Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Bicycle Diaries

Over the holidays, I've been reading like crazy. Yesterday I finished David Byrne's (of Talking Heads) The Bicycle Diaries. I had heard about it through USA Today, which is where I get many ideas about what I should be reading. I guess I assumed too much. I figured that Byrne, who has been using bicycles as his main form of daily transportation since the 80s, would preach about the benefits of biking over driving, and offer insight on all those things you can miss seeing and hearing if you're in an automobile instead of riding in open air. Not so.

Byrne covers cities all over the world and gives interesting facts about each. There is, however, a huge disconnect most of the time between the cities and their info, and how biking fits into this new-found knowledge. Byrne talks about all sorts of things, but they are things that I should think you could know about from visiting a city no matter what form of transportation you used while you were there.

Finally, he stops the jibber-gabber near the end of the book and gets around to talking about his work to make cities more biking-friendly. He's apparently pretty active in this movement in New York City, a place he says is getting better and better for bike riders all the time.

Typically I love reading memoir and especially when the writer covers places he or she has traveled. This time, though, it was a bust.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains

For my birthday in November, my best friend got me a great gift, a book called, Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains: A Guidebook. Lucky for me, I'll get to use it this week as I head to Asheville with my family to celebrate my parents' 35th wedding anniversary.

Back in September, I visited the Thomas Wolfe Memorial House and Carl Sandburg's home, Connemara. There is much more in the way of literary sites still to see in the Asheville area.

Check back at the end of the week for more!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

Besides finishing Cleaving today, I’ve also read Making Mischief: A Maurice Sendak Appreciation by Gregory Maguire. Sendak is the author and illustrator of my favorite children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, and the author and illustrator of many more books published in the last 50 or so years.

Maguire, author of Wicked, recently published this book to honor Sendak and his contributions to children’s literature in the past several decades. (Side note: Did anyone else try to read Wicked and have to put it down? I almost never do that, but I just couldn’t make it through. Should I give Wicked another try?). Maguire’s book comes out of a lecture he gave to the American Library Association to honor Sendak. I have always loved Where the Wild Things Are, but this book helped me see all the other books Sendak has worked on too.

To learn more about Sendak, check out:

Caldecott and Company by Maurice Sendak (essays)
The Art of Maurice Sendak by Selma Lane
The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to Present by Tony Kushner
Angels and Wild Things by John Cech
Article from the New York Times
Article on PBS’s web site

And just for fun, here is a picture of my Where the Wild Things Are Christmas ornament, on one of my trees at home.

Happy holidays!


Marriage isn’t easy. If you didn’t already know this and are thinking of one day being married to someone, you should try reading Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession by Julie Powell. The book was published this year as a follow-up to Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, the memoir (about a blog) that combined with Julia Child’s autobiography, My Life in France, turned into a movie, Julie & Julia. That movie turned out to be the most fun one I’ve seen all year.

Julie and Julia gave us such a rosy picture of marriage. Julie’s husband, Eric, though he didn’t completely understand why his wife would want to cook her way through a Julia Child cookbook in a year, supported her decision. Probably spending a year eating all of that wonderful food helped just a little. In the movie, the actor cast as Eric, Chris Messina, was a wonderful depiction of the Eric I enjoyed in the book version. I also thought Amy Adams was a great choice, though I was well aware of how wholesome she was compared to the Julie in the book version.

I was thrilled that Powell had published another memoir to follow up her first one, and I just finished reading Cleaving this morning. It doesn’t take long before you know first that Julie has been having an affair with someone and then you learn that Eric has been too. Each knows the other is seeing someone outside of the confines of their marriage, but they almost never talk about it, they just keep growing further apart.

Then Julie embarks upon a two-part journey that involves learning to become a butcher, first spending six months as an apprentice two hours outside of New York City, and second, traveling to South America, Africa and Asia to learn more about how butchery is done in other parts of the world. She undergoes a personal transformation during her travels alone, and though it is no Eat, Pray, Love, it is enough for she and Eric to decide after she returns to New York that their marriage is worth saving. It’s a good thing. I have to say I like them together.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

South of Broad by Pat Conroy

Last night I didn’t go to bed until I had finished Pat Conroy’s South of Broad. I think Conroy is a fantastic writer, and I think I enjoyed South of Broad even more because I’m only about four months out from having finished Beach Music, and it is still pretty fresh in my head. I’ve read a LOT of books, but I feel comfortable going out on a limb to say that Beach Music is one of the best I’ve ever read. As in top five for sure.

I enjoyed South of Broad almost as much. Both books and The Prince of Tides (the only other Conroy novel I’ve read so far) all have a lot in common: South Carolina, racial and class divisions, mental illness, family (those functioning well and those not), old friends, high school, and honor. I found South of Broad to have many of the things going on in it that were in Beach Music, but it wasn’t so much that I had to put the book down from time to time for a break from it. I had to do that a few times with Beach Music. There is a lot of heavy subject material in that book.

I think part of the reason I liked South of Broad so much is because I love Charleston. I’ve been lucky enough to visit a lot in the past 10 years or so, and it’s a wonderful place to spend some time. I love the harbor, the food, the market, Folly Beach and Isle of Palms, and I love looking out from the Battery and seeing Fort Sumter. So while I read South of Broad, I could pull up mental images of The Citadel and the College of Charleston, the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, and King Street.

This was the first time I’ve ever read an account of Hurricane Hugo that wasn’t in a newspaper or online. This massive monster of a storm showed up with only 60 pages to go in South of Broad. I was in fifth grade when Hugo hit and I remember it. I’m a North Carolina native, and I can remember most of the hurricanes that have hit North Carolina during my lifetime. Though my family and I didn’t take a direct hit by Hugo in 1989, my extended family members in South Carolina did.

