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Some Winter Reading

Essay by Martha Quillen

Literature – January 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE ASSIGNMENT — if I chose to accept it — was to make a list of some of my favorite books (including, of course, only books currently in print and readily available in 2000). That sounds easy, doesn’t it? Or at least it certainly didn’t sound like a mission impossible. But when I tried to come up with some titles, I found myself faltering.

In the past couple of years, I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries, so I immediately thought of murder mysteries and came up with a good many authors’ names: Kellerman, White, Pickard, Gerritsen, McCrumb, Scottoline, George, (Laurie) King, etc. etc. etc. All of those authors have written some intriguing thrillers and a book or two that didn’t work quite as well…

But when I thought about it, I couldn’t recall any particular book that stood above the others, so I had no titles to recommend. I suspect that may be because I read mysteries (westerns, thrillers, gothic horror, romances, Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steele, Stephen King, and all those other popular greats) because I don’t have to think about them. They’re not like newspapers, news magazines, histories, biographies, philosophical treatises, political analysis, or the latest postmodernist literary masterpiece.

Perhaps, for that reason alone, I think genre literature makes a great gift. And coming from an absolutely book-addicted family, I give a lot of my relatives books, but for the most part I stick to paperbacks and quantity. (One Christmas I sent my mom a half-dozen used paperbacks that I thought she might like along with her present, and the week after New Year’s she told me she’d finished them and asked if I could recommend something else).

Ahhh… At this point I realize how easy it is to go book shopping for my family. Like myself, Ed and my mom will read most anything. I get a kick out of reading Roget’s Thesaurus, books of quotes, texts on grammar. Ed and I positively adore World Almanacs; every year Ed goes out and buys one for each of us — including our daughters. We keep an almanac by the television to look up the ages of various movie stars; we keep one by the telephone in case someone calls expecting us to remember the name of the honorable senators from Kansas; I keep one in my office so I can check the spelling of various important names — or just in case I need to figure out what day Easter and Thanksgiving will fall on in 2003.

As I see it, everyone who’s out Christmas shopping should pick themselves up The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2001. But on the other hand, I’m not sure the almanac makes a great gift unless the recipient is already into the lure of having a book that tells you almost everything you need to know to be a good American: the names of the Supreme Court justices, the addresses of your U.S. congressmen, the history of the U.S. and the world, the names of all the presidents, statistics on crimes, who won the Pulitzer… It just goes on and on. But even so, I remember when Ed gave an almanac to one of his brothers who doesn’t particularly like to read and who had obviously never heard of the World Almanac. His brother asked straight out, “And what do you expect me to do with this?”

I guess almanacs are for the most part fat, rather homely books with very small print — and if you’re over 50, you may even have to consider buying yourself a magnifying glass to go with yours — but the World Almanac is still only $10.95, and thus I consider it one of the best buys in the universe.

Even so, however, I suspect that some of the books I’ve read this year were more fun… Except when I tried to write about them I couldn’t seem to remember their names. So I went to First Street Books and Adventure Media in Salida (and then the library) to try to refresh my memory.

Local Books

And right away, I was astonished at how many local books there were by people I actually know, many of whom have contributed to Colorado Central Magazine. I saw Ed’s Denver Post column collection, Deep in the Heart of the Rockies; Pack Burro Stories by Hal Walter; Steven Voynick’s rockhounding book, Bob Thomason’s photo collection of Sangres scenery, Jim Ludwig’s memoirs about Climax, Dick Dixon’s Trails Among the Columbine series history, Eleanor Perry’s How Ricky Saved Christmas, Jeff Stern’s Soul Like a River, and Virginia Simmons’s new book about the Utes. (For those long-time readers not familiar with Thomason, you’re right, he hasn’t written for us, but he runs a Custer County web site and graciously shares his events information for our calendar each month, and it was his company, Music Mountain Press, that published Ed’s column collection.)

There were also numerous local books that we’ve reviewed. I saw the two “Valley Voices” short story anthologies put out by the Chaffee County CCA writer’s group. I saw The Coyote Laughed, Relationships With Wildlife by local writers Adelina Taylor, Ed Carpenter and Gay Holbrook; also several collections of columns by Phoebe Cranor, a long-time Gunnison Country Times writer; both of Christopher O’Brien’s books about weirdness in the San Luis Valley; and many, many other books.

