Tag Archives: books

Mackinac Island, Michigan, Travel and Reading

Mackinac Island, Michigan, sits in on the Straits of Mackinac where the Great Lakes of Michigan and Huron converge. That location made it the ideal place for Native Americans and fur traders to make their summer rendezvous to trade and it was here that John Jacob Astor made his fortune in the fur industry. Missionaries, soldiers and eventually Gilded Age tourists from Detroit and Chicago pulled ashore to enjoy this remarkable island. Today, people from around the world arrive on the island and become part of that centuries long summer tradition.

History and Tradition Come Alive

I visited Mackinac (pronounced Mackinaw) Island in summers when I was growing up so the island has a special place in my heart. I returned earlier this summer and was happy to see little has changed. I felt the same sense of anticipation as the ferry ride (about 20 minutes from either Mackinaw City or Michigan’s upper peninsula) brought the Mackinac Bridge into closer view. The island still bans cars making it very bike, buggy and pedestrian friendly.  And, the smell of the island’s trademark product, fudge, continues to greet visitors on arrival. The lovely Victorian cottages still charm and the Grand Hotel remains grander than ever.

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Mackinac Island’s historic Grand Hotel features the world’s longest porch.

While Mackinac Island offers a terrific array of places to eat, drink, pedal and kayak, it’s the history here that has always grabbed me. That’s why I always urge fellow visitors to get away from the crowds on Main Street by the ferry docks and explore the island by foot, bike or horse.  Start with the famous Fort Mackinac which offers canon blasting, rifle shooting, historic displays and a spectacular view of the island and surrounding waters. (Slightly off topic, here’s one of the crazy things I remember from visiting as a kid.  There was a grisly display in the fort back then about Dr. William Beaumont who was an army surgeon at the fort and a young voyageur who had been accidentally shot in the stomach. The stomach wound didn’t heal and Beaumont was able to view the workings of the stomach through the hole–for a very long time. The exhibit is now at the Fur Company Store and Dr.Beaumont Museum.)

1118797Somewhere in Time and Literature

For a sense of history, I also recommend reading Iola Fuller’s classic tale of Mackinac, The Loon Feather.  It’s a romantic tale of a young Native American woman and it’s ending is improbably happy, but I’m a sucker for all that. And, the book conveys quite accurately the early days of the fur trade on the island.

At The Island Bookstore on Main Street, they’re happy to share their ideas for island-related reading and much more. If they’re not too busy, it’s fun to chat with owner Mary Jane Barnwell and store manager Tamara Tomack about literature and island life. Mary Jane is among the 500 or so people who live on Mackinac Island year-round. Because the island is accessible in winter only by snowmobile or airplane, you can bet she has a few stories to tell. And she does have a several adorable books of her own for children about the island, including Grand Adventure and Goodnight Mackinac Island, a children’s vacation journal.

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At The Island Bookstore, store manager Tamara Tomack (left) and owner Mary Jane Barnwell share their love of books and tips for your Mackinac Island reading list.

Here are their suggestions if you want to read up before your island visit: Once on This Island by Gloria Whelan,  Open Wound—the Tragic Obessions of Dr. William Beaumont by Jason Karlawish, and The Living Great Lakes: Searching For The Heart of the Inland Seas by Jerry Dennis. Finally, Somewhere in Time, by Richard Matheson is a must-read for Mackinac Island visitors.  It was written about the Del Coronado Hotel in San Diego, but the movie version of the story with Chrisopher Reeve and Jane Seymour was filmed on Mackinac Island, mainly at the Grand Hotel.

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Dear Committee Members – Funny Women Authors Get Recognition

dear-committee-membersIt’s not easy to find Julie Schumacher. Like the setting of her book, Dear Committee Members, winner of the James Thurber Prize for Humor, her office in the English Department at the University of Minnesota seems exiled to a warren of rooms deep in the bowels of Lind Hall on the East Bank campus. Go downstairs, through some doors, down a hall, through the door with the arrow on it and its on the right somewhere at the end of the hall. Leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find your way back.

