Category Archives: Minnesota

Dreary Weather and Creativity

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Today’s weather make me feel like this.

I just returned from walking my dog, Duffy, and he’s a big wet ball of mud. It’s about 40 degrees and rainy outside, the worst possible weather for Minnesotans.  Most of us relish the cold and snow and spend a lot of time outside enjoying it while also feeling slightly superior to those who live the easy life in warmer climates.  Wimps.

When it’s really cold here, its also sunny, a very cheerful combination. We run out with show shoes or skis or simply gaze out on the sparkling snowbanks, hot cocoa in hand. By contrast today is capital D Dreary.  No amount of cocoa will make me feel better unless it’s some of “Mr. Smith’s special hot chocolate” that my spouse used to take along on kids camp outs. Add to the drippy weather the fact that we’re so far north it gets dark really early in winter, so by about 4:30 it will be dark and dreary… sounds like Edgar Allen Poe.

On the upside, I’ve always felt that people who are too happy have nothing to write about. Would  Poe have penned The Raven if he were feeling anything but morose?  Could Jon Krakauer have written Into Thin Air if his Mt. Everest trek hadn’t been a disaster?  One of my favorite writers, Tim Egan, concurs.  In a recent New York Times column, “The Longest Nights,” he says the bleak winter is prime time for writers and other creative people. “At the calendar’s gloaming,” he says, “while the landscape is inert, and all is dark, sluggish, bleak and cold, writers and cooks and artists and tinkerers of all sorts are at their most productive.”

He lives in Seattle and his article ponders the relationship between Seattle’s uber rainy weather and the number of writers in that city.  He says, “I’ve come to the conclusion that creativity needs a season of despair. Where would William Butler Yeats be if he nested in Tuscany? Could Charles Dickens ever have written a word from South Beach? And the sun of Hollywood did much to bleach the talents out of that troubled native of Minnesota, F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

So I welcome the bleak mid-winter.  What else is there to do but towel off the dog, roll up my sleeves, and write… and perhaps sip a steaming cup of “special” hot cocoa?

Preserving F. Scott Fitzgerald's Birthplace

My book club took a little F. Scott Fitzgerald tour in St. Paul a few weeks ago.  We walked around the neighborhood where he was born and grew up, taking in his various residents and hang-outs and staring as so many Fitzgerald pilgrims do at the house where he was born at 481 Laurel Avenue.  (See my previous post on the St. Paul Fitzgerald tour. We gathered just off the front porch and gazed up like a bunch of tourists and in a few minutes one of the people who live in the building, Richard McDermott, saw us and called us in for a little talk about the building, which was a real treat because he was instrumental in preserving the building. I was sad to see in the Minneapolis Star Tribune an article about him and the fact that he has terminal cancer.  He has done much to preserve Fitzgerald’s heritage in St. Paul and had regaled visitors from around the world, including Azar Nafisi, with stories about the building. Here’s an article about the charming Mr. McDermott

Literary Death Match: A Cerebral Slugfest

I’m heading over to the Literary Death Match (LDM) tonight, which sounds like some sort of mixed martial arts combat. But, there will be no Junior dos Santos, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva or other UFC luminaries at tonight’s competition at the Nomad World Pub in Minneapolis. (I’m hoping to see some beefcake, but keeping my expectations low.) Despite its violent-sounding name, LDM is a comedic/literary competition that has made its way around the globe and regularly stops in the Twin Cities. These are great events for book clubs to attend together. Four authors read something they’ve written and three literarily (is that a word?)-inclined judges offer their comments on each reading, with an emphasis on humor rather than violence, though there is sometimes beer-fueled mayhem as the audience votes on the winner. Everyone goes home happy—no bruises, even to their egos.

