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Friday, September 27, 2013

The Lost Books of my Youth

One of the many overloaded
bookshelves in our home.
Lately I've been spending a great deal of time thinking about books.  I know, this is hardly a surprise to those of you who know me or read this blog on a regular basis.  But I'm not just talking about writing books, or even reading books.  I'm talking about a collection of books I used to have when I was younger.  Let me explain.

When I was a kid, oh, like thirty-plus years ago, I can remember when it really started for me.  I was at a flea market, a really big one.  And as I walked past tables and tables of old farm implements (you know, the really scary looking ones that are used in all the slasher flicks) and used sewing machines and vintage toys and rusted old signs (this was before all the signs were reproductions), I came to a stop at a table with a bunch of old books mashed together with their spines facing the open sky.  It was a wonderful sight and I forgot all about the other vendors and settled in to look at those old tomes.

All of them were hardbacks.  I don't think any of them had dust jackets on them.  Just plenty of beautiful cloth covered books with titles imprinted on their spines.  Often the front cover was blank; a soft blue, or stark green, or even a faded red.

I don't remember how it was I had money in my pocket, but I must have had some.  Perhaps my parents had given me a few dollars to spend that day.  I was too young to be earning anything at that time.  But I was so entranced by these books, and they were so cheap, that I bought a good number of them.  An old Ben-Hur was among them; with a solid dark green cover, it had a fancy illustration on the front cover made of gold an silver leafing.  I knew it wasn't real, but it was dazzling to see.  A great big Robert Louis Stevenson volume of The Wrecker, which I'd never heard of, and a strange little book entitled The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.  I'd never heard of that before either.  I certainly had no idea what an autocrat was.  Why I picked that book I cannot remember.  But pick it I did, and it became a mysterious member of my collection.

Over time, I began to seek out more old books; a great big blue Gone With the Wind, a Vanity Fair by Thackeray, a slim volume of W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge, and other odd, strange, and delightful titles.  I read a great deal back then, but I rarely read much of the hardback collection I had gathered.  The edition of The Wrecker couldn't be read.  Many of the pages had not been cut.  This fascinated me, I had no idea books were printed like this, and I often pulled it out to try and peer in between the pages that were uncut.  This was always a challenge.

Eventually I amassed about forty or fifty hardbacks that became something of a burden on my family.  We moved more often than the average family, and boxing up and moving these books was a bit of a problem.  Lugging boxes of hardback books up and down stairs is a memorable experience, to say the least.  However, I don't recall my parents complaining about them, and they stayed with me until I married.  I still regret the fact that I loaded most of them up and sold them to a used books store one day so that we could make the rent payment early in our marriage.  I really didn't get much for them.  Pretty much nothing at all.  Of the ones I held onto, most of them were ruined when hurricane Rita blew through the back of our home in 2005.  They ended up in a pile of wet pulpy trash on the side of the road.

The survivors.  By the way, whatever happened to Thomas B. Costain?
When I was a kid, there was always a wide selection of his books
in every library.  I suppose he was the James Patterson of his day.
Searching the stacks and stacks of books I've accumulated since I married, I can only find a few of the original (and to me, infamous!) hardbacks.  I still have that Gone With the Wind, and a rather gaudy looking The Silver Chalice.  One of my favorites from that collection, and one of the few that had a dust cover, was Thomas B. Costain's The Tontine.  (This was the first of two volumes.  I never did own the second, though I read them both.  I can't remember where I finally found the second volume.  Must have been a library, since I didn't buy it.  After all these years, I can finally buy the second volume for a few dollars on Amazon Marketplace.  Maybe one day I will.)

I read all three of those books.  Of the others I had collected, I read The Moon is Down by Steinbeck (a wonderful book!), and maybe only one or two others.  I read a little from the collected works of Washington Irving.  But many of these old books were so old, the pages were brittle and I was not too keen on ruining them.  It was as if I had become like the Eloi, from H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, existing side by side with the great literature of mankind yet never reading them as they slowly decayed into nothingness.  Actually, a number of them I actually did read, but I used volumes from the library so as not to cause undue damage to the older hardbacks.

