Friday, October 30, 2009

European sojourn, part one

It's been a long time since I've posted anything... but I have a good reason. Mark and I just returned from a 10-day vacation to Germany and Austria, a trip we'd been planning to take for quite a while. We had a wonderful time, and here's a recap of some of the sights we saw along the way -- with historical interludes, of course. Click on the images to see larger versions with greater detail.

We got back this past Wednesday evening, and I'm still dealing with jet lag... here I am posting at 8pm on Friday, and I can barely stay awake, but I'm determined to get something posted here, finally!

After arriving in Munich on Sunday the 17th, we spent the next day exploring the city. To the left is Nymphenburg Palace, which I'd never heard of previously, but Mark had visited it when he'd lived in Germany back in the 1980s. Following an extended tour of the palace and grounds (it was interesting to see that their lawns were suffering the same rodent problems as ours does), I found it easier to establish its context relative to other historical information I already knew.

Nymphenburg was commissioned by Ferdinand Maria, Elector of Bavaria, for his consort, Henriette Adelaide of Savoy, after she'd given birth to their heir, Max Emanuel. Henriette Adelaide was a granddaughter of Henri IV of France and his queen, Marie de Medici, through their daughter Christine; Henriette Adelaide in turn was the mother of Maria Anna of Bavaria, who married Le Grand Dauphin, eldest son of Louis XIV. If you've read enough French-set historical fiction, you may recognize some of these names. It's one great big European extended ruling family.

Ludwig I of Bavaria resided at Nymphenburg in the mid-19th century. To the right are six selections from his Schönheitengalerie, or Gallery of Beauties, a collection of 36 portraits of gorgeous women mostly from the nobility and middle classes; it was considered a great honor to be selected to pose for the gallery. The portraits cover the walls of a large room, and sexist as this may seem, I have to admit that the king had a good eye for these things; these women (as memorialized by Joseph Stieler, court painter) truly were beautiful. Another surprise: I immediately recognized two of the women as ones I'd read about in historical novels: Lady Jane Ellenborough (perhaps better known under her birth name of Lady Jane Digby) and Lola Montez. Both were mistresses of the king, while the other 34 were simply other women who possessed the qualities he was looking for. His long-suffering wife wasn't selected for the gallery, though Ludwig honored his daughter Princess Alexandra, his daughter-in-law, Marie of Prussia, and his first cousin Sophie of Bavaria (mother of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria) by including them in the gallery.

Okay, back to our travels. What would a visit to Bavaria be without a trip to Schloss Neuschwanstein, the fairy tale castle constructed as a mountain getaway for King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Even in late October, the grounds were buzzing with tourists from a variety of countries. They gave English-language tours, so after hoofing it up the mountain for about a mile (because of the snow at the top, the buses weren't running) we all clustered in the castle courtyard until our tour number was called, after which point we lined up like cattle within the gates until the tour guide arrived. Neuschwanstein is apparently suffering due to the large influx of tourists it receives each year and regularly undergoes restoration work; you can see the scaffolding on the far right side of the photo where work is being done. The opposite side of the castle is also completely covered in scaffolding, something we only discovered after making yet another steep climb up to Marienbrücke (Mary's Bridge) after the tour ended.

The photo at right, above, displays the 17th-century Chapel of St. Coloman against the backdrop of the Bavarian Alps just outside Schwangau, the town just before the climb up to Neuschwanstein begins. We had great weather that day, although it was rather chilly out; both of us were wearing winter coats and gloves. Right down the road from Neuschwanstein, another 15 minute drive, was the town of Oberammergau, where residents stage their famous passion play every ten years. If you want to catch the next performance, make your travel plans for May through October 2010.

That night we returned to Munich and then headed out with our rental car to elsewhere in Bavaria the following day. Our next stop was Ramsau, a picturesque village with a population of less than 2000 people. The only reason we knew about it, and decided to visit there, was because of an online webcam showing the exact same scene of a church and bridge over a river as you see on the left. Even though it looks like the two of us were photoshopped in after the fact, this is an actual picture (Mark brought along a tripod, along with a digital camera on a timer). We saw the webcam, right where it was supposed to be, and if you want to see what's happening in Ramsau right at this very minute, here's a link to it.

