****The Greek Wall

razor wire fenceWritten by Nicolas Verdan, translated from the French by W. Donald Wilson –The European refugee crisis has been front-and-center in the news media for so long it’s become easy to tune it out. In award-winning Swiss author Nicolas Verdan’s literary crime thriller, all the horrifying consequences of what happens when groups of people are ripe for exploitation are on display. And he doesn’t stop there, underscoring how wide its ripples have spread in European society.

It’s 2010, and Agent Evangelos of the Greek National Intelligence Service is sent to investigate a severed head found outside the northern city of Orestiada on the border separating Greece and non-EU Turkey border. Is it the head of a Westerner? That’s what Evangelos’s superiors want to know, and they want the answer to be ‘yes.’ Something else to blame on the refugees.

Finnish members of the European Border and Coast Guard (Frontex) found the head near the bank of the Evros River. This strip of land is not only Greece’s border but that of the EU’s passport-free Schengen Area—in a sense, all of Europe. It’s the main crossing point for refugees into the European Union. Greek politicians want to build a Trump-like border wall there, and they want the EU to pay for it. Greece certainly can’t. (In real life, a 10-mile wall—actually a razor-wire fence—was eventually built.)

Verdan’s novel – his first available in English – is part political thriller, part police procedural, part mystery. A brief prologue offers hints regarding who has lost his head, but the circumstances are murky.

Much of this literary, sensitively written novel adopts the close-up point of view of Agent Evangelos, who takes the constant reversals of policy in stride simply by ignoring them. His focus is on solving the crime, and he moves doggedly forward, even when he’s told not to push his inquiry too hard. Novels based on current events risk becoming outdated, but the essential humanity of Verdan’s characters make this story timeless. An extra star here for humanity.

On the Big Screen: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

The Death of Stalin

Death of Stalin

Steve Buscemi & Jeffrey Tambor

The Death of Stalin, from director Armando Iannucci (trailer) satirizes the cynical, self-absorbed group of leaders surrounding the Communist dictator and their desperate jockeying for position both before and after his death in 1953.

Banned in Russia, the film is based on a graphic novel by French writers Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin (Amazon link), full of one-liners and sight gags. Undoubtedly, some of the humor arises out of a characters’ sense of release—having lived under such extreme repression, day in and day out, guarding every word and eyebrow twitch, a giddy humanity bubbles up once the leader dies.

Late one evening, Stalin decides he wants to hear an orchestra concert that was broadcast on the radio. No one thought to record it, and the anxious scramble to recreate the concert illustrates the high-pitched fear of displeasing him. (Bringing in baffled street people to pad the audience was a nice touch.) Stalin murdered the pianist’s family, and she slips a vitriolic message into the recording jacket that causes the dictator have a stroke. His comrades can’t find a doctor for him because, they readily acknowledge, all the “good doctors” have been purged.

Stalin’s potential heirs include Nikita Kruschev (played brilliantly by Steve Buscemi), who is put in charge of a lavish state funeral where things, inevitably, go awry. Due to his position on the Central Committee, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is “in charge,” with terror and venality at war behind his eyes. Vyacheslov Molotov (Michael Palin) is the only inner circle member unaware that Stalin’s unexpected death has spared him a grim fate in Lubyanka prison. The head of state security, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) oils his way into nearly every scene, always plotting and loathed by everyone.

As Anthony Lane says in The New Yorker, it’s a comedy, “grossly neglectful of the basic decencies, cavalier toward historical facts, and toxically tasteless” and “ten times funnier . . . than it has any right to be.”

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 95%; audiences: 79%.

Cezanne: Portraits of a Life

Cezanne

Paul Cézanne, “Self Portrait in a Bowler Hat,” (1885-86)

This beautiful documentary, directed by Phil Grabsky (trailer), was created to accompany a joint exhibition of some 60 of Paul Cézanne’s portraits being mounted by London’s National Portrait Gallery, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Better known for his still lifes and landscapes, the portraits, which New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl says were “the genre most resistant to Cézanne’s struggle” are nevertheless worthy of careful attention. Certainly the museum staff who provide commentary for the film have been captivated by them. Yet the artist’s struggle is evident in his letters to his friends, read in voice-over.

