Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Summer Sojurns & Reading

With about 10 days of summer left, it's not too late to round out your summer reading list.

What I did on my summer vacations (we took two one-weekers instead of one two-weeker), tied into some great books.

First, there was Springfield, Illinois, home of Abe Lincoln and the fabulous new Lincoln Museum and Library. This is a world-class museum that features everything from a holographic presentation to Mary Lincoln's attic, where our two daughters could play "dress up" and games of the mid-19th century. We planned the trip around Lincoln sites: His home, law office, Memorial Park, New Salem village and even a ghost tour are all in Springfield, which is easily accessible by Amtrak.

To get a flavor for the Lincoln experience, I read "Land of Lincoln" by Andrew Ferguson, who was former colleague at Bloomberg News and a fine writer. Andrew looks at the cult of Lincoln. He takes you on a tour of the new museum, travels the Lincoln Heritage route (really dull) and introduces you to folks who love, imitate and specialize in Lincoln collectibles. Imagine a book on Elvis, only it's about one of our greatest and most enigmatic presidents.

In the Lincoln museum, as in Ferguson's book, you get a feel for how much Lincoln was reviled during his time and how much Mary Todd Lincoln suffered. After Abe's murder, she was actually committed by her lawyer son Robert until she was "cured." It was believed that her "madness" was caused by diabetes. A change of diet allowed her to leave the sanitarium in Batavia, Illinois. Even if you're not a Lincoln buff, this is one of the most amusing reads among the 14,000 or so books written on our 16th chief executive. Since we were so close to St. Louis, we shot down there after eating lunch at an Amish Farm (the greatest organic farmers in America). We took in the fine museum under the arch, the Missouri Botanic Gardens (oldest in the US) and zoo (splendidly laid out). When we crossed back into Illinois, we discovered the surprising Lewis & Clark state historic site (featuring a detailed keel boat that they may have taken up the Missouri), a River Museum in Alton (interesting) and Pere Marquette State Lodge at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.

Our second vacation was to Spain, which is no less enigmatic. When we were planning this trip, we were told several things: It will be too hot, there won't be any decent places open and nobody speaks English. Well none of it was true. It was hot, but not as sweltering as Chicago. Madrid was a delight; a walkable city with surprises at every turn. We stumbled into Plaza Mayor on a Sunday night to find Daniel Barenboim conducting the East-West Symphony in a free concert. The promoters even supplied free water bottles. While taking in the standard sights of the Prado, Reina Sofia and the palace, we were beguiled by the charm and sophistication of this proud city. It's blossoming. But if you're going to take in the full Madrid experience, you'll need to take a siesta, eat lightly and take a late dinner around 11pm. Do go to a chocolate cafe for real hot chocolate. It's a sinful delight.

We then took a high-speed train to Granada, home of the Alhambra, the ancient Moorish palace complex vacated by the last sultan Boabdil in 1492. The vision of this place, still flowing with water, light and mosaics from the height of Andalucian culture, still haunts me. I read Washington Irving's "Tales of the Alhambra" just before touring the palaces. It's a mountain filled with sagas of princesses, magicians, poets and love affairs. To get a historical perspective, I digested Maria Rose Menocal's "Ornament of the World," Robert Irwin's scholarly introduction "The Alhambra" and Chris Lowney's accessible "A Vanished World." The Alhambra is not only a UN World Heritage site, it's a masterpiece of art, engineering, poetry, landscape architecture and calligraphy. This is a domicile for words, etched into nearly every wall and column. Definitely a place to see before you die. Disney will never be able to duplicate this.

The third leg of our triangular tour of Espana landed us in Barcelona, where we lucked out and got a blind booking in the Amrey Diagonal Hotel with a view of the sea. Adjacent to our hotel was a rambla (pedestrian street) that led right to the beach. What dumb luck! We walked from one end of town to the other, taking in the organic Gaudi buildings like the Sagrada Familia and lesser-known sites such as the Marine Museum, which featured an extraordinary exhibit of Leonardo's notebooks. We did our paseo on the Rambla, the main drag, which was full of street artists and performers. After side trip to a fresh food market, we found some dinner. What was extraordinary was that the concierge of the hotel told the taxi driver about where the restaurant was, but failed to provide him a name or address. The driver got lost, apologized, turned off his meter (this would never happen in New York or Chicago) and eventually found the splendid little place. Barcelona is a great party town and Catalan hospitality is second to none.

Totally unrelated to Spain were two books that were sitting on my nightstand for some time: Robert Caro's "The Power Broker" and Edmund Morris's "Theodore Rex." Each book is a first-rate, can't-put-down bio of monumental men in American history. Caro's meticulous portrait of Robert Moses, the great builder of New York parks, bridges and highways, is stunning in its detail and puts you in the room with the power-crazed, arrogant Moses. Morris's subject is the unstoppable Teddy Roosevelt. Neither man has any counterpart in today's world, sadly enough. It's been a long time since anyone built any great infrastructure or did something truly noble for the sake of the planet. To get some perspective on how sordid our political leadership is at the moment -- or for inspiration -- read these books.

What a blessing it is to have the time to read! Isn't that what summers are for? Well, isn't that what winters, autumns and springs are for? To travel and to dip into unknown waters, whether they are of the past, present or future, that's the great grist of life. Now I'm onto Harry Potter, which my daughter Sarah has been harassing me to read for some time. Expecto petronum!

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