Empty Mansions – Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr. (2013)

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Subtitle: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune. 

An intriguing non-fiction about the Clark family who were a real rags-to-riches frontier family led by a ruthless businessman who traveled out to the hinterlands to find a better life through discovering and then selling copper and then growing his wealth even more through a series of savvy (and lucky) business deals. The patriarch, W. A. Clark, became nearly as wealthy as the Rockefellers and ended up being a controversial US Senator (with a bribery scandal to his name), a builder of railroads and the founder of Las Vegas.

But who was he really? Who was his French wife Anna, and what about his family?

With this background of privilege, the narrative traces the story of the Clark family from a log cabin in Pennsylvania to elegant Fifth Avenue in New York, from a one-room house to one of the largest houses in NYC with 121 different rooms for a family of four, and then in reverse when the only surviving member of the family chooses to seclude herself in an ordinary hospital room for twenty years.

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(Above) – Huguette (in white) stands with her father and elder sister.

It’s a really strange story but it’s fascinating, mainly because there are so many questions that still remain and no one seems to know the truth. As the youngest daughter, Huguette lived a life of extreme privilege far removed from the typical American life that surrounded her.

She had little formal schooling, but became an expert on Japanese culture; she owned Degas and Renoir paintings but without a successful painting career; she bought and owned a never-played Stradivarius violin which she rarely looked at and grew a large collection of antique dolls worth millions of dollars and with houses of their own to store the collection.

But with so many people sworn to secrecy about Huguette’s life, this is an NF based on rumors and family lore more so than actual fact. It’s also heavily based on memories that surround a $300 million fortune to be inherited and so it’s very difficult to know the actual truth of these events. Everyone has a stake in their perspective and so who’s to know what really occurred.

When Huguette retired from outside life and entered her hospital room, rarely to leave again despite being healthy and able-bodied, why was that? When Huguette gave $30 million to her personal nurse towards the end of her life, was she being manipulated by the nursing staff and the greedy hospital hoping for a “generous donation”? Why did she pull herself away from everyone she knew to choose to watch The Smurfs in a darkened room? Was she mentally ill or was she being blackmailed? So many questions!

So, this was an interesting read, although I did have to run it through the filter that it was co-authored by her great-nephew who trod very carefully when it came to the honest truth (what little there was). (Sort of a “Don’t annoy grandma or you’ll get left out of the will” idea.) In the end, this book was a mix of fact and fiction and although it rather veered towards sycophancy towards the last third of the book, it was still an interesting read.

How much is true? How much is Memorex? Who is to know, but it was interesting to learn about this filthy rich but slightly strange family.

 

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Daughters – Paule Marshall (1991)

I can’t help it. I really adore Paule Marshall’s work, and so I’m lucky that she has a good backlist of other titles to read and enjoy. Perhaps when I’ve finished that last read, I’ll just cycle back through them to enjoy them again. 🙂

Paule Marshall was an American author with immigrant parents from Barbados, so it’s easy to understand why several of her characters in the titles in her oevre straddle the two different worlds.

In this title, Daughters, her protagonist, Ursa, has spent her first fourteen formative years growing up on the fictional island nation of Triunion, and then is sent to the U.S. to continue her education there. Her father and US-born mother had met in the US earlier and then the couple had moved back to Triunion where her father had a career in governmental politics.

This political position influences everything and everyone throughout the novel, and just as a career based on election results can be unstable, Ursa remains conflicted about who she is: a serious research analyst or a father’s rock-solid support for his never-ending elections… Or can she be both?

The title, Daughters, also reflects the scope of the plot accurately as well as Ursa is not the only daughter who is involved in the narrative. Her mother, Estelle, is a daughter who grew up in a different country from where she lives, and Ursa’s life overlaps with other women who are daughters.

It’s also arguable that the idea of the fictional island of Trunion could also be a young daughter in terms of the nation only having earned its independence from England in the not-so-far past. So – who can a daughter be when she wants to be herself?

The story starts with Ursa returning to her apartment in New York after having just had an abortion at a local clinic. As she’s buttoning up and going home, she worries whether the doctor really completed the procedure and perhaps left a piece of a medical device inside her. (Again, this idea of children….)

Ursa’s really concerned about whether the fetus is really gone and this concern continues through the narrative – how much of her is all hers? It’s a question of identity that threads through this novel for most of its characters, and as the reader follows these characters chapter by chapter, so Ursa goes on a journey of discovery of herself, her life choices, and the people who surround her.

