August 11, 2011

Three Midwest Cities for Book Lovers

I would like to take a momentary break from my posts about my trip to New York City to indulge in my bibliophile travel interests. There has been some great literary news lately, including Philip Levine being named the 2011-12 U.S. Poet Laureate. But recently as I was reading Huffington Post Books (my favorite source for book nerd news), I saw a link to the "5 Best Cities for Book Lovers."

It was not a surprising list:
1. Pasadena, CA (Vroman's Bookstore)
2. Washington D.C. (Politics & Prose Bookstore)
3. San Francisco, CA (City Lights)
4. Portland, OR (Powell's Books)
5. New York City, NY (Strand Bookstore)

I agree that these are all great cities for book lovers. I love the Strand and I love City Lights. I have to go to the Strand every time I go to New York City (as I've mentioned here before) and as a devout follower of Kerouac I am happy to say that I have made the "counter-culture pilgrimage" to City Lights.

But here's my problem with the list: Where are the Midwest cities? Every place on the list is East Coast or West Coast without anything in the middle. I know we tend to be thought of as fly-over country, but even with all the plans buzzing overhead we have still found time to enjoy a book or two. That is why I want to add a few places to this list. Specifically, three Midwest cities and towns for book lovers:

1. Kansas City (Rainy Day Books)

Regardless of whether you are on the Kansas or Missouri side of the state line in Kansas City, Rainy Day Books is your source for all great literary events. I have mentioned this bookstore here before, but feel the need to mention it again. Because if you want to make a list of cities for book lovers, it just has to include Rainy Day Books. To read more about it, visit my previous blog post here.

2. Chicago, IL (Women and Children First Bookstore)

This Andersonville bookstore, as the name would suggest, specializes in feminist and children literature. But the best reason to keep coming back is the author events. Powerful women, such as Hilary Clinton, have given readings there. I was lucky enough to attend a reading by Nora Vincent after the release of her book "Self-Made Man: My Year Disguised as a Man", describing her 18-month experiment to pass as a man in traditionally male-only venues (including everything from bowling teams to strip clubs to a monastery). It has an incredibly loyal group of patrons as well as local prestige as it was named one of the ten best bookstore in Chicago by the Chicago Tribune.

3. Lawrence, KS (The Dusty Bookshelf)

Okay, so I'm a little biased and put my current hometown on here. But it really is a great place for book lovers. On Massachusetts Street, the main street through downtown Lawrence, you will find my favorite used bookstore, The Dusty Bookshelf. This little shop is piled high with books - literally. Even with full shelves at the Dusty Bookshelf, you can still find stacks and stacks of books just waiting to be sorted through by a dedicated reader who enjoys the thrill of discovery just as much as she loves a good read.

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August 9, 2011

The Ramble - New York City, NY

After passing through Strawberry Fields, we moved on to the Ramble. As opposed to the manicured lawns and artfully gardened plots in other parts of Central Park, the Ramble is a natural landscape. It is 38-acre woodland respite that is home to some of Central Park's most famous attractions including: Belvedere Castle, Lower Bethesda Terrace, the Boathouse, and Bow Bridge (which I have previously mentioned as one of my top five most romantic places).

The Ramble was an integral part of Central Park's original design. It was created to be a "natural garden" that incorporates Manhattan bedrock, open glades an artificial stream, and intricate plantings of both native and non-native trees (Fun Fact: The Ramble is now mostly dominated by black cherry and black locust trees because they aggressively self-seed.) In the Ramble, it is easy to forget you are in New York City. As we walked along the dirt paths that are uneven with stones and fallen branches, I felt like was a kid again in the woods of Oklahoma. Lost among the trees and brush and rocky outcrops, it's hard for me to imagine that someone actually planted and designed it all. Nothing about it seems intentional. It is more like it all just rose up from the earth and simply is as all nature simply is.

