Anne Stinson - February 2007

Drowsing and Browsing through Winter Reading


Anne Stinson

   The old adage got it right, “As the days lengthen, the cold strengthens,” and that’s what keeps us close to hearth and home these mid-winter days. And keeps our noses in books, as it turns out.
    A quirky assembly of reading material engaged my attention in the post-Christmas period - some heavy going, an inspirational tome, a batch of diabolical short stories, a hilarious, albeit rowdy and bawdy novel and an apostatic debunking of local history. In an absolute smorgasbord of tidbits for every appetite, here’s a languid look at the stack of books on my chairside table.
    The intriguing title, Chesapeake Crimes II, 15 Tales of Mystery, Mayhem, and Murder, Tidewater Publishers, 158 pp., $11.95, grabbed my attention as I pulled my favorite chair closer to the fireplace in the early dusk. Never mind that my fireplace is a DVD that slips into the gizmo behind the television set and fills the screen with the sights and sounds of flaming and popping logs. The only thing missing is the delicious smell of wood smoke, but the trade-off is fine. I don’t have to clean out ashes. I get to simply sit by the fire and lose myself in tales well told.
    The aforementioned title suggests that the book is a sequel to Chesapeake Crimes, and to my chagrin I missed the first. In another misstep, I assumed that the title referred to crimes in the past, like, say, a rehash of the Patty Cannon story. Wrong again.
    These are all new creations from the devious minds of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime, a talented group of women who understand how to plot and carry out wicked deeds in print. Fifteen short stories by 15 writers comprise this collection, a variety of tales that may have you glancing over your shoulder in an atmosphere of unease if you’re alone.
    Some of the writers set up a recipe for revenge for past sins. Others make the most gentle and mild perpetrator behave badly over an imagined slight. The great fun of reading mysteries is to try to catch the nuances and clues that give the “AHA!” moment when we’ve been clever detectives and realize whodunnit before the actual dénouement. Almost all of these women writers chortling at their computers managed to outwit me.
We quickly dislike the controlling husband in Elizabeth Foxwell’s “The Last to Know,” but it only takes a little more than five pages to learn if he manages to collect her inheritance and do her in. There’s a nice touch in the wrap-up sentence.
    Chris Freeburn opens her account of betrayal with words to live by, or maybe to die by. “Dying for a Clue” starts boldly with the statement “A lot of things will do a man in...women, booze, money, two bullets in the back, and trust.” If that sounds banal, consider this: The sleuth in this case is a ghost, the victim who hires him is at the bottom of a well and he’s covered with a load of stolen bricks. The theft was crucial to solving the crime. It took Freeman nearly 18 pages to put handcuffs on suspects, but the murder was such a group effort we really don’t wind up knowing who goes to jail. Sigh.
   “The Bartender” by G. M. Malliet is another crime based on a widely accepted fable, i.e., Nobody notices a bartender. A spate of burglaries in his neighborhood tempts this badly paid barkeep to escape his going-nowhere job with a bit of amateur, learn-on-the-job heisting on his own. Uh-oh. A bad career move when his dog-walking victim across the alley turns out to be a lady cop with a bloodhound trained in crime-solving.
I have no way of knowing if these tightly written short stories are the result of a special challenge for the Sisters in Crime or if they were chosen from random bodies of work, but they all illustrate the deftness required to compose a story with a beginning, a middle and a conclusion with great economy of words.
    Aside from entertainment at the imaginative inventions on the subject of greed and folly, these vignettes could form lessons for wannabe writers. Keep it brief, sharp and surprising.

