Steinbeck’s Monterey

 

If you are new to John Steinbeck’s prose, Cannery Row may not be the most obvious choice, but it is a wonderful novella that is worth reading. It takes place in Monterey, which I visited last summer during our family trip to California. My favorites in Monterey peninsula are Fisherman’s Wharf, the 17 Mile Drive, Pacific Grove, Carmel Beach and Carmel-by-the-Sea. Once a fisherman’s town, with sardines as the primary source of income, Monterey is today a famous travel destination with an impressive natural beauty and charming streets with many boutiques, galleries and cafés. I picked up my copy of the book in the Monterey Bay Aquarium shop. The aquarium, which was originally built as the famous sardine factory of Monterey, is now an exciting place to experience the rich sea life of California.

 

Steinbeck’s novella Cannery Row takes place in 1940’s, when Monterey was the world’s largest sardine supplier. The title of the book, Cannery Row, is also the name of the main street and the neighborhood of the famous sardine factory, which played a central role in the lives of the town’s inhabitants.

The predominant theme of the book is friendship. The book is a colorful collage of amazing and mostly shifty characters whose lives evolve around the sardine factory . We have Mack and his buddies, the local hobos, whose petty mischief we are inclined to oversee in the light of their good intentions, which unfortunately always fail. Take the amazing episode where they venture into collecting frogs for Doc, so that he can complete his scientific research. Doc, one of the main characters, is a gentle intellectual, a dedicated scientist but somewhat lonely and melancholic. Then there is the owner of the local grocery shop, Lee Chong, whose store “while not a model of neatness, was a miracle of supply”.  The descriptions of the tensions between Lee Chong and Mack, while Mack succeeds in persuading him to rent him and the boys an empty storage house, the Palace Flophouse, are amazing. Take the couple, Mr. & Mrs. Malloy who move into a deserted boiler from the canning factory during the housing shortage caused by a great catch of fish in 1937; Mrs. Malloy who wants curtains for the boiler, which has no windows!

It has always seemed strange to me, said Doc. The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second.

The book is full of human values and warmth, even in the shabbiest places. Steinbeck’s prose is simple, straightforward and very powerful. Through Doc’s words, Steinbeck reminds us of the paradox of humanity: Head versus heart, goodness versus success. Success has nothing to do with goodness. Goodness is considered as softness and not a desirable trait in the business world. But we may find lots of goodness among the so call failures.

I hope this piece has inspired you to read this amazing little book. Or maybe even to take a trip to Monterey 🙂

A Treat for the Eye: Iznik Tiles

If you have ever been tourist in Istanbul, you have surely visited the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii), which is an iconic building from the Ottoman era and famous for its impressive interior ornamented with turquoise Iznik tiles. Iznik tiles were used to beautify many Ottoman buildings, for instance the Harem in Topkapi Palace. With their bold colours and strong lines, Iznik tiles and pottery were produced chiefly between the 15th and 17th centuries and have been collectable almost since the day they were first produced.

Iznik tiles were made in the Ottoman town of Iznik, previously known as Nicaea, which lies some ninety kilometres southeast of Istanbul, and was the site of the pottery kilns of the Ottoman Empire. I have visited Iznik several times, as it is very close to my father’s birth town. It is a charming rural town situated by the Iznik Lake surrounded by olive trees as far as the eye can see.  The ruins of the ancient kilns can be experienced there. It is also an important landmark in Turkish as well as Christian history, as it hosts one of the earliest Christian churches, where the first Christian Council (Ecumenical Council) took place in 325 AD.

The colors of the Iznik tiles resemble those of semi-precious stones, such as the dark blue of lapis lazuli, the blue of turquoise, the red from corals and the green of emerald. The figures on the tiles and utensils reflect allegorical and symbolic characteristics and the flora and fauna of the region. Floral patterns of carnations, tulips, roses and hyacinths blend beautifully with the surrounding architecture.

If you are passionate about beautiful cultural art, you will love Iznik tiles. Even if you are not planning a trip to Istanbul in the nearest future, you can enjoy some impressive pieces of Iznik ware at museums worldwide, for instance in London (British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum), in Paris (Louvre) or even in my home town Copenhagen (Davids Samling). If you are in Istanbul, I will recommend to visit the Cinili Kösk in Topkapi Palace, Sadberk Hanim Museum and the Mosque of Rustem Pasha.

