Monica Bielanko
That's What She Said
Just A Junk Drawer Dream
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The Crooked Valley (And A Request)

We live in a sort of elongated valley here in the Pennsylvania countryside. A long, skinny oval turned on its side, one end opening into the nearest city several miles away, the other side dead-ending into forest land. A ribbon of highway runs through the center of the sideways oval and is flanked on both sides by rolling hills. Our tiny village is situated on a small stretch of road that is some distance away from that highway, running parallel to it. The distance from the nearest town is just enough to make me feel disconnected from society but not isolated. And our village is a quaint society all its own.

Locals might call the aforementioned hills "mountains" but, coming from Utah, I know better. Still, they are beautiful and green and serve the same purpose as mountains by making me feel nestled in the earth here instead of perched precariously on some hillside somewhere. Give me a wooded valley over hilltop views any day.

The valley is crooked, though. What I mean is it runs diagonally with regard to north and south, which is an endless source of frustration for someone who grew up along an enormous mountain range that runs exactly and precisely north and south. Meaning that wherever you are in the Salt Lake Valley you know exactly what direction you're facing. Mountain range to your right means you're staring due north. It's pretty impossible to get lost when you've got a compass that big.

I'm big into directions that way. Whenever I'm in a new place I need to know which way is north so I can orient myself. I don't know how it makes a difference, but it does. If I don't know which way is north then I feel like an apple that made its way out of the grocery bag in the backseat of your car. Just rolling around aimlessly all loosey goosey. And I think gravity is involved somehow. Like, if I can't orient myself then I might just float right off the damn planet.

But when you live in a crooked valley, where your immediate inclination is to assume that the road running past your porch leads east and west and you discover that it runs northeast and southwest instead, well, I still can't wrap my brain around it. I need simple. I need to look at the hilltops on the horizon and think, Why, that's north. I need to see the sun rising from the right and think, There's east, of course. Continue that way and you'll eventually hit the Atlantic. Or Look at the sunset. It's going down out there west behind the Pacific. Yes, of course east is right and left is west. Everyone knows that. So here, in the crooked valley, everything is all skiwampus.

I mentioned the crooked valley and the unfortunate directional digression only because I began this missive with the intention of explaining that even though I live in a valley, the wind here can be wicked. I'm sure there's a scientific explanation for it being particularly windy here but I don't know it. Maybe it's because these puny hilltops aren't mountainous enough to block mother nature from regularly walloping our farmhouse with great gusts of her Spearmint breath. See? They aren't mountains. No matter how many times the locals declare them to be so. Here. Look. That right there at the base of those mountains is my hometown. You can see why I scoff.

Today the thermometer reads 28 degrees and the wind is clawing to get in. Screaming around eves, scratching windows, whatever it takes. Sometimes it screams and scratches and other times, like right this second, it thunders; a sound not unlike ocean waves crashing at a distance. Which works out, actually, as I've begun to read Anna Karenina in earnest after about a decade of false starts and this kind of weather is perfect for full immersion into the shenanigans and moral dilemmas of folks living in the wintry climes of Moscow and St. Petersburg. I have half a mind to wrap myself in bearskins and start the next chapter from the porch swing I can hear waging a valiant battle with the wind just now. Like a 3D movie but with a book. 4D? Is that a thing? Coming to a theatre near you?

It was a resolution, reading the book was. Not Anna Karenina (I enjoy saying Anna Karenina. Try it!) in particular, just the notion of reading more. Which, I guess is the point of this whole post. Yes. Finally. The point. You're getting impatient with this post, aren't you? I could feel that a paragraph or so ago.

What I want to know from you guys is your favorite classic books. I think I'm gonna make 2013 the year I read as many classics as I can. I've already read a bunch, but not as many as I'd like. I never got all the way through Great Expectations, so that's already on the list. I'm all burnt out on F. Scott Fitzgerald. I read The Great Gatsby and Tender Is The Night last year so I'm all set with him for a while. I've read most Steinbeck. Same goes for Little Women, Wuthering Heights, The Count of Monte Cristo, Catcher In The Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird and probably a few others that aren't coming to mind, but other than that, I'm wide open.

