It’s been quite a while since my last post because I’ve been hard at work on a forthcoming book entitled Off the Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Groups and Girls on Getaways, which will be out in May. The book explores the idea of literary travel– what it is, how to plan lit trips large and small, and 15 of the best places in the U.S. for where you can both explore the settings of great books and have a great time with friends. I’m starting the new year with a new blog, Off The Beaten Page Travel, which will work in conjunction with the book, serve as a place to update lit lovers on my literary travel adventures as well as a forum where readers can share their ideas, too.
I have moved the content from Book Club Traveler to this new blog, so if you’re a subscriber to BCT, please subscribe to Off the Beaten Page Travel (www.offthebeatenpagetravel.wordpress.com). You’ll find both the information from the last couple of years along with new and frequently updated thoughts on reading and travel. The goal will remain the same as my tagline says, “Travel to the places you’ve read about. Read about the places you travel.”
Mark Twain said, “I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” One of my book clubs travels fairly often, usually on short jaunts to members’ cabins, and we’ve found out that we like each other a lot, even with the extra large dose of “togetherness” that comes with group travel.
Last week ten of us piled into a 33-foot R.V. and drove to Three Lakes, Wisconsin. That’s about five hours from Minneapolis, and not far from Rhinelander, home of a mythical creature called a Hodag. We stayed at a member’s cabin there, using the R.V. as an extra bedroom. We used the opportunity to plan our reading list for the coming year (check it out below) and to discuss a book that takes place, in part, in Wisconsin, Wallace Stegner’s classic, Crossing to Safety.
Though we try to retain a bookish façade, I have to admit that much of our time was
spent on the activities for which Wisconsin is famous, with Jake’s Bar at the center of intellectual pursuits such as darts and pool, beer and cheese curds. We just call it “promoting literacy.”
Driftless — David Rhodes
In Caddis Wood — Mary Rockcastle
Breakfast at Tiffany’s —Truman Capote
Cutting for Stone — Abraham Verghese
The Postmistress —Sarah Blake
The Paris Wife —Paula McLain
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks —Rebecca Skloot
The Irresistible Henry House —Lisa Grunwald
Unbroken —Laura Hillenbrand.
The Language of Flowers —Vanessa Diffenbaugh
My Nest Isn’t Empty, It Just Has More Closet Space —Lisa Scottoline
September 25, 2011, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It’s a bit of readers’ heaven, with discussions and readings from authors including Toni Morrison, Sherman Alexie, David McCullough, Russell Banks, Edmund Morris, Michael Cunningham, Jennifer Egan… the list goes on and on.
But for those who can’t make it to the actual event, the Library of Congress, which sponsors the festival, is offering podcasts from some of the authors who are appearing at the event this year. For avid readers and for book clubs the National Book Fest site is a great way to get ideas for your next reading list. And, listening to these podcasts offers interesting insight from these authors and a way to go a bit more in depth for your next reading discussion.
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.
When driving “out west,” as people in my half of the country call it, the prairie is the part of the trip to be gotten through before you get to the good stuff, the mountains and national parks of the west. Yet on a recent trip to the prairie of South Dakota, I realized that the vast ocean of grass that stretch as far as the eye can see is a fascinating destination in itself.
We went on a tour of the Nature Conservancy’sSamuel Ordway Prairie Preserve. Aberdeen is the closest town, if you don’t count the really tiny farm communities in between. When the prairie was my destination, not something to be barreled through on my way somewhere else, I began to really look and found that the amazing grassland is teaming with wildlife, from tiny frogs and butterflies to birds and enormous buffalo, if you take the time to look at it. Actually, it’s hard to miss the buffalo.
To people who are used to city or suburban life simply to be in such a vast uninhabited grassland is amazing. In her memoir, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris talks about a friend who asked her what there is to see there. She responds, “Nothing.” And that’s precisely the point. So much open space—no telephone poles, buildings or trees and no people—is something rarely seen. It also struck how different one’s perspective on life would be, politically and otherwise, if you lived in such an area rather than a city.
On this 7,800-acre preserve, the Nature Conservancy staff manages a bison herd and conducts research on the plants and animals of this ecosystem, especially in relation to invasive exotic species. However, I was most fascinated with the land itself and the size of the sky. It would take a much tougher person than I am to live in this expanse, especially in winter.
