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.

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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/

Happiness and Meaningful Conversation

Anyone looking for scientific understanding of why book clubs are so popular, check out the July issue of Scientific American Mind. An article entitled “Skip the Small Talk: Meaningful Conversations Linked to Happier People” reports on a study of the relationship between conversation and happiness. It quotes one of the co-authors of the study, University of Arizona psychologist Matthias Mehl who says “the mere time a person spends in the presence of others is a good predictor of the person’s level of happiness.” According to the study, the happiest subjects also participated in a third as much small talk and had twice as many in-depth conversations as the most unhappy participants.

Of course, if you’re in a book club, you already knew that.

Read about the study online at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=skip-the-small-talk

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?

Cindy Dyson on Book Clubs

I just came across a Montana author, Cindy Dyson, who is also a book club devotee.  Her book club is called Our Ladies of Perpetual Disappointment because, she says, “We’re disappointed in half the books we read and reveal our critical natures.”  Her advice for book clubs:

“Don’t meet in anyone’s home.  Who wants to vacuum and make muffins?”

and

“Go on annual getaways.  We’re planning a girl’s fly fishing camp this summer.”

I’ll have to check out her book, “And She Was.”  She sounds like a kindred spirit. http://www.cindydyson.com/andshewas/flashsite/mainmenu.html

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.

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