What classics rock your world? I mean, there are a boatload of classics so I'm hoping to narrow my 2013 list down to about twenty books. What absolutely must be on that list?

Reader Comments (59)

Ethan Frome. I love that book, with it's chill and dark and misery and little glimpses of light and hope. Makes me feel better every single time. In fact, maybe that's what I need to kickstart my butt off the couch right now! It's been single digit cold, with triple digit fevers since Dec 30 and I have no urge to move out from in front of this fire.

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSherpamama

Crime and Punishment. I cried at the end. Also: A Death in the Family, Watership Down.

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjen

Don't forget "newer" classics, like Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm or 1984. Excellent books that many of us may have read in school but deserve another read as an adult. Those also have the bonus of being shorter :) Though when I re-read Catcher in the Rye as an adult it sort of killed it for me -- I found Holden to be something of a punk who I wanted to smack half the time. Guess parenthood changes you.

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarrie

A Farewell to Arms by Hemingway, Don Quixote, and Invisible Man by Ellison.

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJasmine

Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLeah

Had to look up the word "skiwampus". Thanks for making me think this morning:) I have a book recommendation, but it's not a classic, yet. Did you read "The Book Thief"? It's hard to get into for the first 10 pages (the narration is the voice of death) But it is so good!!
As for classics, To Kill A Mockingbird never gets old.

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBonnieLee

I posted about my reading list today, too! My classics suggestions are Jane Eyre, my very favorite book in the world, and A Tale of Two Cities, which I'm re-reading now. I also very much agree with Leah's suggestions! A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is lovely.

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterel-e-e

How about some Hemingway? Sun Also Rises? Moveable Feast?

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAli

Madame Bovary
The Age of Innocence
Vanity Fair (without a doubt the best opening scene ever!)
A Moveable Feast
Mu husband says to add Middlemarch but I've yet to read it.

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarole

Yes, anything by Daphne du Maurier, but Rebecca is amazing. Lolita/Nabokov, Tess of the D'Urbervilles/Hardy, Bleak House/Dickens, Dracula/Stoker (at Halloween, of course), One Hundred Years of Solitude/Marquez, Anne of Green Gables/Montgomery, the Importance of Being Earnest/Wilde, Arabian Nights, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland/Carroll, Chronicles of Narnia/Lewis, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter/McCullers, A Confederacy of Dunces/Toole. My workspace is right in front of my classics shelf :)

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterchristine

I have a soft spot for American classics, and two of my favorites are "The Age of Innocence" and "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." I'd highly recommend both. If you're in the mood for something more contemporary, I'd suggest John Irving (try "The World According to Garp" or "A Prayer for Owen Meany" -- both GREAT reads).

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKrystan

How about Jane Eyre or Pride & Prejudice? I also love the Anne of Green Gables series, as well as The Secret Garden. As far as more modern "classic" fiction, I also enjoyed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCharese

I love all of Jane Austen, Hemingway, All Quiet on the Western Front, I read the classic children's books to my kids who are too young to read them themselves, and I second The Book Thief - good stuff.

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterslange

I have never loved a book like I love The Fountainhead. Every time I read it I find new meanings.

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmy Lee

I will limit myself to two: Infinite Jest and Brideshead Revisited. Every single book that is read changes a person. My mind returns to the universes created on the pages of these fictions and I find images returning again and again that were summoned by the language of these authors. Delicious, rollicking and decadent.

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKatherine

Dude what is it about 2013 and resolving to reading the classics? Seems like many are on your wavelength. Angle of Repose and Their Eyes Were Watching God are two goodies to rock your bearskin with.

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermartha

I agree with Krystan- anything by John Irving is a winner, if not a classic. How about contemporary classic? :o) A Prayer for Owen Meany is my personal favorite. Cider House Rules comes in a close second.

Anyhow, as for actual classic- the Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I am not so much into classics, but I read this first in high school and have read it numerous times since then.