What I found most thrilling were the extreme closeups of the painted surface that seeing the works on a big screen provided. In a postcard (!) or print in a book, or even glanced at in a gallery, the paintings may look rather flat, but the huge enlargement allows you to see the many layers of color used to create that surface and to appreciate these works in a completely new way. Some of the landscapes and a few still lifes also receive this close-in treatment.

Although Cézanne masterfully depicted the faces and the hands of his subjects, he said that these were not what constituted the “portrait” of a person, but indeed the whole canvas—the clothing, the chair, the background, all together, were the true portrait. See it if you can.

The exhibit has had its Paris and London runs and will be in Washington March 25-July 1, 2018.

***A Darker State

car headlights

photo: Lothar Massmann, creative commons license

By David YoungLife in East Germany in the mid-1970s is the true subject of David Young’s intriguing series of police procedurals-cum-political-thrillers, and dark it is.

Oberleutnant Karin Müller in East Berlin’s Kriminalpolizei—considered by some overpromoted to that post—has been inexplicably promoted again while on maternity leave. Now a major, she’s being put in charge of a team that will oversee investigations of high-profile murders anywhere in the country, murders that might “prove embarrassing to the Republic.” In other words, investigations that inevitably will put her on a collision course with the Ministry for State Security, the dreaded East German Secret Police. The Stasi.

Müller isn’t eager to cut short her maternity leave. But, as inducement, her boss reveals that a spacious apartment will be hers if she accepts the new job assignment—a giant step up from the tiny quarters where she’s living with her infant twins, their father, and her grandmother. And there’s the not inconsiderable inducement that she’d be working again with Werner Tilsner who also has been promoted. Müller accepts. Thank goodness. Now we can move on with the story and leave behind awkward references to the series’ earlier books.

Their first case arises when Tilsner is summoned to where a young man’s body has been found. The body has the marks of restraints and, it turns out, an abnormally high amount of testosterone in his blood. He’s only the first. The roadblocks that Müller and Tilsner encounter as their investigation proceeds have the machinations of the Stasi written all over them.

Meanwhile, Jonas Schmidt, the pedantic Kriminaltechniker who aids Müller and Tilsner with the forensic aspects of their investigations is in an increasingly sour mood. Trouble at home. Schmidt’s teenage son Markus has taken up with friends his parents deem unsuitable. Markus’s new friends are homosexual, and you suspect he’s being set up for something dangerous, even if he doesn’t see it. While East Germany legalized homosexuality in 1968, changing the law has not changed prejudices.

As in his first book, Stasi Child, Young tells part of the story from a victim’s first-person point of view, in this case Markus’s, starting a few months before Müller and Tilsner begin their new assignment. It’s a clever way to introduce backstory, since all crimes have some sort of history.

While the time shifts were mostly easy to follow, what would add to my understanding of the narrative would be a map showing the places the story takes place. Frequently, Müller is torn by late-night calls to go off somewhere, leaving the twins with her grandmother once again. I had no sense of whether these places are a few miles or a few hundred miles distant.

In an afterword, Young writes that he became interested in East Germany when he arranged a tour for a band he was in. “German venues loved booking UK bands.” Luckily for us (and for Young and his fellow musicians), they did not meet the same fate as the British band Pearl Harbor in the Belgian thriller Back Up, reviewed here recently, in which all the band members are murdered in the first eighty pages!

A longer version of this review appeared on crimefictionlover.com.

Trying: A Play by Joanna Glass

The story of 20th century figure Judge Francis Biddle comes alive in Trying, an engaging play by Joanna McClelland Glass, who was Biddle’s assistant during his last year of life. On stage at the George Street Playhouse through April 8, the play is directed by Jim Jack.

