Saturday, June 28, 2014

50 States - Iowa

In an earlier entry of the 50 States series, I pointed out that the tourism office for Nebraska had its work cut out for it. However, its neighbor Iowa is perhaps underachieving. For a state with a reputation as a boring cornfield, the region had a lot more to offer than I would have guessed.

We used Des Moines as our home base. Des Moines was a surprisingly cosmopolitan place with a delightful riverfront park and an incredible amount of public art.


One must-see for me was the Pomodoro sphere at a regional insurance company's headquarters building which also had a lobby full of avant garde works.


Des Moines is also the state capitol and the grounds of its state house are crowded with the usual kitsch like replica Liberty Bells and Statues of Liberty but they also have lots of oddly suggestive metaphorical statuary.


We took a day trip across the state and our first stop was at the Maytag Cheese dairy which makes restaurant grade bleu cheese. The dairy is owned by descendants of the founder of the appliance company with the same name but is not affiliated with the washer makers.


We ended up in another area not coincidentally named after an appliance manufacturer, the Amana colonies. These towns were the homes of a communitarian religious sect where there was no private property. Many of the former communal houses still exist and the common dining halls have been converted to homestyle German influenced restaurants.


But perhaps Iowa's biggest attraction even many years after the book and movie peaked are the Bridges of Madison County. There are seven of them and it is nearly a full day to hunt them all down. But they are worth the effort.

In addition to the bridges themselves, the town of Winterset is undeniably quaint. You can even sit at the same lunch counter stool Clint Eastwood sat on.


Iowa was a decidedly delightful destination, well worth a stop in one's travels.

Monday, June 16, 2014

50 States - Tennessee

Of the 50 states, our very first trip to Tennessee was a getaway vacation to the Pigeon Forge region of the Great Smokies. It was our last fling before the birth of our son. It would be over a decade before we made it back through again.

Long before I became a bourbon snob, I went to the Jack Daniels distillery, infamously in the dry county of Moore County, Tennessee. This was my first tour of a major distillery and it had a lot of folksy charm. You could see the wood palates being made into charcoal for the famous charcoal filtering. Said filtering being about the only substantial difference between a Tennessee whiskey and a bourbon, the former being technically a sub-class of the latter. 


This was in 2003 and I was accompanying my wife to a teacher conference in Nashville. Nashville itself is the country music capitol and noplace more so than along Broadway where over a dozen bars have up to four bands a night working mostly for tips. It's a music smorgasbord. Just a block off of Broadway is the historic Ryman Auditorium which looks like a church from the outside but was designed from the start as a music venue. Part of the fun of watching the TV show Nashville is spotting places in town I've seen.

Nashville also has some unique tourist attractions for specific definitions of 'unique'. The oddest is the full scale replica of the Parthenon in Greece. This building is a recreation of the ruins most people are familiar with down to the statues on the inside.


A few years later we passed through Tennessee again, this time stopping in Memphis which has a musical history of its own. And the most famous spot in Memphis is Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. As perhaps the ultimate tacky tourist attraction, Graceland is so frozen in time as to be a historical document. It's tough to pick which room is the most over the top but my money goes on the media room with three TVs, one for each network.


And that only touches on the tip of all Tennessee has to offer. There is blues on Beale Street and the mountain getaways of Pigeon Forge. If you want good food, strong booze, or plentiful music, the state has something for everybody.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

BooksFirst: April-May 2014

Books Bought

Alison Wonderland by Helen Smith

Audiobooks Bought
The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
Lunatics by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel
Screw Everyone by Ophira Eisenberg
One More Thing by B.J. Novak
Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

Books Read

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk  by Ben Fountain
The Hammer of Witches by Shana Miwalski
Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis
Alison Wonderland by Helen Smith

Books Heard

Swamplandia by Karen Russell
The Fault In Our Stars by John Greene
Lunatics by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel


One of the most recommended books of 2013 from the podcasts I listen to was Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk  by Ben Fountain. As the title suggests, the story takes place at a football game, a Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys game shortly after the beginning of the Iraq War to be exact. Billy Lynn is one member of a squad being honored during a halftime performance by a pre-break-up Destiny's Child. 

