Gutenberg’s Legacy

Whenever I traveimg_7151.jpgl, I begin with a list of books to read on the journey. The trip to the Rhineland and beyond involved such a list but with a special focus. I’ve embarked on a project to write about the history and development of writing, and where better to focus than on the origin of the printing press—in Mainz, Germany. Gutenberg worked for decades to create a prIMG_7093ess that would produce editions of The Bible that were correct and uniform. The high level of secrecy and the enormous amount of risk—financial as well as personal—are detailed in the novel, Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie (2014). Why risk? At the time, sacred documents were created by scribes; a single Bible might require three years’ time to complete. Books were of such value that they sometimes came with chains to secure them.


Gutenberg in Mainz Market Square

Might a printed version without the touch of the human hand, inspired by God, actually be the work of the devil? Gutenberg and his associates might very well have been burned at the stake for their audacity.

We learned at the Gutenberg Museum that increased access to books and literacy drove the creation of spectacles. The Pharmacy Museum in Heidelberg Schloss noted that printed books helped standardize recipes for medicines with the printing of ingredients and depictions of botanicals. The impact of the printing press cannot be underestimated. No doubt, this is why Gutenberg has been termed “The Man of the Millennium.” IMG_7243Mainz, a center for trade in the Middle Ages, is a charming town on the banks of the Rhine, populated by numerous churches, historic buildings, and a stellar boat museum.

It was also the site of a British prisoner of war (POW) camp in World War I, described in Alec Waugh’s The Prisoners of Mainz (1919). Yes, this is Evelyn Waugh’s brother. It is one of those British stiff upper lift narratives of the time that almost makes the war seem like a lark—even while describing gruesome realities of The Front. World War II and its aftermath but on its distaff side—the women—is the focus of Jessica Shattuck’s best-selling novel The Women in the Castle (2017). The widows of those men in the plot to kill Hitler band together to survive.

And speaking of survival, Illuminations, a novel about Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt (2012), brings to light the amazing woman of the Middle Ages, who was dedicated to the church by her family when only eight years old, and who became a major figure as a Benedictine abbess and composer. Her compositions continue to be performed today.

Mark Twain also makes an entrance with his voluminous travel journals, in particular, The Innocents Abroad and A Tramp Abroad (both can be downloaded for a modest price). His entries on Heidelberg are particularly entertaining. He visits the student “jail” on the Heidelberg University campus—where errant students are housed in somewhat barren surroundings but which became a badge of honor for them, as well. The current tour of the jail reveals an impressive amount of graffiti left by its inmates, who apparently also partied during their brief internment. It ends, naturally, in a shop where tourists can purchase SWAG and hoodies emblazoned with Heidelberg University.


Student Jail

More recent travel narratives focus on the Rhine River. Castles in the Air: A Journey Down the Rhine by Simon Worrall (2013) explores the hillside strongholds that populate the banks of the Rhine River. These castles in medieval times served as toll gates for traffic on the river. If a ship didn’t pay, it could be blown out of the water. And, it appears that there may have been little coordination among the landowners who taxed the waterways. The famous cat and mouse castles—Katz and Maus–were owned by brothers who competed for tolls.


Near the cat and mouse castles is the famous Lorelei—the turn in the river that has caused many shipwrecks. The “Song of the Lorelei” speaks to longing and love. Difficult to comprehend for contemporary visitors, the river separated peoples on opposite sides of the bank. It was rare for them to marry. There are, in fact, very few bridges that span the Rhine.


While the Rhine or the Elba might not seem related to the Mississippi, Germany has a love affair with American Jazz, evidenced in Dresden’s Dixieland Jazz Festival held each May. No bands from the USA are needed; there is a wealth of groups from Europe who perform over the multiple-day festival.

Kurt Vonnegut’s novel that includes the burning of Dresden, Slaughterhouse Five, is a natural choice for a RoadWorks Books. The Women in the Castle also contains a harrowing scene from the Dresden bombing. And, the marks are of the fires are still visible on the reconstructed buildings.

We visited Nuremberg, known for its Nazi war rallies as well as its role in the trials of war criminals from World War II, but committed now to being a city of peace and human rights. Its medieval walls still stand in many parts of the city. The Church of St. Lorenz honors the saint who was martyred on the grill and who is reputed to have quipped, “Turn me over; I’m done on this side.”

Nuremberg is also know as “The Pencil Capital of the World,” for its family factories that produce the well known brands Castell-Faber, Staedler, and Stabilio. The Museum of Industry and Communication has an excellent exhibition on the history of pencil production that dates back to the 18th century. Remember: the pencil was revolutionary at the time, offering a writing implement that was accessible and fairly inexpensive—in contrast to quill and ink. Nuremberg is also home to the artist Albrecht Durer, and his home is a testament to this status during his own lifetime. It is well preserved and well worth a visit.

The pencil is mightier than the sword! IMG_7132

For our Rhine and Moselle River sojourns with forays to the local castles, we stayed in Boppard, a convenient place for ferry hopping and hikes—wandersweg–above the town on the quaint Hunsrücksbahn railroad.