It has an apt title, because the irascible judge was very trying during this period, plagued by illnesses, painful arthritis, and growing infirmities. But he also wanted to finish his memoirs, and Glass (in the play, her character’s name is Sarah) must cajole and persuade and badger him to “try.” She learns to work with the prickly, demanding Biddle, and they develop a strong mutual affection and a relationship that contains a healthy dose of humor.

Biddle was the quintessential “Philadelphia lawyer,” accomplished, educated at elite U.S. institutions and related to or acquainted with a significant number of the country’s patrician leaders. He served numerous posts in the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, including as U.S. Solicitor General and U.S. Attorney General.

When the internment of Japanese-Americans was proposed, he initially opposed it, and regretted his later support. (In the play, he expresses this regret and said that episode is where he learned to mistrust the phrase “military necessity.”) He took actions to support African-American civil rights. Perhaps his most notable achievements were as America’s chief judge at the post-World War II Nuremberg trials of leading Nazis. The lobby displays posters with a number of his strong human rights quotations.

Ironically, Glass says in her notes accompanying the play, at the end of his life the two events that preoccupied him were the deaths that robbed him of a young son and his own father when he was six. The lost opportunities to know those two people haunted him.

Even though there are only two actors in the cast, the story clicks right along. Biddle—“81 years old, elegant, sharply cantankerous, and trying to put his life in order”—is played by Philip Goodwin, with increasing frailty of body, but not of spirit, and Cary Zien plays off him well as a sympathetic and energetic young Sarah. The set design conveys the passage of time, with the changing weather and flora outside the window, and though spring arrives and the days grow longer, they are a constant reminder that Biddle’s days are coming to an end.

This is a lovely play, and gives audiences a lot to think about, with respect to the contributions a single person can make—Biddle in his legal career and Glass with her acute perceptions about what constitutes a well-lived life.

ICYMThem: The Good and the Bad of Recent Biopics

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

Annette BeningThis beneath-the-radar film directed by Paul McGuigan (script by Matt Greenhalgh) shows  the last days of Academy-Award-winning actress Gloria Grahame (trailer). In her final illness, she turns to a former lover, the much younger actor, Peter Turner, and the flashbacks about their relationship in its heyday are sparkling and fun. They knew how to enjoy life and each other.

Annette Bening makes a charming, sexy Grahame, riddled with vanities, and Jamie Bell is Turner—sincere and doing the right thing. One heart-rending moment of unselfish love and compassion from each of them. Julie Walters is excellent as Turner’s mother, unaccustomed to consorting with Hollywood stars, but able to establish a strong human connection.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating 80%; audiences 71%.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House

Mark Felt, Liam Neeson, phone boothWhile Watergate revelations piled up daily in the early 1970s, in all the excruciating details of high-level misdeeds, one mystery remained: Who was the high-ranking source, “Deep Throat”? Washington Post reporters gave this name to one of history’s most important whistle-blowers.

Thirty years later Americans learned the source had been Mark Felt, J. Edgar Hoover’s #2, the man expected to next head the FBI. Felt was aced out of the position by the White House when Hoover died unexpectedly. Were his actions revenge? Or more noble? I saw the film and cannot answer that.

This is great material about a consequential period. Too bad the filmmakers couldn’t make better use of it. Liam Neeson (Felt) looks cadaverous, and writer/director Peter Landesman gives the actors some really wooden dialog, offering little depth (trailer).

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating 35%; audiences 43%.

Marshall

Marshall - Chadwick BosemanAnother biopic that doesn’t live up to its source material is Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall, written by Jacob and Michael Koskoff (trailer). Chadwick Boseman nicely plays Thurgood Marshall in his early days, fighting for equal treatment under the law for black Americans. He finds a litigation partner in a reluctant Sam Friedman (played by Josh Gad. The acting is fine, but the scenes and dialog are clichéd, and the rest of the characters two-dimensional.

End-titles mention the 33 cases Marshall argued before the Supreme Court—surely there were numerous episodes embedded in those cases that would bring new issues to light, more illuminating than the courtroom drama presented here: a black man accused of raping and trying to kill a white woman. It would have been interesting to see how the nation’s top court responded to civil rights issues, rather than the predictable provincial racism of a local justice system. We’ve seen that scenario before. Says critic Indra Arriaga in the Anchorage Press, “Marshall misses opportunity after opportunity to be truthful and relevant in the world today.”

