Volume XVIII, Issue One | March 2020
When I began reviewing books for the Denver Post in 1961, the book editor, a crusty, literate guy named Stanton Peckham, told me not to review a book if it was no good. “Why waste space on a bad book?” Stan asked. (The exception was a very important book.)
Back then, there was plenty of space for book reviews. The Post had a regular Sunday book section, and reviews ran during the week on the editorial page. The paper ran a separate book section at Christmas. The Post reviewed fiction and nonfiction, mysteries, romance, science-fiction, cookbooks, poetry, children’s books, and everything else. I reviewed anything that appealed to me.
And everybody, it seemed, reviewed me. When my first novel Buster Midnight’s Café, was published, dozens of publications across the country reviewed it.
Fast forward 60 years. We all know what’s happened to newspapers. Many have disappeared, and others are barely hanging on. Today, the newspaper doesn’t weigh much more than your breakfast napkin. Along with travel, fashion, and a dozen other sections, newspapers have discontinued book reviews. Of course, there are still review outlets, blogs and other online sites. But for most writers, it’s the review printed in a newspaper that really matters.
We’re lucky in Denver that the Post still devotes a couple of pages in the Sunday section to reviews. Most of those are wire-service reviews picked up from the Washington Post and other national newspapers. There is little done locally. When the Denver Post stopped paying for reviews ($50), reviewers quit. In fact, I’m about the only local writer who regularly reviews for the Post. I’ve stayed on because I love reading and because I think that western writers should have a voice.
So I write a monthly column on books of regional interest, alternating between fiction and nonfiction.
How does that work? The book editor at the Post keeps a box in the storeroom with my name on it, and she throws in books with a regional connection. I pick up the books every few weeks, then go through the shelves looking for something she might have missed. American Dirt was one that I found in the stacks. It’s not exactly a regional book, but it mentions Denver, and it is about immigration, which affects Colorado.
Then I pick three or four books for the month’s column (and no I don’t review them from the book jacket. I read them all.) I get far too many books to include everyone, so I eliminate self-published and vanity press fiction. (I’ve gotten some pretty nasty emails from writers who’ve published that way. Most newspapers, incidentally, have a policy snubbing such books, so the Post isn’t unique.) I don’t review science fiction, romance, poetry or children’s books. I don’t actually have to like a book—there’s a difference between not liking and no good. For instance, I’m pretty tired of books on hookers, but I realize other people are not. I love telling readers about a book that’s new and different.
I’ve written hundreds of reviews over the years, and I don’t often think about the impact—that is until I read reviews of my books. But that doesn’t happen often these days. As I said, book space is limited and Westering Women has received fewer than five newspaper reviews.
Solid Color Quilts
Years ago, when The Persian Pickle Club was making the rounds of publishers and nobody wanted it, I came across the American Quilt Study Group. I had no idea that there was actually an organization for quilters. In fact, I didn’t know there were more than a few quilters out there. I joined and have enjoyed the AQSG’s publications ever since.
If you’re a quilter, you might be interested in AQSG’s latest, 200 Years of Solid Color Quilts: A Quilt Study. Here’s how Amazon describes it:
With all of the printed fabrics that have been available to quilters over the centuries, why are quilt makers drawn to solid color fabrics again and again? Bright and bold to soft and subdued, these quilts are graphic and timeless. In the latest Biennial Quilt Study, members of the American Quilt Study Group were challenged to study a solid color quilt created any time during the last 200 years and create a quilt inspired by the original. The inspiration quilts are varied and the resulting creations range from a near duplicate to a distant but certainly related relative. This book holds the results of this study and the 45 study quilts that were completed and exhibited at the 2018 AQSG Seminar in Bethesda, Maryland. Each participant explains the thoughts and planning as well as what was learned from the study of the inspiration quilt and the making of the new quilt. Join the American Quilt Study Group in
celebrating solid color quilts.
I recently reread David Morrell’s Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing, one of my two favorite books on writing. The other of course is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Throughout the book, Morrell mentions books that every writer should read. It’s embarrassing to realize how many of them I haven’t read. So my goal is to read at least some of those books. A partial list includes David Copperfield, Other Voices, Other Rooms, anything by William Faulkner, The Good Soldier, Heart of Darkness, The Maltese Falcon, Les Miserables, Sister Carrie, A Tale of Two Cities, and The Ambassadors.
Books on the list that I want to reread are Wuthering Heights, The Age of Innocence, Catcher in the Rye, A Farewell to Arms, Metamorphosis, and The Red Badge of Courage.
But don’t hold me to it. I’ve had Anna Karenina on my Iphone for five years and am only a fourth of the way through it.