Also, like her fictional protagonist, Jay Fitger, she’s a creative writing professor and pens scores of letters of reference for students who are applying for jobs and grad school. Dear Committee Members consists solely of such letters in which the arrogant and curmudgeonly Fitger reveals more about himself than his students.

Peppered with a hilariously snooty vocabulary (with phrases like “floculent curds”), his letters perpetually digress to lament his department’s lack of status in the University, the ongoing building repairs and the trials of having an office next to the bathroom. “…we are alternately frozen and nearly smoked, via pestilent fumes, out of our building,” says Fitger. “Between the construction dust and the radiators emitting erratic bursts of steam heat, the intrepid faculty members who have remained in their offices over the winter break are humid with sweat and dusted with ash and resemble two-legged cutlets dredged in flour.” He bemoans the lack of respect for the liberal arts and the struggle of dealing with office technology—topics dear to Schumacher’s heart. Clearly, she follows the old adage “write what you know.”

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Julie Schumacher in her University of Minnesota office.

Funny Women
Yet, when you do arrive at her office, it’s easy to see that Julie Schumacher is no Jay Fitger. She’s downright pleasant, enjoys her colleagues and proudly shows off her former students’ published novels. She swears her letters of reference never wander off, Fitger-like, into completely inappropriate discussions of sexual indiscretions around the department. Finally, unlike poor Jay, her work regularly receives recognition.

She was first woman to win the Thurber Prize in its 18-year history.The award is named for James Thurber, the author of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the creator of numerous New Yorker magazine cover cartoons and one of the foremost American humorists of the 20th century. Previous Thurber Prize winners have included Jon Stewart, David Sedaris and Calvin Trillin.

So many women have written funny books—Tina Fey, Nora Ephron and Betty White to name a few—it’s surprising that a woman hasn’t won the Thurber prize before now. See my previous post about James Thurber. That changed last year when all three of the finalists were women including New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast for her memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? and Annabelle Gurwitch for I See You Made an Effort: Compliments, Indignities, and Survival Stories from the Edge.

As the first woman to win, Schumacher recognizes the irony that her lead character is a man. “It never occurred to me to make him a female,” she says. “This character has certain expectations of power, a big ego and he’s crushed when things don’t turn out professionally and romantically. It had to be a guy.”

No Joke
Schumacher came to this place of distinction through long experience and serious practice of her craft. She grew up in Delaware, graduated from Oberlin College and from Cornell University with an MFA in fiction. She joined the University of Minnesota faculty after teaching as an adjunct at several Minnesota colleges in an effort to “keep an oar in the water” while raising her two daughters. Along the way she published books for young readers, a short story collection, and a critically acclaimed first novel, The Body of Water.

Of Dear Committee Members she says, “I didn’t start out to write a funny book. Actually, it’s a really a sad book. For Jay, things haven’t turned out like he expected, he’s besieged and disappointed. He’s a complicated character. I fell in love with him.”

Her sophisticated style of humor eschews the raunchy (no f-bombs here) in favor of writing that observes the funny in everyday life and in human nature. “The trick,” she says, “is to push the discomfort of a character’s behavior just to the edge, but not too far.” That makes it perfect for an award named after James Thurber. “Humor, he said, is “a kind of emotional chaos told about calmly and quietly in retrospect.”

Schumacher says life today requires humor. “Its a release, a catharsis.” Through her alter ego, Jay Fitger, humor also gives Schumacher a means of serious social commentary. He says, “…there are other faculty here on campus who are not disposed to see notable scholarship ignored; and let it be known that, in the darkened, blood-strewn caverns of our offices, we are hewing our textbooks and keyboards into spears.”

 

Books and Travel in Steamboat Springs Colorado

I’m heading for Steamboat for a little skiing and a lot of talk about books.  If you’re in CO, come join us.!