If you want to explore this art further and get more detailed information about the methods and styles, I will recommend a couple of books with lovely visuals and detailed information. They will look good on your coffee table, too.

Iznik: The Artistry of Ottoman Ceramics, by Walter B. Denny

Iznik: The Pottery of Ottoman Turkey, by Nurhan Atasoy and Julian Raby

Mother

I will never be too grown-up to be kissed and squeezed by my mother

For she will not take “no” for an answer

“You are a grown-up now, but in my eyes you are still my little girl”

She will usher me into her kitchen to taste her homemade

Deliciousness,

Because in food she puts her love.

When I was a teen, while Tracy Chapman was crying out of the loudspeakers,

My mother would listen and say “how is she doing these days?”

And worry about the well-being of my teen-idols.

Her sensitiveness is deceptive, for she is firm as a rock,

Her strength disguised by the soft curtains of her soul.

Once I was in her womb.

Curled up in its pink, soft protectiveness.

Now years and years later,

Looking at her porcelain, antiques and family photos

Her perfume bottles, that should have been used up years ago, but are still half full,

Her patchwork blankets and TV shows,

I feel a fear and sadness.

Knowing that one day she will be gone taking her womb with her.

Medusa

 

Istanbul , 2010. The location is the Basilica Cisterns, the famous Byzantine underground water reservoir, dating back to 6th century AD. The stone head in the photo, which makes the foot of one of the large marble columns, is Medusa from Greek mythology.  According  to a popular version of the myth, Medusa was a beautiful Gorgon maiden, who fell for Poseidon and broke her vow of celibacy, for which she was severely punished by the goddess Athena. Athena turned Medusa into an ugly monster and replaced her hair with snakes. Everybody who looked at Medusa’s face turned into stone.

What a punishment! I did stare at this beautifully carved stone for very long when I was there and I did not turn to stone. Thank god!

If you are ever in Istanbul, do visit the Basilica Cisterns (www.yerebatan.com), one of the most evocative places I have been to. And do look at the big Medusa heads which stand upside down and sideways.

 

Madame Bovary

My list of to-reads is rather long and consists of world classics mostly. As much as I appreciate contemporary literature, I have decided to prioritize reading classics. I am slowly progressing on the endless list of wonderful books that are out there. My goal is to read a classic each month. This sounds like a piece-of-cake goal, but when you have a family to take care of and a demanding full-time job, it turns out to be rather ambitious.

The choice of this month, which I have been looking forward to reading for some time, is Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. I picked it up at a bookstore at a London airport and started reading it on the plane to Copenhagen. I could not drop the book again. Only a domestic accident due to a broken water pipe in the house kept me from finishing the book in one day. With carpenters, painters and other handymen around, working to fix the damage done by the water, it was somewhat difficult to concentrate on Madame Bovary’s romantic escapades.

Although written almost two centuries ago, Madame Bovary is still utterly relevant and resonates with us. The female pursuit of excitement in romantic experiences and material objects, the tension between the male and female sexes are the themes of many modern sex and shopping novels. The tragic heroine and the main character of the novel, Emma Bovary, is desperately seeking fulfillment in retail therapy and adultery, indulges in luxury to escape her unhappy marriage to the dull country doctor Charles Bovary. Her reckless appetite for passion and excitement lead her and her family to a devastating end.

Emma’s character flaws may compel us to dislike her, nevertheless we must remember that she is the product of the society she was part of, where women had no power. She was brought up to believe in romantic dreams. She is part of a 19th century French petit -bourgeois world, living a stifling provincial life, but her tastes and desires aspire for something bigger.

While reading, I was equally fascinated and revolted by Emma. Fascinated, because she has the courage to go against the norms of the society and to pursue her dreams.  She is brave and very passionate. She has good taste in material things.

Revolted because she is very manipulative, passive-aggressive and unkind to her family. She does not live up to the female ideal of a charming and devoted wife and a loving, compassionate mother. She does so, only on the surface, beneath she is extremely deceptive.

In a more modern context, I believe there is an Emma Bovary in every married man and woman. Don’t we all, time to time, yearn for excitement and change, or a little romantic adventure? We are only held accountable by our own personal sense of morality. The modern woman has the choice and means to remove herself from an unhappy marriage and search for happiness elsewhere. This was, unfortunately, not an option for Emma Bovary.

I recommend this book highly. Take a glass of wine, find a comfortable spot and let Madame Bovary seduce you.