Book Reviews

Review: Lost Summers of Newport

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My Interest

The Gilded Age is a favorite of mine and the Cottages of New Port are on my Bucket List. I really enjoyed Lauren Willig’s Band of Sisters (click for my review) last year. (I’ve read one book by Karen White but have no memory of it–it’s just in my Goodreads “Read” list. I haven’t read any by Beatriz Wiliams though I started one and ran out of library time). Plus, I was intrigued by the idea of a committee of three writing a novel (apparently it is their second novel written as a trio).

US map showing Rhode Island credit  Photo Credit for Cottages Photo

The Story

The book cycles through alternating chapters telling the story of three members of the Sprague family (or their staff) in their Newport “Cottage” (i.e. mansion). Ellen, in 1899 (the Gilded Age) is music teacher to Maybelle Sprague whose brother wants her married off to an Italian Prince (this is the era of the Dollar Princesses–aka, Cora Crawley of Downton Abbey or Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie Jerome and his cousin’s wife, Newport’s own Consuelo Vanderbilt). In 1957 we have Maybelle’s great-granddaughter the oh-so-helpfully nicknamed “Lucky,” the 50’s upper-class party-hosting wife (JFK and Jackie are guests) of hard-drinking, Mad Men-ish skirt-chasing Stuyvesant Sprague, and daughter-in-law of secret-holding Dudley Sprague. In the present day (2019) we have TV host Andie who interacts with Lucky’s grandchildren while filming a reality show around the rules of “Don’t go near the boathouse” [cue the warning music] and “Don’t try to talk to Lucky” [more warning music]. Secrets, of course, abound!

My Thoughts

This is THE historical fiction beach/pool book of the year! Exactly what I needed for my commute, too. Never mind that enough clues are dropped that even I guessed one of the big secrets! Or that there are eye-rolling things happening everywhere. This was a darned good read from start-to-finish. Improbable? Sure, but why let that spoil any of the fun? It’s a beach or pool book — just roll with it (like the waves of the sea).

A few annoying things:

But why, oh why, do people try to voice children with crap like “I founded a worm?” or have them stuff crap up their noses when they are school aged?? Ugh!! And can’t anyone do anything to show affection to a little boy but tousling the kid’s hair? (It’s as annoying and ubiquitous as the guy always “tenderly” tucking a lock of hair behind the woman’s ear). The kid things were made worse by the reader doing super annoying speech impediment of w for r for the kid! (Hopefully he’s getting help for this at that school he’s always puking to get out of attending). More reader problems included pronouncing the Latin “Pater” as “Patter” and can’t decide if Joanie says “Ma-Ma” or “M’ma” (ala Prince Charles)–I didn’t think even the Preppy-ist of 50s era Preps said “M’ma” but who knows, right? 

My Verdict

3.5

Lost Summers of Newport: A Novel by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White

Book Reviews

Review: Little Souls: A Novel by Sandra Dallas

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Thank you to NetGalley for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

My Interest

I’ve read a couple of other books by Sandra Dallas (see the bottom of this post) and I keep hoping there will be one of her books that I really love. I’ve be “fine” with them, there were “fine,” I just want to be wowed by this author. This story seemed to have that potential. It’s a timely story beings set in the Spanish Flu epidemic that began in the last year of World War I, 1918 and lasted until 1920. It also features two independent ladies–sisters, who move to a new place all on their own. And, for once, that place wasn’t New York, but Denver, Colorado.

The Story

Sisters Lutie, an illustrator, and Helen, a nurse, move to Denver and find work. Lutie illustrates ads for a department store and Helen works at a hospital. They rent the basement of their house out for extra income. A family moves in with an unstable husband, a long-suffering wife, and a little daughter who needs protecting.

Meanwhile, both of the sisters find prospective husbands–Helen, naturally finds a young doctor, and Lutie, unexpectedly lands the son of a local judge–a powerful and wealthy man. The sisters watch as America enters the war–Lutie’s finance ships out with the other Doughboys. Meanwhile, in the basement, all is not good. The husband takes his frustrations out on his little family. When the wife dies, the daughter is left too vulnerable. Meanwhile, the flu strikes.

