Monday, October 31, 2011

The House Built For Spirits

If you’ve ever lived in an old house, you may know the feeling of being trapped in an endless cycle of repairs – paint jobs, leaky roofs, and ancient plumbing. But what if you built a house with no intention of ever finishing it? And what if the reason for your construction frenzy was rooted in a fear of ghosts? If so, you’d have something in common with Sarah Winchester, heiress to an empire based on the “gun that won the West,” the Winchester repeating rifle.

Born in 1840, Sarah was 22 when she married William Wirt Winchester, whose father perfected the Winchester rifle and amassed a fortune in producing and marketing the gun. But tragedy plagued Sarah’s marriage. Her infant daughter died of a mysterious illness, and William succumbed to tuberculosis fifteen years later. As a result of her losses, the widow fell into a deep depression from which she never fully recovered. In her despair, she turned to the occult for help.

A spiritualist told Sarah that the spirits of the Native Americans, Civil War soldiers, and others who had been killed by the Winchester rifle were responsible for the untimely deaths of her husband and daughter – and Sarah might be next on the ghostly hit list. The spiritualist advised the distraught woman to construct a house with architectural features designed to foil these evil spirits – and to never stop building it.

Left with plenty of time on her hands and even more money to burn, Sarah set to work. (She’d inherited several million dollars plus shares in the Winchester Repeating Rifle Company on her husband’s death and eventually ended up with more than 20 million dollars.) In 1884, Sarah bought an unfinished farmhouse near San Jose, California, and hired carpenters to work in shifts round the clock, paying them twice the customary wages of the time. The frenzied pace of construction continued for the next 38 years, right up until the day Sarah died. At that point, the work stopped so abruptly that the carpenters didn’t even bother to finish pounding in their nails.

Switchback Staircase
Mrs. Winchester designed the house herself, or rather, she told the carpenters what to build and where to build it. She never worked from a plan and created a seven-story mansion that sprawled across six acres of land. By the time the work ended, the complex had 160 rooms; 2,000 doors; 10,000 windows; 47 staircases; an equal number of fireplaces; 13 bathrooms; and 6 kitchens. All to accommodate a single resident.

In addition to her never-ending construction work, Sarah Winchester also heeded the spiritualist’s other piece of advice: to incorporate architectural features designed to foil the angry spirits. Sarah built stairs that led nowhere, installed windows that opened into walls or were set in the floor, and constructed chimneys that stopped short of the roof. The house had twisting hallways with secret passages accessible through doors hidden in the paneling so Sarah could move quickly through the vast house and escape a ghost who might be in hot pursuit. She kept only two or three mirrors in the mansion, believing that they provided gateways to the spirit world.

But not all of Mrs. Winchester’s ideas were eccentric. In an era when electricity was a new invention, she had gas lights that were operated by pushing an electric button. She designed a one-piece porcelain laundry tub with a molded-in soap tray and washboard. It’s been rumored that she patented this invention, though no patent has ever been found. Sarah patterned a widow catch after a Winchester rifle trigger and trip hammer (though you’d think such a design might be tempting fate in a house filled with the ghosts of the people the rifle had dispatched). She installed brass corner plates on the stairs to make them easier to clean. (Imagine a male architect of the day coming up with that particular idea.)

So was Sarah Winchester really a crazy lady with too much money to burn or just a really bad architect? Her interest in the occult and reclusive habits certainly fueled the gossip mill and helped create her legend.

Yet some of the house’s features had plausible explanations. The Switchback Staircase, for instance, has seven flights and 44 steps. But because each step is only two inches high, the entire staircase rises only nine feet. Maybe that construction was intended to frustrate the spirits so they’d leave Sarah alone, but the design could also have been aimed at accommodating the widow’s arthritis, which she suffered in later years.

Window in the floor
Sarah never explained her eccentricities or left behind a diary, so we will probably never know the real reason behind her building fervor. But she was superstitious and believed that the number thirteen, while unlucky, also warded off bad luck. The house is filled with thirteens: some windows have thirteen panes, the house contains thirteen bathrooms, and the thirteenth one has thirteen windows. What’s more, Sarah’s will is divided into thirteen parts, and she signed it thirteen times. Maybe she hoped this auspicious number of signatures would prevent her money from falling into evil hands.

The mansion today goes by the name of The Winchester Mystery House and is open to the public. Guided tours run daily and include a nighttime flashlight tour every Friday the 13th and on Halloween. But visitors are not allowed to roam freely through the house. The official explanation is that they will likely get lost and never find their way out again. But who knows? Maybe some of Sarah Winchester’s evil ghosts remain trapped in the mansion’s labyrinth of rooms, corridors, and staircases, lying in wait to spook an unsuspecting tourist.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: For Whom You Were Named - Inspiration in Brighton Beach

Emily Rubin’s fiction has been published in the Red Rock Review, Confrontations, and HAPPY. Stalina won the Amazon Breakthrough award and was published in January 2011; it is now being released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on November 15th. Emily is a past nominee for the Pushcart Prize. In 2005, she began producing Dirty Laundry: Loads of Prose, a reading series that takes place in laundromats around the United States. She divides her time between New York City and Columbia County, New York, with her husband, Leslie, and their dog, Sebastian.