AN EVENING WITH TERRI PETERSON SMITHBeatenPage_12 4

Off the Beaten Path Bookstore

Thursday, March 24th – 6 pm –  in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

68 9th Street, 970-879-6830, steamboat books.com

Join Off the Beaten Path in welcoming Terri Peterson Smith, author of Off the Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs, and Girls on Getaways. Smith will take us on a tour of America’s most fascinating literary destinations and will provide inspiration and suggestions to plan your own literary getaway.

The LBJ Library and Museum in Austin, Texas: See the History of Issues That Are Still Playing Out

So you think the idea of visiting a presidential library sounds about Unknown-7as interesting as watching paint dry. I was in your camp until I visited the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin Texas. I expected lots of yellowed documents, some photos, and “Mad Men” era tchotchkes. What I got was a tour of some of the most dramatic events of American history, in which Lyndon Baines Johnson was intimately involved. They include the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the space program, and his transition to the office of President after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, to name a few.

The signing of the Civil Rights Act 50 years ago puts LBJ’s role in that issue at the imagesforefront this year. Johnson “pushed for legislation to fix societal problems, signing bill after bill, act after act. From theUnknown-3 War on Poverty to Civil Rights, Medicaid to Medicare, he knew a better society wasn’t enough — we needed a Great Society. Put simply, he got things done.”

His legacy in this area is only now being recognized because it was previously overshadowed by his administration’s handling of the Vietnam War. At the museum, one sees a portrait of a man tortured by his responsibilities as commander-in-chief during that unpopular war. But the library informs visitors on the other sides of Johnson, who was often a funny guy and a savvy politician, who twisted plenty of congressional arms to further his legislation. Most importantly, the museum gives visitors historical context for so many of issues with which Americans struggle today.

If you have time, head for the hills….Texas Hill Country, that is…to see the LBJ ranch.

Read up:
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lyndon Johnson and the American DreamUnknown-2

Robert Caro’s many volumes of work about LBJ includingThe Path to Power and The Master of the Senate

Robert Califano’s The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years

Two newer books, The Bill of the Century by Clay Risen and An Idea Whose Time Has Come By Todd S. Purdum

And, see The Wall Street Journal’s review of the latter two books.

Death, Enchantment, and Hiking in Dogtown, Massachusetts

You'll find words of inspiration, eerie tales, and New England history on the Babson Boulder Trail on Cape Ann, Massachusetts
You’ll find words of inspiration, eerie tales, and New England history on the Babson Boulder Trail, Cape Ann, Massachusetts

Bars and counters are my favorite places to sit in restaurants.  There’s something about the combination of close proximity and food that fosters great conversations among complete strangers. And, if I see you sitting next to me with a book, you won’t have time to read it because I’ll won’t be able to stop myself from asking what you’re reading, what it’s about, and do you recommend it.

That happened a couple of springs ago when my husband, Scott, and I were in Rockport,

The New York Times called this is "a true-crime story, an art appreciation course and an American history lesson stitched together, and it succeeds as all three, albeit with a few seams showing."
The New York Times called this is “a true-crime story, an art appreciation course and an American history lesson stitched together, and it succeeds as all three, albeit with a few seams showing.”

Mass., (on Cape Ann, about an hour north of Boston) while I was researching my book, Off The Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs and Girls on Getaways. There was still a chill in the the air and we were happily slurping down huge bowls of fish chowder at the Red Skiff, a tiny restaurant on Rockport’s aptly named Mt. Pleasant St. (The relaxed pace and the chance to hang out and chat with locals on both sides of the lunch counter without a line if diners behind you, and of course lower prices, are a few of the many charms of off-season travel.) I noticed that two of our lunch counter companions were discussing a book, so I had to barge into their discussion and ask about it, which led to questions about where we were from and what brought us to Rockport. Turned out the two gentlemen were members of the local sheriff’s department enjoying their day off. When one heard about my project, he grabbed the book from his friend’s hands and said, “You’ve got to read this book.” It was Elyssa East’s Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town. He said with an air of mystery that Dogtown has had a very strange history. “Say no more,” I said.

