Question of the day: Books may furnish a room, but can they capture a sense of a place?

I am 4 years new to Seattle and still don’t know what makes it what it is, except for Charlie and the weather, which make it my current favorite place to be. When I was here on sabbatical, 30 years ago, Charlie sent me “get ready books”: Timothy Egan’s “The Good Rain” and a book of Seattle sketches, both of which were perfect and surely a tribute to Charlie’s upbringing. Once here, I found Edith Iglauer’s “Fishing With John” and Eduardo Galeano’s “Memory of Fire Trilogy”, both of which I loved and found in Seattle’s great Elliott Bay bookstore. I have since added David Guterson’s “Snow Falling on Cedars” and Earl Emerson’s mysteries, which are set in or near Seattle and, in Earl Emerson’s books, usually include public library action. Recently, my early breakfast colleague, who has lived here for 60 years, and I both read Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”, which was mostly set in Seattle. She hated it, and I loved it, although the Seattle tie didn’t matter to me, and maybe not to her either, which illustrates how much I still don’t have a sense of the essential Seattle.  Suggestions welcome.            

CIVIC DUTY ACTION SHOT of broken brick for my Survey of Ballard’s Bumpy Walkways.

So how to prepare strangers to visit a strange land, as I was and am in Seattle? The NYT asks a knowing author to recommend a list of books to “read your way through [named city]” as a kind of prep walk. For example, Paul Theroux “read his way through Boston”. He said of the list he developed that “[W]hat] interests me [i]s not a particular book but a literary intelligence, a Yankee sensibility enshrined in many local books.”  Okay.  I looked for Boston’s links to my summers in Maine, so I found his list wanting, but a good place to start.. 

                     Here is Paul Theroux’s list.

“The Last Hurrah,” Edwin O’Connor
“Two Years Before the Mast,” Richard Henry Dana Jr.
“Snow-Bound,” John Greenleaf Whittier
“Thanksgiving Day,” Lydia Maria Child
“Lydia Maria Child: A Radical American Life,” Lydia Moland
“Paul Revere’s Ride,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“Johnny Tremain,” Esther Forbes
“The Cardinal,” Henry Morton Robinson
“By Any Means Necessary,” Malcolm X
“The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” George V. Higgins
“Sacred” and “Mystic River,” Dennis Lehane
“Walden” and “Cape Cod,” Henry David Thoreau
“Concord Hymn,” Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Moby-Dick,” Herman Melville
“Mayflower,” Nathaniel Philbrick
“Memory of Cape Cod,” Edna St. Vincent Millay
“Tough Guys Don’t Dance,” Norman Mailer
“Vanity of Duluoz,” Jack Kerouac

The list is a bit too English Lit syllabus for me, but I had read some, knew about others, and showed the list to some of my reader friends who have either lived in Boston or have had some connection to it. No one had read all – or even most – of the books, and everyone had some suggestions to add that would make the list more personally pertinent. And isn’t that the problem! Everybody reads a book differently and everyone experiences an experience differently. Here are their additions.

William Martin’s book “Back Bay”, and I would add his book, “Cape Cod” , because I often stopped over on my way to Maine to visit a college roommate who lived near Hyannis.
Robert B Parker’s Spenser mystery novels, and one added his Jesse Stone TV shows.
Elyssa East’s “Dogtown”, because its setting, Gloucester, is very close to Boston, and because I love Marsden Hartley, which is why I chose to read the book, and whose paintings are clearly in and/or of Maine. Then, surprisingly, the book became a true-crime murder mystery with Peter Hodgkins being convicted of murder. Well! Surely, in the grand tradition of New England which connects everybody to everybody else – if you just go back a ways, Scott Hodgkins, a Mainer and long-suffering friend, will want to know he has another cousin and a murderer in the family, if, as I am assuming, they share the same Hodgkins forebears who settled somewhere Glouster-ish in the 1600’s.
Henry Beston’s “The Outermost House” is on Cape Cod, though Henry Beston lived and farmed n Maine.
Abigail Adams’ Letters, and David McCullough’s biography of John Adams brought history emphasis forward, as wass appropriate if you spent most of K-12 school years in upstate NY.
Nicholas Kilmer’s Fred Taylor mysteries
Cleveland Amory’s “The Proper Bostonians”. Thanks to the Wahpeton Public Library collection from which, my mother’s note made clear that I, at 7 years old, could check out anything I wanted, which I did. I still choose eclectically and, thus, feel well-equipped to take on the world. Thanks, mom.
Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings”.                                                               For more suggestions, click on the NYT article noted above and check the “Comments”.  


