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Book Review: The Goldfinch

I was drawn to The Goldfinch because I had seen the painting once, in real life, on loan to the de Young Museum in San Francisco; an exhibit of the works of the Dutch Masters.  It was painted by Carel Fabritius, a Delft master painter who was a pupil of Rembrandt and a teacher of Vermeer (Girl with a Pearl Earring).  He died tragically in the Delft gunpowder magazine explosion in 1654 at only 32 years of age. Only about a dozen of his paintings survive.  The Goldfinch is exquisite; photographs really don’t do it justice.  It immediately became one of my all-time favorite paintings.

The Goldfinch – Carel Fabritius – 1654

So when I saw The Goldfinch novel, by Donna Tartt, on the library website, I checked it out without knowing what it was about.

Shortly after I started it, I went for a walk with a couple of friends; books are a topic that often comes up.  After I said what I was reading, one friend told me that her book club had tried reading The Goldfinch and had all quit, frustrated and disappointed.  They couldn’t get into it.

I kept going, and found myself drawn into the story of a young teenage boy, whose mother takes him to see the exhibits at the Met in New York City, and The Goldfinch is among those paintings.  What follows is an intriguing coming of age tale of art theft, drug addiction, grief, finding family, international crime and the Russian mafia.  The novel follows a circuitous route of the life of Theodore Decker as he learns to navigate in the world.  In an often bizarre twist of fate, the painting is his anchor.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

You will likely either love it or hate it; I think this is a book where there is no in between.  I am in the former camp.  The novel held my interest, despite its length, and the ending has one of the best summations on life that I have read.  Enjoy.

 

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Astoria 2016 – The Last Days

I still had a day and a half left to explore Astoria, and I was determined to make the most of it!   I had already had a great time during my first day and a half – but I had a lot more to do!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Saturday morning I went to the Columbia River Maritime Museum.  What a fantastic place!  The museum covers all aspects of the Columbia River, from the Native American history in the area, to the winter that Lewis and Clark were here, to the various ships that explored off the coast.  The museum also explores the fishing and cannery industry that existed from the late 1800s until recent times.  In 1945, there were 30 canneries operating in Astoria; the last one closed in 1980.  The museum has a wall full of cannery labels; they have a beauty similar to the apple box labels from the same era.  The graphic design on some of the labels is amazing!

Salmon Can labels

 

A historic diving suit at the Maritime Museum

 

A boat at the Maritime Museum

 

The museum also has a lot of information on the Columbia River Bar Pilots and the process of guiding these ships successfully into the waters of the Columbia River.  The volume of the Columbia River and the way that the North Pacific storms come in make this stretch of water one of the most dangerous in the world.  The waves here can exceed 40 feet in height during winter storms, and can easily crash the largest of ships on the sandbars at the mouth of the river.  Ships entering these waters have to be boarded and piloted by a Bar Pilot who is licensed by the State of Oregon.  These pilots complete a dangerous transfer to the ship they are boarding, done either with a pilot boat or a helicopter.  They pilot over 3,600 ships each year into the waters of the river and back out again.  And surprisingly, the Columbia River Bar Pilots have been doing this since 1846.  It was a fascinating exhibit.

 

The Peacock, a retired Pilot Boat

Interestingly, the museum also has a collection of yosegaki hinomaru (the museum used this word order, but there are also references with the name hinomaru yosegaki), which are the good luck flags which were given to Japanese soldiers by friends and family covered in messages and well wishes.  They have a longer tradition, but were most notably given during World War II.  Many American service members took these flags from fallen Japanese soldiers as mementos and over time, they have ended up in museums such as the Maritime Museum.  Here, however, they have been working on a project to find the families of the men these flags were taken from, and send them home to Japan.

 

Yosegaki Hinomaru waiting to be reunited with their families

I ended my visit with a tour of the Lightship Columbia, which is anchored at the dock outside of the museum.  The Columbia served as a floating lighthouse, serving as a beacon to ships between 1951 and its decommissioning in 1979.  It is now designated as a National Historic Landmark.  The work of the lightship was then done by a more modern navigational beacon, which is also now retired.  It is a self guided tour, but there is a docent who can answer questions on the ship.  Exhibits explained that the crew of the ship served between two and four weeks at a time, and had to have everything needed to live for several weeks on board the ship, because winter storms often prevented the delivery of supplies.  10 crew members were aboard the ship at all times, with a total crew of 18.

