United States of Books – Spartina by John Casey

SpartinaSpartina

by John Casey

Author: Laura at 125Pages

This week takes us to Rhode Island with Spartina by John Casey.

Entertainment Weekly says – Dick Pierce works in Narragansett Bay, but his true passion is is the unfinished boat in his backyard. The tale may be standard, but Casey’s lyrical descriptions of the Rhode Island sea are anything but.

“If Rhode Island were a country, it would be part of the Third World. The largest employer is the military. Tourism is the major moneymaker, although most Rhode Islanders benefit from it only in service positions. The bulk of choice real estate is in the form of second homes or resorts run by absentee corporations. “There is a seafaring tradition, and there is—still—a fishing fleet. By comparison to the high-tech factory ships of Russia, East or West Germany, Japan, or the tuna clippers of our own West Coast, the boats and methods are quaint. But it is still possible—barely possible—to wrest a living from the sea.”

Spartina is one of those books that should be a total winner. Poetic writing, vivid descriptions, a real world to sink into.

A blue heron wading in the marsh on her stilts, apparently out for a stroll—suddenly freezing. An imperceptible tilt of her head—her long neck cocking without moving. No, nothing this time. Wade, pose. Abruptly, a new picture—a fish bisected by her bisected beak. Widening ripples, but the heron, the pool, the marsh, the sky serene. The clouds slid across the light, the fish into the dark.

Unfortunately, the main character Dick Pierce was just an ass. He was at first a crusty older man and I was fine with that. He had very much of a him versus the world attitude and believed that anyone from money was to be looked down at. He ran some cons and did a few shady deals, but he did it to support his wife and children. Nothing wrong with that, he was doing his best to survive. Then the story took an turn and I lost all respect for good ol’ Dick. He began to match his name and started a torrid affair with a woman in the neighborhood. First, I hate when adultery is used as a plot point. I have no patience with it and hate reading about it. Second, he had absolutely no remorse about his actions. He did not care if he was going to hurt the woman he promised to cherish or his children. Other stuff happened that was interesting, but I could not move past my hatred of Dick to enjoy the story. In the end he sadly did not get the comeuppance he should have and Dick continued to be just that as he sailed off into the sunset.

3 Stars
See all of the United States of Books here.

Advertisements

United States of Books – Rabbit, Run by John Updike

I think Teri liked this one a little more than I did. A few years back, I read it and threw up a few paragraphs onto Goodreads, which I posted here a while ago. After reading Teri’s more thoughtful review, you might want to check out mine, which I tagged (somewhat aggressively) “Why Would Anyone Read This Willingly.”

Rabbit, RunRabbit, Run

by John Updike

Author: Teri at Sportochick’s Musings

Synopsis

Rabbit, Run is the book that established John Updike as one of the major American novelists of his—or any other—generation. Its hero is Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a onetime high-school basketball star who on an impulse deserts his wife and son. He is twenty-six years old, a man-child caught in a struggle between instinct and thought, self and society, sexual gratification and family duty—even, in a sense, human hard-heartedness and divine Grace. Though his flight from home traces a zigzag of evasion, he holds to the faith that he is on the right path, an invisible line toward his own salvation as straight as a ruler’s edge.

Review

Throughout the book I kept hoping that Rabbit would find himself and become a man, husband, and father but he just kept getting more confused. It was apparent that this man couldn’t make up his mind about anything and that he would drift forever lost. Also what was abundantly clear was that he had no conscience. He just couldn’t figure out what was right and what was wrong nor would he take responsibly for his part in any of the events that lead to his baby’s death, his wives destructive life, his son’s feeling of loss or his mistresses pregnancy.

Reverend Eccles was the one of two redeeming characters in this book. He tried really hard to help Rabbit but in reality Rabbit starts to lead him astray no matter how hard he continually tries to help. Ruth, his mistress, well she was someone to be admired. She understood who Rabbit was, stood firm and strong about them ending their relationship with her taking care of the baby they would still have.

The book ended just as I thought. Rabbit is so confused. STILL! Bye bye Rabbit! Keep running away from life but realize you will never have one you love till you confront yourself.

I give this 1 star. I just disliked the main character, Rabbit, too much to find any value in this book.

United States of Books – Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

HousekeepingHousekeeping

by Marilynne Robinson

Hardcover, 219 pg.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980

Read: September 20 – 21, 2016


It’s time for my home state here in this little series we’re doing: Idaho, featuring the book Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Set in the fictional town of Fingerbone, in the Northern part of the state, about 50-60 miles from the Canadian border (not information from the book, that’s just me trying to orient those of you looking at a map).

