Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Book #112: Goodbye to Berlin

Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin is one of those books where the setting is as much a character as the people.

Goodbye to Berlin is a series of semi-connected short stories about Berlin during the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s. The narrator, also a British writer named Christopher Isherwood, recounts his experiences living in the city in the lead-up to World War II, complete with the sleazy and not-so-sleazy people who meets and the seedy and not-so-seedy places he lives. From a dank room in a crowded flat with a German family to a room in a rooming house with the quintessential German hausfrau Fräulein Shroeder to the wealthy Jewish family he befriends, Isherwood’s stories offer snapshots into life in a city in decline.

1930s Berlin society is far from perfect, and as it slides closer and closer to war, things continue to go downhill. However, Isherwood’s genuine affection for the people he meets and the city he lives in. Even in decline and with its flaws, Isherwood seems to love Berlin.

At one point he even writes, “It is strange how people seem to belong to places – especially to places where they were not born.”

As someone with nomadic tendencies – I get an itch to move on and try out living in new places and doing new things after about a year – this really resonated with me. I’ve felt deep connections with places I have no business feeling connected to. I’m not from Budapest, Boston, Prague, Chicago, or Salzburg, but in some ways each of these cities has made an impression on me that goes beyond just, “I visited it and I liked it.” Each of them has awakened parts of me I didn’t know were sleeping. Each of them has touched me in places that are hard to reach. I can’t say why, and it’s probably pretentious and presumptuous to say, but somehow I feel a bit like I belong to these places. Or at least I did belong to them, even if it was only for a few days.

Any time I think about these cities, the cities themselves are always part of the narrative. They’re more than just settings or places where certain things happen, they are characters with the ability to influence the events and make impressions on the people who come in contact with them. I’ve been known to call Budapest my boyfriend. I had a short summer fling with Salzburg that left me longing for more. Boston is that interesting person I met on a trip one time and would like to get back in touch with. Prague is that toxic friend you know you should probably get rid of, but you just can’t because she always makes things exciting and when things are good between you, they are so good that you forget the terrible, soul-crushing lows. Chicago is the cool older sister that I always want to hang out with.

Isherwood does an excellent job of turning Berlin into more than just a setting in Goodbye to Berlin. He’s a very good writer, and his descriptions are often perfect. The short stories themselves are interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the characters Isherwood peoples them with.

Rating: ****
Up Next: Everything Is Illuminated



Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Let me preface this post by saying that it might come across as a little biased. I love Cheryl Strayed. I was never going to not adore this book. That doesn’t mean that Wild isn’t a wonderful, fantastic book, however.

I’ve been meaning to read Wild for a long time. I’ve been a fan of Cheryl Strayed ever since I found out she was the Sugar behind The Rumpus’s “Dear Sugar” column. If you’re not familiar with it, you should definitely check it out. It’s an advice column unlike any you’ve read before. It’s equal part beautiful prose, advice from the heart, and personal stories. A bunch of us discovered the column in a creative writing class in college, and from that point on Sugar became one of the guides I took with me through the end of college and into the real world.

I took with me phrases like “write like a motherfucker” and the kind, gentle advice from “Tiny Beautiful Things” into the real world. Sugar was like a friend. I felt this strange connection with her. I was thrilled when I got to meet her, just a few weeks before I left for Prague. She was in Iowa City promoting Wild, which had just come out. One of my English major friends drove down from Minnesota to go see her with me. I bought both her books and had her sign both of them. It was awesome. She exudes this peaceful, calm energy that makes you want to sit and listen to her tell stories and truths about her life forever. Or maybe that’s just because I’d spent most of the previous spring clinging desperately to “Dear Sugar,” rereading several of her columns and forcing myself to believe that graduation wasn’t going to be the end of the world.


Anyway, Wild is the story of how, at 26, Strayed, after a 3-year spiral into darkness and drugs following her mother’s death, decided to heal herself by walking part of the Pacific Crest Trail. Unlike most people, who plan for years and practice and meticulously prepare for this hike, Strayed just sort of up and did it with only a few months of preparation. In this book, she recounts her transformative journey.

loved it.

Strayed is a great writer. She’s good at writing about things that affected her profoundly and reflecting on them in a way that isn’t constantly preachy or reflective. This is something I still need to work on. Pretty much every creative-nonfiction piece I write winds up sounding like a sermon, and when I read them back even I get annoyed with myself. I appreciate when people are able to walk that line between telling us what they got out of experiences, while leaving us room to draw our own conclusions and have our own thoughts about them.

On another note, I’ve always had a very strong sense of wanderlust, so I really like books where people travel and have profound experiences (except for Eat, Pray, Love. I couldn’t get into that one). Wild was no exception. I suddenly had a profound desire to hike the Pacific Crest Trail or take a month to backpack through Yosemite or the Rockies or something. Nevermind that I have never been backpacking in my life, I hate camping, and I am not cut out for carrying a giant backpack over rough terrain and not showering for days on end. I wanted to.

