Saturday, January 30, 2021
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I normally don't read "popular" books when they first come out, but the Weird Studies podcast had forced my hand. They're doing an episode on it next week and there will be spoilers, so I needed to read this before I listened. Not that this is a bad thing, mind you. Oh, and to answer your next question, no, I've never read Susanna Clarke's other most famous book. Just haven't gotten around to it yet (nor have I watched the television dramatization) I have to admit. This, though, is much shorter than that behemoth of a book. it is a very quick read, both because of the flowing, nay, lilting prose, and because the mystery that unfolds draws the reader in, once the reader lets it.
There are shades of Borges here. And nods, of a sort, to Peck's A Short Stay in Hell, with a voice not dissimilar to Walter Moers' The City of Dreaming Books, which means to say that I love the style and I love the content. Like the three books of which it carries echoes, Piranesi is going to be a bookshop-shelver's nightmare; the kind of thing that will make book marketers sit up in bed in the middle of the night, bathed in a cold sweat. Just the kind of book I like best; and the kind of book many people will hate!
Plenty of other review cover the basics of the plot. Some claim that the plot is extremely thin, though I would argue that the thinnest part is the part that is in plain sight. Its anchors are carefully obfuscated, but deep and strong. Nothing about the plot is obvious from the beginning (again, a trope that I love, but that drives some readers absolutely batty), and this helps the reader feel more fully vested in the naivete of Piranesi himself. We are forced to see only through his eyes, and this plunges the reader into an unfamiliar, very strange place, watching revelations unfold in real time. That same estrangement is at the very heart of the plot of the story and at the very heart of who Piranesi is as a person(s). I will leave it at that.
At first, as I started to discover the edges of Piranesi's labyrinths, both mental and physical, I thought that the very sly opening of the 4th wall (as early as page 12!) portended a hyperstition about hyperstition. On further reflection, I've come to the (tentative?) conclusion that it's not a hyperstition about hyperstition. It is an attempt to engage the real world reader (the person who is actually reading the book) to believe in a hyperstition, that of Arne-Sayles, a sort of call to willingly suspend disbelief that such a reality could be created, ex nihilo, from the mind of The Professor.
This engagement, I would argue, is largely successful because part of the immersion into Arne-Syles' created (or was it simply discovered?) reality results from the utter naivete of Piranesi himself. At it's heart, this is a story of innocence - a past innocence that had been utterly lost, a new innocence gained by a complete denial of a harsh past reality, and a further repeat of a loss of innocence, but not a complete loss: A synthesis of losses and realities, not a complete exposure to the terrors of past and present reality, but the reconciliation of two perceptions and two realities, the old Hegelian dialectic applied to trauma and psychological defense, a newness in which both pain and comfort come together to form a new person out of two previous emotional-intellectual entities. It is a beautiful thing to behold - tentative and tense, but beautiful in both its hesitation and its reconciliation.
One of the ways this dialectic unfolds, and the satisfaction to me (again other readers will hate this aspect) is that most of the mystery is preserved, rather than resolved. If you expect to know everything, to see a reality shattered and the "truth" fully uncovered, or to have the "solution" spoon-fed to you, you will not. If you are not comfortable with untidy endings and loose strings, this is most definitely not the book for you.
But if you are, like I am, comfortable with stories that do not comfortably end, this is a rich excursion into mystery. I think that Piranesi himself sums it up in a corollary thought that may be at the heart of the book, the great key to "understanding" (what is to be understood, which is, again, not everything):
AS I walked, I was thinking about the Great and Secret Knowledge, which the Other says will grant us strange new powers. And I realised something. I realised that I no longer believed in it. Or perhaps that is not quite accurate. I thought it was possible that the Knowledge existed. Equally I thought that it was possible it did not. Either way it no longer mattered to me. I did not intend to waste my time looking for it any more.
This realisation - the realisation of the Insignificance of the Knowledge - came to me in the form of a Revelation. What I mean by this is that I knew it to be true before I understood why or what steps had led me there. When I tried to retrace those steps my mind kept returning to the image of the One-Hundred-and-Ninety-Second Western Hall in the Moonlight, to its Beauty, to its deep sense of Calm, to the reverent looks on the Faces of the Statues as they turned (or seemed to turn) towards the Moon. I realised that the search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted, and that if ever we discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrested from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery.