Lucille, and her older sister Ruth, are raised in the same house their mother grew up in. We’re told straight away that following their mother’s death they lived with their grandmother, then her two sisters, and finally their mother’s younger sister. The circumstances surrounding these transitions are revealed gradually — none of the adults in their lives were cut out for parenting (Grandmother was at one point, and probably would’ve sufficed if she hadn’t died).

This is not a plot-driven book, and it’s hard to talk about what plot there is without telling you everything — so I’ll be vague. Ruth tells us about her grandfather’s death; them coming to live in his old house; life with grandmother, great-aunts, and aunt; and then things really start happening as she and Lucille enter adolescence and I’m not going to ruin anything by finishing this sentence properly. On page 27, I wrote “this text is so beautiful, I don’t care what happens, I’m going to love this book.” Thankfully, I was right — because once things happened, I really didn’t like it — but I loved reading the book. There are other characters in the book, but they’re of so little importance, I’m not going to say anything beyond acknowledging their existence. The focus is on the girls, their family and the really old house i which they all reside.

Thematically, this book is about loneliness, family ties, waiting for someone/something. I’m not sure there’s much difference in Ruth’s mind between loneliness and waiting (nor am I that sure that there’s much difference in my mind between them as I write this). For young girls to have this much upheaval in their parental figure(s), loneliness and loss are going to loom large in their psycho-social development — and they’re not going to respond the same way to things. You add some pretty perceptive thoughts about loneliness to Robinson’s prose and you’ve got yourself a winner of a book.

So what do we learn about Idaho here? Nothing. Fingerbone could be any small city/large town in the U.S. There is nothing distinctive Idaho about this book. Well, almost nothing. There’s a lot of mentioning of local place names (mostly cities, incidentally, that most non-Idahoans are going to mispronounce) — enough so that we all know that Fingerbone is just Sandpoint’s nom de plume, but that’s as “Idaho” as we get here. Take out the local names and this could be in any state that has lakes, forests and railroads — which pretty much covers all 50, right? I don’t know why Robinson didn’t just use the actual town’s name — but, whatever. The fact that Entertainment Weekly thinks this novel “best defines” Idaho probably says more about the dearth of books set here than anything else.

Lyrical, haunting, insightful, beautiful — this is prose that’ll stick with you. I didn’t like the ending, but it worked and was earned, so I can get over it. Don’t worry about the story, focus on the telling of it and you’ll likely agree, this is stunning stuff.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

United States of Books – The Awakening by Kate Chopin

The AwakeningThe Awakening

by Kate Chopin

Author: Serena M. Agusto-Cox at Savvy Verse & Wit

For Louisiana, Entertainment Weekly says, “Chopin’s early feminist work, which presents a woman carving an identity for herself that has nothing to do with wifedom or motherhood, also serves as an engrossing immersion in the historical worlds of New Orleans and the Louisiana Gulf Coast.”

The Awakening by Kate Chopin is considered by many to be a work of Feminism, published in the early 1900s. Mrs. and Mr. Pontellier appear to have a mutual respect for one another and the relationship many married couples fall into, such as nods and certain looks that are read easily by one another. He is a broker and has very specific ideas about how much attention his wife should pay to the children. But despite their easy way with one another, there is something distant in their relationship, as he feels she does not value his conversation and she tries to tamp down her anguish about only being a mother and a wife.

While summering at Grand Isle, she comes to view their relationship much differently and that of her place in the world. Mrs. Pontellier can see from the actions of other mothers vacationing there that she is much different. She does not worship her children and she does not have all the sophistication of a societal wife. As she becomes aware of these differences, Robert Lebrun begins to pay her special attention, which recalls for her many youthful infatuations. However, when Alcee Arobin crosses her path, things begin to change dramatically for the reborn painter, Mrs. Pontellier.

Edna Pontellier returns to the city and begins to break with tradition, which raises her husband’s eyebrows. Chopin’s work is not so much about the liberation of a woman from societal expectations. It is an introspective look at how we present ourselves to our husbands, children, friends, and greater society. Our inner selves, our true selves — if they ever emerge — are buried deep within our private worlds. For many of us, our true self is only known by us and, in some cases, not even then. Edna has been awakened to her true self and she embarks on a journey to realize it fully.

“She was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.”

