Slithy Toves and Wabes

I love P.J. O’Rourke‘s writing, and I love Antoni Gaudi‘s architecture, and when the first wrote about the second in the September 2011 issue of the Atlantic Monthly I nearly expired from delight.

This is Gaudi’s Casa Battlo.

Casa Battlo, designed by Antoni Gaudi

This is O’Rourke, writing about Gaudi’s Casa Battlo:

What is admired as whimsy could be awful as fact—real slithy toves in an actual wabe. The shapes of 21st-century architecture are increasingly whimsical. (Two words—Frank Gehry—suffice to describe the trend.) I’ve been looking at flighty modern buildings in Los Angeles, Shanghai, London, and Dubai. They put me in mind of the Barcelona architect of a hundred years ago, Antoni Gaudí. And they remind me why, although I am entranced by Gaudí’s work, I’ve always been reluctant to go see it. Finally I give in. Maybe an inspection of Gaudí will help me understand the new oddball global cityscapes.

The exemplarily fantastical Casa Batlló, from 1906, is a six-story townhouse on Passeig de Gràcia, which is very much Barcelona’s Park Avenue. The roof is an ocean swell thickly rippled with ceramic tiles that undulate in colors as well as curves. Vertical waves, gentle rollers, shape a facade encrusted with the mosaic technique Gaudí developed, trencadís. Hundreds of thousands of bright bits of china and glass are splayed in clumps and bunches: flotsam and jetsam (or a bad sun rash) as ornament. Interspersed in the trencadís, decorating the decor, is a picnic litter of plates splashed in motley glazes. Columns on the lower floors are modeled on human bones. Each props open a whale-jaw rictus of cast concrete. The upper-floor balconies are sheet metal hammered into pelvic girdles with strips of twisted steel like seaweed fluttering from each hip. The effect should be Casa Davy Jones’s Locker. But Casa Batlló is beautiful. And it fits right into the neighborhood. Only a genius could have pulled this off.

Once in, I want to move in—aspirationally and kinetically. The hall streams. The stairs surge. There are no edges, no corners. Walls glide into ceilings. Rooms flow into rooms. It is a peristalsis house. But light, cheer, air, and comfortable proportions are everyplace. The design is meant fully for people and, what with all the tourists, is full of them. They are in good spirits, as the spirit of the house demands. Every detail is crafted to delight. Even the air shaft is a masterpiece, tiled in shades of azure, deep-tinted at the top and gradually lightening to spread sun evenly to all floors.

I, too, have been to the Casa Battlo, and I, too, wanted immediately to move in. O’Rourke is right, it is impossible to be anything but delighted and cheerful in one of Gaudi’s houses, or even just happening on one on the street, as you are prone to do in Barcelona.

This is Gaudi’s La Mila, known better as La Perdrera.


My favorite keepsake from my visit to Barcelona was a little drawing of La Perdrera I bought from a street artist.

The first time I saw La Perdrera was at night. My jaw dropped and I stopped dead in my tracks, as the Barceloni detoured tolerantly around me. They’re used to it.

You should definitely read this piece.

And you should definitely go to Barcelona and allow Gaudi to seduce you in person.

And if you can’t get to Barcelona just yet, check out this online Gaudi shop. Come on, how can you not love the bull?

The History of Kate Shugak in 20 Objects – 5

WARNING: Spoilers spoken here.

Play With Fire cover

5 – The hunter’s tunic

The votes are in, and although there was a strong minority in favor of the morel mushroom, in the end Arlene’s comment made the case for this fifth object.

…It was made of caribou hide, tanned to ivory. Red, white and blue beads were worked around the collar in a pattern that sort of resembled the Russian Orthodox cross, or maybe those were birds, Kate wasn’t sure. The seams at shoulder, armhole and underarms were heavily fringed and hung with dyed porcupine quills. Dentalium shells gleamed from a sort of a breastplate, and something in the order in which they were sewn to the hide hinted at the shape of a fish. You could see the fish better if you didn’t look straight at the design.

In 1988 the Smithsonian mounted an exhibit called “Crossroads of Continents,” a collection of old and new artifacts from Native life from Siberia and Alaska. They brought it to the Anchorage Museum, and I went back to see it I don’t know how many times. I bought the book, too, which you will pry from my cold, dead hands. It’s the best written and best illustrated exhibit book I’ve ever seen.

Crossroads of Continents

Regalia, harpoons, visors, grease bowls, blankets, baskets, drums, masks, and the stories behind them all–it was the class in Native art and technology they should have taught us in school and never did. And yes, it’s where I saw my first hunter’s tunic, which was the inspiration for the hunter’s tunic in Play With Fire.

hunter's tunic

Next month, an object from Blood Will Tell, the fifth Kate Shugak mystery. Please put your suggestions for said object in the comments below, and thanks!