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 83%; audiences 85%.

Read the Book?

*****The Cossack

photo: Ivan Bandura, creative commons license

By KJ Lawrence – Though this debut espionage thriller kicks off with a murder in winter 2014, it’s not the usual intercontinental bloodbath. In fact, in a nice twist, the killer—a Russian hit man named Mikhail Petrov—is having serious second thoughts about his choice of career. He regrets the string of corpses he’s left in his wake, and is weighing the likelihood he could change occupations without himself becoming a victim of the SVR—the heir to the KGB. With the death that opens this book, at least he gets what he came for: a set of 18th century banking documents.

Mikhail is an ethnic Russian who grew up in the Ukraine, and his victim is a young Ukrainian named Ivan, working in London as an assistant to noted photographer Daniel Brooking. Ivan has disappeared, but it’s happened before, and Daniel is not too worried about it until he receives a visit from Ivan’s friend, British intelligence official Anthony Graves. Finding out what happened to Ivan becomes a truth mission for Daniel. All he has to go on are some documents relating to a mysterious financial transaction during the American Revolution.

Across town, Mikhail Petrov likewise studies the papers he stole from Ivan. Though Ivan had cleverly divided his resources, both sets of documents converge on one location, a bank headquartered in New London, Connecticut. Mikhail travels there, and finds Daniel a half-step ahead of him. In author Lawrence’s hands, the shifts between these two characters’ points of view work well. They’re well-rounded, believable, interesting, and temperamentally different from each other. Daniel may be the novel’s main character, but Mikhail is more sympathetic than you’d expect and has considerably more skills for dealing with the hazards this unlikely duo eventually confronts.

You can almost smell the dust on the half-forgotten legend they uncover concerning a fortune in gold. What could this far-fetched tale have to do with modern-day Ukraine? Why was Ivan killed for delving into it? A question that does not occur to Daniel, at least at first, is whether poking a stick at this particular bear puts him at risk too.

Lawrence creates a strong sense of urgency by interspersing a parallel story line involving Ukrainian protests against the Russian-supported government, which peaked in 2014, the time when this novel is set. Ivan’s sister Yana, a physician, is an active participant in Kiev’s independence movement and a witness to the violence perpetrated by the Ukrainian police. Yana is poking a bear, too, determined to put an end to the careers of the worst offenders. Although this thread of the story is thinner than the main tale, it provides a real-life grounding and urgency to Daniel and Mikhail’s activities continents away.

The Cossack is a fine debut, with Lawrence a compelling—and compassionate—author worth watching.

Artificial Worlds: Fiction, Spying . . . Politics?

By David Ludlum

Spy

photo: Phillip Sidek, public domain

The New York Times Book Review touts the release of a new John le Carré novel, A Legacy of Spies, through an interview by Sarah Lyall (great last name for a spy) of both the father of modern spy novels and his friend Ben Macintyre, author of 11 non-fiction books, mostly on British espionage.

On the chance anyone’s not familiar with le Carré, the write-up credits him with almost single-handedly elevating spy novels from genre fiction to literature (“almost,” because of the significant, occasional contributions of literary writers like Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, and Somerset Maugham). Macintyre gets more specific, calling le Carré’s novels “emotionally and psychologically absolutely true.”

The article notes he popularized “the subversive hypothesis that the spies of East and West were two sides of the same tarnished coin, each as bad as the other . . . espionage painted not in black and white but in shades of gray.”

There’s not a lot of detail about the new book, though somewhat tantalizingly, we learn it’s “a coda of sorts” to 1963’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, which the interviewer calls possibly most responsible for readers’ “le Carré addiction.” In this sequel, the children of the two main characters of the earlier book sue security services over the fate of their parents.