In terms of the setting, it’s clear that they live in Louisiana and music and art are strong cultural elements. The roots of French colonization remain in the area, and many of the people Edna interacts with speak French. Many of these people are definitely from the upper crust as they do little more than socialize, entertain one another, and gossip. The Awakening by Kate Chopin explores the consequences of becoming independent and stripping all pretension, leaving Edna in a solitary world (which mirrors the one she held close prior to her awakening). However, it seems as though Edna fails to evolve, merely bringing her inner world to the surface to find that she cannot survive, rather than exploring what that means and how she should move forward.

RATING: Tercet

About the Author

Kate Chopin was an American novelist and short-story writer best known for her startling 1899 novel, The Awakening. Born in St. Louis, she moved to New Orleans after marrying Oscar Chopin in 1870. Less than a decade later Oscar’s cotton business fell on hard times and they moved to his family’s plantation in the Natchitoches Parish of northwestern Louisiana. Oscar died in 1882 and Kate was suddenly a young widow with six children. She turned to writing and published her first poem in 1889. The Awakening, considered Chopin’s masterpiece, was subject to harsh criticism at the time for its frank approach to sexual themes. It was rediscovered in the 1960s and has since become a standard of American literature, appreciated for its sophistication and artistry. Chopin’s short stories of Cajun and Creole life are collected in Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897), and include “Desiree’s Baby,” “The Story of an Hour” and “The Storm.”

United States of Books – Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks

Maud MarthaMaud Martha

by Gwendolyn Brooks

Author: Serena M. Agusto-Cox at Savvy Verse & Wit

For Illinois, Entertainment Weekly says, “Sure you can always go with Saul Bellow’s Chicago, but if you’re looking for another view of the windy city, pick up this challenging, essential look at urban black life, with all its beauty and pain.”

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks is her only novel, and despite being familiar with her poetry for a long time, I’ve never read it. Maud Martha is darker than her sister, and this is a shadow that follows her throughout the novel until she eventually learns that it is not about her outward appearance but the well of strength she has inside. As a child, she looks at the world around her and finds the beauty everywhere, like the dandelions she calls “yellow jewels for everyday.” (pg. 2) Maud is very observant, even as she enjoys every moment, she does note that things are not as merry as others make them seem. In her own family, she notes that everyone is “enslaved” by her sister’s beauty (Helen), but Maud is never bitter because she knows that they cannot help it.

Like many, New York City becomes a symbol of dreams and greater things, but like many symbols, they can be tarnished. Maud meets Paul, and she knows that he could have a prettier, lighter woman as his wife. Even as he marries her, she does not delude herself. Leaving her mother’s home for her own with her husband, Maud discovers that her dreams are much different.

“But she was learning to love moments. To love moments for themselves.” (pg. 78)

Brooks’ style is very different from the traditional novelist, where things happen but not necessarily on the page before the reader. She leaves a great many plot points unobserved, while at the same time, enabling the reader to hear directly from Maud. Her observations, her thoughts … providing readers with an inside look at how life of an urban black woman truly was. Through these observations, Brooks provides a window into the racial divide within even the black community, as well as how tough it was during the depression and the beginning of WWII. At the same time, Maud has opportunities to work outside the home, and these moments provide her with insight into how her husband is treated in the workplace.

“When they sat, their heights were equal, for his length was in the legs. But he thought he was looking down at her, and she was very willing to concede that that was what he was doing, for the immediate effect of the look was to make her sit straight as a stick.” (pg. 131)

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks paints a stark picture of urban life within the black community, the differences between how the community perceived the use of the n-word and how it was perceived by whites, and the plight of women in the community. Maud says, “What was unreal to you, you could deal with violently,” and isn’t that true of all of us. What is real to us is harder to deal with head on, but we must push aside our fears. “On the whole, she felt, life was more comedy than tragedy.” (pg. 165) Maud is a pillar of inner strength from whom other women could take lessons.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

Although she was born in 1917 in Topeka, Kansas–the first child of David and Keziah Brooks–Gwendolyn Brooks is “a Chicagoan.” The family moved to Chicago shortly after her birth, and despite her extensive travels and periods in some of the major universities of the country, she has remained associated with the city’s South Side. What her strong family unit lacked in material wealth was made bearable by the wealth of human capital that resulted from warm interpersonal relationships. When she writes about families that–despite their daily adversities–are not dysfunctional, Gwendolyn Brooks writes from an intimate knowledge reinforced by her own life.

