South Beach Lifeguard Houses, Miami Beach, Florida

The 5th Street Guardhouse-- beach yoga and a cruise ship leaving port.

The hotels and other buildings in the South Beach art deco district of Miami Beach, Florida, get all the attention.  But if you’re there, you should lift your head up from your beach chair and take notice of the collection of whimsical and funky lifeguard stations that extends from the jetty at South Point to 74th Street.  If you can’t make it to South Beach, take a look at photographer and former newspaper journalist Susan Russell’s book, aptly titled South Beach Life Guard Stations to see what I’m talking about.

While there have been elevated lifeguard stations here almost since the area became a resort, they weren’t so interesting until Hurricane Andrew swept most of them away in 1992.  They were rebuilt with panache typical of South Beach. They serve a very practical purpose for lifeguards, but also make great landmarks when you stroll the beach and an excellent place to meet for beach yoga at sunrise.  Here are a few of more….

The Towers Guardhouse, a.k.a. The Surfboard, South Beach, Florida

Lifeguard station at the jetty, where you can see the entire vista of South Beach

The 5th Street Guardhouse, with a version of the Miami Beach logo.

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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.

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Walking the High Line, NYC

A couple of weeks ago, I walked the High Line in New York City for the first time since

Billboard art by John Baldessari on the High Line in New York City.

the new section was added.  The High Line is an elevated park that was originally an elevated railroad line, built in the 1930s.  It lifted freight traffic 30 feet above the ground removing dangerous trains from the streets of Manhattan’s  largest industrial district. It went out of use in 1980, but when it was under the threat of demolition, Friends of the High Line worked to preserve it as an elevated park.  So, think railroad bed turned garden. The first section, from Gansevoort Street to West 20th Street, opened June 9, 2009. The second section, from West 20th Street to West 30th Street, opened last spring.

I thought it might be dull to walk the High Line in winter, but there’s plenty to enjoy, with winter plantings, art installations, and impressive views of the New York skyline, especially the Empire State Building and the Hudson River.  This time, we got on at 14th Street and walked north to 30th Street.  Along the way there are great restaurants and bars.  We  then wandered through a few of the art galleries that now populate the Chelsea neighborhood in droves. Gallery openings take place on the first Thursday of the month.  To get a glimpse of the New York art scene, read Steve Martin’s Object of Beauty.  It’s not my favorite book, but he knows and describes the New York art scene well. We capped off our walk with lunch at the Chelsea Market.

On an entirely different subject, I had to add a photo of a dog I saw at the holiday market at Union Square, who didn’t seem to be too humiliated to be wearing this outfit.

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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.

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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.

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Book Publishing and Selling May Change But the Landscape of Literature Remains

I’ve been reading a lot lately about how e-books are totally changing the world of reading, forcing bookstores out of business, panicking print publishers, and leaving authors confused about where to get their books published.  A recent article in the Los Angeles Times urges readers to visit literary sites in New York City before they disappear. The article discusses bookstores in particular, which have been struggling for quite while, first with the rise of giant chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders (which recently bit the dust itself), then with Amazon and Internet book sales, and now with electronic books.  For example, there used to be forty-some bookstores on Book Row along Fourth Avenue in New York, a book-lover’s nirvana.

I wish I could have seen that, wandered the stacks, and talked with the owners who I imagine as eccentric, bespectacled, and just oozing knowledge about authors and what to read next.  I would have been a loyal patron. The Strand bookstore is the lone survivor of Book Row, and had moved to 12th and Broadway.  Take a look at their video. The Strand and most other bookstores seek to do things not available in the online world such as events with authors (live and in-person!), children’s activities, and other activities that make them unique.  A post on sites the example of “another independent bookstore making the most the downfall of corporate chains. Housing Works Bookstore Café. Part Bookstore, part café, part thrift shop and part HIV/AIDS outreach program.  “Housing Works,” they say, “understands the value that creating a community can give to a bookstore.”

Birchbark Books in Minneapolis offers all sorts of community-building book/author/dinner events and the store has a special focus on Native American literature and concerns.  They’re hosting screenings of “H2Oil,” an acclaimed documentary film about the devastating effects of the Alberta Tar Sands. Marty Cobenais from the Indigenous Environmental Network will speak about the campaign to stop tar sands pipelines in the United States. Bookstore owner Louise Erdrich will be giving an introduction.   Another example, with a more light-hearted focus is Beauty and the Book in Jefferson, Texas, the world’s only combined beauty salon and bookstore.  It’s owner, Kathy Patrick, has turned turned the love and books and book clubs into an international pursuit with the many chapters of her Pulpwood Queens Book club.

Whatever huge upheavals the book business encounters, one thing won’t change—the places (real and fictional) that literature evokes. For adventurous lit-lovers, there’s nothing like visiting the places they’ve seen in their imaginations—the London of Dickens’ characters for example, the Stockholm of Steig Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or the wide open Texas spaces of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, to name just a few.  And, I maintain there’s no better way to gain a sense of a place before you travel there than to read about it. I enjoyed seeing at good example of how reading amps up the anticipation of a trip, too, in a blog post about an upcoming trip to Spain on The Orange Barrow that features the blogger’s reading list.

So, next time I’m in New York I’ll walk by Tiffany’s with Holly Golightly, through Washington Square with Henry James or through Harlem with Langston Hughes, and rest assured that there are locales of classic literature won’t soon disappear.

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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

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