Category Archives: Minnesota

Great Books for Children on Earth Day

An illustration fron Peter Brown's beautiful children's book "The Curious Garden."
An illustration fron Peter Brown’s beautiful children’s book “The Curious Garden.”

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

Wild Rumpus Book Store in Minneapolis
Wild Rumpus Book Store in Minneapolis
Exiting Wild Rumpus through the child-size purple door.
Exiting Wild Rumpus through the child-size purple door.

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

Unknown-10Miss Maples’ Seeds by Eliza Wheeler

Unknown-3Celebritrees— Historic and Famous Trees of the World by Margi Preus

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Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney

 

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Jane Austen Mania in Minneapolis

Two hundred years after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s work is

Colin Firth's portrayal of Mr. Darcy in the BBC miniseries, Pride and Prejudice, launched many fans interest in the works of Jane Austen.
Colin Firth’s portrayal of Mr. Darcy in the BBC miniseries, Pride and Prejudice, launched many fans’ interest in the works of Jane Austen.

more popular than ever.  Evidence of that will be on full display this weekend, as Jane Austen fans converge on Minneapolis for the annual meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America. You don’t have to be a “Janeite” yourself to be impressed with the excitement that this event inspires in true Austen fans.  For example, when I was at an event in Indiana to promote Off The Beaten Page, a woman who asked me if I planned to attend the JASNA (pronounced like jazzna) meeting in September. The event was news to me so she enthusiastically told me about these annual gatherings which include presentations by world-renowned Austen scholars, breakout discussions about various characters, and the customs of the time.  There are sessions on card games, high tea etiquette, and on the dances of the Regency period. This year University of Wisconsin professor Emily Auerbach will speak on “Pride, Prejudice & Proliferation in Prequels, Sequels, Spin-Offs, Mash-Ups, and other Adaptations and Permutations of Pride and Prejudice.” Capping it all off: the Netherfield Ball, Regency dress not required.

Jane came to Minneapolis earlier this summer when the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis staged a version of Pride and Prejudice with Vincent Kartheiser, a Minnesota guy who is better known as the weasel-y Pete Campbell on Mad Men, playing Darcy. (My review: The real Mr. Darcy, Colin Firth, would make mincemeat of out of this wimpy Darcy impostor without mussing his frock coat.)

Lest you think, Janeites are a strictly upper Midwest phenomenon, I must call to your attention other instances of the enduring and obsessive love of Austen worldwide. For example, U.S. singer Kelly Clarkson, caused a huge dustup in England this year when she bought Jane Austen’s ring.  An Austen fan who owns a first edition of Persuasion, Clarkson was stymied when the British government placed an export ban on the gold and turquoise ring, judging it to be a national treasure.  Jane Austen’s House Museum subsequently purchased the ring.

In August, Sony Pictures released Austenland, with Keri Russell who plays a Janeophile on a pilgrimage to find her very own Mr. Darcy at an Austen-themed fantasy resort. Countless other movies and take-offs on all things Austen abound, including Web sites such as The Republic of Pemberly and Bitch In a Bonnet.  Then there are the books including a parody novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and a couple of more serious non-fiction books that hit the market this year, Jane Austen’s England by Roy and Lesley Adkins, and Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom.

The reasons for Austen’s continuing popularity are as varied as the fans themselves.  They read Austen for escape, to find the romance missing in real life, for her great characters, humor, and her analysis of wealth and social class, to name a few. Still, there are those who cannot possibly understand the Austen obsession. For example, Jane is taking her place on the British ten pound note, much to the dismay of literary critic Frances Wilson at London’s Daily Mail.

Jane Austen, with her "great gloopy eyes," is more popular than ever.
Jane Austen, with her “great gloopy eyes,” is more popular than ever.

In his article, “So dull. So over-rated. Jane Austen doesn’t deserve to be on the £10 note,” he says, “Now every time we open our wallets and catch a glimpse of her great gloopy eyes, we can be assured that we are thinking about the same thing she is: money.” He says, “Cash for Jane Austen’s heroines is like calorie-counting for Bridget Jones.”  And, the notes carry an odd inscription for a piece of currency. Says Wilson, “Beneath Austen’s mob cap and buoyant curls festooned on the new note there is a line from Pride And Prejudice: ‘I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!’”

 

For San Francisco Travel, Armistead Maupin’s “Tales” Are Still Relevant

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The first volume of Armistead Maupin’s many tales of San Francisco

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.”

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.