   If there’s more death in the air, it could easily be traced to “The Sweet Potato Queens’ 1st Big-Ass Novel,” by Jill Conner Browne with Karin Gillespie, Simon and Schuster, 291 pp., $29,95. In this case the reader is liable to die laughing.
    It’ll be a guilty, painful death with sides splitting and muscles aching. The guilt comes from enjoying such trashy stuff, much like an adolescent boy who hides porn magazines under the bed. It’s outrageous and morally repugnant and socially irredeemable and you can’t put it down.
    A wicked, wicked friend gave it to me for Christmas. Those readers who are shy might want to go out of town to buy a copy, or at least ask it to be bagged in a plain brown wrapper. It helps to be prepared, as I have done, by reading Browne’s previous five books about the Sweet Potato Queens (SPQs). The titles alone are signposts to the tenor of her sagas about the self-proclaimed royalty’s capers : The SPQs’ Book of Love; God Save the SPQs; The SPQs’Big-Ass Cookbook (and Financial Planner); The SPQs’ Field Guide to Men: Every Man I Love is Either Married, Gay or Dead; and The SPQs’ Wedding Planner/Divorce Guide.
    Browne has made a fortune getting even with the kids at school who made fun of her for being too tall, too flat-chested, with thin, lanky hair and “chicken lips,” she claims. Operating on the motto of her fun-filled coterie, “If it ain’t fun, we ain’t doin’ it,” this latest chapter in the series purports to be fiction, but closely resembles its predecessors already on the shelves.
    The whole premise of inventing her group, she says, stems from an unfulfilled adolescent wish for the ultimate glamour of owning cheerleaders’ boots with tassels and a tiara with lots of sparkle. To show off these wonderful assets, it’s imperative to ride on a float in a parade. Her home town, Jackson, Mississippi, was close to an area that touted its fame to being the sweet potato capital of the world, hence the Sweet Potato Queens were born. Nobody elected them, so she and her friends elected themselves and a legend was born.
    Instead of tossing geegaws and beads from their float, they pelted sweet potatoes at the cheering crowds at curbside. Once in front of the reviewing stand, they cranked up a boom box with their signature music, Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles,” and cavorted with wild dancing, including bumps and grinds. Inspired by the applause, they evolved to new costumes with blinding sequins, enhanced chests and rear ends and big red wigs to replace their sparse locks. Some of the minor queens in the retinue were bona fide Junior Leaguers, but all restraint of the image of Southern belles fell by the wayside. The whole performance was raucous and raunchy.
    Her first book spread the word and scores of imitators, other “Queens” came on board for the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade in Jackson in subsequent years.
    I blush to confess that her inspiration resulted in yours truly, with Helen Chappell, joining the nonsense for a float in the 2004 St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Easton with the two of us under the banner of Irish Barbarian Queens. We forebore the temptation of vulgar dancing in front of the Courthouse at the reviewing stand, however.
    The new novel is a fictional (but barely) account of the original romp and the story of the originators. Buy it, but hide it from the kiddies, lest they be corrupted. I’ve never laughed so much over a book.

   Another book on my January reading list is totally different, a small volume with animal pictures on each page with captions. A gift from one of the littles to Grandmother, “A Teaspoon of Courage” by Bradley Trevor Grieve, Andrew McNell Publishing, 107 pp., $9.95, is subtitled A Little Book of Encouragement for Whenever You Need It. Its choice was prompted by said grandmother’s upcoming hospitalization for surgery, a time when courage was in short supply.
    One lovely photo depicts a baby rhino with a scared expression as it squats at its mother’s feet with the caption, “Whether you know it or not, you were born tough enough to tackle anything important in life.” Another favorite is a mouse facing the camera with trepidation above the message, “It’s hard to believe this could happen to you. You started out so alert and eager, poised for success.”
    The little volume is enchanting. It’s equally inspirational for the old and frail as for wee people intimidated by a scary world.

   Finally, a small tract originating from Washington College in Chestertown held my attention. Tea and Fantasy, subtitled Fact, Fiction and Revolution in an American Town, by Adam Goodhead, C.V. Starr Scholar at Washington College, reprinted from The American Scholar, Volume 74, No. 4, 2005, is only 14 pages long and explores the historical authenticity of Chestertown’s vaunted Tea Party, a reaction to the hated tax on tea in the days leading up to the American Revolution.
    Despite scrupulous research, Professor Goodhead failed to find conclusive evidence that a group of townspeople protested the tea tax by boarding a locally owned brigantine, the Geddes, and tossing the contentious cargo into the Chester River at the foot of the town wharf. The Geddes was indeed at the harbor at the date, but no existing corroboration of the insurgency was noted in newspapers of the time. Many contemporary documents have been lost over the ensuing centuries, but local lore puts the date of May 25, 1774 as an accurate time of the incident.
Nonetheless, Goodhead says, “I soon reached a somewhat awkward conclusion that there was not a scrap of proof that the Chestertown Tea Party ever happened.”
    He adds, “Friends started warning me, only half-jokingly, that I’d better start watching my back around town: people here can take the colonial past pretty seriously.”
    And they do. Fact or fiction, a replica of the Geddes and its supposed act of rebellion is reenacted every Memorial Day weekend.
    In conclusion, there’s still a spate of winter to endure and a big stack of books await my further drowsing and browsing. Happy reading, booklovers.