Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton



The Art of Travel (2002) by Alain de Botton is an education in itself.  If you are thinking it is all about how to pack your suitcase, how to breeze through customs, or how to take a cruise and not get seasick, you would be wrong. 

Instead, the book is filled with art, literature, personal experience, poetry, architecture, and adventure. 

I love a book like this.

Pleasing to read, full of information, and just the right size to carry with you on your travels - whether real or armchair.

Mr. de Botton opens each of the five sections of the book with a personal experience about a place he has visited. Thereby we swoop from Barbados to which he escapes from a dreary British winter to England's Lake District and on to Madrid, Provence, and Amsterdam. Our trip also includes musings on the banality and the sterility of airports and motorway rest stops. 

His travel guides, though, are not Baedecker or Fodor but instead the lives and works of, among others, poets William Wordsworth and Charles Baudelaire, artists Edward Hopper and Vincent Van Gogh, author Gustave Flaubert, explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, and art critic John Ruskin. 

Oh, this book, that takes a look at how we travel and why we travel and how perhaps we could get more out of our travels, is a delight. The author examines the disconnect between the promises of the glossy travel brochure and our actual experiences upon arrival at our destination. And how we let someone or something - tour guide or researched tour book - take us to sites that we really have no interest in whereas we might do better to follow our own curiosity. Or how a certain fictional character, Joris-Karl Huysmans' Des Esseintes, found that sitting in a British pub in Paris offers the same atmosphere and experience as a rowdy pub in London without ever having to pack a trunk. 

Yes, I can highly recommend The Art of Travel whether you are preparing for a trip around the world or simply settling in to your armchair. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thomas Wolfe House and Museum

Thomas Wolfe House
Asheville, North Carolina

My time in Asheville, although short, was informative and relaxing. The weather was cool and clear; the Blue Ridge Mountains were blue, as promised; and I found two bookstores which always makes for a pleasant adventure.

Asheville is a very literary town although it is probably more well known for its painters, potters, weavers and other craft artists.

Since I won't be taking a Grand Southern Literary Tour this year as I did in 2012 and 2013, this trip will have to be known as my Petite Southern Literary Tour 2014.

The highlight was a visit to the Thomas Wolfe House and Museum which was conveniently located right across the street from my hotel. I relished the entire experience from watching the 20-minute biographical film; strolling through the museum that plotted the author's short life (he died in 1938 just weeks short of his 38th birthday); and touring the house in which lived with his mother, Julia, who ran it as a boarding house.

I sat in one of the old-fashioned rocking chairs on the front porch as our tour guide, David, gave us an overview of Wolfe's life and the years spent living in the house known as the Old Kentucky Home. There were only two other folks on the early morning tour so the visit was quite leisurely and intimate.

We visited the small room off the kitchen that Wolfe's hard-working mother slept in. There were the grander first floor room of his father's; the small and large guest rooms; the dreary formal parlor at the front of the house; the lovely sun room that reminded me of my grandmother's house; and the dining room where the boarders ate three meals a day. 



Julia Wolfe's tiny room off the kitchen.


One of the nicer guest rooms.


A lovely window seat in the dining room.


This house, of course, was the setting for Wolfe's autobiographical novel Look Homeward, Angel (1929). When it was published, the story made the people of Asheville furious. The tale exposed the somewhat trashy behavior of the citizens of this mountain town. The real adulterers, the alcoholics, the embezzlers were all easily identified and Thomas was not welcomed back to his hometown for many years.  

While the house contained the prosaic furnishings of his years there, it was the museum, featuring the author's personal items that fascinated me.



Wolfe's desk from his New York apartment. All items were 
brought back to Asheville upon his death.


Close-up of the three books on Wolfe's desk. 
(I cannot decipher the 
title of the red book.)


There are those who think Thomas Wolfe was a genius and there are those who think he was simply too verbose and who get lost in his wandering sentences. I must admit that I have not read anything by Mr. Wolfe, other than perhaps a random quote or two, so I do not know into which camp I might fall.

What has been your experience, if any, with Thomas Wolfe?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Look Homeward, Asheville

Thomas Wolfe Memorial
Thomas Wolfe home in Asheville, North Carolina.
Circa 1908

I am going on a little trip to Asheville, North Carolina. It is a cozy town in the Blue Ridge Mountains full of arts and food and shops and a castle. Or what passes for a castle in America: The Biltmore Estate, the enormous home built in the late 1800s by George Vanderbilt II, grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt. It has something like 250 rooms and acres upon acres of farms, gardens and vineyards.

