If you’ve spent any time reading this blog, you know my goal is to encourage people to READ and GO. Literary travel means reading a great book and going where it takes place or to the type of place the book is set, which can be right in your own town. Literary travel allows you to experience both the book and the place in a more intimate way. And, it’s a great way to expose children to the pleasures of reading, giving them more ways to relate to books and their subjects.
Take, for example, the topic of Earth Day. What better way to help kids understand the
concept of caring for the environment than by reading a super-engaging book on the topic and then venturing out on a lit trip to a local park, garden, or community Earth Day event? Listen up grandparents, aunts and uncles and others who seek interesting ways to interact with the children in your life. You should put Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder on your list.
For a few great book suggestions, I stopped by one of the country’s all-time best children’s bookstores, Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis. I have to admit that since my children are grown, I look for just about any excuse to wander into this store, which is full of fun booksellers, live animals, special events, and cozy reading spots, not to mention books, books, books. It’s pretty entertaining just watching children and their families interact with everything in the store. Don’t have kids? Wild Rumpus has a great selection of YA and adult books, and you can still enjoy the animals.
Here are a few of their Earth Day reading suggestions:
The Curious Garden by Peter Brown
Miss Maples’ Seeds by Eliza Wheeler
Celebritrees— Historic and Famous Trees of the World by Margi Preus
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.”
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?
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
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.
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.
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 (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
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 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
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 Wilderness, Listening 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
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
Travel to the places you read about. Read about the places you travel.