Saturday, December 31, 2011

A late addition to the year's-best list

I was premature a few weeks ago when I listed the best crime fiction I'd read this year.

Ronan Bennett's Havoc, in Its Third Year is more historical fiction than crime fiction, if one must squeeze it into a genre, but it's mainly a fine, penetrating, and moving piece of fiction, no need for labels, and it may be the best novel I've read since I started this crime-fiction thing five years ago. Its hero is a coroner investigating a murder, so crime is as good a label as any other.

It's also a serious and frightening meditation on the dangers of faction, fanaticism, and hypocrisy (it's set as religious war moves ever closer in seventeenth-century England), on the blessings of true charity, on the elevating powers of love religious and sexual.

Finally, it's beautifully written, not a word wasted, description reinforcing narrative, plots reinforcing one another, character, plot and setting of a dense, immensely affecting piece. And how can even such a hero as Atticus Finch be as admirable and noble a character as Bennett's loving, strong, vulnerable, wise, compassionate, truth-seeking John Brigge?

I once wrote that The Coffee Trader, David Liss' novel of love, religious prejudice and commodities trading in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, offered the most thorough, convincing fictional world I had ever entered. Bennett's book stands besides it, it not outright elbowing it to one side.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Friday, December 30, 2011

Rat without a pack

Adrian McKinty invokes Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack in his current post (the better to bash Paul Hewson over his close-to-the-ground little head with).

But Sinatra didn’t need that gang of finger-snapping nuchschleppers. Look what he could do when he got together with a real talent.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Ronan Bennett's historical crime novel earns coveted DBB rating

I may have found the perfect historical novel.

Ronan Bennett's Havoc, in Its Third Year (2004) answers every qualm I've had about the genre. It's saturated with history without hitting the reader over the head with names and dates.  Its plots and subplots are inextricably bound up with the historical issues at hand (religious and political strife in seventeenth-century England), so there is no tension between history and mystery.

The dialogue has the barest hint of archaism to it, light enough not to be obtrusive, but just enough to remind readers that the story's time is not their own. The protagonist, a discreetly Catholic coroner and civic official named John Brigge, is one of the most admirable characters in all of fiction, at least through the book's first two-thirds or so. There's even a murder mixed in.

I do much of my reading late at night, so I could well rate books by how late they keep me up. Havoc, in Its Third Year receives the first-ever, surely soon to be coveted 6+ rating, for keeping me up past 6 a.m.
Bennett is from Northern Ireland and, as he did in his novel Zugzwang, set in Russia in 1914, he works in references to Ireland. Here's my favorite so far:
“Indeed, sir. Many have it that the air of the fens is notorious and unclean, and the life there so uncivil that people say, to describe a fall in the world, that a man goes from the farm to the fen and from the fen to Ireland.”
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What's my line?

The following line of dialogue is part of a crime novel I have read recently:
“`God knows how many they've killed. It's Bloody Sunday all over again.’"
Name the countries of a) the author’s birth and b) the story’s setting along with the historical event to which the line refers.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Monday, December 26, 2011

Brian McGilloway, family man, plus a question for readers

Brian McGilloway is turning into a master of family melodrama.

McGilloway, author of four books about Irish Police Inspector Benedict Devlin and of one standalone novel, has always given Devlin more of a domestic life than most detective protagonists have. That life is on the whole happy, but not at all sentimentally and unrelievedly so.

 In The Rising, the latest Devlin book, especially, McGilloway  brilliantly captures the fragile texture of tense domestic interaction, the well-prepared argument that vanishes when the recipient does not react the way the arguer planned. It's exasperating when it happens in real life but thrilling to read when an author captures it well.