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Thursday, January 28, 2021
As many of you will already know, I spent a very formative time of my life, from March of 1985 to October of 1987, living in England. I was 15 when we arrived and 18 when I left. So, when my wife and I went to visit Europe in 2019, I had to take a day, at least, to visit my old stomping grounds at RAF Chicksands in Bedfordshire. We took our first Sunday there to travel by car in a terrifying ride (terrifying because I never really did get used to driving on the left side of the road) from Moreton-in-Marsh, past Milton Keynes, and on to Bedford. We went to church at the congregation my parents used to take me at and I got to visit with a couple of old friends, one of whom just about dropped dead when he recognized me (he didn't know I was coming). We had a good time visiting and chatting, the one friend continually telling my wife about how much of a rebel I was back then (he was telling the truth), then we took off for RAF Chicksands, where I spent some of the more meaningful years of my life.
It was a bittersweet reunion. You see, when I left England, I did so because I was forced to do so. I had gotten myself in trouble with the authorities (drugs) and in order to avoid a prison sentence (not jail: federal prison), I was banished from the base and told that if I ever set foot on it again, I would be arrested and the charges would come back to haunt me.
But time changes things. In 1997, ten years after my banishment, the US Air Force pulled out of Chicksands. Instead of and American spy base, it became a British spy base. And no one there had my records anymore. So, we arranged a tour of the one part of the base we could visit (as the rest of the base was restricted to British military personnel and their families), the Chicksands Priory. Granted, I couldn't visit my old house and much of the area I used to wander for hours, but I could visit that old priory.
I will spare you most of the history of the place except to say that it was originally built in the 1100s - yes, the 1100s, that's not a typo - and that there is a ghost by the name of Rosatta that I am certain haunts the place. But that is a ghost story for a different time.
Here's a decent shot of it from the front. Keep in mind throughout this post that we were not allowed to take any pictures of the inside nor were we permitted to take any pictures with humans other than ourselves in them. This was for security reasons. And I didn't want to get arrested again on Chicksands. Third time was a charm. After that day, I've never been arrested (though I had been twice before that, but again, a different story). As you get a little closer to the priory, this is what it looks like:
This is where geography gets a little tricky. See that road beyond the gate there? That's the road we came in on. The main building of the priory is off to the right. If you turned right here and somehow walked through the buildings in ethereal form, you would end up in the fish ponds. We knew this courtyard very, very well. The door to the right of the courtyard (the open one) leads into a room that is nothing but an iron-girded skeleton of its former self. There is a vast circle in the ceiling that was once a mill for grinding grain. If you wanted to, you could literally fall from the peak of the roof inside down to the floor. I know, because I almost did that a few times (even though I didn't want to). Alcohol does not mix well with walking on a 1" wide iron beam straddling other 1" beams. I was braver in those days, and dumber.
To the right there, you will see a little stairway going down. That area has been filled with cement. Why? Because that's where the wine cellar I mentioned earlier is/was. Why did they fill it in? I'm sure it had nothing to do with groups of teenagers going down there to party and make out, all nestled in giant medieval stone cavities meant to hold gigantic barrels. Nothing at all like that. I can attest that the barrels weren't there in the mid-'80s, but we supplied our own alcohol. When I think back on it, that was a slasher movie In.The.Making!
There was one area we almost never went into. In fact, I don't ever remember going there. And that is the gardens. I don't know how well they were maintained back then, but now they are incredibly well-maintained. There is a certified medieval gardener on staff (no kidding!) so they can grow things there that normally wouldn't be legal to grow because . . . well, because it's a medieval garden, and you know how things were in the Dark Ages, right? If you didn't like what they were growing, they might go all . . . medieval . . . on you.
This one is . . . a brick wall? Yes. Yes, it is. This brick wall is significant to me, however, and I'm being serious. In September of 1987, I was arrested, tried, sentenced to banishment, essentially. On October 15th, what is known as "The Great Storm" raked across southern and eastern England, bringing hurricane-force winds and killing 18 people. I like to think of it as the island expressing grief that I was leaving. The wind was strong enough that it toppled this brick wall. The WIND did that! You can tell right where it happened, too. See the lower section with the pockmarked bricks? That was the part of the wall that survived the storm. All the "new" looking brick above it was put in, reconstructed, after the storm. The trick, I am told, is that the old brick was basically crap. So they built the new bricks out of basically crap. In not many years, the bricks on the top will also wear down and become pockmarked to match the original brick. See? Shoddy construction is quaint and good. Just ask the entire decade of the 1970s, The Golden Age of Poor Workmanship.
