Tag Archives: literature

A Short Visit at O. Henry’s Tiny House in Austin, Texas

Before William Sydney Porter, aka O. Henry wrote his famous short story “The Gift of the Magi,” he lived for a few years in Austin, Texas. The tiny house he rented survives as a museum. It’s tucked in right next to the giant Hilton Austin in the center of town and this property looks like it would have great potential to become a parking lot or fast food joint, and in fact it barely missed the wrecking ball back in the 1930s.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post on authors’ homes, the places where famous authors SONY DSClived are often a disappointment compared to the places they describe in their books.  And,  a huge modern building right next door doesn’t help you envision the author’s life as it was in the 1800s.  Nonetheless, if you’re in Austin, you should pay a call at Porter’s house, if only to get a taste of how people lived at the time. The price is right, too.  It’s free, but please make a donation when you leave.

While he resided here (1893 to 1895), Porter made his living drawing maps for the General Land Office and publishing a paper called the Rolling Stone (quite different from the current publication of that name).  Before you go, be sure to read a couple of his most famous stories–“The Gift of the Magi” or “The Ransom of Red Chief.”

William Sydney Porter, aka O. Henry

Ah, the symbolism. If Porter could see his tiny home now, wedged in next to the giant hotel, I’m sure he would find inspiration for another story.



A Tour of Hemingway Haunts in Paris

La Cupole in Paris
La Cupole in Paris

There are certain aspects of Paris that have always captured my imagination, most of them in some way related to literature.  The French Revolution, for example, fascinates me, a fact I trace back to middle school when I read Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Charles Darnay, Sydney Carton, Madame DeFarge and her nasty band of peasant rebels all made Paris seem real to me long before I had an opportunity to actually see it. Then, Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables added to my panorama of Paris.

From Victor Hugo, fast forward to the Jazz Age of the 1920s, when artists and writers swarmed to Paris like bees to honey. If you saw Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, you have a feel for the era when American expat writers such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald lived in Paris but seem to spend more time carousing than writing. That was about 90 years ago, but you can still see most of the places that Hemingway describes so beautifully in A Moveable Feast.  The book is  a virtual guidebook to the places he found most remarkable when he lived in Paris with is first wife, Hadley in the 1920s (and with subsequent wives later on).

The story goes that, in the 1950s, a trunk full of notes on his first years in Paris turned up at the Ritz Hotel. That gave him the raw material to write A Moveable Feast. So, take a little stop at the Ritz, near the Place Vendôme, especially at the hotel’s Hemingway Bar. During the Liberation of Paris in 1944, Hemingway considered it one of his first duties to “liberate” the Ritz bar and order martinis all around. Here at the Ritz, Hemingway asked Mary Welsh to become his fourth wife. The hotel is closed for renovations but will open this year.  CoCo Chanel lived at the Ritz and one of the rooms in the Imperial Suite re-creates one of Marie-Antoinette’s rooms at Versailles.

The apartment where Hemingway and his "Paris Wife," Hadley, were "very poor and very happy."
The apartment where Hemingway and his “Paris Wife,” Hadley, were “very poor and very happy.”

If, like most of us, you lack the Versailles-level budget required to stay at the Ritz, consider staying in the Contrescarpe neighborhood where Hemingway lived in the 1920s. Be sure to pause at 74 Rue de Cardinal Lemoine where he and Hadley lived from 1922 to 1923, “the Paris of our youth, when we were very poor and very happy.”  He describes their apartment:

Home in the rue Cardinal Lemoine was a two-room flat that had no hot water and no inside toilet facilities except an antiseptic container, not uncomfortable to anyone who was used to a Michigan outhouse.”

This apartment is where Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises, the book that made him famous. Below it is a shop that used to be a bal-musette or dance hall. It appears in The Sun Also Rises as the bal where we first meet Lady Brett. (Rest assured, you don’t have to live like a starving artist in this neighborhood. If you can book far enough ahead, try the Hotel D’Angleterre where Hemingway once stayed.) Wander Place Contrescarpe, a rough old square packed with cafes and apartments that couldn’t have changed since the 1920s. Take a morning stroll through the Marche Mouffetard (prime time is Saturday and Sunday morning), a fantastic market with produce, cheese, wine and just about anything you’ll need for your own feast, a picnic by the Seine or in the nearby Luxembourg Gardens.