We ventured to the Monastery of Maria Laach (Mary of the Lake), where monks continue in the ancient traditions with a book bindery. The church there is, quite likely, one of the best examples of Romanesque architecture in Europe, and its gardens and shops are also inviting.

I will also plug the excellent Riesling that we found in Germany. In the States, the Riesling that appears on our shelves is often sweet, but the real thing is much better. We can also testify that the cheese and fresh strawberries that we picked up for our lunches and picnics were terrific.

Germany is a country too large, diverse, and rich in culture to encapsulate in a brief blog, and, so often, we rely on the compelling literature of World War II to think about this nation, but we departed feeling that we had uncovered a history of writing and printing that offered a more nuanced view of a nation that has been essential to the cultivation of literacy. Thank you, Gutenberg.

Equal-opportunity pedestrian lights in Dresden.


Traveler’s Note: We traveled to Germany in May; the temperature veered from pleasant to quite cold.

The author biking along the Elba River in Dresden and trying out quill pens in the Museum of Industry and Culture in Nuremberg.

“Never stop exploring”–my North Face suitcase.




Maui Wowee!

220px-Unfamiliar_fishes_vowellI admit it. I’m a nerd. Maui, one of the most popular islands of Hawaii for tourism, was a highlight for me because of the history of its 19th century printing press. When I began compiling the RoadWorks book list for a December, 2017 trip to the vacation paradise, I ran across Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes. Vowell, a well-known NPR contributor, has written several volumes that look at historical moments in a slightly different angle. Unfamiliar Fishes offers a back-story on how the Hawaiian Islands were—rightly or wrongly—taken over by the United States. As O. Henry demonstrated in his wonderful short story collection on Honduras, Cabbages and Kings (see RoadWorks from March 2012), corporate America took over “banana republics,” except in the case of Hawaii, it was sugar cane and pineapples.

But, here’s the point: in 1823 when the Boston-based missionaries arrived to bring Christianity to the “natives,” no written Hawaiian existed. It was an oral culture. That changed with the missionaries’ dogged persistence to transcribe the local spoken language into written documents. They created an alphabet, based on the Latin version, but using fewer letters appropriate to the language. That meant a lot of k’s and vowels. IMG_6731The typical 26 letters narrowed to just a few more than a dozen. And then they began printing spelling guides and primers for schools on a second-hand printing press that had definitely seen better days. IMG_6730

The result? Forty years later, the Hawaiian people were one of the most literate in the world, reported by Mark Twain and Charles Dana. The missionary zeal, combined with Royal backing and native intelligence, resulted in a highly-educated populace. Government and legal documents were published but also books that documented the rich culture, flora, and fauna of the islands.

I learned about the Printing Press Museum from Vowell’s book. A replica of the Maui press is housed in the original printing house, Hale Pa’i—now a museum—on the grounds of the old mission school that is a thriving and highly-regarded secondary and boarding school.


Hale Pa’i Printing Press Museum

It produced the first newspaper west of the Rockies on Valentine’s Day, 1834, Ka Lama Hawaii (The Light of Hawaii), a weekly for the students. The 200 copies of each of four pages were printed one page at a time, the paper being placed on the tympan and secured with an overlaying plate called a frisket. Sticks of type were composed and placed in the stone and then inked by hand. The apparatus with the paper was then laid over the type becoming a coffin that was slid forward under the platen so that it could be cranked to lower it and press the paper downward onto the inked type. Visitors to the Lahaina museum can take home a copy of the front page that was produced for them.

Vowell’s book is head and shoulders above any other book that I can recommend although Mark Twain’s Roughing It in Hawaii offers a contemporary version of this transition from an oral to a written culture. He recognized the negative consequences of colonialism and missionary intrusion on the Hawaiians. To get a sense of the 19th century Hawaii that he describes, visit the town of Lahaina and its historic and cultural sites. At the Wo Hing Museum that documents Chinese immigrants, make sure to visit the annex where period films are shown, including the Sunday afternoon horse parade and transferring livestock from island to island by boat (strapping cattle to boats by their horns). It is next to the wonderful Baldwin Home Museum, an example of architecture for early missionaries. The latter is where I found a convenient pocket-size Mark Twain in Hawaii, published by the University of Hawaii Press.alohaquilt

The spreading Banyan Tree by the Court House is a noted landmark and makes an appearance in Jennifer Chiaverini’s The Aloha Quilt. This is an easy beach read about the history of quilt making in Hawaii, introduced by the missionaries but adapted by the locals—they prefer applique to patchwork. The novel is part of the Elm Creek Quilters series, typically set in Pennsylvania but transported to Maui due to one of the recurring character’s need to escape from a difficult marriage. Its best attribute is that it tells a history of the Hawaiian people. A side trip to Oahu to see the Queen’s Quilt that she made while under house arrest would be worthwhile.