My Thoughts

My first thought is, why hasn’t Oprah promoted this book? Then I remembered it isn’t out until April 26th. It packs about as much depressing stuff into a story as possible. All of the normal Oprah book type stuff. Rape, murder, trafficking, incest, rats, blackmail, false accusations, disease, a hooker with a heart of gold–you name it, its in there, albeit in small doses and thankfully not graphically depicted. This has Oprah’s Book Club written all over it.

Then there were things like this: “The Rocky Mountain News said we wouldn’t need to be afraid of the influenza if we voted Republican.” Make it stop already! Trump is gone. Quit with this stuff. Stay in the time of the story, please. Wilson was President then and he was a Democrat. And then prescient statements like this: “You know…they’re saying the [flu] could kill as many people as the war…..” And then this gem” “I’d like to be a fine artist painting pictures to make people see the injustice in the world, that cause them to protest discrimination….” Right…exactly. That was happening all over the place in 1917, right? In the U.S. it was all but illegal to gather during World War I. President Wilson re-segregated the Civil Service and cracked down on anything that could stir dissent against the war or for the Germans.

I was interested enough in the sisters’ story to finish the book, but oh boy what a finish! Will the woke never end in contemporary fiction? The heart-strings were tugged as well as the corset strings. I cared about Lutie and Helen and Dorothy and admired their spirit and independence. I was impressed with the way they helped and protected Dorothy. But the author had them swear like modern day women. If Helen had been overheard swearing she’d have been fired. Probably Lutie would have, too. And women did NOT smoke in public then. None. Maybe in a Paris nightclub, but not in Conservative Denver, Colorado ice cream shop. Do not “modernize” things to appeal to today’s readers. It doesn’t work.

This story just had too many bad things going on. It was depressing more than serious. I didn’t expect all unicorns and rainbows, but I didn’t expect a Penny Dreadful either. The soliloquy by the judge’s wife made me giggle, roll my eyes AND yell “Oh, please” and it was supposed to be serious. I also thought the Epilogue was silly and shouldn’t have been there. It seemed like a sop to book clubs (or a ruse by the editor to keep the author from writing a sequel?)

My Verdict

2.5

Little Souls by Sandra Dallas

My Reviews of Other Books by this author:

A Quilt for Christmas

The Persian Pickle Club

I also read this book for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Historical Fiction

Book Reviews

Review: Circus in Winter by Cathy Day

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My Interest

Like many people I’d read Water For Elephants and, back in the day, I’d read a circus book called The Circus at the Edge of the Earth for a lawyer who was involved in a case with an elephant in the book! I read the book and wrote him a precis. I loved The Greatest Showman movie–more circus. I preferred If I Ran the Circus to If I Ran the Zoo as a child. And I’ve even watched the John Wayne epic Circus World.

Then, too, the author was or is a professor at Ball State University (and is or was part of the fabulous Midwest Writer’s Workshop) where nearly all of high school my friends went to college since we lived in the same town (ok, outside the town, but barely). I haunted the library there waiting for Mom to finish work in the library or for my math tutor. It’s where I discovered the Illustrated London News and looked at every single issue of Life magazine and started my royal reading. Finally, I’m pretty sure this was an Amazon First Reads book. Whew! Lots of interest!

The Story

A look from a elephant. A bunch of horses needing shoes. A sick child. A business deal. That’s how it began. This is a collection of stories about the Great Porter Circus whose winter quarters were in Lima, Indiana. We learn how the Circus came to bear the Porter name and the sad story of the owner’s tragic wife. We are told of how many of the performers came to join the circus. The stories detail the horrible racism that landed some of the “performers” in their roles–roles much like people brought to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair “Anthropology Days’ (Yes, that Fair–the one Judy Garland sang about in Meet Me In St Louis). Except these were “Negros” (as was then the term) born in the United States, but paid to pretend to be “savages.” Paid way better than for emptying buckets of “waste matter” on river boats. We learn of the “sideshow freaks”–the lady with 15 fingers and all the rest of that cast of characters.

But wait. This is FICTION. It reads exactly like a nonfiction “biography” of the circus as both a performing troop and as a business. These were real people–right. Nope!

My Thoughts

The premise here was very good–tell about the circus as it was in “real life” and not in the show ring. Let us meet and get to know the people who bring the magic. Except it fell flat for me. It’s hard to put my finger on just why, but I think it had to do with it being fiction. That was a let down.

