“The main house on the estate was a 32-room mansion, and Wright had three artificial lakes constructed, the 9,000+ acres lavishly landscaped and reeking of wealth and means. Perhaps the most famous addition to the palatial properties was the underground conservatory/smoking room with aquarium windows, an epic statue seemingly rising out of the manufactured lake on the underwater dome that gave the glorious below-ground room a ballroom-like appearance.” Read more: Witley Wonder Underwater Ballroom | Atlas Obscura.
When I set to read a book that I plan to review, I come at it a little differently than just reading for fun. I make notes, mental and written, about style or themes that I want to mention in the review. And I dogear pages that have a passage I want to quote. Sometimes I don’t end up using them, if they give away the plot, for example. But to look at one of my books from the edge is sometimes amusing, with all the uneven corners.
Alibis is one of those books that I ran out of page corners to turn down.
André Aciman has put together a series of inspired essays. They are about place and memory, and one’s self in relation to them. It has a bit of philosophy in it, but the reader is so engrossed in the essays themselves, there is nothing didactic about it. Aciman is not lecturing us, only sharing his experiences. In do so, he reveals nuggets of truth that apply to us all.
The opening essay, Lavender, strikes a particular chord. It begins with his recollection of his father’s scent, but at its core is really about familiarity. Here, he writes about the empty lavender scent bottles that he cannot part with.
The bottles are stand-ins for me. I keep them the way the ancient Egyptians kept all of their household belongings: for that day when they’d need them in the afterlife. To part with them now is to die before my time. And yet, there are times when I think there should have been many, many other bottles there — not just bottles I lost of forgot about, but bottles I never owned, bottles I didn’t even know existed and , but for a tiny accident, might have given an entirely different scent to my life. There is a street I pass by every day, never once suspecting that in years to come it will lead to an apartment I still don’t know will be mine one day. How can I not know this — isn’t there a science? ~Pg. 9
Home and its importance for self-identity is another theme. He also muses how this affects the writer.
A hidden nerve is what every writer is ultimately about. It’s what all writers wish to uncover when writing about themselves in this age of the personal memoir. And yet it’s also the first thing every writer learns to sidestep, to disguise, as though this nerve were a deep and shameful secret that needs to be swathed in many sheaths. Some don’t evenknow they’ve screened this nerve from their own gaze, let alone another’s. Some crudely mistake confession for introspection. Others, more cunning perhaps, open tempting shortcuts and roundabout passageways, the better to mislead everyone. Some can’t tell whether they’re writing to strip or hide that hidden nerve.
I have no idea to which category I belong. ~ Pg. 87
Here again, even as a writer, Aciman is unsure where his home lies.
I loved following Aciman’s wanderings of the mind. It’s enjoyable, not daunting. I highly recommend this book. Keep it handy or when you need a quiet few minutes of thoughtful, intelligent reading.
Many thanks to Picador for the review copy.
5 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches, 208 pages
Stewart’s travelogue is as addicting as the tales of the lost city itself. A freelance writer from Brooklyn, Stewart heard about Ciudad Blanca during an interview with a US solider who had endured the Honduran jungle. Like many who hear stories of far-flung secrets, Stewart was hooked. He scoured satellite images from Google Earth, questioned anyone who is an expert in the field and even contacted relatives of explorer Theodore Ambrose Morde, who searched for the city swallowed by the Honduran jungle back in late 1939 and most of 1940.
In this book, Stewart juxtaposes his own travels and travails with Morde’s. Morde kept a fairly consistent journal — though he maddeningly left out coordinates to the actual city — and with these constant comparisons one realizes just how little has changed in the past 70 years on the Mosquito Coast. It is still miles and miles between villages, sometimes individual shacks. It is a wonder that people live there at all.
Morde returned to America a hero, having claimed to have found a city that he would one day return to excavate and explore. Then WWII began and he was recruited as a spy. He never got back to the magical place in the jungle mist. And he was always rather vague about what he saw. So what was Cuidad Blanca?