Before you ask, yes, that is exactly what you think it is. Opium poppy. Remember where I said I got in trouble for drugs and that caused my banishment? Well, welcome to Exhibit A. Yep, it was hashish mixed with opium that got me (and a few friends) in trouble. The irony of seeing this is not lost on me. I laughed hysterically when I saw this. I think the tour guide thought I must be either crazy, a junky, or both. Truth be told, I am only crazy.
After the garden, we walked by the back of the priory and saw this and THIS is the most important photo I took the whole time. When I saw this, I screamed out "That's it! That's it!" - again, I am not a junky, only crazy:
This, my friends, was our portal, our gateway to another world. The lower left pane of that right window was perpetually broken. You can see the window handle hanging tantalizingly above it. THAT is how we got in, the point of egress that led to so many incredible memories that are a part of me and that I'll never be able to completely recollect. A good part of my teenage thrill-to-be-alive lay beyond that window. I had to go up and touch it, and I did. Thankfully none of the military guys saw me do it because I might have been shot.
And it might have been worth it.
And here are my wife and I, departing Chicksands once again (well, "again" for me, anyway). I honestly can't wait to get back. Maybe British Intelligence will bugger off and I can see the whole base without fear of being killed. Doubtful, but you never know. I never thought I'd be able to come back . . .
Oh, and if you think I'm joking about the place being haunted, I'm not. They have found many, many bodies buried under the grounds, including this lady:
This isn't the celebrity dead-person, the nun Rosatta. I have a story about here. For a different time.
After this, we went to see something even older and with lots more dead people. Well, yes and no. I wanted to see *something* megalithic while we were in England because structures that old just don't exist in America. If they do, they're under tons of mud along the Mississippi river and I'm not keen on digging through tons of mud to get there. So, we got in the car (terrified of driving yet again) and took off for Devil's Quoits (yes, it's spelled correctly, I just checked), in Oxfordshire.
Finding the place was a bugger. It's off a little path next to a garbage dump, essentially. We got ourselves good and lost a couple of times, but it's not an adventure until you get lost, right? We had an adventure!
In short, the site is thought to be 4,000 to 5,000 years old (yes, "patriots," that's older than America, you dunces - get over yourself) and was reconstructed so that toppled stones were put upright and mounds that might have decayed were restored. There's a good chance that human sacrifice took place here, and animal sacrifice almost definitely happened here. But it could have just been some strange misfortune that burnt human bones ended up among burnt animal bones, right? Yeah, right.
This is the reconstructed ring mound (to the right) and pit (to the left). If I remember right, the mound is about 3' high.
Following is a series of photos I took of the stones. There was a lot of high vegetation there. Not enough burnt sacrifices taking place, I think. They should fix that.
And some interesting individual stones:
And, lastly, here is a closeup shot of the aerial representation:
And, what does this remind me of? YES! That's right . . .
And if you don't know what this is, you're not allowed to be my friend any more until you've watched "Children of the Stones".
And, with that, we were off back to our awesome Airbnb residence.
Wednesday, January 27, 2021
I feel as if I've been reading and connecting with a lot of Welsh and Irish writing lately. Machen, Graves, (soon to be reading again) Beckett, (also soon to be reading again) Joyce, and now, Yeats. It's probably genetic, to be honest. My dad's biological parents were likely of Irish stock (their last name was Bigley - I got "Aguirre," which is Basque, by the way, not Spanish, at least not in my case - from my adoptive grandparents). My mom was of mixed German (my grandmother was oh-so-German) and Welsh stock. So, yeah, I have some Celtic blood flowing through me. Maybe that's why I gravitate towards these works?
While this book is chock full of wonderful tales of Sidhe and ghosts, each documented by Yeats through conversations and anecdotes he recorded from people that he met, that's not the most attractive thing to me about the book. I am more intrigued by the poesis of Yeats' commentary. Right from the beginning, Yeats comments:
How do we not know but that our own unreason may be better than another's truth?