The Ramble also has a slightly more illicit history. Throughout the twentieth century, the Ramble was a clandestine place for male lovers to meet. Men would go to the Ramble to meet other men and…enjoy the love that dare not speak its name. (Please note I’m trying to find really, really tactful ways to say these things. So bear with me and I promise to keep Wilde references to a minimum). As times have changed and society become more tolerant, the Ramble has become more popular for nature hikes than secret rendezvouses. But it retains its status as a New York gay icon, or at least the New York gay icon pre-dating Christopher Street.

Our visit to the Ramble was without the drama of illicit love affairs. No, we were simply a group of about 30 people dressed in wedding attire traipsing through the brush along the stony dirt paths. Although we did have some drama.

As we were walking through the Ramble, a very surprising thing happened. Someone tripped and fell. Well, that’s not really the surprising part. The surprising part is that it wasn't me. I have an impressive ability to hurt myself in random accidents. This includes tripping, slipping, falling, and on one occasion I split my finger open on a spoon (although in my defense it was a particularly sharp spoon). When we first realized someone had fallen, Joel turned around expecting to find me face down in the dirt. I also expected to find myself face down in the dirt. But to our infinite shock and amazement, I was upright and at no point fell or injured myself on our ramble through the Ramble.


August 4, 2011

Strawberry Fields Memorial - New York City, NY

After the wedding in Wagner Cove, we paraded through Central Park accompanied by the accordion player. Our first stop was the Strawberry Fields, a memorial to John Lennon. The Strawberry Fields Memorial was designed by Bruce Kelly, the chief landscape architect for the Central Park Conservancy. It was dedicated on what would have been Lennon's 45th birthday - October 9, 1985 - by New York Mayor Ed Koch and Yoko Ono, John Lennon's widow. It was named for Lennon's song "Strawberry Fields Forever."

The original Strawberry Fields are located in Woolton, a suburb of Liverpool, England. Lennon grew up near Strawberry Fields and as a child he would enjoy a garden party held there every summer. The Strawberry Fields Memorial was built in Central Park West at West 72nd Street, across from the Dakota Apartments, where Lennon had lived in his later years and where he was murdered. The focal point of the Strawberry Fields Memorial is the Imagine mosaic. The mosaic is surrounded by open lawns and rock outcroppings, bounded in by shrubs, treesm and woodland slopes.

The area is designated as a quiet zone, but it is rarely quiet. When we were there, some people were quietly lying on the lawns either reflecting or reading or just enjoying the sunshine. But around the Imagine mosaic, there was a large group of people and they were not quiet. There were tables set up where artisans and craftsmen sold their work, many of them celebrating the life and work of John Lennon. Many people are also there to pay homage to Lennon. I saw roses, candles, works of art, and even a hand-made Lennon doll placed on the Imagine memorial as people circled around and played music. These impromptu memorials are common and often attended by famous musicians and admirers of Jonn Lennon, including Jerry Garcia and George Harrison.


August 2, 2011

Wagner Cove - New York City, NY

The wedding was held in Wagner Cove of Central Park. Wagner Cove is hidden in a shady corner of the Lake. It is easy to walk by again and again without ever noticing it is there. But one turn past the shrubbery and you'll see the path leading down to the edge of the Lake. There is the rustic shelter that dates back to the first years of Central Park when rowboats on the Lake would stop at one of six shelters along the edge of the Lake to pick up passengers and drop them off at another. The cove is named for Robert F. Wagner, New York City's mayor from 1956 to 1965.

Because of its rustic charm and its hidden nature, Wagner Cove is a very popular wedding site. As we were preparing for the ceremony, another bride and groom came by to have some wedding photos taken but were disappointed to see we had already claimed the spot. The popularity is well deserved. As an accordion player serenaded us, we slowly moved down the mossy stone steps into the little cove. Hidden away from the city, we stood on the edge of the calm Lake, surrounded by the lush greenery of the Park. It was almost mystical in its natural beauty, as though we had found a little place removed from time and space to disappear from the sprawling urban landscape around us.

The ceremony was beautiful and private, so I'm not going to share the details of it here. But suffice it to say, I can see why Wagner Cove is a popular spot to disappear from the city and celebrate a couple's love.