But I am not going there this time. 

I am just going to poke around the shops and galleries and, you know me, a couple of bookstores. It will be nice to be in the cool mountains for a couple of days.

Also on my agenda is a visit to the home of Thomas Wolfe which is located just a few blocks from my hotel. I have visited it before. At that time it stood as the original boarding house (oddly enough named Old Kentucky Home) that Mr. Wolfe lived in when he was a young man and used for the setting of his novel Look Homeward, Angel. The structure standing today is pretty much a replica as the actual house and many of its original artifacts were extensively damaged by fire (arson) in the late 1990s. 

I know I should be taking a copy of Mr. Wolfe's book but I am not. Instead I will pack my Kindle (I am currently reading Agatha Christie's A Body in the Library) and one hardcover book: The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. I bought and read this book when it first came out in 2002. It not only takes on travel - why we go places and yet are likely to be disappointed once we arrive - but art, biography, history, architecture, and philosophy. Heady stuff. I look forward to reading it again. I like that it has pictures of many of the paintings and places that Mr. de Botton discusses. 

I do believe it will be the perfect traveling companion.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright


Garnet (with the braids) and her friend Citronella
 enjoy a retreat in their tree house during 
Thimble Summer.

If you are already bored with summer, perhaps you might enjoy stepping into Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright. First published in 1938, Thimble Summer is about a way of life, that has all but vanished, on a small farm in America's Midwest.

It is an account of the summer of 10-year-old Garnet Linden. Her lucky summer, as it turns out, after she finds a silver thimble in the mud while walking along the dried-up river bank. A river whose waters are slowly sinking lower and lower due to the drought.

But once Garnet holds the thimble in her hand, things begin to change. The rains come and the summer turns out to be one she won't soon forget, nor will the reader. Garnet's days are filled with adventure and friendship, bus trips and barn raisings, dime store shopping and chicken chasing, the slow fattening of her hog Timmy, and a day at the fair that includes three ice cream cones and a blue ribbon. 

This tale captures the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and joys - along with plenty of hard work - of living on a farm before televisions, cellphones, and computers. I read it in two sessions over the recent cool weekend while sitting on my front porch. It was the perfect setting.

The book won the Newbery Medal in 1939. Read it and you will see why. The color illustrations and line drawings created by the author are a bonus.

Here is the account of Garnet's awakening on Fair Day:

Garnet woke up early. Before she was quite wide awake she lay with her eyes closed, half afraid to look for fear it might be raining. But even with them closed she knew it was going to be all right because the color behind her lids was clear and rosy and she knew the sunlight lay upon them. And she heard crickets in the meadow, and a fly buzzing against the screen, and somebody whistling outside. So it was all right and she opened her eyes. Oh what a day! She held up her arm in the sunlight; all the little hairs on it glittered like fine gold, and her closed fingers were ember-colored as if there were a light inside them. 

Now, don't you wish you had a lucky thimble?

Friday, July 4, 2014

A Fourth of July Reading List


The Fourth of July, the celebration of American independence, is one of my favorite holidays. The other is Thanksgiving which we celebrate in November. Both are very American holidays and neither involve presents, only parades, good food, football in the fall and baseball in the summer.

I went to a baseball game last night. My home team is the Louisville Bats, the AAA affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. I love our downtown stadium with its views of the bridges crossing the Ohio River. I love the sweet smell of the funnel cakes (that fried bread dusted with powdered sugar) and the mouth-watering aroma of onions and green peppers simmering on the grill. Everyone at a baseball game is in a good mood.

Last night was a perfect evening - cool and a bit overcast - but no chance of a rain-out. And when the game was over, fireworks exploded in the sky - a very Fourth of July festival of freedom.

If I had to come up with a Fourth of July reading list it would include: 

John Adams by David McCullough

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman ("I hear America singing...")

Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain

and, of course,

The Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson.

Any thoughts on others?

Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson


Many years ago, I took my first solo road trip. I was very proud of myself for mapping out a route that took me through the western part of Kentucky and Indiana. I ended my trip with two nights spent at one of Kentucky's many lovely state parks, Pennyrile, near Dawson Springs.

I tell you this because for some reason during my stay there I decided it would be a fun experience to hike one of the park's many trails.  It was my first experience with solo hiking (or really any hiking for that matter) and one that I won't be doing again. I took off on a very, very gentle quarter-mile loop through the forest. Soon after entering the woods it occurred to me that I was so alone, that no one knew where I was or would miss me if I didn't return to my room (at least until checkout time) and that if there was an axe murderer in the vicinity, he was probably just behind that tree! I told myself not to be silly and continued on stumbling over tree roots, tripping on the smallest rocks, swatting insects, and listening intently for that axe murder. Or even a bear...