The technical tour de force is that with a very minimum of flashbacks, the entire novel takes place between the arrival and the departure of Billy and his fellow squad members at the stadium. And a lot happens in between. It's almost unfair to go into all the incidents and running stories but they involve cheerleaders, Hollywood agents, greedy sports team owners, and jingoistic fans. 

The only complaint, and one that I was aware of because of reviews beforehand, is that Billy as a nineteen-year-old enlistee is perhaps a bit too sophisticated in his worldview. As a first person narrative, he thinks A LOT. Also, some of the irony from hindsight is just a little too pat. But the book is a great look at a rather specific time and place.

Shana Miwalski is the second member of the website whose book I've read. John Perich has written two thrillers, reviewed here and here. Miwalski is working in a different genre, young adult historical fantasy. In her Hammer of Witches world, the era of Christopher Columbus has real magic which is being suppressed by an organization parallel to the never-expected Spanish Inquisition. 

Like Harry Potter, Baltasar Infante is a presumed orphan who is unaware of his powers and destiny until he joins an expedition to the yet unfounded New World. There he must battle multiple other magical factions. 

The book is strongest in Spain as young Baltasar figures out his true heritage. The story bogs down when they all reach Hispaniola and the magic starts flying fast and furious. The magic itself is clever and internally consistent but there is no real explanation of how it remains so hidden if it is so powerful and widespread.

Columbus as a character is cut down the middle between the noble explorer of grade school history and the evil genocide of, say, Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch (a book I have tried multiple times to finish). By being ambiguous on Columbus, it pulls its punches a little. There are a couple of strong female characters in the book and it is a quick read but I'm not sure it really breaks new ground.

Anything by Michael Lewis is worth reading and Flash Boys is no exception. It is an exceptionally technical story about how a stock trader discovered that this orders were being front-runned by high frequency trading (HFT) programs that were using advantages measured in nanoseconds. It's a maxim that the real scandal is not always what is illegal but what is perfectly legal. And front-running is not only perfectly legal, it seems like the means to do it were deliberately baked into the system.

In some ways this book is a good counterpoint to his very first book Liars' Poker in that it shows just how much the world of finance has changed in just a few decades. Rather than loud mouthed Big Swinging Dicks, the real money is made by secretive quants running obscure algorithms to make low margin high volume trades. 

That front-running is intrinsically unfair seems obvious but regulators and brokers seem oddly indifferent to it. The one hero is Brad Katsuyama who not only discovers how he is being sniped but sets up an exchange designed to deliberately negate the advantages the HFT programs have. 

The book is fairly short and often reads like a padded out magazine article which may be what it started out as. There are certain break points where the topic and point of view change. And the book should be generating more outrage than it has.

Another light fantasy is Alison Wonderland which I bought on my Kindle based on some good blurbs and a deep discount from Amazon. I am a sucker for Lewis Carroll related whimsy but this novel only had the thinnest of connections, mostly the character's name.  

Alternating between first person and third person segments, it tells of a woman working for an odd detective agency that gets tangled up with an incompetent secret conspiracy. Also involved are genetic experiments gone wrong, baby-snatching new age hippies, and un-whacky neighbors. 

The novel keeps crossing the line between absurd and merely silly. The improbable events stack up without ever really paying off. Characters drift in and out and random. And none of the story threads really tie together. I really tired to like this book but could never just get into the spirit of it.

 Swamplandia is another award-winning novel that came highly praised by sources I respect. But it too had some serious flaws. I love tales from southern Florida but I lean towards the Dave Barry/Carl Hiaasen absurdist branch. Karen Russell's variety of Florida Gothic is much more ochre-colored than the dark humor I prefer.