He spends some amount of time and effort helping the reader to understand the Irish (and the differently-directed Scottish) attitude toward the fey world. The world just beyond ours is inhabited by capricious beings with whom one might enter intercourse (of the verbal kind) that are not necessarily evil or scary, but winsome, even incomprehensible in their motivations. One must just accept them as fact and deal with them, not try to abjure (nor invoke) them. They are as natural as the landscape around us and one must treat them like a wild, but not necessarily inimical, animal, though an animal of extremely high intelligence and with some knowledge beyond that of mortal men.
But again, I was not so much focused on them as I was on Yeats' published assumptions, his "givens" about them and our interaction with them:
Indeed there are times when the worlds are so near together that it seems as if our earthly chattels were no more than the shadows of things beyond.
This is where the "meat" of the book comes in, it is in the sublimation of one's mind to the attitude of those interviewed and quoted therein. In order to see the fantastical, one must think fantastically and it must be as natural as breathing for him or her.
In a society that has cast out imaginative tradition, only a few people - three or four thousand out of millions - favoured by their own characters and by happy circumstance, and only then after much labour, have understanding of imaginative things and yet 'the imagination is the man himself.'
Some of that labour must come in the form of study. I would strongly recommend reading Robert Graves' The White Goddess in conjunction with this book.
Yeats shares an anecdote about the blind poet Raftery talking to a bush, for instance, the Bush answering in Irish, and "gave him the knowledge of all the things of the world," then withered up. This sounds like something straight out of Graves' amazing book. I wonder if he read this anecdote from Yeats' work. In any case, the connection seems certain, or at least uncanny. Are the Sidhe saying something here?
I would also point you to Gary Lachman's Lost Knowledge of the Imagination for an excellent primer on how to tap into that fantastical head-space I mentioned earlier.
Reading all three at once would be a powerful experience, indeed. One that might leave you . . . changed. For the better. But changed, nonetheless.
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Tuesday, January 12, 2021
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If it's not apparent that I'm a fan of Damian Murphy's work, you've not been paying attention to my reviews. That said, I do believe that every work has to stand on its own merit, so I approach the work of those whose work I have liked in the past with what I think is an objective, although anticipatory, frame of mind. Consider this mind blown.
I absolutely adore the strange characters of Abyssinia. I am fascinated by the subterfuge of The Acephalic Imperial. I was swept away by the intrigue of Psalms of the Magistrate. But all of that left me unprepared for the epic journey that is The Academy Outside of Ingolstadt.
This is literature at another level: the level of the sublime. From the beginning, with Franz's holocaustic vision of angelic destruction (a prophetic waking dream of the future in store beyond the book), which propels him to return to The Academy, to the era before the beginning, where Franz discovers what true catharsis is, and back to the present, where past and future coalesce in a time that is not time, the sideslip alley of memory (or of memory of memory) and of prophecy, we sense, no, we know that one can never fully know. And there is comfort in that. There is strength in the unseen. But there is also strength in revelation, even if the veil never fully tears apart, or if we discover that beyond that veil is another.
Above all, in reading this book, I felt a sense of one-ness with the characters and their experiences. For instance, the notion of a map constructed wholly from memory resonates with me. I often dream of places I've lived (and I've lived in a lot, being an Air Force brat) and visited again in dreams. My oneiric wanderings always take me to impossible nooks and crannies, skipping gulfs in a few steps, folding and unfolding interstices that were never there (and I've proven they were never there by visiting again). The Academy Outside of Ingolstadt has pushed me to meditate (yes, literally) on those dream-visions. Good fiction causes one to think. Great fiction causes one to act. And I will act on this by doing a (near) future blogpost about my wanderings. Call my upcoming blogpost . . . an offering.
Franz's escape from his threat and his sense of utter, eternal freedom is something I've experienced, albeit under very different circumstances (mine involves a literal threat of prison sentence and banishment from the place I loved, but that's a different story). It leaves an indelible impression on the soul. It's not always easy to recall it and draw upon it for strength, but it's always there. Once you've experienced it, there's no going back. Oh, yes, there can be denial, but such things are carved on the heart, forever. It's the Three of Swords, stabbed through and hurt, but still alive and pyrrhicaly-triumphant. The wound has become a part of you, your bleeding has become your freedom.