While the stories were vivid, many were hard to like. The people they described were hard-done-by to be sure. They deserved better lives than they got and that may be why it being fiction fell flat for me. A sort of invented appropriation of misery. Then there were the animals–the elephants and horses and all that had to work and perform. I don’t have a problem with circuses using animals if they are treated humanely. That’s part of the magic of the show. But back in the day of these stories, just like the performers, they were usually pretty miserable. That made for a bleak reading experience.

“Enjoy” would not be the right word for “liking” this book. Saying it was “well done” for the subject matter or a similar phrase would be the thing. It is not “badly done.” It was just flat. I was not surprised that some reviews said “DNF.” It was tempting. But, it was the circus. I had to see the whole show. And, though it fell flat to my ears, she can tell a story. Maybe not in a key that made this story resonate with me. I’d definitely try more of her work.

My Verdict

3.0

Book Reviews

Review: The Vanishing Half: A Novel by Brit Bennett

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My Interest

I read and liked The Mothers by Brit Bennett enough to give her work another try.  In addition, it was in the “Skip the Line” section of e-audio books–first come/first serve on some of the books with the longest waiting lists. Finally, in my new job at a Community College there is a big push to read diverse authors. So three good reasons to grab and listen to this book.

The Story

In Mallard. Louisiana, where fair skinned “Negros” (as society called Black Americans in years before Civil Rights) twin sisters are so fair complected that when they move to New Orleans as young adults, one of the sisters will try and succeed at “passing” as white. The town’s “Negro” population had such a preference for that very light skin color that the other twin rebelled by marrying a man who was so dark skinned he was “blue black. The lives of the two sisters are the majority of the story, but in time the story of their daughters (each an only child) is told. One, whose father sadly proved true the adages thrown at her mother about dark skinned men being “no good” and the other was born into a white home in a wealthy part of Los Angeles. The daughters’ stories require the reader to accept a coincidence that while not impossible, is very nearly so. Let’s say 98.9% impossible. Meanwhile, another person is “vanishing” from an old life. This is the part of the story that gets all those “Best Book of the Year Awards.” If you can’t guess this secret you need to pull out that Woke Bingo card I’m so fond of invoking.

My Thoughts

I found the twins story poignant and believable. Sadly, I did not buy the second, or “modern vanishing” as I’ll call it. Why? The reason for the “modern vanishing” could be “fixed” or “removed” whereas the twin could only live life looking over her shoulder and without her family.  She had to deny her entire ancestry, ethnicity, and self. Yes, the “modern vanisher” lived without family, too, and for a while had to deny “self,”but for that person, things were eventually “corrected.”

While I did not agree that it was a parallel to the twin’s life of “passing,” I did come to have real sympathy for the “modern vanishing” character in some ways [trying desperately not to do spoilers here] and that is a testament to the power of the writer’s words. Though I could not muster anything but an eye roll for that character’s family, naturally, being Evangelical Christians. That’s become the ultimate woke cliche. Time to widen the net if you want to blame religion for everything anti-woke. That is a stereotype and I thought those were bad? EVERY fundamentalist religion or sect (really every human group of any kind) has awful, bigoted. people–and every fundamentalist religion has kind, sincere, loving people.  Believers of all stripes are just humans. Stop using this cliche already.

Also, the “danger” the “modern” character was in was entirely self-inflicted (by making purchases of certain “things”). Whereas the passing twin had the danger unimaginable in her childhood–danger that passed unbidden through her childhood home’s front and back doors, at no time was the modern “vanisher” presented as in real danger except from those things purchased “on the side of the road” (shall we say–trying to avoid spoilers). Both “vanishers” made choices and both made the best of them–I did admire that.

I’m not always a fan of dual or shifting timelines, but for once I really admired the way the author cycled through the story lines and timelines–it moved at a fast pace, insuring that the book held my attention from start to finish (in spite of my eye rolls here and there).

Little Stuff

There were some truly silly things that caught my attention that an editor or intern-fact-checker should have fixed. An El Camino was a pickup truck back when only the highway department had “crew cabs”–it did not have a backseat, but she mentions the backseat of it twice. It bugged me.

I also wondered how a member of UCLA’s world-class track team had time to run around to show and hold a job and still get into med school. And, while in med school how was time found to do research on the brain in addition to coursework and labs? I smell Hermione’s two-places-at-once spell in Harry Potter here! Silly.