The story takes place around a tourist attraction which is seedy and run down by even Florida standards. Swamplandia is an alligator wrestling theme park of dubious authenticity which has fallen on hard times. Our heroine, Ava Bigtree goes on a Dante-esque quest to rescue her mentally ill sister from ghosts who may or may not be hallucinations. Meanwhile her brother goes to work at a rival theme park with an equally Dante-esque motif. 

Like Alison Wonderland, it alternates between first person and third person segments which gives it the feel of being two separate stories mashed together. It seems that the Ava parts were expanded from an award-winning short story while the Kiwi sections are original to this novel. 

Part of the difficulty with the novel is the odd jargon and syntax. The Bigtrees call alligators "Seths" and what is amusing at first just becomes eventually tiresome. And the symbolism of Ava's red seth is troublesomely obvious as it is associated with a disturbingly brutal portion of the book. The humor and wry observations don't really make-up for the gut-punching darkness. 

Teen fiction has been dominated by dystopian fantasies like the Hunger Games series (reviewed here and here) but the hottest book of the past couple of years has been the cancer weepie The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. My entry into John Green was through his YouTube Vlog Brothers series which are quickly edited stream of conscience videos. I wasn't too sure how that frantic voice would translate into a novel length story. Very well as it turns out.

The story of the novel and the forthcoming major motion picture is about a teenage girl with near-terminal (if that can be such a thing) cancer who meets a hunky cancer survivor at a support group meeting. But as one might expect, the course of true love doesn't run smooth. You just know someone's going to be crying by the end of the book, most likely the reader. Since I was listening to the audiobook it made for some tough driving in places.

What makes the book different is the humor, which is mostly John Green's voice. Hazel and Augustus have chemistry that just leaps out. Their banter is both witty and heartwarming. One tirade about eggs being unfairly pigeonholed as a breakfast food is hilarious. The book deliberately subverts a lot of the tropes when telling stories about dying teenagers. It's reputation is well-deserved and definitely merits an audience beyond the teenaged girl vlogger audience Green has cultivated.

I've been on a bit of a Dave Barry tear lately and a friend recommended a book he cowrote with Alan Zweibel called Lunatics. The titular crazy men are two soccer dads from suburban Jersey who let a refereeing dispute get way out of hand. And I mean WAAAAY out of hand. When I accused Insane City of not living up to the promise of its title, no such charge will stick with this book. Each situation the two gets more and more outrageous. The point of suspension of disbelief is reached real early in the book and every thing after that gets more and more ludicrous.

The highlight of the book occurs very early and involves a Prius on the George Washington Bridge and a runaway lemur. By the time the various international incidents start occurring, the shark has been jumped.

The majority of the book is told as alternating first person narratives and the two characters do have very distinct personalities. On the audiobook they are read by the two authors which adds quite a good bit of texture. Towards the end when the point of view shifts to news report parodies, it starts to lose its immediacy.

A little Barry goes a long away and Lunatics goes on way too long. 


Friday, May 02, 2014

50 States - Kentucky

Of the 50 states, Kentucky has been featured twice already on this blog in my series of comparisons of bourbon distilleries. Here is Day One and here is Day Two.

The third day never quite got written up because it was just one distillery, Jim Beam. They were tasting Bookers and Red Stag, two brands I have bought on my own since then. The tour was very folksy, a trait I hope they haven't lost in the new visitor center they have built since we went there.


The second day of our stop in Louisville included a tour of Churchill Downs in full preparation for the Kentucky Derby. The place is very impressive and the tour included tons of areas such as the jockey lounge and the luxury boxes that you would never get to see on Derby Day.


In addition to the full Bourbon Trail which consists of the six distilleries we went to (but not Bufflao Trace which we also toured), there is the Urban Borubon Trail in Louisville. This is a long list of bars which serve bourbon and if you visit enough they will send you a tee shirt and a flask. Never one to ignore a challenge we managed to hit enough in two nights to qualify.



Just down the street from our rather large and gorgeous bed and breakfast was even a little dive bar nowhere near the Urban Bourbon Trail but still a good place for a late night drink.


