The Grand Tour II: ‘Remembrance of hotels past’

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PARIS — Part of the fun of traveling is the random discoveries, the things one doesn’t look for but just appear — what the painter Bob Ross calls “the happy accident.” That’s how we ended up in the Le Swann Hotel Littéraire.

Much of our European trip had been planned, but leaving room for some flexibility we had not booked a room for the last two days in Paris before flying back to the States. Most of the time we find an Air B&B, but a few good deals on hotels can be had and the Best Western Premier Le Swann had a good rate and was located in a good area.

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The lobby of Le Swann Hotel Littéraire in Paris. Photo by Andy Coughlan

When we arrived, we noticed the lobby was full of books and artifacts but, frankly, we had just traveled on the overnight train and were only mildly interested. However, after a good nap, we discovered that it was a literary hotel dedicated to the French existentialist philosopher Marcel Proust — not what one expected at a Best Western.

Each room is named for a character in Proust’s seven-volume magnum opus “Remembrance of Things Past” (or “In Search of Lost Time” according to the translation from the original “Á la recherché du temps perdu”), and contains an original watercolor of the character, or it is named for an artist or writer Proust admired. Our room was named for Docteur Cottard, a regular at the Verderins’ salon.The hotel is named for the first volume of the collection “Swann’s Way.”

In addition, each of the six floors is named for a place mentioned in his works, and a short descriptive passage is found on each floor (and yes, I am the geek who walked the stairs to each floor).

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The Swann Hotel Littéraire in Paris. Photo by Andy Coughlan

Jacques Letertre, the owner and driving force behind the hotel, says, “Because Marcel Proust’s work delights readers for its finesse and its humor, its tolerance and its humanity, I wanted to give our guests the desire to go further and enter into this universe that has captivated me for so many years.”

Located at 15 Rude de Constantinople in the Luthier district in the 8th arrondissement, only a short walk from the Gare Saint-Lazare, it was built in the period of the Universal Exposition of 1889. The French poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire lived at 9 Rue de Constantinople and was a frequent visitor at the hotel.

Aside from the collected writings and pictures that adorn the rooms and stairways, Le Swann also houses costumes designed by Jacques Doucet, a designer from la Belle Epoque. The Proustian details are even found in the handwriting that adorns the frosted glass bathroom walls.

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The stairwell of the Swann Hotel Littéraire in Paris features one of many photographs of Marcel Proust. Photo by Andy Coughlan

The architect responsible for the building’s renovations, Aude Bruguiére, writes, in the hotel’s booklet, which is full of information about the hotel itself and Proust’s world, “…the Swann is like a permeable and quivering film caught between present and past, inviting us to discover or explore through its prism the incredible labyrinth of the Proust’s master work.”

Guests are actively encouraged to borrow some of the 500 books around the hotel. Letertre has another literary hotel dedicated to Gustave Flaubert in Rouen, and has plans for one dedicated to Marcel Aymé in Montmartre and another for Violette Leduc in Clermont Ferrand.

The hotel is cool, and it is also modern and comfortable. For a literature lover, it is well worth a visit.

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A panoramic view of Rue de Constantinople from the Swann Hotel Littéraire by Andy Coughlan

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The Grand Tour II: ‘Reeling’ in history

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A costume from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” on display at the Musée du Cinémathèque.

PARIS —I knew that Lamar University was running a study abroad trip to Paris, but running into my colleague Clinton Rawls was unexpected. Clinton teaches film studies and during our chat he suggested a visit to the Musée du Cinémathèque in the Bercy district. A short metro ride later we found ourselves surrounded by all we could ever want to know about the history of film.

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The Frank Gehry-designed Cinémathèque Francais

The museum, which is housed in the Frank Gehry-designed Cinémathèque Francais, contains an impressive array of moving picture artifacts — from old-school zoetropes to vintage cameras to posters and memorabilia. At first glance it does not seem to be very large, but an impressive amount of film history is packed into the facility.

The Cinémathèque Française’s mission is to preserve and film heritage, especially French cinema, and contains 18,000 posters, 10,500 costume and set drawings, 17,500 press reviews, 450,000 photos of shootings of more than 20,000 films and 6,000 directors, 18,700 books about movies, 467 periodic collections, 2,600 videos and 1,350 DVDs.

film01Visitors are led through the complete history of moving images with interactive vintage zoetropes that can actually be operated by the visitor. Zoetropes, which mean “wheel of life,” feature multiple images on a drum that turns, giving the impression of movement. After a while, a light and mirrors was incorporated to enable projection, moving the image from an individual experience to one that could be shared with an audience.

