Monday, September 26, 2011

My books in August

September is almost gone and I still owe you the August posting about the books I read. It will be the last Steinbeck posting for a while since I am taking a little break my extended Steinbeck reading. I am just not sure how long this break will really be since I already miss it, but I have an endless list of other stuff I want to read and will give that a go for now.

John Steinbeck - The Red Pony


Most of what I have to say about "The Red Pony" I already wrote already in my blog posting right after the Steinbeck Festival, where you find some very personal notes about the connection between me and this book.

When I bought the original English version in Salinas I logically had to sit down to (re-)read it over 30 years after my first encounter with the book. And of course over three decades of lived life change the perspective a lot.

When I was a little horse-loving-girl every page that was not about horses was just endured with a low level of patience. Today on the other hand the two short stories that were NOT about the horses, but about the old Paisano that came to the grounds of his childhood to close the circle of life and the one about the grandfather lost in his memories about the track west that found his end reaching the Pacific shore, were my favorites.

It's not that I do not like stories about horses anymore - I still do. I'am just having my fights sometimes with Steinbeck and his deep dive into depression. I mean ... it is okay that the red pony dies - it is the lesson of life as painful as it is. But does it really, really have to go all wrong a second time?

But all together "The Red Pony" is a small book with a lot of wisdom in it and the full joy of Steinbeck's writing and the captured in words beauty of "Steinbeck Country" and damn ... I am missing it.

A.L. "Scrap" Lundy - Real Life on Cannery Row


That's the 2nd book I bought in Salinas and it's lovely. With lots of passion for the detail Scrap Lundy introduces the real people behind the Steinbeck characters. It's not just Doc who is based on Steinbeck's friend Ed Ricketts. You also get to meet for example Harold "Gabe" Bicknell who's life and character Steinbeck "used" to create Mack as well as Gay - a fact Bicknell was totally aware of. He even signed a copy of "Cannery Row" once with Harold "Gay" Bicknell

For almost every character, more or less all locations and lots of the events (but by far not all of them) Lundy documents the real life equivalents. I found even a small chapter of one of my favorite secondary characters - the old Chinaman:

"There was an older Chinese man whose shoes flapped when he walked along Cannery Row. Dottie Bicknell Sanchez (Comment: Gabe's daughter and one of Lundy's most important eye witnesses) recalled that she "heard the Chinese man walking and he made a flap-flap sound like a sole or heel was loose on his shoes.  ... My dad knew the Chinese man and once, when I was sick, the Chinese man brought some Chinese herbs that my mother made into tea that made me well. He walked to the beach and we never saw him again."

Breaking it down the "recipe" for "Cannery Row" was like 3/2 reality 1/3 imagination and for "Sweet Thursday" maybe 50:50 mostly because some key events in Steinbeck's nostalgic 2nd visit at the row never happened that way. 

The historian in me loves to track down the 2/3 or 1/2 pieces of reality, to look at the pictures with the real faces, learn about the background stories and to understand the historical context. It's also important for understanding Steinbeck's way of writing because he so often teared down the walls between fiction and non fiction.

But how about the reader in me?
Michael K. Hemp of the Cannery Row Foundation writes: "The simple truth is that John Steinbeck didn't write much pure fiction. Real people and real places come alive in his Monterey works ... ." 

That is absolutely true, but looking at it just as the story telling loving reader it's the literary stardust Steinbeck sprinkles over the reality on Cannery Row that makes it magic and I absolutely adore it. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Time traveling II - The Roots

About a week ago I got a call from a good friend.  She reminded me, that the exhibition "Bergwerke und Hütten"  (Mines & Mills) with photographies by Bernd and Hilla Becher would end that weekend and I would need to go right away if I wouldn't want to miss it. She had just visited and strongly recommended to go and so I did. 

Bernd and Hilla Becher, are German photography artists who started in the late 1950ies documenting the industrial architecture of the slowly dying coal mining and steel industry first in the Ruhrgebiet, then also in other parts of Germany expanding to Great Britain, France and finally the USA.

They were within the first artists who treated purely functional industrial structures as architecture. Traveling for their lifelong project they worked out the parallels between the industrial buildings around the world with the function forcing the form as well as the differences like the small roofs on the top of the shaft towers which can be only found in France, but neither in Germany nor in GB or the US.

The characteristic of the Bechers' photography is to aim for as much objectivity in their pictures as possible. Obviously total objectivity is not achievable and even less when the visual impression is filtered through the lens of a camera, but ther are certain criteria the Bechers set for their work. For example they shot only on overcast days to avoid shadows influencing the picture. They also tried to make an as complete picture of the structure as possible even if it was sometimes very difficult to find the place for the prefect angle.