Kentucky might be a great place to visit even if you aren't a bourbon fan, but if you are, it truly is the mother lode.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

50 States - Utah

Even though we have been to all 50 states, that doesn't mean we've stopped traveling. One case in point is Utah. We first went through there in 2006 on our cross country trip where we spent one night in Salt Lake City and did the whole Church Of Latter Day Saints tour. Salt Lake City is one of the cleanest places I've ever been. Even the bums have a certain fresh-faced glow to them. And the LDS tour guides are preternaturally perky.


And the salt flat are the flatest place I've ever been and I used to drive across Florida once a month.


On a later tour of the Southwest, we went from Monument Valley up to Mexican Hat just touch base on the each of the four corners (Four Corners itself was closed but that is another story).


But we still felt we hadn't gotten the full Utah experience so this year's Spring trip was to hit all five of the national parks in Utah. Of the five, Zion was the most gorgeous and lush. Full of steep canyons and thick woods, it was a hiking paradise. The compact limited access park had a well run shuttle service and a simple but gorgeous lodge.


From there it was a fantastically scenic drive to Bryce Canyon. Unlike Zion which is at the bottom of the canyon, Bryce is usually viewed from the top. To see the inside of the canyon, we took one of the tourist mule rides down to the pine tree floor and then back up. Far easier than hiking it but I ended up sore anyways.


Going through Capitol Reef was a last minute audible and allowed us to check of perhaps the least known of the five Utah parks. Put it still had stunning views and marked the transition from semi-arid to deep desert.


Arches National Park in Moab is a big draw for the eponymous arches and they are impressive, both day and night. I particularly fell in love with Skyline Arch, perhaps one of the more under-rated ones.


Less than an hour from Arches is Canyonlands, a far more rugged park which literally does not have running water. We went to the Islands In The Sky section just because it was closest to Moab and were amazed by the views. Canyonlands also has its own arch, Mesa Arch which was the match of any of its cousins down the road.


Utah just has amazing scenery nearly everywhere you look.

Monday, April 14, 2014

50 States - Idaho

It was about this time last year that we visited the penultimate of our 50 states, Idaho. Idaho had lingered long on the list because it's hard to get to and there is not much to see if you are not a hardcore skier. But it turns out there is more to Idaho than meets the eye. Boise in particular is a delightful college town, home to the Boise State Broncos and their signature blue field.


As the capitol of the state, it has the requisite huge capitol building complete with a replica Liberty Bell.


Downtown Boise is rather quaint with old buildings, one of which houses a very prominent drag bar.


Just outside of Boise the Snake River, which seems to snake through most of the state, is home to grand overlooks and raptors.


But most of Idaho is rural at best. One area, the Craters of the Moon National Monument, is so foreboding as to be frightening.



Our last stop in Idaho was at Idaho Falls where a childhood friend of mine has been living for over thirty years.


The town of Idaho Falls had the requisite Mormon Temple as well as a bar that Harrison Ford hangs out in when he is in the area.


Idaho has charm and wonderful scenery but nothing can change how incredibly remote it is.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

50 States - California - Los Angeles

When people think of California, they usually think of Los Angeles. This seems natural since the movie industry is based there and its images such as the Mann Chinese Theater and the Hollywood sign.


LA also has beautiful beaches and the funky side show that is Venice Beach about any time of day.


Even the streets are famous. On Rodeo Drive there is the Beverley Wilshire where Pretty Woman took place and the Whiskey on Sunset Strip where about everything has happened.


I can see why people love LA.

Update: I haven't been back to LA since that trip in 2003 but I've been to lots of other places in California since then. See my comment below for links ot other photos.

