The Armchair Traveler – Italy

Armchair TravelerEscape with the Armchair Traveler to beautiful Italy. These are not all “travel” books per se, but they will transport you from the frigid Midwest to warmer climes.

Without Reservations: the Travels of An Independent Woman by Alice Steinbach

Steinbach immerses herself in the neighborhoods and culture of European cities she travels to, but she is at her best when describing the thrills, hardships and annoyances of traveling alone.

As the Romans Do: The Delights, Dramas, and Daily Diversions of Life in the Eternal City by Alan Epstein

Again, Europe is seen through the eyes of an American, so the smallest of details of daily life are recorded and celebrated. Epstein describes the communal lifestyle of Rome (hanging out in the piazzas and raising children as a community) He revels in the elegant and beautiful art of conversation and sense of style that is particular to Romans.

Italian Journey by Jean GionoVenice

Written right after WWII, this is an elegant and elegiac view of northern Italy, and Venice, in particular.

An Italian Affair by Laura Fraser

Suddenly single, the author decides to take a trip to Italy where she begins a romance and a journey through Italy. An unsentimental but sensuous memoir.

The Fall of the Sparrow by Robert Hellenga

This novel merges the midwest and Italy, as a classics professor travels to Italy to attend the trial of terrorists responsible for his daughter’s death. (the author teaches at Knox College in Galesburg).

The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones

Jones balances his love for Italy with the realities of political corruption, Italy’s obsession with soccer and beauty, and Silvio Berlusconi

Next week: the Armchair Traveler visits New York City.

In Defense of Food

In Defense of FoodIs your head spinning from all the conflicting studies about what you should or shouldn’t eat? Michael Pollan makes a case for eating simply in this, his follow up book to The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He isn’t concerned with calorie counting or faddish lists of do’s and don’ts, but rather promotes a balanced, reasonable and pleasurable approach to food. Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. With so many “edible foodlike substances” on the market, Pollan advocates eating whole foods our grandmothers would recognize rather than the processed foods that claim to be nutritious. Fellow foodies will find this a refreshing book by a man who clearly loves good, real food. This is a great read to inspire lots of shopping at the local Farmer’s Markets this spring.

Also check out Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life for more ideas about how to eat local and fresh.

Take a listen to Michael Pollan’s talk given in Iowa City on WSUI radio’s Live from Prairie Lights

Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch

The Garden PrimerSpring is coming. Really, it is. And despite evidence to the contrary, it’s coming soon. Now is the perfect time to get serious about planning your garden – those juicy tomatoes and glorious flowers don’t plant themselves you know!

The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch has long been one of my favorites – there is something about her writing style that makes you think “Sure, I can grow that. No problem.” Encouraging and practical, she covers everything – from digging the garden bed to how to grow a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, flowers and bulbs – without being overwhelming. Topics include composting, growing native plants, dealing with critters and essential garden tools. A new, revised edition has just been released with updated plant varieties and additional topics; recommended garden practices are now 100% organic.

And if you’re landless or just don’t have the time to garden but still love to eat well, the Davenport Farmer’s Markets open for the regular season on May 3! (Until then, winter markets will be held at the Freight House on March 1 and April 5)

Murder in the National Parks

nevadabarrflashback.jpgDo you like to visit the National Parks? Do you like murder mysteries with a little romance thrown in? Check out the Nevada Barr mysteries. Her heroine is Anna Pigeon, a National Park Service Ranger who runs away from Manhattan after the death of her first husband. Each book deals with a murder in a National Park as Anna moves from post to post. Her descriptions of each park are great, making you want to visit. Flashback takes place in the Dry Tortugas National Park which is seventy miles off Key West. The story includes a current murder as well as the history and lore of the island, which is the site of historic Fort Jefferson. Anna’s sister Molly finds letters written by their great-great aunt who lived at the fort during the Civil War. With the letters providing the history of the fort and Anna’s description of her current posting at the park, you feel you are really there. After I read the book I had the opportunity to visit Key West and take a catamaran trip to Fort Jefferson; Nevada Barr’s vivid descriptions were right on the mark..

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

Madonnas of LeningradThe past is still vivid to Marina, even though the present fades in a fog of age and approaching Alzheimer’s. Now elderly and living in America, as a young woman she had been a docent at the State Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. When Leningrad comes under siege during World War II, Marina and the other museum workers carefully hide the priceless artworks, leaving the frames behind as a promise of their eventual return. Marina painstakingly memorizes each painting and sculpture, memories she can escape to as the winter and continuing siege worsen, memories that now seem more real than her current life. Interspersed with vivid descriptions of the artwork and the suffering of the Russian civilians, this is a beautiful book about the power of memory.

Little known fact about Frank Lloyd Wright

Death in a Prairie HouseThe most pivotal and yet least understood event of Frank Lloyd Wright’s celebrated life involves the brutal murders in 1914 of seven adults and children dear to the architect and the destruction by fire of Taliesin, his landmark residence, near Spring Green, Wisconsin. Unaccountably, the details of that shocking crime have been largely ignored by Wright’s legion of biographers—a historical and cultural gap that is finally addressed in William Drennan’s exhaustively researched Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders.

Supplying both a gripping mystery story and an authoritative portrait of the artist as a young man, Drennan wades through the myths surrounding Wright and the massacre, casting fresh light on the formulation of Wright’s architectural ideology and the cataclysmic effects that the Taliesin murders exerted on the fabled architect and on his subsequent designs.

Brothers by Da Chen

Brothers by Da ChenDo you like historical fiction? Try Brothers by Da Chen. The book takes place in China during the Cultural Revolution and concerns two brothers, Tan and Shento, one born to wealth and privilege , the other to poverty and shame. The story follows their lives as they grow to manhood and fulfill their destinies. Though a work of fiction, the author has also written memoirs of his life in China, and this book draws upon his experiences during those tumultuous times.

Into Great Silence

Into Great SilenceInto Great Silence is a compelling film that chronicles the lives of the ascetic monks of the Grande Chartreuse in the picturesque French Alps. This is a unique movie in that there is no voice over and few subtitles. The tolling of the immense church bells calling the monks to prayer provides us with a rare glimpse of the rhythm of daily life for the men who live outside of the hustle and bustle of our modern time. This stark yet beautiful documentary introduces viewers to the symbols, rituals, and traditions that the Carthusian monks have followed since the founding of this hermit order in the eleventh century.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

Uncommon ReaderA very quick read (120 pages) about the Queen of England who discovers a love of reading when she wanders into a bookmobile. She reads widely and indiscriminately with the help of a young palace employee. She finds that she is changed by what she reads, as well as by the process of reading.

The Queen as a character is immensely likeable and honest, yet the author gives insight into the very real class and status differences she has always had to live with. One (as the Queen refers to herself) gives an insider view of what life as a monarch may be like.

The act of reading as subversive and suspect is also explored – very interesting for those who love reading, books and libraries. Though the style is light and funny, there are many poignant moments, and a surprise ending as well. Highly recommended.

The Commoner by John Schwartz

The Commoner by John SchwartzOffering a peek into the largely closed and secret world of the Japanese royal family, The Commoner by John Schwartz is the story of Haruko, the first commoner to marry into the oldest monarchy in the world. Set in the years immediately after World War II when Japan was undergoing great change, Haruko goes from the relative freedom of a well-educated college graduate to a tightly the controlled world of a princess whose only duty was to produce a male heir. Spare and beautiful, it is a culture very foreign to us, but the thoughts and feelings of its characters are universal. While the storyline is somewhat similar to recent real-life events in Japan, this is a novelization, beautifully imagined.