The concept: A friend of mine challenged me on Facebook to name 10 books that have stayed with me over the years. Just the title and author, move on to the next one. But since I don’t follow directions very well sometimes, I couldn’t do the short form. As I stared at my growing list, I couldn’t help but reflect on personal things associated with the books: the time period when I read them, what else was going on in my life, the people I knew then, ill-advised adventures prompted by reading the book, even a favorite album that was an auditory companion during a particular reading. Peripheral memories and happenstance are intricately linked to turning the pages of a book in which you are enraptured.
So the simple challenge became a lengthy bit of rambling on my part, especially with my documented tendency to wander so far off the designated path that you might as well throw away your travel map. Thinking of the books triggered stories, stories that I had fun revisiting, and I thought you might enjoy them as well. And that’s how a blog series is born.
I should point out that my list is not in preferential order, so the numbers are merely delimiters and not rankings. And these books are not my Ultimate Top Ten Life-Shapers. They are simply the first ten books that popped into my head as I sat here with my laptop, contemplating, then the dusty, preserved-in-amber moments floated to the surface and I began banging away on the keyboard. And here we go…
1. The Witching Hour – Anne Rice
This work is Anne Rice at her peak, in full command of a fascinating, sprawling story that spans centuries. The characters are rich in detail, fleshy and real, even when they are unreal, and the plot veers in directions you don’t anticipate, which is always a plus. And a big chunk of the story takes place in New Orleans, a city I relish. What’s not to love?
I will admit that I had never read any of Anne Rice’s books before I tackled this one. (It’s a hefty book, thousand-plus pages, you could kill someone with it, should that be your inclination.) I was somehow ignorant of the cult sensation that resulted from “Interview with the Vampire” or her other books that led up to this one, published in 1990. In that year, I was working on yet another of my failed novels, so I had one eye on the bestseller lists, trying to keep abreast of what was hip and what was not. (A stupid thing to do, I now realize. If you want to write, write what you want. You may never sell anything, but you remain true, and that’s what matters.)
Anne Rice was dominating those bestseller lists at the time, with this “Witching Hour” thing knocking everything to the side in its rise. I kept checking at my local library (this was during my lean salad days, when “buying” was not in the budget and “borrowing” was the norm), waiting for the book to become available. It finally did, I devoured the thing in a record-breaking reading binge, and I eventually, reluctantly, relinquished my temporary ownership back to the local library. I think I shed a tear when I did.
I’ve read the entire thing at least 10 times since then. It never disappoints me.
So, in a matter of a few summer months of debilitating heat, I went from casual interest in Anne Rice’s work to complete obsessive, joining the ranks of her apparent billions of fans who could probably elect her as President of the United States if it wasn’t for the pesky gerrymandering of voting districts that the Republicans love to do. Initially, there was no stalking involved with my obsession. My psychosis was more along the lines of doing whatever it took to get my hands on all of her novels. This is a generally victimless crime, perhaps there was a bit of shoving when I raced to snatch up one of her books in the library (during my salad days) or some outright tripping of competitors in a bookstore (once I achieved a salary level that weakly conquered the poverty level).
But the stalking did eventually happen, in a moment that I am not necessarily proud of, but we’re friends here, and I feel compelled to share. The company that I worked for at the time, a corporation that will remain nameless because I understand things like retribution and defamation lawsuits, found it imperative that I attend a national, week-long conference with other management people who do the same relative thing that I do for said company. The actual goals that I was expected to achieve at this conference where somewhat murky. The only thing that was fully understood was that whatever I did had best result in a legitimate receipt that could be used for the all-important Expense Report. (This is how corporate America works: If you can expense it, do it, regardless of actual worth to the company or society in general.)