Who else does this? What other crime writers give their protagonists convincing family lives and make those lives integral parts of the story?
The Rising is no mere soap opera, though, and I'll have more in a future post. For now, though, I liked this not so veiled allusion to Northern Ireland's paralmilitaries and their current aims, tactics, and activities now that the Troubles are over:
"‘They’ve started an anti-drugs organization called The Rising. Small fry really, but they’ve learned one good lesson from their previous allegiances: you want political clout in a community, you give the people what they want. They reckon if the local communities see them ‘dealing’ with the drugs problem, they’ll gain some electoral support.’"
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Sunday, December 25, 2011

Andrea Camilleri in my newspaper

My review of The Potter's Field, thirteenth of Andrea Camilleri's Sicilian crime novels about Police Inspector Salvo Montalbano and the first in which Salvo goes to bed with Ingrid, appears in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer.
“Typically for a Montalbano novel,” I write, “the investigation becomes one of mob connections, heated emotions, and family secrets. But crime, investigation, and solution are the least of the Montalbano novels. Every word is a commentary, sometimes wry, sometimes righteously angry, sometimes touching, on the protagonist’s political, social, professional, and personal worlds. To choose just one typical example, `Ingrid’s husband was a known ne’er-do-well, so it was only logical that he should turn to politics.'”

Read the full review, and learn how to impress your server the next time you visit an Italian restaurant.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

A bit of reading while you wait

That outside commitment is cutting into my blogging again. In the meantime, here's an interview with Charlie Stella, who offers blunt assessments of American society, current crime writing, and himself.

And here's a link you might like if you've wondered where to start with Scandinavian crime fiction.

Finally, one of this blog's favorite commenters finds herself in some exciting company.

(Just opened my copy, and it appears she's not the only friend of DBB who had a share in this project. Patti Abbott, Loren Eaton, BV Lawson, Sean Patrick Reardon and Sandra Seamans, who has posted a kind word or two at Detectives Beyond Borders, contributed stories as well. Congratulations, gang! I look forward to reading your work.)

And, since this site is about writing by DBB commenters, Dana King's Wild Bill is now available.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

DBB meets Charlie Williams, or how to quit smoking

(One book, two titles)
A fag is a cigarette in England, and cigarettes are a big part of Royston Blake's life. Blake is a nightclub doorman and the center of Charlie Williams' series set in the unidyllic small English town of Mangel.

But, as Williams' 2005 novel Fags and Lager (rereleased this year as Booze and Burn) opens, Blake is thinking of kicking the habit:

"I tapped me finger on the table for a bit, wondering whether to have a smoke or no. I’d been thinking about giving up of late. Fags just wasn’t same as they used to be. The baccy was all dry and manky and the filters seemed to hold onto half the goodness no matter how hard you sucked on em. Aye, I were wondering if it weren’t time to pack em in and move up to cigars full-time."
That's good stuff, but what hooked me was the first chapter's heading, a mock newspaper story in deadpan journalese that veers off into paranoid speculation humorous to the reader but presumably not to the person doing the speculating.

I've just started the book, but this looks like a good week for crime writers named Charlie.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Charlie Stella: Good guys, bad guys, and bus drivers

I'm back on my Charlie Stella kick, this time with Cheapskates, after having read Eddie's World, Jimmy Bench-Press and Charlie Opera what seems like ages ago but was really only last month. A few quick thoughts before I hop a bus home:

Stella's protagonists are men on the fringe of mob life, but they really are good guys.  They're generally not killers, they're not especially vicious, and they have a touchingly old-fashioned yearning to do the right thing.

This is especially true of Reese Waters in Cheapskates, a convict who served time for stealing a car and who deeply wants to see that his cellmate is done right by. There's something to be said about a story with a good, old-fashioned good guy even if the good guy is a bad guy.

(Cheapskates is the fourth of Stella's novels, and Reese's mix of goodness and naivete reminds me of the title character in Charlie Opera, Stella's third book. So maybe the good-guy bad guy thing is characteristic of mid-period Stella.

(OK, enough with the theories. Back to the books.)

More to come, perhaps, on dialogue, humor, and violence, and how they can co-exist happily.
I hopped that bus home, took my seat, opened Cheapskates, and read:
“`There’s a brother with us upstate now was driving a bus,’ Mufasa said. `Killed his old lady when he found her cheating.’

“`Some handle it the wrong way, that kind of thing.’

