Trip to Memphis, Tennessee….


“I’m going to Graceland, Graceland
Memphis, Tennessee
I’m going to Graceland
Poor boys and pilgrims with families
And we’re going to Graceland.” 

— Paul Simon, 1986.

As part of Spring Break last month, I decided to meet my visiting English mum in Memphis, a musical mecca of sorts as well as being very influential in the history of U.S. Civil Rights over the years. 

A photo of my lovely old mum standing in front of large photo of young Elvis.
Here’s my lovely mum standing in front of a pic of a lovely young Elvis. 🙂

My main impetus was to visit Graceland, the former home of Elvis Presley and declared National Historic Landmark. Interestingly, it’s also the second-most visited house in the U.S., after the White House (current inhabitant notwithstanding) with more than 650,000 visitors each year. 

Photo of entry ticket to Graceland.

The city is also quite central to the places from where each of us were traveling, so there were multiple reasons for going there. Mostly, though, if I am honest, I wanted to see the Elvis stuff. I’m not this huge Elvis SuperFan or anything, but I did grow up as a kid seeing his movies and hearing his songs on the radio. The only Elvis I could see in my mind was him in his later days when he was a tad overweight and wearing his white rhinestone jumpsuit get-up so I was very interested in learning more details. 

One of the King’s white concert jumpsuits. The whole museum was set up very professionally for both the Elvis SuperFan and for others who were perhaps just mildly curious.

We started off with the mansion tour (the Graceland place), and although filled with visitors, it wasn’t too busy or cramped and visitors are kept moving for most of the time. (You can hang out if you’d like, but most people tended to keep moving once they’d got enough.)

Curiously, the actual home is very modest considering that Elvis was one of the biggest rock n roll stars on the planet, but the more I learned about him, the more I realized that this modesty wasn’t all that surprising for the man.

(And compared with the overkill commercial consumption of celebrities (and certain politicians) of today, it’s all rather understated. His mum was in charge of the interior decorations which I think was just sweet, btw.)

Graceland’s living room just to the right of the front door. Elvis was very proud of his custom settee since it would sit his whole team when they came to visit, but on the whole, the house is pretty modest.

The general feel of the place is that of a shrine more than a museum. So many of the people who toured while we were there were almost holy in their approach to seeing this house, and most people tended to whisper their comments to each other, similar as one does in other rarified environments.

I thought that this home was especially meaningful when I learned how the early years of Elvis were impacted by poverty and other social ills. For Elvis to live in such a house must have seemed like a dream to them all at times.

Once we’d been through the mansion and had had enough there, we went across the road (via shuttle) and landed in the large lot that houses the rest of Elvis’ things and Elvis memorabilia (all of which are included in the admission price). It’s all really very well done, and although not cheap, it’s thoroughly worth the rather spendy ticket price to see this side of Elvis.

Also, on this side of the street are the food and drink places with loads of Elvis-titled dishes etc. (The food place was called Gladys, in tribute to his mum whose cooking Elvis loved…Yes. You could have a fried sandwich just like Elvis liked.) Lots of yummy young-Elvis pics to look at as well. 😉

(I think what helped to make this Elvis visit such a good experience was having done my homework prior to arrival, so I was at least familiar with some of his life.)

Highly recommend doing that. I think prepping for a travel trip like this one by reading ahead is like seeing the difference between normal TV and HD. You suddenly see all these details that you didn’t know were there all the time.

Memphis, of course, is home to more than just Elvis. Other places related to the industry include Staxx Records and the small but very influential Sun Studio where loads of musicians have recorded their music. Both Sun Studios and Staxx are quite a way from Graceland, but not crazy far. Just take an Uber and it’ll work out. It worked out about $12/one way. (Energy-wise, we were both done after doing Graceland, so we went back to the hotel for a snooze and something to eat. zzzzz. 🙂

(Part Two of this Memphis trip report to come in a day or two….)