July 27, 2011

Weird Things Happen in Harlem - New York City, NY

I woke up the morning of the wedding extremely hung over after the previous night of drinking at the White Horse Tavern. Law school has made me a homebody, so I don't drink much at all and hardly ever have a night on the town. So when I woke up that morning, I was surprised by how terrible I felt. I remember thinking, "Holy crap! This is what a hangover is like! I almost forgot!" Of course, it also may be alcohol taking revenge on me for my long neglect.

In any case, I stumbled around my hotel room in a state of confused, achey dehydration and gathered everything I would need to look presentable that afternoon. I was meeting the groom and some other members of the wedding party in Harlem to get ready for the festivities. This would mostly consist of eating greasy food, drinking beer, and trying to properly tie the gentlemen's bow ties. So I grabbed a bag and headed on my way.

Once I arrived at the apartment in Harlem, I decided to have a cigarette before going inside. As I was standing on the sidewalk people watching, I saw a very disheveled woman under the influence of some narcotic stumbling towards me. (This is the nicest way I can think to say, "I saw a homeless woman on crack.") She was slurring her words and yelling what I could only identify as syllables to no one in particular. After she passed me, she started to empty out a black plastic bag. But it was already empty.

Then she waved around...a shallot. To this day, I still do not understand why that woman had a shallot. Where did she even get a shallot? I often cook with shallots and know that they are expensive little delicacies; they definitely cost more than your average onion. So where on earth did a homeless woman under the influence of crack get a shallot? And why was she waving it around?

And thus ends my story about weird things that happen in Harlem.


July 26, 2011

White Horse Tavern - New York City, NY

After our meal at the Spotted Pig, we walked up the block to have drinks at the White Horse Tavern. This was actually my second visit there. When I was in college and went with friends to New York City, we went to White Horse Tavern specifically to have a drink because of its association with Dylan Thomas.

There is a story that Dylan Thomas, the poet most famous for his line "Do not go gentle into that good night" and his ability to consume vast quantities of alcohol, supposedly went to the White Horse Tavern the night of his death. As was his style, he drank heavily through the night and uttered his famous last words, "I've had 18 straight whiskeys...I think that's the record" before slipping into a coma. This is mostly a legend, there were numerous rumors about what killed Dylan Thomas but ultimately it was ruled to be brain swelling from pneumonia (a lot less glamorous than death by 18 whiskeys).

Of course, Dylan Thomas is not the only famous person to drink at the White Horse Tavern. Over the years, the White Horse has become the watering hole for some of Americas most famous musicians and writers. The other famous Dylan - Bob Dylan - was also a patron along with Jim Morrison and Hunter S. Thompson. One of my other favorite stories about the White Horse Tavern is about Jack Kerouac. When Kerouac was living in the West Village, he frequently visited the White Horse. He was also frequently kicked out of the White Horse. Because he was consistently removed from the premises, someone scrawled on the wall of the bar, "Jack Go Home!" (Fun Fact: The golden years of artists drinking at White Horse are memorialized in Gene Raskins' song "Those Were the Days." The opening line, "Once upon a time there was a tavern" refers to the White Horse.)

So on the night before the wedding, the bride and groom were joined by friends to imbibe vast quantities of alcohol in the old stomping ground of this country's artistic elite. And imbibe we did. The patrons were incredibly friendly (although there was one table of particularly loud yuppies who had apparently decided they were entitled to break every rule of drinking etiquette). And the bar staff was amazing. One extremely friendly bartender gave me a couple free drinks when I told him I had come all the way from Kansas.

I cannot say enough how much I love the White Horse Tavern. It is part of American history and our artistic culture, but it also continues to be one of the greatest places to grab a drink in the West Village.


July 20, 2011

The Spotted Pig - New York City, NY

One of the best parts of attending Aubrae and Joel's wedding was the food. Aubrae was trained at the Culinary Institute of America, so when she chose The Spotted Pig for the rehersal dinner I knew I was in for a real treat. The Spotted Pig in the West Village serves seasonal British and Italian cuisine, using local ingrediants whenever possible. It is one of the most famous restaurants in New York, tucked away on a hidden corner with no sign and just a literal spotted pig hanging above the door. Because of its fame and notoriety, I am hardly the first blog to write about the restaurant. You can actually read other blogs about the restaurant, many of them food-based blogs with much more knowledge of the gastronomy arts than I can hope to offer here. (Click here to read them.)

