Beach Reading in Florida

I just spent a few days in the charming St. Augustine, Florida, area.  Packed with history, fun restaurants, and beautiful beaches—St. Augustine Beach and Crescent Beach—the area offers fun for just about everyone.  I sipped a beer and  my 80-plus-year-old mother downed a pina colada on the porch of a bar called Scarlett O’Hara’s where we ran into a fun group of women visiting St. Augustine from St. Louis.  They recommend the city for a great girls’ weekend, though it looked like their trip was shaping up to be a bit rowdier than our mother-daughter jaunt. Stayed at the Hampton Inn–right on the beach. Very nice staff.

But, since my view is always through a literary lens, I have to offer a few thoughts for Florida-related beach reading and maybe some heavier reading when you’re not on the beach.  Here’s a screamingly mixed bag of  Florida writing that provides an interesting cultural perspective, especially for Yankees like me….

For some St. Augustine-related fiction, try Eugenia Price’s “Florida Trilogy” of  Maria, Don Juan McQueen, and Margaret’s Story.  Good old fashioned romance.  Zora Neale Hurston, was born in Florida. Check out her biography: Dust Tracks on a Road and the classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Then there’s the always entertaining satirical writer, Carl Hiassen, the “blazing conscience of the Sunshine State.”  According to his Web site, “Tourist Season, published in 1986, was Hiaasen’s first solo novel. GQ magazine called it ‘one of the 10 best destination reads of all time,’ although it failed to frighten a single tourist away from Florida, as Hiaasen had hoped it might.” He’s written many books since and has continued to attract a loyal following of readers though he’s apparently still trying to keep the tourists away, as in Team Rodent, a rant a against the Disney empire.

Finally, I highly recommend Diane Roberts who is a professor of English at Florida State University in Tallahassee and one of my favorite essayists on National Public Radio.  To hear one of her recent commentaries go to http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130302999

I picked up a copy of  Roberts’ book Dream State in which she writes about Florida, “the land of orange groves, theme parks and mobile homes with a torrential outpouring of love and hate, affection and disgust. Weaving her own family history into that of the state—she’s related somehow or other to many of Florida’s pioneering families—she chronicles the greed, political corruption and deceit that turned the swamps of the Sunshine State into a haven for retirees, wealthy or otherwise.”  She has also written, The Myth of Aunt Jemima, and Faulkner and Southern Womanhood.

Beverly Hills Literary Escape

I’ve been reading with great jealousy about the first annual “Beverly Hills Literary Escape” which takes place October 22-24.  Since I’m just returning from a trip then, I can’t make it to Beverly Hills, but the lineup sounds fantastic and hopefully there will be a second annual event. Their web site has already inspired me to place an order for David Ulin’s The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Are Important in a Distracted Time.

Organizers bill the event as “an exciting weekend of unique events designed for the discerning reader. An intersection of literary culture and entertainment, BHLE brings together food, wine and books. Offering insider access to the country’s most sought after authors through novel experiences set amidst the luxury of Beverly Hills.”  Check out the activities and the list of authors who will be on tap.

http://bhliteraryescape.com

My book club has read several books by authors who will be at this event.  Some favorites include Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us and Gail Tsukiyama’s novels Women of the Silk and The Samurai’s Garden.

I chuckled when I read that a portion of proceeds from event tickets and book sales will benefit the Beverly Hills Public Library.  I haven’t spent a lot of time there, but from what I’ve seen of Beverly Hills, their library is probably in pretty good shape already. Nonetheless, the event’s organizers, Julie Robinson and Tyson Cornell, are hitting what is for me the sweet spot where literature connects with community—when readers go “beyond the book” so share ideas and meaningful conversation with authors and fellow readers, face to face.

For those of us who won’t be mingling in the luxury of Beverly Hills, the event is a good one to inspire our own local literary “salons” on a smaller scale.

Breathless in Boulder, Colorado

Boulder rocks, as they say, especially if you’re outdoorsy, a foodie, or a ghost aficionado. Within easy reach of downtown Boulder there’s a great variety of outdoor activity, though at 5430 feet, a brisk walk taxes the lungs of flatlanders like me. Slow and steady, plus a lot of water, does the trick. You also have to pace yourself with eating to stretch out the enjoyment.

