I’ve done a lot of traveling this summer, but I’ve been on a bit of a blogging hiatus, so I have plenty stored up to tell you about.
I’ll start by sharing my new article on the USA Today travel web site. It’s about the pulchritudinous pumpkins of Half Moon Bay, California, and all the food-related activities there are to do there even after all the orange orbs have been made into pie.
Speaking of travel, I also had a great time interviewing Ann Bancroft, the famous polar explorer, for the Minnesota Women’s Press. She’s off on a new adventure in October, this time to India where she and Liv Arnesen and their team will navigate the length of the Ganges River. This hot, dirty, overpopulated trip seems an unlikely choice for someone who is used to the isolation and the pure, crisp air of the frozen poles. Yet, the more we discussed the perils of such a trip, the more her eyes lit up with anticipation of the challenge. The trip is part of a series she plans to undertake that will bring attention to the crisis of fresh water around the world. Find out more about the expedition at yourexpedition.com
Last week was a big one for literary events here in Minneapolis. I attended Pen Pals, an author series presented by the Friends of the Hennepin County Library, in which famed librarian Nancy Pearl interviewed Judy Blume about her new novel, In the Unlikely Event. Blume is chiefly known for her middle grade girls’ novels such as Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. The new book for adults is fiction based on the true story of the series of three commercial plane crashes that occurred in her home town in 1952. I haven’t read the book yet, but it sounds like it could put me off air travel for a while.
Finally, Faith Sullivan launched her new book, Goodnight Mr. Wodehouse at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. I aspire to be like Faith, not just for her literary expertise, but for her vivacious personality, humor and grace. She alternated reading from her book with short pieces of music from the time played by her friend Michael Anthony.
Set in Minnesota around the turn of the last century, the book is the story of a woman who has more than her share of tragedy in life, but keeps on going, buoyed by the diversion and humor of British author P.G. Wodehouse. Readers will love her comments about the joys and life-saving aspects of reading:
“Life could toss your sanity about like a glass ball; books were a cushion. How on earth did nonreaders cope when they had nowhere to turn? How lonely such a nonreading world must be.”
And, on retiring from teaching, the heroine hopes she “left her charges with a love of reading, one of the few things they could count on in life. The years could rob them of friends and farms, of youth and health, but books would endure. She eased deeper into the chair and turned the page.”
When I’m done reading Faith Sullivan’s book, I’m stocking up on a few volumes by P.G. Wodehouse.
I have a new article, The Wild Still Calls, in this month’s issue of a fun magazine, “Live Happy.” It’s about Jack London State Park and how the volunteers there are keeping the park and the memory of author Jack London alive.
London, author of The Call of the Wild, White Fang and many other adventure stories, was the most famous author of his time. Most people don’t know he was also a world traveler, sustainable farmer and oyster pirate. His own life was as adventurous as his stories.
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”
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.
Beyond 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.”
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.”
It’s a strange feeling when the story line in a book you’re reading matches front page news. I just finished reading The Hare With Amber Eyes, Edmund De Waal’s exploration of his family’s history through its art collection, in particular a set of Japanese netsuke, miniature sculptures, that were passed down through his family from the late 1800s onward. His fabulously wealthy Jewish family lived in a “palais” in Vienna packed with art. But when the Nazis moved into Austria, they confiscated the family’s possessions, their home, and in some cases took their lives, too. I finished the book just as the news hit that a huge amount of Nazi-confiscated art had been found in a Berlin apartment, about 1,500 works estimated to be worth $1.4 billion. If you’re not familiar with the unfolding story, you can read about it in this New York Times article. You have to wonder if any of De Waal’s family art collection will be discovered in this trove of paintings.
On a similar topic, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves And The Greatest Treasure Hunt In History by Robert M. Edsel has been made into a movie with George Clooney and Matt Damon. Though the trailer for The Monuments Men says it will be out in December, the release is now scheduled for February.
It’s no wonder that stolen art is such a hot topic in literature lately. The real-life stories have a plot line worthy of Robert Ludlum. My book club recently read B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger, which weaves the fictional story of a young woman who forges a work by Degas with the story of the heist from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston, the largest unsolved art theft in history. See Shapiro’s excellent book trailer to understand how she used it as the foundation of her story. And, if you’re thinking of a trip to Boston, read The Art Forger and go visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It’ll bring alive both your reading and your travel.
In addition, the Los Angeles/Santa Monica chapter of my book, Off The Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs and Girls on Getaways, offers a weekend itinerary that includes a visit to the fabulous Getty Museum in Los Angeles. And on the reading list for that chapter is Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt to Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum. It’s an investigation of the museum’s dealing in illegal antiquities from Los Angeles Times reporters, Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino.