Here’s the title I read to prep for the trip: Elvis Presley, Reluctant Rebel: His Life and Our Times – Glen Jeannsome, David Luhrssen and Dan Sokolovic (2011).

New Words to Me…


New words (for me) from reading stuff… Most of this selection is taken from the “Great American Short Stories” book, edited by Corinne Demas (published by Barnes and Noble).

  • Tabouret – either a cabinet or a stool that is portable
  • Roseate – resembling a rose; overly optimistic
  • Pulchitrude – physical beauty
  • Tumbrel – cart carrying prisoners to be executed (usually by guillotine)
  • Septuagesima Sunday (1870) – a 17-day preparation for the season of Lent which is a preparation for Easter. Some countries, it is the start of the Carnival season culminating in Shrove Tuesday.
  • Hoydenism – unladylike or tomboyish behavior
  • Eternal white horses (re: possessions) — ? No idea about this one…
  • Sybarite – person devoted to luxury and pleasure
  • Conge – act of taking leave, farewell
  • Lares and Penates (myths) – gods who protected the household (Roman); another name for the actual valuables within a household
  • Espiegle (French) – word for prankster, rogue
  • Desuetude – condition of not being used
  • Old Christmas Day (1802) – not sure. The story referenced “New Christmas Day” which implies, perhaps, a change in calendar dates or something?
  • Sibyl – prophetess or woman who divines. Greek.

So, presumably, it sounds like one could say “There is a pulchitrudious hodynistic Sibyl sitting on the tabouret waiting for the tumbrel”? 🙂

“Words are only postage stamps delivering the object for you to unwrap…” George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950).

Jumping around…


So – been jumping around from book to book for a day or two, and not really able to “settle” on just one title. Read quite a bit of Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw” which I found to be *intensely* boring, especially since it was supposed to be a ghost story. Wow. That boy needs an editor. 🙂

Finished up Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” which I enjoyed, although not as much as “The House of Mirth.”  (Perhaps it was too much Wharton at one time.) Anyway, not bad though by any means. Briefly, main character Mr. Newland Archer is engaged to May Welland and the whole wedding thing is set up and confirmed when May’s cousin, Ellen (also called Countess Olenska) turns up, escaping a horrible marriage in Europe* to some rich guy with a bad reputation. Of course, Archer immediately falls for the naughty cousin and the plot develops from this. Who will Archer choose and how will it all work out? The disgraced and separated Countess or the trusting May? No prizes for guessing, but although the story itself was not that twisty, it still was a satisfying read. Lots of demonstrations of how gossip rules the world on New York high society (and may still for all I know). (Don’t really move in those circles much. Or at all.) 🙂

One thing I noted: Count Olenska was a much stronger character than others I have read , so an interesting evolution for gender roles for Wharton. Perhaps her other works show this as well? Not sure, but think I will take a break from her here, as I don’t want to do her a disservice by over-reading all her stuff at one time.

And then was browsing my way through Susan Branch’s nice-to-look-at book called “The Summer Book”. This is more a collection of recipes and thoughts, mostly about summer, mostly about summer at Martha’s Vineyard in MA. At first, I found it really irritating and irrelevant (and I was slightly envious about her living there), but once I got past the sea food recipes (yuck to read about and yuck to eat), I quite enjoyed looking at her watercolor illustrations and some of the quotations that she had picked to include the book. It’s one of those dreamy books about having a rich idle life in a beach house (already paid for) two steps from the sea, which would be lovely to have in theory, but might actually be really boring in real life. (However, I am very willing to try this experiment if anyone has a beach house to lend me in MV.)

Reality Check:

(House I would like to have minus the mortgage.)

(House I could afford right now.)

(View I would like regardless of housing set up.)

So – really just a rather random sort of a week. Am enjoying a reread of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” which I am finding as scarily prescient as ever.  RIP Mr. Bradbury. You loved books and libraries as much as I do. 🙂

And a great (somewhat random) quotation from Charles Dickens:

“There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate.”

How perfectly true.