Another series set in Maui is the detective mysteries by Toby Neal. I chose Bitter Feast, set at a re220px-House-without-key_coverstaurant—the sous chef is found dead in the cooler—as Maui is also known for its fine dining. I admit that I did not find the characters—two detectives who had met on cases in previous books and married—endearing. I preferred the Charlie Chan mystery set in Hawaii, The House Without a Key, by Earl Derr Biggers. Charlie Chan, in the tradition of Hercule Poirot, uses his sharp intellect to solve a locked door murder. It also brings to light interesting cultural facts such as the College Boat that transported Hawaiian students back from the Mainland each June.

Maui has fabulous beaches and ocean views, but I enjoyed seeking out other venues beyond the sand—even if traffic was horrific. The Iao Valley State Park recognizes a stunning landscape but also the site of an important battle that left hundreds, if not thousands, of warriors’ corpses in the “Damming of the Waters.” Near it is a Heritage Park that features the diverse architectural styles of the various settlers of Maui: Portuguese, Koreans, Japanese, and the missionaries. Try Picture Bride by Mike Malaghan for a view onto the plantation system and the importing of women frIsabella Birdom Asia as wives of workers. At the base of the valley road is the lovely gardens and house of the Bailey House Mission Museum.

To time travel to Hawaii in the 19th century, read two of Robert Louis Stevenson’s stories: In the South Seas and Island Nights’ Entertainment. Personally, I enjoyed intrepid explorer Isabella Bird’s account in her The Hawaiian Archipelago. On Horseback in Hawaii. She is a frank and articulate writer.

Maui is more than sand, whales, and water. Its history is fascinating, and it can be an eye opener for tourists to understand that this independent nation was taken over by missionary and corporate interests, becoming a US Territory and, eventually, a state in 1959.

Note: We traveled to Maui in December 2017. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the winter months for a visit–even if it’s the time Mainlanders wish to get away–unless you are a surfer. Waves are huge, and it can be stormy and rainy. We didn’t snorkel nearly as much as we hoped to do because of rough waters. We did enjoy whale watching though.

Corsican Literature: V is for Vendetta

Stunningly beautiful and geographically rugged, Corsica has inspired stories that focus on its vendetta tradition. Really. I was taken aback to find so many works that used vendetta as a theme: Balzac’s Vendetta; Guy de Maupassant’s “The Corsican Bandit” and other stories; Alexandre Dumas’ The Corsican Brothers; Journal of a Tour to Corsica by Boswell (1879), or Columba by Prosper Merimee (author of Carmen). A father casts aside his beloved daughter when she falls in love with the son of an enemy; a son kills 14 family members to avenge his father; and two brothers feud. Even a contemporary thriller, Mazzeri, by Peter Crawley (2013) included retribution for long-held feuds while it also featured a love story and Russian thugs.

The Rose Café, in contrast, by John Hanson Mitchell (2007) is a memoir about sitting out the Vietnam draft working in a café in Corsica. It includes delightful character sketches while also charting the summer love affairs of the patrons and staff.

Travelers to this French island, once dominated by Italy—hence the Genoese towers on nearly every outcropping by the sea—can learn about its history through Dorothy Carrington’s thorough Granite Island (1971), still the most authoritative source. The icon of Corsica, the image of a black Moor with white bandana, derives from the defeat of the Moors in the Middle Ages when an Aragon king added a illustration of four such profiles to his coat of arms. When has a country ever adopted a defeated people as its symbol? Still, the head shows up on its flag, license plates, and ferries.


We watched the ubiquitous ferries enter the historic harbor of Bastia from the terrace of our hotel high up in the Citadel.

From Bastia, a good day trip goes north to Cap Corse. A lot of travelers circumnavigate the cape by car, but an alternative is to go to the end of the road at Matinaggio and then hike the Sentier des Douaniers, the trail used by custom officers to try and catch smugglers. The entire trek takes eight hours, but that can be shortened by any amount of time, either turning back, or catching a boat ride after a couple of hours.

That offers an opportunity to stop for degustation of Corsican wines, cheese, and sausage at the delightful Terra de Catoni; its owner retired from corporate life to re-invigorate the family vineyard.

White wines are particularly good, and the fromage tends to be chevre or sheep cheese. The longur is a smoked pork fillet that reminds me a lot of the hams that my Dad smoked after the fall butchering on our farm in Missouri. Our lunches when traveling tend to be cheese, bread, fruit, and wine, so stocking up on local farm fare is helpful.

On the way back to Bastia, the village of Erbalunga features a distinct Genoese fort overlooking its harbor. Its church was reputed to host some interesting relics, including a piece of clay that formed Adam. I took a lot of delight in reading Gertrude Forde’s account (1880) from her journal of a visit to a grotte (cave) near the village. In fact, if I were to recommend one fun read for visiting Corsica, it might very well be the two volume work of this intrepid woman and her two friends. Frankly, we cringed on driving some of the vertiginous roads of the island, but these 19th century women got about by carriage, and if she ever felt that the driver was “asleep at the wheel” so to speak, she had her umbrella ready to poke him; fortunately, he always seemed to wake up in the nick of time before any precipice. And, believe me, there are definite drop-offs. We crossed the island from Bastia to Porto via the Col Vergio highway, which overlooks two impressive gorges and a summit graced by a Lady of the Mountain sculpture. De Maupassant describes the area around this mountaintop “bandit’s hideaway”: “ ….. “ Wonderful hiking opportunities exist along the route, including the Sentier des Condamnees (trail of prisoners) that was used for logging and the nature trail, Sentier de Sittelle (Nuthatches), which is signed by pictures of the bird.