So far, so good, so interesting. 

What I did not exactly expect was how much this exhibition would hit me emotionally. I am considering myself not very much as a "looking back person". Maybe this attitude is part of my way to deal with my grief, I don't know. What I know is that looking at this very impersonal pictures triggered a lot of very personal feelings and memories

I have  to apologize in advance for the bad pictures. It was not allowed to take photos of the photos at the exhibition. So I had to make pictures from the catalog and I had to do it with low indirect light to avoid too much reflection. But I need the pictures to visually draw the line between these artworks and myself - so please bare with me although it does not pay tribute to the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher at all. 

Dinslaken Lohberg, 1978

I was born in Dinslaken at Christmas 1973.
This mine is not too different from the one in Duisburg-Hamborn (not documented in pictures by the Bechers) where my grandfather worked as a miner. It is about 20 minutes drive from Dinslaken to Hamborn.

Duisburg-Ruhrort, 1970

When I was a little kid my dad had his office in Ruhrort before it was moved to the Duisburg-Hamborn. He loved it there and I loved visiting him. I had totally forgotten about my dad's old office until I saw this picture of the industrial structure I had last seen driving by more than 30 years ago.

Duisburg-Meiderich, 1985

That's where my mom grew up. My family from my mom's side lived close by this place for a long time, but moved away before I was born. 

And if you ever wondered why I so easily adjust to the special beauty of Pittsburgh and the region in general, then have a look at these two pictures by Bernd and Hilla Becher

Pittsburgh, 1980 (look at the downtown skyline in the dusty background)

Nemacolin, PA, 1974

The stories of our childhood - mine in Germany and my generation over there in Pittsburgh -  are very much the same - the romantic ones about the purple shine of the steel mills in the night sky which my grandma used to explain with "The angles are baking cookies." 
And the not so romantic ones of a dying (and now reborn) region. Or the one about the wisdom of my grandfather, who had always said he did not want one of his sons working underground - one of the reasons why neither my dad nor my uncle where effected when most of the mines closed down. 
Or the ones about the pollution ... when for example my grandma told us how she could not hang the laundry when the wind came from the wrong direction carrying all the dirt from the mill and the coking plant.

There is no reason to be too nostalgic, but to lot of reasons to be aware about how these times formed cities, landscapes and most importantly the biographies of people and a special state of mind over generations and on both sides of the Atlantic ocean. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Time traveling I - Muenster (1993 - 2000)

Slowly a summer of traveling comes to an end. My last longer trip was a one week stay at my sister's place to babysit my wonderful niece (the coolest 23-months-old girl on planet earth). My sister lives with her family in Muenster, North-West Germany and a 50 min flight away from Munich.

is a beautiful town as you will see soon and always scores top ranks in the listings of most livable cities in Germany and even in Europe. Muenster has around 270.000 citizens with almost 50.000 of them being students. And this is where the time traveling starts, because from 1993 to 2000 I was one of those 50.000 students and lived in Muenster
myself. So visiting my sister means visiting my own past as well.

On the Friday of my Muenster week one of my very best friends came over from Cologne
. She never really visited the city before and so I took her on a little walk around.

We first started in my old neighborhood. I lived in three different apartments during my student time but never moved more than 500 m because my hood - Kreuzviertel
- is the most beautiful in town. My sister, who also studied in Muenster, stayed in town after graduation and still lives only a few steps from my / our (we lived together for a while) old place.

Walking Kreuzviertel -  two of the houses I lived in and our old street:

From there we walked up to the city center along the "Promenade". This is the old contravallation around the historic city center and today a wonderful, green "bicycle freeway" you can use to bike (and walk) around the city center being away from all car traffic except some cross roads. That's an important thing since Muenster is a bike city and sometimes even called "Little Bejing" for the ten thousand of bikes on the streets. At the time of my visit we still had semester break time and so it's unusually empty.

On your way downtown we passed by the antiquarian bookstore that is famous through the popular German TV show "Wilsberg".

Muenster is a very roman-catholic city and PACKED with churches. A proverb even says that in Muenster always the church bells ring or it is raining - and most of the time it's BOTH! I can confirm that this is a true story, but at that day we were lucky ... only the church bells were ringing.

Across from the book store is the Ueberwasser Church:

Only a short walk away is the St. Paulus Cathedral:

And another short walk away the St. Lamberti Church:

Across from the cathedral you will find this quite boring looking building called Fürstenberghaus. The Westfaelische Wilhelms-University is not built around a campus but spread out all over the city. The Fürstenberghaus is one of the countless university buildings in town and I spent lots and lots of hours under the roof in the Institute for Eastern European History (I have a M.A. in political science (major), communication science (minor) and history (minor)) - one of my favorite places.

