“I recall someone once admitting
that all he remembered of Anna Karenina
was something about a picnic basket,
and now, after consuming a book
devoted to the subject of Barcelona –
its people, its history, its complex architecture –
all I remember is the mention
of an albino gorilla…”
~ Billy Collins (“Searching”)
What do you remember from the books you read? What stays with you the longest? Are you more likely to recall specific characters, be able to summarize the story, cling to an image, or hold onto themes that struck a familiar note? I pulled five books off the shelves beside my desk. We have books in every room of the house, but these were handy and, as it turns out, fun to consider. I wondered…what would be the “albino gorilla,” the remembered nugget that might stick around the longest?
I love Coelho’s books. The Alchemist is my favorite and it’s on the shelf somewhere, but I grabbed this one, so this one it is… A traveling couple arrive at night in a small village somewhere in Spain and the fog is so dense they can hardly make out the little town plaza and the medieval houses surrounding it. The book is dreamy, a trip shared by childhood friends, and full of big questions about life. I don’t recall the specific questions, but a dog-eared page might give a hint: Son los locos que inventaron el amor (it must have been the lunatics who invented love).
Image: early morning in a sunlit square in Aix-en-Provence, France…the scent of sweet, buttery pastries…birds and flowers and music…colorful characters…romance and mystery. A wonderful YA read that plops you right down in the middle of it all.
I love, love, love squares and plazas and piazzas – all the local gathering places that are mostly, and sadly, a thing of the past in this country. In the Kentucky town where I grew up there was a square with an old courthouse perched in the middle of a green lawn with a bandstand out front, a custard shop across the street, and, next door to the ice cream place, a cafe that made great chili dogs. The new courthouse took up all the green space and the Walmart and McDonalds opened on the highway that bypassed town and took all the business. This has happened to small towns across the country and left the little town squares mostly deserted. So I love to travel to places where the old plazas still exist. Some favorites from the distant and not-so-distant past — St. Mark’s in Venice with its early-morning flocks of pigeons; the Rothenberg Market Place in Germany, in a walled medieval town with a fountain and clock tower, shops and cafes; the Plaza de Armas in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico with its statues of the four seasons and its cadre of old men playing dominoes; and the Jardin in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico with a rainbow of colors and sights and scents.
Ahhh…wild, drunk monkeys terrorize the pilgrims who come to see a holy man who sits in a tree. Peppercorn berries, cinnamon bark, flower buds, and saffron…. Characters with names like Hungry Hop and Pinky. How can one resist?
A place of beauty — an enormous grove of avocado trees. A thing of beauty — the friendship and love between a young California girl and a migrant boy who lives in a makeshift hut in the woods. A disaster — the raging California wild fire that threatens to destroy everything and everyone. What lingers? The feelings stirred by the quiet desperation of these two characters.
The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems, Edited by Mark Eisner
Over the years I have read and reread Neruda’s poetry, from selections in Passions and Impressions to thin paperback collections, such as Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, by a string of editors and translators. I’ve listened to his poems read by numerous celebrities (on the CD for Il Postino), but it’s not the romantic verse he expressed toward his various love interests that I recall first and foremost. It is always his words associated with place… “And then on the ladder of the earth I climbed/through the atrocious thicket of the lost jungles/up to you, Macchu Picchu.”
This profound love of place is a great connector — of the young and old, the foreign and familiar, even political or religious opposites. I suppose there are as many different ways to love a place as there are people to express that love. Neruda’s poetry reminds me of all the places and people I have loved and continue to hold close.