United States of Books – Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Once Upon a RiverOnce Upon a River

by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Author: Teri at Sportochick’s Musings

Synopsis

Bonnie Jo Campbell has created an unforgettable heroine in sixteen-year-old Margo Crane, a beauty whose unflinching gaze and uncanny ability with a rifle have not made her life any easier.

After the violent death of her father, in which she is complicit, Margo takes to the Stark River in her boat, with only a few supplies and a biography of Annie Oakley, in search of her vanished mother. But the river, Margo’s childhood paradise, is a dangerous place for a young woman traveling alone, and she must be strong to survive, using her knowledge of the natural world and her ability to look unsparingly into the hearts of those around her. Her river odyssey through rural Michigan becomes a defining journey, one that leads her beyond self-preservation and to the decision of what price she is willing to pay for her choices.

Review

I am not sure where to start with this review. I had a very hard time listening to Margo make bad decision after bad decision in this story line. I understand her upbringing and that she didn’t have choices like most 16 year olds do. Margo had a mother who didn’t function well in life and a father who had checked out of life because of her mother leaving and the loss of his job. She only had two people who showed her the love she deserved. One whose husband raped her and a man who honestly loved her, treated her like a queen but she lost him because of what she did in front of him with one of her rapists.

The author did a phenomenal job in the area of describing the scenery and setting up the story. What I had a hard time with is the roughness of the characters. Not that they weren’t well written they were. For me it was about something I dislike reading about or witnessing. I don’t want to read about the raping of a minor, being raped, murdering and taking revenge by death of those that do it to you. Though I understand why one would want to do it. For me it wasn’t realistic that she would get away with so much and never get caught.

For many people they will enjoy this book, for me I did not. It did cause me to think about what and how I would have reacted in the same situations. Also it made me wonder why is it that some people can overcome what she went through and others keep repeating the cycle of dysfunction.

For the overall impact I give this 2 1/2 Stars

United States of Books – Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Believe it or not — this was almost a lot longer, but I trimmed a lot to hopefully make it better.

Empire FallsEmpire Falls

by Richard Russo

Hardcover, 483 pg.
Knopf, 2001


A few years ago, my parents took a trip through New England in the Fall to look at the leaves — I know, not an original idea, but for people from the Northwest, it’s not as common as it is for others. One of the places they drove through was Empire Falls and were telling me about some HBO series/book based there — I was vaguely aware of the book, having recently finished Russo’s Straight Man and told them that they’d probably enjoy it. I don’t think either of them gave it a shot (I could be wrong).

A few months later, I got around to reading it myself — wow. It so different in style and content from Straight Man, but it took me a long time to read, and (best of all) it was fantastic. It sent me reeling and made me want to read more by Russo. Sadly, the next book I read by him just about killed that (That Old Cape Magic). A couple of years go by and I decide to read all of his novels in order. When I get to Empire Falls, I skipped it. I just couldn’t do it again. I really didn’t enjoy about half of Russo’s novels, but I couldn’t deny the power of them, nor his skill. Nobody’s Fool, for example, I really didn’t enjoy — but here I am a couple of years later, and I still find myself thinking about a couple of characters and scenes at least three times a month. That’s staying power. (no, I haven’t gotten to the sequel that came out this year, for reasons I don’t fully understand)

Incidentally, I liked That Old Cape Magic better the second time around — actually, I think that was true for Straight Man, too. Liking Cape Magic was almost a given (would be hard to like it less), but I really enjoyed Straight Man the first time out — the second time I loved it. Both of those books deal with a different kinds characters than the rest of his books (including Empire Falls, which I’m getting to — I promise). Most of his books are about small towns and their citizens, usually dealing with economic hardships on the municipal and individual level. Frequently, cafes and bars are used to get the characters to interact with each other and there’s typically one guy who drinks too much, is fairly unreliable, yet everyone likes and enables. There’s humor, tragedy, history (actual and fictional), mixed with character and family struggles. Empire Falls checks every single box on the “what makes a Richard Russo novel” list, but does it bigger. If you’ve read Empire Falls, you’ve read almost every one of his books — which is not to say you shouldn’t read the rest (especially Straight Man and Bridge of Sighs) — but you’ll get a good idea what kind of things Russo typically deals with and how he does it.

Richard Russo is what Jonathan Tropper, Nick Hornby and Matthew Norman (and many others, probably, but these are the three I’m most familiar with) could easily become if they got a little more serious and a little darker. On the whole, the latter three are more entertaining (and funnier) — but Russo can pull that off when he wants to. You could also say that Russo is what Jonathan Franzen could be if he lightened up and got less pretentious. But mostly, you can say that I’m a giant fan.

