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Travel to the World of Author Louise Penny and Inspector Gamache

In Quebec, Canada’s Eastern Townships, fans of mystery writer Louise Penny step into the world of Three Pines and Inspector Armand Gamache.

This painting illustrating Louise Penny’s murder mystery Still Life is at the Brome County Historical Society in Knowlton, Quebec, Canada

It’s a sunny day on the village green in Knowlton, Quebec, a.k.a. “Three Pines.”  It’s the real-life place that inspired the fictional town where Louise Penny sets her bestselling mystery novels. They’re serving steaming coffee and camaraderie at the bistro. You’ll find a cheery welcome and plenty of reading tips at the bookstore.  A fiddler plays while shoppers stroll the nearby farmers market. Seriously, here in the Eastern Townships of Quebec life seems so idyllic you can’t believe it. 

Except for all those murders.…

Sixteen Murders and Counting

All The Devils are Here is the 16th in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series.

Welcome to the world of bestselling author Louise Penny —one of the biggest names in crime fiction.  Set amidst the rolling countryside and lakes of the Eastern Townships (about 60 miles from Montreal and just north of the Vermont border) Penny fills her books with the history and charm of Quebec.  That makes a terrific contrast with murders—strictly fictional!—that have included a woman killed by a hunting arrow, a prior conked in the head with an iron door knocker, a woman crushed by a falling statue and one person who is simply frightened to death. The list goes on. 

Yet, as Penny told USA Today, the books are “about goodness, as well.”  Penny said in a CBS Sunday Morning interview that the books are about many things, least of all murder. They’re about life, choices, love and friendship, and food. That’s one of the keys to their popularity. The first book in the series, Still Life, came out in 2005.  Since then Penny has released a new book about every year and holds the first event promoting each book here in Knowlton where she lives.  All the Devils Are Here, the 16th novel in the series comes out in 2020.  

The books offer the thrills and sleuthing of crime novels without the violence and raunchiness of many murder mysteries.  They’re often described as character-driven mysteries and central among those characters is Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, of the  Sûreté du Québec.  Gamache has become known as the the “Hercule Poirot of Canada.”  Penny was influenced by Agatha Christie and Georges Simmenon’s Maigret. Like Poirot and Maigret, Gamache is a man of principle and ethics.  As a result he’s often beleaguered and at odds with his superiors at the Surete.  The eccentric residents of Three Pines play an equally important role. Readers get to know them as they change and develop over the course of the series. The setting that Penny paints in the books also serves as an important and appealing character, too.

Eastern Townships

The Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada are both charming and evocative of the region’s history as a haven for British royalists during the American Revolutionary War.

The Eastern Townships, les Cantons de L’Est, are located in southeastern Quebec, on the edge of the American border.  During the Revolutionary War, the area offered refuge to the British royalists fleeing from the revolution. While the rest of Quebec is thoroughly French, the Eastern Townships bear the marks of British culture including villages with names such as Sutton, Sherbrooke and Georgeville.  The fictitious town name of Three Pines is nod to the fact that royalists often planted a cluster three pine trees as a signpost of safety for British royalists fleeing across the border.

British as the towns were, they’re still in the midst of culturally French Quebec and people here switch back and forth between English and French as easily and most of us flip a light switch on and off. They also offer the fabulous food, wine, shops and joie de vivre of the region’s French Canadian heritage which Penny weaves into her stories. Characters are constantly eating meals that make my mouth water, enjoying a glass or two of wine or taking in the peace of their surroundings. It’s no wonder that people from around the world visit the area every year to see the landscape and cultural life they’ve read about in Louis Penny’s books.

The region is also famous its outdoor activities including biking, hiking and skiing.  With so much to do, see and taste, the territories make a fabulous place for book clubs and Louise Penny fans to visit, well beyond their interest in the books.

A Gamach-Inspired Tour

Dani Viau guided us on a tour of sites in Quebec’s Eastern Townships that inspired locales in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series.

We toured the rolling hills, green woods and sunny little towns of Gamache’s world with Danielle Viau of Three Pines Tours to see “where the bodies are buried,” so to speak. 

While revealing the places that have inspired Louise Penny’s mysteries, Dani explained the area’s culture and history. We sampled the food and drink and met a few the folks that live in the Eastern Townships who make the destination so engaging—all quite a contrast to the deadly deeds that take place in the stories.

The friendly booksellers at Brome Lake Books in Knowlton, Quebec are happy to guide you to the Louise Penny books or offers suggestions for other reading

We started in the historic town of Knowlton, aka Three Pines.  Readers will want to head to Brome Lake Books, a cozy store with nooks that invite readers to settle in and explore new titles.  Penny’s readers will find it reminiscent of Myrna’s new and used bookstore in the novels. 