I have a newer collection of books now; hundreds of books are scattered throughout my house.  I don't move anymore.  Or haven't for some time, which is a good thing considering the total weight of books in our house.  A little more than half of the books I have now I've read.  There are a few that I haven't read and will never read.  But getting rid of them is hard.  I still bear the scars from that trip to the used bookseller to pay the rent.  But I still enjoy looking over the titles, some with fond memories of what I'd read in them, some with the excitement of not yet knowing what is in them.

Most of my reading is done on a Kindle now.  I can carry all of the books I've ever read and ever want to read in that one, slim digital device.  Yet I'll always cherish the books that clutter up the house.  They're important.  I expect my grandchildren to grow up around them, occasionally pulling them out and paging through them with curiosity and wonder.  I'd be disappointed if they didn't.  They were always here for my kids, and I know it had an effect on them.  You can't grow up in a house full of books and not be influenced by them.

Now I've got to go finish the latest book I'm reading.  I've collected over thirty titles on my Kindle that I have yet to read and I really need to get to them.  So many little time.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

A View of The Lalaurie Horror

The Lalaurie Horror by Jennifer Reeser
(Today's post is just to point you in the direction of really great new release from Jennifer Reeser, a wonderful formalist poet who, I'm proud to say, is also my wife.)

Twice Nominated for Literature's Pushcart Prize.

On April 10, 1834, fire erupted at the mansion of wealthy, beautiful, twice-widowed socialite Madame Marie Delphine Lalaurie, a Creole of French and Irish heritage living on Royal Street in the famed French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana. First responders discovered seven slaves in the attic, victims of her torture chained to the mansion walls.

They were rescued, though to this day, at least seventeen slaves belonging to Madame Lalaurie remain vanished without a trace, and the roster of slave children, adults and elderly who mysteriously died in her care is considerable.  The lady herself escaped prosecution and was never brought to justice. 

Reports of hauntings and strange sights at the mansion have persisted through its 200 year history, with a long list of owners -- from humble school instructors to Hollywood stars such as the actor Nicolas Cage -- who each abandoned the house after a relatively short time, following a timeline of unfortunate events. At present, the Lalaurie Mansion is considered among the loveliest of homes in the United States of America, and reputed to be one of its most haunted, as well.

Jennifer Reeser conducts a spellbinding, poetic "ghost tour" through its chambers, exploring the real culture, cuisine, history, mythology and art unique to New Orleans, while at the same time creating an original story and fictional plot, told in a straightforward, classic form full of feeling, which should be clear to anyone, anywhere in the world. Readers will encounter such characters as Calavera, the Baron Samedi, and even Madame Lalaurie, herself.

What the literary journal, TRINACRIA, has described as, " amazing terza rima narrative of a tour through an old haunted house, done in unnerving Grand Guignol style."

A signed, print edition of The Lalaurie Horror can be bought for $8.00 at Saint James Infirmary Books.  A Kindle version, which can be read on any smartphone, or tablet, is available at Amazon for just $3.99.  Don't miss out on this unique tour of New Orleans.  And for those of you who are not big fans of poetry, this is a rare chance to read some of Jennifer's poetry that is a narrative form.  That's right, she tells a story, and what a story it is!

Friday, September 20, 2013

My View of Rosedown Plantation (Part Three)

Rosedown Plantation, St. Francisville, Louisiana.

Today's post is the final look at the historic garden plantation, Rosedown.  After our introduction in part one, and our interior tour of the house in part two, we'll now take a final walk around the grounds.  And as promised, I'll introduce you to a friend we met along the way.

Just off the southwestern corner of the house, you'll find the formal gardens.  Admittedly, during our visit, there were not many flowers in bloom.  It was early September, and most of them were still in heat-check.  However, we did see plenty of marigolds, ageratum, phlox (white and pink), as well as flowering crepe myrtles and butterfly bushes.

But don't worry, in this view on the left, from the formal gardens, you can see that even the pond looks picturesque in the late morning sun.  
As I mentioned in the first post on Rosedown, Martha Turnbull was inspired by her trip to Europe in the 1850's to build these gardens, which eventually expanded to 28 acres of lush, carefully planned walks and gardens.  The old brick wall in this picture is what is left of the original conservatory, where many of the plants would have been carefully raised.