In the fall of 1997, I took a teaching job at the Neptune Avenue Campus of Touro College in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. I was hired to teach “Oral History: Writing Your Story” to a class of Russian immigrants. The college was looking to expand its curriculum from computer, nutrition, and medical assistant training classes to include art courses in creative writing, dance, and fine art. A choreographer friend, who knew I had written plays and performance pieces based on stories I collected from my grandmother who was born and raised on the Lower East Side in 1898, recommended me. Rose Begun nee Kronenberg was one of eleven children of Eastern European Jewish descent who was born in an apartment on Cherry Street. Nanny, as my brothers and I called her, had very detailed recollections of life in that immigrant community at the turn of the century.  Even though I had a Russian background, my knowledge of Russia after my grandparents arrived in the United States and through World War II and after, was consigned to readings in history books, and films like Doctor Zhivago and others. I had visited Brighton Beach on many occasions to partake of the Russian food, life, and libations offered there, but I had never worked with anyone from that community.
I was looking forward to hearing my students’ stories and had no idea what to expect. As I trundled out on the F train to the Neptune Avenue every Thursday the evening’s lights of Brooklyn illuminated the neighborhoods. Elaborate decorations began to appear as fall turned into winter. Ghouls and giant spiders to crèches, menorahs, inflated snowmen, reindeer, and the occasional peace sign. As I noted the changes to the decorations of the homes that became familiar, I would contemplate the assignment I would give my class that week. I could see the front of the train from my last car vantage point as we swerved around the curves of the elevated tracks. The Atlantic Ocean peaked through the high rises as we approached the station. Seeing and smelling an ocean in New York City has always made me feel a connection to the earth, something that is easily lost in city life. My goal was to learn something about my students’ lives here and in Russia and perhaps show them something of what writing is all about. For myself, writing is often the act of taking difficult, sad, or awkward situations and making them humorous and poignant, and even beautiful. Early assignments were to write the story of the day they left their country, about a place where you felt safe or how they ended up in Brighton Beach. I thought how lucky my students were to live within earshot of the waves and could smell the salt air.  

The Touro College storefront campus was in a strip mall sandwiched between a Waldbaum’s supermarket and a Russian bakery, where I bought my weekly piece of chocolate babkha and a coffee to fuel my teaching adrenalin.

I had 25 students in the fall of 1997. They were in their 60s and 70s and had immigrated after the end of the Soviet Union to Brighton Beach. They all spoke varying levels of English, and many spoke several other languages as well. They had retired from professions as doctors, teachers, craftsmen, and physicists, and any pensions they were due in Russia had disappeared. The country was bankrupt; it was a sorry state of affairs for many of them. Touro offered classes and eligibility for public assistance if they were enrolled in classes. Not interested in the job training courses, many ended up in my class.

“We felt safe nowhere,” they would argue with me after I wrote the assignment on the board.

After all, they did grow up during World War II. A hellish time, but not without its glory. They expressed pride for the Russian Army’s victory over the Nazis. These were very tough people. At times, I found them affected to the point of snobbishness about their country. It was all justified nostalgia, with the truth of their experiences to back everything up.

“Okay, write about not having anywhere safe to go,” I suggested.  

Inevitably, they would come in with stories about their favorite blankets, cupboards, gardens, and barn lofts where they played and felt safe. They were well versed in the art of debate and would take every opportunity to engage in heated discussion, especially with me. These debates gave me an idea of how rigorous education in Russia must have been. They taught me something every time we met.

One week, I came up with the simplest but also most revealing assignment. I asked my students to tell me for whom they named. I thought about my own name. When my mother was pregnant, she was sure she was having another boy, so the name would be Willie after an uncle. When the name did not fit the little girl delivered on a cold winter night, my mother anointed me Emily. She had been at a friend’s house that weekend and their daughter, Emily, left an impression. I recently found out that my namesake was named for a family cat. I like that lineage. 

I have to preface the story of the assignment by saying that I had not thought about writing a novel at this point. I had segued from plays to short stories and had first started to submit to literary magazines. I had even recently gotten my first rejection, which at the time was kind of thrilling. I felt like I had made the leap and gotten over the trepidation of sending out my fragile little stories.

Even before this ‘name’ assignment, I felt inspired by the honesty and direct language my students used to write their stories. They were eloquent and courageous to write their essays in English.

Rather than write the stories, I had them tell us, as many of them wanted to improve their spoken language as well as their writing skills, and this seemed the perfect assignment to practice.

The students named Yuri, Stanislav, Ameilia, and Tatanya were named for uncles and grandfathers who were generals in the czar’s army, grandmothers who saved their children from Cossacks, and on and on. Then, a woman stood up. She had a Louise Brooks hair cut, long dark eyelashes, and heavy eyeliner. She wore a tight black dress, which she adjusted with a sultry swing to her hips as she got up to tell her story.

