The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotel

I’m a Southern girl, me, and I love a stay at a nice hotel, but glamorous New York City hotels have never been a big part of my life.  However, there are hotels, and there are icons – like The Plaza.  Today’s Plaza is actually the second one on the site and opened in 1907, the same year that taxicabs were introduced in New York.  The Plaza.  Let’s do a little name-dropping here.  The first recorded guest – Alfred G. Vanderbilt.  There’s F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, Conrad Hilton, Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball.  Donald Trump longed to own The Plaza, made a woefully bad deal to get it, and Ivana managed it as their marriage and fortune dissolved.  Hotel as residence was a strange concept to me, but over the years, this grandest of hotels was home to many notable and wealthy folks.  Frank Lloyd Wright was one, and you’ll love the Thirty-Nine Widows who lingered on and on as residents.  Through two World Wars, Prohibition, the Great Depression, New York City’s financial perils, economic booms and busts, The Plaza held on, and its story, as told by Julie Satow, is a wonderfully entertaining one.  Oh, you know who else lived at The Plaza?  Kay Thompson and Eloise!  Visit there or move right on in as you read this delightful book.

Make a reservation for this title at your local bookseller on June 4, or click here to order/pre-order The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotelfrom Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Twelve Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

A Florida State of Mind: An Unnatural History of Our Weirdest State

Had a sampling good time (admittedly not front to back), and “weirdest state” is the author’s opinion, not mine!  However, we had an aunt in Florida, married several times, who had a dog she named Mister.  It gave her a kick to go to the door and call, “Here, Mister, Mister,” she said.  A little weird, I guess.  Mr. Wright lives in Florida and calls this “…a collection of factoids, oddments, stories, and backstories…”.  I call it fun.  Let’s see.  Florida remained loyal to Britain during the Revolution, so no fourteenth colony.  How “oh wow” rich is that laid back Jimmy Buffet who, we’re told, is Warren Buffet’s distant cousin?  What happened to the Florida of Fifties and Sixties vacations, Silver Springs and glass-bottomed boats, the mermaids of Weeki Wachee?  Did Gore or Bush win the contested 2000 Presidential race in Florida, and how many types of “chads” were there?  Ha, there were four identified and named!  One was a swinging chad.  Didn’t you date him?  Florida is known as the “Road Kill State”, and there’s an interesting flipside.  White-tailed deer kill more humans than sharks, alligators, bears, snakes and insects combined.  A recipe for Tang pie is here too.  Check it out on April 30!

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by St. Martin’s Press / Thomas Dunne Books via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds

Caroline Van Hemert, a biologist, and her husband Pat Farrell (artist, outdoorsman, builder) dream a simple dream, yet one so daunting in scope that few could dream it – a trek of 4,000 miles from Bellingham, Washington to a far, far speck in the Alaskan Arctic, Kotsube.  Ever been there?  Me, either.  Without snowmobiles, ATVs, sponsors.  No planes, no trains, no hitched rides.  After four months intense planning, they leave Bellingham in two rowboats built by Pat, traveling up the Inside Passage then across mountains, glaciers, rivers, delta, and tundra on foot, on skis, by canoes and pack rafts.

This challenge was undertaken, I felt, in the spirit of a quest, though perhaps not consciously so; and it is recounted here in all its harshness, dreamy beauty and overriding love of the wilderness.  In a stunning episode, we’re practically part of a migrating caribou herd, and the astounding migratory flights of birds weave in and out of the narrative as a counterpoint to the journey.  The lovely title is, in fact, a reference to migratory bird navigation.  So, readers, travel and grow with this intrepid young couple.  Well-worth anyone’s time.

Take the trip now at or shop your local indie bookstore.

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Little, Brown and Company / Little, Brown Spark via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Kim MacQuarrie’s Life and Death in the Andes: On the Trail of Bandits, Heroes, and Revolutionaries

Life and Death in the Andes

After reading Kim MacQuarrie’s Life and Death in the Andes:  On the Trail of Bandits, Heroes, and Revolutionaries, I’m ready to pack my bags for South America.  Or at least Peru.  But not Colombia . . . definitely not Colombia.  From the Incas to Pablo Escobar, from Charles Darwin to the Shining Path, from Che Guevara to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the western coast of South America plays host as MacQuarrie, a documentary filmmaker as well as writer, takes us on a thumping trip down the length of the Andes.

Little did MacQuarrie know, as a young kid growing up in Nevada, that the authors he read to escape the heat, namely and among others, Edgar Rice Burroughs and an adventurous dude named William Willis, would inform his later years and lead him to spend much time living in, exploring, writing about and filming South America and the Andes in particular.  It was Willis’ account of his successful jaunt across the Pacific on a balsa-wood raft that led MacQuarrie to volunteer in Peru for a subsequent, but unrelated, raft expedition.  He didn’t get the gig, but the failed application did lead to a chance encounter with an even-bigger transoceanic rafting celebrity, Thor Heyerdahl, who invited him along on an inland Peruvian excavation project.  Talk about your good timing!