Then there was a medical procedure that could not have been done as “outpatient” but very nearly was. What?? How?? Oh well. Minor thing.

Finally, I may have heard this wrong, but did she really write that Betty Davis and Joan Crawford “trafficked” in soap operas and melodrama? Very, very odd choice of word, if it is correct.

My Verdict

4.0

For A True Story of “Passing” see:

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Life on the Color Line by Gregory Howard Williams

For Another Fictionalized Life “Passing” see:

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Passing by Nella Larsen, this edition has an introduction by Brit Bennett, author of The Vanishing Half.

Book Reviews

Novellas in November Review: Train Dreams: A Novella by Denis Johnson

My Interest

The cover was what attracted me–I saw it and thought it was a print by my Great Uncle, artist Edwin Fulwider. When I read the story was set in Idaho–where Ed worked in the summers and late lived in retirement near Bayview, right on Lake Pend Oreille I was certain. Ok, I was wrong, but below you can get an idea of WHY I thought so. The painting I was recalling be in a private collection for I could not find an image via Google of it. Sadly, that part of Idaho was first invaded by Neo-Nazis (remember Ruby Ridge?) and then tourists. Now it is unrecognizable as the summer artists’ colony Indiana University/Stanford University David Star Jordan helped found [More about him in another post–he’s currently a non-person due to the new book Why Fish Don’t Exist).

The Story

“All his life Robert Grainier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dreamlike business he’d ever witnessed waking—the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of Bussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utterly still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world.” (Train Dreams)

Every man laborer Robert Gainer lives a typical Northern Idaho life at the start of the 20th Century. Dumped? Orphaned? He does not know, but was raised with cousins and considered an aunt and uncle his “parents.” His early memory is of being on a train with a tag upon which was written his ultimate destination. His life is cruel in the way so many lives were cruel before social safety nets. The place he lands in is a raw, mining area near Sandpoint in the panhandle. Life continues to be cruel, but he takes it in his stride. He has experiences–some dreams as he goes through his very ordinary existence.

My Thoughts

I’ve made that sound very gloomy, yet it IS somehow a beautiful book. There is one scene I could have lived without, but even it was so carefully told I could let it go. Times were different. Many people had no reason to expect more than Bob Gainer found in life. Johnson’s prose is superb.  The audiobook performance was worthy of this fine writing. At 2.25 hours anyone can find time to listen and enjoy this little marvel of a novella.

I wish Uncle Ed had been alive to enjoy this with me. He would have marveled at it. It so perfectly captures the feel of old-time Panhandle life.

Train Dreams: A Novella by Denis Johnson

Edwin L. Fulwider

Trains, mines, and Northern Idaho, all figured prominently in his body of work. Paintings, four-color lithographs, black/white lithography–all were staples in his portfolio.

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i1035 FW1.1  Edwin L. Fulwider: “Tearing Locomotive” lithograph Photo Source

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Edwin L. Fulwider: Untitled depiction of the Great Northern Railway

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Photo Source

Edwin L. Fulwider: The Union Pacific

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Photo Source

Storm, Salmon River Valley, Idaho by Edwin L. Fulwider

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Book Reviews

Journey Completed: Reading the USA, State # 50: North Dakota and More

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My Interest

I needed a book set in North Dakota to finish my 50-state journey of reading across the United States.

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The Story

“From award-winning, New York Times bestselling author Louise Erdrich comes this vibrant tale of abandonment and sexual obsession, jealousy, and unstinting love.”

Karl and Mary Adare are dumped by a useless mother and make their way separately in life–meeting up at various moments. Mary stays on in Argos, North Dakota where the pair have been sent with their baby brother to stay with an Aunt. This book covers about the next forty or so years of their life of ordinariness interrupted with things like a chef suffering food poisoning.

My Thoughts

The reviewers must have read a different book. By the middle, I’d rather have harvested beets in the field by hand. The “comedy” in the book was barely worthy of a smirk. This book was simply DULL. I think life in North Dakota is less dull than this. At least in Minot, there’s an Air Force base.

My Verdict

3 Stars at best

Yes, I’m also Reading Around the World. Check the tag cloud in the right sidebar for links to those posts. Need ideas? Check out A Year of Reading the World.

