Home Movies

10384832_10152210306181333_5492971820267235243_nA few years back, my uncle put my grandfather’s home movies onto three DVDs and I spent yesterday evening watching them. I had seen them before, of course. Well, most of them. I had always been a little wary of number three, with the unpromising title, “Hunting and Fishing.” But I decided it was time to watch that one too, though I admit I gave up somewhere around “the fish hatchery in Compton.” And it was worth it.

It begins with scenes of hunting in what was Czechoslovakia, in the years right before the war. My grandmother and grandfather are both there, dressed like they are about to climb every mountain, as they indeed did a couple of years later. They hunted in the way modelled for them by the nobility of Austria, with the rows of rabbits and birds and beasts lined up, a final report for the master of the hunt, and a moment of respect for the animals who gave their lives that day. They were probably at the hunting lodge of my father’s cousin and brother-in-law, Paul, and I can’t say for certain of course, but I imagine most of the people in the film, apart from the beaters perhaps, were Jews like them. In 1848,the same time that the Jews began to be liberated from the laws that constrained their lives, the right to hunt was opened beyond the nobility in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and my ancestors took advantage of all their new freedoms. The night before the hunt, they drink and laugh, most of them in their twenties, and my uncle’s voice-over names those he recognizes: Ruda Beck, my grandfather’s best friend, who survived Auschwitz; the Winters, Ernst and Ilona, who got out in time.

After the War, my grandfather returned to Czechoslovakia, to find what was left, first in 1946 and again, with my grandmother, in 1947. A film clip shows her on a train with final destination marked “Praha,” after a little skiing at Davos, or was it Zermatt? My grandfather hunted again with Paul, who had survived Theresienstadt. The film, now in colour, shows a much diminished group, Paul’s face, gray and worn but he smiles when he receives a bottle of Slivovitz in a newspaper wrapping from one of his guests. The prizes of all these hunts, the antlers of the deer and the fanned tail feathers of the capercaillie, still hang on the walls of the house my grandfather built in the 1960s.

It is wonderful to see, in these movies, the faces of the people I loved. My father, endlessly, as a baby, looking worried, my grandmother laughing and flirting for the camera. my grandfather, handsome and debonair as he carves through the snow on skis (a relatively new pastime in the 30s). My grandfather thought he was Cecil B.DeMille, so there are rather more shots of pre-war (unbombed!) Rotterdam, moody churches in Budapest, and dark Viennese palaces (with one tentatively goose-stepping guard) than I would like, when all I really want to see is my family, the ones I knew and the ones I didn’t.

My uncle was far better behind a camera than my grandfather, though his medium was the still rather than the video. Did my uncle take the photograph at the top of this post? I love this picture, because it shows my grandmother, grandfather, and father the way I remember them. My grandmother is glamorous and vivacious, smiling and having fun. I admire the way she seized the joy out of life, right to the very end. My father is laughing in this image that shows him almost at the exact midpoint of his life — and holding one of the damned cigarettes that eventually killed him, far too young. I see both myself and my son in his face. My grandfather looks serious, but apparently he is doing his “Jack Benny face.” Whether my uncle took this one or not, his attention to the faces of our family, to the way we look from the outside made him the eye through which we look back at ourselves, as a family. Most of my favorite photos of my family were taken by him, and it is not surprising that he was the one to preserve these videos for us. He talks, at the beginning of the video, of how bittersweet it is for him to do this work, to create this bridge between past and present. I am grateful.

Reading the Medieval Camino

Fromista

Fromista

I thought a word about the sources in English that I used for my historical novel, PILGRIMAGE might be interesting both for readers, and also for modern pilgrims who have tackled (or dream of tackling) the Camino to Santiago de Compostela. One of the wonders of the Camino Frances is not only that it is such an old track, but that there has been so much written about it over the centuries. I think knowing something of the history that created the road only enhances the journey. And it is not a history primarily of dates and politics, but one of art and architecture and real people with hopes and dreams and fears tracking off into the unknown (to them) world. My own heroine takes a roundabout route before joining the road through France via Arles and Toulouse. She takes the Camino Aragones before joining — after a few plot-required detours — the Camino Frances.