50 States - California - Bay Area

California has been described to me by a Californian as a really great country club with pretty steep initiation dues. Of the 50 states, California has the most variety to offer. Nowhere does this seem truer than in central California where there are beaches, mountains, and culture all withing easy purview. Nothing is more emblematic of the wealth of the west coast than San Simeon, the home of Randolph Hearst and the inspiration for Citizen Kane:


Between there and San Francisco, there is amazing natural beauty including elephant seals lolling on the beach and the zen-like beauty of the Lone Cyprus along the Seventeen Mile Drive in Monterey to the pristine vistas of Pebble Beach.


This all eventually leads to San Francisco with the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and the chilling isolation of Alcatraz.


From Alacatraz you can see the great skyline of San Francisco itself. And San Francisco itself has the elegance of the Palace of Arts.


All the photos in this post and the accompanying Flickr set where scanned in from our trip in 2002 but I have been back to the San Francisco Bay area many times since and there is always something new to see or explore.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

BooksFirst- March 2014

Books Bought

You Can Date Boys When You're Forty by Dave Barry
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas by John Scalzi
The Hammer of Witches by Shana Miwalski

Books Read

You Can Date Boys When You're Forty by Dave Barry
The Elephants of Style: A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English by Bill Walsh
Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas by John Scalzi


Last year Dave Barry came through DC promoting his first novel in a long time Insane City which I kind of faint-praised in my review. So I was a bit reluctant to shell out hard cash when he came through DC again this year pushing his latest collection of essays You Can Date Boys When You Are Forty. Boy, was I wrong. This book was literally laugh out loud funny. I would just chuckle constantly as I read it. In addition to the titular essay about the travails or raising a teenaged daughter, he talks about growing old and life in general.

I'm really not sure what makes him so funny but a lot of it is his dead pan observations of actual life. He just manages to get straight to the heart of any topic in a way that is instantly recognizable.

Bill Walsh is a professional editor at the Washington Post who has a monthly online chat where he regularly refers to his books. Liking the chat, I went and bought his best reviewed book, The Elephants of Style. The allusion to the Strunk and White classic is deliberate and indicative of his irreverent style.

Unfortunately, when all is said and done, it's still a book about nitpicky grammar debates. Walsh leans towards the descriptivist camp rather than prescriptionist (neither word which passes muster with spell-check) which is the way I lean as well. On most topics, he lays out what the dispute is, what the various sides assert and then gives the side he comes down on.His advice is always sound and logical but it's still arbitrary.

At the end of the book he just outright starts padding. There is a certain random cotton candyesqueness to his musings. It's a fun read but not solid enough to serve as a reference book.

In the past couple of decades, two styles of books have been winning Hugos, heavy tomes and light-hearted romps. Redshirts is definitely the latter. Borrowing heavily from the tropes of television science fiction, the novel is about a young ensign on a military style exploratory space ship NOT named the Enterprise who becomes concerned about the high casualty rates for landing parties. It seems anyone other than the headstrong captain, the stoic science officer or the folksy medical doctor is doomed. And while not always meeting a fatal end, the eastern European accented navigation officer always seems a little too close to the center of the action.

At this point, it could have become farce along the lines of Galaxy Quest, but instead it becomes very intriguing metafiction. And while there is a little patchouli whiff of dorm room existentialism in the philosophy, it does become an interesting treatise on the nature of reality and fiction. It has a little of the self-awareness of Jasper Fforde novels but not quite as much cutesy cloyingness. It is a slight breezy read, but well worth the effort.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

50 States - Washington

On the same trip in 2004 when we visited Oregon, we spent most of the trip in the state of Washington. Using Seattle as a home base, we took a big loop around the area. Seattle is home to a major coffee chain you may have heard of. In Seattle they use the original logo with mermaid hair not so strategically placed.


Their first store is right near the Pike Street Market which is also where they throw fish around.


From Seattle we headed down to Mount Ranier which is a truly majestic mountain.


From there it was down to Mount St. Helens which has still to recover from the catastrophic volcanic explosion. Downstream of the crater is a lake full of timber still floating waterlogged.


After a brief sojourn in Oregon, we headed back towards Seattle via the Olympic Peninsula. The Pacific Coast is rugged but beautiful.


