Friday, May 13, 2016

Sugarland - Martha Conway

Image result for sugarland martha conwayAh the "Roaring Twenties"..this novel set in 1921 is only a few years removed from the tragedy of the First World War but is in many respects light years away socially..if not for African Americans.

The 1920s were a time for new freedoms especially for women including higher hemlines, shorter hair, cocktails and being able to vote..not necessarily in that order. It was also a heady period for the developing American music known as "jazz".

Yet underneath the fizzy era depicted by F. Scott Fitzgerald of bright young things, boom times, flappers and cocktails was a seedy underbelly that viewers of "Boardwalk Empire" may be all too familiar with...prohibition, bootlegging and the rise of the gangster particularly in the midwestern mecca of Chicago where this novel takes place.

Martha Conway's Sugarland immerses the reader into this sparkling but shadowy world through her protagonist an aspiring young pianist Eve Riser, who also happens to be African American and of course a female in a very male dominated sphere. Conway says she was inspired by musicians such as the great Mary Lou Williams and others who held their own against the men creatively but are unless recorded lost to the mists of time.

Eve has her hands full with trying to make her living when she is suddenly witness to not one but two shooting deaths the first perpetrated by her new man saxophonist Gavin Johnson. Escaping with her life and a stack of money foisted upon her she makes her way to Chicago in search of employment and her half sister Chickie, a singer. Further complicating things Chickie is carrying the child of her shady nightclub owner boyfriend who also happens to be white.

Caught in the crossfire of another shooting outside Cobb's club , Eve joins forces with Lena sister of the victim Rudy. Her nursing skills come in handy for Eve and Chickie and their common love of jazz and quest for the identity of her brothers killer plunges them in the dangerous world of gun running and bootlegging where everyone is suspect.

The author's characters are richly drawn and her description of the "conversation" onstage between musicians is beautifully evoked. The current running underneath is the ever present racism and descrimination many of the characters face at every turn sadly not something limited to the distant past. But lest it all seem so bleak there are rays of hope - there is even time for some romance between Eve and supportive bandleader Henry.  Eve is a great character and I look forward to a sequel or two.... 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Espana - Barcelona, Toledo, Granada

 After our voyage at sea it was time to return to port  -in this case one of my favourite cities - Barcelona.

Here are a few photos of one of the hallmarks of the architecture of that city  - the work of Antonio Gaudi.

There are fine examples of his work throughout the city including a park and the famous Sagrada Familia cathedral..

Since we had explored a lot of central Barcelona on foot  before we decided on one of the hop on/hop off bus tours which would take us further afield

We had a lovely dinner at a restaurant down in the seaside area "La Barcelonetta" - then it was time to say goodbye to our fellow travellers and take the train down to Madrid to pick up our rental car.
Chanel and Monique

Our meal - we also had wine AND sangria.

This is the outer walled of the famed city of Toledo - a Unesco World Heritage was a bit of a steep climb but worth it to check out this well preserved Medieval city. We stayed some distance away but had a view of it from our window..

There was a church (not this one) the exterior was more modest that had been turned into an art gallery which featured a number of El Greco's paintings - when you see them in their larger than life glory they are quite astounding..thanks for the tip travel guru Rick Steves!

Looking down on the central courtyard of the gallery/church. I was also asked to take a survey by a young Spanish student about my experience...which I think worked with our combined English and minimal Spanish!

We also bought some delicious chocolate and the specialty of the area..marzipan made with "almendras" there's a Spanish word I remember.

Again with my limited Spanish we managed to get a vegan meal at our hotel the Eurostars Toledo -  a very modern place geared to a business traveller. The staff were very helpful and accomodating - we had a huge room and they went above and beyond when Fraser lost track of the car keys and we had to contact the rental agency in Toledo to get us a taxi  to their location at a car dealership outside the city and a new car plus make arrangements for the other one to be picked up. F did find the keys a few days later in an expected place - in his defence he hadn't been sleeping since he was in some discomfort in his back and foot that we later discovered was shingles...thanks to a hospital visit in Granada!

Although we were behind a couple of hours due to the key mishap - we still had a lot of time to explore the fabulous city of Granada. We stayed at the charming Hotel Anacapri - another Rick Steves recommendation. It certainly was a challenge manoeuvreing  the vehicle in the narrow streets and then finding time - no car...however it does make it easier to travel Andalusia

 Let there be food - dining at Hicuri - we ate there twice!
A gazpacho like soup with avocado - yum.

And of course ...dessert.

Granada is a beautiful city - since we hadn't been able to book tickets to go to the Alhambra on our own we decided to splurge and go on a guided tour the next day
A square near our hotel...and down the street from Hicuri
- which was totally worth it - highly recommended.

You can read up yourself on the history of the Alhambra - just know that it's a fort/castle/garden and so much more. The Muslims or Moors as they were know were in Spain for 7 centuries and during that time as rulers were far more tolerant of other religions than Ferdinand and Isabella who came after them...

These are just a few of the amazing photos Fraser took...and the gardens were spectacular. Look at these roses....

They were fascinated with mathematics and numbers so the decoration inside is very geometric with a lot of recurring numbers such as 8 pointed stars..I'm sure I don't do justice to the artistry and mystery - you just have to go there yourself - or look up more images online...

The other adventure we had that day was of course visiting the hospital to get some help for Fraser - and thankfully we did. Due to the fantastic front desk people at Anacapri they directed us to a hospital where they knew someone spoke English.  Again my minimal Spanish skills were employed and we managed to communicate our needs and Fraser's problem. They found a British lady from another department - she had been in Spain some 30 years and graciously translated for us..we were soon on our way with prescriptions and instructions. The young resident in dermatology looked up the symptoms on his laptop! Most important - at no time were we asked for payment of any kind! Wow. F did have insurance coverage but they didn't ask for that even...imagine that happening in the U.S.

While we were waiting for the specialist to come on shift we explored the neighbourhood - there was a bullring in the area!

After feeling relieved and getting the necessary meds we returned to the hotel for a rest and then it was out to dinner at Paprika.. We got there a little early so we hung out on the steps waiting for them to open...

Our final full day in Granada we booked another excursion - this time the Olive Oil Tour - which I also highly recommend. They pick you up at your hotel - Fraser and me and couple from Australia and drive you out into the gorgeous countryside to check out how olive oil is made - from tree to the finished product. Sampling of olive oil and a wine tasting were a must!
Almond tree?

Our wonderful guide Violetta

In the mountain village where we went for our tasting there was a delicious opportunity to fill up our water bottles from a pristine mountain stream. The Arabs also were instrumental in setting up irrigation systems which exist to this day.

This is how the olives used to be processed...complete with donkey/mule power

Further innovation - without donkeys.

I had never had flavoured olive oil before - we bought a few mini bottles to take home as gifts including orange, basil, chile and delicious and complex. Naturally we enjoyed bread and olives and then wine and sherry. I also bought some skin care products made by La Chinotta that I hadn't heard of before - an olive oil scrub, hair and scalp treatment and some soaps. This is a must on your trip to Granada.

Back in town the next morning before departing for Nerja on the Costa del Sol I picked up some teas at a street market..

A glimpse of my next installment...