Fear, Loathing and Literary Tourism in Las Vegas

Literary Tourist in Las Vegas

The Globe and Mail ran a piece a while back on literary travel for the stay-at-home vacationer, getting well-known authors to recommend books that evoke various parts of Canada.

All very well, but, we don’t stay at home here; we believe that if you can, experiencing place in tandem with relevant, related reading, is the way to go.

To wit: when we went to ‘Sin City’ a few years ago, I checked out the bookstores, of course, but I also read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson and tracked down some of the locales mentioned in it.

Circus Circus for example.

Here’s one of the best passages in the novel:

The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the Sixth Reich. The ground floor is full of gambling tables, like all the other casinos…but the place is about four stories high, in the style of a circus tent, and all manner of strange Country-Fair/Polish Carnival madness is going on up in this space. Right above the gambling tables the Forty Flying Carazito Brothers are doing a high-wire trapeze act, along with four muzzled Wolverines and the Six Nymphet sisters from San Diego…so you’re down on the main floor playing blackjack, and the stakes are getting high when suddenly you chance to look up, and there, right smack above your head is a half-naked fourteen year-old girl being chased through the air by a snarling wolverine, which is suddenly locked in a death battle with two silver-painted Polacks who come swinging down from opposite balconies and meet in mid-air on the wolverine’s neck…both Polacks seize the animal as they fall straight down towards the crap tables – they bounce off the net; they separate and spring back up towards the roof in three different directions, and just as they’re about to fall again they are grabbed out of the air by three Korean Kittens and trapezed off to one of the balconies.”

It’s a light, fast moving read, funnier than expected, and surprisingly thought-provoking – largely because as a literary tourist on the scene, you get face-to-face with these American Dream seekers that Thompson so successfully lampoons…complete with Southward angled cigarettes dangling from their mouths, glazed eyes, Depends tight around their groins, and coins flowing from their pockets into insatiable fruit-buttoned machines, flushing money down the toilet bowl.

Mind boggling really. More fucked up than anyone on drugs could ever be. Knowing the odds are stacked against them. Playing anyway.

***

One way to start off the day in Vegas is with a good breakfast at The Bellagio. Food is excellent, the options plentiful, and the Murano glass ceiling in the lobby as you head into the restaurant, is gorgeous.

There are a surprising number of decent used bookshops in Vegas, starting with Bauman Rare Books located nearby in the Palazzo’s high-end shopping mall – which makes sense given that Bauman owns the high-end of the book market – the shop is more special collections library than anything else, except here, of course, you can buy the books! As then manager Rebecca Romney explained (this goes back a few years, she’s now with Honey and Wax Booksellers in Brooklyn, and just so you know, what she has to say hasn’t dated at bit. It’s good, timeless advice), Bauman specializes in high-spot literature – typically the ‘best’ work by the best authors in the best condition. As a result you can expect big ticket prices, but you can also expect that the books will hold their value.

Listen to our conversation here:

Moving off The Strip, other shops in town worth visiting include the Amber Unicorn with its enormous cook book selection, Plaza Books (Update: It’s closed. Now online only), Greyhound’s Books (out of business), and the spacious Dead Poet Books (also out of business). All are clean, well organized affairs, and all offer interesting stock. Toward mid-afternoon I hit Academy Fine Books (doesn’t appear to be in business anymore…I’m going to start crying now). It’s located across the road from this heavenly creature

who looks down benignly on the now empty (and sketchy), aptly named Blue Angel Motel. Academy is decidedly disorganized, and as such, more of a treasure hunt than the other stores. Turned out to be my favourite. I pulled out this desirable E. McKnight Hauffer cover

for $10 (later printing, unfortunately, but still a lovely find. And yes, appears that it too is out of business. So much for the surprising number of used bookstores now. Looks like it’s time for another visit to survey the carnage).

Depending upon how bagged you are from all the browsing, you might want to check out Las Vegas Shakespeare. It hosts and produces an interesting lineup of theatrical and musical performances throughout the year (okay this is getting ridiculous. Seems like it too is closed). The studio is located across the road from the Neon Museum, (not closed)

another place worth visiting.

***

I came to literary tourism through the doors of a used bookstore. Via the hunt. And yet, book shopping represents just one of many ways in. One of the most popular, is, as I say, through the pages of a novel. In Fear and Loathing the two lead characters check into The Mint Hotel and Casino.

after booting it from L.A. to Vegas in their rented, drug-laden convertible. Hunter S. Thompson puts it much better: “Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only real cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas. To relax, as it were, in the womb of the desert sun. Just roll the roof back and screw it on, grease the face with white tanning butter and move out with the music at top volume, and at least a pint of ether.”