Ursa is currently unemployed but anxiously waiting to hear whether a grant proposal has been funded by a private foundation. It’s a project that continues from her earlier work about studying a small city in New Jersey and how its heavily African-American population is faring in terms of economic prosperity and other QOL issues. (Interestingly, it could be argued that the people of this town are also undergoing their own journeys, along with the town itself.)

With her unemployment period overlapping with her father’s upcoming political election, Ursa is torn. Her pattern of the past is that she flies down to Triunion to support her political parent at each of the elections that occur, and up until now, she has been content to play that role but she’s now wanting to break away from that.

As Ursa gets older, she is realizing that perhaps her father, always worshipped by most people (including her), isn’t the perfect person that she had thought he was. Age brings distance and clarity to some issues, and Ursa’s removal from Triunion has given her the necessary space to evaluate her perspective and it is this new view that is uncomfortable for her.

Ursa is an independent twentieth century woman, unattached for the most part (except for current boyfriend although this is not a deep attachment for her). Without a regular job and with questions about her future, she feels uncomfortably unmoored about her life and her future.

In contrast, she relies heavily on her best friend, Viney, for advice and consolation and a steadying influence and Marshall uses the instability of the lead character to compare and balance out the more anchored life of Viney, who has roots in the city. She has a son, no partner, and has just bought a house in Brooklyn so, to Ursa, it seems as though she herself is the one who is behind the curve and who needs to choose and then commit to how her life will pan out.

How will this play out for her in the end? That’s the big question.

Loved this read just as I’ve loved Marshall’s other titles so far (Praisesong for the Widow, Merle and Other Stories,  and Brown Girl, Brownstones).

A good solid read that kept me thinking way after I’d finished the book.

Traveling to the nation’s capital…

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Abraham Lincoln monument in DC.

So, if you’re in any way connected with the U.S. education system, you will be probably be familiar with the cheers and hoorahs that occur from both the students and the teachers when it’s time for Spring Break… Thus, it was mine the other week, and so I jetted off to meet my lovely mum in the nation’s capitol, Washington D.C.

Many moons ago and in an earlier life, I lived and worked in D.C., but I haven’t been back there for anything longer than a weekend since then, and so it was rather a Rip-van-Winkle experience as we walked around the Mall and environs. I remembered bits and pieces of long-ago events, but for the most part, my time there is lost in the fog of youthful times. (Probably a good thing, as well.)

Mum has not really visited the East Coast of the U.S. that much, although she’s very well-travelled in other regions, and so we chose D.C. as being quite a central place for us to meet, she flying in from London and me from Texas. My mum is a trooper for traveling long distances, but I also wanted to choose a destination that wouldn’t take a long and uncomfortable journey for her to reach since she’s getting a bit up there, age-wise. (She can still walk me into the ground re: stamina, but you know what I mean.) We had tried to hook up with me, my twin sister, and mum, but the differing Spring Break dates between the college where my twin sis teaches and the one at which I teach meant that was a no-go this year.

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This pic was taken at the Museum of American History and was included in an exhibition of the history of immigration to the U.S. This was the recommended way to talk with foreigners getting ready for the spoken English exam. How are you, my alien friend? 🙂

So – to the travel. Flying there was uneventful, thank goodness, although I did end up traveling whilst I was wearing a big medical leg brace since I’m still healing from the ankle surgery last December. Not to worry. I packed quite lightly (But. Must. Do. Better. Next. Time.), and having the leg brace, cumbersome though it was, meant that I finally got to ride the airport carts and get early boarding for prime seating since I’m walking at a top speed of a tortoise right now. No worries.

Everyone was extremely kind and understanding about it, and I have nothing but good things to say about traveling with United. (Note: It was impossible for us to get a cart or wheelchair at Houston Airport for unknown reasons and so we ended up walking 40-something gates or we were going to miss our connection, but moving on from that… The other stuff was great.)

My mum had landed in DC the day before I arrived and already had the hotel sussed out so that my late arrival went smoothly and we woke up the next morning ready to up and at them, tourist-style. (You just never know how these things are going to go when you book a hotel blind, amirite?)

I’d researched a rather vague itinerary prior to the trip, and I highly recommend that you do the same (although perhaps a little more detailed) if you travel to D.C. It’s a huge city, and there are approximately fifty billion museums and other cool places to visit, so it’s good to have a plan of some sort. We were interested in a mix of museums, art galleries, and other places, and with mum getting older and me in my leg brace, we chose the walking-intense National Mall to start off when we were fresh and pretty rested.