"Mufasa sipped his coffee. `He used to tell us how people sometimes spit at him when he was driving.`”

“`Sometimes they do. That’s when the job becomes a test. Cops can find a reason to smack a guy spits at them. Bus drivers don’t have the same option.’”

I have never seen anyone spit at a bus driver, but I have seen drivers given the kind of crap no one should have to put up with. Next time I chat with one of these drivers, I'm recommending Charlie Stella.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Wee Rockets

When Gerard Brennan published a fragment of Wee Rockets under a different title a few years ago, I threatened to call him, stick my arm through the phone, and grab him by his Carlsberg-swilling gullet until he revealed the fate of the story's scared, aimless, violent, barely teenage protagonists.

I'm pleased to report that the full book is available now, without violence and at a more than reasonable price, from Allan Guthrie's Blasted Heath. Visit the company's Web site to hear Brennan read from Wee Rockets and to accompany him on a stroll through the story's West Belfast millieu.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Best use of cold mutton fat in a crime novel?

An outside commitment is cutting into my blogging time, so I trolled Detectives Beyond Borders archives for an old post with which to regale readers. I've just reread The Big Sleep, so the time seemed right to revive this post about Raymond Chandler's similes and metaphors.  Extravagant similies are probably a close second to the trench coat and hat pulled down low as signifiers by which people think they know Chandler. But read the books, and you'll find that, wild though they may be, the similies amd metaphors are no mere jokes.

Here's one example from The Big Sleep:
"I got back to the living room Ohls had the boy up on his feet. The boy stood glaring at him with sharp black eyes in a face as hard and white as cold mutton fat."
I was pleased today to find an article about metaphors and grotesque characters in Farewell, My Lovely. (I am tearing through the novel now like a vote counter in the Minnesota Senate race. I'd be reading faster, but work interrupts.)

The article's author, William Marling, writes: "Perhaps the most literate hard-boiled novel ever written, Farewell explodes with metaphors and allusions. Their density is manifest on the first page." One nice touch: Marling sees in the tarantula/cake image I cited earlier this week an allusion to Great Expectations.

Farewell, My Lovely is home to one of the most celebrated Chandlerisms: "A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window," but I like this, from the novel's second page:

Off-the-wall descriptions are easy; "white explosions on the toes" is poetic, surprising, and a nice mood-setter for the violence that must follow in a hard-boiled novel.

The description moves from head to toe, reaching a rhythmic climax in the bit about the white explosions. How many shaggy borsalino hats have you seen? How many shoe ornaments have you seen described as explosions and how many explosions by their color? Is surprise the key to vivid description and successful metaphor?

"He was worth looking at. He wore a shaggy borsalino hat, a rough gray sports coat with white golf balls on it for buttons, a brown shirt, a yellow tie, pleated gray flannel slacks and alligator shoes with white explosions on the toes."
© Peter Rozovsky 2009, 2011


Friday, December 16, 2011

What would Philip Marlowe do?

I wrote a few weeks ago that I'd chosen classic American crime fiction for my European trip. Here are three bits from The Big Sleep that reveal an interesting side to Philip Marlowe's nobility of spirit:
“Just lie quiet and hold your breath. Hold it until you can’t hold it any longer and then tell yourself that you have to breathe, that you’re black in the face, that your eyeballs are popping out, and that you’re going to breathe right now, but that you’re sitting strapped in the chair in the clean little gas chamber up in San Quentin and when you take that breath you’re fighting with all your soul not to take it, it won’t be air you’ll get, it will be cyanide fumes. And that’s what they call humane execution in our state now.”
“`That kind of thinking is police business, Marlowe. If Geiger’s death had been reported last night, the books could never have been moved from the store to Brody’s apartment. The kid wouldn’t have been led to Brody and wouldn’t have killed him. Say Brody was living on borrowed time. His kind usually are. But a life is a life.'

