Category Archives: Minneapolis/St. Paul

A Virtual Concierge—I Need That!

I wish I could find a Jen Knoch everywhere I travel.  It’s easy to find travel agents, hotel concierges, and corporate event planners galore who can offer some piece of travel planning, but it’s seldom information that’s very customized or personal. Consequently, I spend a lot of time talking to friends to get their tips and pouring over sites like TripAdvisor. I’ve had great experiences with travel planners for big trips, groups like Costa Rica Expeditions or the Blue Men of Morocco, for example, but what if you’re an individual, family or a book group traveling to someplace like the Twin Cities or Chicago or Seattle?

Knoch’s Radar Virtual Concierge Services, which caters to Twin Cities experiences, offers customized suggestions, based on the client’s needs and it’s affordable for “regular” people.  She says, “My sweet spot is the locally owned businesses that do tend to be more unique, under-the-radar and neighborhood type places that typically aren’t known to corporate event managers, hotel concierges, and travel agents.  They tend to focus more on the obvious, larger venues, well-known, chains, etc. An individual, a couple, a group, a family looking for an adventure in the Twin Cities whether they live here or are visiting, are my absolute perfect clients!  There is so much to do here and much of that is ‘unknown’ and I get my kicks out of blowing people away with the greatness of these cities from dining to music to retail to all-things culture.” Radar’s service is offered on a one time, weekend, annual or event-based basis, with the fees to match, starting at $15. I have yet to find a comparable service in other markets.  Do they exist?

One of Knoch’s favorite “bookish” spots in the Twin Cities: Wild Rumpus. It’s one of my favorites, too, and I’ve missed going there now that my boys are grown.  So, trolling their Web site, I was delighted to discover that they have an adults-only book club and, best of all, a remedial book club for adults who missed or want to revisit some of the classics of children’s literature. The store’s animal hosts alone make it worth a trip.

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Books, Bars, and Reinventing the Book Club

I went to Books & Bars Tuesday night in Minneapolis at the Bryant Lake Bowl to
experience a fresh take on the traditional reading group, billed as “not your mother’s book club.” I went alone, but my visit confirmed why Msp.St.Paul magazine ranked Books & Bars as one of the best places for a newcomer to the Twin Cities to visit. I chatted it up with the people around me, all very hip and Uptown-looking and all very welcoming to a newbie.

The place was packed and with 90 or so people who discussed To Kill a Mockingbird with beer-fueled gusto—everything from the civil rights movement and the book’s relevance 40 years after its publication, to women’s roles, Atticus Finch’s parenting skills, and why we love Boo Radley. There were quite a few enthusiastic and thoughtful English teachers in the group and the conversation was free-wheeling. My favorite comment of the night was from a guy who said the best part of the book was when Atticus “shot that dog.”

The genial Jeff Kamin (henceforward, Genial Jeff in my mind) does a great job as the group’s host/facilitator/comedian. He alternately encourages participation from those who haven’t spoken, keeps the talkative from monopolizing the conversation, and injects new points of discussion.  He also tempers conflicting points of view with a little humor—skills I hope to emulate when my relatives gather during the upcoming holidays.

I asked Kamin why he thinks Books & Bars has been so successful.  He explains, “People like to read books, drink cheap beer ($2 Surly/$3 Fulton) and publicly express their opinions. And if they don’t want to talk, they enjoy hearing others talk about what they’ve read. It’s always a lot of fun. I do my best to keep everyone entertained and informed. People like to get out with like-minded types. The books have to be good, or at least discussion-worthy, but ultimately I think people come for the other people. They want to connect. And they want to laugh.”

For many, such face-to-face “networking” over a common topic is a welcome respite from the online social networking world. He says, “We have over 1000 fans on Facebook and almost as many newsletter subscribers. As much as I love to tweet and update my status and get a good on-line forum discussion going, nothing can compare to sharing a table, a meal, raising a glass with a friend and looking them in the eyes when you make fun of them. And hearing the agreeing laughter of the others around him.”

Another reason for the group’s success (it has expanded to twice-monthly and two locations) may be the mix of people, which is quite a departure from “your mother’s book club.” A surprisingly high number of men attend Books & Bars. The crowd is usually about 60/40 female to male depending on the book choice, and mostly 20-somethings, but with a few “women-of-a-certain age,” as the French say, in the mix.  “We have a few mother/daughter and a mother/son teams every once in a while,” says Kamin. “I’d love to see more father/son readers give us a try. I actually pick more male authors than female in the hopes of balancing our membership.”

Another draw is the mix of books.  I have to admit there are a lot of books on the B&B reading list I haven’t heard of.  It’s also pretty cool that they sometimes do Skype sessions with authors at their meetings. “We do a classic every year, but try to shine a light on the lesser known, but equally deserving authors, too,” says Genial Jeff. “I love that we get 100 people together to discuss a book instead of reality TV around the water cooler. We’re reinventing the book club and bringing back literature as a topic of discussion.”

Nicole Krauss Builds a "Great House"– Her Thoughts on Writing and Reading

    I went to St. Paul last night to listen to Nicole Krauss at a session of Minnesota Public Radio’s “Talking Volumes” series.  Krauss has been nominated for the National Book Award for her third novel, Great House. (Read The New York Times review of the book. ) 

    At events such as these, someone invariably asks about the author’s creative process, how he or she writes.  Authors often have a very hard time coming up with an answer.  That, or they’re sick of the question. And since, it’s a very abstract process, the answer is usually not very satisfying.  I’d rather hear more generally about the ideas the author wants to convey than about her methods. However, Krauss speaks about as well as anyone I’ve ever heard on the subject of the writing process.  She’s as articulate in a conversation as she is on the pages of her books. Krauss says writes as she goes, without a lot of outlining.  She seems to go where the writing takes her.  She revises as she writes so at the end of the process, she has mostly a finished product. “I make the doorknob first, then the door, and the room,” she said in describing her writing process. “Only much later do you step back and see the whole house.”