“My name is Stalina, and I was named for Stalin. My friends told me I should change my name, take the monster away, he killed so many. I told them no, I would not change my name, it is our history, terrible and sad perhaps, but it is who we are.”

The room became silent. I was taken aback, and thanked her and listened but was distracted during the remaining the stories from Tatanya, Anna, Vladimir, etc.

I am sure there were other gems, but it was Stalina who stayed with me. I left class that night and on my return trip to the Lower East Side, all my students’ stories began to swirl around my head. In Stalina, I had found a character to speak a story that would be an amalgamation of these forthright people, a coming of age and a coming of old story, and a filter for all the history of their country I had learned through the gift of storytelling from their very personal perspectives. Over the next five years, I wrote my novel. Several chapters were published in those literary journals that on occasion sent me the thrilling letter of acceptance. It was another five years until the novel would be published.  A long journey, but much like my trip out each week on the subway, so much was revealed as we came out from underground and the story found a way to be told.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

An Eternal Love

This week, I’m journeying to another country of my heart - India. If I ask you to think of something that best represents India, what do you picture? Tigers? Railways? The Himalayas? Chances are your mind focused on one of India’s most magnificent creations – the Taj Mahal. Not only is this mausoleum breathtaking, the story behind its construction and the subsequent death of its creator is intriguing as well as heart breaking.

For years, I’d pored over photographs and articles about this icon of India, hoping to one day make the trip there and experience this special monument for myself. So years later, when I sat on the steps at the end of the long, narrow pool, waiting for the mist to dissipate in the early dawn, I worried that my expectations of seeing the Taj Mahal in real life wouldn’t be met. I needn’t have worried. 

As the thick mist cleared and shafts of sunlight hit the pristine marble, my throat constricted and tears formed in my eyes. I’m still not sure if it was the beauty of the building or the story behind its creation that caused me to cry, but either way, it’s a sight I’ll never forget. 

The Taj Mahal’s creator, Shah Jahan, was the emperor of the Mughal Empire in the Indian Subcontinent from 1628 to 1658. A descendent of Genghis Khan, Shah Jahan’s name means “King of the World.” Considered by many historians as one of the greatest Mughals in history, his reign is often referred to as the Golden Age of the Mughals and is one of India’s most prosperous periods of their civilisation. Shah Jahan erected monuments such as the Pearl Mosque in Agra, and the Red Fort and Jama  Masjid Mosque in Delhi, he also commissioned the Peacock Throne that Heidi wrote about. He had a passion for fine arts and architecture and is credited with having commissioned 777 gardens in Kashmir, his summer residence. During his rule, he founded the imperial capital called Shahjahanabad, now known as New Delhi.

In 1607, Shah Jahan was betrothed to Arjumand Banu Begum, a fourteen-year-old girl born in Agra to a family with Persian nobility. They married five years later on a date selected by astrologers as the most conducive to ensuring a happy marriage. The Shah gave his new wife the name of Mumtaz Mahal, “Chosen One Of The Palace” and this is when their great love commenced. The Shah later took two more wives and countless concubines, but it was widely known he favoured Mumtaz and had little interest in his other women, even though he dutifully sired children with his other wives. Shah Jahan showered intimacy, deep affection, and attention on Mumtaz, and she returned his love in kind. 

Historians often write and speak of the erotic relationship shared by Mumtaz and Shah Jahan, and in their nineteen years of marriage, they had fourteen children together, seven of whom died at birth or infancy. In 1631 in Burhanpur, Mumtaz died while giving birth to their fourteenth child. The Shah Jahan had her buried temporarily in a walled garden called Zainabad, but he fell into a deep grief. Inconsolable, he mourned in seclusion for a year. After he reappeared, his hair had turned white, his back was now bent, and his face etched with wrinkles. His daughter, Jahanara Begum, gradually brought him back into the public eye and took the place of Mumtaz at court.

Burhanpur wasn’t the intended resting place for his wife, so Shah Jahan started planning a suitable mausoleum to be constructed in Agra for his wife. This resting place for Mumtaz, the Taj Mahal, took 22 years to complete.
The dome, the most renowned component of the Taj Mahal, is actually only one part of a complex integration of structures. Shah Jahan employed a board of architects, and thousands of artisans and craftsmen worked on the buildings under the strict guidance of the Shah. It all sounds romantic until you learn that upon completion of the project, Shah Jahan had his worker’s hands cut off so they couldn’t build a monument better than the Taj Mahal.

In 1657, Shah Jahan took ill and with his death looming, his sons went to war with each other to gain succession to the throne. His third son, Aurangzeb, emerged victorious and proceeded to declare his father as incompetent, resulting in the imprisonment of Shah Jahan in Agra Fort. The broken hearted Shah had access to a balcony every evening, where he would view the Taj Mahal across the Yamuna River. After eight years of incarceration, Shah Jahan died at the fort in 1666 at the age of 74. His body was taken quietly by two men and laid to rest beside Mumtaz.

