Monday, 28 May 2012

Moorish, Whorish Day!

cover by Kim Narenkavicius, from an 11th c. Beatus

A thousand years ago in Spain, Islam and Christianity collided over the lush lands that once were Al-Andaluz.

Princess Zaida was a pawn, plucked as a prize of war from the palace of the poet-king of Sevilla. She sacrificed her name, her faith and her family in a single day to make a marriage of deceit with Alfonso, the passionate Christian king of Castilla and Leon.

As Doña Isabel she was kept in a cell at San Facund, the cold monastic heart of Castilla and Leon -- a delightful toy for the king, and an affront to Abbot Bernardo, an ambitious Frenchman determined to purge this "Moorish whore" from his holy fiefdom. Left alone while the king went to war, Zaida learned to be wily as a bishop in order to survive -- and eventually to disappear.

Years later, hidden in a remote cloister, Sister Mary Isabel wrote her story in documents that were hidden for centuries in the stones of a mountain monastery -- documents that became "The Moorish Whore."

Based on a true story, spiced with poems and tales from the golden age of Islamic Spain, "The Moorish Whore" is a sweeping adventure from a place and time almost lost to history.

The day finally has arrived! After much time, effort, fun, and money, The Moorish Whore, my first published novel, is now posted to Smashwords, Amazon Kindle, and Barnes & Noble. Within 24 hours or so, she´ll be available for download to e-readers of all makes and models. And soon as I can find a graphics person willing to take on the relatively small but rather onerous task of making a paperback cover, Zaida will debut in real book form, on Amazon CreateSpace´s "print on demand" platform.

For a mere $5.99, you can have a Moorish Whore of your own, conveniently folded into your e-reader or splashed across the screen of your Mac or PC or Android! 

Her story first appeared online about six hours ago. I told everyone on Facebook right away. A lot of people hit their "Like" buttons. Five people downloaded a free sample. One person actually bought one! Woohoo!

If I was a wily electronic author I would have a book-related website all set up and ready, with instant links to places to buy the thing, maps, pictures, and lots of links. I really like that idea, but I do not know how to make it happen, and I don´t have any IT wizards nearby to do it for me. (It´s hard enough getting a book cover done up!)

Still, I have a big FB network, and I have this blog, and I have you, my faithful few followers. If you like this blog I very much hope you will read this book -- I am very proud of it, it is one of the best bits of writing I have done, ever. And if you like the story, I would ask you to write a short review, telling why, on Amazon or Smashwords or GoodReads. Especially on GoodReads! So I guess I oughtta get over there to GoodReads and start spreading the Moorish Whore around, eh? So to speak!

Meantime, while you wait for the paperback release, you can get one of the first downloads by clicking here.

Friday, 25 May 2012

This Year´s Camino

Filipe and Kathy, on the beach of Esposende, Portugal

Yes, I am very far behind. Or ahead, depending on how you look at things.

Since I last wrote, work began on a major overhaul at The Peaceable. Our patio, the heart of the house, is being rebuilt, with tons of concrete, tiles, dust and racket happening almost every day. The filthy big spruce tree and the grubby, leaky, mossy sheep trough are gone. And my beloved ivy arch, (alas!) will likely not be seen again. Work continues. I am not sure about all this now, but it is too late for regrets. (I will post Before/During/After pictures, soon as there is an After.)

In Sahagun we were given a tiny, three-week-old kitten a friend had fished out of the River Cea. We called him Moses, or Mo for short. He crawled up onto Paddy´s shoulder and has stayed there since, like a pirate´s parrot. 
Moses "Momo" O´Gara

"The Moorish Whore," my novel of Zaida, was finished and edited and sent off to the formatters. It is a matter of moments before it appears on Kindle, then on  I will be sure to let you know when it´s available, so you can tell all your friends, too. 

Kathy, my good friend, arrived on the ninth, and we took off for Portugal soon after, to meet up with Filipe, my other good friend. We started walking from Vila do Conde, on the Portuguese coast, about two weeks ago. It feels like forever ago.