Hit the Trail
Try the hikes that start at Chautauqua Park, at the base of the Flatirons, the symbol of Boulder. This is also rock climbers’ heaven.

While you’re there, visit the Colorado Chautauqua House, a historic landmark that began with the turn-of-the-century movement educate and enlighten working-class citizens by creating gathering places dedicated to learning. Known as Chautauquas, the public spaces offered a place for traveling lecturers, politicians, writers and entertainers to deliver their message to large crowds. In continuous operation since July 4, 1898, the Colorado Chautauqua is one of only three remaining Chautauquas in the country. Today, it is home to concerts, cultural events, educational programs, recreation and historic preservation. The cabins here look like a cozy place to stay and the dining hall comes highly recommended.

You can hit the trail on wheels, too. Rent bikes and hit the Boulder Creek Trail, which for me was slow ride up and a very fast ride down. It’s also fun to cruise the beautiful campus of University of Colorado, and then stop for a beer outside at a huge array of downtown bars and eateries. For further relief from all this exertion—and to sooth knotty muscles–an afternoon at the spa at the luxurious St. Julien Hotel is just the tonic. The hotel offers Sunday morning yoga, too.

Foodie Fare
Bon Appetit named Boulder the “foodiest town in American” in its October, 2010 issue.
To sample some of the reasons why Boulder topped the list, stroll the Farmers Market then grab coffee, tea, breakfast or lunch at the fabulously detailed Boulder Dushanbe Tea House, a gift of Boulder’s sister city Dushanbe in the Republic of Tajikistan.
From 1987 -1990, more than 40 artisans created the decorative elements of the Teahouse, including its hand-carved and hand-painted ceiling, tables, stools, columns, and exterior ceramic panels. My other favorite dining experiences: Salt and The Kitchen, both located on Pearl Street.

Bookish in Boulder
Pearl Street is also home to a number of independent bookstores, with both new and used books. I like the Boulder Book Store with its café next door. While you’re there, check out Boulder: A Sense of Time & Place Revisited by Silvia Pettem.

Finally, if all this doesn’t make you breathless, perhaps a good fright will to the trick. Fans of Stephen King’s book, The Shining, will want to make a trip to Estes Park (a drive of about 45 minutes) for a look at the Stanley Hotel, King’s inspiration for the book. They offer The Stanley Hotel Historic Ghost Tour. For anyone planning to stay in this lovely hotel, they assure visitors that the spirits there aren’t as malevolent as those in the novel.

"Little Bee" and the National Reading Group Month Book List

October is National Reading Group Month, which in my opinion should really be a year-round celebration. The National Women’s Book Association sponsors events and activities during the month. Part of the mission for NRGM is to increase public awareness of the joy and value of shared reading. Each year they prepare a list of featured books that are excellent suggestions for book groups. See
http://www.nationalreadinggroupmonth.org/ggr_selections.html

One of my book clubs is currently reading a book from that list, “Little Bee,” by Chris Cleve. Thinking in terms of relationship between literature and travel, this book inspires the armchair variety of travel.   The story revolves around a British couple and a Nigerian girl and their brutal experience on a lonely beach in Nigeria.  Not to give too much away but the novel was published in Britain with the title “The Other Hand.” While I love adventure travel, some destinations are best visited through the pages of a book.

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.

Splitting the Tab Made Easier

One of the most annoying and embarrassing features of traveling with a group is paying up at a restaurant.  Separate checks?  Did everyone ante up the right amount?  She has two drinks and I had none…. (Okay, I admit, it’s often women who do this.)

It’s not just dining out.  The problem of booking and paying for things as a group—things like theater tickets, tours, or group lessons is usually a headache, no matter how organized the group.  One interesting alternative to this hassle is a new service called WePay.com The online service lets groups settle expenses without the hassle and without toting around large amounts of cash. It allows people to set up shared online banking accounts and simplify the process of collecting and spending, group money.

