Discovering Graham Greene

I spent a very long time in the academic world – 25 years to be exact. Although I read a lot of fiction in high school (at the fault of Chamblin Bookmine in Jacksonville, Florida), once I got to university, that all but stopped as I delved into the “literature” of my discipline – history. That meant many, many historical monographs. Along the way in my two-and-a-half-decade foray into academia, I did do a bit of “promiscuous reading” of novels, but there was never enough time because of teaching and research. Fast forward from 1989 to 2014 when I left that world behind and took off for DC. It was time to start reading fiction again, so I went to Politics & Prose, the mothership of books. I was excited at first, but that excitement soon turned to an overwhelming sense of frustration because I didn’t know where to begin. I had sold my entire academic library just before I moved to DC, so I had no books at all. Should I go for the classics? Should I read the Man Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Prize winners. Or should I go back to my old favorite of mystery novels. It was just too much, so I left the store and went next door to Comet Ping Pong and got a pizza and a beer instead. I had to clear my head. What to do about this dilemma – a total book nerd not knowing how to jump back into the game of reading for fun. And then it hit me: library book sales. I would leave what I read up to the randomness of people donating the books they read to the library. And it worked. At fifty cents a pop, I have built up a nice little library of fiction books since that afternoon inoculation of pizza and beer.

I’ve read perhaps a hundred and fifty books since I arrived in DC in 2014, and all of them have been procured from library book sales or the Little Free Library on my block. Most of them have been fantastic, but there were a few duds. Surprisingly, one of these duds was Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Goldfinch. I got 13 pages in before I couldn’t take it anymore. The prose was just hideous. Anyway, I digress. The point is that the latest book that I’ve read – Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene – is one of the best that I’ve randomly found in my “let the universe decide” quest for books these days. I must admit that I knew of Graham Greene, but this is the first of his books that I’ve read. And what an introduction it was. And a humorous one to boot. It is the story of Henry Pulling, a retired bank worker who spends his days tending his dahlias until he reconnects with his long lost Aunt Augusta at his mother’s funeral, who tells him that his mother may not be his mother after all. From there, the adventures begin. Aunt Augusta, a crass and bold septuagenarian, has lived all over Europe for half a century, working in the theater world where she collected a group friends who have a penchant for breaking all kinds of rules. Aunt Augusta is enamored of Henry and persuades him leave his boring life of dahlia tending and travel to Brighton, Paris, Istanbul, Argentina, and Paraguay. Along the way he meets a disparate cast of characters that includes war criminals, CIA agents, hippies, con men, shady bankers, and an actor who is way past his prime in acting, but certainly not in the art of the flimflam. Ultimately, this is the story of a man who is reborn in middle age and comes to realize that the boring world of the bank and dahlias has not been at all fulfilling. In Greene’s version of planes, trains, and automobiles, Henry comes alive as he crisscrosses countries with Aunt Augusta, the both of them often running from the dodgy deals in which she and her friends engaged over the years.

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Cherry Tomatoes & Cocktail Umbrellas in Lisbon

Pois,Cafe

Walking into the Pois, Café is like walking into someone’s living room.  Crushed velvet sofas and mismatched chairs of wood and rattan surround bright red and turquoise vintage steamer trunks serving as coffee tables. The walls are lined with shelves of books that you are free to read by the light of a 1970s-style lamp complete with a fringed shade. The food is as fabulous as the décor, and some plates really do come with a cherry tomato garnish with a cocktail umbrella!

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10 Corso Como – Bookshop, Gallery, Café

Corso

Sleek and modern in design, the Corso Como in Milan offers a gorgeous setting in which to enjoy its grand selection of new and classic books on art, architecture, literature, design, and fashion, as well as its immense world music collection.  What makes this bookstore so spectacular is that it also contains an art gallery, a terrace showcasing rotating exhibitions by local artists, a garden café, and even three hotel rooms reflecting styles from Mid Century Modern to the most cutting edge of current designers.  Don’t miss the gallery shop; it doubles as a bazaar offering unique and eclectic items from around the world.  It’s pricey, but well worth a cappuccino and an afternoon of browsing.

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A Literary Bar in Paris…

la belle hortense

Combining a bar, a bookstore, and an exhibition space, the cozy, old-world styled La Belle Hortense offers a unique Parisian experience.  Gather around the classic zinc bar for a drink or wander through two high-ceilinged rooms that have changed little since the days of Balzac and Zola.  Bookshelves line the walls and are stacked high with centuries of French literature, as well as books about art, history, and culture. Don’t miss the lounge in the back, where exhibitions by local artists in a variety of media rotate out regularly. This literary bar is located in the fashionable Le Marais district, a labyrinth of medieval cobblestoned alleys filled with art galleries, restaurants, & design shops. Grab a glass of red and spend the afternoon perusing…

That Book You Read Over & Over Again…

84, Charing Cross Road. I fell in love with it the first time I read it. That was in 1986, and I’ve probably read it 50 times since. Short but powerful, this book tells the story not of two people who love each other but rather of two people who share a love for books. From the first time you experience Helene’s sharp American wit in response to Frank’s British formality, you’ll be hooked. I like to indulge myself and think that there’s a little bit of her in me. This book contributed greatly to my wanderlust, and the first time I went to London, I went straight to 84 Charing Cross Road. The book shop is no longer there, but its ghosts live in the second-hand book shops that still dot the road.