We took the room on the third floor for the evening, complete with a bar and a chef preparing our indescribably delicious small plates. On the tables were marinated olives and roasted almonds for us to taste in between the plates of appetizers and salads.

This joins other food blog articles posted in Wanderfood Wednesdays on Wanderlust and Lipstick. Check them out!


July 19, 2011

World Coffee - New York City, NY

Just down the street from my hotel, World Coffee became my coffee house during my stay in New York City. Because my hotel room did not have a coffee pot, it became essential to surviving my trip. For example, on my first day in New York I had been up since 4:00a.m. but was attending wedding festivities until 4:00a.m. that night. Enter World Coffee with a brilliantly strong soy latte that kept me awake for the rest of the evening. It was especially appealing because it was the only real independent option. There was a Starbucks not far away, but I only really stopped there when I needed a bathroom (honestly, it is impossible to find a bathroom in New York and Starbucks is about the only place to go. Luckily, there is one every couple of blocks).

I really enjoyed the coffee at World Coffee. The small lattes were strong, served normally with two shots of espresso and I can't say as a coffee fiend how happy that made me. But they did come with a steep price tag. But it was a nice place to get a nice cup of coffee and sit quietly while reading my book. Also with Central Park just across the street, it was easy to grab a park bench and sit sipping my coffee while people watching. It made for an especially enjoyable Sunday afternoon when the Farmer's Market was along Columbus street.

I also enjoyed their blueberry crumble cake, although it was a bit stale. But to be fair, all their pastries were a bit stale. I tried the fig pastry, but the filling was tacky with staleness and the pastry itself difficult to bite because it was so hard and dry. It seemed to be a common problem with their pastries. I tried the apple crumble cake as well and found myself wondering just how many days it had been sitting in the case.

Despite the stale pastries and the steep price for coffee, World Coffee became my regular stop for caffiene in New York. If you are staying on the Upper West Side, then World Coffee is definitely a great place to make your coffee shop.


July 13, 2011

Gazala's - New York City, NY

Gazala's serves authentic Druze food on the Upper West Side. The Druze, also known as the "Sons of Grace", is a a small religious sect largely of Arab descent but they also have Iranian, Kurdish, and European heritage. By tradition, the Druze mainly depend on olives and fruits for food, but because of their wide range of ethnic and regional influences, Druze cuisine also includes Turkish bourekas and salads, Lebanese vine leaves, zaatar and olive oil, and Israeli falafel.

I stopped by Gazala's before my trip to the Strand, craving something refreshing and affordable. I ordered the Gazala salad - lettuce, tomato, cucumber, scallion in a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice. It was a huge portion when it arrived and smelled amazing, the lettuce, tomato, and onion were all incredibly fresh and the citric scent of lemon was strong and refreshing. But unfortunately, it didn't taste as refreshing as it smelled. The dressing was completely overwhelming and had drenched the entire salad, to the point that there was a two inch broth of lemon and olive juice at the bottom of the bowl. Every bite tasted like an oily lemon, completely masking the lettuce and tomato and only letting the occasional bite of raw scallion through. It was inedible.

I spent about a half hour struggling to eat the salad while reading Virginia Woolf's "The Waves" at my table. But each bite was overwhelming and required at least a couple minutes of mental preparation for the intense rush of the dressing. After a while, I just gave up. I probably should have sent it back but I was far too shy for something like that in New York. In Lawrence, where I know the restaurants and often a lot of people who work there, I would have felt much more comfortable asking for a salad with about a gallon less dressing. But there I was too shy about it and so just let the majority of my salad sit there uneaten.

Eventually, I paid and went to the door to leave. Unfortunately, I was confronted by a heavy rain storm outside. I hadn't even packed an umbrella, let alone brought one with me and so I decided to stay and wait for a break in the weather. While I was waiting, I opted to order one of my favorite desserts in the world - baklava. The baklava was baked in a round and sliced into medallions of phyllo pastry filled with chopped pistachio nuts and honey-lemon syrup.