That path up the beach is supposed to be a camino to Santiago.  Following a coast might seem like a no-brainer, but it proved a lot harder than it first appeared. There are sea-walls on coasts, and long spits of land sticking out into the water that needlessly increase your mileage. There are sewage treatment plants, and private golf courses, campgrounds, rivers, and impassible mountains of rocks. You cannot follow the beach. You have to cut inland now and then. And once you leave the beach, it is often devilishly difficult to find your way back there. There are directional arrows, way too many of them, in several colors -- all of them pointing some version of north.
a ria (a wide river-mouth)

Good thing there are lots of wonderful fish restaurants, and shellfish fisheries, and fishermen and fishwives and regular people all along the way. And places to stay -- resort hotels that must´ve been all the rage in about 1962, with mattresses of the same vintage. Between thefields of potatoes and spinach were a couple of good-size towns full of dignified  old buildings, lace-makers, contemporary sculptors, filmmakers´ studios, even... and tatty old hostels. One, in Viana do Castelo, was downright comical, with a picture of a sassy girl in folklore costume hung strategically to cover a gaping hole in the wall. We were too tired to care. We slept anyway, with doves cooing outside the window, and motos roaring in the street below, and the ships down in the ria and trains at the station up above hooting horns at one another at 5 a.m.

Alongside the Ria do Miño, outside Camiña, Kathy fell down hard. I rolled her over on the ground, and saw her right hand twisted horribly to one side, two or three fingers pointing together at a very wrong angle. After a very long time an ambulance came and took her and Filipe to a hospital, yet another place that peaked about 1962. (Filipe is Portuguese.) After 140 Euros, X-rays and a sudden grab and snap of bones, her fingers were reset in their proper places, splinted, wrapped, and taped. A simple dislocation. No big deal. The two of them took the train back to Camiña and sat along the water and sipped medicinal champagne.
roadside shrine, in someone´s yard

By then, though, I was way up the river, on the way to Valenca and the Spanish border -- I had remembered the advice I always give to pilgrims who do not know what to do with themselves: "Pilgrims walk." It was a good 25 km. in the hot sun, up and down steep, cruel hills. I saw some splendid ducal estates, some incredible views, some fabulous displays of wildflowers. But like Paddy says, "it was worth seeing, but not worth going to see."

By the time I hit Vila Nova de Cerveira I was fried. I sat in their bus station and chatted with Joan, a young Portuguese who wants to be a Hollywood star, but is currently unemployed. He speaks no English or Spanish, but we understood one another somehow. He has a pierced nose, and a tattoo on his bicep that declares him "Prood to be Different."  He made sure I got onto the right bus. I confess: I skipped forward 14 kilometers. I don´t regret it. 

Me and Filipe and Kathy reconvened at the border, where our coastal camino joined up with the main Portugese path to Santiago. Suddenly there were more of us backpackers -- four hefty Estonians we dubbed "the wood-choppers," a couple of little Japanese ladies, a Canadian girl with a huge, heavy backpack and vari-colored stockings.   

The path itself was, for the most part, ugly and paved. My toes blistered. Kathy soldiered on. Filipe, being young and fit, ate and drank and slept deeply, and suffered no ill effects aside from occasional fits of laughter and song.
Filipe at San Telmo´s bridge, near Tui

We enjoyed each other, and did not hesitate to enjoy the delicacies the region offered up: oysters, Albariño and Ribeiro and Valdeorras wines, razor clams, sea bass, spinach and new potatoes from the fields around us, where the harvest was in full swing. In Pontevedra we met up with two Aussies who opened their borrowed house to us, a place with a five-star view and a private room for each of us -- and a washing machine! True deluxe!

In Caldas de Reis we stayed at a Victorian spa hotel, "took the waters" in a mosaic calderium, and wandered in our white robes through the little bamboo forest out back. It did us a world of good. (Outside our window a bearded old drunk in the brown robe of a professional pilgrim shouted at us, accused us of driving a car up the camino, of being false pilgrims. I asked him how far he had walked that day, that I hadn´t seen him anywhere on the trail. He told me he did not understand German. Then he passed out on a  bench. And so Filipe got to see his first Dark Pilgrim...) 