Tonight’s readers include L.A. Times-award-winning young-adult novelist Pete Hautman (The Big Crunch and The Obsidian Blade), Minnesota Public Radio Electric Arc Radio‘s Stephanie Wilbur Ash, poet and author Juliet Patterson (author of Truant Lover) and poet-musician Jeffrey Skemp (author of Spent). The judges: Jamaican native Marlon James (author of The Book Of Night Women and John Crow’s Devil), cartoonist and host of the Lutefisk Sushi podcast Danno Klonowski, and former journalist turned sci-fiction writer Dennis Cass.

LDM creator and host Todd Zuniga works as hard as any fight promoter to put these shows together and hopes eventually to bring LDM to television.  He says, “Literary Death Match started because there was a real need to evolve literary events beyond a bar reading where Reader 1 would read for 12 minutes beyond the time limit, Reader 2 would read a slice-of-life blog entry they wrote earlier that day and Reader 3 would blow everyone’s mind. We wanted an event where everyone was Reader 3. So, we went around and asked literary entities and asked them to send us someone to represent them. Secondly, we wanted to seamlessly integrate comedy into a literary night, and that’s where the judges come in — regardless if the story was about a bad day at work, or surviving cancer.”

Todd shares my passion for making reading a way to create community and sees a trend toward people seeking entertainment and social connection through activities that exercise a bit of brainpower like LDM, a cerebral form of extreme cage fighting. He says, “LDM is a highly intellectual event, but we’re also zany and love bolts of silliness. I’m my mother’s son, so I want everyone in the room to feel good after it’s done. And what’s better than having a real conversation with someone fantastic? Our goal is to get people to read, and to keep helping people to understand that books aren’t always a solitary, lonely affair. We want to fill the room with the smartest, kindest, most fascinating people we can find. So, after the event they can talk about Etgar Keret’s Suddenly a Knock at the Door before they talk about the latest episode of Mad Men or Breaking Bad.”

Um, I have to figure out who Etgar Keret is before I can join that conversation, but I am looking forward to watching a few rounds of literary pugilism. Kudos to The Loft Literary Center for sponsoring this event.

Murder and Mayhem: Investigating Crime Fiction

I hardly ever read crime novels. When I have, the experience has usually been a disappointment. The books were “low-brow,” with weak characters, predictable plots and lame dialog. However, this genre is so popular I’ve always figured that I must somehow be missing the good stuff. It was a mystery to me.

Another fact that has piqued my curiosity about crime novels is that the Twin Cities area, where I live, has more crime writers per capita than just about anywhere. A few years ago, an article in The Economist of all places, speculated, “Why do the Twin Cities create so much literary gore?” The answer was three-fold. There are a lot of advertising agencies here, which have spun out several successful crime writers (not sure about that connection aside from a very abbreviated, direct writing style). Also, several former reporters for the two major newspapers here have moved from journalism to fiction, true crime to the imaginary version. Finally, some attribute it to the weather. One writer, Brian Freeman, who has published a crime novel set in Duluth, in northern Minnesota, explained to The Economist, “What is there to do during those long winter months beside sit inside and think dark thoughts of murder and mayhem?”

I decided to conduct my own investigation into the virtues of crime fiction and go to the source, Once Upon a Crime, the bookstore in Minneapolis. Tucked into the lower level of a building on 26th Street, just east of Lyndale Avenue, Once Upon a Crime is truly a hidden gem, though not a secret to crime fiction lovers.  Pat Frovarp owns the shop with her husband, Gary, and a dog appropriately named Shamus,  She doesn’t just know about the writers, she knows a huge number of the writers personally. This year the store won The Raven Award, the top honor for non-authors given at the annual Edgar Awards, sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America.

She gave me a quick tutorial on the genre and revealed a world far more intriguing than those crime or thriller books one sees on the racks in grocery stores and airports. The store handles fiction only, no true crime. Under this umbrella one can find countless sub-genres, something for every taste—“hard-boiled” and violent to “soft-boiled” Agatha Christie-type works which Pat calls “cozies.”  Pick just about any part of the world or any period in history, there’s crime fiction that takes place there. Best of all, for someone like me, there are works that weave in history and that I (yes, snobbishly) would call “literary.”  I had trouble narrowing it down, but I left the store with The Canterbury Papers, a novel by Minneapolis writer Judith Koll Healey that takes place in the Middle Ages and Big Wheat, a mystery story set in the Dakotas in 1919, by St. Paul author Richard A. Thompson.

