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The Last Castle : The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home by Denise Kiernan

The Vanderbilt name during the late 1800s conjured images of opulence and immenseLast Castle wealth.  As a scion of this moneyed family, George W. Vanderbilt inherited in a big way, and spent most of his fortune building what would become the largest house in the United States.

Whereas his extended family made their homes mainly in New York City and Newport, George looked farther afield, into the mountains near Asheville, NC.  Here he found the climate congenial, began buying up thousands of acres there, and employed the best in their fields to design and create his grand estate.

In his mid-thirties, George married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, descended from some of New York’s oldest families.  Edith was level-headed and charity minded, and brought these strong attributes to her role as mistress of Biltmore House.  She and George were active in the community, contributing funding and time to a number of pursuits.

Edith shouldered on when George died in his early 50s.  The vastness of Biltmore Estate and the costs to run it almost overwhelmed her, and Edith had to sell off certain interests of the estate, including a huge chunk of land to the federal government, which later became the core of Pisgah National Forest.

As a way of raising capital, the family began charging admission to the house in 1930.  Although it took years for the venture to make a profit, the move to open it to the public kept Biltmore House from neglect and the wrecking ball.

The Last Castle is a detail-packed account of the biggest house of the Vanderbilt family, the ordeals of building and financing it, and the ultimate triumph of its owners to keep it despite obstacles.  The author portrays George and Edith with compassion – they were not numb one percenters, but lively people who had consideration for others.  While they were decidedly rich and lived that way, they learned from and affiliated with the common person, and understood that their grand estate functioned by the work of many.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Logical Family by Armistead Maupin

Logical FamilyLogical Family follows the life of Armistead Maupin, who first made his mark in the literary world as the writer of a daily serial that began in the 1970s for the San Francisco Chronicle.  This serial would evolve into the long-lived and much-loved Tales of the City series, nine in all, that recount the juicy backstories of the residents of 28 Barbary Lane.

Maupin has quite a backstory – originally from Raleigh, he grew up with a conservative southern father and somewhat more tolerant mother.  In his young adulthood, Maupin was politically conservative himself (he even pulled a stint working for Jesse Helms), served in the navy during the Vietnam War, then spent his post- military life writing for several jobs and generally finding himself, and his sexuality.

Maupin’s move to San Francisco in the early 1970s provided him with a much needed community; he found there his “logical family” that he lacked earlier in life.  And in writing the serial that became Tales of the City, he tackled a number of issues that pertained to gay life in San Francisco at the time – the shooting of Harvey Milk, the AIDs epidemic, etc.

Although he’s written a few standalone novels (The Night Listener comes to mind) and now this memoir, The Tales of the City series remains Maupin’s best known batch of work.  I can’t attest to the series as a whole, but I did read the first four books years ago, and then the final (The Days of Anna Madrigal) much more recently and enjoyed them all very much.

In Logical Family, I liked how Maupin chronicled his changing relationships with his family.  Even when he had differences with them (especially his father), he managed to maintain a sense of civility with his parents that was touching, and everyone involved grew with the years – there was way more endearment here than bitterness.

(William Hicks, Information Services)



Down The Wild Cape Fear by Philip Gerard

Cape FearDown The Wild Cape Fear is an admiring look at the river that has historically defined geography and commerce in the eastern central part of North Carolina.  The book is part canoe/boat lark and part intensive study of the river’s characteristics, which have been modified over the past two centuries by dams, lock systems, channel dredging, and industry.

The author, a professor of creative writing at UNC Wilmington, wanted to travel the entire length of the Cape Fear from its beginning at the confluence of the Haw and the Deep Rivers.  Although he has to do his journey in stages, he manages it well, and not only becomes better acquainted with the Cape Fear River, but meets numerous souls who share his love of this distinctive waterway.

Along the way, Gerard learns a quick respect of the river and its unpredictable strength.  Although the Cape Fear is no rushing mountain stream, it has plenty of dangerous spots, and is no place to be during an onslaught of rain.

His book is also enlightening for the savage and tragic histories that tell the river’s story.  The past two hundred or so years of the Cape Fear’s course read like a microcosm of the South.  We visit again the horrors of slavery, segregation, and greed that still haunt the area, and the strong-arming of big business that today threaten the Cape Fear’s many ecosystems.

On a happier and more latter-day note, you’ll meet a number of individuals who are working to keep the river environmentally sound and viable for a long time to come, whether it is used for commerce or recreation.

The author on more than one occasion goes off on a tangent, but I really didn’t mind this – Gerard writes well and personably.  As with other books about river journeys (two that come to mind are Far Appalachia by Noah Adams and My Paddle to the Sea by John Lane) part of the trek is the meander.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Sightlines : A Conversation with the Natural World by Kathleen Jamie

As a nature writer, Kathleen Jamie sparkles.