I've also experienced the sensations that are described in the little red journal around the student, Una's experience with participating in a marionette theater. Una's transformation is a slippage from puppeteer to puppet, then from puppet to self-aware being. She is, with full intention, but without full awareness, becoming herself by denying her self, that she is becoming a doing by doing a becoming. "I AM that I AM," in full praxis.
Finally (for the purposes of this review - there is no "finally" to this book, as far as I am concerned) the following quote caught my eye, then caught my soul:
The intoxicating flavor of the past, so he reflected, was sweeter in his memory than it could possibly have been at the time it was experienced.
Now that I'm over fifty, I can say that this is true. The ephemeral is often the most beautiful. Nostalgia is a strong drug that can intoxicate your world, whether in your waking hours or your dream-time. The world says "seize the day". The world beyond the world says "seize your memory of the day past".
My cryptic ramblings have headed in no particular direction. And I don't intend on giving them any direction. This matches my feelings, now, about how to approach this book. Approach it from whatever angle you like. Read it from beginning to end or flip to a random page and read backwards. No, it's not a structurally fluid as, say, Finnegans Wake. But there is a spiritual breathing to the work that allows you to enter the story at any inhalation or exhalation. Where you enter doesn't matter, what matters is that you be in it. And I plan on being in it again and again and again and again. One does not read this book, one breathes it. One is it. This has been my experience. Profoundly moving, profoundly still, profoundly here. The story is the Academy.
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Monday, January 11, 2021
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I am a big fan of Valin Mattheis' art. I have two prints of his up in my writing area and one of his paintings adorns my own book, The Varvaros Ascensions. So, when I heard that he was producing a book from sketches he made during Inktober 2020, I dropped everything and bought a copy. I really do believe in buying books 1) directly from the author whenever possible, 2) directly from the publisher when that's not possible, 3) from a local bookstore when I can't buy it direct from the author or publisher, 4) from Ziesings.com (my favorite online bookstore - they also have a paper catalog - remember those?), 5) from Ebay or Abebooks, then, finally, 6) from the good sponsors/owners/whatever of Goodreads. In this case, I was able to go with choice #1, and that brings me a great deal of satisfaction.
The book is divided into four chapters: i: The Great Sorrow, ii: Black Earth Revival, iii: Harold Rose Up, and iv: The Three Pilgrims. The story is mythic in scale, and each chapter follows from the other, although from different perspectives. The whole is made cohesive by the strand of destruction, change, and maybe, possibly, hope among the darkness. A grim hope, but hope, nonetheless.
The art is saturated with color, even while the water-color backgrounds and spectres give a ghostly quality to the whole. It is a beautiful book and the emphasis is squarely on the art. There are, as you might guess, lots of skeletons and a morbid sense of humor running throughout, but the book is never so silly as to throw one out of the grim mindset. The "slim" story, again in a mythic mode, helps to maintain a mood of solemnity, even a touch of reverence.
As an added treat, there is a detailed commentary in the back explaining some of the more obfuscated iconography. This added a great deal of depth to the story, but I hope that, in future volumes, not too much is given away. This was just enough to be helpful, but not enough to strip away the mystery. And I hope that some mystery remains. Some things are best left unexplained.
There are also a few pages of sketches, art that was unused in their nascent form, at least (and some of it not used at all) in the main body of the book. This gives a little peek into Mattheis' creative process, a window into window through which the artist was constructing his representation of the view in his mind. I'm excited to continue exploring these vistas. As the afterword states "This is the conclusion of the world, and what rises after."
I am excited to see what rises after the after . . .
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My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Confession time: I'm not a huge fan of superheroes. Yes, I grew up reading comics and even collected some titles (Metal Men, Defenders, Thor, Star Wars, ROM, Silver Surfer, Doctor Strange, Conan ), but when I discovered Dungeons & Dragons at age 10, I sort of went sour on the whole superhero thing. Not completely. but mostly. I even tried to get back into things by playing some superhero RPGs with friends, but it just wasn't my thing any more. That's not to say I completely abhor them - I like the Marvel movies just fine. DC, not so much. I never was much of a DC fan. I did pick up Grimjack (possibly the best comic of all time, at least for me) in the '90s, and still have those, as well as Albedo Anthropomorphics.