The next night we stayed at a ratbag with an overpriced, deceptive dinner menu. We dubbed it "Alfonso´s Shakedown Shack," and shook the dirt from our shoes as we departed. We were in Santiago within a couple of hours, hugging the apostle, meeting up with old friends from Scotland and America and Norway and Spain. Filipe and Kathy repented at length for the dodgy pork chops they´d eaten the day before (I had the fish), but the swinging huge botafumeiro incense-burner at the cathedral, and afterward the mystical flaming quemada, an after-dinner firewater ritual, made everything alright.
Three amigos

Yesterday morning our threesome broke apart at the Santiago railway station. I returned home to a transformed patio (still full of bashing, grinding, shouting workers), overjoyed dogs, an overgrown back garden, and an Irish pilgrim keen to dissect the mysteries of the Templar Knights, and a husband with a little marmalade kitten on his head.

I took a nap. In clean sheets. In my very own bed.
Santiago notwithstanding, my camino-walking days always bring me here here. This is better than anything else in the whole world.

Except maybe writing. And a fresh oyster.

There are lots more (and probably better) photos of this trip, taken by Filipe and posted on Facebook:

Friday, 4 May 2012


Like many of my friends, Miguel Angel is an exceptional man. He´s a Freudian analyst, in a world where everyone knows (or thinks they know) all about Sigmund Freud, but almost nobody actually practices what the old man preached.

Miguel Angel was born in central Mexico. He grew up and became an accountant, just like his family thought he should. Then he realized accounting is boring, and he went to school to study Freudian analysis. In Paris. Then he realized he liked Paris better than Mexico, so he finished his doctorate, mastered French, landed a job, and left behind everything he used to be. Then he fell in love with a French woman.

The woman´s name is Nathalie. Her family is from Cognac, the same place the fine fortified wine comes from. She and her cousins and relatives own a big old house and vineyards. They make their own brandy. It´s an old family, respected and respectable. 

Miguel Angel is younger than Nathalie. He is an immigrant, with dark skin and an accent. He doesn´t even like wine. At Christmas last year he and Nathalie went to the big family gathering at the Big House, where Grandmaman presided.

Grandmaman was dying. This would be her final Christmas among them, everybody knew. It was not the best time to bring a strange new man into the fold, but there was little choice. Miguel Angel was prepared to keep his head down, to stay well out of the way. But it was not to be.

The table was set with the best linen and china. The candles were lit, and the old lady seated at the head of the table. The family filed in to take their places. Grandmaman laid her hand on the chair to her right, and singled-out Miguel with a glance like a razor.

"This is the place for you," she told him. "Sit here with me. I want to know you," she said. "You pour."

He filled her wine glass. He sat.

"She touched my hands. She laughed. She made me welcome," Miguel Angel said. "She was beautiful. She made me feel so honored to sit there by her."

He´d left his own wineglass empty, but the old lady filled it with the same Côtes de Rhone everyone else was starting with. When Grandmaman lifted hers in a toast, Miguel Angel joined in. It was only a sip, only polite, he said.  

"But that wine... It was amazing," he said. "The flavor rolled over my tongue, and filled my mouth, and the scent rose up into my nose from there, and... I had never tasted anything so amazing before! I had tasted wine before, and didn´t like it, really. But this was, well -- I realized this was what everyone was always on about, what wine was."

And with that he poured out another glass of Sancerre, from the carafe on the table between us. "This was a gift from Granmaman to me," he said. "She made me welcome. And wine, too, is a gift. I can share this beautiful taste now,  when I am with my friends." We touched glasses, and toasted the generous old lady, now gone to the vineyards beyond. We filled our senses with the flavor and scent of kindness.

We walked down the hill, past his university, past the tourist throngs outside Notre Dame cathedral, to a place with exquisite oysters, fished that morning from the waters of Utah Beach in Normandy, presented with great drama on  drifts of dry ice and seaweed. We each had two. Any more would have been  too much.

When we said goodbye, Miguel Angel gave me a box with "1971" scribbled on it. There´s a bottle inside. It´s "Napoleon," he said. Cognac. From Nathalie´s family´s supply.

Gifts. Delicious, rare gifts.

Did I tell you Miguel Angel is an exceptional man?