Serious hikers follow the “Mare to Mare” (sea to sea) or “Mare to Mont” (sea to mountain) trails. All of these are well-signed. Another good way to hike the mountains is to take the “little train” from Bastia to Ajaccio, but stopping along the way at Vizzavona to do an easy hike such as the Cascade d’Anglais (waterfall) and then hopping on a return train.

Porto itself is home to UNESCO-designated sea preserve and calanques. A boat tour or kayak expedition is a good way to see these sites, which may include Girolata, a village that is accessible only by water or a 90 minute walk from the highway. Forde describes in her 19th century narrative why Porto is so impressive: “These rocks are impossible to describe; their grandeur can only be felt. . . They rise almost perpendicularly to their fearful height….” They felt the Porto rocks to be the “most beautiful site in Corsica. . . . It is impossible to imagine anything more sublime than these blood-read precipices—more wonderful, more perpendicular, and more lofty . . .and again falling beneath us in an unfashionable gorge that made one shudder to look into.” When Forde and her party reached, Porto, only five houses existed. The threat of malaria resulted in a chill in tourism. Today, many hotels exist, and bus tours predominate as passengers take one of many boat cruises to the Preserve of Scandola. (Beware meeting tour buses on the narrow roads into the village.)

And, speaking of possible obstacles on the road: who let the hogs out? Some 45,000 feral pigs inhabit the island and may lounge on roadways, along with the occasional cow that displays bovine cognition lower than that of the rooting pig. At a picnic and hiking stop along a mountain road, we found the pigs to be just as demanding as the marmots of some of our national parks, begging for handouts.

It’s a far cry from the days of Gertrude Forde when 9 francs a day would pay for expenses of food and lodging. A bottle of 1769 Vineyard Corsican wine costs more but is still reasonable. That is the year Napoleon was born and Corsica’s independence died. In spite of patriot Paola, Corsica became a part of France, which, ironically, Napoleon countenanced as Emperor.

Forde noted in her preface that “The popularity of Corsica is increasing so rapidly, and information regarding the island is so difficult to obtain, that these sketches may not be unacceptable to intending travelers.” And this was 1880. Corsica is not a well-known destination for USA travelers but definitely one of natural beauty worthy of a trip. And how interesting that a 19th century journal about such travel still inspires.

Note: Historic reads such as de Maupassant and others can usually be downloaded for free via the very helpful This LINK contains a list of dozens of books about Corcsica. Our favorite travel guides include the DK Guide to Corsica and Walk and Eat Corsica, one of a helpful series for hikers.





We’ll Always Have Paris

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.
–Ernest Hemingway

I am the most fortunate of persons: I have traveled to Paris on multiple trips. When I was studying French in college, I didn’t bother to learn the personal pronoun versions (tu, toi) of vous as I was quite sure that I would never know anyone that well in France. Now I find that my halting French at least gets me out of the starting gate. I can order sardines in a markets, like the charming Marche des Enfants Rouges–so named as it inhabits a former orphanage where the children where required to wear red.

In previous posts on Paris and France, I’ve covered several titles. A new one to me is the very popular The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George, about a sad man who has mourned a broken love affair for 20 years. I’m grateful to my friend Andy for treating me to this novel. He calls himself a “literary apothecary,” and has an uncanny ability to pair books with readers to help them mend. When he finally reads his lover’s letter after two decades, Monsieur Perdu (appropriately lost in French) cuts loose his boat-based bookstore on the Seine and proceeds by waterway to the south of France to find out what happened to his love.

Along the way, he passes through some of my favorite countryside, the Luberon and coastal village, Cassis. It is a charming, four-hankie kind of read.

I also picked up Hemingway’s nostalgic A Moveable Feast (1961), in which he looks back on his time in Paris.

It was a lovely guidebook to his haunts: walks in the Luxembourg Gardens; drinks and writing at Les Deux Magots; his residences in the 5th arrondissement near Monde L’Arabe and the ancient Roman amphitheater, in Arenes de Lutece (39 rue Descartes and 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine). According to my dissertation advisor, Dr. Dorys C. Grover, the story about a hungry Hemingway hunting pigeons in Luxembourg Gardens and hiding them in the baby carriage is apocryphal. I trust her.

It was a return to a writer whom I’d admired greatly when in junior high through college—perhaps not so much now. The novel The Paris Wife from Hadley’s point of view was enlightening, and I reported on it during an earlier sojourn in the City of Lights. I also stopped by Shakespeare and Company, the groundbreaking bookstore founded by Sylvia Beach. She loaned books to Hemingway and other authors. He returned his; apparently Henry Miller did not.