I’ve stood in the exact same spot that the Shah Jahan gazed out upon the Taj Mahal. Goose bumps spread across my skin, and the heat of the day couldn’t warm the rapid drop in my body temperature. I have no doubt I was in the presence of the ghost of Shah Jahan. 

In 1983, the Taj Mahal became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and even though this mausoleum is at risk of decaying from pollution and too many tourists, the reasons behind its creation will never lose its appeal. The love story of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz will live on forever in the hearts of romantics around the world.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Wounded Mountain, Broken Hearts

Heidi is off this week, so we're rerunning her post from April about Iran's most famous star-crossed lovers.

In the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, not far from the western Iranian city of Kermanshah, there stands a mountain with an ugly gash across its face. It looks like a giant tried to strip away the rocky cliff’s very skin and left a ragged wound behind.

This wounded mountain is known as Bisotun, and it draws visitors from far and wide to view ancient carvings depicting the lives and conflicts of ancient Persia’s Achaemenian kings. But the wide slash in the rock, located to one side of the Achaemenian carvings, has its own story to tell—a tale of star-crossed lovers whose lives ended in tragedy, much like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

According to legend, Farhad was a stonecutter who fell in love with a beautiful princess named Shireen. Knowing the lady would never notice a man of such lowly birth, Farhad went into the mountains where he spent long days without food, playing haunting melodies on his flute to express his love for her. Eventually, strains of Farhad’s music reached the princess’s ears, and she went looking for the man who could produce such ethereal sounds. On finding him, love sparked in her own heart and Shireen vowed she would marry Farhad.

Shireen’s father, always a practical man, knew this was not to be. How could a high-born princess marry a lowly stonecutter? But the king also could never refuse his daughter the slightest desire, so he came up with a plan. He would allow Farhad and Shireen to marry, but only on one condition: The stonecutter would have to break open Mount Bisotun and find water. Then he was to dig a trench six lances wide, three lances deep, and forty miles long to direct the flow to the king’s castle on the dry plain below the mountain.

The king figured that the task was too enormous for any man to accomplish and Farhad would abandon the effort in frustration. Problem solved. But His Highness hadn’t counted on the stonecutter’s blind determination, or the power of love.

Photo by Ali Esfandiari
It took many years of back-breaking work, but the gash on the mountain grew deeper and wider. Farhad toiled from dawn till dusk, sleeping on the mountain under the stars with the rocks as his bed and his spade for a pillow. As the king watched the work progress, he knew he’d have to come up with Plan B. So he sent a messenger to the mountaintop to tell the stonecutter that the princess was dead.

In his grief, Farhad struck himself on the head with the spade and fell dead to the ground, his blood flowing into the half-built channel. When Shireen heard of her lover’s death, she rushed up to the mountain, seized the deadly spade and killed herself with it over her lover’s still body.

Like any good legend, this one has many different versions. Sometimes the king is Shireen’s father, other times he’s her jealous husband determined to destroy the rival for his queen’s affections. In one story, Shireen herself sets Farhad to work digging a ditch to a dairy farm many miles away so that milk can flow directly from the royal cows to her castle’s kitchen. (Obviously this princess understands little about how cows are milked.)

They say that at the heart of any legend lies a seed of truth. When I visited Bisotun on a sweltering summer day a few years ago, it was easy to believe that these sad events had unfolded just as the legend says. I could spot marks in the ragged gash that scarred the mountainside, scars that looked like they could have been left by a stonecutter’s tools. Great angular boulders lay scattered about the dusty hill where I stood, as though they’d been left there long before, perhaps during Farhad’s labors. And on the wide plain far below lay the ruins of an ancient structure: the castle where Shireen and her father had lived?

I’m a sucker for a happy ending. But sometimes it’s the tragic ones that linger in my mind.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: The Camino Moment

Dr. Lanice Jones is a Canadian family physician, intrepid world traveler, and adventurer in every sense of the word. Before she embarks on her next big adventure, joining Doctors Without Borders in a remote corner of Pakistan, she shares her last great adventure with us.

The reason why someone begins the ancient Pilgrimage of St. James is not the same reason why a pilgrim finishes it. Often, a pilgrim will recall the moment, the Camino moment of clarity, expansiveness or inner peace that marks the turning point of the inner journey. For me, the Camino moment happened on a cool, foggy morning five kilometres out of Finesterra, the End of the World.

I began the pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostella with two dear friends on August 28, my fifty-sixth birthday. Our plan was to walk about ten days from St. Jean Pied a Port on the French side, across the Pyrennes into Spain, then catch a train from Burgos to Sarria and walk another eight days to Santiago. We’d set the intention that this would be a spiritual journey and had each brought readings to share, along with hours of walking in meditation, prayer, or contemplation.  Our route took us through the tumbling ridges and peaks of the mountains, into rolling rich vineyards and fields of sunflowers. We averaged twenty kilometres a day, with plenty of time to explore the churches that marked the route, a living history spanning a thousand years.

Coming into Santiago was a mixed blessing. We were so happy to have accomplished our goal, to have shared such a rich experience, deepening our friendships and our spiritual practices. But here, we would go our separate ways. My friends were returning to Canada, and I was walking on alone to Finesterra, to complete another two hundred kilometres to the coast and back.