After a short stop for cold drinks we walked on to the historic old town part of Muenster. If you look at the following pictures you might not believe it, but the city center was destroyed to 91% in World War II. Lots of buildings were replaced with modern structures but some parts were care- and beautifully reconstructed.

The Prinzipal Markt:

The old city hall including the "Friedenssaal"  (Hall of Peace):

Inside this building the 30 Years' War was ended with the signing of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. It happened in this room:

And it involved these politicians (this is less than half of the gallery):

After leaving the old city hall I took my friend to another historic place but not for the city history- only for me. Except our small half-orphan pension my sister and I mostly had to finance our student life ourselves. Just working through break time would not do it and so we had a permanent part time job. And although it was often much less fun than it might look like, we had - like I still think - the coolest job in town: We were selling RECORDS!
The record shop called CD-Forum still exists which is remarkable in a time when big electronic shops with face- and soulless music departments displaying usually only the latest bestsellers and some bargain CDs have almost completely taken over German city centers. My sister and her husband are still regular customers and I love to go there as well when I am in town.

After the long walk our feet hurt a bit and we were hungry and so we stopped at one of Muenster's most famous fast food places and it's really a "MUST DO" when you are in town:  The Hot Dog Station!

The specialty (besides two dozen different hot dogs) is that they do not use Wieners but Dutch Frikandels - that is kind of a deep fried minced meat in the form of a sausage. As you might guess it is not exactly healthy but's AWESOME. Can't wait for my next Hot Dog Special which I will most likely eat sometimes between Christmas and New Year's Even, when I visit my family again.

The rest of the day we spent with shopping (Muenster is a great shopping city), hanging out with my family and eating healthier food - delicious Spanish tapas at Tapa Tapa.

If you are or ever come to this part of Germany plan in a trip to Muenster - it's worth it ... and not only for the hot dogs.

Friday, September 9, 2011

I got an old tune ...

This morning I launched Twitter and found Pearl Jam trending in the US. Always when I see somebody trending who I like, I am scared the person died and the horrible loss of a complete hockey team of fantastic, talented young men (dads, sons, brothers) from 10 different nations in a Russian plane crash on Wednesday did not make it any better.

Thank god nothing bad at all happened to Pearl Jam - the opposite is the case: They celebrated their 20th band birthday with a two days festival packed with amazing bands and of course a giant Pearl Jam set per night. That's Rock 'n' Roll how I LOVE IT!  You can read about the big party in this enthusiastic Rolling Stone article.

One of  the highlights of the festival was Pearl Jam with Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell performing "Hunger Strike". This song made me cry almost every single time I listened to it ... 20 years ago and right now.


Sunday, September 4, 2011

I got a new tune ...

I spent the last week at my sister's home in Northern Germany to take care for my almost 2-year-old niece while her parents had to work (later more about this).

One important difference between my sis & her husband and me is, that the two are much less lazy when it comes to music. They are still very up to date and have all the cool new stuff at home. I guess one big advantage is that the "our" record shop, where my sis and I worked and my brother in law is a regular for YEARS, still exists and is feeding them with new things to listen to. Being there last weekend I realized how much I miss a place like that. I do not want huge anonymous CD departments at big electronic shops. These places SUCK. 

So when my brother in law is playing music in the evening usually a big stream of new sounds is hitting my ears. We share the general taste of music and so it's always pretty interesting. Some tunes I usually book as "Nice, but I have kind of the same thing at home." Sometimes I just think "That is pretty loud and I can't take it now." Some others are very familiar like "Ah nice - the new Beastie Boys!" ..... And sometimes it's all "W.O.W. - what's that? I NEED THIS SONG!"

And that is what happened this time. I was sitting with my sister in the kitchen, when I heard this song and fell in love immediately. And zick zack ... bought the record on iTunes (our record shop was sadly out of stock), because I couldn't wait a single day to get it and my physical copy  - yes, I am that old fashioned, when I really love a record I actually want a RECORD
- is on the way. 

Cold War Kids - Louder Than Ever

"But I can hear you louder than ever 
Whisper to me, help me remember 
I can't see you but we're still together 
I can hear you louder than ever"

PS: Pittsburgh - Don't miss the Cold War Kids at 5 November 2011 @ Mr. Smalls Theater 
PPS: Yes, I am aware that the record came out over six months ago, but I told you - I am not up to date anymore ;)