Yet another novel to consider set in this time period is Francine Prose’s Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 (2014), which was shortlisted for the National Book Award. Although overpopulated with characters, none of which is sympathetic to the end of the narrative, the book offers insight into alternative lifestyles in Paris pre-World War II and the disastrous circumstances of France’s cooperation with the Nazis. It also includes vignettes of real people such as Josephine Baker and characters that mirror actual people such as Henry Miller.

In addition, I read a couple of American expatriate memoirs—women who had fallen in love and remained in the country. French Toast by Harriet Welty Rochefort was just okay while the more recent Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes by Elizabeth Bard was more satisfying, if also a bit more narcissistic.

Although not fiction, David Leibovitz’s L’Appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home, is anticipated, due out this fall. I’m a big fan of his The Sweet Life, essays about moving to Paris.

Having visited Paris before, we now seek the out-of-the-way experience: the Musee des Arts Forains (a delightful 3-hour experience of historic carnival/carousels in the Bercy area); a walk on the Promenade Plantee (think NYC’s Highline Trail); the little known Musee Trente (artwork from the 1930s); biking on the newly-pedestrianized highway by the Seine using the bike-sharing Velib service; an after hours concert in Notre Dame.

No matter how many times we visit the home of the Eiffel Tower, we never run out of activities or books to read.









Venice Volumes: Love and Death

         “. . . Along with everything glorious and holy, there had to be exist its opposite: decay and death. For there to be light, there must be darkness, mystery.”
The Honeymoon by Dinitia Smith, 2016 (p. 125).

Venice is glorified as the perfect tourist city: no cars, no bikes—only water taxis and pedestrians. Although there are pedestrianized cities around the world, surely no other place like Venice exists? For centuries, tourists have been crossing the Academy Bridge, shopping on the Rialto Bridge, and taking gondola rides. That’s apparently what George Eliot, the pen name of Mary Anne Evans, did when she married a younger man and spent her disastrous honeymoon there. Smith’s novel, The Honeymoon, recounts their story. The plain Eliot, famous for her novels Middlemarch, Adam Bede, and The Mill on the Floss, booked rooms at the Hotel Europa along the Grand Canal and set out to visit the famous sites of the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s, and the Bridge of Sighs.

They also toured neighboring islands of Murano—for its famous Venetian glass—and Torcello—for its early Christian church, Santa Maria Assunta.

She was not the only famous writer to visit Venice. Henry James set Wings of the Dove in Venice. Hemingway hunted duck on the shallow waters of the Venetian lagoon and had it prepared at Cipriani’s on Torcello.

Eliot and her young husband could visit in 1880 numerous art galleries, one of the reasons why the Venice Biennale came into existence in the late 19th century to showcase Italian art. Now an international art show, the expansive venue comprises not only the Arsenal and the Gardens but also sites around the city that would be hard to cover even in the months that the exhibition is in place. At times it was difficult to discern what was art and what was not.

Doge’s Palace Prison: Casanova Cell

Carnival Masks

It seems ironic that the Eliot marriage was unsuccessful when Venice is home to one of the most daring lovers of any age, Casanova, who often used Carnivale masks to hide his identity and seduce his lovers. Ian Kelly’s Casanova: Actor, Lover, Priest, Spy uncovers this legendary Lothario. We can also recommend the films that feature Peter O’Toole as an aging Casanova and Heath Ledger as a younger version. Yet another film depicting that era, Dangerous Beauty, captures the woman’s side of the story: the courtesan. Similar to geisha in being well educated and skilled, courtesans who were successful were registered in a city book, and their “coming out” often took place in churches where potential male admirers might look around at the crowd during particularly boring parts of a sermon. An excellent novel of this era is Sarah Dunant’s In the Company of the Courtesan.

Venice oozes history. Other good reads that place Venice in historic time settings include these: The Spy of Venice (#1 in the William Shakespeare Thriller series by Benet Brandreth) and Sylvia Prince’s A Matter of Glass, which concerns the uncontested role of Murano as glassmaker during 17th century through today. Another historical novel is The Lion of Saint Mark: A Story of Venice in the Fourteenth Century by G. A. Henry. The novel The Gondola Maker by Laura Morelliso so inspired my husband that we had to seek out a master craftsman of the oarlock. The one he purchased resembles a Brancusi sculpture.

For mysteries, turn to Donna Leon’s popular contemporary novels that feature Commissario Brunetti, such as Death at Le Fenice.

Peggy Guggenheim quote on garden bench

Art-rich, yes. Atmospheric? Without a doubt. Although visits to museums rich in art is no doubt a requirement—the Academy; the Peggy Guggenheim; and, our personal favorite, the Ca’ Pesaro—we took a lot of pleasure from seeing the fish market and walking the byways, largely unpopulated, away from the main tourist haunts.

