Experiencing wanderlust? Dreaming of travel?

Us too! Join author Denise Kiernan and me for some armchair adventuring on October 21st at 7 p.m. EST. Our chat is part of Denise’s weekly web series, CRAFT: Authors in Conversation. We’ll be talking travel, literary and otherwise, and will touch on some other topics, too. Like selling nearly all of your belongings to travel full-time.

I was supposed to join Denise for the event at a speakeasy in Asheville, North Carolina, this past summer, but the pandemic derailed those travel plans.

So mix a cocktail and come on by for some travel chat. Plus a special drink recipe, crafted by Little Jumbo, a bar in Asheville, will be revealed during the event.

Click here for more information and to register. The event is free and hosted on Crowdcast. And if you have a question about travel or writing or anything else you’d like to ask Denise or me, you can submit it ahead of time or during the event. See you there!

 

New York is always an intriguing backdrop for a story, and these are three of my favorite recently-published novels set in the city.

CITY OF GIRLS by Elizabeth Gilbert
After being kicked out of college, 19-year-old Vivian Morris heads to Manhattan in the 1940s. She moves in with her Aunt Peg, who owns the Lily Playhouse, a colorful, crumbling theater. By day Vivian earns her keep as a costumer, and by night she tears up the town with her new showgirl best friend. But when she makes a personal mistake that threatens the viability of the theater, she leaves town in a cloud of scandal. In the second half of the story, an older, wiser Vivian returns to New York, where she discovers her own versions of love and family. City of Girls is centered around strong female characters, challenging traditional gender roles and relationships, and the story is so vibrant and vividly told that it practically bursts off the page.

LILLIAN BOXFISH TAKES A WALK by Kathleen Rooney
On New Year’s Eve in 1984, 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish strolls Manhattan, visiting places that were pivotal to her. Chapters alternate between present and past as she reminisces about her long, eventful life—including a groundbreaking career as a copywriter at the iconic Macy’s department store—which took some unexpected turns and sometimes veered into dark territory. LILLIAN is my favorite kind of story, quirky and bittersweet. The title character is based on Margaret Fishback, the highest paid female advertising copywriter of the 1930s.

RULES OF CIVILITY by Amor Towles
Rules of Civility follows Katey Kontent, a smart, witty, ambitious young woman, through the working world and into the New York social circle in the late 1930s, beginning with a chance encounter at a Greenwich Village jazz bar on New Year’s Eve. Not only are there echoes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton, whose tales are infused with glamour and grief, literary lovers will appreciate the abundance of bookish references throughout. “I’ve come to realize,” muses Katey, “that however blue my circumstances, if after finishing a chapter of a Dickens novel I feel a miss-my-stop-on-the-train sort of compulsion to read on, then everything is probably going to be just fine.”

“In stopping to take breath, I happened to glance up at the canyon wall…. Far up above me, a thousand feet or so, set in a great cavern in the face of the cliff, I saw a little city of stone, asleep. It was as still as sculpture—and something like that. It all hung together, seemed to have a kind of composition: pale little houses of stone nestling close to one another, perched on top of each other, with flat roofs, narrow windows, straight walls, and in the middle of the group, a round tower.”

Quietly compelling and beautifully written, The Professor’s House by Willa Cather is two stories in one. The first and third parts of the novel focus on Godfrey St. John, a middle-aged history professor in a midwestern university town in the early 1920s, who, despite his successes, is struggling with a deep disappointment with life.

The middle section, “Tom Outland’s Story,” detours to the southwest, centering on a young man who died in the Great War and whose memory looms over the professor and those of his wife and daughters. Before traveling north and meeting the St. John family, Tom Outland was a cattle herder in New Mexico, where he discovered and explored the “Blue Mesa,” an ancient cliff city.

The Blue Mesa in Cather’s tale is based on Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado. I spent four years traveling full-time around the United States, and Mesa Verde is one of the most spellbinding and surreal places in the country. Constructed by Ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi, the adobe dwellings, which date from the 13th century, are perched on high peaks under overhanging rocks.

Cather first ventured to the Colorado park in 1915, spending a week there to conduct research. The next year she penned an article on the history of Mesa Verde for the The Denver Times, which compelled adventure-seekers, history-enthusiasts, and other tourists to visit the area. Cather’s descriptions in The Professor’s House of the cliff dwellings and the civilization that once thrived there are vivid and fascinating.

The Professor’s House is partly intriguing armchair travel—and perhaps inspiration to explore Mesa Verde in person someday.

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“I hide myself within my flower,
That wearing on your breast,
You, unsuspecting, wear me too—
And angels know the rest.”

I hide myself within my flower,
That, fading from your vase,
You, unsuspecting, feel for me
Almost a loneliness.”

Celebrate spring with the Emily Dickinson Poetry Walk, an annual tradition honoring the anniversary of the poet’s death on May 15, 1886. Excerpts from Dickinson’s works and personal letters are read at various landmarks around Amherst, Massachusetts, beginning at the Dickinson family homestead and ending at her grave site. This year fans anywhere in the world can participate in the Poetry Walk via Zoom at noon on Friday, May 15. The event is free and open to all, with registration required on the Emily Dickinson Museum website by noon on May 14.

During her 55 years, Emily Dickinson, who lived the majority of her life in Amherst, penned some 1,800 poems, only a few of which she chose to publish. Much of her verse was penned in secret, recorded in small, handmade booklets discovered after her death. Dickinson’s verse ranges in subject matter from nature and spirituality to art and medicine, and at least a third of her poems feature floral references.

For literary travelers thinking about post-pandemic destinations, the Emily Dickinson Museum encompasses two of the family’s homes, shown by guided tour, along with gorgeous grounds where the green-thumbed poet once gardened in her signature white dress (a replica of which is on display in her bedroom). Visitors can take a scenic stroll with an accompanying audio tour that integrates Dickinson’s poetry with the landscape that inspired her.

From the scenic setting that inspired Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” to the cozy study in the house (pictured above) where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow conjured “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “The Song of Hiawatha,” here are ten places for poetry enthusiasts to add to their travel wish lists. Even though their doors are currently closed, some of these museums can be toured virtually while others are offering fun and innovative online programming. Check websites and follow their social media accounts for news and announcements.

Emily Dickinson Museum, Amherst, Massachusetts
During her lifetime, Emily Dickinson penned some 1,800 poems spanning a wide range of subjects, from spirituality and nature to art and medicine. Only a few of her poems were published during her lifetime, while others she shared with family and friends. Much of Dickinson’s verse was penned in secret, recorded in small, handmade booklets discovered after her death. The museum encompasses two Dickinson family homes, along with gorgeous grounds where the green-thumbed poet once gardened in her signature white dress (a replica of which is on display in her bedroom).

Robert Frost Farm, Derry, New Hampshire
“To a large extent, the terrain of my poetry is the Derry land­scape,” Robert Frost told a friend. “There was something about the experience at Derry which stayed in my mind, and was tapped for poetry in the years that came after.” In a white clapboard farmhouse, a gift to the newly wed Frost from his grandfather at the turn of the 19th century, he penned verse late at night in the kitchen cozied up to a wood stove. A signposted nature trail on the property highlights notable sites like the stone-wall boundaries evoked in “Mending Wall” and the stream Frost immortalized in “Hyla Brook.” Read the rest of this entry »

 

Romantic poet William Wordsworth was born 250 years ago today, on April 7, 1770, in England’s lovely Lake District, a region he immortalized in verse.

For literary wanderers who have the Lake District on their bucket list for future travels, there are three Wordsworth landmarks to visit in this strikingly scenic region. A terrific book to read before venturing there is HOME AT GRASMERE, which combines excerpts from Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal with a selection of her brother’s poems. Dorothy vividly describes their everyday life at Dove Cottage in Grasmere, and the surrounding landscape of the Lake District, providing context for Wordsworth’s verse. (Or, if you’re looking for something to read while staying put during the pandemic, the book makes for nicely escapist reading.)

Wordsworth House and Garden
Cockermouth, Cumbria

Wordsworth, who composed much of his poetry on foot and is said to have walked more than 175,000 miles in his lifetime, was born in a two-story Georgian town house alongside the River Derwent. The poet’s lifelong love of nature began in his “sweet childish days,” which were spent exploring his family’s backyard garden and scrambling down its Terrace Walk to play on the banks of his “fairest of all rivers.” Memories of the poet’s early years feature heavily in his verse. Today the Wordsworth home re-creates the atmosphere of his middle-class Georgian childhood with period furnishings and tours given by costumed guides.

Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum
Grasmere, Cumbria

After many years spent wandering, Wordsworth returned to the Lake District in November 1799 on a “picturesque tour” with his sister, Dorothy, and their good friend, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
While at Grasmere, a tiny village nestled beside a glittering lake—“the loveliest spot that man hath ever found”—the poet spotted Dove Cottage (photo above right), a vacant inn then known as the Dove and Olive Branch. The simple stone house with a slate roof became his and Dorothy’s “nest in a green dale” for the next decade. Among the intriguing objects on display in an adjacent museum is the original draft of Wordsworth’s famed poem “Daffodils.”

Rydal Mount and Gardens
Rydal, Cumbria

After a decade of profitable writing, Wordsworth moved with his sister, wife, and children into a spacious 16th-century Tudor house near Grasmere. By the time Wordsworth took up residence at Rydal Mount, he was famous, and tourists would peep in the windows trying to catch a glimpse of him. Wordsworth was most welcoming to his eager fans, though, often chatting with them as they strolled by his house and sometimes even showing them around the terraced gardens he designed.

 

[Photo of Dove Cottage © The Wordsworth Trust; other photos © Novel Destinations]

Top left: The House of the Seven Gables ©Novel Destinations; top right: Louisa May Alcott’s writing desk ©Orchard House; bottom left: Mark Twain’s library ©Mark Twain House; bottom right: Flannery O’Connor’s farm ©Andalusia

“We miss you…and have noticed literally hundreds of you still stopping by Orchard House since our closure to enjoy our grounds and peer through the windows,” Jan Turnquist, executive director of the literary site in Concord, Mass., told fans in a recent Facebook post. Unable to invite visitors inside to tour Louisa May Alcott’s abode, which is currently closed due to the Covid-19 outbreak, instead she offered a special “virtual treat”—a guided video tour of Orchard House, led by Turnquist acting as Alcott. The cost to stream the video is $10, which can be applied toward admission to Orchard House once it reopens.

Literary travelers looking to liven up their time while social distancing can do some exploring from the sofa. Here are six more author houses with virtual tours on tap:

The Mark Twain House, Hartford, Connecticut
This 3-D tour of Mark Twain’s domain is a visual feast. The Victorian Gothic mansion, where he put down roots for 17 years, has been described as “part steamboat, part medieval fortress and part cuckoo clock.” The house’s construction was financed in part with proceeds earned from Twain’s first full-length book, the travelogue The Innocents Abroad, and design and décor elements throughout reflect his love of travel.

The House of the Seven Gables, Salem, Massachusetts
The 17th-century seaside manse that inspired Nathan­iel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, and its lovely garden and grounds, constitute a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. A 12-part tour of the complex is available through the free UniGuide app (search: House of Seven Gables). The virtual tour includes images of and information about the property and its numerous buildings, among them Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Birthplace, which was moved to this location for preservation.

Flannery O’Connor’s Andalusia Farm, Milledgeville, Georgia
On her mother’s family farm in central Georgia, Flannery O’Connor devoted herself to two great loves: writing and raising peacocks, swans, chickens, and other birds. She spent the last of her 39 years, before dying of complications from lupus, amid Andalusia’s pastoral beauty, which inspired the settings for such stories as “A Circle in the Fire,” “Good Country People,” and “The Displaced Person.” Watch a virtual reality tour of the main house and view the grounds via a web tour.

Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum, Lynchburg, Virginia
A Harlem Renaissance-era poet, civil rights activist, and native Virginian, Anne Spencer lived in a Queen Anne-style residence, built by her husband, for more than seven decades beginning in 1903. See the poet’s house, where she entertained fellow wordsmiths like Langston Hughes, and the picturesque garden, where she wrote in a specially constructed, one-room retreat.

The Pearl S. Buck House, Perkasie, Pennsylvania
After four decades living in China, Pearl S. Buck settled at Green Hills Farm, a 68-acre estate in Bucks County, Pennsylva­nia. The National Historic Land­mark site has gardens, greenhouses, a renovated barn, and a 19th-century stone farmhouse that contains Buck’s personal furnishings and belongings intact as she left them. When taking this virtual tour of the house and grounds, be sure to linger in the lovely library. The desk in the room, originally located in the attic of her home in China, is where she wrote her novel The Good Earth in three months.

Willa Cather’s Red Cloud, Nebraska
“That shaggy grass country…gripped me with a passion I have never been able to shake,” declared Willa Cather of the Nebraska prairie. Featuring historic photos, audio, and video scenes, this virtual tour from the Willa Cather Foundation walks visitors through the prairie landscape she loved and featured in novels like My Ántonia, and highlights three significant locales: Red Cloud’s train depot and opera house, and her family home.

Explore a favorite author’s house. Celebrate Flannery O’Connor’s birthday on March 25 at her family’s farm, Andalusia, in Milledgeville, Georgia (cake and free tours are on the agenda), or take a living history tour with a costumed guide at Louisa May Alcott’s home, Orchard House, in Concord, Massachusetts (tours are given every fourth Saturday of the month and reservations are recommended). Click here for a state-by-state directory of author house museums.

Attend an author event at a local bookstore or library. Among this month’s lineup at the Free Library of Philadelphia are discussions with artist Maira Kalman, the creator of an illustrated version of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (March 9); activist and historian Rebecca Solnit, whose new book is Recollections of My Nonexistence, a memoir of her life as a young artist set against the backdrop of San Francisco’s 1980s punk rock scene (March 12); and journalist Katie Roiphe, author of The Power Notebooks (March 19).

Visit a feminist bookstore in person or online. A favorite is New York City’s Bluestockings, a volunteer-powered bookstore, cafe, and activist center. The store hosts regular book clubs, support groups, and social events, along with many other events ranging from author readings to self-defense workshops. Charis Books & More in Decatur, Georgia, has compiled a list of feminist bookstores in the U.S. and Canada.

Take the Trailblazing Women Writers Tour. This month the American Writers Museum in Chicago is offering a special 60-minute tour spotlighting the lives and works of women writers who broke barriers and paved the way for future generations. Tours are given twice daily at 1:30 and 4:00 p.m. Or take a virtual version of the tour on the American Writers Museum App, available on Android and Apple devices. Among the fascinating facts: Mystery scribe Frances Parkinson Keyes was discouraged from writing by both her mother and her husband. Undeterred, she created an attic hideaway for her manuscripts, and at age 34 she published the first of her dozens of novels.

Delve into books about inspiring or intriguing female figures. Two literary-themed suggestions are Virginia Woolf: And the Woman Who Shaped Her World by Gillian Gill, a look into Woolf’s world through the lens of the women who were closest to her, and Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson, which features writers like Mary Shelley who defied convention to craft some of literature’s strangest tales.

Does your idea of the perfect getaway combine the excitement of a city with literary pastimes? Head to one of these five coast-to-coast locales where there is plenty for book lovers to discover.

Washington, DC

The Library of Congress. Photo © Novel Destinations.

Begin exploring the U.S. capital city’s literary side at the Library of Congress, founded in 1800 and the world’s largest library. The library’s palatial Thomas Jefferson Building is a visual feast with murals, mosaics, and sculpture galore and a Great Hall rising 75 feet from marble floor to stained glass ceiling. (It’s well worth taking the free, docent-led tour to hear about the library’s creation and collection.) Make time to visit the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, the author-orator’s last residence, an estate less than a hundred miles from where he was born into slavery. Lay eyes on a rare First Folio at the Folger Shakespeare Library and catch a production in the Elizabethan-style Folger Theatre. At indie bookstore Politics and Prose, sit in on a book group discussion (no need to reserve a spot; just read the featured selection and show up) or attend one of the regularly held author events. Sustenance for mind and body can be found at Kramerbooks and the adjoining Afterwords Café, open until at least 1 a.m. daily.

Read the rest of this entry »

new-york-city-nighttime-skyline

“The city that never sleeps is the backdrop for some of literature’s best love stories,” writes librarian Gwen Glazer in the post Finding Love in NYC, Literally on the New York Public Library’s blog. The NYPL’s book experts weighed in with their favorite romantic scenes that take place in the city, across all five boroughs.

Some highlights are the Brooklyn Bridge in Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg, where the main character, an independent young woman, has a passionate moment with her lover—scandalous for the 1920s; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is used as a backdrop in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence; and vibrant Union Square in Pete Hamill’s Forever. The NYPL’s own gorgeous Rose Main Reading Room makes the list, too, for a scene Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

An accompanying red-heart-dotted map marks the locales for bibliophiles who want to explore on Valentine’s Day…or any other time of the year.

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