We saw amazing wildlife from a giant slug on a redwood tree to a herd of elk in a river bed.


There were also brilliant fields of lavender.


The drive back to Seattle included a ferry right back with a great view of the city.


Seattle is home to plenty of things to see including the Experience Music Project and the troll under the bridge.


From there it was up the coast to the Orcas Islands which meant kayaking.


Back in the Seattle area, we took a boat tour which went past the mansions of the Microsoft millionaires.


Our final stop in Seattle was the cozy neighborhood of Pioneer Square which is the home of Elliott Bay Books which while no Powells, was a gorgeous well furnished bookstore.


Washington had a bit of everything, fantastic vistas, beautiful nature, and urban wonders.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

50 States - Oregon

Of the 50 states, Oregon is another one that while it fit into our rule of one night and one meal, it kind of got short shrift. Our night was spent in Portland which is a delightful city which I fell in love with long before the show Portlandia started gently mocking it. The point of going to Portland was to visit Powell's Books, one of the contenders for the greatest bookstore on earth. Inexplicably, I have no photos of that Mecca, but on the way into town we stopped off at the Horsetails Falls area along the Columbia River. These are gorgeous waterfalls along a beautiful hiking trail.

I notice from the photos that I was wearing a tee shirt from The Strand, an enormous bookstore in New York City which is probably the only rival in size that Powell's has. I doubt this was a coincidence.


Oregon is on the return trip list because there is so much more to see, both in natural beauty and urban fun.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

50 States - Nevada

In going to all 50 states, I never thought I was Las Vegas type of person until I realized you didn't have to gamble but could just wallow in the sheer excess of it. We had gone through Reno on our way west back in 2006 and stayed at the Peppermill Casino which was poor preparation for the vastness of Vegas a few days later. We has arrived late in the afternoon and only had one night there.  And because it was a weekend we stayed at the Excalibur which is one of the least expensive hotels on the strip. It's the same place I stayed just a few weeks ago when I was stranded during a busines trip on the west coast when Baltimore was blizzarded in. It's also across the street from the nearly equally garish New York New York.


We hit the Bellagio fountains and the Fremont Street Experience but the temperatures at midnight was still over 100 degrees.


It was last year that we really experienced the real Vegas when for a weekend getaway we stayed at the Mirage and saw the Cirque de Soliel Beatles show Love.


The Mirage is also home to Sigfried and Roy's Magic Garden where they keep their wild cats and dolphins.


The best part of Vegas is the fantastic food. About every celebrity chef has one or more restaurants. Pure competitive pressure keeps the quality of even the burger places high.


And there are always celebrities around somewhere if you know where to look. Penn and Teller sign autographs after their show and sometimes even a Kardasian is making a public appearance.


But there is more to Nevada than Las Vegas. On our most recent trip for our fiftieth birthday, we took a day trip to Death Valley which is technically in California, but on the way, we stopped off at combination tourist trap and brothel as well as a ghost town.


Between eating, drinking, seeing shows, and touring the desert there is enough to keep even the determined non-gambler busy in Nevada.

Monday, March 10, 2014

50 States - South Dakota

I f you read my fairly snide 50 States post snarking about North Dakota, you might think I will be equally dismissive about South Dakota. Nothing could be further from the truth. South Dakota has some literally monumental attractions, most famously that display of chutzpah carved under the impression that mountains are more spectacular when turned into sculptures of dead politicians.

In the defense of Gutzon Borglum and his son, Lincoln Borglum, they had to have been a bit right as otherwise why would thousands of people travel to the middle of nowhere to look at rocks. More pristine beauty can be found in the Badlands.

But South Dakota has lots and lots of interesting smaller attractions. The most bizarre is perhaps the Corn Palace which has to be seen to be believed.


And driving anywhere in South Dakota will expose you to billboards shilling for Wall Drugs. More than just a drugstore, Wall Drugs is a tourist emporium of epic scale. It seems to swallow the entire town of Wall.