The trip starts in Colombia and I quickly learn that it’s been a damned violent place, as if I didn’t already know that.  We’ve all heard, at least peripherally, about Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel, and MacQuarrie makes a great study of the drug kingpin’s rise to the lofty heights of the Forbes’ billionaire list (who knew Forbes was so undiscriminating?) and his inevitable plummet and death.  What I had lesser knowledge of was Colombia’s bloody history of political violence and civil war in the hundred or so years prior to Escobar.  It’s made clear though, that despite the fallout from political upheaval and drug wars, Colombia’s culture has also contributed greatly to international art and literature.  It’s a country that has given the world Medellin artist Fernando Botero, whose famous sculptures can only be described by me as bulbous.  Another Colombian native you may just have heard of in the realm of great contributions to literature:  the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose novels are shot through with the brutal echoes of Colombia’s past.

Next up on the itinerary is Ecuador, or more specifically the Galapagos Islands.  It’s here that I learn that Darwin was actually a rank amateur in the scientific department when he arrived in the Galapagos aboard the HMS Beagle.  I had always dwelt under the assumption that Darwin was a seasoned naturalist and that the expedition was planned by and for him, but au contraire!  The Beagle’s mission was to finish surveying Patagonia and its captain was looking to hire an “educated companion” and naturalist, whose job would be to collect specimens but not analyze them.  That was to be left to the trained scientists back in Merry Old England.  Darwin, at 22 and newly graduated from Cambridge with an eye towards becoming a minister, seemed hardly qualified.  In fact, he was so inept at collecting that he failed to bring back even one adult tortoise from the expedition, although four juvenile specimens were returned to England.  And here’s your crazy factoid for the day:  Upon arriving in England, Darwin soon realized that the climate there was far from primo for his young tortoises so he prevailed upon a colleague who was retiring to Australia to take them there.  The last living one of the original four, a female named Harriet, died in 2006 at Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo, a whopping 176 years after she sailed to England with Darwin.

Peru merits several chapters, presumably because MacQuarrie spent far more time in that locale than the other Andean countries, but also because it seems to have just so many damn interesting things going on there.  MacQuarrie chronicles the Shining Path guerrilla movement of the 1980s and early ‘90s (still mildly active today), hikes to Machu Picchu and gives us the dirty low-down on its smarmy “discoverer” Hiram Bingham, and waxes rhapsodic about the Ice Maiden, a 15th-century mummy of a young girl sacrificed as an offering to the Incan gods.  Juanita, as she was called after her discovery on Mount Amparo, was found wearing perfectly preserved garments made of the finest, most intricate weavings.  From here, MacQuarrie deftly segues into a lengthy discussion of the preservation of traditional weaving practices in Peru today.  As part of his trip to a cooperative market where the Peruvian weavers hawk their wares, he was treated to a typical native lunch:  guinea pigs “served on a plate roasted and splayed, with their arms and legs stretching out, looking like road kill.”  Thanks, Kim.  You just killed my appetite and tempted me to hit PETA up for a Save the Guinea Pigs campaign.

Travelling a little further south to Lake Titicaca (a name that always inspired the giggles in my 8-year-old self), straddling the border of Peru and Bolivia, MacQuarrie then introduces me, his by now fascinated reader, to Los Uros, floating islands made of reeds that house and sustain an entire population.  Everything there, the residences, the boats, the furniture, the food – you name it – is made entirely from the reeds, called totora, that grow naturally on Lake Titicaca.

And have I rambled on long enough?  I should at least give you something to anticipate and leave off telling you chapter and verse about everything this Andean chronicle has to offer.  I must be coming off like the movie trailer that shows all the best scenes and doesn’t leave you anything but filler.  Don’t fret.  There’s a heap of adventure left and you’ll keep moving south into Bolivia and Chile:  Che Guevara, the ruins of Tiahuanaco (Ancient Aliens and Giorgio Tsoukalos’ electrified hair are not in evidence, thank God!), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the Yamana Indians of Tierra del Fuego are waiting.  And Darwin makes a second but final appearance!

I guess it’s apparent by now that I was quite enamored with this book and, as such, I give it a healthy 4.5 stars out of 5.  My one quibble however is with the ending.  I’ll just say that MacQuarrie ends his journey very abruptly.  So abruptly, in fact, that I questioned whether my advance reading copy was missing its ending.  While I normally wouldn’t even comment on this as typos are common with ARCs and come with the territory, my particular electronic copy had an inordinate number of editing goofs which couldn’t help but make me wonder about that ending.  Life and Death in the Andes has since been released so I’m sorely tempted to buy a copy to satisfy my curiosity.

To me, reading is all about learning and adventure, whether you’re traveling in your armchair with words or making your reading-inspired dreams a reality, the latter being exactly what MacQuarrie has done.  The Willis books spurred the failed volunteer opportunity which led to his meeting with Heyerdahl.  The Heyerdahl dig, as well as six months spent living with the primitive Yora tribe in Peru’s Upper Amazon, gave MacQuarrie the idea to travel the length of the Andes, chronicling its troubled history and colorful personages along the way.

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Simon & Schuster via NetGalley.  All quotes herein are from the review copy and may appear differently in the final print version.  I would like to thank the publisher for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.