This German Fokker airplane from World War I is housed at the Brome Country Historical Society and is one of only three in the world with the original fabric.

Also in Knowlton, The Brome County Historical Society Museum is a surprising gem, especially for its size. It features an exhibit about the thousands of orphaned British Home Children who who passed through it in the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. And, it houses a WWI Fokker airplane believed to be one of only three planes of that type in the world with its original fabric. But, don’t miss the painting “Fair Day”used in the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s movie, Still Life, based on Penny’s book of that name.

We ate a tasty gourmet lunch at the charming Auberge Knowltong.

Later, we lunched on duck and a local favorite, maple sugar pie with caramel sauce, at Le Relais Bistro at Auberge Knowlton. Built in 1849 the bistro features cushy chairs, large wooden dining tables and cozy rooms for overnight stays upstairs, all reminiscent of the Bistro in A Brutal Telling.

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A view of the Abbey of Saint Benoit due lac, in Quebec, Canada the setting for one of Louise Penny’s novels.
Downstairs at the Abbey, the monks sell products they make including cheese and chocolate.

Then we headed to the Abbey of Saint-Benoit-du-Lac, home to Benedictine monks on the shore of Lake Memphrémagog featured in A Beautiful Mystery.  Visitors can attend services, listen to the monks’ Gregorian chant and also purchase the products the monks make including cheese (named after saints), chocolate and other goodies.

Another day, we visited the tres charmant village, North Hatley, located on Lake Massawippi. Here, you’ll find the elegant Manor Bellechasse, which makes an appearances in Louise Penny’s The Murder Stone. We strolled the waterfront, hit a few shops and stocked up on goodies at the village farmers market. (Click on the photos above to see them in a larger format.) It doesn’t get more charming.

You’ll be glad Louise Penny lured you here.

If You Go

We stayed in another great Eastern Townships village, Sutton, where we ate and drank at the Auberge Sutton Brouerie and slept at Bite Vert le Mont Bed & Breakfast where owner Lynda Graham shared her stories and fabulous cooking.

If You Can’t Go Right Now

Can’t make it to the Eastern Townships any time soon? Read Louise Penny’s books and enjoy her comments about them as go. Armchair travel at it’s best!

L’Ile d’Orleans, Quebec, Canada

Food, drink and a little literature, just outside Quebec City.

I’m settled in at Casa Mona & Filles, a restaurant on L’Ile d’Orleans, just down the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City, Canada.  The salad before me is almost too pretty to eat.  Bright red, juicy strawberries, baked brie, homemade dressing with cassis and crisp fresh greens and  crusty French bread on the side.  I admire it for a minute, sip my kir—white wine with cassis—and realize, no, it’s not too pretty to eat and I dig in.  

The salad is especially tasty because most of the ingredients come from the island, famous for its bounty, its French culinary tradition and a bit of heaven for a foodie— or a history buff, or a lover of beautiful scenery.  

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In the middle of the St. Lawrence River, the beautiful views of the Ile d’Orleans and the Quebec countryside haven’t changed much since the French established settlements in the 1500s.
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Jacques Cartier named the island after the Duke of Orleans, son of the king of France, in 1536.  Of course I can always find a literary connection to a destination and this trip was no exception.  In a lesser known novel, Shadows on the Rock, Willa Cather depicts life in early Quebec.  she perfectly describes the island and it’s role as the farmland that supported Quebec City in the 1600s.  She says,  “It was only about four miles down the river, and from the slopes of Cap Diamant she could watch its fields and pastures come alive in the spring, and the bare trees change from purple-grey to green.  Down the middle of the island ran a wooded ridge, like, a backbone, and here and there along its flanks were cleared spaces, cultivated ground where the islanders raised wheat and rye. …..” All the best vegetables and garden fruits in the market came from the Ile and the wild strawberries of which Cecile’s father was so fond.” 

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Strawberries have a very long growing season on Ile de Orleans.  You can find them at the island’s many farm stands and markets.

Now, it’s a quick trip over a bridge to get there, but the produce, especially those strawberries remain the same. L’Ile d’Orleans makes a great and relaxing day tour from Quebec City or stay overnight at one the the islands many B&Bs.

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Overlooking the St. Lawrence River, the B&B called Dans Les Bras de Morphee offers a multi-course gourmet breakfast.
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Driving around the island visitors can stop and enjoy great food and wine at vineyards such as Vinoble de Ste-Petronille
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Or, taste cider at places like Domaine Steinbach where they make cider from the island’s many apple orchards.
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Either coming or going, a trip to the island must also include a visit to the nearby Chute Montmorencie (Montmorency Falls), just across the St. Lawrence River.