Salzburg, Austria, was our next stop. Because we hadn't made any hotel arrangements for the next two nights, and it was within a reasonable drive, we made a side trip of it. We credit Helga, the name we gave to the voice on the GPS system built into our rental car, for getting us to Salzburg and through all the one-way streets of the city. What an insane drive, but it wasn't exactly designed for cars. We stopped in at the visitors' center and reserved a room at a hotel within the old city at a very reasonable price. It pays to travel in the off-season. Photo of twilight in Salzburg on October 21, at right; this was my 40th birthday, and what a great place to spend the rest of the day.

The following morning, after croissants and coffee in the hotel's breakfast room, we explored the old city's cobblestone streets. I was amazed at the church at left, since it looked like it had been built directly into the mountain. Its name is St. Blasius Kirche (church). As one of my fellow reference librarians told me after I got back home, you get to hear about saints you'd never known about before when traveling to this part of Europe. St. Blasius is the patron saint of throat ailments, and his church, a rather unprepossessing structure compared to others in Salzburg, was built in 1330.

One final photo for this blog entry: after taking the funicular railway up to the Hohensalzburg Fortress (Festung Hohensalzburg), which sits atop a hill overlooking the city, we took some photos of the scene below; you could see for miles. The fortress, which essentially housed a small city in itself, dates from the 11th century. Can you imagine living here and looking out to see views like this every morning?

More to come -- and there'll be more about historical fiction in the next post, promise!

Thursday, October 08, 2009

A visual preview of the spring season, part two

I'm going to attempt to finish this blog post even though I'm in a hotel room in Peoria, on a little bitty keyboard, after wrapping up a day attending the Illinois Library Association conference. Here are ten more forthcoming historical novels to watch for.

A reimagining of the character of Alcestis, the devoted wife who descended to the underworld in her husband's place; there's more to her story than Greek mythology lets on. The ARC just went out on a list to Historical Novels Review reviewers, and this was the most popular pick. Soho, February.

It's been a little while since we've seen anything new from Morgan Llywelyn, chronicler of Irish history from ancient times through the end of the 20th century. Her Irish Century series, beginning with 1916, is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the struggle for Irish independence. Her latest takes on the story of Brendan the Navigator, an early Irish saint who flourished in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. Forge, February.

A historical thriller based on the real-life massacre of Chinese gold miners in Hells Canyon, Idaho Territory, in 1887, a crime ignored by local media -- probably due to the ethnicity of the victims -- and which remains unsolved over a century later. (I notice a nonfiction book on the matter, R. Gregory Nokes's Massacred for Gold, was published by Oregon State Univ Press on October 1st.) "Dana Hand" is the pseudonym for two historians who collaborated on this, their first novel. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, February.

In the last preview, we saw one forthcoming historical novel set in colonial Louisiana; here's another. As you can guess, this is a novel-length interpretation of Longfellow's classic poem "Evangeline," in which the title character journeys from Acadia (Nova Scotia) to New Orleans in the mid-18th century in search of her lost fiancé. I'm not sure if this is the final cover, but it's the one in the print catalog. Overlook, March.

Elisabeth McNeill writes about fascinating topics from (mostly) Scottish history that other historical novelists, for some unknown reason, have neglected. Fantastic Fiction has a nice bibliography, with covers. Her earliest novels were British sagas, but her more recent works have used major historical events as backdrops. The Heartbreaker is a novel of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the woman who helped him escape, Flora MacDonald, and sees what happens to each in their later lives. Severn House, January.

Continuing the 16th-century trend, here's a historical thriller set on the Oxford campus during Elizabethan times, with Italian monk Giordano Bruno as an undercover detective spying for the Queen. Per the Euro Crime blog, Heresy is first in a trilogy written by British journalist and literary critic Stephanie Merritt under a pseudonym. It's aimed at fans of C.J. Sansom. Doubleday (US) and HarperCollins (UK), March.