Maybe someday I will. I probably won’t go off on my own without a clue like Strayed did, but maybe I’ll go have some sort of spiritual journey of my own sometime. I just hope that I don’t have to get hooked on heroin and drown in grief to be transformed, because that’s not going to happen. At the heroin part isn’t, and I certainly hope the grief part doesn’t.

Either way, I recommend Wild if you’re looking for comfort and a good read that will make you want to hike and explore nature. One warning though – it’s an emotional read. I’m not a very emotional person; I rarely cry even when things are sad, and books and movies never make me cry. That said, Wild had me tearing up by page 20.

Rating: *****

Book #27: Amerika

Take a minute to appreciate this situation:

I’m from America.

I’m living in Prague. (Somehow I always find a way to bring that up, don’t I?)

Kafka lived in Prague. I live less than 20 minutes from his grave, actually. I’m planning on visiting sometime soon.

Kafka wrote a novel about America.

I read said novel while I was in Prague.

For some reason, that makes me really happy.
Amerika is an interesting, but not completely satisfying, read. Basically, it tells the story of a young immigrant, Karl Rossman, who is forced to move to America after impregnating one of his servant girls. Once there, Karl moves from job to job, trying to “make it” in America.

The plot, then, is pretty basic. What’s interesting is that Kafka wrote Amerika, which takes place entirely in America, without having visited the place. Instead, he researched. The result is a slightly distorted version of America, where the Statue of Liberty greets newcomers with a raised sword, “Senator” seems to be a title like “lord” or “baron” or “count,” and hotels are run through a vast, bureaucratic hierarchy of employees. I don’t know whether or not Kafka was satirizing America, or if some of his information or impressions of America were wrong. Either way, I thought it was appropriate that Kafka’s America was a slightly distorted version of our own. Isn’t that what Kafka’s best at?

Anyway, I enjoyed the writing in Amerika, and I was interested in how prevalent the “American Dream” was in the story. Karl and other immigrants are constantly focused on how their jobs can get them a better position in life. At the same time, there are always ways that they are kept downtrodden or thwarted by vague authority figures.

The only reason that I didn’t enjoy Amerika to its full potential is probably that it’s unfinished. The novel was published, incomplete, posthumously. A few chapters in the middle are missing – there is a gap between where we leave Karl in the second-to-last chapter and where he shows up again in the last chapter. We know from Kafka’s notes that he was planning to move toward reconciliation in the last chapter, but because it isn’t finished, we don’t get to see this.

I wish Kafka had finished Amerika, because I liked it. I just really needed the plot-gaps to be filled in.

Rating: ***
Up Next: The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

SO Freaking Scary

I have some friendly advice for you. You should really listen to me.


Trust me. You’ll be scared to sleep and you’ll figure that maybe you should just write your blog post about the book while you’re terrified because that could be fun, but you’ll be too freaked out to get up to get your computer. Every sound is your house coming to life and possessing everybody. Your house is out to get you.

That book is THE scariest thing. I even had an idea of what was coming because I’ve seen both the Kubrick AND the really long made-for-TV movies. They didn’t scare me that much. My uncle told me that for the last half hour of the Kubrick version he was crapping his pants. I wasn’t. I just enjoyed the tension.

But the book version of that. MY. GOSH. My heart was racing and I was terrified. I actually wanted to scream when a guy in a dog suit appeared in the hall. It was a What. The. Fuck. moment. And…just ALL of it.

I guess here’s a spoiler warning just in case. They really aren’t that bad, though.

River Song, Doctor Who, "Spoilers"

Throughout the whole book you really see all members of the Torrance family slide toward madness. The hotel starts to break into their consciousness through italicized, parenthetical statements until it’s flipped and you aren’t sure what’s up, what’s down, and who is who. You watch things go steadily downhill and there’s nothing you can do about it.

I think that insanity is what makes The Shining so scary. Nothing really makes sense and the Torrances have such little control over their lives or even their thoughts anymore. There is truly nothing they can really do about it once the Overlook starts to take control. GAAH I can’t even write about it, it’s so disturbing. The scariest part is the constant Poe references. The Red Death held sway over all.

MAN it was creepy. I LOVED The Shining. It was scary and disturbing and insane and it rocked.

Rating: *****
Up Next: White Teeth


The Backerei Woman

I didn’t like Out of Africa. I’m sorry, I just didn’t. Yes, Dinesen does descriptions of land and scenery beautifully. Yes, she is very good at bringing the land she loves to life. Yes, she did make everything seem mythic and even sometimes mystical.