It is fascinating to think that despite advances in technology we are still following the same concept.

film09The French are rightly proud of the pioneering exploits of the Lumiére Brothers and Georges Méliès, and their contributions are well represented. The collections includes props, posters, costumes and scripts, as well as featuring filmmakers Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut (check out the HBO documentary of the Frenchman interviewing the master of suspense), Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Tati and Fritz Lang.

The biggest thrill, surely, has to be the costume for Lang’s robot Maria from “Metropolis.” Clinton’s students said they laughed as he bowed down before it but I almost followed his lead.

film13As one walks around the museum, scenes from classic movies play overhead, including “Metropolis” and F.W. Murnau’s silent classic “Nosferatu.”

The museum, and the Cinémathèque Francais, was created by Henri Langlois in 1972 and moved to its current location in 2005. The idea began in the 1930s out of Langlois’ desire to screen and preserve movies. During WWII, the Nazis tried to destroy all movies made before 1937 and the collection was almost eliminated except that Langlois’ and his friends smuggled large amounts out of occupied France.

film06The museum is fascinating and I recommend getting the English audio guide as it offers a wealth of information beyond what is on the signage (and which is exclusively in French). Anyone with any interest in celluloid history will be in heaven.

When your visit is over, plan to stroll along the nearby Promenade Plantée which was built on top of a defunct railway. It is a wonderful example of urban green space, and the Viaduc des Arts houses arts, crafts and shopping at the former railway station.

The Musée du Cinémathèque is open Monday through Saturday from noon to 7 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. It is closed on Tuesdays. Admission is free. For movie screenings, check the Cinémathèque Francais website.

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The Grand Tour II: ‘Masterpiece of bad taste and magnificence’

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PARIS — When one goes to Paris, one must visit the Palace of Versailles — I believe it is a condition of entry. Versailles is opulent, extravagant, luxurious and a little bit tacky all at the same time — to be fair, the same could be said for quite a few of the major palaces of Europe. It is an ostentatious display of wealth and power — and a prime spot for more than three million tourists each year.

V22Visitors in the summer can expect to wait in line for an hour or more, according to the time of the day, so plan to get up and going early. It is important to buy tickets ahead of time and remember that the line that snakes around the square in front of the gates is the line to get in, not the line to get tickets — that’s a whole separate line. More than one person wasted time in the line before finding out they had to get tickets first. There are lots of good deals online that include multi-museum passes that can save you money (we used Paris City Pass but there are many options to suit your schedule). Some careful research and planning will pay off.

Versailles is about an hour on the train from Gare Saint-Lazare, followed by a five-minute walk, so plan accordingly.

The site of the palace was originally an 11th-century village before becoming the seat of French power in 1682 when Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” shifted the court there from Paris, bringing 20,000 people with him. Housing the court meant that large sums went into designing, expanding and maintaining the palace, and it set the style for French taste throughout Europe. The last royal couple to live there were Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

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Galerie de Glaces (Hall of Mirrors). Photo by Andy Coughlan

The palace is vast, both inside and out. If Versailles is your plan for the day, know it is your plan for the whole day, but it is well worth it. Room after room of ornamentation (700 of them) can get a little overpowering (museum fatigue is real thing), but the gardens go on and on (2,000 acres) and a pleasant walk is great way to recharge the batteries.

The site of the palace was originally an 11th-century village before becoming the seat of French power in 1682 when Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” shifted the court there from Paris, bringing 20,000 people with him. Housing the court meant that large sums went into designing, expanding and maintaining the palace, and it set the style for French taste throughout Europe. The last royal couple to live there were Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

During the French Revolution in 1789, the royal family fled to Paris and the palace fell into disrepair and much of the furniture was sold off. A renovation began under the guidance of Louise Phillip I In the early 1830s and conservation has continued ever since, with the most recent plan initiated by prime minister Jacques Chirac the palace was used for official state events and the 1919 treaty to end WWI was signed in the 73-meter-long Galerie de Glaces (Hall of Mirrors).

V01In case anyone wonders, the palace and its grounds include 200,000 trees, 210,000 flowers planted every year, 50 fountains, 2,150 windows, 67 staircases, 6,000 paintings, 1,500 drawings, 2,100 sculptures and 5,000 pieces of furniture. Anyone care to count?