“`Right,' I said. `Tell that to your coppers next time they shoot down some scared petty larceny crook running away up an alley with a stolen spare.'”
“Carol Lundgren, the boy killer with the limited vocabulary, was out of circulation for a long, long time, even if they didn’t strap him in a chair over a bucket of acid. They wouldn’t, because he would take a plea and save the county money. They all do when they don’t have the price of a big lawyer.”
I wonder what law-and-order conservatives thought of Chandler then, and what they'd think of him now.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Cleverly does it

Here's another crime novel I think I might like though it's a bit outside my normal range.

Barbara Cleverly's The Blood Royal is the ninth in her series about Joe Sandilands, a detective on London's Metropolitan Police who becomes involved in cases in Europe and in Great Britain's colonial possessions.

Cleverly sets the series in the 1920s, which gives her rich territory for international intrigue, what with Russian exiles, the fraying of the British Raj, and strife in Ireland. At least two of the three will apparently figure in this novel, set in 1922.

A chapter plus into the book, I like the rich though unobtrusive detail. I was especially pleased that the prologue, while obviously setting the stage for the story to come, did not batter me about the head with teasers and cliff-hangers.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Paranoia strikes deep

Eoin McNamee does not quite embrace paranoia as a subject the way Alan Glynn does,  but everything in his 2004 novel The Ultras is, as the narrator remarks of a photograph, "rife with ambiguity."

Glynn handles the issue a bit more deftly than McNamee does, if only because he shows where McNamee often tells. The tells are a few key phrases, most obviously "You have a sense that ... " No one knows in this novel, they only sense.

Both authors recognize the chilling, alienating, mind-deadening effect of buzz words, regime change, brand, take it to the next level, change the conversation for Glynn; high-tech military jargon in McNamee's tale of a disgraced cop's obsession with a mysterious intelligence operative in 1970s Northern Ireland.

What are you favorite novels of paranoia? Come on; tell us. You know we'll find out anyway.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Best crime fiction I've read this year?

Best crime fiction I read in 2011? Regular DBB readers won't be shocked to see Irish and South African novels on the list, namely, Absolute Zero Cool by Declan Burke, Bloodland by Alan Glynn, The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty, and Dust Devils by Roger Smith. (Pure coincidence that those titles begin, respectively, with A, B, C, and D.) ed. note: OK, I'll break the sequence by adding McKinty's Falling Glass.

But I also read Derek Raymond for the first time in 2011, and I now understand why noir lovers love Raymond. In the Classics Division, I read four more books in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Martin Beck series, and I'm awed at how apparently effortlessly they pulled off the sort of crime-cum-social criticism that many of their successors strive so laboriously for.

I liked Harri Nykanen's Raid and the Blackest Sheep for the deadpan humorous narration of its odd on-the-road story. And once I've strayed close to Scandinavian territory, Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis's The Boy in the Suitcase is moving, suspenseful, and well worth a read. The Dagger-winning Three Seconds by Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström, is a thriller with a conscience, yes, but mainly a pretty damn good thriller.

In America, I was pleased to enter Charlie Stella's rough, funny fictional world for the first time, but it's back abroad and to the alphabet theme for perhaps the year's most delightful crime fiction surprise, Anne Zouroudi.

I might not have read Zouroudi's Messenger of Athens had she not been on one of my panels at Bouchercon 2011, but boy, am I glad I did. Zouroudi is a master of slow, languid pace, of lives stoically lived, and of wrongs righted without sentimentality. What a sense of phsyical and human place.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Conditional surrender

Here's a simple test of a theory of mine about grammar and language change. How simple? Just answer this question: What does the following sentence mean? Thanks.
Under a pending law, trash dumps will be permitted in every zoning district — even residential ones — statewide.
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Friday, December 09, 2011

Eoin McNamee and Theodor Mommsen

I can't tell you how good it is to be back in Philadelphia. But I can tell you that the arrival of a package of four novels by Eoin McNamee that I'd ordered helped mitigate the despondence.