I can’t wait to settle in for a long read on a dark and stormy (and cold) night.  I also anticipate going back to visit Pat for a discussion of books, crime and dogs.

Ely, Minnesota, for the Wild or the Wimpy

Serenity on Farm Lake near Ely, Minnesota. A portion of this lake is in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Ely, Minnesota (five hours north of Minneapolis), is home to the hardest of hardcore outdoorspeople—polar explorers Will Steger, Paul Schurke and Anne Bancroft, to name a few.  From Ely, you can launch a dogsledding trip in winter or a multi-week canoe trip through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in summer. Budget Travel magazine named Ely “The Coolest Small Town in America” last year. They said, “It says a lot about a town when there are more wildlife centers (two) than Wal-Marts (zero), and more canoe and fishing outfitters (27) than, well, anything else. In Ely, you’re never more than a step away from the wilderness.”  But what if you’re made of less hardy stuff or you’re traveling with people for whom “wilderness” means that the mall is a 15-minute drive?

Ely offers plenty of opportunities for activity and a healthy dose of nature, even for outdoor novices or those who may not be physically able tackle portaging canoes or rugged hikes. On a trip last weekend, we hit the Harvest Moon Festival, complete with

an early "voyageur"

crafty artisans; historic reenactors of the early settlers and trappers of the area, the voyageurs; and a lumberjack show—a little hokey, but entertaining.

My favorite comment came from one of the “voyageurs” who was cooking up some sort of stew in a giant cast iron post.  I asked what he was

Cooking "Camp Wander" If it wanders into camp, we cook it.

cooking and he said, “Camp Wander. If it wanders into camp, we cook it.”

Ely is home to the International Wolf Center, the North American Bear Center, and some tasty restaurants such as the Chocolate Moose.  You can buy great sweaters and of course mukluks at Steger Mukluk.  For book lovers, there’s a nice bookstore upstairs at Piragis Northwoods Company.

One of my favorite stops in town is the Brandenburg Gallery, where you can see and buy

a Jim Brandenburg poster

photos from acclaimed outdoor photographer and Ely resident, Jim Brandenburg.  His photography captures the spirit and the unusual beauty of the wilderness.  Check out his web site to see his stunning photos and a video, and click on this Minnesota Department of Natural Resources link for a video that features his fall photos.

On our recent trip, in lieu of a tent, we opted for a cozy cabin at Timber Trail Lodge where you can canoe, fish, or simply ponder the lake and its solitude from the dock. Famed environmentalist, author and Ely resident Sigurd Olson said

Wilderness is a spiritual necessity. An antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium. I have found that people go to the wilderness for many things, but the most important of these is perspective. They may think they go for the fishing or the scenery or companionship, but in reality it is something far deeper. They go to the wilderness for the good of their souls.

Olson was instrumental in the preservation of millions of acres of wilderness in Alaska and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota. He helped establish Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and Point Reyes National Seashore in California and helped draft the Wilderness Act of 1964. Looking for a little wilderness inspiration?  Read his books The Singing WildernessListening Point, The Lonely Land and others.

Finally, talk about “budget travel”–in Ely and the surrounding wilderness, the most amazing sights are free. Lay on your back on the dock at night and you’ll see  a show of stars that you can’t see amid the lights of a city.   And, if you’re lucky, you may see an even more spectacular show—the Northern Lights. We saw another amazing, though dismaying, display of

Pagami Creek Fire

nature, the huge Pagami Creek wildfire in the Boundary Waters, which is now so big that the smoke is visible as far away as Chicago. Started by lightning two weeks ago, it has burned through over 100,000 acres. Hopefully, the frost and sleet in the next few days will slow its spread.

