covered by the insurance either". We were a little perplexed, but later we would understand her point.

Road number 1, also known as the Ring Road, circles the whole island and is the best road in Iceland - which doesn't mean it's not gravel in some places. A rainy drive took us to Gullfoss, our first stop in the so called Golden Circle (Gullfoss, the Geysir and Þingvellir). Gullfoss it's an incredible waterfall, huge and stunningly beautiful. It was very cold, with the wind and the water blown from the waterfall, but I didn't think about it while I was watching it from every possible angle. After Gullfoss, we went to see the Geysir. The Geysir itself is inactive, but its neighbour the Strokkur erupts every 5 to 10 minutes and provides a gorgeous sight. Then, the Þingvellir Park is terrifically beautiful, we walked in the rift that separates the American from the European tectonic plaques, with the site of the ancient Icelandic parliament marked with a flag and a powerful waterfall with a pool where they used to drown women guilty of adultery.

After spending the night at Stokkseyri, a small fishing village, we went back east to the Reykjanes peninsula, a harsh landscape of lava fields with grey-green moss and a savage rocky coast beaten by wind and sea. In the middle, we had the experience of the Blue Lagoon, the beautiful very blue thermal pools that are the most visited tourist attraction in Iceland. Very touristily organized, it's worth the visit - the water is delightfully hot and the pools insanely beautiful, and it's a somewhat surreal experience to be immersed in the hot water in the drizzling cold rain, surrounded by the mist from the water vapour. The details of the organization are also interesting, especially the "shower police" (people who watch if you really shower naked before entering the pools).

Heading west along the south coast, we stopped at Hverasvaedid, a site with volcanic activity full of bubbling mudpots and sulphur stinking smokes, then at the beautiful waterfall of Skógafoss and drove across green pastures full of sheep and horses (of which there are lots in Iceland) and across the barren black basalt ashen deserts along the famous Eyjafjallajökull glacier that reminded me of the Capelinhos region in Faial, Azores, and arrived at the pretty village of Kirkjabaejaklaustur, with its scenic twin cataracts and the tallest trees in Iceland (a mostly treeless country) for the night. The Icelandic names are often long and difficult to pronounce, usually joining words - like klaustur (monastery), fjall (mountain), kirkja (church), foss (waterfall), etc. Sheep in Iceland are everywhere, fat, woolly, short-legged and totally unconcerned by the traffic - they crossed the roads anytime and one must pay them attention while driving. Horses are short and stocky, with long manes, very beautiful.

The next highlight was the Skaftafell Park, by the Vatnajökull glacier, the biggest glacier in Europe. The views of the glacier are stunning, and we walked across green slopes and several waterfalls until Svartifoss, a beautiful waterfall in a basalt cliff with hexagonal columns on both sides. From there, a short drive took us into one of the most surreally beautiful places in Iceland - Jökulsárlón, a lake full of big ice blocks in different shapes that come cut loose from the glacier and flow down to the sea. It's a really strange sight, from another world, the bluish blocks of ice in the lake, and then we can see them on the black sand beach and being washed to the sea. It was there that we understood the remark by the girl from the rental car, because the man at the hotel in Kirkjabaejaklaustur had told us that a few weeks before a wind storm had washed away to the see all the ice blocks, leaving the lake empty. After having seen the lake and the blocks, we believed that kind of wind could perfectly rip a door from a car.

In Höfn, a small town - every town is small in Iceland - we tasted the famous langoustine, which was very good, a "glacier beer" and a nice dessert imaginatively called "skyr volcano". Skyr is an Icelandic food that looks like yoghurt but is actually a kind of cream cheese, very tasty. There are very good fish dishes, namely soups; as for other Iceland delicacies, dried fish looks and tastes like carton, fermented shark is just plain awful (tastes like rotten meat, which is what it is) and I didn't tried sheep's head or ram's testicles. I was surprised to see whale meat on sale, I figured a civilised country like Iceland would support the ban on that meat.