The four books are Resurrection Man, The Blue Tango, The Ultras, and Orchid Blue, and the only trouble I had was deciding which to read first. Each looks to be beautifully written, putting me right into the heads of characters living through tense circumstances. At least one blurber called McNamee's writing dreamlike, and the adjective makes sense. His descriptions are somehow immediate and detached at the same time.

I'm just a few pages into The Ultras, my first McNamee novel, and I have a feeling he may be about the best of the highly talented group that has made Northern Ireland home of some of the world's best crime writing.
On the non-crime side, having just returned from Portugal and long having been awed by impressive Roman remains from Israel to Iberia and from Tunisia to Fishbourne, I dug out The Provinces of the Roman Empire from Caesar to Diocletian (1885) by Theodor Mommsen (right) and read the chapter on Spain and Portugal.

Mommsen's outlook is surprisingly fresh for a nineteenth-century author, giving due credit to the outskirts of the Roman Empire for cultural, political, and social achievements without, however, slipping into cultural relativism or sentimental boosting of the periphery over the center.

Here's a bit from the book's introduction:
"It is in the agricultural towns of Africa, in the homes of the vine-dressers of the Moselle, in the flourishing townships of the Lycian mountains and on the margin of the Syrian desert that the work of the imperial period is to be found."
In the meat of the book, Mommsen forswears rhetorical sweep and gets down to the impressive work of explaining the whats and, in detail, the hows of one of history's most awesome achievements.
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Thursday, December 08, 2011

More old stuff from Portugal

Roman mosaics under Banco Comercial Portuguesa in Lisbon. This video offers a tour, with some glimpses of the city above.

Retired monks, Igreja de São João Evangelista, Évora.

And finally, just because I liked seeing orange trees in December:

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

How the new imperils the ancient in Portugal

(Almendres cromlech; photos by your humble blogkeeper)
Stonehenge is the Xerox of Neolithic monuments; guides to and promoters of every other such monument compare theirs to Stonehenge, usually to note that theirs is thousands of years older.

The Almendres cromlech, a group of ninety-five standing stones outside Évora, is about 7,000 years old, predating Stonehenge by 2,000 years, our guide told us this morning, and he's no Portuguese chauvinist. In fact, he said, Portugal does a bad job of protecting the ancient monuments in which the country's southwest is so rich and of educating the public about the monuments.

The three we saw today [the cromlech, its accompanying menhir (left), and the Great Dolmen of Zambujeiro] lack the most basic facilities. There are no visitors' centers, no explanatory plaques, no trash cans or bathrooms. No postcard sellers, no bookstores, nothing to let visitors know they are in the company of anything but what locals, ignorant of the monuments' origins, traditionally called "castles of the Moors."

The dolmen (right), in fact, a high-end burial chamber from late in the Neolithic age, about 2,000 years younger than the cromlech, has been stripped of the earth that covered it, subjected to a series of half-arsed recovery efforts, and left in such danger of collapse that it looks like a row of dominoes about to tumble, or like a mouth full of horribly misfit teeth.

Back to Stonehenge. The British, our guide said, are the models for archaeological preservation and education. In Portugal, he said, appeals to history fall on deaf ears that hang off the head of mercenary politicians, and some of the most important monuments are in private hands, which bars UNESCO from stepping in and declaring the area a World Heritage Site.

Portugal's rich landowners are greedy and uneducated, he said, and the local people, loath to give up their traditional ways of life, resist the idea of rebuilding their local economies around tourism. So, in the end, I'd say I learned at least as much about contemporary Portugal as I did about its Neolithic predecessors.

The guide was an eloquent spokesman for public archaeology, and that's the cause to which he and the group of which he is part devote themselves. The group is called Ebora Megalithica, and I hope you'll join me in reading up on the group and, above all, on the wonderful landscape and history it seeks to protect.

(Read Detectives Beyond Borders' thoughts on some Bronze Age monuments.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Good news on some good books out of Ireland

Some good news in recent days from a pair of Irish crime writers whose names you have read here from time to time.

Adrian McKinty's Falling Glass has been named mystery or thriller of the year by, and Declan Burke's Absolute Zero Cool is now available in North America, which instantly becomes a better continent on which to live and read.

