Tag Archives: reading

Beyond Austin into the Texas Hill Country

A Texas Longhorn Grazing in the Hill Country

Though the South by Southwest music, film and interactive fest has dominated Austin lately, the city has has a ton to offer year-round including great food, shopping, and music coming out of every doorway on 6th Street. In addition, if you have an extra day on your visit to Austin, you’ll find plenty to see, do and eat in the Hill Country west of Austin. It offers a chance to see the Texas countryside, with stunning wildflowers in spring, and even a few longhorn cattle.

Head first to Fredericksburg, a charming town that German settlers founded back in the mid-1800s. A trip down Main Street there is like a walk back into the old west, lined with historic limestone buildings, but with cute shops that cater to tourists on the inside. If it’s hot, you’ll find plenty of beer gardens and craft beer to slake your thirst.

The Texas White House of LBJ

Turn back in the direction of Austin, and pay a visit at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Ranch, home of our 36thPresident, and known as the Texas White House during his presidency.   Be sure to read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream or Billy Lee Brammer’s, The Gay Place which is about Texas politics and Lyndon Johnson to get the most out of your visit here. The ranch is now operated by the National Park Service. You can tour both an historic Texas farm and the Texas White House, circa 1968. It’s a great way to get off the road and see what a Texas ranch looks like, get a look at the lovely Pedernales River, and see the ranch house as it was, right down to the clothes in the closets.

End your day with a stop in Driftwood at the legendary rib joint and meat-lovers heaven, the Salt Lick. (Cash only and B.Y.O.B. or purchase a beer and wine a the wine bar next door.)

Shadow Country and Swamplandia! in Florida's Ten Thousand Islands

Grinning gators galore in the Everglades.

If you’re a fan of Peter Matthiessen’s National Book Award winner, Shadow Country, you

Smallwood Store, scene of E.J. Watson's murder.

may already have taken a day out of a Florida vacation and traveled to the Ten Thousand Islands area of southwest Florida to get a look at where the story happened.  Shadow Country is a fictionalized account of the story of the notorious real-life Everglades sugar cane planter and outlaw E. J. Watson at the turn of the 20th century.  But now, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (the fictional story of Ava Bigtree, a 12-year-old alligator wrestler who embarks on a strange journey through the area’s mangrove wilderness in search of her lost sister) creates another reason to investigate this section of the Everglades. So, last week a friend and I made the two-hour trip from Miami (it’s much closer to Naples on Florida’s Gulf Coast) to get a view of the mysterious watery world of these books.

We set out with fishing guide, Captain Rodney Raffield, from his home on Chokoloskee Island. Unlike the northern saw grass portions of the Everglades where the water is fresher, this section consists mostly of thousands mangrove islands in saltwater near the Gulf of Mexico. The Watson place is now a remote National Park Service campsite.  There isn’t

What's left of the Watson Place.

much left of the homestead except a huge vat where they boiled sugar cane to make syrup.  However, the Smallwood Store, the site where E.J. Watson was murdered by his neighbors, is still there on Chokoloskee Island and open as a


A boat ride around the area offers an impressive glimpse of the seemingly unending expanse of the Everglades.  To a visitor, there seem to be very few landmarks, so it was a pleasure to travel with Raffield, an affable fifth-generation resident of the area and a former stone crab fisherman who knows the place like the back of his hand and has plenty of stories to prove it.  As we wound our way through the mangrove islands, which are really just clumps of tangled roots rather than solid ground, we saw huge numbers of nesting birds. And, the alligators lolling on every open bank (some as much as twelve feet long), were the kind one might see on a tour of Russell’s fictional alligator park Swamplandia! Neither sea nor land, the Ten Thousand Islands make the perfect setting for Ava’s ghostly and gothic travels through the backwaters.

White pelicans near Rabbit Pass Key, Ten Thousand Islands, Florida

It’s a place where anything could happen… even something as unlikely as we non-fishers casting our lines for a few minutes and catching a “mess a fish,” as Raffield says. We then hustled over to the Havana Café in Chokoloskee, where they cooked ‘em up and we ate ’em, back on solid ground.

Murder and Mayhem: Investigating Crime Fiction

I hardly ever read crime novels. When I have, the experience has usually been a disappointment. The books were “low-brow,” with weak characters, predictable plots and lame dialog. However, this genre is so popular I’ve always figured that I must somehow be missing the good stuff. It was a mystery to me.