For more northern Minnesota-inspired reading look for:

Tim O’Brien- In the Lake of the Woods 

Will Weaver – Red Earth, White Earth, The Last Hunter: an American Family Album, and of the short story “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” which was made into the movie Sweet Land.

Catherine Holm- My Heart is a Mountain: Tales of Magic and the Land

William Kent Krueger– Vermillion Drift

Minnesota and the National Book Festival

I’ve written several times in this blog about Birchbark Books, a great indie bookstore in Minneapolis—author Louise Erdrich, proprietor.  Erdrich and her sister, Heid Erdrich, also founded Wiigwaas Press (part of the non-profit Birchbark House) in order to promote indigenous language revitalization through publications and programs. A book for young readers from Wiigwaas Press, Awesiinyensag: Dibaajimowinan Ji-gikinoo’amaageng, written totally in Ojibwe, has been named Minnesota’s Best Read for 2011 by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. It is Minnesota’s official selection to represent all of the publications in the state this year at the National Book Festival, Sept. 24-25, in Washington, D.C.

One of the book’s co-editors, Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe language and culture at Bemidji State University in Minnesota, says, “I just love it that anyone who wants to read the best book in Minnesota this year has to read it in Ojibwe.”  That may be difficult for most of us.  Though we use many Ojibwe words such as moose and Mississippi, the language itself is at risk of disappearing.  Treuer explains his interest in preserving the language in this video. Or, you can read his highly-praised books about the Ojibwe (in English), The Assassination of Hole in the Day, and the Ojibwe in Minnesota.

No e-Books Here, Only Rare Books

Rare books are like works of art. Browsers at the Twin Cities Antiquarian Book Fair.

No matter how much you love your e-reader, the books it contains will never look beautiful on your shelves and those electronic books will never appreciate in value.  You’ll never feel the weight or the texture of digital books, the care that went into binding them or wonder who held those books before you.

Those facts were particularly striking last weekend as I strolled the stalls of the 21st annual Twin Cities Antiquarian and Rare Book Fair at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.  The shelves were full of lovely leather-bound, gold embossed rare books as well as first editions from the likes of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Ray Bradbury and scads of others.  Picking them up was like holding a piece of literary history. I kept waiting for someone to slap my hands and say, “You touch it, you buy it,” but no one did.  One of the marquee items for sale was a first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, which probably sold for a buck or two in the 1920s, but was listed on Saturday for $35,000.

I have rare-book taste but a garage-sale-paperback budget, so Tender is the Night wasn’t among my purchases. Nonetheless, there were more affordable options including books for as little as $5.  But the real fun for me was to be among people who are even more book-obsessed than I am.  These are not the same people you would find at, say, the Pet-a-Palooza that was going on in the building next door. (That looked like a lot of fun, too.) It was a crowd that might be described as “professorial.” I ran into a friend who said he was sure he was the only guy there without a beard.

Though they deal in valuable volumes, the booksellers at these events are a friendly bunch and happy to discuss the business (which is doing pretty well) and share their tips on collecting books and spotting first editions.  Original dust jackets are a must, signed by the author.  I lingered and lurked around the desk where dealers where appraising books that people brought in; it was like watching “Antiques Roadshow,” only for books. Who knew a book fair could have such drama? One woman hauled in a pile of books that looked like they had been in her attic since the 30’s and she was more than a little distressed to find they were worth about $5 max (the agony of defeat!).  Another gentleman who brought his books in a briefcase as if he were delivering ransom money walked away a happy man with the knowledge that several of his tomes were worth a few hundred dollars (the thrill of victory!)—with dust jackets and signatures, of course.

As e-readers continue to grow in popularity, rare books will only become rarer, but I’m hoping they won’t become nearly worthless like old PCs or film cameras, but rather more like valuable Chippendale furniture. For more on the world of antique and collectible books, check out the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers. And, if you’re looking for a book fair to attend, the The Midwest Antiquarian Booksellers holds their big Chicago show in August.