Now, it dawns on me that I should have taken a notebook along with me when I went to those bookstores in order to jot down the titles. But my primary point is that there are enough regional books available to please almost any taste, and I hope our readers will consider them this season — because “local” is something I believe in.

As I see it, local is what keeps us from living in that global, corporate MacWorld that so many of our writers fear. It’s what keeps us from thinking inside of those “big boxes” that George Sibley is always lamenting.

In column after column, I see rural writers expounding on the importance of going to the local cafe rather than the fast-food franchise, and I keep reading about how we should all shop at mom-and-pop stores instead of outlets. But regional books, art, theater, and ideas are what actually create our not-so-mainstream culture. So this Christmas I hope everyone will check out more of our home-inspired products.

I would also like to recommend a not-quite-so-local but still regional book that we reviewed recently. Living in the Runaway West is a column collection compiled by High Country News. Every month I read fifteen or twenty of the High Country News Writers on the Range Syndicate’s columns in order to choose one (or two) for Colorado Central, and I usually end up reading many, many great columns that we can’t use (or that I don’t feel we should use since some of them are about salmon fishing, or dealing with Mexican-American border disputes, and numerous other things that aren’t really central to Central Colorado, but that are fascinating and provocative nonetheless). And now you can read some of those exceptional columns that we never ran.


But even though I love local books — and even though we generally only review books “from, for and about” Central Colorado — I would not want to imply that anyone should only read regional books — or that all of my favorite books were written here. On the contrary, I’d like to add a little something to Lynda La Rocca’s list.

First, I’d like to reiterate Lynda’s recommendation of A Christmas Carol. For those of you who are still a little scared of Dickens after having had miserable experiences with him in the past, I’d like to reassure you. (I for example moved frequently and thus had to read Great Expectations in 8th, 9th, and 11th grades, then twice in college, which is definitely too much to expect of even a big Dickens fan.)

A Christmas Carol is a fast and easy read, though, and Dicken’s does have some great characters. But I like his language even better — since he can escalate even silly jokes into sublime prose. Moreover, I like him because he has a grand sense of humor and actually writes far better tear-jerking melodrama than Danielle Steele.

But maybe the opening of A Christmas Carol will convince you:

Marley was dead, to begin with, there is no doubt about that…

Old Marley was as dead as a door nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for.

The best thing about A Christmas Carol, though, is that it’s short, usually less than 120 pages, regardless of the edition. These days, as the books, magazines, and newspapers I want to read pile up (higher and higher), I’m afraid length has become a consideration even for me — although I suspect that Lynda and I can both find more time to read than many of you, since we can probably, somewhat dubiously, justify general reading as a part of our professional duties.

But even so, I figure a lot of people have trouble finding the time to reread those old school favorites, and yet they are so much easier to read, understand, and enjoy when you get older than they were the first time around. Things just seem to get clearer when you’re older. I, for example, was eleven when I first read the Diary of Anne Frank, and I was thoroughly convinced that she died because God had to punish her for her apparent sexual preoccupations and her disdainful attitude toward her elders.

So that being said, I’d like to add some personal — but fairly diminutive — favorites to Lynda’s list, I’ll call them “Classics: the short list.”

ALTHOUGH A CHRISTMAS CAROL is a great ghost story, I think Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote some of the very best creepy yet morally illuminating short stories. And lately, my mind keeps going back to Hawthorne’s story, The Ambitious Guest, a tale about a middle-of-the-night visitor at an isolated mountain cottage in the “bleakest spot of all New England” where “the wind was sharp throughout the year, and pitilessly cold in the winter.” Without giving too much of this less-than-10-page story away, suffice it to say that the tale proves that the perils of New England and Hawthorne’s time weren’t much different than our perils here in Central Colorado today. Hawthorne’s handling of them, however, is both heartbreaking and haunting. Thus, although I like almost all of Hawthorne’s short stories, I particularly recommend looking for a collection that includes “The Ambitious Guest.”

As for other short treasures: I love Mark Twain’s short stories and I also like collections of Twain’s commentary like Letters from the Earth, and various selections derived from Innocents Abroad, Life on the Mississippi and his other somewhat autobiographical works.