Another fact that has piqued my curiosity about crime novels is that the Twin Cities area, where I live, has more crime writers per capita than just about anywhere. A few years ago, an article in The Economist of all places, speculated, “Why do the Twin Cities create so much literary gore?” The answer was three-fold. There are a lot of advertising agencies here, which have spun out several successful crime writers (not sure about that connection aside from a very abbreviated, direct writing style). Also, several former reporters for the two major newspapers here have moved from journalism to fiction, true crime to the imaginary version. Finally, some attribute it to the weather. One writer, Brian Freeman, who has published a crime novel set in Duluth, in northern Minnesota, explained to The Economist, “What is there to do during those long winter months beside sit inside and think dark thoughts of murder and mayhem?”

I decided to conduct my own investigation into the virtues of crime fiction and go to the source, Once Upon a Crime, the bookstore in Minneapolis. Tucked into the lower level of a building on 26th Street, just east of Lyndale Avenue, Once Upon a Crime is truly a hidden gem, though not a secret to crime fiction lovers.  Pat Frovarp owns the shop with her husband, Gary, and a dog appropriately named Shamus,  She doesn’t just know about the writers, she knows a huge number of the writers personally. This year the store won The Raven Award, the top honor for non-authors given at the annual Edgar Awards, sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America.

She gave me a quick tutorial on the genre and revealed a world far more intriguing than those crime or thriller books one sees on the racks in grocery stores and airports. The store handles fiction only, no true crime. Under this umbrella one can find countless sub-genres, something for every taste—“hard-boiled” and violent to “soft-boiled” Agatha Christie-type works which Pat calls “cozies.”  Pick just about any part of the world or any period in history, there’s crime fiction that takes place there. Best of all, for someone like me, there are works that weave in history and that I (yes, snobbishly) would call “literary.”  I had trouble narrowing it down, but I left the store with The Canterbury Papers, a novel by Minneapolis writer Judith Koll Healey that takes place in the Middle Ages and Big Wheat, a mystery story set in the Dakotas in 1919, by St. Paul author Richard A. Thompson.

I can’t wait to settle in for a long read on a dark and stormy (and cold) night.  I also anticipate going back to visit Pat for a discussion of books, crime and dogs.

Book Club When You Haven't Read the Book

I just ran across a great post from Jeff O’Neal on the blog “Book Riot.”  It’s called “7 Ways to Fake it at Book Club.”  That title cracked me up because at some point just about everyone in a book group has had the problem of not having read the book in time for the meeting.

It seemed a particularly pertinent topic because my book club just read Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, which is a slog, to say the least.  Even the person hosting the group didn’t finish it.  It’s a great book, won many awards, and Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie (urging Muslims to kill the author) because the Ayatollah found the book blasphemous. The Satanic Verses is full of symbolism, dreams, commentary on the life of immigrants and much more, so it seemed like a great idea when we were choosing books. Still, for most people, it turned out to be a dense book that’s too easily put aside for all the activities of everyday life.

We could have used some of O’Neal’s tips, which include: read the first seven and the last seven pages, be bold and ask the first question, things like, “So, what did everyone else think of the book?” I particularly admire strategy five, “Strategic Proximal Absence,” That means,

When the conversation turns from pre-game chatter to direct discussion of the book, get up and go find something to do in the kitchen, but keep an ear out. Don’t stay in there for an hour, just wait until someone says something you can glom onto. Rush in like you didn’t want to miss this part and ask for a recap. This should give you time to come up with a quick something to say. Plus, your wine will be topped off.

To his suggestions, I’d add: think of other books with similar themes that you have read.  It always seems smart to compare and contrast; it sounds like you know what you’re talking about.

I’m in two book clubs and both are pretty serious about what we read. But, one reason we’ve been together for years and years is that we have an understanding that everyone won’t have read the entire book every time. In The Satanic Verses case, we all admitted that we hadn’t finished it. With that admission, we found common ground in discussing why it was difficult to get through.  And, with a bit of research on Rushdie, the fatwa, and some help from Spark Notes, we had a great discussion of the book without having read it–not quite as good as the real thing, but close.  …. And we all had our wine topped off.

Beer and Books in Wisconsin

The Bookmobile headed for Wisconsin.

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

Jake's provides most of the things one needs on vacation.

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.”

The List

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

—Laura Hillenbrand.

The Language of Flowers —Vanessa Diffenbaugh

My Nest
Isn’t Empty, It Just Has More Closet Space —Lisa Scottoline

Ely, Minnesota, for the Wild or the Wimpy

Serenity on Farm Lake near Ely, Minnesota. A portion of this lake is in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Ely, Minnesota (five hours north of Minneapolis), is home to the hardest of hardcore outdoorspeople—polar explorers Will Steger, Paul Schurke and Anne Bancroft, to name a few.  From Ely, you can launch a dogsledding trip in winter or a multi-week canoe trip through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in summer. Budget Travel magazine named Ely “The Coolest Small Town in America” last year. They said, “It says a lot about a town when there are more wildlife centers (two) than Wal-Marts (zero), and more canoe and fishing outfitters (27) than, well, anything else. In Ely, you’re never more than a step away from the wilderness.”  But what if you’re made of less hardy stuff or you’re traveling with people for whom “wilderness” means that the mall is a 15-minute drive?

Ely offers plenty of opportunities for activity and a healthy dose of nature, even for outdoor novices or those who may not be physically able tackle portaging canoes or rugged hikes. On a trip last weekend, we hit the Harvest Moon Festival, complete with

an early "voyageur"

crafty artisans; historic reenactors of the early settlers and trappers of the area, the voyageurs; and a lumberjack show—a little hokey, but entertaining.

My favorite comment came from one of the “voyageurs” who was cooking up some sort of stew in a giant cast iron post.  I asked what he was

Cooking "Camp Wander" If it wanders into camp, we cook it.

cooking and he said, “Camp Wander. If it wanders into camp, we cook it.”

Ely is home to the International Wolf Center, the North American Bear Center, and some tasty restaurants such as the Chocolate Moose.  You can buy great sweaters and of course mukluks at Steger Mukluk.  For book lovers, there’s a nice bookstore upstairs at Piragis Northwoods Company.

One of my favorite stops in town is the Brandenburg Gallery, where you can see and buy

a Jim Brandenburg poster

photos from acclaimed outdoor photographer and Ely resident, Jim Brandenburg.  His photography captures the spirit and the unusual beauty of the wilderness.  Check out his web site to see his stunning photos and a video, and click on this Minnesota Department of Natural Resources link for a video that features his fall photos.

On our recent trip, in lieu of a tent, we opted for a cozy cabin at Timber Trail Lodge where you can canoe, fish, or simply ponder the lake and its solitude from the dock. Famed environmentalist, author and Ely resident Sigurd Olson said

Wilderness is a spiritual necessity. An antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium. I have found that people go to the wilderness for many things, but the most important of these is perspective. They may think they go for the fishing or the scenery or companionship, but in reality it is something far deeper. They go to the wilderness for the good of their souls.

Olson was instrumental in the preservation of millions of acres of wilderness in Alaska and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota. He helped establish Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and Point Reyes National Seashore in California and helped draft the Wilderness Act of 1964. Looking for a little wilderness inspiration?  Read his books The Singing WildernessListening Point, The Lonely Land and others.

Finally, talk about “budget travel”–in Ely and the surrounding wilderness, the most amazing sights are free. Lay on your back on the dock at night and you’ll see  a show of stars that you can’t see amid the lights of a city.   And, if you’re lucky, you may see an even more spectacular show—the Northern Lights. We saw another amazing, though dismaying, display of

Pagami Creek Fire

nature, the huge Pagami Creek wildfire in the Boundary Waters, which is now so big that the smoke is visible as far away as Chicago. Started by lightning two weeks ago, it has burned through over 100,000 acres. Hopefully, the frost and sleet in the next few days will slow its spread.

For more northern Minnesota-inspired reading look for:

Tim O’Brien- In the Lake of the Woods 

Will Weaver – Red Earth, White Earth, The Last Hunter: an American Family Album, and of the short story “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” which was made into the movie Sweet Land.

Catherine Holm- My Heart is a Mountain: Tales of Magic and the Land

William Kent Krueger– Vermillion Drift

National Book Festival Podcasts

The National Book Festival takes place on Saturday, September 24 and Sunday,

If you can't make it to the National Book Festival, you can take advantage of podcasts from authors who will appear there.

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.

Minnesota and the National Book Festival

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.

We Always Knew It: Nellie Oleson is a Prairie B****

Laura Ingalls Wilder would be astounded at the interest people still have in her

Laura Ingalls Wilder's beloved stories live on through pageants, tours, biographies and through her arch enemy, Nellie Oleson.

books and her life and the many forms that interest has taken.  Eighty years after the publication of the first book in her Little House on the Prairie series, The Little House in the Big Woods, Laura is big business in the towns where she lived.  Wendy McClure describes these places in her great book The Wilder Life, My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie.

It’s good the Ingalls family kept moving, because it has given each tiny town where they lived, no matter how briefly they lit there, a chance to lure visitors to the family’s various homes, cabins and indentations in the sod. For example, tiny Pepin, Wisconsin, generally the site of the Little House in the Big Woods, holds Laura Ingalls Wilder Days annually in September. In De Smet, South Dakota (By the Shores of Silver Lake), they have a Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, all sorts of Laura-themed shops and restaurants  and a pageant that is celebrating its the 40th anniversary this summer. Walnut Grove, Minnesota, (On the Banks of Plum Creek) also has a pageant and a Laura Ingalls Wilder museum.  Four authors appeared at the museum last weekend to promote their books about Laura.

Of course the Little House TV series made hay from the novels and it still lives on in Hallmark Channel reruns decades after it was in production. The show was super-popular in France.  I once met a woman from France…. who said all that she knew about Minnesota she learned from the Little House on the Prairie TV series. Now, so far from the prairie, Carnival Cruise lines is getting in on the Laura action, with “THE LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE REUNION CRUISE, a 7 Day Fan-Filled Cruise to the Mexican Riviera Mexican Riviera with the ORIGINAL Cast Aboard the Carnival Splendor, November 13 – 20 2011.”

But back on the prairie….this Saturday and Sunday, Allison Arngrim, who played Laura’s arch enemy Nellie Oleson on the TV series, will appear at the museum in Walnut Grove. An actress and stand up comedian, Arngrim pokes fun at her days as that ringlet wearing little priss, Nellie, in her book, “Confessions of a Prairie Bitch.” (I love the French title: La Petite Garce Dans La Prairie.) Check out a clip of her comedy show of the same name in which she asks, “Do you know what it means to be Nellie Olesen?  It means someone has celled me a bitch every day since I was eleven.”

Seems like it was worth it.

Pop, Soda, Coke, Mint Tea? On Being a Stranger in a Strange Land

I certainly felt like a stranger when I visited this Berber woman and her daughter in Morocco last spring. They're part of a nomad family that travels with their animals as the seasons change. While they're in this part of the Atlas Mountains, they live in a cave. We couldn't be more different, but I didn't feel like such a stranger when she offered a cup of mint tea.

I just finished reading Ann Patchett’s newest book, State of Wonder, a fictional work in which the protagonist, Marina Singh, is a research scientist who works for a pharmaceutical company in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.  The company dispatches her to the darkest reaches of Brazil to track down her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson. (You can read my review of the book on the online literary mag, Minnesota Reads—“they like big books and they cannot lie.”) Marina, a home-grown Minnesotan, is an outsider in the lush and chaotic jungle world of Brazil, although this weekend Minnesota will be steaming and tropical, too.

The impact of outsiders on an exotic and undeveloped environment is a common theme in literature and in the movies—think Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, Avatar, Indiana Jones… the list goes on.  Usually, the meeting of cultures results in conflict. Freakish animal/human combinations appear (Dr. Moreau), exploitative colonists chop down the Tree of Life (Avatar).  These fictional stories have me thinking about real-world travel and being a “foreigner.” Aside from some truly frightful bathrooms–I once used a bathroom in a Haitian jail–travel is usually far less scary and often far more fascinating than fiction.

Of course, you don’t need to sail to Borneo to feel like a stranger in a strange land.  For example, when I go to California, people seem to have no idea where Minnesota is or what Minnesotans are like except what they may have seen on Little House On the Prairie. (Update:  we no longer wear bonnets.  Nor do we “tip” cows.) I’ve had people in California say, “Oh, you’re from Minnesota, do you live near Detroit?”  One Californian asked me if Minneapolis is closer to Chicago or Boston.  Hmm, let me think about that.

I knew I was different when a wonderful tour guide in Charleston, South Carolina, told me, “We just love the way ya’ll talk.”  That surprised me because I thought he was the one who spoke with a funny accent.  But if you really want to feel like a stranger, try asking someone in the Southwestern U.S. for a pop.  You might as well be speaking Greek.  For you non-Midwesterners, I’m talking about a carbonated beverage.  See the New York Timespop, soda, coke map.

Paul Theroux says in his latest book, a great travel writing compilation, The Tao of Travel

It is hard to be a stranger.  A traveler has no power, no influence, no known identity. That’s why a traveler needs optimism and heart, because without confidence travel is misery.  Generally, the traveler is anonymous, ignorant, easy to deceive, at the mercy of the people he or she travels among. The travelers might be known as “the American” or “the Foreigner,” and there is no power in that.

But feeling strange is exhilarating, half the fun of travel.  And, despite the dangers some fictional travelers encounter, it’s usually an overwhelmingly positive experience for those of us in the real world. Theroux offers these tips as the “Essential Tao of Travel:”

1. Leave home (no problem)

2.  Go alone

3. Travel light (often a big problem)

4. Bring a map

5. Go by land

6. Walk across a national frontier

7. Keep a journal

8. Read a novel that has no relation to the place you’re in

9. If you must bring a cell phone, avoid using it

10. Make a friend (see the photo above)