One of the myths of the area, is the tragic story of The Lady in White Lady, whose fiancé, a soldier, died in battle.  She then put on her wedding dress and threw herself over the Montmorency Falls. Her body was never recovered but to this day there are some people who claim they have seen the Lady in White through the mists of the Montmorency Falls.

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This statue of the White Lady of Montmorency Falls was part of an art installation in the park adjacent to the falls.

Find the Texas of Your Imagination in Amarillo

If you’re a fan of western literature and movies, put Amarillo, Texas, and the surrounding Panhandle of northwest Texas on your travel “to do” list.  The longhorn cattle you may see trotting down Polk Street, the rickety old windmills pumping water for cattle and the dry, rugged terrain makes you think Clint Eastwood will ride up on his horse any time and squint into the sunset.

But this is no movie, nor it this a place of where folks don western wear but have never seen a ranch. Instead, it’s easy to find a true taste of the American west here among real life cowboys and cowgirls whose roots and ranches go back to the mid-1800s and the first cattle drives.   

Palo Duro Canyon

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Palo Duro Canyon, the second largest canyon in the U.S.
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Head first to Palo Duro Canyon, this country’s second largest canyon, gouged into the flat, dry terrain not far from Amarillo.  In Palo Duro Canyon State Park you’ll find great hiking and plenty of animals including bobcats, roadrunners and Texas horned lizards.  Hikers may also come across the park’s resident longhorn cattle T-Bone, Brisket and Omelette (members of the state’s longhorn herd).  Or, they might find a dugout shelter that early ranchers used despite the fact that this was the winter home of the Comanche.  In 1874, the ultimate struggle between white settlers and the native Comanche played out in the brutal Battle of Palo Duro Canyon.  The army destroyed the Comanches’ supplies, slaughtered their horses and eventually sent them to reservations in Oklahoma, a story told in S.C. Gwynne’s bestseller, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History.

Then in 1876, Charles Goodnight (the inspiration for the Woodrow Call character in Larry McMurtry’s classic novel, Lonesome Dove) opened the famous JA Ranch in the canyon.  At its peak, the ranch supported more than 100,000 head of cattle on 1.5 million acres and remains a working ranch today.  The park, originally part of that ranch, opened in 1934. 

History Behind the Texas Tales

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A statue of Molly Goodnight and buffalo at the Goodnight Historical Center
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You’ll find more about Charles Goodnight and his wife Molly, one of history’s unsung western women, at the Charles Goodnight Historical Center on their ranch in what is now Goodnight, Texas. The buffalo still roam this ranch, saved from extinction by Molly Goodnight’s efforts. In addition to Lonesome Dove, history buffs will want to pick up a copy of J. Evetts Haley’s Goodnight biography Charles Goodnight: Cowman and Plainsman.

To gain a better understanding of the sweep of Panhandle history, point your wagon toward the fabulous Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in the town of Canyon.  It’s Texas’s oldest and largest history museum and lies on the campus of West Texas A&M University.  Its vast collection includes dinosaur skeletons, pioneer life exhibits, memorabilia of the great Comanche Chief Quanah Parker, oil derricks, antique cars and western art including works by O’Keefe, who lived in the area for a time.  Like guns?  They have an immense collection.

Saddle Up

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Phyllis Nickum of Cowgirls and Cowboys in the West

Still, Panhandle life must be experienced from the saddle.  There’s no better way to do that than to ride with Cowgirls and Cowboys in the West at Los Cedros Ranch.  Owner Phyllis Nickum and her crew welcome visitors from around the world to this working ranch on the edge of the canyon.

From atop her in her golden palomino, Jake, she explains the story of the vanquished.  “This is the sacred home of the most powerful Indian tribe and greatest horsemen in American history, the Comanche.  History books are written by the victors so I do my part to infuse the majesty of the tribe in the story.”  She also calls attention to the strength and endurance of the women of western history—women like Molly Goodnight and Stagecoach Mary who are often overlooked in story of the west. 

Back in Amarillo, you can see Nickum cheering on her ranch hands when they participate in a series of lively ranch rodeos that culminates with the World Championships in November.  You’ll see bronc riding, wild cow milking, stray gathering, team penning and the mutton busting competition in which tiny kids cling on for a sheep ride. “Toughens ’em up,” says Nickum.  

Amarillans take pride in another era of Panhandle history, the glory days of Route 66. 

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Serving up a 72 oz. steak at the Big Texan

Amarillo, the largest Texas city on the route, commemorates its place on the “Mother Road” and maintains the Route 66 Historic District on Sixth Avenue.  It features a mile of art galleries, shops, restaurants, and bars in historic buildings.The giant-bull-topped Big Texan Steak Ranch relocated from its original Route 66 home to its current sprawling spot on I-40 but retains every bit of its outsized personality.  Keep an eye out for carnivores attempting to consume the 72 oz. steak.  Eat it in one hour and your meal is free.  Wash it down with a Whoop Your Donkey Double IPA and a side of mountain oysters.  