Each (and McKinty's Cold Cold Ground) is liable to expand your idea of what this thing called the crime novel is capable of. They're also a hell of a lot of fun.
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Saudades do America

(Landscape with aqueduct and
laundry; Évora, Portugal)
I chose classic American crime fiction to read on this European trip, and:

  • After reading Double Indemnity, Fast One, and, on this trip, Seven Slayers for the second time, I still maintain that the best American crime writer named Cain was Paul.
  • The 1945/46 movie version of The Big Sleep may have brought together the most impressive collection of talent ever assembled for a movie. Possibly Hollywood's greatest director (Howard Hawks) giving orders to possibly Hollywood's greatest star (Humphrey Bogart) and a perfect supporting cast. A Nobel Prize winner (William Faulkner) and a talented novelist/screenwriter (Leigh Brackett) sharing writing credit,  It's a hell of a movie. And Raymond Chandler's novel is still better.
  • Don't get me started on the radio script of The Thin Man.
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Monday, December 05, 2011

Adventures in the alphabet

(Roman temple in Évora, Portugal)
A guide to Roman excavations in Lisbon pointed out the 'ood supports that underlie many of the city's buildings. A hotel keeper in Porto told me 'i-fi was available in the room, and she wasn't talking about stereo.

Then it occurred to me what an odd sound the consonantal W is. It's so common in English, but what other languages have it? Arabic, maybe, though a guide on my trip to Tunisia was sparked to tell a story about the habits of his countrymen by an 'ooman he saw crossing the street in front of our tour bus.
If the letter W is a closed book to speakers of Portuguese, X may puzzle visitors to Portugal. It's pronounced sh in Portuguese, so the bar Maria Caxuxa in Lisbon is pronounced, delightfully, "Maria Ca-SHOO-sha."

Got that? X=sh. With that in mind, what do you think puxe means?

Wrong. It means pull.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Saturday, December 03, 2011

Mercado do Bolhão, or Two Stages in the Life Cycle of a Chicken

But first some color. (Photos by your humble blogkeeper from Mercado do Bolhão, Porto, Portugal):

As you are now, so once was I; As I am now, so you shall be.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Friday, December 02, 2011

A storm for all ports

(Photos by your humble blogkeeper)
The skies opened last night while I was having a late nectar and water at a local restaurant and watching soccer with the locals, the first bad weather I'd had since I arrived in Portugal. Too bad; I'd been enjoying this business of eating outdoors in late November.

Since I'm in the city that gave port wine its name, this evening I visited the Vinologia wine bar for a port tasting: €10 for a glass each of three varieties, plus a morsel of dried fruit with each and the best chocolate I have ever tasted.

At the first sip of aged tawny, fruit trees spouted in the middle of my hard palate, and by the second, the trees had snaked their way around my tongue, and cheerful farmers were harvesting the fruit on a hot summer day. By the evening's fourth glass, a warmth that started below my sternum had spread to my shoulders, for some reason, and all was right with the world.

Read more about port and its history here. And, just so you don't think everything in Portugal is old, here's Rem Koolhaas's Casa de Musica.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Thursday, December 01, 2011

Big art in Portugal

(Photos by your humble blogkeeper)
I like art that looks like richly drawn cartoons, whether it's from the late Roman period, the twentieth century, or so fresh that the paint looks barely dry. I like it whether it turns up in a train station, in a museum, or on the street.

Here are an azulejo in Porto's São Bento station (left) of a Portuguese king about to kick some butt, and a third- or fourth-century mosaic (above right) of Hercules in a domestic spat in Lisbon (Painters have it easy. Sculptors and mosaicists deserve extra props for portraying facial expressions in stone and glass.)

In Porto, someone put some empty wall space to good use in the old Ribeira section (yet another UNESCO World Heritage site).

What's good about this art? It's narrative and decorate at the same time. It's colorful, it's easy to read (Look at the postures and facial expressions), and it will make you smile even if the figures in the artwork don't share your amusement.

Long live big art!
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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