On the last day of our visit, we succumbed to the traditional tourist must do—the gondola ride—and as we pulled into our side canal, I saw a plaque, “Robert Browning died in this house,” the Ca’ Rezzonico, also now a museum. We had visited his home in Asolo at the beginning of our trip. His parting words, “Open my heart and you will see / Graved inside of it, ‘Italy.’” Although we had other venues to visit in Italy—the run of the Mille Miglia vintage car race in Ferrara; Ravenna; and Bologna—for me, it seemed that Venice brought the Italian portion of our trip full circle.

Note: This is a short list of books set in Venice. GoodReads offers 225 titles set in Venice! For more recommendations, see these sites:






Hemingway, Browning, and Stark in Italy

“One can only really travel if one lets oneself go and takes what everyplace brings. . . . I suppose that is the difference between travel and tourism.”
–Freya Stark
About a 90 minute drive north of Venice lies a plain that fronts the pre-Alps, highlighted by Monte Grappa and the towns beneath it, particularly the enchanting Bassano del Grappa, known for its walled city and medieval wooden bridge.

The TV1 Trail offers a panoramic route from the Grappa. Early on the path, the massive Cima Grappa Ossuary or mausoleum stands out. At the conclusion of the war, the various temporary graves on Mount Grappa were emptied, and the remains interred in this single monumental shrine that contains the remains of almost 23,000 soldiers—20,000 of them unknown. When we hiked the Valle San Liberale, we saw remnants of the war: caves that provided refuge from gas attacks, aqueducts that held water that had to be carted up the steep mountainside by donkey to the soldiers, who held back the Austro-Hungarian soldiers—somewhat.


Bassano is home, unlikely as it may seem, to the Hemingway Museum, and the timing of this visit at the centenary of the Great War seems a good opportunity to revisit his classic A Farewell to Arms, which was reissued recently in a beautiful edition that includes the dozens of draft endings. Most folks know the story of how Hemingway at 18 volunteered as an ambulance driver and served in Italy. He saw the disastrous defeat of the Italian army at Caporetto, in which 40,000 soldiers perished and over 250,000 were taken prisoner by the German army. He was also wounded and fell in love with his nurse, which formed the basis for the narrative in his novel.
Today, the hilltop towns seem calm and serene. Asolo is capped by Rocca, a 13th century stronghold accessed by a steep climb past charming flower-bedecked stone buildings. img_5790Off the main square, the homes of actress Eleanor Duse, poet Robert Browning, and travel writer Freya Stark can be found.

Duse was a contemporary of the fabulous Sarah Bernhardt and her rival; the play Ladies of the Camellias, which I saw at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival some years ago, speculates that the two leading ladies were playing the role of Camille in competing, adjacent theatres. Robert Browning was so taken with Asolo that he titled one of his poems, Asolando. The amazing travel writer, legendary for outings in the Arabian desert, Freya Stark, died in Asolo at the age of 100 (1893-1993); both she and Duse are buried in the St. Anna cemetery.
We had seen a part of Asolo while on a trip to Florida a few years prior; the historic 18th century theatre of the town had been disassembled and reinstalled in Sarasota in the 1950s in the Ringling Brothers museum complex and today hosts a vibrant repertory schedule.
Books that might provide good reading for this part of Italy include Hemingway, of course, plus Virginia Woolf’s portrait of the Brownings through the eyes of Elizabeth’s dog, Flush. A biography of Stark, Passionate Nomad or Stark’s own volumes of travel, Alexander’s Path or the intriguing Valley of the Assassins, reveals an astounding personality who found a home in Italy thanks to the generosity of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s son, Pen, who owned three houses in the rewarding village of Asolo.

Death Valley Days and Books



I blame 1950s television. When my family acquired a TV in the latter part of the decade, one of the shows we watched was the popular western, Death Valley Days, hosted by the likes of “Old Ranger,” Ronald Reagan, Robert Taylor, and Dale Robertson, and even for one year—while Reagan ran for governor—a woman, Rosemary DeCamp. Weekly, the 20-Mule Team harnessed up to bring housewives the important Boraxo laundry detergent–the show’s sponsor–to do the hard work of keeping the family clothes clean. Historically, the mule teams pulled two massive wagons of borax plus a third wagon with enough water to supply both animals and drivers for the ten-day, 165-mile grueling trip.

My image of Death Valley was all about alkaline wastelands like Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the U.S.A.

But Death Valley is so much more than salt flats. We found colorful, geologically diverse slot canyons, snow-capped peaks, and the extraordinary Zabriskie Point. Hiking was extraordinary.

When we weren’t on the trail, we hung out at the historic Furnace Creek Lodge, a high-end accommodation with a price that is only justified through its stunning palm-studded gardens and silky water swimming pool.

What to read when in this unique national park? The pickings are, frankly, slim. Let’s start with Badwater (2013). Move over forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver (Aaron Elkins’ amateur detective). Enter forensic geologists Cassie Oldfield and Walter Shaws, the product of author Toni Dwiggins’ series. Radioactive waste and terrorism link up to provide some terrifying moments in a narrative that delivers plenty of local color.