The next night was spent at Vinland, near Egilsstadir, near the big lake of Lagarfljót, that claims to have a monster like Nessie. From there, we went to visit the Eastern Fjords. We headed first to Mjóifjördur; the road was gravel, and from a sunny and reasonably warm day we entered a region that was colder and colder, mistier and mistier, the road was getting worse and worse, and we ended up in a kind of Narnia in the fog, the road impassable without a 4 wheel drive, and turned back. So we went to Seydisfjördur instead, up a steep slope, across a snowy plateau, and down another steep slope, coming into this prettiest of places: the lovely harbour town of Seydisfjordur, with its colourful Norwegian wooden houses, in this scenic setting by the blue sea and among tall snowy mountains with small waterfalls running down.

Back on the Ring Road, we drove towards the Mývatn region, in North Iceland. The first stop was at Krafla, one of the most active volcanic regions. After a hike through lava fields and over snowy passes, we reached an area of sulphataras and hot ground, with very recent craters. Back to the road, we stopped then at another field of bubbling mudpots, before spending a very enjoyable couple of hours at the warm pools, under a blue sky and with a beautiful view over the lake Mývatn. The lake is beautiful, and we could see why it got its name - lake of the midges - after being attacked by swarms of tiny midges, annoying but much less than their Australian cousins in the Red Centre.

From Mývatn, we went east and stopped at the amazing Godafoss, still another waterfall, appropriately named the Waterfall of the Gods And then arrived of the scenic place of Draflastadir, with its church, graveyard and a couple of houses, and a very nice guesthouse. After a few days on the road, and having listened to all our cds in the car, we were listening to Icelandic radio - they have very nice music, and the sound of the language is sweet, with its ss it sounds a little provincial, and sometimes like people speaking Castillian.

Akureyri, the second city of Iceland, has about 17500 inhabitants, so it's a very small town, with a big church, a lively main street with cafés and shops and a colourful harbour. From there, we went through Blönduós, where we stayed at a very nice cabin by the river, and from there to the Snaefelsnes peninsula, in West Iceland. We passed fields with horses and sheep, mountains, and stopped at the beautiful ancient church at Hólar.

The Snaefellsnes peninsula is beautiful, with its coast of rocks and basalt beaches. The town of Stykkishólmur has a wonderful harbour and a strange new Age church, the small glacier Snaefellsjökul is beautiful, as are the villages of Hellnar and Arnarstapi, where Jules Verne placed the entrance to the centre of the Earth. The basalt cliffs are full of sea birds and the views are amazing. Then there's the pretty little church in Búdir, and the road along the coast to Borgarnes, another small harbour town.

We stayed at the Fossatún guesthouse, in a most beautiful place by a river with waterfalls; the next day we saw th Hraunfossar and Barnfoss, more waterfalls, and then went back to Reykjavik. On our last day in the city, we strolled through the streets, ate lobster soup at the harbour, drank beer in outside terraces and visited the sculpture museum ofÁsmundur Sveinsson.

So, all in all I really enjoyed this trip and loved the country, and hope to go back, and explore more, there's so much to see, and more places are available driving a 4x4 vehicle. And the people are mostly nice and helpful. Beautiful nature, a cosmopolitan city and nice people; what more can one ask for?

sábado, julho 11, 2015

Heaven and Hell, by Jón Kalmar Stefánsson

One of the things I enjoy doing while travelling abroad is to buy local books and get to know something of a country's literature. So, I bought a few Icelandic books in Reykjavik, and started with this one.

It's a good book, about life in a harsh place, growing up, dealing with death and learning to live. And I like I can visualize the places and understand it better after having been there; before, I had no idea Iceland was such a harsh place in terms of climate, I knew it was cold, but had not felt the wind or seen the savage barrenness of the lava fields or the rugged mountains. It's very interesting how there is a kind of "tone" to several of the Nordic authors I've read so far - reading Stefánsson reminded me somehow of the rhythm of Knut Hamsun, Casper Jensen, Peter Hoeg or Willem Moberg; this particular "tone" was one of the main reasons I started learning Swedish, I would like one day to be able to read it in the original. It sounds kind of austerely poetic, cannot put it in another way.