Despite its political incorrectness and my yankee heritage, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind is one of my favorite books. It was published 75 years ago–it seems like only yesterday. Check out National Public Radio’s terrific articles and reports about the book’s 75th anniversary. This occasion makes the book a great choice for book clubs–plenty new to talk about. And, it’s the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, so it’s timely. Be sure to read Pat Conroy’s chapter about Gone With the Wind in his book My Reading Life.
I may be a fan of the book, but I’m nowhere near as devoted as a group of hard-core GWTW fans called the Windies who the New York Times describes as “so ardent that recreating the burning of Atlanta in an airport hotel banquet room is not out of the question.” I can’t join them. It’s just too hot for a hoop skirt.
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.
The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most famous landmarks in New York City and walking its span over the East River (just over a mile) is one of my favorite things to do there. A dedicated pedestrian walkway, the Promenade, runs over the center of the bridge and below an estimated one hundred forty-four thousand vehicles cross the bridge every day, which makes it hard to imagine what it was like before the bridge connected the two cities of New York and Brooklyn. How did the Brooklyn hipsters get to the other side? By boat.
Hike along the wooden Promenade… Cables composed of 3600 miles of steel wire weaving like a spider web around you, the 276½ feet foot towers rising above, the Statue of Liberty standing guard over the harbor to one side, and the view of the city’s massive skyscrapers all around combine for an experience that makes you feel humming with energy.
Reading David McCullough’s book The Great Bridge – The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, adds an extra dimension to a walk across the bridge. McCullough tells the story of the fourteen-year effort of building the bridge, which finally opened in 1883. It was at the time an unimaginably daring feat of engineering, exemplary of America’s Age of Optimism. As someone who lives not too far from the I-35W bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis four years ago, the enduring solidity of the Brooklyn Bridge seems even more impressive.
I was particularly fascinated by McCullough’s description of how caissons (used to plant the footings of the huge towers) work. But, The Great Bridge is more than an explanation of civil engineering. McCullough also weaves in the politics and personalities of New York’s movers and shakers at the end of the Gilded Age, particularly the remarkable designers of the bridge, John Roebling and his son Washington Roebling, who was tragically debilitated by “the bends,” known as caisson’s disease, during the building of the bridge. For a nice discussion of the book, see the Past as Prologue blog.
Bridge-walkers disagree about which is the best way to go, Manhattan to Brooklyn or vice
versa. Some recommend taking the subway to Brooklyn and walking back to Manhattan, which offers fantastic views of the Manhattan skyline. However, I enjoy going the Manhattan-to-Brooklyn route, with the incentive of all the great food that awaits near the end of the bridge on the other side. So, find the pedestrian walkway near City Hall in Manhattan and stroll across the bridge to the DUMBO neighborhood. That’s an acronym for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass” but DUMBO is also under the Brooklyn Bridge.
From the end of the bridge it’s a short walk to Grimaldi’s Pizzeria, under the Brooklyn Bridge at 19 Old Fulton Street. There’s almost always a wait, but it’s worth it. Then, it’s time for more carb-loading, which you can justify with all that exercise you’ve done walking across the bridge. Almondine Bakery, 85 Water Street, which New York magazine calls the best bakery in the city, is a great place to stop in for coffee and pastry. It’s especially cozy when the weather’s bad. Or, pick up amazing chocolate-packed cookies, or homemade ice cream sandwiches at Jacques Torres at 66 Water Street and head over to Brooklyn Bridge Park. The Cove section of the park lies between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridge and offers an terrific Manhattan view. It’s also one of the few places on the New York City waterfront where visitors can actually get down to the water. Its a rich habitat for fish, crabs, and birds of the New York Harbor Estuary.
New York, bridges and chocolate…what could be better?
I was happy to read in the New York Times that McSorely’s Old Ale House is going, even if its without the old chicken bones. Writers (Ginsberg, Kerouac, Menken, the McCourt brothers), artists, and politicians have whet their whistles here since forever. e.e. cummings wrote a poem about the place
I was sitting in mcsorely’s. outside it was New York and beautifully snowing. inside snug and evil…
Some things just should not change.
Travel to the places you read about. Read about the places you travel.