The Mint sadly is no longer, or at least its name has gone. The place is now known as Binion’s. It’s seen better days. Like when big crowds were still tight around the crap tables. “Who are these people? These faces! Where do they come from? They look like caricatures of used-car dealers from Dallas. But they’re real. And, sweet Jesus, there are a hell of a lot of them – still screaming around these desert-city crap tables at four-thirty on a Sunday morning. Still humping the American Dream, that vision of the Big Winner somehow emerging from the last-minute pre-dawn chaos of a stale Vegas casino”

So, I called them up and got a tour of the hotel part of what is now a casino complex. Turns out it, the tower, has been closed, awaiting renovation, for some four years now. Nonetheless, we traipsed up in un-airconditioned heat to the 12th and 18th floors, in search of rooms 1221 and 1850. No such luck. Neither exist. We did however visit the 5th floor and a double bedded room that more than likely served as sauce for Thompson’s meatball imagination. We also hit the rooftop patio, complete with empty swimming pool, and a great view of several other buildings that would have been around in the late 60s.

From Binion’s I hi-balled it across town to the Special Collections Library at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas where you’ll find everything you ever wanted to know about gambling and the history of ‘Sin City’. “ UNLV Special Collections houses unique, rare, and specialized research material that documents the history, culture and physical environment of the city of Las Vegas, the Southern Nevada region, the gaming industry, and the University of Nevada Las Vegas.” Collections include books, pamphlets, posters, serials and periodicals, scrapbooks, archives and manuscripts, maps, architectural drawings, photographs, video and audio tapes.

I talked gambling with former director now Head of Exhibits (now Curator) Peter Michel. Listen here to our conversation:

After our conversation I pulled the files on The Mint, ‘the tallest building’ in Nevada at the time, and saw how it looked shortly after it went up, how they promoted it, and what they stirred their drinks with. I also got to play with a First Edition of Fear (see above).

How did this physical framing of the book affect my experience of it? Rather positively I’d say. Bringing it out into the real world has certainly made both events – the reading, and the visiting – more distinctly memorable. There’s a thrill attached to seeing in real life what you’ve first encountered in your imagination – even if the two don’t always match. Extending my encounter with the book was fun, a continuation, an excursion, a kind of treasure hunt, in a way, which takes us back to the start, searching for things – books in one case, deeper understanding in the other – trying to impose order on the chaos.

Fixed Book Price, Translation, Books and Bookstores in Paris

Literary Tourist in Paris

She told me to get off at the Monge metro station, her office was nearby. I envisioned traipsing around a bunch of back streets squinting at numbers on buildings, and being late for our rendez-vous. But no. I simply crossed the road, looked up at the street sign – and there it was

3 rue Rollin, rockin’ right in front of me. I’d arrived in plenty of time.

Héloïse d’Ormesson is the founder, with her companion Gilles Cohen Solal, of Editions Héloïse d’Ormesson, a small but sturdy publishing house that attentively puts out 20 books a year. It’s now published more than 200. Here’s most of them

They greet you as you enter the office.

Héloïse invited me into her bureau where we talked generally about book publishing in France. Click here if you’d like to listen in:

Specifically, we dove into why so many editors become publishers, the late adoption of illustrated covers in France; are they readers or customers? the lack of good literary agents in France, Fixed Price policy and the importance of booksellers; Heloise’s heart and soul, her famous father Jean, books in the house at an early age, favourite bookstores, the new Jean d’Ormesson Award, every book is unique, hence there’s no set formula for success – and many other things.

Once our interview was finished I strode out onto the rue, but not before Héloïse gave me a charming little Continue reading “Fixed Book Price, Translation, Books and Bookstores in Paris”

Literary Agents and Emma Bovary in Le Perche, France

Literary Tourist in France

Le Perche is known for the Percheron horse

Horse, Percheron

and, at least in my world, the literary agent. We were looking for Pierre Astier’s house, and knew that it was located next to a cemetery in Moutiers-au-Perche, 80 kms east of Le Mans (two hours’ train ride south of Paris). Countryside villages don’t come much prettier than this, with its charming tile-roofed cottages

Le Perche, France

and blazing red, potted flowers

(Franco-American director Sophie Barthes agrees, she shot parts of her film Madame Bovary here).

We’d found an old church, with it’s extruding drainpipe-tongued gargoyles,

Gargoyles, Le Perche, France

and yes, there was a cemetery attached to it. Two choices: up the hill toward a forest (where Emma kills herself), or around the side of the church. We chose the road more travelled, and found the house down a ways, first thing on the right.

le perche, france, house

I was here to interview Pierre and his partner Laure about their literary & film agency for my Biblio File podcast. They invited me into the garden and poured me an espresso. The terrain was a bit wild. The two of them had spent the previous afternoon together trying to tame it. While doing so Pierre had been bitten by a tick. He had to go to the hospital (not wise to play around with these things), but was kind enough to engage in conversation with me for about 20 minutes before leaving Laure

Laure Pecher

to fend off the rest of my questions. You can listen here to our discussion:

Among other things we talked about french publishers’ resistance to literary agents, the differences between pitching book publishers and film producers; translation, author/agent relations and Andrew Wylie.