That lunch counter encounter was enough to launch me into reading not only East’s non-

Anita Daimant's The Last Days of Dogtown is a fictional novel based on the colonial settlement in Massachusetts.
Anita Daimant’s The Last Days of Dogtown is a work of historical fiction based on a colonial settlement Massachusetts.

fiction book  about a murder in Dogtown, but also Anita Diamant’s fictional work The Last Days of Dogtown (you may have read her best-seller, The Red Tent) and Thomas Dresser’s Dogtown: A Village Lost in Time.  After reading those books, I had to go see the place for myself.

Dogtown is a 3,600-acre tract of juniper, bog, and granite with a beautiful reservoir at one end. Early settlers–really early, like the mid-1600s–put down roots in Dogtown, though it couldn’t have been easy among so much rock.  A century later as many as 100 families lived in the Dogtown area. But after the Revolutionary War, people figured that fishing might be a better way to make a living than tilling around giant boulders. It’s surprising that it took them that long. By the early 1800s, Dogtown was deserted, but for a few impoverished widows who, like Tammy Younger, the “queen of the witches,” intimidated passersby enough to make them pay her to leave them alone.  A few dogs remained, too, which according to some people is the reason for the area’s name.

One thing that’s unnerving about Dogtown is that’s it’s rather hard to find your way around, giving the feeling that at any turn you could become hopelessly lost and eventually end up like Tammy and her warty friends.  To explore Dogtown Commons, buy a detailed trail map at Toad Hall Books in Rockport or bookstores in Gloucester and bring along your GPS.  You can also take a tour with an expert Seania McCarthy at Walk the Words. With a bit of looking, you can still find the holes that were the cellars of the first Dogtown homes.

But my favorite hike is the Babson Boulder Trail. During the Depression, millionaire

Intelligence gathering along the Babson Boulder Trail.
Intelligence gathering along the Babson Boulder Trail.

philanthropist Roger Babson, the founder of Babson College, hired unemployed stonecutters to carve 24 inspirational words on Dogtown boulders, many on what is now the Babson Boulder Trail. It’s fun, but a tad eerie, to encounter giant boulders at various points on the trail with inscriptions such as “Industry,” “Kindness,” “Be On Time,” and “Keep Out of Debt.” My favorite: “Help Mother.”

All of this history and mystery made Dogtown a favorite source of inspiration for the painter Marsden Hartley who captured the place in powerful, primal paintings such as “Rock Doxology.” He said, “A sense of eeriness pervades all the place…. [It is] forsaken and majestically lovely, as if nature had at last formed one spot where she can live for herself alone.” Read the books and go see for yourself.

Dogtown was the subject of many works by painter Marsden Hartley.  You can see "Rock Doxology" in the Cape Ann Museum, Gloucester, Mass.
Dogtown was the subject of many works by painter Marsden Hartley. You can see “Rock Doxology” in the Cape Ann Museum, Gloucester, Mass.

Ernest Hemingway in Oak Park, Before The Paris Wife

Get a quick education on Ernest Hemingway with a visit to Oak Park, Illinois.
Get a quick education on Ernest Hemingway with a visit to Oak Park, Illinois.

Ernest Hemingway’s personal life was as interesting and adventurous as his fiction. So, while I was in Chicago recently I took a side trip to the lovely suburb of Oak Park, where I visited the Ernest Hemingway House and Museum.  For Hemingway fans or if you enjoy books about Hemingway such as The Paris Wife, you’ll find a stroll in the author’s old neighborhood is delightful.

In previous posts, such a the one about A Skeptic’s Guide to Writer’s Houses, I’ve discussed the fact that authors’ homes aren’t as interesting as the places where their books are set.  Still, it’s fun to see how an author lived and maybe hear a few stories about family life that may have shaped his world view. For example, when you take the guided tour in the home, you’ll see the little dining room where Hemingway’s grandfather sat with the children for breakfast and encouraged all of them to tell stories.  He didn’t long enough to see what sprang from such encouragement.