The first source pilgrims who are interested in the history and origins of the route usually encounter is the engaging and wonderful twelfth-century Pilgrim’s Guide to Compostela. I link to the Italica Press translation by William Melczer, which is also available in a Kindle edition, for those pilgrims who would like to carry it en route. I would not suggest you replace your modern guidebook with it, however. Let’s just say that Aimery Picaud was a little optimistic when he described the length of each stage…

The Miracles of St. James accompanies the Pilgrim’s Guide in manuscripts, and is now available in its own translation. The gem of this book is its translation of the medieval sermon “Veneranda dies.” If you want an idea of how they thought of the Camino in the twelfth-century, and the origin of traditions (and complaints) that are still relevant today, this is the place to look. Exerienced pilgrims will discover many differences, of course, but I think you will be surprised to see how the more things change, the more they stay the same.

If your primary interest in the Camino is its art and architecture, and if you want to know more about what you might see along all the main roads in France and Spain, you might like Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela: A Gazeteer by Paula Gerson and Annie Shaver-Crandell. I found it an invaluable resource for imagining my heroine’s journey.

A resources designed more for the modern pilgrim, because it describes what you will see stage by stage, is David Gitlitz and Mary-Jane Davidson’s The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook. It doesn’t provide trail directions or the addresses of albergues but it is an excellent source for explaining what it is you will actually see on the road and what it all means. I returned to it over and over again while writing.

If you would like to know more about the history of medieval Spain during the time when the pilgrimage road to Compostela was becoming popular across Europe, you could take a look at Bernard Reilly’s The Contest of Christian and Muslim Spain: 1031 – 1157. And last but not least, if you prefer some pictures while you are reading, and want to delve deeper into relations between Christians, Muslims and Jews in the peninsula, check out The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture.

Happy reading and happy walking!

Beach Reads

So this happened, over on Bustle in a nice column written by Tori Telfer:

11 MOVING BEACH READS THAT’LL HAVE YOU WEEPING INTO YOUR PINA COLADA

Check out #10. I’ll give you a hint: PILGRIMAGE!

I was pretty thrilled, as was just about everyone else I know (because I sure didn’t keep the news to myself) except for a couple of men who seemed to feel that somehow my novel had been sullied by being called a beach read. Oh, no. No, no, no, no. Beach reads are important. Beach reads are special. Beach reads are the books you can take time with, the ones you don’ have to read in fifteen minute snatches on the metro, or as long as you can prop your eyes open before crashing at night. Beach reads are planned, chosen, anticipated, savoured. They are ones you can allow yourself to fall into and be swallowed up by knowing that nothing more pressing will pull you away from them.

What makes a perfect beach read? For me, it has to be long. Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy long. Really long. You don’t want to finish it too soon. They have to have paper covers, because hardbacks make red dents in your chest when you read them lying down on a deck chair. They have to transport me somewhere I’ve never been before — or return me to an old, long-loved place. I often re-read old children’s books when I am home for the summer. If they take me somewhere new, it can be a beautiful magical place, or a hard, difficult place.

Okay, now where’s my piña colada?

Review: PILGRIMAGE

Julianne Douglas has written a wonderful review of PILGRIMAGE on her blog, “Writing the Renaissance.” I say “wonderful” not only because it is positive, but even more because I think she really captures in her review what this novel is about and what I was trying to do. I can fairly say that if this review appeals to you, you will probably like the novel. You can check it out here:

Review of PILGRIMAGE

And do keep Julianne’s blog bookmarked. It is a great place to catch up on the latest historical fiction. Julianne performs a real service to the HF reading community with her thoughtful reviews and interviews. I have been turned on to a lot of great novels I would not have known about otherwise on its pages. But more than that, it is a place for Julianne to explore her own writing interests in Renaissance France. Recent posts have been on John D. Rockefeller (yes, UChicago people, that Rockefeller) and the excavations at Fontainebleau; the illuminations in Claude de France’s prayer book; and a gorgeous nineteenth-century stained glass image of Renaissance poet, Louise Labé.