As a writer trying my own hand at espionage fiction, I was especially interested in what the two authors cited as similarities between espionage and novel-writing, including this exchange:

Macintyre: Spying and fiction are not entirely different processes. You try to create an artificial world. And the better and more realistic and more emotionally believable you can make that world, as either a spy or a novelist, the better you are going to be at it.

Le Carré: And you must also contemplate all the varieties of a person’s character. Could she be this? Could he be that? Can I turn him or her into that other person? All of those are actually the serious preoccupations of a novelist.

Macintyre: . . . And because spies invent their world, and often invent their pasts, they’re tremendously unreliable narrators. You have a wonderful backdrop of truth and nontruth to work against.

In a sense, lying, when it comes to facts, is at the heart of both espionage and fiction. Le Carré attributes his ability to create fictional worlds of duplicitous characters to his upbringing by a father who was a flamboyant con man, one with the temerity to run for Parliament despite having served time in jail. Another exchange:

Le Carré: And I had to lie about my parental situation while I was at boarding school.

Macintyre: What you’ve just described — is it the root of your fiction? Your ability to think yourself into someone else?

Le Carré: If my father said he was going to come and take me out, it was as likely as not that he wouldn’t show up. I would say to the other boys, I had a wonderful day out, when I had really been sitting in a field somewhere.

Inevitably I was making up stories to myself, retreating into myself. And then there was the genetic inheritance I got from my father. . . . He had a huge capacity for invention. He had absolutely no relationship to the truth.

Some readers won’t be surprised that a conversation dwelling on espionage, the Russians, and the slipperiness of truth segues to consideration of President Trump, of whom le Carré says, “There is not a grain of truth there.”

He suspects the Russians hold compromising information on Trump. “The mentality that is operating in Russia now is absolutely, as far as Putin is concerned, no different to the mentality that drove the most exotic conspiracies during the Cold War,” he says. “It worked then, it works now.”

Macintyre is of the opinion that the Russians do have compromising information on the U.S. President, termed kompromat. Their motive: “Then [Trump] has a stone in his shoe for the rest of his administration.” He calls the Russian lawyer who met with the President’s son and top campaign officials at Trump Tower, and who may or may not be working with the government, “straight out of one of our books.” She’s foggy and deniable. “It’s called maskirovka,” Macintyre says, “little masquerade — where you create so much confusion and uncertainty and mystery that no one knows what the truth is.”

Le Carré caps off this discussion by speculating that the “smoking gun” might be documents on plans for a Trump Tower in Moscow. “There are bits of scandal which, if added up, might suggest he went to Russia for money. And that would then fit in with the fact that he isn’t half as, a tenth as rich as he pretends to be.”

Guest poster David Ludlum works as an editor and marketing professional for a wealth management organization and is writing an espionage novel.

Spy Fic: “Freshly Relevant”

Spy

photo: Joshua Rappeneker, creative commons license

The old saw “truth is stranger than fiction” was never more apt than when applied to the Trump Administration. Back in February, its bull-in-the-China-shop approach to national security inspired me to create a recommended reading list—as a public service [!]—comprising a few thrillers that would illustrate how espionage works and how to behave in order to protect our country and its secrets. The books on that list provide a much more exciting and vivid curriculum than tedious daily briefings, for sure. Apparently, my post came too late for Don Jr. Ah, well, authors keep trying. And the parallels keep emerging.

Last Friday Dwyer Murphy in LitHub said he also finds spy literature “freshly relevant.” And apparently, Senator Tom Cotton agrees. Murphy’s essay, “10 Great Spy Thrillers That Could be New York Times Headlines” starts like this:

The cast of characters is almost too much to believe: a Russian pop star, a British tabloid veteran, an attorney with mysterious ties to the Kremlin, a Moscow-funded lobbyist running a White House campaign, a real estate scion married into political power, and the son of the soon-to-be President of the United States.

spy, espionage, reading

(photo: David Lytle, creative commons license)

Murphy contends that you can get “uncannily close” to the strategies and schemes filling 2017 newspapers—and understand how the U.S.-Russia relationship got to be what it was and is—all while lounging in your beach chair with some pretty exciting novels. I remember wondering what John le Carré would do after the Cold War ended. Now we know. Trot out his backlist.