I took four days to reach Finesterra. As I crested the last range of hills, the ocean stretched forth, rimmed by white sand beaches, and I could imagine the Romans believing that they had indeed come to the end of the world. The evening of my arrival, I joined up with four other women to share a bottle of wine, bread, and cheese on the rocks below the lighthouse, where tradition demanded that we build a fire and ritually burn an item of our clothing to signify the burning away of our old lives.

The next day, I started alone in the early dawn under a heavy fog. The route wound up through two small villages into a eucalyptus and pine forest. I was tired and lonely, wondering what I was doing hiking another hundred kilometres to Muxia and back to Santiago. I felt I didn’t belong here, in the damp and the fog, struggling in Spanish to ask directions along the poorly marked trail.

As I passed an old Celtic cross, a small dark face with a pointed nose poked out past a crumbling stone fence. It was a fox! He looked at me, and I looked at him, both of us silent and still. A dog barked in the distance, and the fox glanced at the noise, back at me, then turned and trotted away, his glorious tail waving behind him. A few meters away, a chicken scratched in the dirt, oblivious to the predator, which had just passed by. Beyond the chicken, a dog sniffed the scented air. 

I stood in contemplation, wondering about it all. Who belonged here? The fox? The chicken? The dog? The woman? 

Something tight and hard broke open, like a spring releasing, or a shell cracking apart. All of us belonged here, one no more than the other. All of us were equally part of the glorious whole, and each of us reflected the whole. 

It has been a few weeks since that special moment. Life has returned to “normal” back at home, but something has shifted, something that made that 550-kilometre journey seem like nothing. And yet everything has changed.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Bridging the Distance

Though I grew up in an Indian home, with a heavy dose of Indian culture, I was born and raised outside India. As a result, writing about that country sometimes makes me feel like a fraud. I’ve worked hard to overcome that insecurity, but it doesn’t mean I keep an open mind about non-Indians who write fiction set there. I mean, come on!

That's why when Life of Pi was climbing the bestseller lists then parked there for months on end, I didn’t even consider reading it. Not even when the novel won the esteemed Mann Booker prize in 2002. After all, Yann Martel is Canadian, and the first part of his book is set at a zoo in Chennai. Moreover, it’s about a boy and a tiger stuck on a long boat ride together. Doesn’t sound very realistic, but what could a native Canadian write about a complex city like old Madras?

Then a friend called to gush about it. A must read, it seemed. And when I did read it, well, it blew me away. I knew from the get-go that the author did his research, because page one starts in Matheran, a small, little-known hill station, essentially a mountain resort town, just outside Mumbai. That the author worked this sort of obscure setting into his intro impressed me, kept me reading, later, about zoo life in Chennai, and cleaning out lion cages and feeding the monkeys. I was transfixed. The book also has one of the most stunning endings you’ll ever read.

A few years later, I was excited to pick up a crime author writing about an Indian theme. Karin Fossum, Norway’s “queen of crime,” has written 14 novels, of which 10 fall under the Inspector Sejer crime series.
Her fourth Inspector Sejer novel, aptly named The Indian Bride, takes on the premise of the first Indian immigrant to a small Norwegian community. Since I’m not very familiar with Norwegian culture, I wanted to see how she melded the two cultural themes together, one I am familiar with, the other I’m not.

Fossum begins her tale from the point of view of two characters—Gundar and his sister—whose lives are about to change drastically, then later from Inspector Sejer’s viewpoint as he investigates a bewildering, ghastly crime that the community that doesn't believe any of its citizens could have committed.

Simple Gunder Jomann, who sells farm equipment in his sleepy rural town on the coast of Norway, is a lonely, middle-aged bachelor who spends much of his time daydreaming about his future wife, wondering when and where he’ll meet her. He knows everyone around, so there aren’t any opportunities for him to meet women, and the ones who know him just aren’t interested. After browsing through a travel magazine about India, he admires the lovely women with the big dark eyes and elegant saris who grace its pages. It occurs to him there are probably plenty of lovely, eligible women in the hugely populous country who would be interested in marrying someone like him, a good person with a steady job and a comfortable home. And so, to the chagrin of his concerned younger sister, Gunder prepares to take his first trip outside of Norway to find a bride in India, even shopping for a diamond ring before he leaves. Once in India, we experience all the chaos of Mumbai through Gundar. Before long, he meets and marries Poona. (Wait’ll you read how he finds her!) He returns to Norway alone, informs his very worried sister that he’s now a married man, then prepares to welcome his young bride to her new home.

But when Poona is due to arrive at the airport, Gunder’s sister meets with  a horrible car accident and Gunder has to send someone else to pick up his new wife. Only problem is, she’s not there. Not long after, the badly beaten corpse, that of a woman, is found elsewhere in town. Coincidence? That’s when Inspector Sejer is called in to investigate.

I won’t tell you more—finding out where this all leads is highly compelling, one of the strongest portions of the book. (And don’t read the reviews—there are a lot of spoilers out there!)