Strolling among the "bouquinistes" along the Seine in Paris.
Strolling among the bouquinistes along the Seine in Paris.

If you walk downhill from Hemingway’s apartment on Cardinal Lemoine  you’ll come to the Seine where you’ll see the famed expat bookstore, Shakespeare and Co., and across the street, Notre Dame Cathedral. From here, you can follow the steps of Jake and Bill in The Sun Also Rises as they circle the Île St-Louis. The stalls of the  bouquinistes–sellers of antique books, magazines and a bit of tourist trash–line the walk along the river. Hemingway used to stroll here and chat with the booksellers.  “I would walk along the quais when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out.  It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood.”

He adds, “With the

Hemingway might be surprised to see his book “A Moveable Feast” among the books sold by “bouquinistes” in Paris.

fishermen and the life on the river, the beautiful barges with their own life on board, the tugs with the smokestacks that folded back to pass under the bridges, pulling a tow of barges, the great elms on the stone banks of the river, the plane trees and in some places the poplars, I could never be lonely along the river.”

You won’t feel lonely in any of the many famous cafes along Boulevard du Montparnasse, either. Okay, they’re pricey and popular with tourists, but worth it if you want to sample jazz age cafe life.  The Closerie des Lilas, for example, at 171 Boulevard du Montparnasse  is a lovely cafe where Hemingway wrote and Scott Fitzgerald read him The Great Gatsby. La Coupole, at number 102, is a vast art deco brasserie, brightly painted by Brancusi and Chagall.

Finally, to really get the swing of the Paris of Hemingway’s era, wander the medieval lanes of the Latin Quarter where you’ll find the great jazz club Le Caveau de la Huchette at 5 rue de la Huchette.  Though it wasn’t around during Hemingway’s time, it surely has much of the era’s joie de vivre. In Le Caveau’s ancient vaulted cellar you’ll find a dance floor, a swing band, and people dancing like Mexican jumping beans on a hot skillet. Sit back and watch Parisians enjoy la belle vie or join in the dancing. It’s your own moveable feast. As Hemingway concluded, “There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other.”

Stepping Into Literary History at Shakespeare and Company in Paris

Book lovers from around the world visit the iconic Shakespeare and Company in Paris.

From the outside where bins of books lure visitors to pause and browse on a sunny day, to the golden hued interior where books fill every nook and cranny, Shakespeare and Company positively vibrates with literary history. In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway said of the famed Paris bookstore, “On a cold windswept street, this was a SONY DSCwarm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter, tables and shelves of books, new books in the window, and photographs on the wall of famous writers both dead and living.”  He could have been describing the store as it is today, in its current location at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, (formerly a monastery) across the Seine from Notre Dame Cathedral. It’s a place where the most current books and writers mingle with rare old volumes, where the tradition of fostering new writers merges with a heritage that reaches back to 1919 and “The Lost Generation.”

Unknown-2When Hemingway discovered Shakespeare and Company back in the 1920s it was located at 12 Rue l’Odeon. Its owner, Sylvia Beach, both sold books and loaned them out, which was perfect for the impoverished writer who had just moved to Paris with his wife Hadley. (Read their story in Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife.)  In those days, her shop was the center of modernist literary culture, with writers such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, Stein, and Joyce congregating in the “warm, cheerful place” full innovative ideas. Not surprisingly, one could find all of the books banned in England and America—most notably, Joyce’s Ulysses—readily available in Beach’s shop. After publishers rejected Joyce’s gigantic Ulysses as pornographic, Shakespeare and Company published it.

Housed in a former monastery,  Shakespeare and Company continues the literary spirit of the Lost Generation and encourages modern writers, including its sponsorship of The Paris Literary Prize.
Housed in a former monastery, Shakespeare and Company continues the literary spirit of the Lost Generation and encourages modern writers, including its sponsorship of The Paris Literary Prize.