Frank Norris’ novel McTeague (1899) features a cruel dentist who eventually kills his wife and then escapes to Death Valley. According to The Writer’s Almanac, “the book galvanized readers and critics, some of whom called it ‘stomach-crunking’ and ‘vulgar.’” Norris is in the family of naturalistic writers. I recall one of my English professors explaining the difference between realism and naturalism: realism is when the author describes the street scene and everyone and everything in it; naturalism is when the author describes what is in the gutter.

Wanderer in the Wasteland (1923) by Zane Grey is the story of a young man, Adam Larey—a real greenhorn—is betrayed by his older brother, Guerd, a gambler. Adam shoots his brother and escapes to a mining town and later the desert—Death Valley—where he grows into a responsible adult, a person respected in the West. He falls for a woman in Death Valley who is married to a despicable husband. Classic Zane Grey. The landscape—magnificent yet hostile–is a featured character.

For the real story of the lowest and hottest point in the United States, check out Death Valley in ’49, the memoir of William Lewis Manly, one of the survivors of a wagon train that thought it could take a short cut. When the travelers were finally rescued, the story is that they looked back and said, “Goodbye, Death Valley.”

Other possible books  include Ghost Riders in the Sky: The Story of Stan Jones, the Singing Ranger; Death Valley Scotty by Mabel; Jack Longstreet: The Last of the Desert Frontiersman; and the more recent Daniel Arnold’s Salt to Summit: A Vagabond’s Journey from Death Valley to Mount Whitney. A poem about Jack Longstreet is on display at the wonderful Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge near his cabin, which includes a separate section of the Death Valley National Park.

Andrew Jackson Longstreet

Notched his gun for each man killed

Local sheriffs were not thrilled

Five grooves placed upon that gun

Jack regretted only one

Built a cabin in Ash Meadows

To hide out from the posse fellows

Stones piled high to save his head

From pistols spinning white-hot lead.

This poem is but one treat in the under-rated Ash Meadows.

What looks like scrub desert is punctuated by blue pools of lively, tiny Pupfish, an endemic species that has survived in spite of living in harsh conditions. (Check out

SaltCreek pupfish

Salt Creek, DVNP

another variety of Pupfish in Salt Creek in Death Valley.)

We were walking along one particularly lovely creek where we found a sign that in the recent past, the wetlands were scheduled to be developed for condos and casinos. Thankfully, a protest saved the area. Edward Abbey put it succinctly in his Desert Solitaire, “There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.”

In addition to the geologic wonders of Death Valley, the environs include some funky stops: the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, founded by Marta Becket, a NYC showgirl whose car broke down in the desert in the 60s and who lived and performed here until her recent death in early 2017. (Check out her story and obituary here:

Tecopa features Death Valley Brewing in town and China Date Farm a few miles distant, down a rather awe-inspiring road to the oasis where delicious dates and hiking trails can be found. Seriously, try the date milkshake after returning from a walk in the canyon.

Then there is Goodwell, an open-air museum and sculpture garden in the ghost town of Rhyolite, where one historic home is constructed with bottles. Seriously, Belgian artists have created sculptures of The Last Supper, a mosaic couch, and a larger than life prospect with a penguin(?) in this desert setting.

Goodwell is between Death Valley and Pahrump, a gateway to the park with a really decent winery and restaurant.

Death Valley and its environs might be considered a wasteland by some, but it’s a remarkably diverse landscape and a delight for a mid-winter escape.

Coda: En route home, we stopped at Eli at the Northern Nevada Railway Museum, where we were treated to a terrific tour by curator Sean Pitts. Overnight at the All Aboard B&B and Cafe was a fitting complement. Not a bad way to spend a Spring Break.

Eli RR


Los Cabos Literature


When John Steinbeck and his good buddy marine scientist Ed Ricketts sailed into the bay at Cabo San Lucas in 1941, they found a “sad little town.” Seventy-five years later, some might consider the over-developed, tourist-crowded area still sad. For many others, it’s a img_5343paradise where they can whale watch, kayak to the famous arch, or don water-jet propelled boots for an uplifting experience. Or perhaps purchase drugs at discount prices or visit the Tequila Biblioteca.

What to read while relaxing by the pool or on the beach? Steinbeck’s classic Log of the Sea of Cortez certainly comes to mind, and I used a long weekend holiday in February to correct an oversight. I knew Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist from his fictional counterpart in Steinbeck’s Monterey Row, a novel I read some years ago when visiting coastal California for the Concours d’Elegance and vintage car races at Laguna Seca. By the way, the Steinbeck Museum in his hometown of Salinas is memorable—wonderfully showcasing the work that garnered a Nobel Prize in Literature (1962).