We spent the first half of each day sitting through endless speeches about technological advances that were basically already out of date before the speaker even took his first sip of bottled water, with occasional slide-shows thrown in to keep things spicy and hi-tech. (And as any experienced conference-attendee will tell you, slide-shows mean temporarily darkened rooms, the perfect cover for slipping out a side door and sucking down an adult beverage in the lobby bar. Every time the lights dimmed, there was a rumble like cattle crossing the Rio Grande.)
The second half of each day brought the soul-killing concepts of “networking” and “team building”, with those little activities where, in theory, we magically bond and become a loving family dedicated to elevating the company to world-domination status. These things give me a rash, and they rarely work, partially because of people like me who have no interest in participating, but mainly due to the poorly-structured scenarios. If you put me at a table with 9 other people and chirpily advise that we have to come up with a “product” using only what we have in our pockets and purses, that tells me that the Research & Development arm of our company is not doing their jobs and I’d best get my résumé out on the Internet, pronto. I’m not going down with this ship. I have bills to pay.
The highlight of the “this isn’t really working” parade occurred one afternoon when we were all still trapped in our seats in the main auditorium / ballroom / whatever the hell that thing was in the Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter. (We were a mere block away from Bourbon Street. You could practically hear inebriated tourists making poor life choices on the other side of the ornate windows of the hotel.) The lights were at their Spanish-Inquisition brightest, so there was no slipping away to Javier in the lobby Carousel Bar, a talented man who quickly associated faces with their libation of choice, and he would have the chilled drink ready to go before you could stumble your way across the tracks of the famously-rotating main bar. I’m assuming that Javier made a bigger haul with his tips during our stay than the hotel made from room-rental fees. And he should have. We loved him.
We did not love the people responsible for the latest group activity in the currently-inescapable meeting room. As we sat there, trapped in long rows of folding chairs (very nice folding chairs, as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner had often stayed here, the brochures would not let us forget, and you don’t mess with that rep) little minions of the conference-organizing team raced to one end of each row and assumed a position of readiness and subservience. The announced objective? The minions would whisper a complicated phrase into the ear of the first person in the row, and then that first would repeat what he could recall of the phrase into the ear of the second person in the row. Rinse and repeat, with the last person in the row expected to rise and report the final garbled message.
Were they kidding with this? We had all already been drinking and/or were suffering from intense hangovers from the previous night, wherein we had run amok on Bourbon Street and had most likely been showered with beaded necklaces from upper balconies, a reward for having exposed certain body parts that would not normally be proffered in the vicinity of a co-worker. (Okay, maybe this form of randy expression happened in some of our smaller, more-remote offices where people had more time on their hands and buzz-killing representatives from corporate headquarters never visited.) This proposed business of intimate daisy-chain whispering had failure written all over it in bold upper-case. But the people running the show did not care. They had an agenda and they were sticking to it, come hell or pink slips. Somebody hollered “GO!” with the enthusiasm of a redneck setting free some greased-pigs at a barn dance, and off we went.
There’s something very unsettling about sitting in a row of people that you don’t really know aside from their email signature, waiting for the party on your right to shove his tongue in your ear so you can then shove your tongue in the party on the left. We all already knew that we were going to screw this up, even without the assistance of beloved Javier in the Carousel, so what was the point? Still, people who signed our paychecks were somewhere in this room, and we’d best play along with a butt-kissing smile on our face. I’d already been doing that for twenty years, why rock the boat? (I still had a good ten years left on my home mortgage, not messing with that.)
I did manage to pick up some personal details about two of my co-workers during this funfest, so I guess the little exercise did at least minimally inch toward its lofty goal of bonding. Party on the Right clearly needed to drink more adult beverages, in the hopes that the alcohol would kill whatever was growing in his mouth that would cause such a heart-stopping smell. And Party on the Left had enough earwax buildup that I was barely able to stifle a scream. I already knew what I was going to write on the comment cards at the end of the week: “I learned about unregulated bacteria, improper hygiene, unfortunate career decisions, and why it’s important that your doctor file legal paperwork with the HR department that restricts you from travel to company conferences.”
