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Some personal favorites

Review by Lynda La Rocca

Favorite Books – December 2004 – Colorado Central Magazine

READING IS MY DRUG of choice, and 2004 has been filled with events that generated the need for more than my usual amount of medication.

Seriously, I’ve been reading so voraciously over the past twelve months that it’s been difficult to narrow down my choices to a handful of “favorites.” But I’ll give it my best shot by starting with two incredible works by Gregory Maguire, a writer who blends fantasy with reality so vividly and precisely that it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint where the make-believe ends–or whether it actually ends at all.

Maguire is the author of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Wicked, his debut novel, has been made into a Tony-award-winning Broadway musical.

I had the pleasure of meeting Maguire last spring in Beaver Creek where he was one of the featured speakers at the annual Festival of Words. And I’ve got to say, getting inside this man’s head would be the start of one long, strange trip. Maguire takes fairy tales like the story of Cinderella, which is the basis for Stepsister, and the Oz series of children’s books by L. Frank Baum, and turns them upside-down and inside-out. While retaining enough essentials to make the original sources immediately recognizable, Maguire simultaneously creates his own magical, mesmerizing worlds filled with wonderfully oddball characters, startling plot twists, and enough biting social commentary to make you laugh out loud–or shudder in horror.

Imagine an Oz reminiscent of Nazi Germany, where a class of talking Animals is mercilessly hunted down, confined, and used for forced labor, where Munch kinland is a bastion of middle-class values, and where Elphaba, the prickly, green-skinned child who grows up to become the Wicked Witch of the West, is part lonely misfit and part guerilla warrior, a cynical, intelligent woman who forces readers to think long and hard about the nature of good and evil.

Maguire performs similar legerdemain with Stepsister, which is set in 17th-century Holland and centered upon Iris, whose life becomes intertwined with that of her stepsister, the stunningly beautiful Clara, “our Cinderella, our Ashgirl.” Yes, there’s a Prince, but he’s not nearly as important as the realization that it’s hard to see, really see, what’s around us and within us, and that the surpassing value of transformation is realized only by paying what sometimes is a very high price.

IT’S MY FIRM BELIEF that John Steinbeck’s classic East of Eden must be read over and over again by anyone with even the slightest interest in such “unanswerable” questions as:

· Are human beings mere automatons controlled by a master puppeteer we call God?

· Does this God (assuming, of course, the existence of such a Being) predetermine who will be saved and who is doomed?

· Or does God give us free will and, if we have free will, can its existence help to explain the unfathomable nature of love and its sometimes appalling consequences?

In this sweeping, passionate, often brutal familial saga, Steinbeck modernizes the Old Testament story of Adam and Eve’s sons Cain and Abel, the former a fratricide (exiled from the deity’s presence to dwell “in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden,” hence the novel’s title) who commits his heinous crime in a fit of jealousy over God’s apparent preference for Abel. Explaining the ongoing power of this Biblical tale, one character calls it “. . . the symbol story of the human soul. . . .The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. . . . And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt–and there is the story of mankind.”

The philosophical discussion between three friends surrounding the meaning of the Hebrew word timshel provides enough food for thought, in itself, to sustain readers for a lifetime.

John Irving’s The Cider House Rules offers a similar kind of spiritual sustenance but in a very different framework. This moving tale of the orphan Homer Wells, who grows up in the fictional Maine orphanage of St. Cloud’s, also wrestles valiantly with the nature of good and evil.

Homer at first rejects, then grows to understand, the values imparted by Dr. Wilbur Larch, the orphanage’s kind but crusty proprietor and father figure. Larch, an obstetrician/abortionist who expertly performs (and teaches Homer to perform) both “the Lord’s work and the Devil’s,” firmly believes in the necessity of terminating unwanted pregnancies, being intimately familiar with the results of doing otherwise–the love-starved, desperate-to-be-adopted orphans of St. Cloud’s.

As Homer emerges from the shelter of St. Cloud’s, he comes to realize that circumstances don’t always allow for the luxury of black-and-white views in an all-too-complicated, often tragic and incomprehensible real world.

FOR SOME COMIC RELIEF–and probably not a moment too soon–check out Helen Fielding’s delightful Bridget Jones’s Diary. While the movie of the same name was a riot, the book that it’s based on is even better.

I couldn’t stop chuckling over the trials and tribulations of this hapless “singleton” who looks for love in a number of wrong places while struggling through events like “severe birthday-related thirties panic,” dinner parties thrown by “Smug Marrieds” who persist in “seating me opposite an increasingly horrifying selection of single men,” and a publicly televised humiliation involving a fireman’s pole (the one that’s in the firehouse).

Bridget meticulously records her calorie and nicotine intake (“123 lbs. shrunk with embarrassment . . . cigarettes 0 no smoking in fire station”) and makes long, earnest lists of resolutions (“I WILL NOT . . Smoke/Spend more than earn/Get upset over men, but instead be poised and cool ice-queen. I WILL . . . Stop smoking/Go to gym three times a week not merely to buy sandwich/Form functional relationship with responsible adult.”).

Sure, this is a “chick” book. And Bridget’s thoughts, actions, and experiences will resonate with most women who have been “out there” in the dating world (except, perhaps, for the incident with the fireman’s pole). I’d love to hang out with her and fail gloriously at trying not to “bitch about anyone behind their backs, but be positive about everyone.”