Friday, May 27, 2016

White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World by Geoff Dyer

I like to travel. I like to read books about travel. I want to share another's experiences in foreign places, especially locations that I will likely never get to. It is, as they say, a Wide, Wide World and taking a journey from the comfort of my reading chair without the hassle of luggage, noisy hotel rooms, and trying to decide where to eat lunch is much less stressful. 

My latest armchair adventure has been with author Geoff Dyer. He was just this week a guest at the library for another terrific author event. His book, White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World, was released earlier this month so his appearance in Louisville was one of the first stops on his book tour. Lucky us.

First of all, this book of nine tales is unlike many travel adventures that you might have read. The author states quite plainly that the stories are a mixture of fiction and non-fiction which makes the twists and turns more exciting as there is always a bit of mystery...did this really happen or not?

Geoff Dyer
For instance, in the titular piece, he and his wife (name changed from the real Rebecca to the made-up Jessica) are driving near White Sands National Park in New Mexico and stop to pick up a hitchhiker. All is well, until within minutes the car passes a sign:

Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers
Detention Facilities in Area

What happens from there includes much neurotic thinking (I laughed because I could follow every little byway of his fevered brain) and is as spooky as a Twilight Zone episode.  

Mr. Dyer read this chapter as part of his presentation but never did let us know how much of the event was real. Maybe all of it or maybe part was just a figment of his imagination.

It doesn't matter. The writing is excellent and entertaining and funny in a snarky sort of way. I couldn't wait to get home and read more.

So far I have traveled with Mr. Dyer to The Forbidden City in Beijing where he has a mild flirtation with a non-guide tour guide; to Tahiti in search of a Gauguin experience; and, to The Lightning Field, an art installation in the American desert. 

I had him autograph my hardcover copy of his book. He didn't seem to be in any hurry and we had a brief intense chat. He is British (and charming of course). I asked him what writers had influenced him or that he continued to read and he answered: John Berger, Annie Dillard, and Rebecca West.

He especially recommended Ms. West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, her 1200-page classic about Yugoslavia and the Balkans. He promised that if I read the first thousand pages and wanted to give it up to let him know and he would refund my money. (I told you he was charming.) Ms. West was one of the Dead Ladies in Jessa Crispin's book that I wrote about here.

As to Annie Dillard, Mr. Dyer wrote the preface to her collection of essays In Abundance (here) and also includes a quote from her in the front of his book:

The point of going not to see the most spectacular anything. It is simply to see what is there. We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place.

Mr. Dyer has taken her words to heart.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Birds of America by John James Audubon

I don't have a book to write about this week unless you want to count John James Audubon's historic Birds of America.

I took a little trip to the John James Audubon State Park which houses the Audubon Museum and Nature Center in Henderson, Kentucky. Just a two hour drive...pleasant enough.

Mr. Audubon was an ornithologist, naturalist, and painter. He  lived from 1785 to 1851. He spent some time in Louisville and then moved on to Henderson where he spent nine years tracking down, sketching, and painting the birds in the forests and along the shores. I suppose even the little songbirds that lived in his own backyard posed for him as well.

Audubon moved around a lot in pursuit of his mission to capture on paper all the birds of America and in trying to keep his family afloat financially.  It wasn't until the years between 1827 and 1838 that he found a Scottish engraver to create the copperplates used to print his paintings. The printing was done on handmade paper that measured 39.5 by 28.5 inches.

The museum has a huge selection of his original drawings, paintings, copies of the four volume, double-elephant folio containing 435 life-size watercolors, and an interesting collection of memorabilia including a buckskin outfit that he must have worn when he was tromping about in the woods and the case he used to carry his brushes.

Visitors are not allowed to take photos in the museum or I could show you some of the items on display. But this isn't a stuffy place. It is also a learning center. There is an observation area where one can watch the birds in a afternoon feeding frenzy. There is a classroom with snakes and turtles and a tank with fish from the park's lake on display. It is all quite well done.

I was tempted by the books in the gift shop but kept my wallet in my pocket.  A courageous move on my part.