My Journey Across the United States in Books

 

For many states, it was hard to choose just one for this post. For others such as North Dakota, Rhode Island, Delaware, Nevada, and Wyoming, I had to do some research to find something. Most are novels, but occasionally I’ve used a nonfiction book. When there were multiple titles to choose from, I’ve simply chosen my favorite. I have read these over my lifetime–not just since blogging came into being.  I’ve included D.C. and Puerto Rico in my list as well. Are you on this journey? Leave me a comment or a link. I’d love to see your choices!

Note: Hyperlinked titles are linked to my reviews

Titles in bold are all-time favorite books

Alabama   To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Alaska  The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
Arizona     Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan
Arkansas    I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelo
California    Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton
Colorado   Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
Connecticut    Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine
Delaware   The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Hernandez
Florida    Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Georgia   Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Hawaii   The Three-Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway  [nonfiction]
Idaho   Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Illinois     The Last Catholic in America by John R. Powers
Indiana   She Got Up Off the Couch by Haven Kimmel [I liked it better than Zippy]
Iowa  Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Walker
Kansas  The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas
Kentucky   The Believers: A Novel of Shaker Life by Janice Holt Giles
Louisiana  Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells
Maine  Skylark by Patricia MacLachlan
Maryland     The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler
Massachusetts  Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Michigan      Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good by Kathleen Finn [memoir]
Minnesota  Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Straddle
Mississippi  The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Missouri     A Wilder Rose by Susan Wittig Albert
Montana    The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans
Nebraska   My Antonia by Willa Cather
Nevada     Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman
New Hampshire    The World According to Garp by John Irving
New Jersey  One for the Money et al by Janet Evanovich [Stephanie Plum series]
New Mexico       Fire Season by Philip Connors   [nonfiction]
New York   The Joyous Season by Patrick Dennis
North Carolina     Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens [Sorry Jan Karon’s Mitford]
North Dakota    The Beet Queen by Louise Erdrich
Ohio “…and the Ladies of the Club” by Helen Hooven Santmyer
Oklahoma   Dust Bowl Girls by Lydia Reeder [nonfiction]
Oregon     If I Stay by Gayle Foreman
Pennsylvania    Julie by Catherine Marshall
PUERTO RICO   We Fed an Island by Jose Andres [nonficiton]
Rhode Island   Memory of Running by Ron McLarty
South Carolina   The Great Santini by Pat Conroy
South Dakota       Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Tennessee     Christy by Catherine Marshall
Texas      Giant by Edna Ferber
Utah         19th Wife by David Ebershoff
Vermont     The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller
Virginia  First Daughter by Stephanie Dray
Washington  Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown [nonfiction]
WASHINGTON DC  Murder in the White House by Margaret Truman Daniel
West Virginia     Rocket Boys [aka October Sky] by Homer Hickam
Wisconsin      Shotgun Love Songs by Nicklas Butler
Wyoming     Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinor Pruitt Stewart

 

Memorializing the trip with cover photos would be fun!

Here’s the perfect map to use…

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50 States Photo Map

Save copies of book covers from Amazon or elsewhere, print them out in color, and add them to the frame.  I might just do this!!

 

If you are interested in seeing all 50 states in person, this article is for you!

50 Things I Learned From Visiting All 50 States

 

As you are working your way around the country in person? Then you might want to chart your progress with some of these trackers:

 

Scratch-off Map

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Map

 

50 States Travel Journal

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50 States Travel Journal

 

This Land is Your Land

 

 

 

 

 

Book Reviews

Review: The Book of Unknown Americans: A Novel by Cristina Henriquez

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“We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then?”

My Interest

I am always interested in immigrants and refugees–their stories are what make our country so fascinating.

Latin American countries (left) and Delaware (right)

The Story

Alma and Arturo come to America legally after their only child, Maribel is brain-damaged in an accident and needs to attend a school with special education programs. Mayor and his parents came from Panama when he was small–also legally.  Both families live in the same apartment complex in Delaware. Other immigrants from Central and South America live in the same building.

“A dream isn’t the same thing as a plan.” (Nelia Zafron–neighbor).

The story alternates between the two main families and short sequences in which other residents in the building tell their stories. All the characters face occasional racism or hostility being not speaking English, or for being “brown” or “Latino” or “Mexicans,” even though as one man points out, “we don’t even eat tacos–we eat chicken and rice,” because he is not Mexican. In fact, most of the residents are not Mexicans but have become accustomed to being seen as Mexican and illegally in the country.