The philosopher/poet Voltaire described Versailles as “a masterpiece of bad taste and magnificence” and that perfectly sums it up. It is a wonderful way to spend a leisurely day and get a look at how the other half — or half of one half of one half percent — lived.

The palace is open every day except Mondays. Admission is 18 euros, which includes an audio guide (take advantage of it, there is lots to learn and the crowds make it difficult to read everything), and free to under-18s.

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The Grand Tour II: D’Orsay is focused and magnificent

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Gustave Courbet “The Artist’s Studio” at the Musée D’Orsay

PARIS — While the Louvre is a sprawling mass of broad history, the Musée D’Orsay is tight, concise and an art lover’s dream. To use a boxing analogy, it is pound-for-pound one of the best museum’s in the world.

The museum features mostly French art from 1848 to 1914, a period that saw a move from classicism to modernism. The museum, which opened in 1986, is located in the former Gare D’Orsay, a Beaux-Arts railway station on the left bank of the Seine. It houses the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces in the world, and much of the work is familiar to anyone who has given even a cursory glance at an art history book in the past 20 years.

The building, as the museum’s website points out, is a work of art in itself. It is spacious and bright, retaining the curved glass ceiling of the station. Moreover, each of the exhibition rooms are targeted and detailed, with histories and biographical information readily available — the audio guides are also well worth the rental, providing a lot of background to movements and individual pieces.

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Vincent Van Gogh “Self Portrait”

Any time Vincent Van Gogh is in the building, he is the star of the show, and the D’Orsay has an impressive collection, sprinkling in Paul Gauguin pieces which complement the story of their combative friendship. The works include self portraits from 1887 and 1889, the famous painting of his bedroom at Arles, “Portrait of Doctor Gachet,” and his magnificent “The Church at Auvers” that span the year 1885 to 1890. Gauguin is represented by fine examples of his Tahitian women, as well as “The Beautiful Angéle.”

The museum is chock full of recognizable paintings such as Edgar Degas’ paintings of dancers — and his original “Little 12-Year-Old Dancer” sculpture — works by Auguste Renoir and Georges Seurat, Paul Cezanne and Henri Rousseau, as well as James Abbott McNeil Whistler’s portrait of his mother (the real title of which is “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1”).

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Edouard Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe”

Edouard Manet’s “Le dejeuner sur l’herbe” is glorious in the flesh, with the added treat of two panels of Claude Monet’s version close by. Monet’s version was started in the spring of 1865. It was intended to be both a tribute and a challenge to Manet whose painting had been the subject of critical and public scorn when it was shown at the Salon des Refusés in 1863. The original painting measured four meters by six, but the two panels are all that remain.

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The surviving panels of Claude Monet’s “Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe”

The museum’s website quotes Monet telling the painting’s story: “I had to pay my rent, I gave it to the landlord as security and he rolled it up and put in the cellar. When I finally had enough money to get it back, as you can see, it had gone moldy.” Monet got the painting back in1884, cut it up, and kept only three fragments. The third has now disappeared.

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Rodin’s plaster model for “The Gates of Hell”

Even among so many great works, Auguste Rodin’s plaster model for “The Gates of Hell” is simply breathtaking. It is almost 20-feet high and 13-feet wide and demands reverence and careful consideration. The sculpture was not cast in Rodin’s lifetime, and it was not until The Rodin Museum in Philadelphia’s founder, Jules Mastbaum ordered two sets of the doors — one for Philadelphia and one for the Musée Rodin in Paris.

Seeing two large paintings by Gustave Courbet was a personal treat. “A Burial at Ornans,” from 1848, was controversial in its subject matter. Convention dictated that large-scale works depict religious or allegorical subjects. Declaring, “Historical art is in its essence contemporary,” Courbet argued that paintings of ordinary people merited the large format.

His masterpiece, 1855’s “The Artist’s Studio” (main picture), reflects Courbet’s political and artistic choices. Its subtitle is “A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life.” When it was refused by the Salon because of its size, Courbet organized a personal exhibition, in a building which he had built at his own expense which he called “The Pavilion of Realism,” close to the sanctioned exhibition.

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Gustave Courbet’s “A Burial at Ornans”

Courbet said, “It’s the whole world coming to me to be painted”, he declared, “on the right, all the shareholders, by that I mean friends, fellow workers, art lovers. On the left is the other world of everyday life, the masses, wretchedness, poverty, wealth, the exploited and the exploiters, people who make a living from death.” For an in-depth article on “The Artist’s Studio,” click here.