But that was before the World War II. The shop closed after the Germans occupied Paris.  Hemingway himself “liberated” the store when he entered Paris with the American troops in 1944, but the store didn’t reopen until the 1950s when George Whitman  a new shop, originally called Le Mistral and later Shakespeare and Company, in its current location and continued Beach’s work. Here, a second generation of writers gathered, everyone from the last modernists—Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Richard Wright, and Samuel Beckett—through the first Beats—Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman now owns Shakespeare and Company, which has become the world’s most famous bookstore.  It still serves as a haven for penniless writers, who are allowed to sleep among its shelves for free.

I have a feeling that Hemingway would feel at home in the the store today, though he would surely miss the first Sylvia Beach… and they’d want him to buy the books.

The shutters at Shakespeare and Company tell the bookstore’s story.


Weekly Photo Challenge: The Sea and the Imagination

Man at the Wheel, Gloucester, Massachusetts
Man at the Wheel, Gloucester, Massachusetts

I love the water, but as a Midwesterner, the ocean holds a special fascination because we don’t have one. Granted, the Great Lakes are big enough and fierce enough in bad weather to give the feeling of the ocean and the same waves of motion sickness wash over on me on rough water, salty or fresh. But there’s just something about the ocean that launches my imagination into overdrive.

First there are the tides. We visited friends one summer who live on a Pacific coast inlet.  When we arrived we were oceanside. The next morning the water was gone and the boats all sat in the sand awaiting high tide to float them again.  This was a freaky, Stephen King-like experience for a “lake person.”

The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald aside, the ocean simply carries a bigger cargo of tales, from Moby Dick to Captains Courageous to The Perfect Storm and about a zillion classic novels in between.  Gloucester, Mass., a real fishing town north of Boston, offers one of the best places to hang out and absorb a heavy dose of the maritime atmosphere that makes those stories come to life. You’ll get a double dose if you attend the Gloucester Schooner Festival this weekend.

Sailing the harbor, Gloucester, Mass.
Sailing the harbor, Gloucester, Mass.

Finally, few things are more pleasurable than being sea-side, dozing intermittently, lulled by the warmth of the sun, a view of the ocean, the sound of the surf, and the coconutty smell of sunscreen on your skin. I just read a post from a blog I follow, Jenn’s Bookselves, in which she writes about how much the venue in which we read a novel, can affect our

Beach reading, Rockport, Mass.
Beach reading, Rockport, Mass.

feelings and reading experience.  I nominate surfside as one of the best places to read, though it’s important to do so with books that give your brain a chance to relax along with the rest of your body.  So raise your pina colada and your copy of anything by Carl Hiassen. Here’s to beach reading.

Go Off The Beaten Page in Memphis

Off The Beaten Page on Beale Street, Memphis
Off The Beaten Page on Beale Street, Memphis

In my opinion, if you’re looking for one place where you can go to get an understanding of the United States–its culture, its history and its struggles–it’s Memphis.  Robert Gordon says in It Came from Memphis, “No city has had more of an impact on modern culture.”

Those are pretty big statements, but after visiting Memphis, I think it’s true. I had never been there until I went on a “reconnaissance mission” while writing Off The Beaten Page:  The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs and Girls on Getaways and by the time I left I felt a tie with Memphis that makes me want to go back to this gritty city on the Mississippi over and over.

It’s not a fancy place, like, for example another Southern city I love, Charleston. But, Memphis moves you. The Memphis mojo makes even the most reserved person want to snap her fingers and start dancing with abandon. In fact, go to the Stax Museum, “Soulsville, USA,” and hit the dance floor there which is surrounded by a video wall. Or, visit Sun Studio where a few guys named Elvis, Johnny, and Jerry Lee recorded their hits. Try to stand still; I dare you. I predict you’ll be rockin’ before you even notice it.