*Europe: I usually find it quite entertaining, as an English person, to hear Americans (in general) refer to all the countries in Europe as though they were one country. “I’ve been to Europe,” as people say. I am not belaboring a point nor being snooty, but after decades of having English history fed to me, I do feel I want to point out that Europe itself is not a country. It’s a collection of very different countries who happen to be next to each other, more or less.  Yes, there is also the European Union (EU), but again, this is not a country in and of itself. England is a country. France is a country. Poland is a country. Europe is not.  Obviously, not vitally important to the world in general, but just an ongoing niggle for me. It’s like saying “North America” includes Canada and Mexico and the US. However, there are obviously bigger things to worry about. 🙂

Consequences – E. M. Delafield (1919)


A heart-felt book set in later Victorian times with a young girl, Alex Clare, growing up in a somewhat wealthy family with what would seem to be lots of choices for her to make over the years. However, Alex never seems to fit in anywhere – she always seems to be making mistakes and getting into trouble, even when older, and so she learns to see herself as a problem and the Black Sheep of the family.

Her only method of feeling happy was to have vivid close attachments to her friends, all women and none of it reciprocated. Poor Alex. She does her best to win the affections of Queenie in school, but goes a bit overboard and Queenie moves on, not returning the level of friendship. The same thing happens after Alex has turned down a quite suitable engagement (although it was lacking in love) and ends up entering a convent as a nun. Her parents are horrified that she has turned down the engagement as there were not a lot of other offers coming in, but are understanding (but a bit lost) at her decision.  She is also quite clever, but that wasn’t encouraged either, to wit:

“Don’t go and get a reputation for being clever, whatever you do. People do dislike that sort of thing so much in a girl.” (Mother of girl in question.)

As the years go and Alex’s younger siblings grow up and enter society, Alex feels she has been left behind and it’s her fault. Her self esteem is shattered and only by attaching herself in another deeply-felt (but unrequited) friendship with her Superior Nun, can she go on and takes vows for a religious order in Belgium. (This is similar to what Delafield did as well in real life just a few years before this was published…) However, when the Superior Nun leaves for another convent, Alex is lost. (She sounds like she is primed for therapy to me.)

Finally realizing that she was never meant to have taken her lifetime religious vows, Alex requests to be set free (which she is after a long tedious process), but although she is free, she is never allowed to marry anyone. (Note: How can this be? If you are not a nun any more, then wouldn’t you be free to go what you want? How would this get monitored? Was it an honor system? What happened if you did get married? Did monks have the same set up?…)

However, Alex has been in the convent so long now, that all her family have gone on and developed lives without her, thinking as they were thinking that she would remain in the religious convent for the rest of her days. So – when she leaves, everyone is a little confused as to what, exactly, they are to do with her.

 As Father Farrell notes, “A maiden aunt isn’t so very much thought of, in the best of circumstances, let me tell ye”… and that is it in a nutshell. If you are a Victorian era woman and don’t marry, what on earth are you supposed to do? The options just weren’t there for you. Well, they were in some ways but you would have been completely bucking the trend with little support if you did. And imagine the shame of the family name!

This is quite a tough read for me, as it’s painfully obvious how chafing the restrictions of society with regard to gender roles could be. Her younger brother inherits the house and most of the money so he doesn’t really have to worry about anything. Her youngest sister is a Society Deb and a hit in the social circles, and her middle sister is now a widow, poor but not too badly off. With the rules as they were, there was no choice for a middle-aged ex-nun. She had no money saved (since she’d been in the convent for years) so she was completely reliant on other people (mainly her family). She had no marketable skills – her convent years had not set her up for the future as an ex-nun – and she didn’t really have any idea of how the world really worked as her family had provided throughout her childhood and then the convent had acted in a very similar fashion.

Life seems to happen to Alex who drifts along like a branch in a stream. She is very passive about her choices, understandable but no less irritating, and she feels very detached about everything. Her whole life has been handled by someone else (her parents and the nanny, and then the convent) so she is not used to making decisions herself, and feels very childlike in comparison to her siblings, all of whom seemed to have got on ok.  There were times when I really wanted to shake Alex into taking some responsibility for her life… But she was Victorian to the core.