It was incredible. The filling had an incredible fresh and sweet crunch and the phyllo was flakey and crunchy. It also avoided one of the most troublesome aspects of baklava when the baking and the syrup make the bottom layers of the baklava impossible to cut. But by serving it in rounds instead of thick triangles, each medallion was no more than a bite or two big and avoiding some of the perils of eating baklava.

I had to leave my delicious dessert quickly when I saw a break in the rain through the window. So I ate my last bite quickly, savoring the sweet nuttiness of the filling, left my money on the table and dashed out to try and catch the train before the rain started again (but, of course, I've already told you how miserably that turned out).

This joins other food blog articles posted in Wanderfood Wednesdays on Wanderlust and Lipstick. Check them out!


July 12, 2011

Strand Book Store - New York City, NY

On my second day in New York City, I had an entire afternoon to wander the city before the wedding festivities began. Naturally, I decided to go to my favorite place in the city - the Strand Book Store. Of course, getting there proved to be a unique challenge. A sudden rain storm hit while I was on the street, soaking me completely through in a few minutes. And I couldn't get a cab to stop on Broadway to save me life (although one did stop briefly, to laugh and tell me there was no way he was going to Union Square).

So I spent twenty miserable minutes sloshing through the wet streets of New York before I finally made it into a train station. Of course, that didn't make it much better because everyone in the train station smelled like a wet rat...although that could have just been the smell of wet rats. As much as I love public transportation, I had subway train stations. They are dirty, cramped, and humid. Every surface has been covered with graffiti and some kind of bodily fluid, so I'm afraid to touch anything even accidentally. But the worst part is the stale air. I just find it had to breathe waiting on the platform and suddenly when the train comes flying past and brings a gust of fresh air through the tunnel, it is such a relief. I can breath and I can leave the platform, even if it is only to be packed into a crowded train car like cattle to the slaughter.

The trip itself was unpleasent, so naturally I was relieved when I finally arrived in Union Square. Although the city did have one final insult for me. As I was walking down the street and attempting to light a cigarette, I stepped on a grate that sent a gust of air up my skirt. With my skirt over my head and trying to balance my purse and cigarette, it took me about ten seconds to get it back down. In my Marilyn Monroe re-enactment, I flashed the city of New York City for about ten seconds. Not one of the moments in my life.

Luckily, the Strand was there to comfort me. Eighteen miles of new, used and rare books - the Mecca for nerds in the city. (However, I was corrected by one person. It is not the "Mecca for nerds", it's just the Mecca). As soon as I walked in the door, I was taken in by the displays on modern classics and staff choices. They had a great selection and I should know, because I had already read most of them (although I did pick up a copy of J.D. Salinger's "Nine Stories" from the modern classics table).

Strand was first built in 1927 on Fourth Avenue, New York's "Book Row", as one of 48 bookstores. Today, the Strand is the only one left. The family business has been steadily growing over the decades. In the 1950's, it was moved to 12th and Broadway where it occupied 4,000 square feet. In the 1970's, it had accumulated 8 miles of books. Today, it has 18 miles of books, about 2.5 million indiviudal books, and occupies 55,000 square feet. But it still remains a family business, owned by Fred Bass, the son of the original founder Ben Bass, and his daughter Nancy Bass Wyden.

Strand is not just a wonderful place to spend an afternoon wandering the stacks, it also offers full services for bibilophiles. Want a personal library? They will build you one designed to your tastes. They have even rented libraries for films, such as American Gangster, and television shows, such as Law and Order. You can also hire their book detectives to hunt down rare volumes, first editions, signed copies, and even fine bindings. You can even rent the rare book room for special events and celebrate your occassion surrounded by some of the greatest works of literature.

Strand is my favorite place to be in New York, so it was worth the hellish journey to get there. There is something amazing about being surrounded by that many great books, something comforting and relaxing. If I only had one day in New York, this is where I would spend it.