For Stewart’s part, he embraces his own weaknesses and does nothing to gloss over his own fears and doubts in the maddening trek. He is perfectly willing to share his own failings in his own journal of sorts. At times the jungle puts him on the brink of madness; at others it offers a clarity in which he can see things perfectly for the first time.
This is a detective story and an adventure in one. Stewart tries to unravel Morde’s cryptic clues while survive days upon days of humid, rugged terrain, dangerous bandits, poisonous wildlife and mental struggles.
The legend of the “white city” hasn’t lost any attention either. Just this summer, a piece was published about laser imagery finding the remains of the city. It says a great deal about human nature, as does Stewart’s book. The inkling inside each of us to explore and find “discover” something that was unknown, or lost — Atlantis, the Library of Alexandria, or the Holy Grail — and not just for wealth and fame. To be the one who did it, who accomplished something considering impossible.
This is a fascinating read and it’s got me wanting to go dig up by backyard. Just to see…
Thank you to HarperCollins for the review copy.
On Sale: 1/8/2013
Trimsize: 6 x 9
Pages: 288; $27.99
Ages: 18 and Up
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that this book is a wonderful window into an era past. Like Agatha Christie’s autobiography, the book is comprised of her life in her own words. Her grandson Mathew Prichard has painstakingly gathered her letters and postcards from her trip to a countries in the Dominion. She and her (first) husband were invited to accompany a Mr. Bates, Major Blecher and the Hiam family as part of a special envoy. They were acting as part of what was called the Dominion Mission of the British Empire Exhibition.
The exhibition itself was held in 1924-25 at Wembeley, which at the time, was the largest exhibition ever held. This merry party set out ahead of the exhibition to visit the various countries that would be presenting. Their stops included South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Honolulu and Canada. And a young, adventurous Agatha relished every moment of it.
She took a number of photographs (many of which have been printed in this book) as well as sending home letters and notes about her travels. She also kept a diary of her exploits abroad. These writings were well before those that would make her famous, but her sharp sense of humor is well in evidence.
Belcher is becoming very irritable. I don’t wonder really for his leg and foot are quite bad, bursting out in new places. The doctor says he must lie up and rest it, and he says he can’t afford the time. Bates had forgotten to get him more carbolic, and he’d had a tight boot on all day, the food in the hotel was atrocious, and the doctor has cut hum down to one whiskey and soda a meal, so matters nearly reached a climax last night! Also, he is getting very fed up with Major Featherston, who attaches himself to Belcher like a faithful dog, and comes up at all house of the day and night. ~Pg. 64
And later, Agatha assists in a funny and harmless prank.
She also takes up surfing, something that isn’t the first thing you might think of in association with the writer of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.
Interspersed in all of this fun and adventure, there are insights into her personal life. She left her young son at home in the capable hands of her nanny and her mother. There are also glimpses of a certain level of discontent with her husband Archie.
In addition to being of interest to literary fans, it is also an important record of the Golden Age of Travel and the reach of the British Empire between the wars. The idea that one could leave home for more than a year, and spend a month or two in one place is a level of luxury that is rarely available any more, but was somewhat common then. I’m not sure I will ever cease being fascinated with such a lifestyle.
In short, this book is a wonderful glimpse into the past, at one of the most prolific writer’s private life, and into the wit of a seemingly lovely lady.
Many thanks to the folks at HarperCollins for the review copy, and for sending images for inclusion in this post.
On Sale: 11/20/2012
Trimsize: 7 x 9 1/8
Pages: 384; $29.99
Ages: 18 and Up
Yesterday was spent in the car, driving nearly 800 miles from Savannah, GA to Greenup, IL. This morning I awoke early to the sound of … nothing. I suppose if I had listened carefully I could have identified small songbirds or a few crickets. My cousin cooked us all a delicious hearty breakfast, then I began reading a new book on his deck.