It’s quite interesting to compare this 1919 novel with “The L-Shaped Room” written 40 years later: there were more choices for women, that’s true, but society frowned upon unmarried women then as well, especially pregnant ones. So both Alex and the protagonist of that later novel face a similar lack of options: if you are not married (and especially if you are pregnant and unmarried), where do you fit in? Where do you go? … And even now in the twentieth first century, there are still remnants of this – nothing as bad as it was, but the threads of it remain.

Delafield obviously felt very strongly about feminism, and this is obvious throughout the novel which can be argued to be one of the earlier examples of feminist writing. This was a completely different read from the “Diaries of a Provincial Lady” – this was one of her earlier works and is a much more serious look at the roles of gender in Victorian society.

The ending is sad, but not surprising.

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life – Amy Krouse Rosenthal (2005)


A very funny book written in a novel format about a perfectly ordinary woman. (I think this could count as a biography is many ways.) Krouse Rosenthal admits right from the beginning:

“I was not abused, abandoned, or locked up as a child. My parents were not alcoholics, not were they divorced or dead. I am not a misunderstood genius, a former child celebrity, or the child of a celebrity. I am not a drug addict, a sex addict, or recovered anything. If I indeed had a past life, I have no recollection of who I was. I have not survived against all odds. I have not lived to tell. I have not witnessed the extraordinary. This is my story…”

This is, really, a random collection of memories and facts about the author’s life formatted as encyclopedia entries. Done in alphabetical order, the entries range from “A” (e.g. “answering machine”) to “Y” (“You”), but it covers a vast selection of thoughts and lists both from her own mind and those of her friends.

And although this all sounds very disjointed, taken as a whole, the multi-layered details add up to give a surprisingly in-depth description of Krouse.  I think this is a book which could be picked up and put down at intervals, but I think the best way would be to read it in large chunks to see her process of thinking and writing. To be honest, this is a book that I wish I had written – it is extremely clever, very funny, and just altogether great.

It’s slightly spooky just how often I would read an entry and completely agree and understand and shake my head in recognition: I am not the only person with this skewed sense of humor and strange world view!

Overall, I really recommend this and it will be an eleventh hour addition to my top ten NF list for 2011. (Although this is posted in January 2012, the book was actually finished just before Christmas.)

ETA 03/24/2016: Just learned that Amy Krouse Rosenthal died from cancer this week. 😦

The Blue Castle – L. M. Montgomery (1926)


Another charming (and funny) book by Canadian author, L. M. Montgomery, and one of the few novels that she set outside Prince Edward Island (PEI) where most of her stories were set.  I did not have any knowledge of what this book was about before I started, and only entered into the reading as I had enjoyed her earlier “Anne of Green Gables” so very much beforehand. This novel is one of her few novels for an adult audience, but I think that probably a lot of her work would be enjoyable for multiple age groups. (However, bear in mind that I have only now read two of her work, when she has loads more including short stories, poetry, and non-fiction.)

“The Blue Castle” in set in a small fictional town called Deerwood in Canada during the 1920’s. The main character, Valancy, feels stuck in a dull and limited world of being unmarried, 29 years old, and having few options apart from living with her overbearing mother and cousin. Montgomery’s descriptions of these two family members are actually quite funny in an awful way, and as the story continues, it’s clear that Valancy is completely miserable and with no way out that she can see.

Until she receives a letter from her doctor that details news that ends up giving Valancy the freedom that she has craving for. This news gives her a new look at life, and provides the catalyst to Valancy launching a new lease on life. She is no longer afraid of everything, of people, of what they might think of her, of how she is responsible for
everyone’s happiness. No, this new Valancy is the opposite of all that – she speaks her mind, she throws off the fetters of her restricted life and moves out of the social prison that was her home for years before.