Here are Murphy’s picks that I’ve read too:

  • The Ipcress File, by Len Deighton – “cynical, paranoid, and savvy”; and the 1965 Michael Caine movie was a winner too
  • Night Soldiers, by Alan Furst – The hero of this novel is caught up in the struggle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia for Eastern Europe, “a work on a grand scale”—I’m a big Furst fan.
  • The Human Factor, by Graham Greene – Like many of Furst’s books, Greene’s classic starts with the protagonist, an MI6 operative near retirement, taking a few slight actions to aid the Communists and, when he’s in too deep, finding out they have an altogether different game on. The film version had an all-star cast and a screenplay by Tom Stoppard.
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré – Murphy calls this the ne plus ultra of the Russian spy game. Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy is the favorite of other writers, including Philip Roth.
  • The English Girl, by Daniel Silva – Silva has cited this novel when discussing the Russian interference in the U.S. election. “KGB playbook 101,” he reportedly said.

If you still have room in your vacation suitcase, the other books on his list (which I have not read) are: Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews, David Downing’s Zoo Station, Mesmerized by Gayle Lynds, Martin Cruz Smith’s Tatiana, Seventeen Moments of Spring by Yulian Semyonov, and JFK’s favorite, From Russia with Love, by Ian Fleming. Read all these and you will be every bit as well prepared to manage our country’s security services as some of the people actually doing so.

Travel Tips: Central Ohio Destinations

A recent two-day visit to Cuyahoga Valley National Park (never heard of it? You’re not alone!) was the perfect jumping off place for several other lesser-known attractions in the Ohio Region.

Warren G. Harding Tomb & Home

Harding home - Marion Ohio

photo: uberdadofthree, creative commons license

Presidential candidate Warren G. Harding ran a “front-porch” campaign from his Marion, Ohio, home, giving speeches—newly enfranchised women, laborers, African-Americans, Native Americans, and many other citizen groups—numbering as many as ten thousand individuals at a time. They arrived by train to undoubtedly overwhelm this small town. His neighbors rapidly saw the opportunity, however, and set up lemonade and baked-goods stands.

Years before, when he was 18 years old, he’d bought a struggling local newspaper with three friends. He made a success of it and was a prominent newspaperman before running for state and national office.

A handsome man, he was notoriously unfaithful to his wife, Florence Kling, five years older than he. In recent years, DNA testing has proved that he fathered an illegitimate child and disproved the persistent rumor that his great-grandmother was African-American.

The origin of the phrase “the smoke-filled room” as a place where political decisions are made refers to how he was selected to receive the Republican party’s 1920 presidential nomination. Many considered him a weak candidate, and his reputation has been further tarnished by numerous scandals in his administration (Teapot Dome scandal being the best known), the extent of which emerged only after his death.

Harding died in 1923, partway into his first term, and was buried in an elaborate tomb at the city’s cemetery, with Florence now alongside him. A sign says the tomb is maintained by a local technical college, but the grass inside was in need of cutting and weeding. It was shameful, really.

The Mazza Museum

University of Findlay, Ohio

photo: Alvin Trusty, creative commons license

About an hour north of Marion is Findlay, Ohio, home of the University of Findlay, a private liberal arts college with more than 4,000 students. Its best-known programs are in education and equestrian studies [!].

In keeping with the campus’s emphasis on education, its Mazza Museum houses what at first may seem an unusual collection: artwork from children’s literature. The museum has some 11,000 illustrations, collages, paper sculptures—indeed, works in every medium—that have been used over the generations in children’s books. About 300 of these are on display at any one time.

Although weekends are crowded and during the school year, classroom groups frequent the museum, when we visited, we were the only visitors. It was really fun, with an enthusiastic staff member to show us around.

If you’ve shopped for a child’s book any time in the last five decades, you may have noticed how beautiful and effective the artwork is, but perhaps, like me, you haven’t thought much about it. A visit here is an astonishing visual treat!

