The iconic Santa Monica Pier was an important scene in the crime fiction of Raymond Chandler.

Raymond Chandler and a Noir View of Santa Monica

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch.  On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight.  Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.–Raymond Chandler, “Red Wind”

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Raymond Chandler

I’ve never been a huge fan of crime fiction, but I’ve found I can’t resist Raymond Chandler, the king of the detective novel, because he can turn a phrase like no one else.  Sit down with one of his classics–Farewell, My Lovely or The Long Goodbye, for example–and you’ll soon find yourself on the hunt for “Chandlerisms” like “as conspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.” His dialogue and similes are so crazy and over the top I want to memorize them and use them in my own conversation.

imagesBeyond the similes, you start to recognize in Chandler’s work all of the hallmarks of “hard-boiled” and “noir” detective fiction–the shadowy scenery, the sleazy criminals, and Phillip Marlowe, the epitome of the tough and surprisingly idealistic private eye. The dialogue, the setting, and the characters are all as familiar as the nose on a washed-up boxer’s ugly mug, but it was Chandler who created them and, in the process (along with fellow crime writers Dashiell Hammett  and James M. Cain), pioneered a uniquely American literary genre and style.

Bogie and Bacall brought his hard-boiled characters to life on the big screen and his stories have been the subject of parody by everyone from Woody Allen to Steve Martin to Garrison Keillor.  As Paul Auster, a modern crime writer, says, “Raymond Chandler invited a new way of talking about America, and America has never looked the same to us since.”

In Raymond Chandler's day, an infamous fleet of gambling ships anchored just far enough offshore to be beyond the jurisdiction of California state law.
In Raymond Chandler’s day, an infamous fleet of gambling ships anchored just far enough offshore to be beyond the jurisdiction of California state law.

The Los Angeles area of the 1930s and 1940s was rife with organized crime, greed, and celebrity scandals.  In particular, daily life in Santa Monica, the beachfront town on the western edge of Los Angeles where Chandler lived for a time and which appears as Bay City in his books, offered plenty of material from which to draw his stories.

If you visit Santa Monica and the Los Angeles area, it’s fun to read Chandler’s books and those of his crime fiction contemporaries and picture the area as it was then.  He described it as a place with “lots of churches and almost as many bars.”  It’ll add a little depth to your understanding of the area, beyond Hollywood and UCLA/USC football.  Esotouric offers literary tours of Los Angeles including one focused on Raymond Chandler and another on James M. Cain. You might also enjoy their podcasts.  In addition, the Santa Monica Conservancy offers walking tours that cover Santa Monica history.

Santa Monica’s “mean streets” have been replaced by glamorous shopping streets such as Montana Avenue and the Third Street Promenade.  Yet, enough of the old Bay City remains today to get your imagination moving, including the famous Santa Monica Pier and Main Street’s deco-era City Hall, the scene of many of Phillip Marlowe’s coming and goings. Of course, there’s still the harbor and “beyond it the huge emptiness of the Pacific, purple-gray, that trudges into shore like a scrubwomen going home.”

 

 

 

The House of Seven Gables and Other Things to Do in Salem, MA

 

The mysterious House of Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts
The mysterious House of Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts

Salem, Massachusetts, makes a nice day trip from Boston and if you’re there, a stop at the House of Seven Gables is a natural for lit 9780451527912_p0_v1_s260x420lovers or anyone who likes the occasional glimpse of really old colonial homes.  Author Nathaniel Hawthorne’s cousin, Susanna Ingersoll (and other ancestors who played a part in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692), lived in the house and he visited there frequently. He stated that his book, The House of Seven Gables, was a complete work of fiction, based on no particular house.  Nonetheless, as you tour the tiny, dark rooms typical of the era in which it was built (the late 1600s), it’s easy to see how such a house could set the author’s imagination rolling.  The site also offers a chance to tour the house in which Hawthorne was born (which was moved to this site) along with several other buildings of that period.

If you haven’t read The House of Seven Gables, the novel follows a New England family and explores themes of guilt, retribution, and atonement, with overtones of the supernatural and witchcraft.  For me, the book doesn’t compare to Hawthorne’s classic, The Scarlet Letter.  However, it was an inspiration for the horror fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft who called it “New England’s greatest contribution to weird literature.” That seems a backhanded complement to me.