Speaking of swallowing, one of Wall Drug's gimmicks is that it offers free water to anybody that wants some. And it's very good water.


Perhaps the most overlooked destination in South Dakota is the town of DeSmet. Its claim to fame is that it was the home on the prairie to Laura Ingalls Wilder during The Long Winter. They have replicas of cabins of that era and even a one-room schoolhouse.


In celebration, the town puts on a nightly pageant on a huge outdoor stage depicting those events.


So get to DeSmet and see all that South Dakota has to offer.

50 States - North Dakota

In the continuing coverage of the drive-thru members of the 50 states, perhaps none are less memorable than North Dakota. One internet running joke is that the state doesn't really exist and the case for that is really tough to dispute. I dare you to name one must-see tourist attraction in North Dakota. Wrong, South Dakota. Nope, Wyoming. Again, South Dakota.

But what is there? In our nearly day long drive across the state, we did make two stops before ending for a night in Fargo. Lunch was at Meriwether's Landing in Bismark overlooking the Missouri River. Alas, the internetz tell me this restaurant is now out of business.


Hitherto unknown to me, North Dakota does have one named after none other than rough rider Theodore Roosevelt. The park covers part of the Badlands which aren't quite as vast and picturesque as the ones in South Dakota, but they are pretty impressive.


What this park does have is easily accessible wildlife. It's very hard not to spot some deer or buffalo.


But the most fascinating fauna were the wild horses which wandered freely.


So if you ever do inexplicably find yourself in North Dakota if only to verify its existence, be sure to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park where you might even see a prairie dog.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

BooksFirst - February 2014

Books Bought  
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain  

Books Read  
The Left Hand of Darkness by by Ursula K. LeGuin  
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

 Books Heard  
The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee by Sarah Silverman  

The Left Hand of Darkness is a multi-award winning novel by Ursula K. LeGuin which has long been a book I've been needing to read out of some sense of historical literary obligation. Unfortunately, I found it as tough a slog as the long trek through the frozen wilderness that makes up the last third of the book. My science fiction professor in college warned me as much when he said the somewhere along the line the LeGuin had gotten a snootful of Ulysses and everything had to be an epic journey.

The premise of the novel is that an emissary from the Galactic High Council or whatever is trying to make first contact with a lost colony. The twist is that not only is this particular planet a marginally habitable world that makes Hoth look like Club Med, but the inhabitants have all evolved (it's not ever clear how much genetic engineering is involved) into an androgynous single gender so it's the male human from another world that is the sexual freak. However, not much is really done with this. LeGuin goes a little into how a single gendered society would work (more caring, less warlike, and absolutely embracing of family leave) but except for some unrequited sideward glances, nobody breaks any taboos in any interesting ways. Perhaps this was much, much more groundbreaking in the pre-Stonewall 1950s but now it seems almost tame.

I just never quite knew what the book was trying to say and despite being only 200 pages in my paperback edition, it took a long time not saying it.

Epic long books have to be really, really good to merit their investment in time and paper and The Goldfinch manages it. I came in with low expectations and was rapidly blown away. Speaking of expectations, low and great, I was not far into this book before I started making obvious parallels to Dickens. A young semi-orphan is shuffled around in several socially distinct milleaus where he is forced to survive. There is a scampish sidekick on the blurry side of the law. A sickly romantic interest that fate keeps away. A cruel and dangerous father. A kindly benefactor. And odd coincidences and circumstances to just tread the line of laughable implausibility. And I'm not alone in this observation as nearly every review I've read has made the same observation. Charlie might has well have been credited as cowriter.

The MacGuffin of the novel is the titular painting of bird chained to a post. I quickly realized that I had seen this painting very recently. It was one of the Dutch masterpieces that was an exhibit with another painting with literary inspirations, "The Girl With The Pearl Earring". In The Goldfinch, Donna Tarrt rather than wrapping a story around the creation of the painting, literally wraps the painting up in mystery and adventure. The painting is enigmatic even before it it burdened with the weight of all the symbolism that ties it to the perch.