In her native Scotland, she is knownsightlines primarily as a poet.  As an essayist, it would be great if she does more.  In Sightlines, Jamie takes an intense interest in all that she observes, and her places of interest range from the microscopic renderings of the human body to the fjords of Greenland.

Jamie’s essays cover the otherworldly, too.  In “Moon”, I think she’s put together a most excellent narrative about a lunar eclipse; she sees an event of high drama in the earth’s encroaching shadow.  During her visit to Greenland, Jamie takes on the Northern Lights, about as otherworldly a thing as anything we’ll ever see.

Her essays take in great swaths of the natural world, with a focus on the maritime climes of the northern Atlantic.  The sea and its effect on remote island settlements play a major part in several pieces here.  Whales are also a particular fascination – one essay is about her visit to the Hvalsalen, a museum in Norway with an extensive collection of whale skeletons.  There she is able to work with a restoration crew on a cleanup of the most significant specimens of the museum.

I found Jamie’s writing and scope of interest comparable to Robert Macfarlane (The Wild Places, Landmarks), another British author who writes some amazing nature essays.  As with him, her writing begs the reader to slow down and to stretch one’s attention span.  If you’re willing, you’ll be glad you did.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Gone Feral : Tracking My Dad through the Wild by Novella Carpenter

After being estranged from her father for years, the author reassesses both her parentsgone feral and their roles they have played in her life as she reconnects with her father.

Carpenter’s parents lived the back-to-the-land lifestyle early on.  She and her older sister were born in the early 1970s, and spent their early childhood on a rural spread of land outside of Orofino, Idaho.  The idealism wore thin for their mother after a time, and she eventually moved her kids to Washington State for a more stable livelihood.

Solitary by nature, Carpenter’s father George continued to make a marginal living for himself on the same piece of land.  He would keep up with his ex-wife and daughters sporadically via phone calls and emails through the years.  Residents of the area knew his eccentric routines.

George goes missing for a longer period of time than usual, and when he turns up again, the author sees this as an opportunity to forge a closer relationship with her dad.  Reunions with him, however, tend to be brief, disturbing and scattershot, and Carpenter begins to fear for his sanity (and consider her own) as she goes about linking her father’s past with her continuing life story.

Gone Feral explores fringe lifestyles (urban farms, communal homesteading) and how family ties never completely disappear.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


The Major Ordeals of the Mind, and the Countless Minor Ones By Henri Michaux

major ordealsIn the 1950s, French writer/poet/artist Henri Michaux began experimenting with mescaline, LSD and hashish in an effort to understand the workings of the human mind.  An earlier book of his, Miserable Miracle, is an immediate journal of these experiments, while Major Ordeals is Michaux’s attempt to make sense of and draw conclusions from these experiences.  “Just as the stomach does not digest itself, just as it is essential that the stomach do no such thing, the mind is constructed in such a way that it cannot grasp itself, cannot directly, continuously grasp its own mechanism and action, having other matter to grasp,” he writes in the introductory chapter “The Marvelous Normal”.  The use of hallucinogenic drugs reveals this otherwise ungraspable “mechanism and action” to Michaux, and the majority of Major Ordeals is spent documenting the many vertiginous states that leave the author helpless.  Rather than the “expanded consciousness” motif that is the takeaway from Aldous Huxley’s similar The Doors of Perception, Michaux conveys instead a modest amazement at the amount of unconscious, fugitive labor the mind must perform for human beings to be able to engage in even the simplest tasks.  Because Michaux is a poet, the descriptions of the drugged states are so vivid that the reader experiences something like a contact derangement by simply engaging with the text. Huxley’s book may have launched a thousand visionary acid trips, but Michaux’s comes to grips with the inevitable philosophical hangover that awaits the traveler upon their return.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)


The Queen of Katwe by Tim Crothers

The Queen of Katwe is the true story of Phiona, a Ugandan girl from Katwe, one of thequeen of Katwe world’s most dreadful slums.  Amazingly, despite her desperate poverty, she learns chess well enough to represent her country in international chess Olympiads.

As the book begins, Phiona and her family often have only one meal a day.  Since the slum is in a swamp, the floor of their shack is frequently deep in water.  There are no free schools in the area, and since Phiona’s mother has almost no money to pay for tuition, Phiona has had very little education.

When Phiona is nine years old, she sees a man teaching a group of boys how to play a game – chess – that she’s never seen.  Those who come to learn chess get a bowl of porridge each day.  She wants to learn – and to fill her empty stomach.  She proves to have a talent for chess, as well as great determination.  Within a few years, Phiona is winning games in international competitions and discovering such wonders as airplanes and flush toilets!  She also receives a scholarship to return to school.  The money that Phiona receives from this book and from a movie contract makes it possible for her family to move from the slum and into a home that is free from flooding.

This inspirational tale is fascinating, even to people – like me – who don’t play chess.

The movie based on this book won awards from the African-American Film Critics Association and from the Women Film Critics Circle.  It stars David Olelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, and Madina Nalwanga.

The book’s author lives in Chapel Hill.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)