The museum was certainly worth a visit, and worth the price of the $14 admission (which includes the tour of the lightship).  You can add a 3D film for another $5; the movies change.

After the museum, I had a late lunch at Clementes, along the riverwalk near the museum.  I loved my Salmon Fish and Chips, paired with a Strawberry Blonde from the Wet Dog Cafe and Brewery.  It was a great spot to just relax for a little while before continuing to enjoy the afternoon.

Late that afternoon I drove up to the Astoria Column.  I had been there once before, on a previous tour through Astoria, but it was worth a return visit.  The tower was completed in 1926, and is 125 feet tall.  It has a hand-painted spiral frieze winding up the column; it would stretch more than 500 feet if it could be unwound.  The frieze depicts three historic events: the discovery of the Columbia River by Captain Robert Gray; the end of the Lewis and Clark Expedition; and the arrival of the ship Tonquin.  The artwork is done in Sgraffito (skra-fe-to) style, which consists of a dark basecoat of plaster with white plaster laid over it, into which the figures are scratched or etched.  It really is very detailed.

Climbing to the top of the tower is a huge treat.  There are 164 steps on the spiral staircase, and then you can go outside at the top to see a 360 view of Astoria and the ocean and the river.  Just be aware it can be breezy up there – it is 600 feet above sea level.  It’s amazing!  You can buy balsa wood gliders at the gift shop on the ground for kids to launch from the top of the tower.  I saw several doing this, and it looked like fun!  I stayed for a beautiful orange sunset.  The kind that makes you appreciate life and the blessings you have.

Sunset from the Astoria Column

I finished off my evening with a trip to Buoy Beer Company, a brewery located right on the water in a 90 year old cannery building.  They focus on European style beer, and great food.  I went with the tempura/beer battered cheese curds – wow, delicious and sinful.  And no visit is complete without checking out the window in the floor, where you can see the sea lions who hang out underneath the building!  I loved it!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sunday I had to make the long drive home, but I was proud of myself that I made the most of my solo trip.  The weather was clear on my last morning, so I went for a long walk down the riverwalk once more, and got to see the trolley that delivers tourists to several stops along its route.  Apparently I enjoyed watching the trolley so much I forgot to take a photo…  It is such a cute feature of this small town!  I walked a couple miles down to a viewing platform, and then headed back to the hotel.  It was a beautiful morning for November, and it made me happy.

The rain held off until I got back to the hotel and my car.  Although there had been rain a few times during the long weekend, it never rained much while I was outside wandering!  Success!

What a great weekend…

 

 

 

 

 

 

West 2016: Menor’s Ferry

Day 11, Monday, August 15, 2016

The Snake River is generally a wide multi-channeled river as it flows through Grand Teton National Park.  There are only a few places within the park boundary where the river narrows to a single channel.  It is at one of these spots where Bill Menor settled in 1892, and established a ferry to cross the river, as well a General Store.  His brother Holiday settled on the other side of the river and operated a limekiln.  Bill Menor used this lime to whitewash his General Store.

The ferry was a reaction ferry, which used the current of the river to propel the ferry.  In the winter, when the river was low, he used a cable car to transport passengers.  Menor operated the ferry until 1918, when he sold the store and the ferry to Maud Noble, a Philadelphia women who came to Jackson Hole looking for adventure.  She operated the ferry until 1927, when the state of Wyoming built a bridge nearby.

Maud Noble was significant for another reason too.  She was instrumental in the movement to create Grand Teton National Park.  She hosted Horace Albright, then the Superintendent of the National Park Service, along with several local ranchers and farmers, at a historic meeting in her cabin to talk about the creation of the park.

The Menor’s Ferry history area contains the Menor General Store, a replica reaction ferry, the original well, a replica barn and Maud Noble’s cabin, which was moved to the site when she purchased the store and ferry in 1918.

 

 

 

Nearby is also the Chapel of the Transfiguration, an Episcopal Church that was built in 1925 on land donated by Maud Noble.  Services are held weekly between May and September, and the chapel can be booked for weddings with the stunning backdrop of the Tetons through the window.

 

 

 

Be sure to visit the area when you are in Grand Teton National Park – it is worth a look around!

West 2016: Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Day 10, Sunday, August 14, 2016

It’s not everyday that one man gets a huge museum dedicated to him, but the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, in Cody, Wyoming is just that.  Here you can learn everything you want to know about Buffalo Bill.