But it’s not all so happy-go-lucky. Memphis was a hub for the civil rights movement and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated there at the Lorraine Motel, which is now

The Lorraine Motel, and the National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis.
The Lorraine Motel, and the National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis.

the National Civil Rights Museum, another “moving” place.  This is mecca for anyone interested in the civil rights movement.  It’s undergoing an extensive renovation and is currently featuring the exhibit, “Freedom’s Sisters.”  Before you go, read Hampton Sides’ Hellhound on His Trail for background and to feel a very close connection to those events.

Then get rollin’ on the river with Mark Twain.  His classic Life on the Mississippi outlines not only his experience as a young riverboat pilot but also his observations from a later trip on the river where he observes the cotton culture, the people and many other aspects of life on the Big Muddy.  Take a short riverboat cruise and you’ll feel the river’s power and learn a little more about its history and integral role in the development of the country.

Need more excuses to visit Memphis?  Check out a few of the city’s upcoming events including Elvis Week, the King’s birthday celebration (this year from August 10-17), and of course Graceland. The Memphis Music and Heritage Festival takes place every year on

You'll also want to visit the gift shop at the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis
You’ll also want to visit the gift shop at the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis

Labor Day weekend. It’s organized by the Center for Southern Folklore. And, now through October you can visit Mud Island Park to see “Discovery: A Journey of Exploration and Imagination of America’s Waterways,” a traveling exhibit of the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium and the National Rivers Hall of Fame.

Celebrate Dad with a Literary Adventure Together

Looking for a creative Father’s Day gift? Think books-and-adventure. 

Scott and Mike Smith prepare for a Father’s Day father/son skydiving adventure at West Side Skydivers. westsideskydivers.com

Say “literary travel” and people usually conjure up images of following in the footsteps of the Bronte sisters in England, visiting Ernest Hemingway’s home in Key West, or perhaps tracing the route of the fictional Robert Langdon through Florence in Dan Brown’s latest, Inferno.  Those are great ideas, but for most of us, such excursions mean a major investment of time and money.  Instead, I maintain that you can concoct a lit trip just about anywhere if you find the right book and activity combo.  A short lit trip doesn’t have to take a huge chunk of your budget or your schedule.  And it doesn’t require plowing through high-brow literature. The idea here is to have fun.

Like moms, fathers love spending time with their kids. Unlike moms, “together time” for dads may involve watching golf or ESPN. A lit trip with dad provides just the right catalyst to propel everyone away from watching sports on TV to watching events in person or better yet, participating. Reading the same book  (fiction or non-fiction) just naturally brings people together over shared stories and ideas. A literary adventure, near or far, extends the pleasure of sharing a book by adding an experience to the mix, creating an opportunity to live the book. So, it a lit trip doesn’t have to be a scholars exercise, just a way to try out new ideas, activities, and even meet new people.

At almost all of the events and appearances I do for my book Off the Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs and Girls on Getaways, men come up to me and say I should do a book for guys.  Often, the books and itineraries in my book can be enjoyed by both men and women, so I imagine an Off The Beaten Page, Men’s Edition would offer much of the same sort of content but with a bit of fine-tuning… more NASCAR, less shopping.  Here are a few ideas for literary adventures for guys, dads and otherwise.

A Flying Leap

Is there something on dad’s bucket list that he just needs a little encouragement to try? Sky diving was on my husband’s list for ages and he finally talked one of our sons into going with him as a Father’s Day treat for himself.

Read: Above All Else: A World Champion Skydiver’s Story of Survival and What It Taught Him About Fear, Adversity, and Success by Dan Brodsky-Chenfield.  (Okay, I’m thinking you may want to go skydiving first, then read the book.)

Go: skydiving

How to Be Manly

Not so hot on extreme adventures like skydiving?

Read: Man Made: In Which a Dad Learns to Be a Man for His Son by Joel Stein. In man-made-coverhardback, this book had a title I liked better, A Stupid Quest for Masculinity. Stein confesses that he’s not a “manly man” and so undertakes an investigation of how to become one in this very funny book. Chapter One: “Surviving Outdoors”

Go:  camping or simply take a hike.