You can tour this tall ship at the Salem National Maritime Historic Site.
You can tour this tall ship at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site.

While you’re in Salem, I also recommend stopping at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, a short walk from the House of Seven Gables. The National Park Service operates it and you can wander through old wharf buildings, the Custom House where Hawthorne worked when he wasn’t penning famous novels, and other buildings of the colonial era.

Salem was, of course, the home of the famous Salem Witch Trials Unknown-3which were the focus of Arthur Miller’s classic play, The Crucible.  The National Park Service Visitor Center (2 Liberty Street) is a great place to get quality background on that incident.  It’s ironic that Salem has made a cottage industry out of the witch trials when our puritan ancestors were so thoroughly opposed to witches. Unless you’re a fan of super-tacky witch paraphernalia and occult museums, stick with the Park Service displays on the subject and skip the other witchy tourist traps.

Kayaking Over Minnehaha Falls: Longfellow Would Have Loved This

You know you’re in Minnesota when you find yourself at the intersection of Hiawatha Avenue and Minnehaha Parkway.  Overlooking the Mississippi River, Minnehaha Park is one  of Minneapolis’s oldest and most popular parks.  Minnehaha Falls, the park’s centerpiece, became a tourist destination after the publication of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha” in 1855.

Longfellow never visited the falls in person and there’s not much fact in the poem; the real Hiawatha lived in New England. Nonetheless,

A statue of Hiawatha and Minnehaha ala the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, sits adjacent to Minnehaha Creek.
A statue of Hiawatha and Minnehaha ala the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, sits adjacent to Minnehaha Creek.

“Hiawatha” became America’s most widely read poem of the nineteenth century, spreading the fame of Minnehaha Falls and the uppermost regions of the Mississippi and the “shores of Gitche Gumee by the shining Big Sea waters.”

The falls are on Minnehaha Creek which flows from Lake Minnetonka west of Minneapolis, through the city and on into the Mississippi River.   By late summer they are often reduced to a trickle. In fact, one year (almost 50 years to the day) President Lyndon Johnson was scheduled to view the falls on a visit to Minneapolis, but they were almost bone dry.  In order to create something worth seeing, the city had to open many fire hydrants, upstream and out of sight, to feed water to the creek.”

That’s not the case this year.  June brought the all-time largest rainfall in Minnesota, which created new bodies of water and raised the level of the Great Lakes.  That meant little Minnehaha Falls became a raging torrent and it lured professional kayaker Hunt Jennings to give it a go.  Over the falls he went to the surprise of many bystanders–and he emerged in one piece.

I don’t suggest kayaking over the falls, but if you visit the park, a safer bet would be to try out Sea Salt Eatery for fish tacos and other goodies amidst the beauty of the park.

 

Books Make a Difference Features Off The Beaten Page

Christened "the bookmobile" our RV was ready for a book club trip to Wisconsin.
Christened “the bookmobile” our RV was ready for a book club trip to Wisconsin.

Many thanks to Meagan Frank for her terrific article in the onlinemagazine Books Make a Difference. It’s about my book, Off The Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs, and Girls on Getaways and how travels with my book club (check out the photos of our RV trip) inspired me to write the book. Check it out:  Book Lover Getaways.

The article offers inspiration for anyone in a book club who has been thinking of organizing a book-inspired getaway.  You’ll want to read other articles there, too, about the “positive difference books make in people’s lives.”  So true.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Room (With a View) in Morocco

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A Berber family makes this cave in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains their kitchen and living room.  The entry to the adjacent sleeping “room” is in the upper right corner.

The challenge: share your take on the idea of room.

This is certainly different than my typical idea of a room, but when you travel, you see how other people live and adapt to their environment and begin to broaden your definition of,  for example, what constitutes a room.  In this case, a nomadic family of Berbers in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco uses a series of adjoining caves as rooms to suit different purposes.  Here, they cook (notice the ceiling blackened by cooking fires), weave rugs and entertain guests like us with a glass or two of mint tea.  They use other “rooms” for sleeping and for keeping animals.  Later in the season, the family will move their belongings and their flock of sheep to another grazing area.