Let's just say I couldn't see the forest for the fears.

I survived, of course. But I kept thinking of that experience as I read Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, an account of his attempt to hike the entire 2100-plus mile Appalachian Trail that stretches from Georgia to Maine. 

What was he thinking?

Mr. Bryson is one of my favorite authors and I would follow him anywhere - even along the grueling AT, as it is called.

As is his way, Mr. Bryson not only informs but entertains and causes one to smile, chortle, and laugh out loud at his shenanigans. He had a much worse time of it than I did on my little 1320-foot trek. 

He sets off one fine spring day in March with his childhood (and terribly out of shape) buddy, Steve Katz. Soon, spring has turned to winter and they find themselves slogging through knee-high snow. They meet other intrepid hikers along the way. They despair of aching muscles, noodle dinners, soaking wet clothes, struggles with expensive and unwieldy equipment, a million irritating insects, rushing streams, a possible nighttime visit by a bear (never actually confirmed), and a multitude of other horrors that are to be experienced in the deep, dark woods.

And this was just the first day.

To be fair, every now and then along the way they were rewarded for their efforts with a fine view or a shower and a good meal when the trail happened to cross near a town. But most of the trip sounded totally exhausting. And, really, not all that much fun although Bryson makes it sound enticing in a masochistic sort of way.

I read A Walk in the Woods to further prepare me for reading Walden. I was amused to read Bryson's jab at Thoreau:

The American woods have been unnerving people for 300 years. The inestimably priggish and tiresome Henry David Thoreau thought nature was splendid, splendid indeed, so long as he could stroll to town for cakes and barley wine, but when he experienced real wilderness, on a visit to (Mount) Katahdin in 1846, he was unnerved to the core. This wasn't the tame world of overgrown orchards and sun-dappled paths that passed for wilderness in suburban Concord, Massachusetts, but a forbidding, oppressive, primeval country that was "grim and wild...savage and dreary," fit only for "men nearer of kin to the rocks and wild animals than we." The experience left him, in the words of one biographer, "near hysterical."

I feel your pain, Henry.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Adventures of Henry Thoreau by Michael Sims


We bookish sorts can't always stop at having one edition of a certain book, so it might not surprise you to know that I have two copies of Henry David Thoreau's Walden

One copy is a Modern Library edition (1937) that contains not only Walden, but Thoreau's Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Walking, and Civil Disobedience. 

The other volume contains only Walden and I bought it simply because I liked the cover with its autumn leaves and examples of early penmanship:




Even though these two editions sit on my shelves, I have yet to read Thoreau's account of his two years, two months, and two days spent in a tiny cabin on the banks of Walden Pond.

But, as August 9th of this year will mark the 160th anniversary of the publication of this classic, it seems a fitting time to finally hunker down and find out just what went on during those years in the woods.

In preparation for this occasion, I just finished reading Michael Sims's biography of this strange and brilliant fellow in The Adventures of Henry Thoreau (2014). The book looks at Thoreau's life growing up in Concord, Massachusetts, his wanderings in the forests and fields and his excursions on the waterways in the area, and his fascination with the tales of the native Americans who once hunted and lived on the very land that he now walked. I learned about his friendships with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and other literary movers and shakers of the time. And, I found out that the first word in his first journal was Solitude. 

Although Thoreau graduated from Harvard and taught school for a while he never really could settle down to a steady profession. He helped his father in the family pencil manufacturing business, did some tutoring, and took on a few odd jobs. Over the years, he became an abolitionist, spent a night in jail for refusing, on principle, to pay a state tax, wrote bad poetry, and kept on writing in his journals. 

By the time Thoreau died of tuberculosis at the age of forty-four, Mr. Sims writes, "he had written two million words in this private storehouse, filling seven thousand pages in forty-seven volumes between October 1837 and November 1861."

The tale presented here is based on information gathered from letters and diaries of Thoreau's family and friends and the author has put together an informed look at the young man's searching for self and solitude. Mr. Sims has an intriguing way of bringing the reader into the time and place of Thoreau's world with historical details, sights, and sounds of that era. Reading this biography has certainly introduced me to this quirky fellow journal keeper.

And although I am certainly not off to build a cabin in the woods, I will open to the first pages of Walden and pretend. Care to join me?