Also, if you like really creepy stories with a lot more thought-provoking bizarreness than you can ordinarily find in Stephen King, you can’t beat Franz Kafka, especially his short works In the Penal Colony and Metamorphosis. Some of Kafka’s stories, like The Country Doctor, have always struck me as a bit too cerebral. But most of Kafka’s stories are easily read, even though they’re obviously not meant for “simple” understanding, but instead invite the reader to ponder them for a long, long time.

Anyway, collections of Hawthorne, Twain, and Kafka are usually fairly easy to find…

But I don’t mean to imply that you should confine your reading to either local books or old classics, either.

New Books

Not so long ago, whenever I read a book review that made a book sound interesting, I’d ask about that book at the library, and often I’d be told that there was a waiting list. So I’d sign up. But then I started to wonder why I was signing up for books by authors who’d written other books that I hadn’t read before and that were sitting gathering dust right there in that very library.

— Yet there is something special about a book that’s brand new and still being talked about, although I’m not exactly sure what that something is. Perhaps there’s a kind of thrill in reading about characters who presumably exist right now. Or maybe new books seem more stylish.

Well anyway, some of the books I’d like to recommend are not all that new, but they did come out in the last or two or three…

A Volume of Humorous Essays

Last summer I read Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, and as the 2000 campaign progressed I grew more and more fond of it.

If you, like me, think that self-righteousness and hypocrisy are the only things anyone can really display if they talk all the time about their own good character and morals while disparaging the character and values of others, then you’ll probably get a kick out of this book too.

Why? Because Sedaris is refreshingly honest — sometimes to the point of being painfully, self-deprecatingly open about his own foibles.

By the time Gore started kissing his wife at every opportunity to somehow prove he was a romantic family man — and when I’d finally seen too much of Bush’s irritating smirk — I started thinking maybe Sedaris might even make a good president.

Like Gore and Bush, Sedaris also experimented with drugs in his youth, but unlike our fearless leaders, Sedaris doesn’t skirt the issue:

“Speed’s breathtaking high is followed by a crushing, suicidal depression. You’re forced to pay tenfold for all the fun you thought you were having. It’s torturous and demeaning, yet all you can think is that you want more. I might have thrown myself out the window, but I lived on the first floor and didn’t have the energy to climb the stairs to the roof…”

Just like most of our politicians, however, Sedaris apparently overcame his drug problems with age, (or maybe he didn’t, maybe that’s what makes him so uninhibited).

But Sedaris didn’t outgrow his homosexuality. He handles this subject with good humor and rare wit, however, even though there’s also a little pathos and pain lurking in his writings about his experiences.

Sedaris, for example, seems thoroughly convinced that his school offered speech therapy to lisping boys in an attempt to turn them into heterosexuals. Instead, however, this early prevention technique only seemed successful at calling unwanted attention to boys who wanted more than anything to “pass for normal” and fit in.

Sedaris also writes about less personal things with ribald, laugh-out-loud humor. My favorite passages were about the French classes he took after moving to Paris. At one point, in a class with several other foreign students, all of them speaking French, the students discuss holidays, and a Moroccan student asks them to explain Easter, again, because she doesn’t quite understand it.

“He call his self Jesus and then he die one day on two … morsels of … lumber.”

The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm.

“He die one day and then he go above of my head to live with your father.”

“He weared of himself the long hair and after he die, the first day he come back for to say hello…”

… Part of the problem had to do with vocabulary. Simple nouns such as cross and resurrection were beyond our grasp let alone such complicated reflexive phrases as “to give of yourself your only begotten son.” Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead.

“Easter is a party for to eat of the lamb,” the Italian nanny explained. “One too may eat of the chocolate.”

“And who brings the chocolate?” the teacher asked.

I knew the word, so I raised my hand, saying, “The rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate.”

“A rabbit?” The teacher, assuming I’d used the wrong word, positioned her index fingers on top of her head, wriggling them as though they were ears. “You mean one of these? A rabbit rabbit?”

“Well, sure,” I said. “He come in the night when one sleep on a bed. With a hand he have a basket and foods.”

The teacher sighed and shook her head. As far as she was concerned, I had just explained everything that was wrong with my country. “No, no,” she said. “Here in France the chocolate is brought by a big bell that flies in from Rome.”