Does anyone else remember the author's first novel, Grange House, an elegant gothic novel set in 19th-century Maine? (My review, nine years old now, is here, and if you go for novels about creepy haunted houses and family secrets, you'll likely enjoy it too.) The Postmistress is a novel of two women during World War II, a postmistress on Cape Cod and a radio broadcaster in London, and the long-held secrets that erupt when their lives intersect. Putnam, February.

Mitchell's Chateau of Echoes took me on a journey to a 15th-century chateau in Brittany, as seen in both medieval and modern times. Her next novel is set amidst the upper classes in the late 19th century, as a young debutante discovers the fickle nature of high society. Bethany House, April.

If you wouldn't normally choose western or early 20th century locales but enjoy novels about women's lives at earlier points in history, give one of Dallas's novels a try. Whiter than Snow takes place in 1920 in the small mountain town of Swandyke, Colorado, following a deadly avalanche. April, St. Martin's.

Inspired by a controversial court case found in records from 1899 California, Moran's debut novel dramatizes the unintentional bigamy of Henry Oades, having married his second wife after believing his first wife and their children had been killed back in New Zealand. The author's website has more details on the storyline and background. Ballantine, February; UK rights went to HarperCollins.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Book review: J. Louis Yampolsky, A Boardwalk Story

Welcome to Atlantic City circa 1939, the recreation capital of the Jersey Shore, a wondrous place lined with amusement arcades, elegant hotels, and antique shops. Here men and women stroll along the boardwalk in their best leisure suits and fancy dresses, pitchmen hawk products to eager tourists, and permanent residents move to basement apartments to make room for the summer crowd. In this tenth year of the Great Depression, money’s tight and war looms on the horizon. But as the days get longer, fifteen-year-old Jack Laurel is preoccupied with his new job at Krilow’s Kitchen Gadgets, his neighbor Rhoda’s sexy figure, and avoiding the wrath of neighborhood bullies.

With his best friend away, Jack falls into the company of a motley group of adults. Charming pitchman Benny James amazes him with his ability to attract gorgeous girls, and Morris, a watercolor artist with a secret life as a mechanical man, introduces him to the joys of literature. Then things really get thrown for a loop when a loner with a talent for commodities trading enters the picture. With the help of a fortuneteller who doesn't believe in her own abilities, they stumble into an unlikely business partnership which proves astoundingly successful and attracts the notice of a powerful Italian crime boss. Jack’s love life also picks up speed, but growing up brings complications along with new discoveries, and soon he starts to feel like he’s leading two separate lives.

This fast-paced coming-of-age tale stands apart from the pack. Jack, writing today, recounts his story while looking back on his youth. His narration, clear and snappy and forthright, switches smoothly between an adolescent’s exuberance and an older, more seasoned man’s experience. He peppers the story with details on clothing, geography, housing, prices, and salaries, but he personalizes everything so well that they never feel like dry facts. The author teases by having some of the characters veer close to caricature, but their unpredictable personalities prevent them from crossing the line.

Between Jack’s adventures and the eccentric characters he meets, the novel definitely has its zany side — it's lots of fun to read — yet the tone is tempered by a sobering realism. It’s nostalgic without being schmaltzy. In 1939, many men over forty are World War I vets who served in the trenches. Their perspective (and that of the older Jack) serves as a reminder of the world war they survived and the next one soon to come.

Though written for adults, A Boardwalk Story tells it like it was for teenagers living in the late Depression years. The author’s personal story is equally as remarkable. A retired accountant and financial manager with no previous fiction writing experience, he wrote the manuscript over a summer, inspired by his granddaughter’s questions for a school history project. If you’d like to journey back to Atlantic City of yesteryear, you can’t ask for a more entertaining or knowledgeable guide.


A Boardwalk Story is published this October by Plexus Publishing at $24.95, hb, 471pp, 978-0-937548-72-1.