Here’s how it works:  You open an account, add everyone who will pay in, and set the amount due.  When all have paid in, We Pay allows one person, the group administrator, to spend the money via a prepaid debit card, electronic transfer or a request that WePay send out a paper check. Group members can see who paid or not and make comments on the account site and shame nonpayers into paying, which, depending on your sense of humor, could be a lot of fun.

Of course, WePay makes money from your transactions. It collects fees from money deposited into the accounts: 50 cents per deposit when the account only accepts collections from bank accounts and 3.5 percent of the deposits when the account accepts collections from both bank accounts and credit cards.  Still, paying the tab in such a hassle-free fashion might be worth it.   www.wepay.com

A Literary Taste of Chicago

 

Chicago History Museum

 

I was in Chicago last weekend for a writers conference and ventured out into the sweltering heat for a trip to the Chicago History Museum www.chicagohistory.org/

For anyone who has read just about any story that takes place there (Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and on and on), this museum reinforces that reading experience with relics, tours, special exhibits and more—everything from the Great Fire to meatpacking, the World’s Fair to a great collection of historic wedding dresses. My favorite quote on the wall there is from Mayor Richard Daly in 1968:  “This is Chicago, this is America.”

Also, this is the city of the first skyscraper, and buildings so high that, in the words of Carl Sandburg, “They had to put hinges on the top two stories to let the moon go by.” The history museum and the Chicago Architecture Foundation offer boats tours on the Chicago River that blend architecture, history and a chance to be out on the water. http://caf.architecture.org/

Book Festival Buzz

It’s hard to think about fall in the middle of July.  However, if you’re thinking of traveling to a book festival, now is the time to start planning.  Here’s a partial list of book fairs and festivals across the country that will whet your appetite, along with a bit of information from their Web sites.  Not all have their schedules completed.

Decatur Book Festival
 www.decaturbookfestival.com/2010/index.php

September 3-5 2010, Decatur, Georgia

An annual, free book festival that takes place over Labor Day weekend in Decatur, Georgia at several venues located in and around the downtown Decatur Square. Conceived in 2005 and launched in 2006, the festival brings more than 300 authors to Decatur for the holiday weekend. The authors give readings, talks, and panel discussions. The event is free and open to the public. Will feature Jonathan Franzen, National Book Award-winning author of “The Corrections;” Diana Gabaldon, New York Times bestselling author of the Outlander series; and Joyce Maynard, author of “To Die For.”

Brooklyn  Book Festival www.brooklynbookfestival.org

September 12, 2010

In celebration of the Festival’s fifth anniversary, the Brooklyn Book Festival “Bookends” Partnership—made up of cultural institutions and performance venues—will present literary-themed events throughout Brooklyn on Friday, September 10; Saturday, September 11; and the day of the Book Festival on Sunday the 12th. Notable authors scheduled to participate in the 2010 Brooklyn Book Festival include Russell Banks, Michael Connelly, Paul Krugman, Joyce Carol Oates, Lauren Oliver, Esmeralda Santiago, Jon Scieszka, Rebecca Stead, Colson Whitehead and Jacqueline Woodson.

National Book Festival www.loc.gov/bookfest

Saturday, Sept. 25, Washington, D.C.

The 10th annual National Book Festival, organized and sponsored by the Library of Congress, will be held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., between 3rd and 7th streets from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Wisconsin Book Festivalwww.wisconsinbookfestival.org

September 29-Oct 3 Madison, Wisconsin

This unique event inspires book lovers from across the region to spend a weekend in downtown Madison and transforms State Street into a vast, public literary salon.  This year’s festival will explore the theme of BELIEFS

Southern Festival of Books www.decaturbookfestival.com/2010/index.php

October 8-10 in Nashville, Tennessee

The Festival annually welcomes more than 200 authors from throughout the nation and in every genre for readings, panel discussions and book signings. Book lovers have the opportunity to hear from and meet some of America’s foremost writers in fiction, history, mystery, food, biography, travel, poetry and children’s literature among others.