I called for a time out. “But how do the bell know where you live?”

“Well,” she said, “how does a rabbit?”

It was a decent point, but at least a rabbit has eyes.

So, all right, I’ll admit it, our politicians are probably only irritating and deceitful because we’re a fickle, demanding public looking for character in a sound bite. And thus Sedaris probably wouldn’t make a great president even though his speeches would undoubtably be more entertaining.

But if you’re tired of all the pompous, overbearing, pretentious prigs who claim to have a patent on personal perfection and family values these days — then Sedaris might provide just the antidote.

He’s irreverent without ever being wholly profane. And for many readers, he may provide the perfect diversion after a season of disheartening and divisive politicking.

Some Love Stories With and Without Happy Endings

And to conclude, I’ll recommend five love stories — which are probably no better than dozens of others novels that have come out recently, but which are all interesting, fast to read, and yet nothing like the average romance.

I actually started The First Time by Joy Fielding because Fielding ordinarily writes mystery thrillers. To my surprise, however, this was no thriller. It was the story of a troubled middle-aged couple with a teenaged daughter. As the book opens, the couple agrees to separate, but then fate steps in and decides that they have more important things to do.

This is an unabashed tear-jerker from about page 50 to the end. But as this couple struggles to handle a tragedy together — often not very well, but on the other hand probably as well (if not better) than most people would — the reader starts to hope that this marriage that has gone so wrong will finally go right.

On the whole, the marriage seldom really works, but the book does, and it’s every bit as compelling — and as much a page-turner — as books about similar topics by other popular authors like Danielle Steele and Barbara Delinsky. This book’s intent, however, strikes me as considerably more serious. And stray thoughts about The First Time tend to linger a little longer than your average reflections about modern melodramas and soap operas.

Another love story, Redemption by Howard Fast, features an elderly professor who meets the woman of his dreams late one night when he’s driving home from a rare evening with friends. She’s trying to jump off of a bridge, and he stops her. Soon a fairly realistic romance develops between the professor and the distraught middle-aged divorcee. And then she’s accused of a crime. To the surprise of the earnest old fellow — even though he loves this woman, and even though he’s willing to lie for her — he thinks she did it. And yet most of their acquaintances, including his close friends, seem to feel that she couldn’t have. By the end, Fast weaves an interesting tale that explores the relationship between love and trust.

Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jone’s Diary, the original, not the sequel, came out a few years ago and is a little harder to find right now than the sequel, but it’s an interesting and comic love story told entirely in diary form by a neurotic, anorexic, thirty-something British narrator looking for love.

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink is another love story, but it’s far more serious than my other selections. Schlink uses the story of a very young man in love with an older woman to highlight differences in morality and philosophical viewpoints in postwar Germany.

As Michael Berg matures into an earnest young lawyer, he realizes that his fellow law students have pretty much found their parents guilty of war crimes — whether their parents actually participated in such events or merely failed to stop them. But unlike the other young law students, Michael cannot entirely scorn the older generation as he sits through trial after trial detailing horrifying cruelties — because he has confusing, conflicting and complex feelings toward one of the accused war criminals.

In The Reader, Schlink weaves a passionate tale about how easy and yet lamentable it is for the young to disdain those who have gone before them. And at the same time he creates a strange and erotic relationship that convincingly illustrates how wrong-headed and immoral all of us can be when we decide to condemn our fellow man — for whatever reason.

In this little group of love stories, Julie and Romeo comes closest to being a genre romance — except the couple is old, and the impediment standing in the way of their happiness is mostly their kids, with a grandmother and some cousins thrown in for good measure. Julie and Romeo is entirely humorous — as funny and fast as a Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts screen comedy, except with characters who won’t need sexy young stars to play their parts. Women who like romances should like this one, and may appreciate the departure from all of those tediously unrealistic love scenes where the heroine sees stars and experiences a strange (and what could presumably be an alarming) tingling in her belly.

Well, that’s it for me, some new books, some old, some local, some foreign, some serious, and some just for fun. May you have a Merry Christmas and enjoy happy discoveries, whatever you read.

When she’s not editing Colorado Central in Salida, Martha Quillen reads just about anything she can get her hands on.