Blood Will Tell cover

Song of the Day

Three guesses why.

Everything Under the Heavens

By the Shores of the Middle Sea cover art

The Land Beyond

Book III in the Silk & Song Trilogy

Coming soon to an e-emporium near you…

Definitely a book that will keep you out of the woods.

Wisp of a Thing: A Novel of the TufaWisp of a Thing: A Novel of the Tufa by Alex Bledsoe

I enjoyed this outing into the present-day world of the Appalachian Fae. Singer-songwriter Rob travels to Needsville (love the name), Tennessee, looking for a song that will sing away his grief at the loss of his girlfriend. Guy that told him about the song was wearing sequins but they were backstage at the Opry at the time, so never mind. In Needsville he finds what he needs and then some, at considerable personal risk.

Strong sense of place and some solid characters, starting with Rob, who has unexpected depths, and the part-Fae, part not population of Cloud County. There is Doyle the mechanic and his Fae-lovestruck wife, Berklee. There is the truly icky Rockhouse Hicks and his wounded daughter/slash/lover Curnen (more ick, Bledsoe’s really pulling out all the stops on putting a new twist on that old marrying-their-sister back country trope). Especially there is Bliss Overbay, the I have to say pretty laissez-faire guardian of this motley crew, as in she’s ready to kill Rob before the night winds tell her not to (just roll with it). Some good lines, too, like

The building’s interior seemed bigger inside than it had appeared outside, like a hillbilly TARDIS.


“Germs and Jesus, that’s all I ever hear about,” the boy said in a voice too weary for his age. “Germs and Jesus. And you know something? You can’t see neither one of them.”

Definitely a book that will keep you out of the woods. At least these woods. Worth reading.

View all my reviews

Your quick-and-dirty Alaska itinerary.


[from Alaska magazine February 2003 issue, and one of sixty or so columns and articles I wrote for Alaska magazine, now collected in Alaska Traveler. Click on the cover below to buy your copy.]


I keep getting email from the people who read this column telling me you’re coming to Alaska and asking me where to go. Well…but no, what am I saying to all you fine, wonderful readers who keep me gainfully employed?

I’ll tell you what. How about I dream up The Perfect Alaskan Itinerary, you clip it out and verathane it to your refrigerator? Good, works for me.

To begin with, plan on a minimum of two weeks. Here’s an exercise in geographical perspective for you: Lay a transparent map of Alaska over a map of the South 48 to the same scale. See, the map of Alaska overlays both borders and both coasts of the South 48. You wouldn’t plan on touring the continental United States in two weeks, now, would you?

So here is one possible, admittedly quick-and-dirty, summer and Southcentral specific itinerary just for you. I’ve personally experienced most of the recommendations I make, and the books came right off my shelves.

Day 1: Arrive in Anchorage. Alaska Airlines can’t be beat for frequency of Alaska-West Coast flights, and nowadays they’re flying in from Boston, Newark, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Minneapolis and Denver, too. As for where to stay, if you like B&Bs, here’s a link to Anchorage Bed and Breakfast. If you’d rather have your own bathroom, we have everything from Day’s Inn to the four-star Hotel Captain Cook.

Day 2: Visit the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Shop for Native arts and crafts at the gift shop at the Alaska Native Medical Center on Tudor. Rent a bike and ride the Coastal Trail to Kincaid Park. Watch out for moose and the occasional bear.

Day 3: Drive to Seward for a trip with Kenai Fjords Cruises. I have never been skunked on this cruise, I’ve seen killer whales and humpbacks and Steller sea lions and finback whales and puffins and porpoises and otters and seals and pretty much any maritime wildlife you can name at this latitude. And I haven’t even mentioned the glacier.

Stay the night. Dine at Ray’s in the boat harbor and then walk it off looking at Seward’s collection of murals, featuring the famous Fourth of July Mt. Marathon footrace, the Iditarod Trail, Rockwell Kent, and Alaskan wildflowers. You could hike Mt. Marathon, or take the Godwin Glacier helicopter/dog sled tour, too.

Day 4: Visit the Sealife Center, and stop at Exit Glacier on the way out of town for an easy hike up to the glacier’s face. Drive to Homer. Stay at the Driftwood Inn on Bishop’s Beach, or any one of about a thousand B&B’s. Shop at the Bunnell Street Gallery, Ptarmigan Arts, and the Fireweed Gallery. Walk the Facing the Elements trail in back of the Pratt Museum and do not miss the sperm whale exhibit at the high school. Take Mako’s Water Taxi on a tour of Kachemak Bay with a visit to Seldovia. Dine on deep-fried halibut at Captain Patti’s Fish House, but get there early because I’ll be in line in front of you. End the day with a walk and a driftwood fire on Bishop’s Beach. Don’t worry, in summertime we have nineteen hours of daylight, you’ll fit it all in.

