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.

Monday, February 17, 2014

50 States - Connecticut

Like Delaware, Connecticut is an easy one of the 50 states to pass through rather than stop in. But in 1999 on our way up to Maine we did make the qualifying night's stay in Connecticut. Our destination was Mystic Seaport, a destination I only knew about because of the Julia Roberts movie. And sure enough there really is a Mystic Pizza. And a shipyard.


The Seaport is devoted to big sailing ships and they have plenty of them. The museum has active shipbuilding done the old fashioned way for movies and museums.


The other town we stopped in was New Haven which is home to the college with the biggest inferiority complex in the universe. I'm not sure why because the campus is gorgeous with architecture that has both colonial and gothic themes.


We spent a lot of time in the 1990s and early 2000s visiting college campuses as part of a subliminal propaganda campaign aimed at our son. College campuses often show off an area at its best. They have beautiful buildings and lush lawns. A partial list of campuses we spent time at with him in addition to Yale, include Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Duke, Wake Forest, Maryland, Virginia, Virginia Tech,Tennessee, and of course, his future alma mater, Georgia Tech. Here he is at Yale and wearing a Yale shirt.


Connecticut is an interesting state full of disparities. The areas just outside of New York are enclaves of privilege but the neighborhoods surrounding Yale in New Haven are desperate slums. But it is definitely worth stopping for sometimes instead of just passing through.

Monday, February 10, 2014

50 States: Delaware

Despite being first, Delaware is one of the easiest of the 50 states to overlook, especially if you are not beach people, like we are not. Nonetheless, in the mid-90s we found reasons to go to Delaware. In particular, Delaware is chock full of mansions either directly or peripherally associated with the DuPont de Nemours family. Winterthur is a grand estate loaded with examples of the decorative arts. And the Rockwood Park and Museum hosts a delightful ice cream festival every year with great food and all sorts of Victoriana.

Unfortunately, a thorough scouring of the my film photography archives has no evidence of my having been to these places. However, there is a place in Delaware that we have been to many, many times which features a large airy lobby and a great variety of dining experiences. That is the Delaware Welcome Center.

Located roughly  in the middle of the section of I-95 that runs through Delaware, the rest area is a near perfectly placed stop for when we are headed to New York or points beyond.


For dining choices, it is almost a embarrassment of riches with cuisines from all over the world. Italian, French, Mexican, you name it. And if you don't need a full meal, the centrally situated Starbucks nearly always has a line for those wanted to refuel with caffeine.

But the building also serves as a billboard for Delaware with murals of all its attractions and display cases showing off its history.


You might think this post is in jest and it is partly tongue-in-cheek, but the Delaware rest area is really about the best rest stop in the entire northeastern corridor. Much nicer than any of the claustrophobic New Jersey Turnpike areas.

The Delaware Welcome Center was such a huge success that Maryland immediately decided they needed to up their game with its two decrepit highway rest areas. A mere six years later the first of these is finally open. The newly opened Maryland House just north of Bel Air has aped many of the the Delaware Welcome Center's features including tall ceilings, a food court, and lots of greenery.

And while it tries hard, it just doesn't catch the certain je ne sais quoi that Delaware has captured. For one thing, it has Dunkin Donuts for coffee instead of Starbucks and that right there is a deal killer. So if you ever do find yourself literally passing through Delaware, take a break and enjoy a warm welcome before heading off into the sunset. Or sunrise for that matter.

Monday, February 03, 2014

50 States: Alabama

When reviewing Pennsylvania as part of my tour of the 50 states, I compared the central part of the state to Alabama. Perhaps unfairly. To Alabama. But first let's go over the similarities. Both states worship football and have built huge stadia to house their teams. Here is the one in Tuscaloosa but I bet its counterpart in Auburn is just as massive.


 Inexplicably, Alabama also has a replica Liberty Bell in front of it's capitol building.