After the interview, Caroline and I headed for Mortagne-au-Perche where we had lunch, here

mortagne au perche

Sitting beside us was a man with a Quebec accent. We soon learned (biblio-coincidence alert) that he,

Louis Duhamel

Louis Duhamel, had spent his entire working life as a librarian at the Ottawa Public Library, and that his father had been Queen’s Printer under prime minister John Diefenbaker, appointed in the late 50s, and unceremoniously dismissed from this supposed (according to Louis) lifetime position, by Pierre Trudeau.

Louis was touring the region researching his ancestors. Many from here are known to have emigrated to Quebec in the 17th century. And another thing: Louis’s father collected The Pleiade, a uniform series of world classics put out by Gallimard, starting in the 1930s. As it happened, several weeks later I was in Bordeaux where I visited the oldest independent bookstore in France, Mollat, and they just happened to have what looked like a full run of the series for sale:

but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Five must see places in Bath for Jane Austen fans

By Angela Youngman

For any fan of Jane Austen, Bath has to be the place to go. The elegant, genteel streets filled with buildings of pretty yellow stone still bear a distinct resemblance to the Bath that Jane knew so well.

The Assembly Rooms & Museum of Costume

Jane knew this building as the Upper Rooms and it was the venue of many of the dances and social events that she attended. She refers to it in Northanger Abbey and also in Persuasion when ‘Sir Walter, his two daughters, and Mrs Clay, were the the earliest of all their party at the rooms in the evening; and as Lady Dalrymple must be waited for, they took their station by one of the fires in the Octagon Room’.

Administered by the National Trust, visitors can explore the rooms, which still have many of the original features including the elaborate chandeliers. On display is an elegantly decorated sedan chair – typical of the type of chair Catherine Morland would have used in Northanger Abbey.

The Pump Room

This was another social venue frequently used by Jane and her characters. Visitors came to Bath to take the waters and enjoy the social round. Edward Austen, her brother, came to Bath suffering from gout. Jane wrote ‘he was better yesterday than he had been for two or three days before ….He drinks at the Hetling pump ….. is to bathe tomorrow’.

The Pump Room was also where the Subscription book was kept. New arrivals to Bath could insert their names, alerting others to their arrival. It enabled visitors to subscribe to Assemblies and concerts in the Pump Room and the Assembly Rooms. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Moreland visits the Pump Room to ascertain if Henry Tilney was still in town: ‘His name was not in the pump-room book, and curiosity could do no more. He must be gone from Bath.’

The Sydney Gardens

This was one of Jane’s favourite places in Bath. She enjoyed walking in the gardens. In a letter to Cassandra dated 21st January 1801, she wrote, “my mother hankers after The Square dreadfully and it is but natural to suppose my Uncle will take her part. It would be very pleasant to be near Sydney Gardens – we might go into the Labyrinth every day….” Her wish was granted, and they took a house at Number 4, Sydney Place.

The Royal Crescent

In Jane Austen’s books, this is referred to as The Crescent. It was later renamed The Royal Crescent after a visit by Prince Frederick, second son of King George III. It features in Northanger Abbey when the Thorpe and Allen families discover that the place to be seen on Sundays is the Crescent, rather tha the Pump Room. Situated in the upper part of the town, it comprises a great half circle of thirty, linked houses all made out of the pretty yellowish Bath stone.

Trim Street

This was the site of Jane Austen’s final home in Bath. They had returned from a holiday with friends in Steventon in considerably reduced circumstances and took, what they hoped would be, temporary accommodation in Trim Street. Located in the very centre of Bath’ it was noisy, confined, narrow and bustling. They were very pleased to be able to leave it when the opportunity arose.

Angela Youngman is a writer and journalist with numerous books linking travel and literary/film sites. She is the author of Discovering Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Jane Austen: The Writer, the Story, and Places to go

Interview with Betsy Sherman on Herman Melville’s Arrowhead

Literary Tourist in The Berkshires 

Herman Melville lived at Arrowhead (so named because of arrowheads found nearby in the soil during planting season) from 1850–1863, during which time he wrote some of his best known works: Moby-Dick, The Confidence-Man, and The Piazza Tales, a short story collection named after his porch, of which he wrote:

Now, for a house, so situated in such a country, to have no piazza for the convenience of those who might desire to feast upon the view, and take their time and ease about it, seemed as much of an omission as if a picture-gallery should have no bench; for what but picture-galleries are the marble halls of these same limestone hills?—galleries hung, month after month anew, with pictures ever fading into pictures ever fresh.

Built in the 1780s as a farmhouse, it was located adjacent to property owned by Melville’s uncle Thomas, who Melville visited in his youth. He purchased the property in 1850 with borrowed money and spent the next twelve years farming and writing. Money problems forced him to sell the property to his brother, and return to New York City in 1863 whereupon he eventually found work as a customs inspector.

The house remained in private hands until 1975, when the Berkshire County Historical Society acquired it and some of the original 160-acre property. The Society restored most of the house to Melville’s period and operates it as a house museum; it’s open to the public ‘during warmer months.’

I visited Arrowhead to learn more about why it should be on the Literary Tourists’s bucket-list.  Listen here to my conversation with Executive Director Betsy Sherman