Warm Up With a Good Colorado Read
Ten great non-fiction books about the Centennial State
By Steve Graham
The weather this week makes me want to curl up with a dark fall beer and a good book. And I like reading about Colorado. A passage about a historical hotel or a mountain pass can be even more evocative if those spots are in your home state. And, in turn, those locations take on a new meaning after reading their histories.
Of course, Colorado’s landscape has inspired plenty of classic fiction, from “Centennial” to “The Shining,” but I want to focus on non-fiction memoirs and histories from our state. Here are 10 of the best, in order from newest to oldest.
“Tragedy Plus Time: A Tragi-Comic Memoir” by Adam Cayton-Holland (2018): You may recognize Adam Cayton-Holland from his Westword articles and “What’s So Funny” columns, or from his TV sitcom “Those Who Can’t.” He is a breakout star of the Denver comedy scene, and his memoir is full of references to Denver schools and local dive bars where he honed his craft at open mics and standup showcases. He is a gifted comic writer, but the book is as heartbreaking as it is funny. He opens his book with a TV pilot pitch meeting at Amazon Studios. But his cocky elation quickly flips to weeping grief as he reveals that he found his younger sister’s dead body after her tragic suicide. The book is impressively thoughtful and honest and raw, and it might just send you looking for a certain spot in City Park.
“Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory” by Deena Kastor and Michelle Hamilton (2018): No list of Colorado books would be complete without athletes reflecting on their high-altitude training — and on the power of positive thinking. Deena Kastor was an accomplished youth runner but nearly quit before moving to Alamosa to adopt a new team and a new mindset. She inspiringly writes about shaping her mind to be more encouraging, kind and resilient. That seemingly simple shift actually took years, but led to U.S. records in almost every distance event, and the first American medal in 20 years in the Olympic marathon. You might not win a marathon after reading her book, but you might change your life by changing your mind.
“The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom” by Helen Thorpe (2017): This equally uplifting book is set largely at South High School in Denver. It is a timely and compassionate study of 22 recent immigrants, many refugees, adjusting to a new country over the course of a school year. It’s also the story of their tireless and resourceful English language teacher. It is a valuable counterpoint to some recent rhetoric about immigrants and refugees, and a refreshing success story about public education in Colorado.
“The Death of an Heir: Adolph Coors III and the Murder That Rocked an American Brewing Dynasty” by Philip Jett (2017): There are a few books about beer in Colorado, and that macro brewery in Golden. This may not be the first one the Coors family wants you to read, but it might be the most compelling. Just as the Coors brand was reaching peak allure, the CEO was kidnapped in a botched plot that set off one of the largest manhunts in U.S. history. The story is a gripping piece of dark Colorado history that also offers some insight into the growth of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
“The Opposite of Woe: My Life in Beer and Politics” by John Hickenlooper and Maximillian Potter (2016): Our lame-duck governor tells a much happier story about Colorado brewing. John Hickenlooper’s funny and approachable demeanor is on full display in this memoir that includes his 10-year struggle to graduate from college, his careers in geology and brewpub ownership, and his stints in the mayor’s office and the governor’s mansion. It was also published two years before he formed a political action committee on the way toward a potential presidential run, so the book is more honest and free-wheeling than the typical milquetoast campaign book.
“Grow: Stories from the Urban Food Movement” by Stephen Grace (2015): Front Range gardeners will have a particular appreciation for this inspiring book about inner-city farming amid our unpredictable weather and less-than-ideal soil. The unlikely cast of characters includes a rapper, a grandmother, a petroleum engineer, all working to redefine Denver’s relationship with food. The book also smoothly weaves in health care, environmental problems, social justice and other issues affected by the urban food movement, while also providing a unique perspective and a travelogue of our capital city.
“Freak Power: Hunter S. Thompson’s Campaign for Sheriff” by Daniel Joseph Watkins (2015): In 1970, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson tried to transform Aspen into a safe haven for activists and artists. Thompson is best known for a book set in Las Vegas, but he spent much of his life in the Colorado mountains. He traveled to the famously violent and divisive 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and came home to find the Aspen police also trying to crack down on hippies and progressives. So he tried to take charge by managing a mayoral campaign, then running his own campaign for sheriff. His platform including replacing all the streets with grass, disarming the sheriff’s office and changing the town’s name to Fat City. He narrowly lost, but lived to write about the adventure for Rolling Stone. His account is still in print as part of his essay collection titled “The Great Shark Hunt,” but “Freak Power” offers more details and includes photos and campaign art.
“Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats” by Kristen Iversen (2012): Like many residents of Arvada and other nearby towns, Kristen Iversen was aware of the proximity of Rocky Flats. But it took some exhaustive investigative journalism to dig up the full story of the secret nuclear weapons plant that was known as “the most contaminated site in America.” This brilliantly written story mixes the site’s history with a personal memoir of a seemingly idyllic suburban life punctuated by secret alcoholism and mysterious childhood cancers. It also celebrates the employees of Rocky Flats, whether they reflect on their jobs with pride and patriotism or fight for care and coverage for their deadly diseases.
“Columbine” by Dave Cullen (2010): There are a lot of books about the awful school shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, but this is undoubtedly the best. In fact, it is one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read. It’s a compelling and harrowing crime story on par with Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” More importantly, it dispels many of the myths about the event that persist today. And reporter Dave Cullen finds light in the darkness by telling the true stories of resilience and redemption among the survivors.
“Murder at the Brown Palace: A True Story of Seduction and Betrayal” by Dick Kreck (2003): Cocktail hour at the Churchill Bar will never be the same after reading this true crime story set in 1911. Belying the image of early 20th century Denver as a sleepy cowtown, this wild yarn has it all: beautiful socialites, drugs, adultery and multiple murders. Longtime Denver Post columnist and editor Dick Kreck immerses himself as deeply in historic Denver as he did in the current city. For some more Colorado history, he also published a book about the famed Smaldone crime family, as well as a history of the Denver Fire Department.
That’s our list. Tell us some of your favorite Colorado reads.