I do have to admit, though, that one of the afternoon bonding adventures was a relative success, just not in the way that the organizers intended. Somebody on the planning committee had the rather brilliant idea of randomly mashing us into teams, handing us a list of twenty or so questions about the French Quarter, and then shoving us out the door of the hotel so we could figure out where to go to find the answers. (First team back gets a prize, presumably something with the company logo!) This was in the days before smart phones took over our lives and you could GPS the location of Brad Pitt’s jockstrap, so we had to actually hoof it about and play Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Idiots Roaming the Streets without Supervision.
Trouble is, we were in the French Quarter. There are bars everywhere. And due to lovely zoning regulations implemented by wise city council people, you could waltz out the doors of said bars with your drink in hand and lug it about the Quarter, a friendly companion for whatever mission you might be on. (Granted, the beverage had to be in a plastic container, but after your first stiff cocktail, you didn’t care if you had to carry around a goat bladder as a means of conveyance. The legal portability of the libations won your heart forever.)
By the time we got to the third item on the list, we were feeling mighty fine. Thusly emboldened, we embraced the opportunity to thunder about the Quarter in a bedlam of disrespect, terrorizing the native citizenry with our flush-faced queries about local landmarks. (To their credit, said citizens usually responded with grace and helpfulness, accustomed as they were to tourists bellowing inanities in their direction. Some of them even contributed to our wayward ways by pointing out the best refueling stations in the vicinity of our current trivia destinations. The people of New Orleans just want everybody to be happy.)
Full disclaimer: We did lose several members of our party during the questionable gameplay. The AWOL contingent included an equal mix of folks who decided that life was best served by remaining in one of the pubs we taste-tested, heroically contributing to the local economy, and a gaggle of Puritan cross-clutching folk who fled back to the hotel to show their disapproval of the demon-juice imbibing. (Come to think of it, I don’t think I spotted any of the clutchers during the rest of the week. Perhaps there was a modified Rapture in the hotel lobby and they were whisked away to that deluxe apartment in the sky. I hope they left a tip on their beds for the housekeepers.)
Once our team had been purged of the non-dedicated slackers and the Wives of Christ, we became a streamlined machine, racing up and down the streets with an intensity that you normally only see at the all-you-can-eat buffet on a casino boat. With only a few stops to refill our goat bladders (okay, maybe more than a few), we had our list completed in what we were sure was a record-breaking amount of time. (There was a small amount of cheating, when one of the more sultry members of our party got a little flirty with a street performer, scoring both valuable info and free tickets to Preservation Hall. The rest of us agreed to vote for her as Employee of the Month on the company website, but then we all completely forgot about it before the end of the next block.)
Mission accomplished, we drained and tossed the bladders into a trash receptacle that had been cunningly fashioned into the image of Marie Laveau, and bee-lined it toward the hotel, convinced that the “Rocky” theme would be blaring as we threw open the hand-carved doors. It didn’t quite play out that way. Turns out, much more time had passed than we realized. (Perhaps we shouldn’t have made that rule about stopping at every bar that had “The” in the name.) I believe we came in a rather mundane seventh out of twenty teams, and ten of those teams were never seen until the next morning.
Disparaged, the remaining members of our team did the only thing we could do: we tromped out of the conference room where we had once again been dissatisfied, stomped across the hotel lobby (passing a pile of discarded ID badges that had been left behind by the recently-elevated prudes who were now having non-alcoholic tea with Jesus), and staggered into the Carousel Lounge. Javier, sainted bartender that he was, took one look at our Jan Brady faces and immediately prepped a row of drinks for us that that did not involve goat organs.