Museum Entrance

Buffalo Bill was born William Frederick Cody in 1846, in Iowa.  His father died when he was only 11, and as the legend goes, he took work as a Pony Express rider and made a daring, physically challenging ride of 322 miles without a break (although the horses were switched out).  But the truth is, it never happened.  Bill was in school when the Pony Express was operating and never worked for them.  He did in fact ride for a messenger service, but he only transported messages a distance of three miles.  Bill did serve in the Civil War, after having been in some trouble leading up to it, and then gained his fame as a bison hunter after the war.  He worked for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, killing bison to provide food for the men who were working their way across the west building the rail line.  He was apparently a very good shot and killed an awful lot of bison.

He was also extremely good at promoting himself.  He told his stories, and was apparently a very likable guy, so people wanted to listen to him.  He started his Wild West Show – it ran in various versions for over 30 years, from 1883 to 1916, and it traveled the U.S. and even in Europe.  He was able to get famous Native Americans to participate, including Sitting Bull and Standing Bear, as well as horsemen from around the world.  There were trick riders and sharpshooters, and other types of cowboys, Indians, and Buffalo soldiers.  The show had it all…

The museum details all of this, as well as his personal trials, family life and death in 1917.  It is very well done.

Buffalo Bill Portrait

Of course, the museum is really five in one, with the Draper Natural History Museum, the Whitney Western Art Museum, the Cody Firearms Museum and the Plains Indian Museum, in addition to the Buffalo Bill Museum.  There is also a research library.  You could spend several days there, and still not feel like you saw it all.

We spent a solid half day in the museum, and tried to see what we could.  We visited on the last day that we were headed into Yellowstone National Park, traveling that afternoon down through Grand Teton National Park to stay two nights in Jackson, Wyoming.  My mom had an advantage, as she had visited before on a previous trip.

I really liked that the Natural History Museum indicated where their mounted animals had come from (sadly, lots of them had been killed by cars).  The Western Art Museum had some really amazing pieces, and I enjoyed the reproduction art studio of Frederic Remington.

If you have a chance, it is well worth the $19 price of admission; be sure to allow plenty of time.

West 2016: Rapid City Oddity

Day 4: August 8, 2016

When you think of a gas station and convenience store, I bet you are like me and think about a place to fill the tank, and perhaps pick up some snacks for that long drive you have ahead of you.  You know…  Diet Dr. Pepper, coffee, licorice, pretzels… something to hold you over until you get your next meal (yes, I am a bit food focused, in case you were wondering).  But I bet it isn’t often that you think of that gas station convenience store as a place to view a whole host of stuffed animals from around the world.  And I don’t mean the cute, cuddly plush stuffies – I mean a collection of taxidermy animals!

This odd Taxidermy Gas Station, as I came to call it, is located in Rapid City, South Dakota inside a Mobile gas station.  It has an actual name – The Call of the Wild Museum, but Taxidermy Gas Station has a much better ring to it, in my humble opinion…

I knew about it before our trip, having stumbled upon it while I was researching things to do on TripAdvisor. I put it on the list as an interesting potential, but wasn’t convinced that we would make it there because there were so many other things we wanted to see in the area.  In the end, we just kind of ended up at the intersection and decided to make the stop as we were heading home from our busy day at Badlands, among other places…

I have mixed feelings on big game hunting…  I am sure others have different opinions, but I don’t think that anyone should be permitted to hunt endangered animals.  I think if you are going to hunt common animals, you should be hunting it to eat it.  But regardless of your views on hunting, this place is here, an exhibit showing the ‘kills’ of a hunting family that needed a large display room.  The Taxidermy Gas Station was born…

The exhibit is free – a big room attached to the convenience store, and it contains dozens, maybe even over a hundred taxidermied specimens.  Common animals and exotics from all over the world.  Lions, an elephant, a polar bear, an alligator, a wolverine, a Canada goose, a few different species of prairie dogs…  You name it, and you can likely find it there.  Well, now that I think about it, they didn’t have a manatee – that’s a good thing.

The taxidermy on these animals is very well done, and it is morbidly interesting to walk through the room checking out all the different animals.  However, it is also sad.  I will leave you to decide for yourself…

 

Thoughts?