America’s Game

Baseball travel” is a favorite form of travel for many guys, with groups traveling across the country to tick off visits to both major league and minor league stadiums.  (Read my post on Major League Vacations.)

Read: Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age by Allen Barra.  This new book had been well received by critics.

Go: Take in a baseball game together.

The Scene of the Crime

It’s no wonder that crime is one of the most popular literary genres.Unknown-9

Read: Revisit the classics, books like Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon or Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely. You just can’t beat those hard-boiled gumshoes. Or, pick up more recent classics like Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer or Walter Mosely’s newest Easy Rawlins mystery, Little Green.

Go: visit the people in blue at your local police department.  Even small-town police departments offer some amazing behind-the-scenes tours and some even give you a look at offer their crime labs, ala CSI.

Grill n’ Chill

Cooking is a great creative outlet for just about anybody and there’s plenty of great food writing to go with it.

Read: Calvin Trillin’s The Tummy Trilogy or MFK Fisher’s classic The Art of Eating.Unknown-11

Go: take a cooking or grilling class together.

The sky’s the limit.  Just think book and “field trip.” For any dad, the memories of a literary adventure with his kids will stay with him far longer than a Hallmark card. If the kids are too young to share adventures with dad, you’ll want to check out the funny “Literature For Dads” video from The Dad Lab. They suggest avoiding Cormac McCarthy’s The Road–not an uplifting father-son travel idea.

AND–if you have any other book-and-travel pairings that a dad would like, please send them to me.  You can comment below, send links to favorite travel blogs, or email me at tsmith952@comcast.net with your ideas.  I’ll add them to this blog. But be quick.  Father’s Day is June 16.

Weekly Photo Challenge: In the Background, South Dakota

Hiking with the Nature Conservancy in the Samuel H. Ordway Memorial Preserve in South Dakota

On the prairie, the background is the story. More than most other places, the vast grasslands of the Dakotas make us stop and look for a moment at open spaces and realize that they are far from empty.

Gretel Ehrlich says in The Solace of Open Spaces, “We Americans are great on fillers, as if what we have, what we are, is not enough. We have a cultural tendency toward denial, but being affluent, we strangle ourselves with what we can buy. We gave only to look at the houses we build to see how we build “against” space, the way we drink against pain and loneliness. We fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there.”

Things To Do in Newport, Rhode Island

Newport Rhode Island, www.offthebeatenpagetravel.com

There’s plenty to do in Newport, Rhode Island, year-round, but “America’s first resort” really swings into action starting Memorial Day weekend, through Labor Day. For example, you can spend a weekend sampling great chowder in Newport any time of year, but the Great Chowder Cook Off takes place June 1. You can plan a picnic and head for Brenton Point State Park to fly kites and enjoy the fabulous scenery and the Newport Kite Festival July 13 and 14. And, there’s the world famous Newport Jazz Festival August 2, 3, and 4.  You can watch polo events and tennis tournaments, attend sailing regattas and find opportunities to go sailing yourself.

Admittedly, when you arrive in Newport,  you may feel like you somehow stepped out of your car and into a Ralph Lauren ad.  The town is a haven for hot-pink and lime-green plaid shorts, deck shoes, and monogrammed sweaters. But, as you may have seen from a few of my previous posts (see “The American Stories Behind Downton Abbey,” “Gifts for Mom“) I really love Newport, because it offers activities for just about every taste, even if you’re not part of the preppie set.  And, while modern-day events like those above abound, the town also offers a special chance to glimpse its Gilded Age history when you go “calling” at the fabulous mansions along Bellevue Avenue.  To get in the mood for your Newport trip, be sure to read Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers, Thornton Wilder’s Theophilus North, or non-fiction works such as Lucius Beebe’s The Big Spenders or Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age. You’ll also want to check out a blog I’ve found, The American Countess, which is written by someone even more intrigued with Gilded Age Newport than I.

Newport is one of the destinations I investigate in  Off The Beaten Page: 
The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs and Girls on Getaways. Find out more at http://www.terripetersonsmith.com

For San Francisco Travel, Armistead Maupin’s “Tales” Are Still Relevant

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.”