Category Archives: Minnesota

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.

Art Museum Book Clubs

There’s been much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands about the decline of reading, diminishing book sales, and the “death of print,” but there’s no doubt that books clubs are thriving. It’s hard to know precisely how many book clubs there are because they are often informal groups. However, according to Publishers Weekly there are an estimated seven million such groups in the U.S. and that number is rising.

Art museums across the country are offering book clubs that combine literature with tours through their galleries. Blue Arabesque by Patricia Hampl is on the reading list at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Some organizations, art museums in particular, recognize the power of book clubs and the potential of readers in general as a huge target for their marketing efforts. From the Delaware Art Museum to the Art Institute of Chicago (I love the name of their group, “Reading Between the Lions”) to the Santa Monica Museum of Art, museums are conducting book-based tours and book clubs that capitalize on the notion that reading can make other aspects of life come alive.  Debbi Hegstrom, associate educator for the docent program at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) says, “There are unlimited connections between art and literature. This is another way to promote the vision of the MIA, ‘Inspiring wonder through the power of art,’ to a specific but potentially very large audience. With the current popularity of book clubs, it seems like a logical way to tap into the existing interest and bring more people to the museum.”

Formats vary.  Some art museum reading groups revolve around special exhibits or a featured work; others focus on art-related reading in general, be it fiction or non-fiction. Some require museum membership; others, such as the MIA, are open to anyone. All provide great reading ideas and opportunities for book club field trips. At the MIA, museum tour guides have been presenting book-related tours for four years, as requested by organized book clubs, but a newer program, which is open to anyone on a drop-in basis, has been running for three months. Men, women, young adults to seniors participate.  Says Hegstrom, “The titles usually have something art-related but not necessarily. Guides can use artworks in the museum to explore themes presented in a book. Our goal is to include one fiction and one non-fiction title each quarter, with at least one of the books relating specifically to art or artists.” This summer they’re tackling The Savage Garden by Mark Mills, and Blue Arabesque by Patricia Hampl, a fantastic Minnesota writer.

What’s the common thread between books and art? Hegstrom says, “Literature and the visual arts are both creative expressions of the human spirit. To experience both media based on related topics and to share the experience with others brings depth to both. Books become the reason to get into the galleries and talk about a shared experience—in this case, the literature. I think it’s a way to reach some people who might not otherwise visit, but also to strengthen existing relationships. On tours, we are very interested in how people make personal connections to works of art. This is another avenue to help people build those connections.”

So, if you’re a local or a book lover on vacation, you’ll feel welcome at the MIA’s book tours which take place on first Tuesdays of every month at 11:30 a.m. and first Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. Also, for a list of what museums are reading and more information on the connection between art and literature, check out the Hol Art Books site.

Says Hegstrom, “We hope to expand titles, age groups, and partnerships in the coming year. Sometimes the subject matter and discussions can be serious, but in the end what we love to hear is, ‘Wow, that was really fun.’ “

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.