Steinbeck, Ricketts, and a host of sailor-collectors sail from Monterey around the southern tip of Baja California and up into the Sea of Cortez to collect fauna for study and preservation. Ricketts’s fame as a tidal pool expert still stands, and his book continues to be required reading for marine biologists. What is surprising about Steinbeck’s chronicle of the collecting voyage is how funny the book is. When they try to obtain a chicken in a Mexican village to vary their fish diet, he notes that the athletic ability of the bird is such that it would merit a collegiate scholarship for a track team. Their misadventures with camera equipment leads them to filming a blurry picture of crew member Shorty’s blue and white underwear. The tongue in cheek humor is a pleasant surprise.

img_5361More typical beach fare is a series by Robert Wisehart that features hard-boiled, but sometimes sensitive private detective Ethan Cruickshank. From Cabo, Cabo Revenge, Cabo Sunset, and others, I opted for Cabo Storm, which features the hurricane that hit the area in 2014. Cruickshank is hired to protect difficult to like or manage Rio LeDoux, who is working to make a comeback film, near the spot where Planet of the Apes was filmed. The thriller offers local color and an inside look at resorts that cater to celebrities; it also delves into the seedier side of town, a private sex club, supposedly near the popular bar, Cabo Wabo.

We chose to stay in San Jose del Cabo, a quieter village north of the tourist center, at a hotel adjacent to an estuary, which offered good bird watching. fullsizerender-2The pathway through the estuary from the sea to the village was missing a large chunk of boardwalk to the hurricane, and the horse corrals nearby were somewhat swamped. Still, it was an oasis away from the hustle of the “sad little town” to the south, where massive cruise ships disgorge passengers for dolphinimg_5367 encounters, camel rides in the outback, and zipline trips in the canyons.


San Jose also offered Thursday night art walks, horseback riding, and authentic cuisine such as the hot rock cooking in a Molcajete,typically used in a mortar and pestle but here used to finish a dish served at the table. It’s possible to find one in the local market, but the added weight to luggage may be prohibitive. The Saturday market, which primarily seems for snowbirds seeking relief from Northern climes, carries beautiful fruits and vegetables.

It’s also a fairly easy walk to Puerto Los Cabos, the entrance marked by a huge sculpture of a fisherman; other large scale sculptures are placed around the marina, which is about an hour away. Public buses–retired school buses–cost about 60 cents for a ride.

Los Cabos may be a bit light on literature, but soaking up the sun and local culture may leave little time for reading.

Postscript: John Steinbeck’s birthday on February 27 occurred shortly after our return, and as usual The Writer’s Almanac did a bang-up job on encapsulating his career:
It’s the birthday of novelist John Steinbeck (books by this author) born in Salinas, California (1902). In the 1930s, his most productive decade, he wrote several novels about his native California, including Tortilla Flat (1935), set in Monterey; In Dubious Battle (1936), about fruit-pickers on strike in a California valley; and Of Mice and Men (1937), set on a ranch in Soledad, southeast of Steinbeck’s birth town.

Of Mice and Men, the story of farmworker Lenny and his friend George, was a big commercial success, and it was also a highly banned book. In fact, it was among the American Library Association’s “most challenged books of the 20th century.” In support of the ban, people accused Steinbeck of having an “antibusiness attitude” and said that his “patriotism” was “questionable.” One person – in the 1990s – wrote that the book should be banned because Steinbeck took “God’s name in vain 15 times” and “[used] Jesus’ name lightly.”

In the 1940s, Steinbeck worked as a journalist – as a war correspondent. He sent dispatches from all around the Mediterranean and from North Africa during World War II. After the war was over, he started taking trips to the Soviet Union, going to Moscow, Kiev, Stalingrad, and also many out-of-the-way places in the Soviet republic where Western reporters had not traveled. He tried learning Russian but never really attained fluency. He once wrote home about how he proudly tried to order a breakfast of omelet, toast, and coffee, and was served in response a “tomato salad with onions, a dish of pickles, a big slice of watermelon, and two bottles of cream soda.”

In 1940, after the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, he won the Pulitzer Prize. He always professed to be leery and afraid of literary awards and their effect on writers. He said that after Faulkner won the Nobel Prize, hearing him talk so loftily about “writing” and “the Artist” made him (Steinbeck) want to “leave the profession.”

And then, in 1962, a decade after East of Eden (1952) and shortly after the publication of Travels with Charley (1962), Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in literature for his “realistic and imaginative writing, combining as it does sympathetic humor and keen social perception.” When a reporter at a press conference asked if he thought he deserved it, he said, “Frankly, no.”

But he accepted the prize and gave a lofty acceptance speech, in which he said, “A writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”

Afterward, he was worried about the prize’s effect upon his future writing. He thought about other major prizewinners and confided to a friend: “For one thing I don’t remember anyone doing any work after getting it save maybe Shaw. This last book of Faulkner’s was written long ago. Hemingway went into a kind of hysterical haze. Red Lewis just collapsed into alcoholism and angers. It has in effect amounted to an epitaph. Maybe I’m being over-optimistic but I wouldn’t have accepted it if I hadn’t thought I could beat the rap.”

As it happens, he was doomed just as he feared – he died six years later, not having published a single novel since winning the prize. The Grapes of Wrath is generally considered his masterpiece. In it, he wrote: “The cars of the migrant people crawled out of the side roads onto the great cross-country highway, and they took the migrant way to the West. … And because they were lonely and perplexed, because they had all come from a place of sadness and worry and defeat, and because they were all going to a mysterious new place … a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream.”

John Steinbeck said: “The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.”