Distances:

From Toledo, 47 miles to Findlay (45 minutes) and 97 miles to Marion (1.5 hours); from Cincinnati, 160 miles to Findlay (2.5 hours) and 145 miles to Marion (2.5 hours)

Read-Along:

You can order any of these books through the Amazon affiliate links below (yes, I get a few cents if you do!):

  • Warren G. Harding by John Dean – a 170-page bio that tries to refute Harding’s reputation as “worst ever” president
  • Beloved by Tony Morrison – the legacy of an African-American slave’s flight to the free state of Ohio; winner of the Pulitzer Prize
  • June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore – a novel set in small-town Ohio in which a terrible mistake changes a family forever
  • Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson – a classic collection of interlocking short stories that de-romanticize small-town life; published in 1919 and now considered one of the last century’s best novels

Travel Tip: Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Cuyahoga VNP

photo: Cuyahoga jco, creative commons license

If what springs to mind when you hear “Cuyahoga River” are the images from 1969 when the highly polluted waterway actually burned, the long, narrow Cuyahoga Valley National Park will be a more than pleasant surprise. Not only did the infamous fire prompt environmental legislation that led to a desperately needed clean-up of rivers nationwide, it got some folks thinking about the positive aspects of the river and the beauty of the valley through which it flows. Once nearly barren of fish and wildlife, it’s now a thriving habitat.

I’m told the word Cuyahoga comes from a Mohawk Indian word for “crooked,” and this river does indeed twist and turn repeatedly on its 85-mile journey, first southward, then north, eventually emptying into Lake Erie in the city of Cleveland. The Indians would make the eight-mile portage from the Cuyahoga to the Tuscarawas River for access to the Ohio, then the Mississippi and all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Brandywine Falls, Cuyahoga Valley National Park

photo: David Fulmer, creative commons license

What To Do There

As Europeans settled the area, the Cuyahoga become the waterway that enabled construction of the Ohio and Erie Canal between industrial Cleveland and tire-manufacturing mecca Akron. The meticulously maintained canal towpath is now a centerpiece of the park’s offerings, well traveled by walkers and bicyclists.

Also nestled in the valley is a historic train line, which runs the length of the park. From the train, you can not only appreciate the surrounding woodlands and adjacent villages, so removed from urban bustle, but you also may view wildlife. Passengers on our trip saw hawks, a young eagle, turtles, deer, and the tourists swarming the bicycle rental shop in the tiny town of Peninsula.

The Park has nearly 125 miles of trails of varying degrees of difficulty for hikers, skiers, and horseback riders, camping options (we stayed at a ritzy B&B), canoeing, kayaking, and fishing, and lovely Brandywine Falls (pictured). We visited a huge marsh created when beavers were introduced into an area that was the former site of an auto salvage lot. A green heron visited when we did.

covered bridge. Cuyahoga Valley National Park

photo: Tim Evanson, creative commons license

Villages incorporated in the park harbor interesting features: a covered bridge (closed in the evening for clog-dancing), huge farmer’s market, canal locks, a ski resort, golfing, nature education centers, canal history, and the famous Blossom Music Center concert venue. So near to major cities, on weekdays at least, it’s a true getaway for all seasons.

 

Distances:
Planning on a visit of a day or two or just a stopover when driving through, here’s how close you are when you’re in Cleveland: 24 miles, 36 minutes or
Pittsburgh: 123 miles, two hours.

Read-Along:

You can order any of these books through the Amazon affiliate links below (yes, I get a few cents if you do!):

  • Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng – beautifully written novel about the unexplainable death of a teenager
  • All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House by David Giffels – a young family’s trials when reclaiming a rubber-baron’s elegant Akron mansion from the forces of nature (rain, critters, wisteria)
  • Crooked River Burning by Mark Winegardner – a novel about social class, city movers and shakers, and the Cuyahoga River—“funny, tough, elegiac”
  • The Wrong Man: The Final Verdict on the Dr. Sam Sheppard Murder Case by James Neff – the real-life 1954 murder case that made F. Lee Bailey famous