After the Taxidermy Gas Station, we wrapped up our drive back to Custer, South Dakota, traveling through Custer State Park after dark.  I will tell you more about this wonderful park in another post!  Winding through the park after dark was a surreal experience, especially since at one point I had to slam on the brakes to narrowly avoid hitting a large male bison, who was standing in the road, in the fog, staring directly at us…  Creepy…  My heart jumped into my throat!  But after we stopped the car, he lazily walked by the side of us, without a care in the world…


Distance for the Day:
Custer, SD – Minuteman National Historic Site – Prairie Homestead – Badlands National Park, SD – Wall Drug – Call of the Wild Museum – Custer, SD (4 hrs, 45 min, 254 miles)

Hotel for the night: Mystic Valley Inn – Custer, SD
Gas – $2.19 / gallon

Book Review: The Swan Thieves

The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova

A man walks into The National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and tries to attack a painting with a knife. Fortunately, Robert Oliver is restrained before doing any damage to the painting, and ends up being involuntarily committed for mental illness.

His psychiatrist, Dr. Andrew Marlow, begins to treat Oliver and in doing so, embarks on a journey to solve the mystery of the beautiful old-fashioned woman whom Oliver is obsessed with painting. His journey takes him to Oliver’s former wife and former lover, as well as halfway around the world. What he uncovers is a tragic love story; while along the way he finds a love of his own.

The Swan Thieves was written by the same woman that wrote The Historian (I recommend it highly), and Kostova weaves an intricate tale of love and relationships, and the nuances of the human mind. Her character development is superb, with each character possessing their own strengths and flaws; their own triumphs and tragedies.

I was captivated from beginning to end, trying to anticipate what was around the next corner, hating to put the book down to go back to the real world. The conclusion leaves questions, and just like life, things don’t always get wrapped up neatly. As is always the case with true love, the story will stay with you long after the end.

Note: I listened to the audiobook version, which was wonderfully narrated by different voices.

West 2016: Free Ice Water at Wall Drug!

Day 4: August 8, 2016

Is there such a thing as a trip to the Badlands without a stop at Wall Drug? This iconic store, originally a pharmacy, has become an American legend, due to the road signs that line I-90 for miles in both directions. Additionally, they give away free bumper stickers and people erect signs in far off places announcing how many miles it is to Wall Drug.  These marketing strategies have absolutely aided in their success.

Wall Drug was opened by Ted Hustead and his wife in 1931; they were looking for a small town with a Catholic church where they could establish their pharmacy business. Wall is currently in the “middle of nowhere,” and I can only imagine that it was even more remote over 85 years ago. His wife Dorothy deserves the credit for its ultimate success. Mount Rushmore had just opened, and she had the idea to offer free ice water to tourists traveling west to see it during the hot, dry summer. The idea brought lots of people in and the store took off!

The Famous Wall Drug Store

Wall Drug is basically a shopping mall where you can buy all sorts of kitschy souvenirs, including a mounted “jackalope,” which is a jackrabbit with antlers.  I have no idea how this thing ever took off, but I guess I need to remember that we have a long history of venerating mythical creatures, and why not – it is fun!  Apparently in Douglas, WY, where the first taxidermy jackalope was created in 1932, they have an “official” jackalope hunting season, which occurs for only one day.  In case you are interested in bagging your own jackalope, the season occurs each year on June 31 (a nonexistent date as June has 30 days), from midnight to 2 a.m. The hunter must have an IQ greater than 50 but not over 72.  Permits are available from the Douglas, WY Chamber of Commerce.  I think that would be pretty awesome to get one!  But I digress…

Mom and I combined our visit to Wall Drug with dinner.  I had a buffalo burger, which was good, but somehow I neglected to snap a picture…  We decided to forego the ice cream for dessert, although it did look really delicious.  Instead we took a bit of time to go find the rideable Jackalope out back!  Because a trip to Wall Drug is not complete without sitting astride a 10 foot tall fiberglass Jackalope!  The stirrups were too short for this equestrienne, but I tried to make the best of it with my long remembered equitation skills.  Mom even played along and climbed up there too.

The Wall Drug Cafe – I got to stare at the ice cream counter all through dinner!

 

Me riding the Jackalope

 

Mom riding the Jackalope!

We also found a stuffed bison to pose with – she had seen better days – I imagine she’s been petted by millions over the years. And we checked out an exhibit on gold mining, where you can pan for gold for a fee, but it was closed when we were there.  The mall has a Western art museum as well that would have been cool to check out if we had more time – it is free to visit.

Me with the stuffed bison – up close and personal

In the end, we departed with full bellies but passed on purchasing the mounted jackalopes or other Wall Drug souvenirs, and got on the road towards home (Custer, SD, that is…).  We still had a fair bit of driving and one more, very odd, stop to make…