The book is relatively small, quiet, and satisfying. Fossum kept me turning the pages but not so fast that I couldn't get to know these well-drawn characters and enjoy the growing psychological suspense along with the whodunit factor. The character development is strong, subtle, and packs an emotional punch.

As Publisher’s Weekly commented in its starred review of The Indian Bride:
“Fossum may not be well-known outside a select circle, but that could change with the publication of this outstanding contemporary police procedural…. The ending is not one most readers will expect, but it perfectly suits the tale of sad, little lives and the tragic consequences of chance.”

Well put.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

In Patagonia – Bruce Chatwin

My first journey around the world started in a second-hand bookshop in my hometown in Australia. Whenever I shop in a bookstore, I let my gut guide me, and that particular day I was drawn to the travel section where I picked up a copy of In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin. I had a feeling I was in for a unique journey to a fascinating land. I was right.

First published in 1977, In Patagonia was Chatwin’s first foray into book-length travel writing, and since then, this book has been hailed as the tome that changed travel writing forever. Chatwin’s easy writing style and colourful descriptions of people and places draw the reader into a world that is easily imagined, but also unfamiliar.

The story starts with a young Chatwin sitting in his grandmother’s dining room in England. He comes across some cardboard and attached to it is a piece of thick and leathery skin sprouting strands of coarse, reddish hair. The specimen had been sent from his grandmother’s cousin, Captain Charley Milward after his ship had come to grief in the Strait of Magellan, in South America. Chatwin learns that Milward had settled in Punta Arenas, Chile, and later had discovered a brontosaurus sticking out of the ice. Milward jointed, salted, and packed the dinosaur in barrels and sent it to the Natural History Museum of South Kensington, England. By the time it arrived it was a putrefied disaster, but Milward had saved a piece prior to shipping and sent it to Chatwin’s grandmother.

As a child, Chatwin coveted the piece of skin, even after his schoolmates and science teacher laughed and told him it couldn’t be a brontosaurus as they didn’t have hair. After his grandmother passed away, Chatwin asked for the skin she’d promised him, only to find out from his mother that it had been thrown away. It wasn’t until years later that Chatwin discovered the real story behind the skin – Milward had indeed found an animal, but it was a mylodon (Giant Sloth). His discovery wasn’t a complete specimen, let alone a whole skeleton, but only some skin that had been preserved in the cold caves in Chilean Patagonia. Undeterred by facts intruding upon his childhood dreams, Chatwin’s love of geography grew and his desire to travel to remote corners of the world ensued.

With an array of failed university courses and jobs behind him, Chatwin eventually took a job at The Times. During an interview with aging designer Eileen Gray, he commented on a map of Patagonia she had on the wall. He mentioned he’d always wanted to visit, so when Gray said “Go there for me” he sent a telegram to his editor with the words, “Gone to Patagonia for six months.” And he went.

The book was written in the 1970s when the world focussed on bombs and the Cold War, and at the time, it occurred to Chatwin the remoteness of Patagonia could be an excellent place to flee from the fallout. 

Torres del Paine, Patagonia
“We fixed on Patagonia as the safest place on earth.  I pictured a low timber house with a shingled roof, caulked against storms, with blazing log fires inside and the walls lined with the best books, somewhere to live when the rest of the world blew up.” 

What Chatwin discovers on his journey is Patagonia is the place where people from all over the world have sought refuge from their homelands. The Welsh and Italians, for example, present countless opportunities for Chatwin to discover the difficulties of reinventing one’s self far from friends and family. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid play a large role in this book as Chatwin covers their history, both supposed and factual, as well as discovering Captain Milward’s own memoirs of his seafaring days. 

Chatwin lets people’s actions speak for themselves, like when he meets Grandpa Felipe, the last member of the Yaghan people on Navarino Island. The old gentleman talks about how their people have lost their language to compulsory English education and how many of their people have died through epidemics. At times, the book is heartbreaking, yet a few pages later, the reader is smiling over Chatwin’s description of a heart-warming experience.

Exile and wandering are the prominent themes in this book and Chatwin’s investigations into Pascal’s Theorem of whether man is essentially nomadic and a settled civilization is unnatural brings up some very interesting topics for discussion.

Photo by The Guardian
In Patagonia received the Hawthornden Prize and the E.M. Forster awards which launched Chatwin’s career as a travel writer. Bruce Chatwin went on to write eight other books, but most were published posthumously after his death in 1989. The world lost a fascinating writer back then, but his legacy appears to have lived on in the works of other travel writers.

I could start my own public library based on the travel books I own. I love delving into the minds of people as they travel to exotic lands and undertake adventures that would give most people heart failure. Unfortunately, not all travel books are the same, and I’ve read a few that have disappointed me greatly with their lack of compassion or inability to truly understand the cultures and lands the writers have travelled through. This is not the case with Chatwin’s writing. 