An F. Scott Fitzgerald Walk in St. Paul

I took a walk last week through the Summit Hill neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota,

F. Scott Fitzgerald's debut novel This Side of Paradise

where F. Scott Fitzgerald was born, grew up, wrote his first stories and made the revisions on his debut novel, This Side of Paradise. (If its original not-so-catchy title The Romantic Egoist is any indicator, I can see why they suggested revisions)

Even if you’re not a big Fitzgerald fan, even if you don’t know Amory Blaine from Jay Gatsby, this is a great neighborhood for a stroll, especially in summer. With its gorgeous Victorian homes, overarching elm trees and fun shops nearby it’s—if not this side of paradise—really, really nice.

The St. Paul Public Library (which has a special Fitzgerald reading alcove) offers a brochure called “F. Scott Fitzgerald in St. Paul—Homes and Haunts” that you can download. Start the tour at 481 Laurel Ave., where Fitzgerald was born. Park there and start the walk. The house where his parents later lived (593/599 Summit) and where he finished This Side of Paradisehe described as “A house below the average on a street above the average.”

Fitzgerald's neighborhood is still above average and has many beautifully restored Victorian homes.

Published in 1920, this work launched his career as spokesman for the Jazz Age. He chronicles the changing mores of the generation of wild children of Victorian parents, who Gertrude Stein later dubbed the “Lost Generation.”  Fitzgerald presciently wrote in the most famous passage of the novel, “Here was a new generation, . . . dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success, grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald's St. Paul birthplace

Be sure to make a stop at W.A. Frost (374 Selby), which has the world’s best outdoor dining, part of your tour.  Frost’s was a drug store and soda fountain during Fitzgerald’s day and retains its historic charm.  Finally, end your tour across the street from W.A. Frost at Common Good Books (downstairs at 165 Western Avenue North), whose proprietor is another St. Paul author and host of “A Prairie Home Companion,” Garrison Keillor. It’s a gem of a bookstore.  To read more of Fitzgerald’s St. Paul works, look for The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by another St. Paul author, Patricia Hampl.  Read “The Ice Palace,” “Winter Dreams,” and “A Night at the Fair.”

The real Wilder Life versus my imaginary Wilder Life. I’ll take the latter.

I’ve been reading Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life in which she recounts her love of Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s  Little House on the Prairie books and her effort to re-create “Laura World” for herself. So, it was a fun coincidence to read a post on the Algonquin Books blog about An American Childhood by Annie Dillard.  Dillard says of her childhood:

What I sought in books was imagination. It was depth, depth of thought and feeling; some sort of extreme of subject matter; some nearness to death; some call to courage. I myself was getting wild; I wanted wildness, originality, genius, rapture, hope. I wanted strength, not tea parties. What I sought in books was a world whose surfaces, whose people and events and days lived, actually matched the exaltation of the interior life. There you could live.

That describes the qualities that have sent generations of young readers flocking to the Little Housebooks, and surely what sent McClure on her journey into “Laura World.”  What fan of “Half-Pint Ingalls” (who thanks to McClure now has her own Twitter account

Laura "Half Pint" Ingalls has her own Twitter account @halfpintingalls.

@halfpintingalls) hasn’t secretly wanted to venture just a little into Laura World? It was a relief to find someone so quirkily devoted to books and McClure’s descriptions of her attempts at some of the Little House activities—churning butter, for example, or making Vanity Cakes—are hilarious. I particularly enjoyed the chapter where she and her ever-patient significant other, Chris, spend a bit of time on a farm learning do-it-yourself skills that might have been of use in Laura World but it turns out they’ve joined a gathering of fundamentalists preparing for “end times.”  