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKim Q

Not really classics but incredibly great reads - The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermarty

I haven't read all of the classics to voice an opinion for them all but you just can't go wrong with To Kill a Mockingbird and A Catcher in the Rye. Never to touch again: The Grapes of Wrath & The Scarlet Letter. Ugh...

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

ummm... fahrenheit 451, of course... at least for the poetry in the idea... and the paperless environment towards which we strive, albeit, sometimes unintentionally and definitely without the use of fire...
but that brings up a good point: are you reading anna karenina (insert russian accent while you say it) on paper or on your reading device?

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterfahrenheit

I've read almost all the classics mentioned above over the years, including Anna Karenina, and also had a craze on W.Somerset Maughm's books for a while (The Painted Veil, Of Human Bondage etc); also Thomas Hardy, but though Hardy's stories are wonderful, the "what ifs" and "if onlys" in them drive me crazy. I guess the one book, by a narrow margin, that I will never part with is still Gone With the Wind, if only because (a) it was the first book I read where the heroine was both fascinating and totally self-centred at the same time, and (b) it was, like many other classics, so far removed from my own country, time and life.

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCathlene

I agree with you on Anna K. I started to read it a few times. If this time fails you, here is what I did: I listened to it on tape. Now I have read it through again and enjoy it immensely. The Centre County Library has it on CD. It was so fun to listen to during my commutes to work.

You didn't mention reading Jane Austin. Those are my favorite books. Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility.

PS: For other readers - In my opinion Gatsby is not a rewarding story, Withering Heights is not worth it either.

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTasha

My advice is to never read Animal Farm. I wish someone would have given that advice to me.

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTasha

Wow! You have in the heart of your crooked valley the perfect setting for a wintry reading of Anna Karenina! Is there a train whistle in the night!? of those words you just want to repeat a few times...each time.

One favorite was " Heart of the West" by Penelope Williamson.

PS. I live in a place where there is a main intersection which runs exactly North South East and West. It's a huge landmark which seems to make everything straight, without question. Meanwhile just up the road in a little development, I live on a curve with the front of my house facing East ( I see the sun rising up from the front window). My friend's house is 2 blocks North of me but faces South. I have the hardest time trying to make sense of where his house is in relation to mine. Crazy until I see it on google map. i don't necessarily care for grids patterns in neighborhoods but seem to need to know the lay of the land and everything in the background, all your family members etc. OCD meets ADD and freaks out! Just give me the map and walk away...

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commentergina

@Gina - A main intersection running north, south, east and west? Sounds pretty life affirming to a gal like me! I don't care for gridlike neighborhoods either, preferring winding, tree-lined roads, but it's exactly as you say. I need to know the lay of the land!

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTheGirlWho

Jane Eyre and 4D is a thing. :)

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHilary

Jane Eyre and the age of Innocence. Sick with Jane Eyre longer than you will want to, it us amazing. I've picked up and put down Anna Karina a 100 times myself. Maybe this is the year!

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkelly b

Oh, I absolutely agree with Watership Down. Animal Farm is excellent - so is A Separate Peace. Robinson Crusoe. The complete Grimm's Fairy Tales. Anne of Green Gables series. A Clockwork Orange. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The Tempest by Shakespeare. All of the Sherlock Holmes series.

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterElle

I saw several books suggested in other peoples comments that I Liked but I didn't see the two that I Love The Best. Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" (1876) and its sequel, "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1885), the latter often called "the Great American Novel."

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrett

this former central PA girl recommends Don Quixote! oh and Pride & Prejudice :)

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMeggo!

I have this resolution, too, this many classics I want to read and re-read! I want to re-read the Fountainhead, which I found fascinating. And since I'm in the land of Hemingway (my husband built a boat for his nephew and the old Hemingway cottage), I'll pick up a couple of his works that I haven't read. And this isn't a classic, but Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything is worth a read...

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHanni

Garden of Eden- Hemingway
Unfinished and dirty!

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermiriam

Tuck Everlasting....takes only few hours to read, but I love it everytime. Not sure if it's considered a classic.

Also.... another vote for To Kill A Mockingbird.