Why am I blathering on? Mostly trying to give context for this post, but partially because it is just daunting to try to talk about this book — especially in something that’d make a decent-length blog post and not a full-fledged dissertation. But I’d better suck it up and get to it.

Empire Falls won Richard Russo his (seemingly) inevitable Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and stands as one of the greatest achievements in his storied career. It is at once a story about a town and a man, microcosms for the state and the nation; it’s both sweeping and epic while being personal and intimate.

The story centers on Miles Roby, manager of the Empire Grill in Empire Falls, ME. He has an ex-wife (who I truly despised), a daughter (who I wanted more of), an ex-mother-in-law that seems to like and respect him a lot more than her own daughter, s (even if they don’t see eye to eye much lately). But more importantly he has a patron — the town matriarch, owner of the Empire Grill, and most of the various places of employment in town. She’s a patron, a would-be surrogate mother (for a select few), and petty tyrant over the city. It’s one of those small towns where the mayor/council/etc. have real power, but it’s only the power she lets them have, you know? Francine Whiting isn’t evil — well, I’ll let you decide for yourself — but at the end of the day, she thinks she’s doing what is right for Empire Falls, the Whiting legacy and her daughter — whether or not anyone wants what she thinks is best. She still could be evil, I guess, and I could very likely made a case for it. Anyhow, let the reader decide.

The trials and dreams and efforts of Miles and his family as he tries to do something different with his life are the core of the novel — but they’re not all of it. The town is full of interesting people — many aren’t vital to the overall story (but you can’t know until the end who those are), but they all add flavor. Most are so fleshed out that you could imagine a short story/novel centered on them. While reading Song in Ordinary Time a few months back, I kept asking myself what made the people in that novel so unlikeable when in many ways they reminded me of Empire Falls‘ cast. I came to this conclusion (and have since reconsidered and still think it’s basically right): Russo uses the flaws in his characters to emphasize their humanity, Morris uses the flaws to emphasize their flaws.

But I come not to bury Morris (again), but to talk about Empire Falls, so let me focus on this a bit more: the flawed humanity isn’t pretty, it’s frequently ugly, people who make mistakes (some tragic, some dumb) are usually trying to do the right/moral/noble thing and it doesn’t work. But it’s real. This could all be real. Even Janice, Miles’ ex, is a well-developed character — and I think I’ve met a handful of people just like her — and I wouldn’t dislike her as much as I did if Russo hadn’t nailed the writing.

There’s an event towards the end — one of the two or three that you ultimately realize the whole novel has been leading up to — that in 2001 would’ve been truly shocking (shocked me a few years ago), but in many ways it’s de rigueur now. 2016 readers might be bored by it, but I can’t imagine that many readers in 2001 were. I’m not going to say more — just if you read this, put yourself in the shoes of readers from 15 years ago when you get to that bit.

Yes, Empire Falls is slow (sometimes), ponderous (sometimes) but it’s also inspiring (sometimes), heartwarming (sometimes) and many other things that I could parenthetically qualify. But every negative about it is utterly worth it for the positives.

What I learned about Maine: (haven’t done this in awhile, whoops). It’s a beautiful state, filled with people who could be better educated, who aren’t vocationally ready for what’s coming for them thanks to the technological shift in jobs. It’s a state where people, nature and industry who have been damaged by reckless policies and practices. It’s a state where nature exerts itself every now and then to remind people how powerful it is. Basically, Maine’s just like every other state in the union — just a little different.

One more thing, not that this’ll surprise many, but I’d advise skipping the HBO miniseries — yeah, it’s a fairly faithful adaptation, it just doesn’t have the heart.

I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t read this book for this series of posts — breaking a personal resolution. There were 3 reasons for this: 1. Time; 2. I really wasn’t up for the emotional punches this delivers, and 3. I didn’t need to — I still remember it well enough to discuss at a length greater than I have despite being 4 years and change since I read it. That right there should tell you something about the book — hundreds of books later and I almost feel like I read it a couple of weeks ago. I’m not sure that this is the Russo novel I’d tell people to start with (probably Straight Man), and I don’t think it’s his best (probably Bridge of Sighs (tells a story almost as epic in scope, with greater economy and greater depth when it comes to individual characters), but there’s no denying the talent on display here, the greatness of the execution, the vibrancy of the characters, or the impact it has on the reader. No brainer, 5 Stars from me.

—–

5 Stars