And check Julianne’s blog again tomorrow, when she will be interviewing me about the novel

Walking the Camino

MV5BMTU4ODIyNTc4Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTg0ODM3MDE@._V1_SX214_AL_I saw this documentary, “Walking the Camino” last night at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I think what moved me more than anything, beyond the beautiful scenery which I am already familiar with for the most part, was the way the faces of the pilgrims were transformed as their journey progressed. They all radiated a kind of peace and clarity you hadn’t known they were missing when they left. It is the advantage of watching a documentary with real pilgrims, rather than a movie like “The Way.” You can’t perform that kind of internal change; it must come from within. The film is on for one more night in Chicago, so catch it before it leaves. It is also showing elsewhere in a number of Canadian and American cities.

I have been interested in the Camino since by chance I read Laurie Dennett’s A Hug for the Apostle back in the 80s. She did her walk before Paulo Coelho’s Pilgrimage and other popularizing accounts transformed it from an almost forgotten walk known to enthusiasts and Spaniards into the huge phenomenon it is today. I loved the book, read everything I could about the road, medieval and modern, and dreamed about doing the walk some day.

But I haven’t done it yet (this is the first question people ask me when they discover I have written a historical novel about the medieval Camino so I might as well get it off the table) and I don’t know if I will. It is not the physical challenge that scares me; that I welcome (though I may be deluding myself). There is the problem of fitting it into an academic schedule of course. Once, it was the fear of the frustration of missing some medieval gem a few kilometres off the road because I am tired and have to get to Pamplona or Ponferrada by nightfall. But I return often enough now, that should not be an issue. I have criss-crossed the road numerous times in different places on research trips to Spain, reading medieval manuscripts in towns where medieval pilgrims once walked and modern ones trace their footsteps. I was going to add “and as a tourist” but if I want to be honest, I am never just a tourist in Spain. Everywhere I go, I am thinking about the country’s past, learning its history from its geography. And that, I think, is the real problem. I fear I know the land too well, that I won’t be able to bring to the Camino the open heart I need, ready to learn all it has to teach. I’ll be the annoying one in the albergue, debunking the myths. I worry that to be a true pilgrim, I need to go to Japan or Mexico or somewhere less freighted for me.

But it still calls to me. I still want to do it. And one day, maybe I will.

PILGRIMAGE is out!!

Pick-Cover-Sized-A.inddAt last! My historical novel about the pilgrimage road to Compostela in Spain in the 12th century was released on Monday. I’ve been telling people all over the internet about it, and even added a page here, but this is my first chance to do a full blog post. So I have a whole bunch of links for you.

First is the book’s Goodreads page. If you have an account, do drop by and take a look. Reviews are always very welcome.

Next, I made a Pinterest page showing images from the different places my heroine visits on her journey, all keyed to a map. If you zoom in on the map, you get a better idea of the different locations.

I joined Twitter. My handle is @lucykpick. If you follow me, I will follow you, la-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la-la.

And last but not least, here is a link to the publisher’s website where you can buy a copy all your very own with free shipping within the United States. Yes, it will be available in bookstores, in Canada, and as an ebook very soon. Believe me, I will let you know!

The Most Canadian Music Video Ever

Every Canada Day, I try to post a new music video that will show a little something about Canada to my friendly friends and neighbours here in the States. Every year I think I am not going to find something new (or at least new to me), and every year I am wrong. This year is no exception. It begins and ends with a loon call, and features a song sung at a cottage by Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield, written by his brother, who also joins him. Enjoy and have a great day, eh?