There’s much that’s new in Amarillo, too, including breweries, a jazz club, cool coffee shops, and some trendy restaurants and hotels.  A minor league baseball park with a Double-A Texas League team will open in time for the 2019 season.  Finally, the new Dove’s Rest Resort offers cushy cabins on the edge of Palo Duro Canyon that make a great place to stay, relax and keep an eye out for Clint Eastwood.

Ernest Hemingway in Michigan

You’ll enjoy these northern Michigan spots as much as the Hemingway family did.

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Ernest Hemingway spent 22 summers living the outdoor life in northern Michigan.

Each summer, around the turn of the last century, Ernest Hemingway’s family left their home in Oak Park, Illinois, near Chicago and headed for the beautiful woods, lakes and rivers of Michigan.

Clarence and Grace Hemingway purchased their cabin on Walloon Lake in 1898, before their son Ernest was born. Here, he grew up immersed in the manly world of hunting, fishing, and boxing. He met lumberjacks, bootleggers and hobos–and quite a few lovely young women, too.  These experiences became fodder for his Nick Adams short stories.

He said of the area, “It’s a great place to laze around and swim and fish when you want to. And the best place in the world to do nothing. It is beautiful country. And nobody knows about it but us.”

Torrents and Tours

Many readers associate Hemingway more readily with Cuba, Key West, Pamplona and Paris than Petoskey, Michigan. Yet, he spent 22 summers in the resort area of Petosky/Walloon Lake and he was married (for the first time) in nearby Horton Bay. You can read about this early life and marriage in Paula McLain’s best seller, The Paris Wife. It’s also where he began to hone his minimalist, staccato style and storytelling that later earned him the Nobel Prize.

If you’ve read The Torrents of Spring, you’ve read about Petoskey; the story and locales the-torrents-of-spring-9780684839073_lgare based on the town.  Petosky is understandably proud of its Hemingway connection and as you stroll the town, perched above Little Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan, you’ll see historical markers outside locations where he spent time. Hemingway fans can download a list of some of the places young Hemingway frequented: Horton Bay General Store, Stafford’s Perry Hotel, and City Park Grill, to name a few.  At City Park Grill, you may want to sit at the lovely Victorian bar where Hemingway raised a few glasses.

The Michigan Hemingway Society annually hosts a Hemingway Weekend in the Petoskey area, usually in October.  The weekend brings visitors from across the country together for readings, tours and exhibits. The national Hemingway Society also provides a great way to meet other Hemingway fans. The group meets every two years and in 2018, in contrast to the wild country of Michigan, the organization will meet in Paris.  It’s a chance to experience Hemingway’s “moveable feast” in person.

Read On

While you’re in Petosky, be sure to stop in at McLean & Eakin Booksellers where you’ll find plenty of works by and about about Ernest Hemingway, books by local authors and booksellers who are happy to suggest great reads.   I mentioned the shop in a previous post about how much author Ann Patchett loves reading and travel.

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McLean & Eakin, a great bookstore in Petoskey, Michigan.

 

A Visit to the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City

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The National World War I Museum and Memorial is an iconic landmark in Kansas City.

The United States entered World War I in 1917 and that 100-year anniversary makes this a perfect time to visit the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.  No one is left who lived through it to talk about the “War to End All Wars.” For many the war seems so remote, it’s hard to understand the magnitude of what happened, how it led to World War II and its importance today.  That’s a job this museum does well with a gripping array of exhibits, artifacts and art that explains the complex occurrences that led to the war, the unbelievable carnage.

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Displays explain the complex chain reaction that brought so many countries into World War I.

The memorial was built in 1926, but the museum opened in 2006.  Visitors enter by walking on plexiglass floor over a field of poppies.  You could spend hours here partly because exhibits cover not only the U.S. involvement but that of the many countries involved across the whole world. There’s something to interest everyone from weaponry, to the uniforms and equipment of soldiers and nurses, medical techniques developed during the war and more.

Not familiar with World War I history?  Even if you’re not visiting this museum soon, there are several terrific books I recommend:  The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman is a non-fiction classic and you can’t beat the classic fiction books All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, Regeneration by Pat Barker and Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (one of my all-time favorites.) Also suggested, a new book The Last of the Doughboys by Richard Rubin.

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The World War I Museum has a Renault FT17 tank, one of five left in the world that saw combat.  

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Posters from World War I encouraged citizens to buy war bonds, enlist in the military and also served in influence public opinion.

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From atop the memorial’s tower, visitors get a perfect view downtown Kansas City, Missouri.

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.