It’s a lot of walking if you want to see the Lincoln monument, the Reflecting Pool, the Vietnam War Memorial, and other iconic sights, and although there were the occasional (and slightly puzzling) DC Circulator buses that you could hop on to, the four-day passes that we bought for the Metro didn’t work on these buses, so there was quite a bit of faffing about with that until we worked it out.

The National Mall is also a food and drink desert (i.e. there are very few options for lunch, coffee or just a sit down out of the cold), so be prepared. You could buy a very over-priced ice cream, I think, but apart from that, there’s nada that we could find. Caveat emptor and all that.

So Mum and I walked past quite a few of these, hoping to catch the cherry blossoms that line that reflecting pool, but there’d been a hit of cold weather which had delayed their opening up. (You can follow the progress of the cherry blooms at this website.) Not to worry, it was still pretty with all the green buds out, and it was great to walk around in a pedestrian-friendly and safe environment with cool temperatures. (We’d just missed snow, thank goodness.) So we strolled up the Mall, and then came across the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

I’d skim-researched on-line about tickets to enter etc., and the guide book had mentioned that you could buy tickets ahead of time or there were some walk-ins available on the day. This is not quite accurate (as there were no available walk-ins), and so if you’re heading for DC and wanting to pop into this museum, get your tickets 1-2 months ahead of time. Tickets are for a timed-entry to prevent crowds overwhelming the building, so it was well organized, but you just couldn’t walk-in as the guide book suggested. (Note to self for next time.)

Just up the street were some more treasures so all was not lost. We visited the National Archives, and the very intriguing National Museum of American History (which is really interesting and seems to contain everything else that they couldn’t put into one of the other Smithsonian museums). Honestly, it’s a fascinating hodge-podge of topics, times and people, and we could have stayed there for hours.

Still, time was a-ticking so we hopped across the street to run through the National Gallery of Art to see what gorgeous pieces that they had there. One really unexpected display was a small indoor courtyard that was stuffed with the most gorgeous and prolific flowers… Just beautiful and very unexpected in an art museum…

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By that time, we were running out of time and out of energy, so we whipped by the White House (didn’t stop as not a big fan of the current inhabitant), and then came back to the hotel. We were staying in a DoubleTree just outside the city in a place called Crystal City (close to the Pentagon etc.) and only a ten-minute subway ride from downtown. Cheaper, less traffic, more conference-focused hotel which was lovely and quiet.

Plus, they had the friendliest and most helpful staff I’ve ever encountered which was a big plus. (Say hello to Tyrone when you next see him. Great guy, and deserves a raise as he went waaay over and above in his customer service when we’d just missed the shuttle.)

The next day featured more of the museums at the other end of the Mall: the Library of Congress (with the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights et al.), a quick visit to the U.S. Capitol (where our politicians sometimes do their work), and then back for a rest.

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Points to consider when traveling to DC:

  • Check which museums you are interested in attending and see if you can get your (free) tickets ahead of time. (Sometimes having tix is the only way to get in and with no tix = no admittance.)
  • If you’d like to tour the U.S. Capital itself, you can send an email to your local Representative person, and they can arrange to have an intern give you a tour of the inner workings of the place. We chose not to do this due to the current tenant.
  • There’s a pretty decent clean and cheap cafeteria in the basement of the Capital building if you’re dying for a coffee or lunch etc. Open to everyone, including large groups of school children who were, I have to say, very well behaved. (Thank you, teachers and chaperones.)
  • At the start of your trip, take a photo (with your phone) of the subway system so you’ll always have this with you. (Take it quite hi-res so then, if you have to enlarge it to see a particular station, you’ll be able to read it ok. We had to enlarge quite often to read the map.) The subway stations can be a little hidden away on the streets at times, but you’ll learn to recognize the grey columns with the big M on them after a while. They’re not massively obvious though, so there’s quite a bit of searching around for them sometimes.
  • Along those lines, take photos of the guidebook pages talking about the places that you’re interested in visiting that day. (Guidebooks can be heavy and dense to carry around, and honestly, how many pages are you really going to need that day?)
  • At the Metro, it’s cheaper to buy the reusable/reloadable plastic passes for multiple days if you’re going to be there for more than 48 hours. These tickets are discounted and you only have to carry that one plastic pass for never-ending journeys for that one holiday. Plus they are reloadable, and transfer from person to person in most cases. Just know that the Metro pass doesn’t work on the buses.
  • People in DC are really helpful and courteous. There are the occasional mentally ill homeless folks as there are in any metropolitan areas, naturally, but keep your eyes peeled and be aware of your surroundings, you’ll be fine.
  • Know that visits to museums are going to take much longer than you think so you might want to be flexible for your daily itinerary with regard to the number of places you visit, and where they are located. (Some have pretty long lines to get in.)
  • Take snacks and water bottles with you when you leave the hotel to go tourist-ing. Sometimes you’ll be in a food desert (i.e. the Mall) wandering around with no hope in sight, and then, my friends, is when you’ll be glad of that energy bar and the drink. Plus – if you start off with an empty water bottle, there are loads of water fountains for free refills. (This is even more important if you go in the summer months when the humidity is about 1000% and the temps are high.)
  • Unless you’re a young ‘un, plan to sit down and have a cup of coffee (or other drink) fairly regularly, otherwise all the walking can turn your trip into the Bataan Death March pretty quickly (especially when you’re not sure where the closest metro is).
  • It’s fine to ask people questions about where you are, where the Metro is etc. DC is a working city, and the majority of the locals are fairly happy to point you in the right direction (unless they’re in a stinking hurry in which case you wouldn’t ask them, right?)
  • Try to avoid getting on the Metro at rush hour (just as you would in any other large city). More expensive, more crowded. Much more relaxed if you can travel either before or after those hours.
  • Stay flexible with your plans. The odds are that you will probably get lost at some point, or can’t find the Metro or your destination, or just get fed up and want to go back to the hotel for a nap. It happens. It doesn’t mean that you’re a failed tourist.

Use your City-Smarts, and DC is a blast.

P.S. I did do some reading of some earlier work of Mary Roach (My Planet) whilst I was traveling, but it was a collection of her lifestyle columns from a newspaper, and trust me, it wasn’t her best work. Let me save you some time and money by saying that your life will continue if you don’t read this one. 🙂

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The amazing Library of Congress in DC… Slightly posher than my own local branch… 🙂

Story-Wallah: Short Fiction from South Asian Writers – Shyam Selvadurai (ed.) (2005)

book416After having fully immersed myself in authors and writing by African-American writers during February, I thought it would be fun to continue reading other POC authors and writings from around the world, so browsing through the TBR shelves (go me!), I came across this title and thought it would fit the bill perfectly.

I’m not sure where I ended up hearing about this title, but the stickers on the book lend credence to the fact that it’s probably used as a textbook in a world literature class somewhere or other, and regardless, this was great fun to read.

As the whole book title reads, Story-Wallah: A Celebration of South Asian Fiction, this was an anthology of writings and authors from Southern Asia and featured a wide range of writers from the well-known (such as Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith) to the slightly less well-known (at least to me). They were all originally written in English (I think) and all fiction, and the range of the short stories was quite astounding. I loved it. It was like eating candy in a pick-n-mix as you (I) never really knew what was coming once I’d finished a story. There wasn’t a bad one in the whole anthology, and I adored almost every page that I read.

As Shyam Selvadurai writes in his introduction, “The stories jostle up against each other . . . The effect is a marvelous cacophony that reminds me of . . . one of those South Asian bazaars, a bargaining, carnival-like milieu. The goods on sale in this instance being stories hawked by story-traders: story-wallahs.”

Edited by Selvadurai, it’s a perfect read for a monkey mind (comme moi right now), and I thoroughly enjoyed almost every story, even taking notes of a few favorite authors to dig into at a later date as their included short stories were so strong.

Authors ranged from locales across the Southern Asia diaspora, from Sri Lanka, India, Great Britain, USA, Trinidad, Fiji and others, and explored (as GoodReads says) universal themes of identify, culture and home. I fairly gobbled this read down, and am going to keep it on the shelves for another read at another time. Yes, it was that good.

Naturally, some authors were more favorite than others (as is typical in a wide-sweeping anthology), and I made notes to make sure that I track down more work by Salman Rushdie, Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, Farida Karodia, Hanif Kureishi, and Shani Mootoo, but there are loads more from which to choose.

It’s a big book (>400 pages), but it’s extremely readable and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. Highly recommended in almost every metric. 🙂

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(Above) – This is what is generally accepted as Southern Asia, but the book travels more widely than this…

The Haunted Bookshop – Christopher Morley (1919)

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 “Haunted by the ghosts of books I haven’t read. Poor uneasy spirits, they walk and walk around me. There’s only one way to lay the ghost of a book, and that is to read it.”