I did take a few photos which I will share with you below.

This is the French chateau-style museum. It was built in 1938 by workers in the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC).

This fellow is the sculpture of Audubon's American Eagle 
that greets visitors to the museum.

Here are a few of the little wrens feeding as seen from the observation room. There is a sound system that let's you hear the gushing stream outside and the birdsongs.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The 40s: The Story of A Decade from The New Yorker

A generous friend brought me a book the other day. As you can imagine, I rarely turn down the gift of a book. It was one he wanted to pass on and thought I would like.

Oh, yes.

The book contains a collection of fine pieces from that illustrious magazine The New Yorker and is entitled The 40s: The Story of a Decade.

And what a decade it was. During the first half the world was at war and the second half was spent beginning recovery from that war.

I whooped out loud with glee when I opened the book to the Table of Contents. Oh, the riches. Here are pieces written during WWII by E.B. White, A.J. Liebling, along with John Hersey’s profile on the then Lieutenant John F. Kennedy.

There are post-war pieces by Edmund Wilson, Lillian Ross, and Rebecca West’s report on the Nuremberg trials.

And, oh, the section of Character Studies: Walt Disney, Edith Piaf, Duke Ellington, Albert Einstein, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Of course I read the book section first. Clifton Fadiman muses on Ernest Hemingway’s latest offering For Whom the Bell Tolls (he finds it to be a much deeper book than The Sun Also Rises), and Lionel Trilling gets a glimpse of the future in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a book he found to be “profound, terrifying, and wholly fascinating.” It is compelling to read these reviews written so soon after the now-famous books were just hitting the market.

There is also commentary on film, theatre, art and architecture, musical events, and fashion.

And of course it wouldn’t be The New Yorker without poetry - verses by William Carlos Williams, W.H. Auden, and Elizabeth Bishop - and fiction - Carson McCullers, John Cheever, and the first publication of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.

Irresistible! You can see why I am excited to have this book at hand. History combined with stellar writing. So much more convenient - even at almost 700 pages - than a mile-high pile of ten years’ worth of magazines.

It is one I will dip into slowly and savor every word.

P.S I am quite a fan of The New Yorker, especially its early years. You can read three of my previous posts on the writers from that era here, here, and here.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Aunt Dimity's Death by Nancy Atherton

Image result for aunt dimity's death

As John Cleese of Monty Python's Flying Circus used to say, “And now for something completely different.”

As a change from the Nordic Noir novels featuring police detective Martin Beck by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö and the Gothic goings on in Jane Eyre, I am now reading a gentle mystery: Aunt Dimity's Death by Nancy Atherton.

Here we have the story of Lori Shepherd who is grieving the death of her mother. She is surprised to discover that the bedtime stories her mother told her concerning the adventures of an Aunt Dimity were actually based on the exploits of a very real Dimity Westwood.

Upon learning that Aunt Dimity was a real person and then sadly of her death, Lori’s own adventures begin.

It turns out that Lori's mother (American) and Dimity Westwood (British) met and became fast friends in London during World War II. Lori’s mother moved back to America after the war yet she and Dimity kept up a 40-year correspondence. It was these letters from Dimity that birthed the bedtime stories.

Without going into too much of the plot, I can tell you that Lori’s experiences include being befriended by members of an old world law firm, taking up temporary residence in a cottage (perhaps haunted) in the Cotswolds, feasting on oatmeal cookies (recipe included), having tea with the elderly Pym sisters, and staying in a suite at a luxurious and historic London hotel.

Oh, and perhaps finding a little romance.

I am only halfway through this 200-page novel and am thoroughly enjoying the author’s lighthearted and descriptive prose. The Mystery revolves around the meaning of a tattered, black-and-white photograph of a misshapen tree and missing photo album pages. So far there haven't been any bloody bodies.

That's a relief!

This book, published in 1992, is the first in a series of now twenty-one Aunt Dimity mysteries. It appears that my library has them all in its ebook collection.

It is a pleasure to be in Aunt Dimity’s world, an “oasis of charm and dignity.” Sometimes that is just where I need to be.