The capitol is also across the street from the Confederate White House from when Montgomery was the capitol of the breakaway states.

This is only one of many places where you can still see a Confederate flag fly. Heck, even the official state flag bears a certain uncanny resemblance.


In Alabama, we visited three cities, Mobile, Montgomery, and Birmingham. Mobile has a certain Gothic charm mixed with a modern vigor having an old fort right in downtown.


Our bed and breakfast was a charming antebellum mansion and our innkeeper regaled us with the tale of all the Confederate era letters and records she found in boxes in the attic when she bought the house. Said breakfast of pecan French toast is perhaps one of the best B&B meals I have ever had and my photo of it got featured in a Yahoo slide show.


The elegance of that meal was in contrast to the homespun grub of the barbecue shack we found in a convenience store parking lot just outside of  Montgomery. BBQ doesn't get any more authentic than that.


In Montgomery, they had Old Alabama Town which is a collection of 19th century buildings such as drug stores and schools and houses restored to show how life was lived in the early days.



However, modern Montgomery wasn't quite as happening as it seems to think it is. It was clear that the city had tried really hard to create a Downtown Drinking District complete with a steamboat along the waterfront but it just didn't seem to be happening.


Where we ended up for dinner was further up the river at a marina/seafood restaurant that had a delightful mix of all strata. There were people there for fancy Easter Saturday dinners in seersucker and cotton and other groups in jeans and grubby tee shirts. What united them was that the food was excellent.


We flew in and out of Birmingham which has plants for Hyundai and Mercedes in the general area which kept with its heritage as the industrial center of the Old South. One hill overlooking the city has an enormous cast iron statue of Vulcan sans pants striking his anvil, so to speak.


Birmingham also had a quaint artsy district with perplexing galleries and cutting edge restaurants. So while there is a lot of rural flavor in Alabama, there is also a lot of history and culture to take in as well.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

BooksFirst - January 2014 - NaJuReMoNoMo

Books Bought
The Elephants of Style by Bill Walsh

Books Read
Daemon by Daniel Suarez
A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen
The Rules of Attraction by Brett Easton Ellis

Books Heard
Loser by Jerry Spinelli
The High Place by James Branch Cabell
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

National Just Read More Novels Month which I run every January encourages people to read as many novels as they can in the 31 days of January. This year I managed to only read two, but I did listen to three, which I also count. This edition of Books First also covers two books I read in 2013 which I forgot to catalog on my year end round up.

The first of these is a cybertechnothriller set in the near future. Daemon unfolds when a brilliant but mad computer game programmer dies under mysterious circumstances. However, strange things continue to happen seemingly guided by his hand beyond the grave. Daniel Suarez's novel is told through the viewpoint of a couple of characters entrapped by his cyberweb. One, a cop is framed for other nefarious reasons. The other is superhacker who gets lured into an organization with sinister goals.

The story is very fast paced even as it stretches credulity at every turn. Science fiction relies a lot on hypercompetent people, but the ones in Daemon would make Heinlein wince. Underlying it is a lot of crypto-libertarian philosophy about government and freedom and choice. It's really unclear which side of some of the rants the author is coming down on but they make for intriguing discussion.

The second leftover from 2013 is A Long Way Down which got inexplicably overlooked since I am such a huge Nick Hornby fan. In this one, the narrative gimmick that Hornby uses is four interweaving first person narratives of a group of people that all independently wanted to commit suicide. They are in turn a disgraced TV show host, a spoiled rich girl, a failed American musician, and the mother of a special needs teenager.

Each of the four people has secrets and baggage which get unpeeled slowly over the course of the book. However, not all four are equally intriguing. This makes the book uneven overall and drags some sections down. Part of the narrative force is watching them open up to each other Breakfast Club style while seeing them get on with their lives.

Hornby is always intriguing to read but here he is stretching muscles and showing off just a bit. But still a good fast paced thought provoking read.