Central to the story are Major (MY-your) the teenage son of Panamanian immigrants, Rafael and Ceila, and Maribel, the brain-damaged girl whose recovery begins to take place during the story.

My Thoughts

This is a powerful book, without being overly melodramatic. I found myself driving along feeling like I was with close friends. When good things happened I smiled and when something sad happened I honestly had tears running down my face. The pride and hard work of the men–all of whom had very low paying jobs in which they worked harder than they had to, inspired me. The manners and family-focus of the ladies, even when faced with almost subsistence living, was equally inspiring. The family that developed in the apartments is something too many Americans never let happen.

“Finding is for things that are lost. You don’t need to find me, Mayor.” (Maribel)

It is the relationship between Major and Maribel though that makes the book so poignant. While Alma waits for her “real” daughter to emerge again, and Arturo struggles to provide for his family so rarely notices if his daughter is the same or is improving,  Mayor accepts Maribel as she is and is a big catalyst for her recovery–though not a “miracle worker.” I loved this relationship possibly even more than I did that of Hazel and Gus in The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, which is saying quite a lot!

I think this book would be a very good choice for book clubs and or high school students. The differences in manners, work ethic, expectations, family, marriage, manhood, and womanhood all would make for spirited discussions and would leave everyone with a better appreciation of what people go through in changing countries at the lowest end of the socio-economic scale.

There is a copy cat over with another book dealing with a Latino/Hispanic-themed book. The paperback cover for I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez is almost exactly the same, though I am not sure which book is the “original” cover and which is the copy.  I do not like this trend of copying covers! Readers rarely by the wrong book.

Shameless Copy Cat Book Covers

Finally, I did not find any of the covers for this book reflected the story story appropriately. [Scroll to the very bottom of this post to see the other cover]. That is a shame. The cover draws in the potential readers. All three versions failed spectacularly. (See the end of this post for the covers).

My Verdict

4.0

I just plain loved it.

The Book of Unknown Americans: A Novel by Cristina Henriquez

 

Book Reviews

Review: The Nickel Boys: A Novel by Colson Whitehead

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WOW! Wow! Wow!!

The Story

…the immense exertion white people put into grinding them down….

Elwood Curtis is doing well in life and in school in early 1960’s Tallahassee, Florida, when he hitchhikes to a college class he’s been allowed to enroll in in high school and accidentally changes his destiny. He lands at the Nickel Academy–a Florida reform school for boys that is a special circle of hell.

My Thoughts

Colson Whitehead is one of THE authors of our time whose works are destined to be classics–especially The Underground Railroad, but Nickel Boys, too, will easily make that cut. My reading of this book was influenced by a [white] relative’s time incarcerated in the modern version of a reform school–a rehabilitative community prison for juvenile offenders. While it was nothing like Nickel in terms of the gruesome punishments or the predatory staff, there were still common elements. Like the impossibility of getting a real education. That still lingers in every prison setting.

I have lived in a ruthless African dictatorship and studied the Soviet Union extensively, so none of the torture or violence was a shock to me. I remember Dr. King (he was assassinated on my mother’s birthday) and know that, while it might be arguable that things are not as bad as his day, things are again sliding in the wrong direction in terms of racial discrimination. This book is a good reminder of how bad it was and how bad it must never be again.

The WOW, Wow, Wow, at the start of this post refers to what, “made” the book. To say more would be to totally spoil the story. This “story element” does prove my point about the author being one for the ages though.

The Nickle Boys: A Novel by Colson Whitehead

I listened to the audio version.

My Verdict

4.5

For another fictional look at institutionalized youth in despicable conditions see:

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The Gray House by Mariam Petrosyan (Author), Yuri Machkasov (Translator)

For nonfiction on our prisons and criminal justice system see:

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American Prison by Shane Bauer

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An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz

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Book Reviews

Review: Memory of Running by Ron McLarty

My Interest

Over the last several years, I’ve been Reading Across the USA. There are other bloggers who do this, there is a reading the world group on Goodreads (I keep a list of books read by country, too). This year I will finish all 50 states, plus D.C., and Puerto Rico. Most of the time the states have been covered without researching books set there. For the final four states, Wyoming, Delaware, North Dakota, and Nevada, I had to do some research, which led me to my Rhode Island book-The Memory of Running.