Twin Cities Book Festival www.raintaxi.com/bookfest/

Saturday, October 16,  Minneapolis, Minnesota

This day-long autumn gala gathers the Twin Cities book community to celebrate and promote our region’s literary culture. It creates a unique opportunity for the great variety of area publishers, editors, book artists, writers, scholars, and critics to present their work and words.

Texas Book Festivalwww.texasbookfestival.org

October 16-17, 2010  Austin, Texas

The Texas Book Festival celebrates authors and their contributions to the culture of literacy, ideas and imagination. It was established in 1995 by First Lady Laura Bush, a former librarian and an ardent advocate of literacy. Approximately 40,000 visitors participate annually in a weekend of author readings and presentations, panel discussions, book signings, and musical entertainment at the State Capitol in Austin.

Miami Book Festival Internationalwww.miamibookfair.com

November 19-21, Miami, Florida

An eight-day “literary party” featuring six nights of readings and discussions with noted authors from the United States and around the world. During Street Fair (Nov 19-21), more than 250 publishers and booksellers exhibit and sell books, with special features like the antiquarians, who showcase of signed first editions, original manuscripts and other collectibles.

Have you been to any of these?  Any other book festivals coming up you want to share?

Reading for Those Traveling to Haiti–or Not

 

Mountains Upon Mountains Near Leogane, Haiti

 

Haiti isn’t exactly the place I’d recommend for a book club trip, but it’s certainly a place about which book clubs are interested in reading.  My friend Patty, a fellow book clubber, is off to Haiti on a service trip to assist in a Haitian orphanage next month.  She’s among hundreds of Americans who travel to Haiti to work in a multitude of ways to improve conditions there.  Of course, literature is one way to understand the complex history, politics and culture of Haiti for those who go there and for those who simply wish to understand more about the seemingly unending problems of this country that is only 600 miles from the coast of Florida.

I, too, was in Haiti (thankfully before the earthquake) and found Edwidge Danticat’s After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti books fascinating to read while I was visiting there, particularly around Jacmel. Also check out Danticat’s beautiful writing about the Haitian experience in Breath, Eyes, Memory and Krik? Krak!

In addition, our book club read All Souls Rising by Madison Smartt Bell, which is a somewhat horrific, but excellent novel of the Haitian slave rebellion and was a National Book Award finalist. It’s part of Bell’s trilogy of novels about the Haitian revolution of 1791–1803, that includes All Soul’s Rising, Master of the Crossroads and The Stone That the Builder Refused.  Bell also wrote a biography of the central figure of the rebellion, François Dominique Toussaint Louverture.

Our book club also read Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World about less than redressing the inequalities of medical service to the desperately poor.  Also recommended: Paul Farmer’s book, The Uses of Haiti.

Losing and Finding Ourselves

The great travel writer Pico Iyer wrote an essay for Salon.com many years ago that is one of the best discussions about why we travel that I’ve seen.  http://www.salon.com/travel/feature/2000/03/18/why

He says,  “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.  We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our   newspapers will accommodate.  We travel to bring what little we can, in our             ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently    dispersed.  And, we travel, in essence to become young fools again—to slow time   down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”

It strikes me that you could substitute the word “read” for travel in that paragraph and the meaning would be the same.  When we “escape with a good book,” we read to lose ourselves and sometimes find ourselves along the way just like someone who is wandering the streets and alleyways of a foreign country. Most of us can’t live the life of a travel writer, a vagabond, or an independently wealthy aristocrat on the grand tour of Europe ala the characters that populate the works of Edith Wharton or Henry James.  But we can go there in a book.

However, the best of all worlds is to combine the two.  Ever since I was in grade school, I loved to read about the places we were going on family vacations.  Reading Esther Forbes’s “Johnny Tremain” before a trip to Boston made the visit come alive for me.  Ditto for Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings,” which I read with my children before a trip to Boston where we waddled across the street to the Public Garden following the path of Mack, Jack, Kack, Quack and the other ducklings.

That might be the best part—becoming young fools again.

Travel to the places you read about. Read about the places you travel.