I wrote my graduate school thesis about my great-grandmother. One of my favorite stories about her was what she did the night Hurricane Hugo came through her town, Sumter, SC. I told that story to show what kind of a person my great-grandmother was right from the get-go in Chapter One. (If you want to read it in its entirety, Google “Betsy Rhame” and “Sumter.” Pull up the PDF and see page 12.). The Washington Post wrote that “Hugo’s eye was described as very large, at 40 miles wide, and hurricane-force winds extended as far as 140 miles from it. Tropical storm winds of about 50 to 60 miles per hour reached 250 miles from the eye.” Sumter is home to Shaw Air Force Base, where they clocked wind speeds the night of Hugo at 109 miles per hour. People in Sumter still talk about what it was like the night Hugo came through in much the same way that I can recall everything that happened the nights of Fran and Floyd in Raleigh, NC.

I’ve been doing a thorough cleaning of my home office and last week came across several undergraduate English papers that I had gotten back from my professors. On one of them, my professor wrote, “I think readers who continually see connections between what they read and what they have lived are the readers who get the most satisfaction and pleasure from reading. Welcome to the club.”

Really, that’s what this blog is all about. It gives me great pleasure to read a Faulkner novel and then visit his home, to remember what stage of life I was in when I first read a particular novel, and to read a Conroy novel and know all the places he’s talking about.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol

When I went to Italy in 2004, it seemed as though half the people in our group of 50 were reading either Angels and Demons or The DaVinci Code. The DaVinci Code was published the year before, and Angels and Demons had appeal to our group since the action took place in Rome, the last stop on our itinerary. At the time, I was too deep into my third semester of graduate school, consumed by The Victorian Novel to have any idea what was all the rage in the publishing world. As I remember, I worked my way through Lady Audley’s Secret during downtime on the plane and tour bus. As soon as the semester ended, though, I borrowed the audio version of Angels and Demons from the library and enjoyed every minute of it. Later when I read The DaVinci Code, I still preferred Angels and Demons since when I read it I had just visited many of the landmarks in the novel. Typically, I am not much into reading mystery and suspense novels, but I enjoyed these because they were compelling and everyone else was reading them too. It won’t surprise anyone that I like to discuss what I’m reading with anyone who’s read the same thing.

As soon as The Lost Symbol was published I got on the waiting list for it at the library. When I first signed up, I was number 141 on the waiting list. Miraculously, it only took four months for my name to come up. I just finished the novel over the weekend and I enjoyed it. I just wish I remembered a bit more about my trips to Washington, D.C., at ages 10 and 12. I didn't know, of course, to be on the lookout for Masonic symbols then! I'll pay more attention one day when I visit again. I liked that it was less predictable for me than I thought it might be. I actually was surprised by a couple of things, and that was good.

One of the things I found most intriguing about reading The DaVinci Code was the stir it caused in some religious circles. I personally thought the nontraditional angle was interesting, and it gave me pause for sure. I haven’t heard near as many grumblings from the Masons, nor do I think I will. I have found, however, an interesting article on National Geographic's web site that brings to light some of the untrue Masonic myths that appear in The Lost Symbol.

I'm not in the habit of seeing all the movies I want to in the theater. I think it costs too much, especially considering how quickly movies get released on DVD these days. I’m a Netflix subscriber, and I think it’s a fabulous way to see movies on the cheap. I have seen The DaVinci Code, but I still haven’t seen Angels and Demons. At some point I will, and then I’ll be interested to see the movie interpretation of The Lost Symbol when it comes out. Have you read these books and seen these movies? What do you think?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Georgia music alive and well in Macon

The Georgia Music Hall of Fame has been hit hard by the economic downfall. The museum opened in 1996 in Macon. The facility has had financial difficulties this year as budgets and full-time staff members have been cut, and museum attendance has dwindled. Membership of the Music Hall of Fame, however, has grown this year, and the staff is optimistic for a better 2010. The museum will stay open until at least June 2010, and a $15 million fundraising campaign will also be launched next year.

One of the most well-known Georgia bands is the Allman Brothers, and they are featured in Macon’s Hall of Fame as 1998 inductees. The band occupied a mansion in Macon where many of their most well-known songs were written. They recorded at Macon’s Capricorn Studios, and member Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle accident in town.

The mansion where the band congregated is located at 2321 Vineville Avenue, and the house has undergone extensive renovations in the last few years. It opened to the public December 5, 2009, as an Allman Brothers Museum called The Big House. In collaboration with The Georgia Music Hall of Fame, the two will promote events together and have committed to educating the public about Georgia music.

To visit these two musical Macon museums, check out their web sites. To find out more about becoming a member of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, visit their web site. I visited the museum myself back in July and enjoyed it enough to consider going back next time I'm in Macon. Read about my first visit here.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Peacocks and Prizes

According to Flannery O’Connor biographer Brad Gooch, the late writer identified with the nearly 40 peacocks she bought while living on her family’s farm. Gooch said in a CNN interview in 2009 that she “made an effort to make the peacock her own personal logo.” A peacock feather is part of the cover art on Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor published this year. A peacock and its feathers are also draped across the cover of my well-worn copy of The Complete Stories.

This summer when I visited Andalusia, O’Connor’s farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, the director of the historic site, Craig Amason, told me a secret. The farm would soon again be home to peacocks. I was excited to hear the news and promised not to let the cat out of the bag. The peacocks have now arrived. To read more about this, visit Andalusia’s blog.

While we’re on the topic, in case you haven’t heard, The Complete Stories, which won the National Book Award in 1972, beat out five other writers (including two of my other favorites, William Faulkner and Eudora Welty) to win Best of the National Book Award Winners. Read more about the National Book Foundation here.