Even after living in other countries and immersing myself in unfamiliar cultures, I still don’t think one can fully understand what it’s like to be born and bred in a particular country, other than the one we grew up in. That’s why some travel books miss the mark, causing the reader to walk away without a better understanding of the place they just travelled to between the covers of the book. But there are some writers who seamlessly peel back the layers of a culture and manage to give the reader a snippet into what someone else’s life is like, and for me, Bruce Chatwin is a master.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Stargazing on the Rooftops of Tehran

In the early 1970s, Tehran was the kind of city where everyone slept on the roof because the cool night air chased away the stifling heat of the day. Or so Mahbod Seraji tells us in his compelling debut novel, Rooftops of Tehran, a story of growing up, falling in love for the first time, and living in the turbulent years leading up to Iran’s Islamic Revolution.

Pasha Shahed is seventeen in the summer of 1973, when he spends languid days and sultry nights on the roof of his house in Tehran with his best friend, Ahmed. Like teenage boys everywhere, they tell jokes, smoke forbidden cigarettes, discuss girls, books, and movies, and ponder existential questions of the universe.

A favorite pastime is to gaze into the clear night sky and name the stars for their friends and neighbors. Only good people have a star, and the brighter the light, the better the person. It is telling that Pasha can never find his own star.

Our young hero can’t see himself as a good person because he has a guilty secret: He’s in love with Zari, the girl next door, who has been betrothed since birth to Pasha’s good friend and mentor, a man known only as Doctor on account of his brilliant mind. By Pasha’s way of thinking, such forbidden love can only be a sign of disloyalty.

Doctor is also an agitator against the Shah’s repressive regime, always just one step away from arrest. When Pasha inadvertently draws the attention of the Shah's secret police, his carelessness has dire consequences for Doctor, Zari, Pasha, Ahmed, and their entire neighborhood.

The novel’s characters are the kind of people I wish would walk right off the page and into my living room so I can hang out with them in real life. Pasha is a bright, compassionate boy whose love of books and philosophical discussion prompt Ahmed to tease him relentlessly about his sophisticated vocabulary. What seventeen-year-old, he asks, uses words like “abashedly” and “beautifully composed vignettes?” Yet Pasha’s linguistic skills are of little use to him when it comes to chatting up the lovely Zari. He’s as tongue-tied around her as any young man in the throes of first love.

Ahmed is Pasha’s intellectual equal, even if he uses his smarts in a different way. He’s the kind of kid I picture being regularly sent to the principle’s office for sassing his teachers. Ahmed is a prankster, a teller of jokes, a boy who deflects uneasy tension by making everyone laugh.

The secondary characters are also welcome in my living room. The women – Zari, Faheemeh (Ahmed’s betrothed), and Pasha’s mother – are strong and independent-minded yet live within the confines of a world where marriages are arranged by parents, and boys are held in contempt for looking at their friends’ sisters. Ahmed’s grandmother tells stories that everyone believes are lies about her dead husband. But are they really untrue?

I have a special fondness for the geeky Iraj, a neighborhood boy who hovers on the fringes of the teenage clique. He makes himself unpopular to his peers by winning every chess game and boring everyone with detailed descriptions of his latest invention. But he turns out to be a true and loyal friend when it counts.

The increasing repression of the Shah’s paranoid regime encroaches on the normal lives of these characters and disrupts the peaceful life played out in Pasha’s alley. These political events serve as the larger canvas against which Pasha’s very personal story is told, propelling the story forward and adding a sense of urgency, yet the heart of the tale is Pasha, his secret love, and the people who populate his world.

In the interview at the end of the book, the author mentions that he’s halfway through his next book and plans to write a sequel to Rooftops of Tehran at some later date. All I can say is: “Mr. Seraji, please write faster!”

Friday, October 14, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Sexy Beirut

Today's Off The Beaten Track contributor is Alexander McNabb, who has lived, worked and travelled extensively around the Middle East for over 25 years. Apart from being a very old man with a nasty book writing habit, he is a keen cook, radio host, blogger and commentator on digital communications and social media (which is what he does as a day job).  Alexander can be found at his blog or on Twitter at @alexandermcnabb.

I have a particular fascination for the little village of Shemlan at the moment. It nestles in the mountains high above Beirut, uphill from Aley and  Bchamoun, home to a few shops, a mildly famous restaurant and an orphanage.

Looking out over Beirut from Shemlan never fails to take my breath away. The city is spread out like a glimmering carpet below, the airport runways sitting by the infinite blue Mediterranean.

You can have lunch at Al Sakhra, the Cliffhouse restaurant. It's a fairly traditional Lebanese affair and you can sit by the window popping pistachios and drinking ice cold Al Maza beer as you look out over Beirut below, dishes appearing from the kitchen with satisfying regularity to populate the table. The restaurant itself is fairly large, a favourite meeting place for couples being 'discreet', but also a popular place at weekends. 

The orphanage in Shemlan is the reason for my fascination with the village and the countryside around it, for it was here that the British government-run MECAS, the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies, was located until the civil war forced its closure in 1978. MECAS reported through the British Embassy in Beirut. It was here the infamous Kim Philby learned his Arabic and it was from here George Blake was taken to London to be arrested on his arrival, finally unmasked as a Russian double agent, in 1961. The Lebanese, unsurprisingly, refer to it as the British Spy School.