Day 5: Pick up lunch at the Sourdough Express, which you remembered to order the night before. Take Bald Mountain Air’s bear flightseeing trip to Katmai. Dine at the fabulous Homestead Restaurant out East End Road and pour a libation in honor of the wonderful tour guide who recommended it to you.

Day 6: Get your morning coffee and breakfast pastry at Two Sisters Bakery. Drive to Anchorage. On the way, stop at Summit Lake Lodge for ice cream, and in Girdwood to pan for gold at the Crow Creek Mine and eat the best pepper steak of your life at the Double Muskie. After that you better walk the ridge to the Seven Glaciers, but you can take the aerial tram if you want to.

Day 7: Another day in Anchorage (You can drive straight to Talkeetna if you like but it will be a long day). Visit the Anchorage Museum, especially the Alaska history exhibit. Shop at Cabin Fever at 4th and G. Go to the Whale Fat Follies. Visitors tell me that it is best not to go to the Follies until you’ve been here at least a week, otherwise you don’t get the jokes.

Day 8: Drive to Talkeetna. Stay at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge. If you can tear yourself away from the view, take the Hurricane Turn, Alaska Railroad’s six-hour flagstop service to Hurricane, which has great characters and great scenery in equal proportion.

Day 9: Take a flightseeing trip to Denali out of Talkeetna with K2 Aviation, or go rafting with Mahay’s. Or both.

Day 10: Drive to Denali and take the bus into the park. Your butt will hurt, you’ll choke on the dust and the mosquitoes will eat you alive, but you’ll see grizzlies, caribou, moose, marmots, eagles, and maybe even wolves. Oh, and then there is The Mountain.

Day 11: Drive to Fairbanks. Say hi to the woolly mammoth at UAF for me.

Day 12: Take the paddlewheeler downriver. Or a day trip to visit the Alyeska Pipeline Visitors Center.

Day 13: Go for a hike and a dip in Chena Hot Springs. For sure you’ll want to spend some time with Lance Mackey, Iditarod champion and all-around great guy.

Day 14: Fly home and get some sleep.

Mind you, this is the easy way to see Alaska, from road and rail and river. If you want to visit the carving shed in Ketchikan, you’ll want to take one of the many cruise ships plying the Inside Passage. If you want to fly into some of the remoter locations like Nome or Barrow, get out your wallet as the farther away you get from the road system the more expensive everything is. Why do you think so many of us practice a subsistence lifestyle?

You could also backpack into the Gates of the Arctic National Park, kayak Prince William Sound, or take deck passage on the Alaska state ferry Tustamena to Dutch Harbor, always supposing the Alaska legislature gets its ass in gear and funds it.

Some suggested reading before, during and after your trip:
Always and ever THE MILEPOST, which has maps, routes, places to eat, stay, sightsee, and opening hours and seasons. We buy it, too. If you’re interested in flowers, it has to be Verna Pratt’s FIELD GUIDE TO ALASKAN WILDFLOWERS. If you’re interested in birds and you should be because Alaska is where it seems like some of every species spend their summers, invest now in Robert H. Armstrong’s GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF ALASKA. I have one in my house and one in the back of my car, and binoculars both places, too.

If you’re interested in readable Alaskan history, try CONFEDERATE RAIDER by Murray Morgan, THE KLONDIKE FEVER by Pierre Berton, GOOD-TIME GIRLS by Lael Morgan, and THE THOUSAND-MILE WAR by Brian Garfield. Try the ALASKA ALMANAC for historical and geographical facts and wisecracks by Mr. Whitekeys. Try HOW TO SPEAK ALASKAN by Mike Doogan if you want to come in disguise. If you’re interested in Alaska Native culture, try ALASKA NATIVE WRITERS, STORYTELLERS & ORATORS, a publication of the Alaska Quarterly Review. If you’d like a comprehensive survey of Alaskan poetry and literature, try THE LAST NEW LAND, edited by Wayne Mergler.

What else? My friend Rhonda says you should come for the Iditarod, beginning in Anchorage for the ceremonial start on the first Saturday in March and flying to Nome for the grand finale beneath the burlwood arch. My friend Pati says you haven’t really been here if you haven’t been kayaking, salt water or fresh. My friend Sharyn says no trip to Alaska is complete without driving the Denali Highway from Cantwell to Paxon, and then driving Paxon to McCarthy to tour the Kennecott Mine.

Me, I think if you go home without going to Seldovia, why did you bother coming at all?