And then, recently, two acquaintances, one from Ireland and the other a West Texan, who had never been east of the Mississippi asked, “I’m going to Maine. I’ve never been there. What books should I read?” “ARGH! Maine is the place of my heart. Where do I start?”

CIVIC DUTY ACTION SHOT of thumbing-down mooring wretched excess.

I’m working on it, but slowly. I’m currently binge reading murder mysteries based on places and people I want to know about, as narrated by someone who probably knows. I just finished Paul Doiron’s Dead Man’s Wake, Mike Bowditch’s latest adventure, set, as always, somewhere in Maine. The series will be on my “Maine List”. I’m about to start Steve Hamilton’s “A Cold Day in Paradise”, set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula [Thanks, Carole], Alisa Valdes’ “Hollow Beasts”, set in New Mexico, and the first in a new series that sounds promising, Marcie Rendon’s “Murder on the Red River”, set n my home country, as Wahpeton is at the “Head of the Red” [Thanks, Sara], and, yes, I have been remiss, but will catch up soon, with William Kent Kreger’s “Fox Creek”.  I can’t not mention my favorite, C.J. Box, and his detective, Game Warden Joe Pickett, whose next Wyoming adventure, “Three Inch Teeth”, is due in February, 2024.  I have preordered it for my Kindle, and Charlie has, AGAIN, threatened to dismantle my 1-Click ordering capability, which is very easy to do, and which I am very good at.

Just a little fun: At Poetry Club, Gary’s assigned task was to choose 3 poems from a favorite poet. I added reasons that each poem mattered, too. I chose Wislawa Szymborska, and her poem “Vietnam” which influenced the poem I am working on, currently titled “Ode to Charlie’s List of Least Favorite Words” and included below,

Ode to Charlie’s List of Least Favorite Words

“I have an idea,” I say, and Charlie says, “Oh, no.”
“I could help you with that.” “I don’t think so.”
“I have a thought.” “Always a worry.” .
“Guess what?” “No.”

“Charlie?” “What now?”
“I’m stuck in the elevator, or
The wheelchair’s joystick is stuck under the table, or
A little coffee spilled on the keyboard, or
The computer is broken, and the screen is totally blank.
I need help.” “How do you do it?”

“I could tow your golf bag AND be the drinks cart.” “Too few blacktop paths.”
“I could set up in the bed of a utility truck.” “No.”
“I might need an umbrella.” “You are a difficult person.”

“Do you want a latte?” “Do you?”
“Yes.” “Okay..” [ He wants a latte, too.]
“Isn’t it lucky I want a latte at just the right time?” [Sipping] “Mm-m-m.”


That’s it, but for a goodbye haiku.  More coming. Much to report, with bad fingers and sticky keyboard vowels. Blame it on the Poetry Club.

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  1. Asta Crowe says:

    Colleen, I don’t go onto Facebook much, but I’m so glad I did this morning. I love your posts and your lists of books, lots of fresh ideas though I know I’ll only get to a few on that long list. Your spirit bouys me, refreshes my spirit. I have so missed Maine and those lovely trips with Margaretta and others, and visits to Roseledge — what with Covid and two falls/broken bones and… Maybe next year.
    I look forward to your next message, more ideas. Meanwhile, do you get to go for a spin on that yacht behind you in the picture?!

  2. Kathyrn Lamp says:

    Thanks Colleen! As always your post is an education with good humor to read.

  3. colleen says:

    You are my most faithful reader AND always with a day- upper note. I am blessed.

  4. colleen says:

    It must be karma. My posts are long, always later than planned, and fun to do, but never more so than when a reader comments. I miss ROSELEDGE Books’ days, too, but my wheelchair told — commanded, really — me when to stop, which means my memories of golden days are only good ones, and they are forever on “instant recall”. No, Asta, I WILL not be on the “Wretched Excess” should it ever move from its too imminent mooring where nary an inviter Is seen. A Jeff Bezos wannabe? What a waste. Enough of that. I’m sorry for you bodys lapses, but the good news is that your ability to heal is still strong, which is what my dermatologist told me when yet another rash had healed. She explained that the brain houses our healing memory which can weaken with age. Clearly, we are both winners. Thanks for comment. Colleean

  5. Scott Hodgkins says:

    It’s possible there were two early 1600s Hodgkins clans. Doubtful, though! Actually I know there was only one. Perhaps the murderer was adopted or was the result of an affair from a non-Hodgkins dad, but his mom gave him the name to save face! Many possibilities…

  6. colleen says:

    But not as much fun to think about.

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