I’m a huge advocate of  reading books to get a better understanding of places one is traveling.  And, a “field trip” to the place where a book took place extends the experience of reading the book. For example, what does fiction such as the Little House books tell us about life in the late 18th century and how does that experience affect us now?  How well would I measure up to the challenges of pioneer life?  How does the Long Winter of Wilder’s experience compare to the long winter I just experienced? I can tell you one thing:  it makes me happy to have central heat and store-bought sticks of butter in the frig.  I’m happy I don’t have to butcher a hog and make head cheese, though I’ve always had a kind of gross fascination with the way the Little House younguns blew up pig bladders and used them as balls.

But McClure also delves into the research about Laura Ingalls Wilder and the dynamics of Laura’s relationship with her daughter, Rose.  She discovers just how far the Little House books deviate from the life of the real Wilders and, (Holy Hoedown!) the suspicion that Rose had more of a hand in writing the books than Laura.

It makes me wonder if there’s a danger in learning too much. It just might diminish the magic of reading in the first place.  The real Laura World doesn’t hold a hand-dipped tallow candle to the world Laura created in our imaginations. I’m going to meet up later this summer with a group of Wilder fans from the Book Vault (see my previous post) in Oskaloosa, Iowa as they hit the Little House hot spots near Minneapolis where I live.  I’ll dip my toes in the water On the Banks of Plum Creek, but my view of Laura World will remain the one in  my own imagination.

Bikes and Books Tour of Minneapolis

The Twin Cities are regularly rated among the most literary cities in the country
(check out Flavorwire‘s pairing of top cities and books set in them) and Minneapolis has been voted the best biking city in America for the last two years.  So it makes sense to put the two together for a two-wheel tour of some of Minneapolis’ outstanding independent bookstores as well as its famous Chain of Lakes.  FYI, for anyone not familiar with this area of Minneapolis, we’re talking flat, paved bikes-only paths, great for kids and anyone who may not be Tour-de-France-fit.

Start out in the city’s Uptown neighborhood, home of some of Minneapolis’ most fun bars and restaurants, as proven by the continual discussion of noise regulations for the area at city council meetings.  It’s also the home of Magers and Quinn on Hennepin Avenue, the city’s largest independent bookseller which bills itself as “A bounty of the world’s best books assembled by biblioholic booksellers.”  This is a place that will make even the most dedicated e-book reader stow the tech and stock up on print.  It has that cozy independent bookstore feel and stacks you could wander for hours. They have everything, new, used (deals!), beautiful antique volumes and first editions…so bring your backpack.  And, if they don’t have a book you’re looking for, they’ll track it down and order it for you.  It’s also a good idea to get on their mailing list for author appearances and reading ideas.

If you haven’t come equipped, trot around the corner to Calhoun Bike Rentals on Lake Street and rent a bike for the rest of your journey.   They also offer bike tours of some of the most interesting areas of Minneapolis.

The Tin Fish restaurant in the Lake Calhoun Boat Pavillion makes a great place to stoke up for lunch. Then start pedaling.  The Chain of Lakes is part of the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway.  Head south along the east side of Lake Calhoun and on down to Lake Harriet.

A short side trip from Lake Harriett is Wild Rumpus Books a fantastic children’s bookstore that features, in addition to books, live animals and a tiny front door for children to enter through.

Head back to Lake Harriet and north again to Lake Calhoun, Lake of the Isles and on to Birchbark Books and Native Arts in the lovely, leafy Kenwood neighborhood.  It’s one of my favorite bookstores (see my previous post) with a special emphasis on Native American literature.  The staff and owner, novelist Louise Erdrich, carefully choose the books here and handwritten notes offer insight into books for browsers.  Books aside, any store with a confessional and dogs on the premises is good for the soul. You’ll need a little nosh to sustain you as you retrace your path back to Uptown.  Stop next door at the Kenwood Café.

Many bibliophiles make a point of hitting independent bookstores such as these whenever they travel.  To that end, IndieBound has an Indie Store finder that helps readers find indie booksellers just about anywhere.  For more on bookstore tourism, take a look at GalleyCat and Bookstore Tourism.