So, if you’re in Chicago, make a trip to Oak Park to visit the Hemingway family home. Start at the museum at 200 Oak Park Avenue 708-524-5383, www.ehfop.org  The home where Hemingway was born is one block north.

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.”

Weekly Photo Challenge: Up, Up and Off The Beaten Page in Chicago

Wherever you go in Chicago, it's important to keep looking up at the city's fabulous architecture.  Above, one of the latest additions to  Chicago's skyline, Cloud Gate, a.k.a. The Bean.
Wherever you go in Chicago, it’s important to keep looking up at the city’s fabulous architecture. Above, one of the latest additions to Chicago’s skyline, Cloud Gate, a.k.a. The Bean.

My book, Off The Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs, and Girls on Getaways comes out May 1.  So, between now and then, I’m offering a glimpse of the 15 U.S. cities featured in the book.  Here’s a preview of the Chicago chapter, entitled “The Tales of Two Architects:”

Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger says, “Architecture is one  area in which we in New York truly do have a second city complex toward Chicago–not the other way around, as it is in so many other realms. And for all that has happened over the years, little has changed in the sense that those of us in New York, as well as the rest of the country, still have of Chicago as being the essential city of American architecture.”

But you don’t have to be a connoisseur of skyscrapers to understand Chicago’s pivotal place in architectural history and the innovative, risk-taking outlook that continues to make Chicago “America’s City.” Two books have generated sky-high interest in Chicago by combining the stories of the city’s architectural lions with juicy plots.  The first, Erik Larson’s The Devil in The White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America.  The other book, Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, a novel of historical fiction, tells the tale of architectural genius Frank Lloyd Wright’s scandalous relationship with his client, Mamah Borthwick Cheney.

Each chapter in Off the Beaten Page includes an essay about a couple of books that create a theme or focus for your visit to that city, extensive reading lists, and three-day itineraries that offer ways to experience in person the books you’ve read and have fun in other ways, too. For example, the White City is long gone, but you can get a taste of what is was like by taking a tour with the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Wander Jackson Park, the site of the World’s Fair in The Devil in the White City, then tour Millennium Park, a modern-day bookend to the architectural innovation that began with that fair.  Wherever you go, keep looking up.

Dennis Lehane’s Boston

And speaking of Boston (see my last post), I want to emphasize how well Dennis Lehane’sbook books convey the Boston “voice,” and life in the tough, working class parts of Boston where he grew up. You may not want to actually spend your vacation in the Dorchester neighborhood, for example, but you can visit those places through Mystic River, Gone, Baby, Gone and his latest, Live by Night, which all make great reads before a trip to Boston and a nice diversion from the Freedom Trail.

I saw Lehane last week when he spoke at Pen Pals, the author series that raises funds for the Hennepin County Library system which serves the Minneapolis area. He’s one of the best speakers I’ve ever heard, mixing insightful literary observations, stories of his relationship with Clint Eastwood who directed Mystic River, writing for HBO’s The Wire, and hilarious anecdotes about his gigantic Irish American family.  He learned his storytelling expertise at family gatherings (and sometimes in bars) where his dad and his uncle told “true” stories that changed with every retelling.

You can see how his skills as a raconteur translate to novel writing, which he says is a much more difficult task than screen-writing. His novels, like his storytelling, incorporate great pacing, tightly wound plots, and characters drawn from the Boston streets. That’s one reason that Lehane isn’t, in my opinion typical of the crime genre where anyone with a laptop seems able to get published.  His work could better be described as well-crafted literary fiction…with a purpose.  One of his comments about fiction sticks with me: fiction is “the lie that tells the truth.”

On your way to Boston?  You’ll also want to pick up some of the books that Lehane suggested in a In  New York Times interview, which included classics such as The Friends of Eddie Coyle, by George V. Higgins, The Last Hurrah and The Edge of Sadness, by Edwin O’Connor, and in nonfiction, Common Ground, by J. Anthony Lukas. I also have scads of other Boston books on the reading list in Off The Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs, and Girls on Getaways.