According the Louisiana State Park web site, these were some of the largest private gardens in the United States in the 19th century.

Midway down the grand Oak alley that approaches the house, you will see this view of the North Garden's fountain and summerhouse on the left.  There is a corresponding summerhouse in the South Garden.  The playful sounds of the fountain were a special addition to the stillness of the gardens.  

It would be very easy to lose yourself in the solitude and peace that shrouds these grounds like the Spanish moss on the oaks above.

  As soon as we arrived in the parking lot, this tough-looking fella crawled out from under a car and introduced himself.  He was eager to show us around.  After we paid the entrance fee (as of this date, the entrance fee is $10 a person) he accompanied us as we began our walk through the paths of the North Garden.  He was not in the least interested in the spider-webs that spanned the pathways, nor the menacing banana spiders that brooded in the center of them.  He was short enough to pass under them without giving them the least thought.

However, he was happy to have company, rubbing himself against my ankles as I stopped to take a few snapshots.  He even made sure to get my attention so that he would make it into my blog.  I only noticed he was gone when I heard him crashing through the bushes after a very noisy and frightened pigeon.

The sun-dappled privet hedges and paths provide plenty of opportunity for visitors to take in this breath-taking plantation.  For those of you who are gardening enthusiasts, the bookstore at Rosedown sells copies of Martha Turnbull's extensive gardening journals, which detail the intricacies of the preparation and maintenance processes necessary to create and sustain such impressive landscaping.

A link is provided at the end of this post if you are interested in the diary.

This map, which is provided at the beginning of the tour, gives you an idea of the scope of the Rosedown gardens.  During the 1950's restoration, great care was taken to use the most accurate varieties of plants they could find.  Using Martha's diary, they were able to recreate her antebellum world.  

Many thanks go out to the staff of Rosedown Plantation for their friendliness and hard work.  It made for an enjoyable stroll beneath spreading oak trees, cypress trees, and even the oldest pine tree in the state.  We won't soon forget this world that is well off the beaten path of all that is ordinary.

And one last bit of advice for visitors:  There is no restaurant on the grounds.  However, just down the road in St. Francisville, you'll see Sonny's Pizza, a local joint with some of the best pizza I've had in a long time.  Don't hesitate to check them out.

Like the photograph of the approach to Rosedown at the top of this post?  It is available as a coffee mug at the following link.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

My View of Rosedown Plantation (Part Two)

Rosedown Plantation, St. Francisville, Louisiana.

Having taken a tour of the grounds around Rosedown Plantation in our last post, as promised, I'll give you a tour of the interior of the home on this trip.
The foyer of the house grabs your attention as soon as you step in out of the sunlight.  This open entryway is colorfully decorated with a wall paper that, while not original to the house, is an exact copy of the original wall-covering, manufactured by the original European firm that first supplied the design over one hundred and fifty years ago.

The home remained in the hands of the original family from the time it was built, in the 1830's, until the mid 1950's.  At that time, Catherine Underwood, a Texan, purchased the estate and spent $10 million on a ten-year restoration.  This included researching and commissioning the recreation of the wall décor.
Our tour was conducted by a very friendly guide, Sasha, who was full of wonderful information on the restoration as well as the history of the home.  A few rules were stressed, including the requirement that we not use a flash with our camera, and we were asked not to touch anything in the home.  It was easy to see why.  All of the furniture was original, and you could tell.  Not that it looked old and used.  Far from it.  It was all in excellent and remarkable condition, considering the humidity of Louisiana.  (Now the home is air-conditioned, which was a nice treat on that hot summer day.)   But you could simply sense that these marvelous pieces were not merely imitation tables and chairs and divans.  The Turnbulls, the family that built Rosedown, were extremely wealthy, and they furnished their home accordingly.

Being wealthy in the America South of the early 19th century, they were slave-owners.  A large plantation, Rosedown included about 450 slaves at one time.  According to the guide, this stairway was built for the Turnbulls with the skilled carpentry of their slaves.  As she pointed out, after over one-hundred and fifty years, they are still solid, and do not even creak.  A testament to the slaves' skill.

However, these were not the only stairs in the house.