 

Combat Artists’ View of the D-Day Invasion

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Sea Wall at Utah Beach by U.S. Navy combat artist Mitchell F. Jamieson

If you can’t make it to France to observe the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, you can see it through the eyes of combat artists who were there in an exhibit at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, MO.

Seventy years ago, on 6 June 1944, the Western Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy in northern France, opening a second front against Nazi Germany. General Dwight D. Eisenhower called the massive operation a crusade in which “we will accept nothing less than full victory.” More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion, and by day’s end, the Allies had gained a foot-hold in Normandy, but at an unbelievable cost; more than 9,000 Allied Soldiers were killed or wounded. Yet, their efforts opened the way for more than 100,000 soldiers to land and begin the march across Europe to defeat Hitler.

D-Day has been the topic of countless books (See my post on what to read before visiting the Normandy beaches) and movies including The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan. It was also the subject of a little-known group of artists, the U.S. Navy combat artists. The paintings of three of them—Mitchell Jamieson, Alexander Russo, and Dwight Shepler—are on display in an exhibit at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, entitled “D-Day Normandy: Operation Overlord.” The paintings are on loan from the Naval History and Heritage Command.

During the war, newsreels and photos dominated coverage of Unknown-4events, but the generals wanted artists to interpret the war, which is quite different from straight-up photography. Painters can vividly depict subjects beyond the range of of the camera lens such as action at night, in foul weather, or action widely scattered over the sea or in the air. They could also omit the confidential technical details a camera might reveal, thus making many interesting subjects unavailable for publication. So, select soldiers from all branches of the military carried pencils, paints, and sable brushes into battle along with their rifles and fought furiously to communicate the experience of war to the public. “I was scared most of the time,” said combat artist Edward Reep in a PBS documentary (and book), They Drew Fire. “But I always put myself in a position where I could be part of the fighting. That was my job.”

The paintings in the National Churchill Museum portray everything from the horrors of the initial landing in which American soldiers literally fought an uphill battle, to the GIs building an artificial harbor on the beach, to the capture of German soldiers. It’s a lasting record of how soldiers lived and died during the invasion, all on exhibit in Fulton.

Why Fulton, Missouri, you may wonder. In 1946 Winston Churchill  left-image-museumdelivered one of the most significant speeches of his long  career at Westminster College in Fulton. (President Harry Truman, a Missouri native, joined him on the platform.) That address, formally entitled, “The Sinews of Peace,” but best known for Churchill’s pronouncement that “an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent,” marked the beginning of the Cold War.

In the 1960s Westminster College set out to mark what would be the 20th anniversary of Churchill’s visit and to really make something of its connection to the event. The college settled on the the idea of moving a Christopher Wren designed Church from London. St. Mary the Virgin Aldermanbury, had stood in London since 1677 but was badly damaged during the London Blitz and narrowly escaped demolition. Instead, Westminster College moved the church stone-by-stone to its campus and rebuilt it to Wren’s original specifications.

The National Churchill Museum resides beneath the church. Its displays were recently rebuilt to incorporate the use of technology to better bring to life the story of Winston Churchill and his world. It features permanent and changing exhibits, along with a variety of related activities and was recognized by the United States Congress as America’s permanent tribute to Churchill. So, while former soldiers, private citizens, and dignitaries from Europe and and the U.S. will visit the Normandy beaches and battlefields to mark the anniversary this summer, those who can’t make it to France can see the invasion through the eyes of the combat artists, smack in the middle of the Midwest. The  exhibit runs until July 20.

Weekly Photo Challenge Split-Second Story: The Loneliness of the Rock ‘N Roll Tuba

Rock Box Tuba Player, France
Rock Box Tuba Player, Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, France

Serendipity is one of the best parts of travel.  We ran into a performance by the street band  Rock Box one night in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, France.  You can’t beat their school-boy costumes and the use of a tuba in place of a base guitar isn’t something one sees too often, either.

They appeared on the France Has Talent TV show with great praise from the judges.  You haven’t lived until you’ve seen this band perform AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” with the bellowing tuba, so here’s your chance:

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_photo_challenge/split-second-story/

Travel to the places you read about. Read about the places you travel.

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