Eventually the conference wound down, because even really big companies have term limits on their expense budgets, and a line-item deduction for “Research and Development in New Orleans” was risky enough on a tax return. Most of our co-workers jumped on planes and headed back to wherever it was that they did whatever they do, but a small cadre of us had wisely arranged a mini-vacation for the next several days. Now that corporate royalty had returned to their gilded thrones, we were free to drop the admittedly minimal degree of decorum that we had mustered during the work week, especially when our significant others pulled up in a shuttle from the airport. Terry, my partner, clamored out of said shuttle and proclaimed what all of the other passengers were thinking, with their wide eyes and tight holds on their carry-ons. “You are not going to believe what happened on the way over here.”
Welcome to NOLA.
We get Terry checked in, and we spent roughly ten minutes letting him admire our admittedly nice room. (The Hotel Monteleone is definitely an experience, though a bit pricey. If you can afford it, get your ass in there at some point.) Then I yanked Terry out of the room and dragged him to the Carousel Bar, naturally, so we could visit with two of my compadres, Karen and Deb, work buddies who are as snarky as I am, which means we get along just fine. All of us were here for the weekend, so we might as well hitch up wagons and conquer the city together. As our conversation worked its way from introductory small talk to the meat of the matter, the concept of “what all do we want to do” surfaced for review. As the other three opened their mouths to share deep desires, I cut them off with one bellow.
“I want to see Anne Rice’s house!”
The three of them briefly paused, staring at me in a clinical-observation way, but they graciously chose to not blurt their immediate thoughts. (“There are five thousand things to do in this city, and that is the first thing to pop on your radar screen?”) Instead, they signal Javier to prep another round, hoping that the alcohol will inadvertently lobotomize me in a nostalgic Frances Farmer tribute. Then they proceed to review a variety of entertainment options, none of them involving anyone named Anne or Rice. It was clear that I had not adequately prepared my case for the court, and my motion has been denied.
So we spent the majority of the weekend conforming to the traditional tourist profile. We pawed our way through 197 souvenir shops, searching for the exact t-shirt or keychain that adequately encapsulated our experience. We gazed longingly at beautiful antiques in stores where we shouldn’t have been allowed access because we were not oil-baron heirs and couldn’t afford the equivalent of the down-payment for a house just to own a candlestick from a Red Light District whorehouse. We ate in non-corporate restaurants where ten bucks will get you a Cajun delicacy that will make you have religious visions. We even did a short cruise on the river, a dinner run on one of those gigantic paddleboats, an arrangement where a faceless intercom voice pointed out on-shore highlights that you completely ignored whilst you waited in line for alcohol or shoved people aside to get to the shrimp brochette on the buffet. We managed to do quite a few things.
We did not do Anne.
At least not while Karen and Deb were part of our entourage. Luckily, they left town a day before we did, clattering out the door with their luggage and waving goodbye. Karen paused and hollered a request, something about me finding a feather boa for her niece. She had really meant to locate said souvenir earlier in the week, but then she forgot about it until this very moment of departure. (Perhaps her memory had been jogged by the ghost of Truman Capote hovering near the Carousel Bar? We may never know.) I smiled and waved back, indicating my full dedication to this new task at hand, but there was no way in hell I was going to cram a boa into my suitcase. It would look like a drowned rat by the time we got back to Dallas. The door slammed on the shuttle bus and they were gone.
Then we did Anne.
Terry and I hopped on the St. Charles streetcar and rumbled our eventual way to the Garden District, a fascinating residential section of the city composed of mansions, antebellum and otherwise, ornate Victorian houses, and a sprinkling of curious modernist dwellings that make you wonder how they pulled that off, considering the whole area has been a National Historic Landmark for decades. (I wasn’t initially sure of the trolley station where we should exit, but this dilemma was quickly resolved when a helpful but possibly psychotic fellow traveler belted out “This is the stop for Anne Rice!” and half the passengers in the trolley car leapt out of various doors and windows. Apparently I was not the only one with an obsessive-fan mission.)