In the back of the house, in the butler's pantry, between the dining room and Mrs. Turnbull's office, you can see these stairs that were used by the house servants.  When the house was restored, these stairs were left as they were found, in order to preserve their condition for display.  As you can see, the edge of the wooden steps are heavily worn down from a century of use.

This view is from the second floor, as it goes down into the butler's pantry.  At the top of these stairs is the attic, which we were not allowed to see.  (What a disappointment!)  However, it was the only part of the house we were not allowed to see.  As house tours go, it was a very thorough tour with near-total access.  Something that is not always the case in historic homes.

The dining room was still flooded with morning light, despite the fact that it was after 11 AM.  Here in the dining room, there was one main meal of the day, eaten around two in the afternoon.  According to our guide, the fan above the table was operated by a young slave who sat on a seat against the wall.  Though the guide did not mention it, I wondered if they hired servants to do this after 1865.  I'm just glad the fan above our own table is electric.

Just outside the front of the house, off to one side, was a small office built for the family's doctor.  Martha Turnbull had three children; Sarah, who would eventually raise 10 children at Rosedown, and two boys, one of which died of yellow fever at the age of seven.  Hired to care for the children, the doctor remained to care for not only the family but the entire slave population.  It was a rarity for a plantation to have a doctor on site for the slaves.

The plantation was ravaged by Northern troops during the war, and Sarah's family (she married James Bowman from the nearby Oakley Plantation) kept the plantation in operation with the aid of 250 sharecroppers.

Upstairs in the master bedroom, there was this little collection of sundries.  The wedding dress off to the left was a reproduction of Sarah's original dress.  Along the way I also saw swords, wicker bustle supports, shotguns, and lots of personal papers.

The personal papers were well preserved from the family, who never seemed to throw out any papers.  Receipts, notes, lists, sheet music, and schoolwork; it was all there for the preservationists to discover and examine.  Many of them have been laid out so that visitors can catch a glimpse of the Turnbulls' daily lives.

The master bedroom was not particularly large.  However, considering that Sarah and James had ten children, it was a fairly large (and busy!) room in comparison to the three smaller rooms that were used for the children.

Sarah lived until 1914.  Her four unmarried daughters, Corrie, Isabel, Sarah and Nina, became the sole inhabitants of Rosedown.  When Nina, the last daughter, died in 1955, they had managed to keep Rosedown debt-free, as well as held onto 3,000 acres of land, 28 acres of gardens, the house and its furnishings.  They were remarkable women, considering everything the plantation had seen, including the Civil War and the Great Depression.

The nursery looked very cozy.  It must have been, with all of those kids!  I was amused to see a fireplace in the nursery.  We are so safety conscious today, the Turnbulls might have been brought up on reckless endangerment charges for having a fireplace in the nursery.  However, as the guide pointed out, how else would they have heated the room?  And as my wife pointed out, there was probably a nursemaid on duty to keep an eye on them.  Or maybe at that time, kids were just so used to seeing fires that they weren't tempted to play with them.  Yeah, sure.

As the tour came to an end, we ended up in the library.  This beautiful room was graced with three bookshelves, one of  which you can see in the picture here.  They were not built on site, but were ordered from abroad.  They were supposed to be made with the same dimensions, but when they arrived, it was discovered that they were not of equal size.  Instead of having them sent back and others made, it was decided to offset the chimney.  This was not such a difficult decision when slaves were available to do such labor-intensive work.  Still, it seems a bit extreme.  It is sort of comforting, however, to realize that even the extremely wealthy have to deal with things like this.

Sasha did a great job of showing off the house and its history.  We were the only ones on the tour, so it was an unhurried, quiet tour.  The guide even treated us to her own rendition of Beethoven's Für Elise on the Turnbull's pre-Civil War piano.  It still sounded amazing.  Again, a difficult feat in the Louisiana humidity.  And yes, I too saw the irony in her playing a piano on which stood a card that clearly read please do not touch.

So be sure to take the time to tour the inside of Rosedown while you're visiting the grounds.  There is much more to see than what I've included here.

Next post I'll show a bit more of the formal gardens as well as introduce you to a friend I met while we were there.

