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The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home

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The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home Cover

 

 

Excerpt

WINTER

The doors that are always open have been closed and locked. The windows are shut tight. The shades are drawn. No water runs from the faucets. The toaster — which in the best of times works only if its handle is pinned under the weight of a second, even less functional toaster — is unplugged. The kitchen cupboards are empty except for a stack of napkins, a box of sugar cubes, and eight cans of beer. The porch furniture — six white plastic chairs, two green wooden tables — has been stacked in the dining room. The croquet set, the badminton equipment, the tennis net, and the flag are behind closet doors. The dinghy is turtled on sawhorses in the barn, the oars angled against the wall. The roasted-salt scent of August has given way to the stale smell of mothballs, ashes, mildew.

Here and there are traces of last summer: a striped beach towel tossed on the washing machine, a half-empty shampoo bottle wedged in the wooden slats of the outdoor shower, a fishing lure on the living room mantel, a half-burned log in the fireplace, a sprinkling of sand behind the kitchen door. Dead hornets litter the windowsills. A drowned mouse floats in the lower-bedroom toilet. The most recent entry in the guest book was made five months ago. The top newspaper in the kindling pile is dated September 29. The ship's clock in the front hall has stopped at 2:45, but whether that was A.M. or P.M. no one can tell.

After gorging on summer for three months, the house has gone into hibernation. They call it the off-season, as if there were a switch in the cellar, next to the circuit breakers, that one flipped to plunge the house from brimming to empty, warm to cold, noisy to silent, light to dark. Outside, too, the world has changed color, from blues, yellows, and greens to grays and browns. The tangle of honeysuckle, Rosa rugosa, and poison ivy that lapped at the porch is a skein of bare branches and vines. The lawn is hard as tundra, brown as burlap. The Benedicts' house next door, hidden from view when I was last here, is visible through the leafless trees. The woods give up their secrets: old tennis balls, an errant Frisbee, a lost tube of sunblock, a badminton birdie. Out in the bay, the water is the color of steel and spattered with whitecaps; without the presence of boats to lend perspective, the waves look ominously large. On the stony beach, the boardwalk — a set of narrow planks we use to enter the water without spraining our ankles on the algae-slicked rocks — has been piled above the tide line, beyond the reach, we hope, of storms.

A summer house in winter is a forlorn thing. In its proper season, every door is unlocked, every window wide open. People, too, are more open in summer, moving through the house and each other's life as freely as the wind. Their schools and offices are distant, their guard is down, their feet are bare. Now as I walk from room to room, shivering in my parka, I have the feeling I'm trespassing, as if I've sneaked into a museum at night. Without people to fill it, the house takes on a life of its own. Family photographs seem to breathe, their subjects vivid and laughing and suspended at the most beautiful moments of their youths: my father in his army uniform, about to go off to World War II; my aunt in an evening gown, in a shot taken for a society benefit not long before her death at twenty-eight; my grandfather as a Harvard freshman, poised to win an ice hockey game; my cousins in the summer of 1963, gathered on the sunny lawn. I am older than all of them, even though many are now dead.

In this still house, where is the summer hiding? Perhaps in the mice whose droppings pepper the couch, the bats that brood in the attic eaves, the squirrels that nest in the stairwell walls. They are silent now, but we will hear and see them — and the offspring to which they will soon give birth — in a few months. For if the house is full of memory, it is equally full of anticipation. Dormant life lies everywhere, waiting to be picked up where it left off, like an old friendship after a long absence: that towel ready to be slung over a sweaty shoulder, that tennis ball to be thrown into the air, those chairs to be set out on the porch, that fishing lure to be cast into the bay, that guest book to be inscribed with a day in June. Even on the coldest winter morning, this house holds within it, like a voluptuous flower within a hard seed, the promise of summer.

Copyright © 2001 by Simon & Schuster

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 2 comments:

lyndanoel, November 2, 2007 (view all comments by lyndanoel)
A well-researched history of a family and the intertwined relationship of the family to the big house that was their common summer home. The writing was excellent which made it very easy to relate to the characters, and I sometimes forgot I wasn't reading fiction.
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(6 of 10 readers found this comment helpful)
smarshall48, October 12, 2007 (view all comments by smarshall48)
well written, absorbing, but badly organized. Should start with present day, then go back to very beginning of old house. It's confusing now. Desperately needs chart of family names and generations (domake one and add to clarity while reading!) Next edition, how about some of those family photos referrred to tantalizingly but never shown? We need pix of house at various stages of its life, exterior and interior. Also a map or chart showing situation of house--now extremely murky. And a map showing place names on that part of Cape Cod. Frustrating without illustrations!
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(5 of 7 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780743249645
Author:
Colt, George Howe
Publisher:
Scribner Book Company
Subject:
Historic buildings
Subject:
Vacation homes
Subject:
Personal Memoirs
Subject:
Specific Groups - General
Subject:
General Biography
Subject:
United States - State & Local - New England
Subject:
Cape cod (mass.)
Subject:
Historic buildings -- Massachusetts -- Cape Cod.
Subject:
Biography - General
Subject:
george howe colt, cape cod, summer home, memories, family, house, home, wings neck, ancestral, history, tradition, generations, past, exploration, mysteries, ancestors, century, american, childhood, life
Copyright:
Edition Description:
B102
Publication Date:
June 2004
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
336
Dimensions:
8.44 x 5.5 in 9.905 oz

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Related Subjects

Arts and Entertainment » Architecture » General
Arts and Entertainment » Architecture » Pocket Books
Biography » General
Engineering » Construction » General
Engineering » Home Construction » General
Featured Titles » History and Social Science
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
History and Social Science » Americana » Massachusetts
History and Social Science » Americana » New England and Mid Atlantic
History and Social Science » Americana » Northeast
History and Social Science » Sale Books
History and Social Science » Sociology » General
History and Social Science » World History » General

The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$15.99 In Stock
Product details 336 pages Scribner Book Company - English 9780743249645 Reviews:
"Review" by , "This book is full of uncertainty, wonder and surprise."
"Review" by , "Colt's account, like the house that lies at its center, is full of surprises...contains more than seems humanly possible."
"Review" by , "The Big House brings engagingly and memorably to life the house and the people who inhabited it."
"Synopsis" by , Faced with the sale of the century-old family summer house on Cape Cod where he had spent forty-two summers, George Howe Colt returned for one last stay with his wife and children. This poignant tribute to the eleven-bedroom jumble of gables, bays, and dormers that watched over weddings, divorces, deaths, anniversaries, birthdays, breakdowns, and love affairs for five generations interweaves Colt's final visit with memories of a lifetime of summers. Run-down yet romantic, the Big House stands not only as a cherished reminder of summer's ephemeral pleasures but also as a powerful symbol of a vanishing way of life.
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