Looking for more on art heists? Here’s a Goodreads list that will keep you reading, and on the edge of your seat, well into the new year.
If you’re a traveler, fall, not Christmas, is the “most wonderful time of the year.” Same sites but fewer crowds, cooler temps, and often, lower prices. It’s the perfect time to go so many places, you may find it hard to choose a destination. The answer lies on your bookshelf. Whether they’re classics or “beach reads,” your favorite books can offer guidance and inspiration for a “lit trip” to see the sites of the stories, absorb the environment that inspired the authors, and even walk the paths of fictional characters. Literary travel allows you to extend the experience of a great book and expand your understanding of your destination. Reading and travel enhance each other, and one taste will leave you yearning to go back for more. Best of all, you don’t need to head for Hemingway’s favorite Paris haunts or Jane Austen’s English countryside to take a lit trip. Opportunities for book-based travel abound in the U.S., too, and many are at their best in fall.
California Wine Country – Vintage Reading
Harvest time in California’s wine regions, typically from mid-August through October, overflows with vibrant golden yellow and crimson colors and the trucks rumbling by overflow with grapes ready for the crush. M.F.K. Fisher captured the delights of Napa and Sonoma where she lived and wrote her classic essays on food, wine, and life. Jack London also loved the Sonoma area where he lived and wrote in his later years. And, for fans of another type of grape, The Grapes of Wrath (which has absolutely nothing to do with wine), the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, is a short jaunt from wine country, making literature and wine the perfect blend for fall travel.
Read: M.F.K. Fisher, Musings on Wine and Other Libations, (Anne Zimmerman, ed.)
Jack London, Valley of the Moon (another name for Sonoma),
For more contemporary reading, try James Conaway, Nose, and Rex Picket, Sideways.
Explore: the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma counties, and take a side trip to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas (www.steinbeck.org)
Stay: L’Auberge Du Soleil, Rutherford (www.aubergedusoleil.com)
Eat: pack a picnic and enjoy it on the grounds of your favorite winery or in Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen www.jacklondonpark.com
Events: Fall in wine country means special celebrations of wine and food such as Flavor! Napa Valley in November (flavornapavalley.com), vintner dinners such as those at Grgich winery (grgich.com). Schramsberg winery in Calistoga offers special camps in fall and spring for wine and food lovers (www.schramsberg.com/news/campschramsberg)
Santa Fe – Willa Cather’s Archbishop Comes to Life
Santa Fe is a sensory fiesta year-round but in fall the aroma of roasting chili peppers adds to the mix. New Mexico’s beauty, dramatic history, and architecture have lured for artists and writers for decades. Among them, D.H. Lawrence (to Taos) and Willa Cather, who captured the drama of the New Mexico environment as she wrote a fictional version of the real-life story of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy, in Death Comes for the Archbishop. Shoppers and art lovers will find equally dramatic adventures in Santa Fe.
Read: Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
Explore: Bishop’s Lodge which offers a spa, horseback riding, and a chance to see Bishop Lamy’s chapel and home. (www.bishopslodge.com)
Stay: Inn on the Alameda (www.innonthealameda.com)
Eat: The Shed (www.sfshed.com)
Events: Santa Fe Wine and Chili Fiesta (www.santafewineandchile.org)
Newport, RI – America’s “Downton Abbey”
Since the 1800s, America’s wealthiest families have flocked to Newport, Rhode Island, and built summer “cottages” that most of us would call “palaces.” Among them was Edith Wharton, who wrote of her experiences in Gilded Age Newport in books such as The Buccaneers, which is about wealthy heiresses who married into the British aristocracy, much like “Downton Abbey’s” Cora Crawley. You can explore Newport’s Gilded Age mansions as well as its gorgeous seaside sites. The more “off season” you go, the more you can afford live like a Vanderbilt.
Read: Gail McColl and Carol Wallace, To Marry and English Lord
Edith Wharton, The Buccaneers
Explore: Newport Mansions (newportmansions.org)
Stay: Vanderbilt Grace (www.gracehotels.com/vanderbilt) Ask about packages that include admission to the Newport Mansions.
Eat: The Mooring (www.mooringrestaurant.com)
Polo matches, sailing regattas, or just a hike along Cliff Walk. In Newport you can sample “upper crust activities” or just enjoy the view. (www.gonewport.com)
Nantucket – A Whale of a Trip
You can’t find a more concentrated dose of New England charm than in Nantucket. And, if you’re a fan of Herman Melville’s whale tale, Moby Dick, you know that Nantucket is the place where Captain Ahab’s ship, the Peaquod, set sail.