This new freedom that Valancy experiences is described in such great detail in this novel that even you as the reader feels her excitement and her new-found confidence. It’s actually rather funny how the new Valancy deals with old restraints of dealing with her extended family and its annoying and limited social rules, and it is really exhilarating to see her take on life with such enthusiasm and with such little fear – a completely
different Valancy than before.

She ends up in a happy relationship with someone who her family views as completely unsuitable, and the only way that her relatives can make sense of her new behavior is that she has gone “dippy – completely  dippy” as her uncle says. Valancy builds a new life with her new beau, but when she senses that something is wrong with her original diagnosis, she revisits the doc who reveals that there has been a huge error which leads Valancy to believe that all her new life and all her changes have been for aught.

(Actually, there is a lot more to the plot than this, but I don’t want to give it away as I am hoping others will go out there and read it. I found it on the Australian Gutenburg project on-line, so thanks to whoever typed up all that.)

The story is also a great example of just how well Montgomery can tailor a sentence: the “lemon-hued twilight”…, “she was so tired that she wished she could borrow a pair of legs from a cat”…, a “hesitation of ecstasy” at a beautiful view, and a pearl necklace “like congealed moonshine”… Blissfully good writing and use of words.

And a favorite quote:

Warm fire – books – comfort – safety from the storm – our cats on the rug – Moonlight,” said Barney. “Would you be any happier now if you had a million dollars?”…..

The story ends up well and happy with an ending that is a little trite, but one that fits really well. And when you consider that this novel was written during the 1920’s, there is an argument for it being an early feminist novel in some ways, having a feisty independent female character who takes charge of her own life (at times).

Not quite as sweet and charming as “Anne of Green Gables” but again, this was a novel for a different target audience and at a different time of Montgomery’s life. Research shows that Montgomery felt that she would not marry, although she did receive a few marriage proposals. Each proposal was turned down as she did not feel romantic towards her suitors.  So when describing Valancy and her impending spinsterhood, this was probably a subject that Montgomery had already thought about for her own life. She did end up marrying a pretty decent guy but married life was not easy as he is believed to have been mentally ill and requiring a lot of emotional support. It’s also rumored that Montgomery herself suffered from depression, and her granddaughter has made the claim that Montgomery actually overdosed when she died, as opposed to dying from coronary thrombosis.

Regardless of how Montgomery died (and how important is that, really?), she left a whole raft of good reading material for the world to dig in. “The Blue Castle” seems to be one of the more neglected works of the Montgomery oeuvre, but it’s a winner all the same.

The Best American Travel Writing 2000 – editor: Bill Bryson


The early debut edition of the best-selling “America’s
Best…” Series, this volume of writing travels the world from being kidnapped in Uganda to searching for the next in line to the Dalai Llama to hitch-hiking in Cuba to delivering water in Northern Australia. The selection, chosen by Bill Bryson (who I usually adore) covered the gamut from serious to funny (but nothing
completely hilarious like Peter Hessler’s writing in a later edition). Most of the writing was from 1999 (since this was published in 2000), and was from mostly magazines (although a blog would pop up every now and then).

One thing that struck me was that 90% of the authors were male which I found a bit irritating. What? You could only find three articles penned by women that were considered worthy? Really??

But apart from that, the writing was strong and the articles were enjoyable. It’s highly unlikely that I would ever get to travel to Tibet as one of the writers did, or risk my life to stay the night in Central Park (as another person did). But I did get to experience quite closely through the first-person writing of these essays (or articles?).  As the introduction by series editor Jason Wilson writes:

 “Having a travel writer report on particular things, small things, the specific ways in which people act and interact, is perhaps our best way of getting beyond the clichés that we tell each other about different places and cultures, and about ourselves.”

A very fun way to get exposed to different experiences in different cultures and ideal for the armchair traveler. Also excellent for the slight ADD inherent in traveling by plane – good for picking up and putting down; long enough to suck you in, short enough to provide breaks to look out of the window. 🙂

(I bought this secondhand.)