Friday, December 26, 2008

beST BOOKS of 2008

Song of Haiti: Barry Paris ('00) In one of the finest acts of noblesse oblige imaginable, bank heir Larry Mellon set out to be an American Albert Schweitzer; in place of Africa he built his hospital in Haiti. More of a great story than a great book, it's still a story that needs to be celebrated.

In the Time of the Butterflies: Julia Alvarez ('94) An equally inspiring true story set on the other side of Hispaniola. If Haiti is the poorest nation in the Americas, the Dominican Republic under the dictator Trujillo was perhaps the most repressively right-wing. It took the brave Mirabel sisters to initiate a Castro-style revolution.

Coffee: H.E. Jacob ('35) & Uncommon Grounds: Mark Pendergrast ('99) Since I drink so much of the stuff, I decided to educate myself. These two books complement each other well. Jacob is the better of the two, presenting the story of coffee in a way that reads as great history. Pendergrast picks up where Jacob's Euro-centric account leaves off, focusing on the American coffee industry in excruciating detail up to the Starbuck's era. At over 400 pages, it was a long, hard slog, somewhat redeemed by interesting facts.

The Cactus Eaters: Dan White ('08) This true life account of a couple's attempt to hike the Pacific Crest Trail is not a great book but a highly entertaining one. The author by his own admission is somewhat of an idiot. For anyone who takes an interest in the great outdoors, west coast geography, and human nature, there is plenty of good material.

The Hearing Trumpet: Leonora Carrington ('74) I read this impenetrably indulgent surrealist novel on the train while drinking a Bloody Mary. Peculiarly entertaining with flashes of wit that had me laughing out loud, the ending is almost brilliant but adds a few too many layers of weirdness, resulting in a queasy David Lynch feeling.

Banana: Dan Koeppel ('08) Another book about another one of my favorite comestibles. The author could have put bananas in better perspective with other cash crops (such as sugar cane or coffee), but on balance this account of this unique industry is fascinating.

Monday, December 22, 2008

and then the return trip...

With hours to kill in Chicago, I walked to the Art Institute in the bitter, bitter cold -- the weather equivalent of being beaten up by strangers. Along the way I took refuge in this coffee shop, "Argo".

Back on the train I spent most of the time in the Lounge Car, reading a history of the banana industry.

also in New York...

we saw Dad's show of insect-related found object art...
this Norway maple branch fell and impaled the door to the ice house cellar.

while in New York...

I was greeted with fresh snow...
heard Nelson DeMille speak about his new book...
gave Dad this John Deere whirly-gig...
and helped Patrick -- who broke his leg in Thailand -- with his laundry.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

two false messiahs unmasked

Last year while visiting New York I became convinced that the forgotten life of my youth could be found within the walls of Lord & Taylor in Manhasset. Then, my notion was scoffed at and squelched, but this time I made a point of going in there. Unfortunately, the interior was remodeled beyond recognition, and neither my youth nor the spirit of 1970's bourgeois idealism were to be found among the designer perfumes and discounted handbags.

In a similar way I sought out the Hispanic foods section of Pathmark, but when I got there nothing was quite the same, and shoppers rudely got in my way, oblivious of the fact that I had traveled thousands of miles to pay homage to this shrine.

So apart from the memories, these two destinations were apparently false messiahs. Or maybe the messiah mantle has been usurped by the lower Colorado River Basin?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Penelope Anne

It was with great sadness that I learned, while riding the Lake Shore Limited through upstate New York, that our rabbit Penelope Anne (left) was put down due to mobility issues and age (nine), outlived by her sister Calamity Jane (right), who had herself recently recovered from E. cuniculi symptoms. Penelope enjoyed playing with a rectangular piece of plastic.

Friday, December 19, 2008

the Great Hall of Chicago

There are many Union Stations; the one in Chicago has the "Great Hall", possibly my favorite feature of Chicago. Why? It gives me a sense of what the old Penn Station in New York was like, the one I never got to see. If railroad stations are shrines, then Madison Square Garden is a crime scene.

seen from the Southwest Chief

Another historic "Harvey House" in Las Vegas, NM...

...and crossing the mighty Mississippi

God bless Amtrak...

God bless Amtrak... when they're not crowded, because when they're not you basically live like a king. A good book, a stiff Bloody Mary, nice scenery, and two seats to fall asleep in -- and dream about earthquakes. But if they seat someone next to you, your kingdom collapses.

American shrines

Let's face it -- train stations are American shrines, and rail travel is a religion we can all rally behind. And have you ever noticed that historic downtowns, preservation, rail travel and smart urban planning all go together like peas and carrots? God bless Amtrak.

downtown Albuquerque, NM

If you ever find yourself waiting for a train in downtown Albuquerque, I can recommend the Gold St. Caffe for great food, coffee, and service. I also walked around a bit, and like Old Towns everywhere there is the sense of a caring community doing all it can to restore and nurture the character of the place. And while it will never be the precious gem that Santa Fe is -- too gritty for that -- it still has a certain Southwestern flair.

Flagstaff, AZ

By contrast the landscape around Flagstaff, AZ was kind of boring, although in a pleasant way, the way I remembered it. Walking around the town, I was shocked at how little had changed since 1994 -- same youth hostel I stayed at then, same restaurants, same used bookstore (maybe even the same used books?), same sleepy pale earth-tone experience, especially in the vicinity of the classic train station, seen below.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

the reason we are here

The epiphany I had that day was this: the lower Colorado River Basin, extending from southern Nevada to the Sea of Cortez, is the star geologic attraction of the North American continent. More than that: it is the real reason we are all here (in America), the reason I moved west, and the thing I would choose to swallow me up (if something had to swallow me up).

Multiplication des Arcs

To better enjoy the scenery I pulled off onto something called Needle Rock Road, which presumably serves the wilderness area along the Colorado River. Unfortunately there was no time explore.

Further up the I-40, the formations continued to impress -- prehistoric rock quarries glistening in the sun, once the site of violent upheavals and still radiating anti-human energy. Really it is theater on a massive scale, but using rocks instead of actors.

Such sentiments seemed to connect with the Le Clezio book I was reading; whether writing about windswept rocks off of Mauritius or the baking deserts of New Mexico, the Nobel laureate seems to wallow in this same feeling of transcendent, mind-bending geologic awe.

more Needles

Crossing into Arizona I encountered some hardcore desert. These rocks are crazy and on fire. The array of oddly shaped mountains seen at the Colorado River crossing are probably the "needles" that gave the city its name.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Needles, CA

Passing through Needles, CA, I was struck by the historic El Garces Hotel & Train Station, one of the "Harvey Houses" of yesteryear, now being lovingly restored to its former glory. Anyone who knows me knows I am a sucker for historic train stations in the desert with well manicured parks in front of them.