The museum’s website is as impressive as the museum itself, with descriptions of the works and their locations in the galleries. If a visit to the museum is not in your near future, the website offers a wonderful overview.

The Musée D’Orsay’s collection may be the most recognizable of any museum in the world. A visit should be on any art lover’s bucket list.

The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday and admission is 12 euros.

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All photos by Andy Coughlan 2017

The Grand Tour II: The Louvre is a terrible museum!

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Old meets new at the Louvre

Paris — Got your attention? Of course, that headline is misleading. The Louvre has one of the greatest collections of art in the world. It has a history and cachet that makes it a required stop for any art lover visiting the French capital.

But it is so expansive that it is difficult to enjoy the visit and really appreciate the art. The paintings are hung sometimes four high on the walls, which makes the top ones impossible to look at because of the glare.

It is the largest museum in the world with 38,000 objects spread across 782,910 square feet. The museum site was originally a 12th-century fortress, before being expanded by Francis I to be a royal palace in 1546.

In 1692, the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres and the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, which occupied the building, hosted a series of salons beginning in 1699. During the French Revolution, which began in 1789, the National Assembly decreed that the Louvre be used as a museum. It opened Aug. 10, 1793 with an exhibition of 537 paintings, with the majority being confiscated royal and church property.

The now-famous glass pyramid was added in 1988 under a renovation plan proposed by President François Mitterrand.

The museum is home to so many iconic and historically important pieces that is it is ridiculous to suggest the museum is not great, but it is certainly unwieldy. With a bit of pruning it would be easier to navigate and easier to enjoy the works themselves. As it is, it is exhausting. Either one needs to hit a few targeted areas or take a day or two to navigate the vastness of the collection. The first option is preferable, but it’s not as though the average non-Parisian gets to pop off to the Louvre when they have a couple of hours to spare so a few things will have to be sacrificed.

Of course, there are the “rock stars,” Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People,” Théodore Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa” are highlights that must be included in any tour, as is Jean-August-Dominique Ingres’ “Turkish Bath.” Among the antiquities is the Venus de Milo from the second century, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace, carved in 305 BC, which is genuinely awe-inspring.

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The ever-present scrum in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” at The Louvre.

No matter the time of day, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” attracts a seething throng of humanity. It is almost impossible to get a good look at it, as it is behind glass, behind a rope, 10-feet from the viewer, and behind an almost impenetrable wall of tourists all taking selfies.

A better choice would be to walk on by and get up close and personal with the master’s “The Virgin on the Rocks” or “The Virgin and Child With St. Anne” or “John the Baptist.” There is much less of a crowd and a better chance to see the techniques that cemented his reputation.

There is so much to see — too much — that the casual visitor should target particular areas and focus on specific things, otherwise “museum fatigue” sets in fast.

The Louvre is magnificent and totally worth a visit, but be aware that it is impossible to see it all in a day — or even a week. It’s a pick-and-choose experience.

The museum is open Mondays, Thursdays and weekends from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and on Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. The Louvre is closed on Tuesdays. Admission is 15 euros ($16.80) for adults and is free for visitors 17 years and younger.

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The Grand Tour II: Bright Light City

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Paris — “The City of Light” is an appropriate moniker. There are two reasons Paris earned its name — as one of the leaders of the Age of Enlightenment and also as one of the first cities to get gaslight. But there is a more obvious reason. Early in the morning or late in the afternoon, the city literally glows.

paris2The light seems to bounce off the buildings, not so sharp that one has to shield one’s eyes, but in a bright, diffused way that gives everything an ethereal shimmer. The main stone used in Paris’ construction from the 17th century on is Lutetien limestone, and that contributes to the light.

Georges-Eugene Haussmann was commissioned to renovate Paris by Napoleon III, and the Paris we see today stems from the public works project that began in 1853. He widened the streets and insisted on a uniformity to create a harmonious effect.

Most buildings in Paris prior to the renovation were made of brick or wood and covered with plaster. Haussmann demanded that the new boulevards be either built or faced with cut stone, usually Lutetien limestone (The name derives from Lutetia (French, Lutèce) which was the city’s name in ancient times). Haussmann also decreed that the facades be maintained, repainted, or cleaned, at least every 10 years, under threat of 100 francs.