A bit before noon we headed down to the fairgrounds to watch the 4H Horse and Pony Show. Kids of various ages bring their equine to be judged on health and obedience as well as ridership.
We then went to the Fair Secretary’s Office and submitted our various entries for the Art and Ag Halls. I entered 11 photographs, but my cousin Rachael must have had 50! We grabbed some delicious lunch from the Smoke Shack then settled in for the trail portion of the event. The kids have to get their horses to go backwards around barrels, on wooden platforms and over timbers.
On the way home from the fair, we stopped to check in on a friend who is taking apart an old barn. This barn has stood across the road from my aunt and uncle’s house for as long as I can remember, and before that. It’s very strange to see a memory being dismantled.
We enjoyed a lovely sunset before grilling out then playing dominoes under the stars.
I found this one this weekend at The Paris Market. I could (and have) spent way too long sifting through the boxes of snaps in their basement. Anyway, the best part of this one is what was written on the back…
If you follow any of my other blogs, you probably already know that I visit my relatives in (very) rural Illinois just about every year. One of my favorite things to do there is sift thorough the random bits of paper in antique stores, or even in one of my grandparent’s houses. No one throws ANYTHING away there. Here are a few of my treasured finds.
Might have been a slightly intimidating ride in his car
Chicago was home to both the 1893 World’s Fair (Grand Columbain Exhibition) and the 1933 World’s Fair. This envelope with a letter was sent from the fair to someone at home. The letter was written on a single, long sheet of paper and the illustrations were hand-drawn.
It is almost time for me to escape the sweltering Southern sun for a summer with lightning bugs, a sky brimming with stars, and gardens full of deliciousness. Every year we go up to visit relatives in time to enjoy the annual county fair — on the same fairgrounds since 1888.
In honor of the impending trip, here are some of my favorite photos over the years.
By the time I reached college, I was tired of the the cold winters. I convinced my family to let me travel to Savannah and Charleston for spring break. I was never much for the party scene. I preferred poking around libraries, museums and old houses any day.
I was determined to see an historic plantation that was not a theme park. No ladies in hoop skirts, “acting” on the lawn. Luckily, I found Middleton Place Plantation. Since then, I have moved south and often take visitors up to this lovely, idyllic place.
Among other distinctions, Middleton Place has acres of gardens and grounds, which include the oldest living camellia plants, live oaks estimated to be 1000 years old, and hidden gardens.
The plantation was at one time a profitable rice farm. The farmyard is now a “working” museum with stables, blacksmith, weaver, and corral. Sheep and peacocks wander the lawns.
Bud the horse
The plantation sits on a bend on the Ashley River, about 14 miles upriver from Charleston and is a sanctuary for plenty of wildlife. Eagles are often seen as are plenty of water fowl, and the occasional alligator!
A few years ago, my parents lived in Virginia, near Washington DC. Rather than make the drive alone, I took the sleeper car from Savannah to Union Station in DC when I visited for Christmas. I didn’t sleep very well and was up early in the morning. So I snapped a few pictures of the towns we passed through. I was interesting to see a town center or a crossing from other side. It was like looking in a 2-way mirror. These were the buildings and storefronts that serve (or served) a purpose when train travel (and shipping) was king. Now, many of these are warehouses, or empty. Rusting, dilapidated and nearly forgotten. All captured from the window of a moving train.
On another purely frigid day, we went to the Biltmore. I was taken with it, much more than I expected to be. I’m the one that said, “That’s it? It’s kinda crappy…” when I saw the Cinderella Castle at Disney World. But as a devotee of Frederick Law Olmstead and historic architecture, I found a great deal to be enjoyed, inside and out. And, I’ll have to go back when it’s not so bitterly cold.
Inside the greenhouse
The head gardener’s name was Chauncey (his name inspired the character in Being There)