And despite the length, the book is well-paced and taut. Everytime, just as I was getting bored or distracted, some plot twist would come along and suck me back in. My one peeve was that the both the main character and his buddy Boris do an incredible amount of drugs. Then I got to the end of the book and read the About The Author which said that Tartt went to Bennington College. Having just read The Rules Of Attraction by Brett Easton Ellis, all of a sudden everything fell into place.

Very early into The Bedwetter, Sarah Silverman semi-apologizes for not having an exciting enough life. And that in itself is very interesting. It's just as fascinating to learn that she grew up in exurban New Hampshire. But her soul was clearly meant to be in New York City and she does migrate there as quickly as possible.

The first third of the book deals with her titular childhood problem which becomes a metaphor and a motif for the rest of the book. Oddly, Rob Delaney, another stand-up comic spends a good bit of his memoir discussing the shame that comes along with that problem. Silverman makes some other tossed-off confessions. She went through a verrry promiscuous phase in her early 20s. Good for her. That's the time to do it.

She also has a great mantra for all sorts of personal indulgences including sex and drugs which is Make It A Treat, which she explains is different from moderation. The more she talked about her current situation, the less interesting the book became.

The books does have some nice meta-schticks like how show inserts all the e-mails about the naming of the book. One long running battle was whether the subtitle should be Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee or Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee. It's a funny and mildly self-deprecating incident. I've been a bit of a Silverman fan particularly because she is so deliberately transgressive. But a little Silverman goes a long way.

Friday, February 28, 2014

50 State: South Carolina - Upstate

As I mentioned in the last post about the low country, when going to the 50 states, South Carolina is one of those states that I have always spent more time going through than doing things in. One particularly well-rutted strip is the portion of I-85 between Atlanta and Charlotte. There was rarely ever any reason to stop. But while my son was at Georgia Tech I kept wanting to stop at one place in particular, the BMW plant between Greenville and Spartanburg.

The factory tours fill up well in advance but one year I had the forethought to book early. In addition to the tour which does not allow photography to the point of confiscating cell phones, they have a museum with lots of great vintage BMWs.

While passing through Greenville, we went to their quaint downtown and found a distillery right in the middle of town.

Also in Upstate South Carolina is Clemson, Georgia Tech's closest ACC rival with their ubiquitous tiger paws and the stadium ominously known as Death Valley.

But the most prominent feature of the upstate area is the Peachoid, aka The Big Peach, a major landmark just off the interstate in Gaffney, South Carolina. This town is now famous as the home of fictional House of Cards congressman Francis Underwood. But for many years, it was my sign to take the next exit for Gardner-Webb University where my future wife was going to college.

It always let me know I was in familiar territory even if I was only passing through.

Monday, February 24, 2014

50 States - South Carolina: The Low Country

 Since I am covering the states in the 50 states I drove through more than stopped in, South Carolina also tends to fit that bill. When our son was little, we would send him down to his grandparents in Florida and then a week or two later leisurely drive down to pick him up or vice versa, drive him down and drop him off for a few weeks. This was a great way to combine both a family vacation and getaway kidless trip.

Back in 1998 on one of those trips, we stopped for a few nights in Charleston, South Carolina, which is definitely a city for romantic couples without kids. The horse drawn carriage is the only real way to see the city.


It is a city of old churches and gourmet restaurants. It seems that Poogan's Porch, the restaurant seen below, is still in business although they have painted the building since we were there.


In fact, it is the brightly colored Victorian era pastel "painted ladies" on Rainbow Row which are the signature feature of Charleston, although Forth Sumter is the draw fro Civil War buffs.


Fans of military history are drawn to The Citadel which has trained generations of southern gentleman.


Speaking of the Civil War, antebellum mansions like the one at Magnolia Plantation with its picturesque bridge is another tourist attraction.


Charleston and the South Carolina Low Country have a certain timeless charm which deserves revisiting.