This novella is the enjoyable sequel to Morley’s first novella, Parnassus on Wheels  and this one was just as fun and bibliophilic (as the book terms it) as the previous read. Written two years after the publication of the previous installment, Morley here further develops the storyline of the couple who go off to be traveling booksellers across the countryside.

At the starting point of “The Haunted Bookshop,” the couple (now married) are settled and running a fairly successful (but still modest) second-hand bookshop in Brooklyn, but even though the story has moved along, what remains the same is the author’s tender heart for books, bookselling, and all things to do with words. For a book nerd, this read is gorgeous.

The bookshop, now called The Haunted Bookshop (see quotation above for details), is run by Roger Mifflin and his now-wife Helen, and they live a quiet bookish life. Located on Gissing Street (ref: George) and near Clemens Place (ref: Samuel) and Shakespeare Street (ref: you know who), the shop is close to other neighborhood-based businesses including a pharmacy, a few modest boarding houses, and a small café of sorts in a neighborhood of working class people (some of whom are immigrants).

“People need books, but they don’t know they need them… Just give them the book they ought to have even if they don’t know they want it.”

So, what we have here is a shortish novel (longish novella) that is part paean to the love of books and reading whilst also being, rather unexpectedly, a caper novel along the same lines as John Buchan’s “The 39 Steps” (1915) with clear goodies and baddies. (Wow. Bet you weren’t expecting that.)

Being written so close to the end of World War One (which officially ended in 1918), the obvious baddie is, of course, Germany, and so when puzzling events happen, the German pharmacist is the number one suspect. It’s the set up of quiet and unassuming book people vs. a spy ring hiding in plain sight. But who can stop it, and what does it all mean?

Close to the beginning of the novel, the Mifflins agree to host a friend’s daughter, Tatiana (ref: Midsummer Night’s Dream) to give her a taste of being a bookseller, an appropriate occupation for a rich and unfettered bright young woman, and through this apprenticeship is brought in a young inquisitive newspaper reporter (the love interest) and the strange events happening around a particular book titled “Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches…” by Thomas Carlyle (1845). (Don’t worry – I’d never heard of it either.)

Mrs J Graham Menzies in the role of Titania, Queen of the FairiesAs the story continues, it turns out to have three main threads: the love of books and reading, the love interest of the young couple, and then the potential cloak-and-dagger spy ring (so there’s quite a bit going on). Add to that an impressive array of vocabulary and literary and classical references, and this book is not for sissies. At first, I was taking notes of all the new words and refs that I came across, but there were so many that, in the end, I realized that if I was ever going to finish the read in a timely manner (and also thoroughly immerse myself in the plot) that the note-taking would have to calm down. I’m pretty sure that you can follow the plot without knowing all the meanings, but I think you’d probably miss quite a few of the clever references. Still, you’d have a good idea of what was going on, action-wise, so it depends on how nerdy you’d like to be, really.

(Actually, just noticed that Wikipedia (I know, I know) has a list of all the literary books that are referenced throughout the novel which looks a fun way to spend some time. Or not. :-))

Morley was a writer and journalist who had a maths professor for a father and a literary and musically talented person for his mother. It’s obvious that he grew up in an educated and literate household, and he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford where he studied from three years.

He moved in literary circles and, out of his enthusiasm for the novels and stories of Sherlock Holmes, co-founded the “Baker Street Irregulars”, an exclusive and rather prestigious club at the time. By the time that he died, Morley had written more than 100 books and even had a movie made out of one of his novels (Kitty Foyle [1939]) which I’m interested in tracking down.

So, not only does his writing reflect his life, but the book is also quite autobiographical in that his real-life wife was also called Helen, they lived in several of the cities mentioned in the plot, and he really did hang out with a social group that used to spend time at another bookshop in Greenwich Village. This bookshop had the tradition of having all its authors, publishers et al. sign the door as they entered and/or left the premises and in fact, when it closed, the signed door was shipped and sent to the Harry Ransom Center (UT) for safekeeping. “A door to the past” indeed with its more than 240 signatures on it.

So – really enjoyed this read once I understood that this was going to include a caper or two, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys books about books (and who doesn’t, TBH?)

(With this said, expect a “New Words to Me” post coming up in the next week or so.)