I’ve been visiting Shemlan a lot recently because I’m writing a book that’s partly set in the village during the early days of the Lebanese civil war, the last days of MECAS. Despite many people’s perceptions of Lebanon, that war is long gone now and Beirut has managed to stagger to its feet, dust itself down and once again become a vibrant, sexy and fascinating city filled with life, laughter, art and dazzling vivacity.

Yet the image of Beirut at war persists. One Lebanese blogger, Jad Aoun, likes to catch people using the lazy ‘looks like Beirut’ simile and sends them pictures of today’s city along with a ‘looks like Beirut’ certificate. He’s received a satisfying number of apologies.


It's something I have encountered in my writing life, an oddly jaundiced Western view of the Middle East in general and certainly of Beirut in particular. I have had agents rejecting the manuscript of my second serious novel, with the rather over-complicated working title of Beirut, based on the fact that people don't want to hear about war zones. (I am currently represented by Robin Wade of Wade and Doherty, who is shopping Beirut around various London publishers) The book's about an international hunt for two missing nuclear warheads and is set in Hamburg, Spain, London, Brussels, Malta, Albania, the Greek Islands and, last but by no means least, that most sexy of Mediterranean cities, Beirut.

I love Beirut. I always look forward to visits with anticipation and excitement. I don't live there, so I don't have to experience the city's everyday frustrations (and they are legion) - I can just drop in and fill myself up with wandering around the streets, enjoying Ottoman architecture and the vibrant street life. I wander around stealing locations for books or snapping vignettes, from the Armenian souks and twisting streets of Bourj Hammoud, cabling strewn crazily from rooftop to rooftop, to the upmarket shops of Verdun and Hamra. The architecture’s a mad mix, apartment blocks with balconies hung with dusty awnings, old Ottoman-era houses with Arabesque arches and new, smoked glass office blocks. Every now and then you’ll find a smattering of bullet marks or the shrapnel splash of a shell still visible in the concrete of older buildings.

The city sparkles and jostles, stretched out from the long corniche along the splendid Mediterranean up into the mountains, all presided over by the great white-capped bulk of Mount Sassine. At night it lights up, bars and restaurants serving a constant tide of laughing, happy people - Gemayzeh no longer quite the place to be it once was (and Munot before it), while Hamra is becoming busier again. It feels good to be there.

So I am always pained to get reactions to Beirut like 'This gritty and realistic novel is set in a war torn city' or 'We don't think the British public would be interested in a conflicted city like Beirut'. The first comment made my blood boil even more because the book is most certainly not based in a war torn city. It's based in a sexy, modern city that fizzles with life. (The fact that much of its infrastructure teeters just to the right side of disaster just adds frisson...) The comment just showed the reader had, at best, skimmed a few bits before spurning me like one would spurn a rabid dog. What made it worse was the reference, twenty years after the fact, to the place being war-torn. I should refer her to Jad, really, shouldn’t I?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Gzhel: to “Burn” or “Make Fire”

You probably have seen the glazed blue and white porcelain pots and tiles in more than one country – from China to Denmark, from Russia to Turkey. The popular art of painted porcelain dates back to the 14th century, and although some argue that the craft takes its origin in Turkey, it seems the Chinese discovered it first. While they fiercely guarded their secret, the Turks eventually learned the method, and from there, it found its way to Europe.

Whether the Russians guessed the Chinese method or slowly perfected their own, the Russian folk pottery was thriving in Russia centuries ago.  Famous for its rare white clay, Gzhel, an area about 50 kilometers southeast of Moscow, had been a potter’s heaven since the 14th century. A medieval Russian document chronicles that a man who discovered the clay exclaimed, "Nowhere did I see a clay whiter than this!" The very name of Gzhel derives in all likelihood from the Russian verb zhech, which means “burn” or “make fire.”

Gzhel pottery was originally created by potters in their homes, but soon they began to gather into workshops and later into factories. Eventually, the craftsmen developed their niches some made the pottery, while others painted it. In the 17th century, tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich learned about Gzhel’s clay, and an industry was officially born.

Nowadays, a Gzhel specialist creates a plaster model first. Using a potter's wheel with special attachments and a shaping device with a steel blade to scrape off excess plaster, he creates a working mold. Another specialist fills the mold with porcelain paste. The porous plaster of the working mold absorbs moisture from the paste and lets the porcelain harden slowly. After that, the piece is ready for its first "firing" or "burning." Once the initial burning is done, a painter takes his brush to it. The traditional Gzhel style revolves around floral and geometric patterns applied with quick brushstrokes. It is traditionally blue on white. A somewhat different style – a combination of blue, green, yellow, and brown is called majolica.

The Gzhel’s tradition is passed from one generation to the next, and there seems to be no end to artists’ creativity. Gzhel produces samovars, vases, clocks, lamps, candleholders, and figurines as well as dinner and tea sets. As centuries before, all the pieces are hand made and hand painted, and every item is a piece of art on its own.