Read: Herman Melville, Moby Dick,
Nathaniel Philbrick, Why Read Moby-Dick? and In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
Sena Jeter Nasland, Ahabs Wife
Or for more contemporary tales, read Summerland and other books by Nantucket resident Elin Hilderbrand.
Stay: White Elephant (www.whiteelephanthotel.com)
Eat: Millie’s. Enjoy the sunset and sample a Whale Tale Pale Ale. (www.milliesnantucket.com)
Explore: Nantucket Whaling Museum (www.nha.org)
Events: The Nantucket Maritime Festival. You’ll hear sea shanties sung, see harpoons thrown, and boats raced. (www.nantucketmaritimefestival.org)
Driftless in Wisconsin
Because of its geology, the Driftless Area of southwest Wisconsin is a place tailor-made for meandering. And the fall colors are reaching their peak in Wisconsin right now. As David Rhodes explains it in his beautiful book Driftless, “The last of the Pleistocene glaciers did not trample through this area, and the glacial deposits of rock, clay, sand, and silt–called drift–are missing. Hence its name, the Driftless Region. Singularly unrefined, it endured in its hilly, primitive form untouched by the shaping hands of those cold giants.” In this area, you’ll meet friendly folks who may remind you of the characters in Rhodes’s book—organic farmers, artists, shopkeepers, and the nice Norwegian lady at the dairy coop. Amish folks sell produce and hand-made wares at roadside stands, making the entire area a giant farmers market through fall. By the end of your trip, you’ll be reluctant to leave. But you can return by reading Rhodes’s newest book, Jewel Weed.
Read: David Rhodes, Driftless and its sequel, Jewel Weed
Stay: Charming B&Bs abound in the Driftless Area. Check out The Roth House(therothhouse.com) and the sister property The Old Oak Inn (theoldoakinn.net) in Soldier’s Grove or Westby House Inn in Westby (www.westbyhouse.com)
Author Armistead Maupin was in the Twin Cities last week speaking at the wonderful Pen Pals, an author lecture series that raises funds for the Hennepin County Library system. I’m sure that when they booked him for the event no one knew that it would coincide with the passage of the bill that made Minnesota the twelfth state to legalize gay marriage, but his appearance last week couldn’t have been more timely.
Maupin is the author of the beloved Tales of the City series that began as a newspaper column in the 1970s, first in a Marin County paper and then in the San Francisco Chronicle. Much the way Charles Dickens’s work appeared in serial installments, each Tales of the City column delivered a new episode in the lives of a quirky and sometimes bizarre collection of transsexual, straight, and gay characters who reside at the fictional 28 Barbary Lane, San Francisco. The series grew into eight best-selling novels, a television miniseries, a film and a musical.
Maupin was one of the first openly gay authors and his stories were ground-breaking in a time when there were no gay people in popular culture. I was thinking as he spoke about how much things have changed, particularly in light of Minnesota’s new marriage law. His conversation was peppered with a few “motherfuckers” and some colorful comments about his sexual behavior. I wondered if such in-your-face speech seemed a bit dated, unnecessary in the era of Ellen Degeneres and “Modern Family” when gay people are more part of the mainstream. That was Friday. Then Saturday night in New York’s Greenwich Village, a gay man was murdered in what was clearly a hate crime. So, that answered my question. Maupin’s attitude and his stories are as pertinent as ever. When he started writing there was the homophobic Anita Bryant. Now we have Rep. Michelle Bachmann.
Maupin’s groundbreaking stories incorporate the politics of the 1970s but also focus on universal themes of love and longing that have made the “Tales” endure over the decades with broad appeal. Maupin says, “We read to feel less alone, to find our experience reflected in that of others.” I would add that reading opens our minds to the the experience of others even if it isn’t the same as ours. The best thing about reading: it fosters empathy.
For anyone traveling to San Francisco, the Tales are a must read and Maupin’s web site offers a great map to the real places that you read about in the books. That reading and travel combination gives insight into the city’s history not only as ground zero in the gay rights movement but also its position as the America’s foremost place for iconoclasts–the Beats, hippies, immigrants from around the world, and cultural and spiritual seekers of all sorts who have changed the way we think and influenced our culture.
Though he will forever be associated with San Francisco, Maupin and his husband Christoper Turner, have decamped for Santa Fe, for what Maupin says is a new adventure in a place that has amazing vistas, adobe homes, and wide open spaces. But, he says, “San Francisco is still in my heart.”
Travel to the places you read about. Read about the places you travel.