Rhode Island

The Story

If this story was set in today’s Rhode Island, Smithson Ide might be mistaken for an INCEL– an involuntarily celibate individual (usually a white male of a certain age) and might be thought to own a MAGA cap. But, we are back before computers and cell phones and before any of those. Growing up in East Providence, RI as part of the Baby Boom generation, Smithy, as his family calls him, was an ordinary boy with a mentally ill older sister. His salvation was a Raleigh three-speed English touring bike. 

After Vietnam and years of going nowhere in his job at the G.I. Joe toy factory, Smithy goes thru a traumatic loss and then a traumatic “find” in a matter of days. Now fat and full of self-loathing he gets on his old Raleigh and changes his life.

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Photo credit

What I Liked

I loved that the Ide family pulled together to keep Bethany with the family and in appropriate treatment at a time in which many such children were institutionalized with no stigma placed on the family. I loved the gentle way in which Smithy and his parents reacted to her episodes of “the voice” telling her to do bad things or sending her into catatonic poses.

I also liked the way Smithy rebuilt himself and “found” Norma, a neighbor he’d grown up with, anew. It was not a sappy sort of “finding,” it was a mature one.

What I Did Not Like

“Did not like” is too strong for my feeling. I did find it necessary to fast-forward through a few places when Smithy was talking to a stranger or two. The stranger of those moments just didn’t hold my interest. These were a minor problem though.

My Verdict

3 Stars

Book Reviews

Review: Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinor Pruitt Stewart

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The Story

Back in the early part of the last century, around 1909, Elinor Rupert was a single mom working as a washer woman. Like many young woman she had found life in the city (Denver) to be harder than life needed to be. She also had a spirit of adventure and so the presence of her young daughter as nothing to stand in the way of that spirit. So, she took out a homestead claim in Wyoming. While working to “prove up” her homestead and gain full title to the land, she worked for a neighbor as a housekeeper and helper.  While doing so she wrote these entertaining and educational letters back to the lady for whom she used to do wash (laundry).

 

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Wyoming

What I Loved

I loved that while allowing that a person’s temperment had a lot to do with things, Elinor believed homesteading to be a much better and, frankly, easier (in spirt and mostly in body) option than the sort of work women had to take in cities to support their children. The lost of washer women, hired girls, cleaners and the like, was very hard. Missing a day’s work almost surely meant missing a day’s wages. I liked her moxie–both in asserting this and seeing women’s work for the drudgery it was and often still is.

What Bothererd Me

Laura Ingalls Wilder, of Little House fame, was seen as a self-taught “natural” with a pen, when in fact her daughter Rose edited, re-wrote or coaxed from her mother most of the prose. I was left thinking–wow, for someone with no formal education, no real teaching she certainly came away able to write very, very well. In a day when libraries were just starting to take hold, she must have really gotten her hands on a lot of fine books to get such a consistent voice to her writing. I was especially perplexed when her young daughter (admittedly very young) wrote a letter and used incorrect grammar and the like freely. I admire the educator Charlotte Mason, so I want to believe all her reading let Elinor write so beautifully, but I have to suspect an editor was heavily involved. Like the Little House books, though, the “back story” of the writing really doesn’t matter that much. The stories are perfectly told in the letters.

I also found it odd that she neglected to mention a couple of important life changes–one of which tempered my view of her as a lone woman homesteader [no spoilers!]. My mind was soothed some by her complete determination to learn and master all the skills necessary and to do all of the labor for proving up her homestead. This she truley did.

My Verdict

If you enjoyed the Little House books, you will also enjoy this book very much. You can read more about the author, Elinor Pruitt Rupert Stewart in this article from the Wyoming State Historical Society.

Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinor Pruitt Stewart

I listened to the audio version.

 

If you enjoy this era of history then try this book as well:

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This book is a MARVEL! What an unexpected gem of a book! I loved every word of it. Society girls, sick of the round of parties and good works while waiting for husbands to arrive on the scene take a bold step and change lives. Like modern day Peace Corps Volunteers they journeyed to a remote part of early-20th Century Colorado to teach school. Just read this one–you won’t regret it. A definite possibility for my “Must Read Book of the Year.” Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West by Dorothy Wickenden. (9/27/2011 from my old blog).