    She spoke about how, perhaps because she’s a writer, it’s sometimes difficult to find books that totally carry her away, the way books affected her as a child.  However, she raves about Israeli writer David Grossman and his book To the End of the Land. “It blew my mind,” she said. I’m eager to pick that one up and suggest it to my book club. (See the New Yorker article about Grossman.)

    I also enjoyed a PBS Newshour interview with Krauss last week.  Interviewer Jeffrey Brown ended the interview with, “Finally, sort of on that subject, I can’t help but notice the centrality of books and literature to many of the characters in this novel. A couple of them are writers, others are really great readers. We don’t seem to live in a time where that’s true for most people anymore.”

    Krauss responded, “It’s certainly true in my life. I think I am who I am because of the books that I read, and I think of myself still as first and foremost a reader and then following that a writer. But I’m aware that both in my last novel The History of Love, where there was a book that was a center that connected all the characters, and now here is this desk, which is at least one of the components that connects, that these are objects that are saturated with the possibilities of literature. I do feel like I’ve staked my life on this, which is this idea that literature affords us this absolutely unique possibility in no other moment in life. Really, I think again in no other art form can you step so directly, so vividly without any mediation into another’s inner life. You are stepping fully into this stream of what it is to be another person. And I think when you do that, you inevitably form a kind of compassion. It teaches a kind of empathy. So for me this is like a great value of literature. It’s also again for me, somebody who’s obviously — all my characters are often solitary, they’re struggling with that solitude, but they are not content with it. They would like to move beyond it, to transcend it to express themselves to others in a way that I think they all feel is possible. And it’s no accident that literature becomes a kind of singular way for many of them to do that.”

    Empathy, compassion, what it’s like to be another person… Makes you wish more people would pick up a book.

    See her conversation with Brown at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/blog/2010/10/conversation-nicole-krauss-great-house.html And look for a video and transcript of Krauss’s “Talking Volumes” interview to appear soon the MPR Web site.http://find.publicradio.org/search?site=mpr&proxystylesheet=mpr&client=mpr&output=xml_no_dtd&filter=p&numgm=5&q=talking+volumes&x=14&y=14

A Soothing Visit to Birchbark Books: Louise Erdrich Shared Her Book Suggestions–and I Took Them

Yesterday was a blustery day in Minnesota that would surprise even Winnie the Pooh.  I blew into the one of the best places in Minneapolis to be on a stormy day, Birchbark Books .  It’s a cozy independent shop with warm wood, a dog to greet you, and an unusual array of books that might not come to your attention in a big chain bookstore. The shop reflects the literary, environmental and Native American cultural interests of its owner, National Book Award-finalist, Louise Erdrich.

In contrast to the agitating wind outside, soothing Native American music played inside as I strolled through the books, Native American quillwork, basketry and jewelry.  Louise attaches hand-written notes to books she suggests which feels like she has left personal notes just for you. That sales technique certainly worked on me; I picked up a signed copy of Louise’s book The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, along with two books I would never have chosen, Risking Everything-110 Poems of Love and Revelation edited by Roger Housden, and just in time for Halloween, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, about a vampire and a journey through the capitals of Eastern Europe.

The store creates an atmosphere that I would have loved as a child, with a tiny loft and a “hobbit hole” to play in, the kind of place that might stir up a child’s imagination and make even a reluctant reader want to big up a book or have a story read to him. Another of my favorite features of the store:  a confessional that was formerly a sound booth in a bar as well as a confessional. As the shop’s Web site says, “One side is dedicated to Cleanliness, the other to Godliness. Louise is currently collaging the interior with images of her sins.  The confessional is now a forgiveness booth, there for the dispensation of random absolution.”

This would be an excellent spot for a book club outing, perhaps with lunch or dinner at the Kenwood Café next door and a chance to hang out and chat with the store’s booksellers. They also organize a BYOB Book and Dinner Club.

Those who can’t make it to Minneapolis should take a bit of inspiration—okay, steal the idea—and organize your own Book and Dinner event.  What a great way to share meaningful conversation and meet new friends.

Franzen and Fitzgerald in St. Paul

I just finished Jonathan Franzen’s book, “Freedom,” much of which is based in Minnesota, particularly, St. Paul. Anyone visiting St. Paul can walk through many of the areas that set the stage for the opening chapters of the book. That includes the restaurant W.A. Frost, which offers world-class outdoor dining, and it’s a place where my book club meets annually for dinner, conversation, and to soak up the ambiance in a neighborhood rich in literary tradition.

This is the neighborhood where Franzen’s characters, Walter and Patty, get their start, renovating a house on the fictional Barrier Street which is, in reality, St.Paul’s Ramsey Hill neighborhood. It’s also the place where F.Scott Fitzgerald grew up (Frost’s was a drug store then) and where he worked on his first novel, “This Side of Paradise,” along with classic short stories. Check out the St. Paul Public Library’s Fitzgerald “Homes and Haunts” itinerary http://www.stpaul..ib.mn.us/pdf/fitzgeraldbrochure.pdf

Fitzgerald is known as the chronicler of the Jazz Age. One wonders if Franzen, who, in “Freedom” chronicles the cultural flashpoints of the last three decades, will have the staying power of Fitzgerald.