And it was that swarm of people jumping off the trolley, waving cameras and consulting guide books, that first made me question exactly what I was doing. Yes, I wanted to see Anne’s house, it was one of the inspirations for The Witching Hour and I am mesmerized by that book. At the same time, I was part of a horde of people traipsing about the neighborhood, a place where people were simply trying to live their lives, with many members of the horde carelessly tossing aside cigarette butts and thinking it was perfectly okay to stand in front of someone’s house and point. I’m a serious Fan of Anne, but I suddenly had a bad taste in my mouth. Where’s the moral line here?
Terry: “Do you know the address?”
Me: “Well, I did know it, but then there was a week of drinking and scavenger hunts in the French Quarter, things are a bit fuzzy. But it’s on First Street, somewhere.”
So we made our way to this leafy, time-worn road. Any confusion about the exact house number for Anne’s abode dissipated once we noticed the large crowd standing before a particular structure, clicking those cameras. In another stroke of luck, said crowd finished their business and trotted off to parts unknown just as Terry and I came to a stop at the same location. With the departure of the chattering masses, it was suddenly very quiet, the only sound being hidden wind chimes, somewhere, reacting to the dense, steamy breeze that suddenly arose, stirring around the drowsy heat.
The house wasn’t quite what I expected, but then houses never are when you see the real thing after first meeting them in print. Things seemed off, not in the right place, mismatched, as if someone had made a mistake, somewhere. How did this house become that house, the one built in my mind based on Anne’s rich, detailed, envy-provoking descriptions? The logical part of me knew it couldn’t possibly be an exact replica, with Carlotta Mayfair glaring at me from one of the windows, her disapproval and secrets oozing from between the parted panels of a damask curtain. But the dream part of me wanted the dream images made real, just so, matching the snapshots in my mental photo album.
Then I noticed a huge tree which could be that tree, and a stretch of wrought-iron fencing which could be that fence, and then there were the ornate columns that felt right, and the balcony, and the side-porch. (Was I hearing music now? Muted notes of something distantly familiar?) As my eyes darted about, things started to blur, with the house seeming larger and the lawn expanding. And now there were so many people running across that lawn, laughing, strings of lights causing the shimmery dresses to glisten in the night and the sharp lines of the tuxedos to pop, heading toward a buffet table laden with the champagne that nobody was supposed to have but everybody did. A jazz band was visible through a set of floor-to-ceiling windows, in a parlor of some kind, with the music becoming more frenzied as two exuberant young men rolled up a carpet and shoved it to the side, revealing shiny, strong planks of wood, perfect for dancing.
A beautiful woman wearing a gorgeous emerald necklace laughed louder than anybody, reveling in the focus of most eyes, life of the party, in full command of the night, or so she thought. On the periphery of the dance floor, a sharply-dressed man had worry on his face, and an older woman had anxiety on hers, and someone was descending the central staircase with slow, cautious steps. There were secrets here, so many secrets. And someone was asking me a question, a voice that softened the music and dimmed the lights, a voice beside me. I turned to look. It was Terry.
“Are you ready to go? Did you get what you needed?”
I turned back to the house, as the lawn shrank and the jazz band packed their instruments and a giggling flapper ran around the corner, one hand raised and twiddling her fingers at a potential beau before disappearing. The only remaining music was the still-hidden wind chime, and the trees were older. That had become this. But I could see at least a small part of Anne’s journey between the two points, the careful selection of elements, the nurturing and pruning of the story, the inspiration. And I could take a little bit of that with me, another chunk of fuel for my writer fire that never goes out.
“Yeah, I think I did.” We began walking back toward the trolley stop, not even noticing the man standing near the giant tree in Anne’s yard, clutching an emerald necklace, waiting…
Originally published in “Bonnywood Manor” on 09/17/14.
CYA Note: Image of bookstacks “borrowed” from Hello Giggles website, an image that I found whilst using the highly-scientific search term of “stacks of books” on the Internet. It may very well be a lovely site, but no association or sponsorship is intended. I just liked the picture, and that’s where our relationship ends.
Categories: My Life