Cynthia Robinson, Tatiana’s Wedding

She’d earn her place on this earth for her contributions to the history and culture of medieval Spain alone, but Cynthia Robinson is also an author of compelling and engaging contemporary literary fiction. I read the first few chapters of this in draft, and I am really glad to see it has been published. So check out Tatiana’s Wedding if you are looking for a good read. Lovely cover too:
Tatiana'swedding

Kim Silveira Wolterbeck, A Place of Light

KSWcoverAPlaceofLightRobert of Arbrissel is one of the most fascinating characters from the Middle Ages. A truly counter-cultural figure, he was a monk and a hermit who preached poverty and renunciation of the world, and surrounded himself with the rejected and outcast of medieval society: lepers, the poor, and women, including prostitutes.

A Place of Light builds off one of the most compelling stories told about him by his contemporary, Baldric of Dol. According to Baldric, one day Robert walked into a brothel in Rouen, and preached about sin to the women inside. They, swayed by his words and moved by his vision for their future, followed him into the wilderness on his path to found a new community where they could live in peace and safety. In her novel about Robert and how he founded the medieval abbey of Fontevrauld (known best of all now as the site of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s vivid tomb) with these women, Wolterbeck asks who they might have been, what their stories were, and why they followed Robert. It is a richly imagined and gripping portrait that treats religious ideals and idealism alongside vanity, pride, envy, greed, and lust with authenticity and nuance. If you are tired of historical novels that promise “meticulous research,” then deliver cardboard characters out of step with their age (medievalist friends, I have you especially in mind), you will love this book as I did. Wolterbeck never takes the easy or obvious route with any of her main characters (who include, in addition to Robert the monk, Madeleine, the wary prostitute; Philippa, the mis-married duchess of Aquitaine; and Girard, the failed Benedictine). The unsympathetic characters have virtue and potential; the characters we love the most have flaws and hidden damage. Indeed, if there is a theme to this book, it is the relationship between damage and redemption. Its message is one the medieval audiences of Robert’s sermons would have understood: we all are sinners; we all can be saved.

I was especially excited/nervous/anxious to read this book, because it is the first published offering from Cuidono Press, the press that will be publishing my own novel, Pilgrimage and in the interest of full disclosure, the novel was a gift to me from its editor. But if you have been reading my reviews over the years, you know that I do no reviews by request, and that I only review books that I love. This is especially important to me for books about the Middle Ages. I am proud my book will be standing beside this one.

Passover

We celebrated Passover tonight; me, my son, and my husband. It is something I’ve done more years than not since my son was at pre-school at Akiba-Schechter, sometimes with friends, but most often just me and him, and now, this year, my husband too. It seemed a natural thing to do when my son was bringing home paper seder plates with the sections marked, a children’s haggadah with frogs pasted in haphazardly, and a tie-dyed matzah cover.

Every year it means something a little bit different. This year, I think of my cousin and uncle, celebrating in Israel on their first visit there, with the Berman family, with whom ours has been bound for so many decades. My son and I shared part of this season with them three years ago. I think of my grandfather, the first of our family to find himself in Jerusalem, who left from there for England on April 2, 1939 missing the start of Passover by only a couple of days. My grandmother probably rarely celebrated, if at all, but I am sure that until he was forced to flee his homeland at least, my grandfather celebrated every year. Did he celebrate with his fellow Czech refugees in their messy flat in Putney in 1939? Or was that the first year he let it slip?   And this year the words of the Haggadah expressing the joy of the Jews at their liberation, and their gratitude to the God who protected and saved them ring especially loud. “He brought us out from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to festivity, from darkness to great light.” I imagine my ancestors repeating this over the centuries during times when they were far from free or festive. But each year they repeated these words of joy and humility and gratitude no matter their current pain.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I drove out of town one Saturday to visit an old friend who is dying. Strangely enough, we both knew her through completely different channels long before we met each other. We were not surprised that she was only capable of speaking to us for a very few minutes. She was in her beautiful bedroom, in a hospital bed facing a large window looking onto the sky and the trees, agonizingly slow to come into bud this year.

“You have a beautiful view,” I said.

“I know,” she replied, before she drifted back to sleep. “I’m lucky.”