The stone was extracted from the hills to the south of Paris by tunneling. The grey/cream stone was used in parts of the Place de la ConcordeLes Invalides and the Louvre.

The pastel stone gives the city a brightness that one does not find in London or New York and contributes to the personality of Paris — and major cities certainly have a personality.

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The Basilica du Sacré Couer just after sunset. Photo by Andy Coughlan

The sun does not set in the summer until after 9 p.m., and an early evening stroll along the Seine or around Montmartre is recommended. The perfect cap to the evening is to sit on the steps of the Sacré Coeur and watch the sunset.

Even at night there is a glow. Watch Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” and it is easy to think the magical quality is the product of movie magic, but it is not far from reality.

Nowadays, the “Paris stone” comes from half a dozen quarries in the Oise, 25 miles north of the city and is used in upscale building projects around the world, with the hard, sliceable version selling for 2,000 euros a cubic meter.

But while the stone is beautiful in itself, it is the rows of light-colored buildings that envelope the walker that creates the true effect. Paris is for lovers, the saying goes, and architecture that contributes to the romance.

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Skiffle: Music to ‘Bragg’ About

Review: ‘Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World’ by Billy Bragg

91pAfTDsSqLIn mid-1950s England, a type of music flared up, shone bright for a couple of years, then faded into obscurity as the juggernaut that was rock and roll swept away everything that had passed for popular music. But in his new book “Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World,” singer/songwriter Billy Bragg makes the case that the guitar-based, American folk and blues-influenced Skifflers paved the way for a generation of musicians to dominate the 1960s. Members of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who and Led Zeppelin, to name just a few, got their start in the DIY Skiffle explosion.

Bragg writes that the Skiffle boom lasted only a couple of years, from 1954 to 1956-7, but in 400 compelling pages, he gives us not only insight into this brief period of time, but also a detailed overview of the history of American blues, folk and jazz.

Bragg is in a unique position to explore these topics, having come to prominence on the back of the punk explosion (after Skiffle, the second great British DIY musical movement), and having recorded Woody Guthrie songs. His musical heroes were influenced by Skiffle, and the stripped-down aesthetic of his early recordings fits the genre’s philosophy.

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Billy Bragg talks about “Roots, Radicals and Rockers” at the Strand Bookstore in New York, July 22, 2017. Photo by Andy Coughlan

So, what is Skiffle? Dictionaries define it simply as a musical genre with jazz, blues, folk and American folk influences, usually using homemade or improvised instruments. If a parallel could be drawn, one could say it is rockabilly meets folk with a slight rock twist. Drawing its roots from the blues house parties of Chicago, the music grew from the post-war Trad Jazz revival in England. Two figures tower over the narrative — the surly purist Ken Colyer, who joined the merchant navy so he could ship out to America to find his jazz heroes, and Lonnie Donegan, who became the first person to hit the British charts with the guitar as the lead instrument.

Donegan is the unchallenged “King of Skiffle,” dominating the charts in the mid-1950s with a series of covers of songs by Lead Belly and Guthrie. The Skiffle versions were more uptempo and Donegan, in a nasally whine, ramped the up speed as the song progressed. His version of “Rock Island Line” literally ends like a runaway train with a breathless Donegan spitting out the words. It is the punk of its day — an exciting change from the crooners and orchestras that dominated the radio airwaves. No wonder it attracted a newly defined group — teenagers — only just throwing off the yoke of post-war rationing, which did not end until 1954. A generation of young boys went out and bought guitars and claimed a music for themselves.

Bragg quotes a source who said guitar imports in 1956 were estimated to be a quarter of a million, as opposed to six thousand in 1950. At its height, there were between 30,000 and 50,000 Skiffle groups in England. They congregated in coffee shops and eschewed the restrictions of the mainstream airwaves to create their own scene. As usual, when the mainstream finally caught on, Skiffle was effectively over. But these teenagers took their guitars, went electric, added drums instead of washboards and rode the wave of rock to the top of the charts.

“Roots, Radicals and Rockers” is a fascinating read, chockfull of facts about a variety of topics from American railroads, Library of Congress Folkways recordings to riots at British screenings of “Rock Around the Clock.” The book will appeal to fans of the blues, jazz and folk on both sides of the Atlantic. Few recordings survive, but typing in names into YouTube is a great way to get a feel for the music that changed the British sound.

“Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World” by Billy Bragg, published by Faber and Faber, is available on Amazon in hardback for $23.95.