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteredith

My suggestion is "My Antonia" by Willa Cather. Easy read and really exemplifies the pioneer spirit of the Midwest. Hope you like it as much as I did!

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAms

The Book Thief (as a couple of others have mentioned), though not YET a classic, is not to be missed. A wonderful classic to try is The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck.

January 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterArminta

Catch 22 too!

January 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKatie

I definitely second Ethan Frome. It's a short book, but so perfect. And a great winter read.

One of my favorite classics is Jane Eyre. Definitely stick with it - it's a slow start, but one of my top ten books.

As far as Jane Austen novels go, I thought Sense and Sensibility was a terrible read (but love the movie version) but loved reading Pride and Prejudice.

I also second A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Watership down.

January 5, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkirsten

I've read My Antonia, but when I was young, so maybe I'll give it another go. I've read Tuck Everlasting (loved it!) and I've read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn (top favorites!) but it sounds like I'm missing out by not reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (I think I actually even own that book!) and I need to get on some Hemingway, which I've never read. I started For Whom The Bell Tolls and gave up, several years ago. Anybody got any must-read Hemingway? And what is your must-read Dickens aside from Great Expectations?

January 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTheGirlWho

I second the votes for Jane Eyre, Fahrenheit 451, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. And I add a vote for Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale.

January 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCandice

If you decide to read Age of Innocence, follow it up by renting the movie. It's so well done and adds another dimension to Wharton's marvelous novel.

In general, I'd like to comment on the many responses that indicate that reading classic literature hasn't faded in the wake of some of today's drivel. Well-done folks!!

January 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarole

I second (third?) Rebecca. Also Beowulf and The Scarlet Letter. Favorite book ever - A Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. Thanks for asking - good selections!

January 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMW

I just finished Anna Karenina for the second time - read it when I was 20ish and was not to impressed - read it again at 60ish and wow is it a great book!! Can't wait to reread War and Peace.

January 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPat Hale

I came back to see what else everyone has recommended...I personally LOVED The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway, although I realize that I am in a minority there. Seconding Year of Wonder by Brooks - FABULOUS novel. Definitely Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Also want to add Brave New World to the list - better, in my opinion, than 1984. And yes, if you like that Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale. Moby Dick. Almost anything by Jules Verne....thanks for triggering this list!

January 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterElle

Must read Hemingway? Again,the Garden ofEdenis good.Crossdressing,lesbianism,a beachtown and cheap wine.......
Narry a mention of driving an ambulance or war injuries.

January 5, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermiriam

Carson McCullers. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter will launch you into a Southern Gothic period for sure (especially if you like To Kill a Mockingbird). I second Willa Cather, O Pioneers and a reread of My Antonia if you'd like to stay in a stark Russian mood (with the wind whipping down the valley and a warm blanket inside). When it's deadly cold here all I want to do is put on Dr. Zhivago and curl up under a down blanket.

January 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCait

A Separate Peace.

Every January for the past 15 years, I reread it. Somehow, it never fails to re-center me.

(Is "re-center" a thing?)

January 5, 2013 | Unregistered Commentergin

So many great suggestions on here, most that I would have made myself! I'll second/third/fourth Watership Down, Jane Eyre, and My Antonia.

DEFINITELY read Don Quixote -- it is arguably the most influential novel ever written (and the most published & translated book EVER, after the Bible). Edith Grossman's new(ish) translation is great, I just finished it myself and have begun it again in the original Spanish (gulp).

And my MUST READ Hemingway is The Sun Also Rises -- a pretty quick read and heartbreaking and inspiring and moving and hysterically funny all at once.

January 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterS

Monica, I know you want to talk books... but I want to talk Utah!!! I moved away from Utah in 2011 and I miss it so badly it physically hurts. Do you miss Utah?? Thanks for posting the airplane picture. I had to show it to my husband because he is homesick too ;)

January 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKaty

Any book by Edith Wharton, but I suggest 'Ethan Frome'. 'A Moveable Feast' by Papa.

January 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

Heart of Darkness! Takes place in a balmy climate, so it might warm you up a bit. It's also a pretty fast read :)

January 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJuliaQ

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