Like the photograph of the approach to Rosedown at the top of this post?  It is available as a coffee mug at the following link.

Monday, September 9, 2013

My View of Rosedown Plantation (Part One)

Rosedown Plantation, St. Francisville, Louisiana.
The sun was shining strong the morning we drove north on US Highway 61.  Just about twenty minutes north of Baton Rouge, in the quiet, historic town of St. Francisville, we arrived at our destination: Rosedown Plantation.  It was a splendid September morning, perfect for taking in the natural beauty of this one-hundred-and-eighty-year-old estate.  After passing through the entrance, we paid the ten dollar entry fee (per person) and were directed to enter the grounds through a small path that led through tall azalea bushes and even taller cypress trees.  Spanish moss draped the canopy above.  Right away, we discovered that Spanish moss was not the only material hanging about.

Spread across the path were many large webs with these rather alarming looking banana spiders sitting directly in the center of them.  These are actually a fairly common site down here in Louisiana, as my kids can tell you from growing up in the country.  Run around playing hide and seek in the myrtle bushes and you're going to run into this yellow fellow eventually.  My wife can still remember her childhood experience of walking into a web and seeing the spider start towards her.  Her uncle pulled her out of the web in time to prevent her from being bitten but not soon enough to erase the nightmares.  Though everyone here calls them banana spiders, they are actually golden silk orb-weavers.  Their webs are spectacular works of art, and though they will bite and their venom is similar to a black-widow bite, it is far less powerful.  But I didn't want to test that theory.  However, once we were on the paths of the North Garden, there was no way to get out except under and around all the webs.  So we crouched, and walked very slowly until we made it out into the open approach to the house.

There were no identifying marks that I could find on
these statues, so this could either be one that
represented a season or any of the mythological characters.
As we stepped into the open, we were treated to an iconic view of the plantation house down a lengthy avenue of oak trees.  On an ancient brick base, I found a faded plaque which read:


There was no statue on this base.  There were several bases which seemed to be missing their statues.  However, there were still several of the statues in attendance along the avenue, and the four figures representing the continents still face the house.  I wanted to linger along the avenue, however, the house tour was about to begin, as it was 10:55 and the tours begin every hour on the hour.  So we walked through the shade of the oaks and approached the front porch.

The front approach to the house, as seen from its
balcony.  Two of the Carrara marble statures that
represent the continents can be seen on the left.
The stately feel of that approach is truly spectacular.  These formal gardens were designed and built over a twenty year period under the direction of Martha Turnbull after that grand tour of Europe.  She is said to have been influenced heavily by the formal gardens she saw there.  I can believe it.  Having recently been to Versailles and the Tuileries gardens, I can say that Rosedown, while not as large as those sites, can certainly stand in their company without shame.  Rosedown's gardens were in fact some of the only formal gardens found in the United States in the 19th century.

Rosedown is far too extensive and fascinating to cover it in one blog, so I'll stop here for now.  Next post we'll look at the interior of the house.  A third post will cover the formal gardens.
The avenue of oaks leads to this idyllic walkway, which leads to the front porch.  It was easy to imagine
riding up the avenue in a carriage.  Despite the heat of the day, it was pleasant under the shade of the oaks.
This lady was surrounded by Spanish
moss, azaleas, and banana spiders.

Like the photograph of the approach to Rosedown at the top of this post?  It is available as a coffee mug at the following link.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

An Early View of New Orleans in 2014

If you are like me, you're always looking for a unique calendar.  It always seems like the same calendars show up on the shelves over and over again: wolves, Marilyn Monroe, rainbows.  They even use many of the same pictures.  Even when my wife and I look for calendars of our favorite cities, we usually just see the same tired old shots.

So I've taken matters into my own hands, and my own camera.  Last year I designed several Paris calendars.  Sold on the website Zazzle, I was happy to provide an alternative for many people throughout the US and Canada who were shopping for a calendar that didn't just have the usual photographs of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe.  In addition to new Paris calendars for 2014, this year I am including calendars for New Orleans.  If you've been following Room With No View, you know I've been photographing that marvelous city quite extensively.

The first two calendars for New Orleans are now available.  Use the links below to order one (or both) of them after checking out a few of the photographs you'll find in the collections.