My first novel of 2014 was Bad Monkey by Carl Hiassen. Hiaasen has toned down some of his excesses to good effect. The story opens very similarly to his first novel Tourist Season with the shark gnawed arm of tourist floating up. But there has to be more to the story if this is to be a Hiassen Florida Gothic novel, which it is.

The hero is former Miami cop on a downward spiral in a petty feud with his Florida Keys neighbor. He is the only one willing to track down the arm which is hard to do as a restaurant inspector. He is joined by a slightly kinky medical examiner and the usual cast of Florida oddballs.

The story is uproariously funny whether you are familiar with the Keys or not. The book does aim for a sensibility that is more 'realistic' than many recent Hiaasen novels were he seemed determined to top himself again and again for outrageousness and the book is better for it.

In the 80s I read all the hip enfant terrible writers of which Jay McInerney was the spiritual ringleader. I read Less Than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis but never delved deeper into his oeuvre.  I finally got around to The Rules of Attraction which is now a period piece rather than cutting edge expose.

Told in overlapping first person narratives, the story covers several months in the lives of oversexed and overmedicated college students at an expensive rural liberal arts college not unlike Bennington where Ellis went. The main story revolves around a romantic triangle between two guys and a girl which is different in that none of the three realize they are in a triangle. There is a lot of drama involving overdoses and bad sex and parents who just don't understand.

Even with the passage of time, it's tough to reconcile the sheer debauchery depicted with any realistic trajectory of the 1980s as wild as they were. The list of drugs these students take is literally encyclopedic. And there needs to a level of randomness below casual to describe all the hook-ups. IIRC, Spy Magazine was published the definitive chart of who had slept with whom and it just looked like someone scribbled all over the page.

However, it is compelling storytelling with biting prose. It's just not that interesting a story.

A staple of elementary school literature is Loser by Jerry Spinelli about the travails of a kid who just doesn't fit in. The audiobook is narrated by Steve Buscemi who seems particularly suited for this story. The loser hero is Donald Zinkoff, a kid who marches to a drummer so different he might as well be in a band on another planet.

The story is sweet without being cloying as it details his troubles fitting in. He likes school perhaps a bit too much. He is painfully nonathletic and cluelessly oblivious to the taunts of his classmates. However, the book avoids taking the easy way out at a number of turns.

I can see why this book is so popular in schools. It is easily understandable without being preachy. Zinkoff is a character kids far less dorky than him can relate to. One can have worse role models.

I had never heard of James Branch Cabell but the audio version of The High Place carries the endorsement of and forward by Neil Gaiman. And the book does have a certain Gaimanesque sensibility. In a magical 18th century France, the son of nobleman enters into a pact with the devil to win the heart of a sleeping beauty he saw briefly as a child.

But nothing quite turns out as it seems and supernatural contracts always have catches. What makes this novel interesting is how wryly cynical it is. The hero is a self-deluded philanderer whose wives tend to die under mysterious circumstances. For a novel written in the early 20th century, it is slyly bawdy and deeply sacrilegious.

There is also a certain self-knowing sense that is slightly reminiscent of The Princess Bride, although much darker. It makes for a very interesting story in context by a writer who seems to have been forgotten.

Jonathan Safran Foer is a very ambitious writer and in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close he tackles the World Trade Center attacks and its aftermath on the child of one of its victims. Told in three intertwining first-person narratives between Oskar Schell and his grandparents. Oskar's narrative which is much of the book is both highly sophisticated and full of childish stylistic flourishes, not the least of which is the repetition of 'incredibly' and 'extremely'.

Oskar finds a hidden key and decides to find what it opens in hope that it reveals something about his lost father. There are a lot of odd plot holes that all seem to get eventually resolved but there is a certain tidiness to everything which is just too perfect.

The grandparents come from Dresden which is of course the setting of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. The book borrows or steals a major conceit of that book which is either a touching homage or outright theft depending on how charitable you want to be towards Foer. I'm not certain I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.