But notice something about my comic book taste: It's mostly scifi and fantasy (or an admixture of the two). I'm just not that big on straight-up superheroes. Call me jaded.
But I am big on magic. Interpret that however you like. I like magic. I believe in magic, though I might call it any number of things besides "magic".
And here, with Promethea, we have something that tries to tow the line between the two. If I had to pick a comic precursor, Doctor Strange is the obvious choice. But Promethea is smarter than the good doctor and far more "hip". I'm not talking about the characters themselves, I mean the comic as an idea and an act of art and writing. I'm sure Stan Lee was a smart guy, but could he even compare to Alan Moore in terms of sheer genius. Nope. 'nuff said.
And while I do love Jack Kirby's artwork and am very fond of John Buscema's Conan (et al.), J.H. Williams III has some serious drawing and, even more so, design chops. The layout itself, in all its variation, is stunning, framing the story perfectly almost the entire way through, threading together what can be a meandering narrative, holding it all together with pictures and a flow that is . . . magical.
I really like the main character, Sophie, as she grows in knowledge both about who she is and about who Promethea is (and was). There is a lot here to learn, and seeing her go through her "Chapel Perilous" endears her to the reader.
My only problem here is that there is so much for her to learn that reading about it can be tedious. This is a magic for beginners book. If you have any knowledge of esoterica, the tarot, chakras, the hermetic tradition, etc., you'll find a lot of lessons here you already know. It can feel a little pedantic, at times.
However, I have to concede: Moore's intent here was to teach. At least that's how it seems. At first, I was disappointed. But then, I thought, this book wasn't just written for me. It was written for a lot of people. So, if you don't have a whole lot of knowledge about the subjects I've mentioned, this will be a great education for you. And if you happen to like superheroes, I suppose this thing might be your bag, too. I can see this series going much deeper from here, or I can see it getting more shallow (and more stock-superhero-story-ish), possibly. But I don't think Moore will go there. We'll see. So far, so good.
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Monday, January 4, 2021
Skip back to 2019, before the coronapocalypse, and my wife and I spent a two week trip to England, Wales, Germany, and Austria. It feels like an eternity ago - in the meantime, I have lost a job and started a new one, a volunteer commitment with my church was fulfilled after three (very fulfilling) years, we moved from Madison to Janesville, and we gained a grandchild in that time. It's like a dream of another lifetime, when one could roam as freely as one could afford, when we were all looking forward to the deposition of the worst President in US history, and where one only wore a mask the majority of the day on Halloween.
Since we're all pinned in by the pandemic, I've done a few posts on some of our stops, and there are more to come. My hope is to provide a little moment for you to "travel" out of your quarantine box and get to "see" and hear about a bit of this good world. I've already covered Oxford, a day hike in the Cotswolds, and Salzburg. I still "owe" posts on Vienna (which might take two or three posts), The Eagle's Nest and Berchtesgaden, Bath and the Kooky Cotswolds tour, Bedford / Chicksands, and The Devil's Quoits.
This time around, it's a quick post about our day trip to Wales, more specifically, to the village of Hay-on-Wye, a well-known (among bibliophiles such as myself) "booktown" in the Powys area. This would qualify as one of the "places I'd be happy to die in" from this trip (Vienna being the other). When I think of the D&D outer plane of Elysium, Hay-on-Wye is what comes to mind: a beautiful plane of goodness, quaint scenes . . . and lots of bookstores. The population, when we visited, was 1600 people, and the village has (or at least had) 26 bookstores. TWENTY-SIX BOOKSTORES! That's one book store for every 61 residents. How can that not be heaven?
Our drive from Moreton-in-Marsh was, if I remember correctly, about an hour and a half or so. What they don't tell you is that a full half hour of that drive is through skinny winding roads with head-high hedges (but no fences) on either side of the road, making it impossible to see around the next curve. When you're trying to learn to drive on the other side of the road, this can be very, very unnerving. In fact, it was a little terrifying. I suppose you got to go through hell before you get to heaven, as Steve Miller put it.
Eventually we made it there. And in one piece! Well, until I pulled into this parking lot: