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“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.


Robert Burns Single Malt / Isle of Arran Distillers

Oh thou, my Muse! Guid auld Scotch drink!
Whether thro wimplin worms thou jink,
Or, richly brown, ream owre the brink,
   In glorious faem,
Inspire me, till I lisp and wink,
   To sing thy name.
—Robert Burns, “Scotch Drink”

Haggis, neeps, and tatties are on the menu. Whisky, too, of course.

Lovers of Scottish culture the world over gather annually to celebrate the birth of Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, on January 25, 1759.  The first recorded Burns Night Supper honoring the poet (famed for poems such as “Tam O’ Shanter” and “Ode to Haggis”) took place in 1801 in his birthplace village of Alloway, and the evening’s line-up of toasts, poems, and bagpipe ditties has varied little ever since.

Revelers dine on a traditional meal of haggis (sheep organ meats blended with oatmeal and spices), neeps (turnips), and tatties (potatoes), washed down with copious drams of whisky. (Non-meat eaters can serve vegetarian haggis.) Festivities are capped off with the joining of hands and the singing of the bard’s great song of parting, “Auld Lang Syne.”

Restaurants, pubs, hotels, and dining halls all over Scotland host Burns Night Suppers. The occasion is also widely celebrated in the U.S. and Canada, so check to see if the wordsmith is being feted in your town.

Robert Burns App

If you’d like to host your own gathering, has a Burns’ Supper Guide with tips on food, drink, attire, and entertainment. The guide is included on a free Robert Burns App along with a biography, visual timeline of the bard’s life, and more than 500 poems and love songs.

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. A big thank you goes to Stephanie at the book review blog Stephanie’s Written Word, who before she left on a trip to literary mecca Ireland recommended Novel Destinations for holiday gift-giving. In her post “Gifts for the Literary Minded,” Stephanie gives a great, detailed description of the book and calls it “a delightful read for any book lover.” Music to our ears!

In the post Stephanie also features a second book, one that is on both of our holiday wish lists: Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition, which is gorgeously illustrated and includes commentary about the authors, the characters, and the time period. Mr. Darcy awaits.

Making a list, checking it twice…

Later in the week we’ll be sharing gift suggestions for bibliophiles, including some Jane Austen-themed items.

We were devastated to hear the news reported earlier this week by the AP that the 200-year old Kate Chopin House & Bayou Folk Museum, located in Louisiana’s atmospheric Cane River country, was destroyed by fire. The blaze broke out in the early morning hours on Wednesday, and despite the best efforts of local fire fighters, the graceful plantation-style abode burned to the ground. Kate Chopin lived there with her husband and six children in the 1880s, a decade before the publication of her controversial novel, The Awakening.

During her time in Cloutierville, Chopin scandalized the residents of the French-Creole village with her penchant for wearing extravagant fashions, smoking cigarettes and–gasp–taking solitary walks.  Edna, the protagonist of The Awakening, later went on to challenge the traditional values of the Bayou community even further by taking steps to liberate herself from her stifling marriage. (Though today the book is consider a classic of proto-feminist literature, reviewers at the time denounced it as “unwholesome,” “vulgar,” and “immoral.”)

Although the cause of the blaze at the Chopin House is still under investigation, we hope that eventually the museum can be rebuilt and find a second life, simliar to The Thomas Wolfe Memorial, in Asheville, NC, which reopened in 2004 after undergoing restorations from arson damage. — Joni Rendon

As cat lovers, we were thrilled to see the AP news last Thursday that–after a contentious five year legal battle with the U.S. Department of Agriculture–the Ernest Hemingway Home in Key West will be allowed to remain the cathouse of choice for the 50 or so felines that have roamed the grounds there for decades.

The unique, six-toed cats are said to be descended from Hemingway’s cat Snowball, given to him by a visiting ship’s captain during his tenure on the island in the 1930s. (The novelist was a renowned cat lover, and at his later home in Cuba, kept up to 60 cats as pets.)

At the heart of the Key West legal battle was the government’s argument that the property needed an animal exhibition license and that the cats should be caged. The legal dispute began after neighbors’ complaints about the roaming cats in 2003 sparked the Florida Keys Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to raise concerns about the cats’ welfare.

After an extensive investigation, which included video surveillance and the hiring of an independent animal behaviorist, a report issued by a veterinarian from Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine stated that the cats appeared “well-cared for, healthy and content” (though any of the thousands of visitors to this legendary Key West attraction, including us, would have said that’s a no-brainer after seeing these glamour-pusses–with names like Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn–living in the lap of luxury!). The expert also recommended that a special fence be installed to keep the kitties contained on the property, while leaving them free to roam on the one-acre grounds. Now that’s a purr-fect ending.–Joni Rendon

The next best thing to reading the classics themselves is reading novels that vividly re-imagine the lives of famed authors. The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl immediately comes to mind, as does a new book out this week, Cassandra & Jane by Jill Pitkeathley, who is a guest blogger today on Her novel illuminates the extraordinary bond between Jane Austen and her beloved sister, Cassandra, who nursed her through ill-health and later (much to the lament of today’s literary biographers and Jane fans) destroyed much of the great author’s correspondence to protect her privacy.  

Though there were eight Austen siblings, there were only two girls, and Jane, like a typical younger sister, doted on Cassandra. As their mother once ruefully commented, “if Cassandra’s head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have hers cut off too.” Though not a writer, Cassandra also had a creative bent, and her watercolors graced the pages of Jane’s early parody, The History of England, written when she was just fifteen years old. (You can virtually turn the pages of this youthful literary gem by clicking here on the British Library’s website.) 

Most importantly, Cassandra is responsible for the only reasonably certain portrait of the author from life, which is on display in England’s National Gallery. The portrait dates from 1810, a year after the two sisters had moved with their mother into a small cottage in Chawton, England. After the death of George Austen in 1805, the three women were dependent on the charity and goodwill of the Austen brothers for their survival, but nonetheless, the years they spent in Chawton were largely happy ones. (One of my favorite mementos from their time there is a quilt the three women stitched together, which you can check out if you visit the cottage today.)

Unfortunately, a cloud marred their shared happiness in 1816, when Jane’s health started to rapidly decline from a mysterious illness (suspected to be either Addison’s Disease or Hodgkin’s Lymphoma). She died in her sister’s arms a year later on July 18 at the age of 41.–Joni Rendon

Ten years after her death in 1998, Dorothy West has been finally been given her due. The writer, whom Langston Hughes nicknamed “the Kid,” was long one of the few surviving members of the Harlem Renaissance. Recently, the Cape Cod home where she spent her final years was dedicated as a site on the Martha’s Vineyard African American Heritage Trail.

Although West had faded into relative anonymity by the time her bestselling second novel, The Wedding, was published in 1995, the writer had established herself as a literary tour de force decades earlier. After one of her early short stories tied for second place with Zora Neale Hurston in a writing competition, Hurston befriended the young writer and encouraged her move to New York, where she was taken under the wing of established Harlem Renaissance greats.

In Harlem, West founded the literary magazine Challenge, which published groundbreaking stories by up and coming writers like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. In addition to shining the spotlight on the work of her African American contemporaries, she went on to publish her own novel, The Living Is Easy, in 1948 after moving into her family’s modest wood-frame summer house on Martha’s Vineyard. There, she became a Cape Cod fixture, entertaining visitors on her porch when the weather was nice enough and later hosting Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, her editor at Doubleday publishing company, for weekly editing sessions. It was with the former first lady’s encouragement that West was finally able to complete her long-awaited second novel, The Wedding, published nearly fifty years after her first and dedicated to Onassis.

West’s star rose even further in the year of her death when the book was adapted by Oprah into a TV miniseries starring Halle Barry as the novel’s protagonist Shelby Cole, the youngest daughter of a prominent African American family who causes a stir with her plans to marry a white jazz musician. –Joni Rendon

Novel Destinations has received not one but two reviews on the 24/8 Book Club site. It’s a wonderful destination where booklovers can find lists of themed reading suggestions, interviews with their favorite authors, and more.

In a feature called “Oil & Vinegar,” founders Falise Platt and JoAnne Stone-Geier each offer her perspective on our book. Falise even has her own literary connection — she grew up in Ernest Hemingway’s hometown, Oak Park, IL.

24/8 also has an interview with us talking about everything from finding the right publisher for the book to how it felt to hold it in our hands for the very first time. Later in the month they’ll be sharing our list of favorite classic travelogues.–Shannon McKenna Schmidt

I was intrigued to read Brunonia Barry’s new novel The Lace Reader because of its setting: contemporary Salem, Massachusetts. I visited Salem two summers ago to do research for Novel Destinations, which has a chapter devoted to the town’s famous native son — Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose gothic tale The House of the Seven Gables was inspired by a seaside residence there.

The Lace Reader is the story of Towner Whitney, who returns to Salem after an absence of more than a decade. A self-confessed unreliable narrator, Towner hails from a family of Salem women who can read the future in the patterns of lace. The disappearance of her beloved aunt compels her to finally return to her hometown…and ultimately brings to light the truth about her twin sister’s death.

I enjoyed The Lace Reader as much for the setting as for the plotline. It was fun to read about places I had visited during my Salem sojourn. The House of the Seven Gables (at right) receives a mention, as does the Custom House, Hawthorne’s one-time place of employment.

If you do make it to Salem, it’s an opportunity to explore the landscapes of both a contemporary and a classic tale. On is a walking tour brochure of sites in The Lace Reader (you can also enter a sweepstakes to win a weekend getaway for two to Salem), and thanks to the National Park Service you can take a self-guided walking tour of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Salem.

Along with details about Hawthorne’s ties to Salem and a tour through the House of the Seven Gables, Novel Destinations has plenty of suggestions for a literary itinerary — what to see and do as well as places to drink, dine and doze, among them the ideally-located Morning Glory Bed & Breakfast. You can slumber directly across the street from the famed gabled dwelling. —Shannon McKenna Schmidt

Some author houses are open seasonally during warmer months. Others greet visitors year-round but often hold special events during the summer and fall. If you have a literary site in your area, check to see what festivities they might be hosting. Here are a few highlights:

Longfellow National Historic Site, Cambridge, MA – Young bibliophiles and their parents can take part in “Family Sundays Art in the Park” from 1 to 4 p.m. on the grounds of Longfellow’s historic Cambridge house (it was once the headquarters of General George Washington during the Siege of Boston in 1775). Activities include painting, drawing, playing 19th century games, and reading Longfellow’s poetry aloud. 

The Mount, Lenox, MA – Every Wednesday at 5 p.m. in July and August at Edith Wharton’s gorgeous mansion in the Berkshires, a live reading of her works takes place on the terrace. If you can’t make it to “Wharton on Wednesdays,” visit The Mount for “Some Enchanted Evenings.” On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays in July and August the Terrace Cafe is open from 5 to 8 p.m. After a glass of wine and hors d’oeuvres, you can enjoy a stroll through the Mount’s Italianate-style gardens, which were designed by Edith Wharton.

Old Manse, Concord, MA – Once home to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s grandfather and home to Nathaniel Hawthorne for a time, this farmhouse has expansive and beautiful grounds that border the Concord River and adjoin Minuteman National Historical Park. On Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. through August 24th it’s the site of a Summer Concert Series. Or embark on the excursion “Paddling Back in Time” (offered several times throughout the summer), a guided trip down the Concord River and a chance to experience the landscape that inspired Emerson, Hawthorne, and fellow Concord resident and naturalist Henry David Thoreau.

The Steinbeck House, Salinas, CA – The house where John Steinbeck grew up is a perfect place for Victorian Tea, served on the following Saturdays: August 9th, September 13th, October 11th, November 8th and December 13th with two seatings each day. In the Victorian-era abode’s elegant ambience you can sample specially blended teas, tea sandwiches, scones, quiche, fruit, and desserts. The extensive Best Cellar gift shop is located on the property, and down the street is the National Stienbeck Center.

Do you have a favorite special event you like to attend at a literary site? If so, please share it in the comments section.

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