What she didn’t do is make me care. For some reason I couldn’t connect with the narrative. It was weird. I kept trying to come closer and get into the story, but something stopped me from really getting into the text and connecting with Dinesen.

I did, however, like the fourth section, The Immigrant’s Notebook. It was a compilation of little scenes and stories about things or people Dinesen encountered. I was inspired enough to write my own about Germany. This is my favorite one:

The Backerei Woman

Blonde haired woman

Every morning my housemate and I rode the bus to Am Sande, the center of Lüneburg, and got breakfast at a bakery. I got to know one of the women who worked there very well. She was in her late thirties, possibly early forties, with strawlike blonde hair. On busy mornings she bustled around behind the counter, putting new pastries behind the glass case, punching the dysfunctional espresso machine with a lot of muttered Achs and Schades, and bantering with the ‘usuals.’

In the beginning, we stumbled through early exchanges with pointing and pantomiming.



“Kann ich Ihnen helfen?” Can I help you?

Milchkaffee“…ummm…ja. Ich….eine Kaffee. Und…das…” (vague gesture to a pastry that looked good) “Und…wir…nicht hier essen.”  Ummm…Yes. I…coffee. And…the… (gesture) And..we…not eat here.

Eventually she started using her limited English (which was about as good as my German). We started to trade languages. Every morning for five minutes we would talk. She in her broken English and me in my beginners’ German.

“It RAINS today. Rain! Regnet! I learned RAIN!

“Ja! Heute es regnet,” I would agree. Since it rains nearly every day in Lüneburg, we got very good at talking about the rain.

I would proudly find an excuse to show off my improving German.

“Gestern BIN ich ZU Hamburg gefahen! Ich BIN gefahren!! Yesterday I went to Hamburg. (With extra excitement about choosing the correct modal verb)

By July, it would be like this:

HER: Hello! Hi!
ME: Hallo! Wie geht es Ihnen? Hi, how are you?
HER: I am good. I practice lots of English! Listen: Today it is SUNNY. Tomorrow it WILL rain!
ME: Ja! Es ist sehr schön. Aber morgen würde es regen. Futur! Ich lerne mehr immer Deutsch! Yeah. It’s very nice. But tomorrow it would rain. Future tense! I learn more always German!
HER: Sehr good. Very nice! Almost right. What today?  Käse Brötchen
ME: Ummm…ich möchte…diese.  Ummm…I would like…these.
HER: No. You must speak.
ME: Eine käse brötchen. Meine Lieblints…dinge. A cheesy bun. My favorite…thing.
HER: Sehr gut. Very nice. Und..And…coffee. Mit…with…zwei…two….ehmmmmmm Zucker….Zucker…Schade.
ME: Genau. Zucker…Auf Englisch sugar.
HER: Ja! Sugar. Eine Milchskaffee mit zwei  Zucker! Yeah! A milk coffee with two sugars!

It seems that even in foreign countries, I can become such a regular that baristas know my order. My mornings in the bakery trading languages with a German woman are some of my fondest memories of Germany.

Rating: **
Up Next: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Rameau’s Nephew. 

Book #4: Out of Africa

I’m not sure about Out of Africa. I’m sure about writing about wanting to read Out of Africa (well, that’s probably because I DON’T want to read Out of Africa). There are just other things I’d prefer to read right now. I’m going to try and make the most of it, though. I think I’ll be able to relate to Dinesen on certain things.

When it comes down to it, I get the sense that she’s writing about a place she’s lived and loved that is not her “home.” Except I get the feeling that Dinesen does consider Africa her home. I can relate to that. I lived in Germany last summer and fell in love with it. I was only there for 90 days, but I have claimed it as “home” ever since. I love it like I love the U.S. (actually, I might even love it more than I love the U.S., but shhh…I don’t want the Secret Service after me). I wasn’t born there, I didn’t grow up there. It’s not technically *my* country to love. Except that it is because I’m claiming it. I feel like Dinesen might feel this way about Kenya. And, of course, she lived there much longer than I lived in Germany. She had a home there; I only had a small, spartan room in the basement of a random family’s house.

I worry, though, that this is going to turn into a highly romanticized ode to a simpler, “purer” culture. When people write that way about the “less-developed” [read: non-Western] cultures, it really botheres me. We don’t need an “African pastoral” to hold up and idealize as THE way to live. Why can’t we just look at how awesome it is that we have all of these different ways of living all around the world?

BUT I do NOT plan on reading this as some pastoral ode to earlier, simpler, better times. I plan on reading it as a love letter from Dinesen to a country she loves that is not hers. And maybe I’ll even write my own love letter to Germany.

Futher, I used to want to be a travel writer. I still try and write “travel-themed” pieces (that I never share with anybody). Maybe reading this will give me some tips on ways to make a place more central to my narratives. I’m interested to see how this memoir hangs together.

Here goes nothing!

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