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United States of Books Project Wrap-Up

Even though I joined the United States of Books project later than many of the others, I really enjoyed the camaraderie and sharing reviews of others on my blog.

I hope you take a look at the wide variety of books we reviewed in 2016.

Among the ones I personally read and reviewed, my favorite book from the project was Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks (I gave it 5 stars).

My 4 star books from the project were:

Drown by Junot Díaz

The Betsy-Tacy Treasury by Maud Hart Lovelace

Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

My 3 star books from the project were:

Independence Day by Richard Ford

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

My 2 star books from the project were:

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

I would love to take part in another project like this.

United States of Books: Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 180 pgs.
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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.

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United States of Books: The Betsy-Tacy Treasury by Maud Hart Lovelace

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 736 pgs.
I am an Amazon Affiliate

The Betsy-Tacy Treasury by Maud Hart Lovelace, which is the first four books in this 10 book series, was praised by Entertainment Weekly as “a rosy remembrance of a region already known for its niceness.”  My daughter and I read these together over many weeks, reading little more than a chapter every couple of evenings.

Betsy-Tacy is the first book in the series, and young readers are introduced to five-year-old Betsy who lives in Deep Valley, Minnesota.  She lives in a small mill town at the end of Hill Street, but she’s soon to have a new neighbor, as a new family moves into the house across the street.  My daughter was thrilled to hear about a girl her age, and she was even more excited when I told her that there were pencil-like sketches inside for her to visualize what we were reading.  Transitioning from only picture books to chapter books can be hard, especially for kids who love visuals.  Betsy soon has a new friend, Tacy, and they share big imaginary adventures together before her baby sister arrives and before they even meet Tib, whose family is from Milwaukee and live in the chocolate-colored house they covet.  Entertainment Weekly‘s assessment of a “rosy” picture of a “nice” little town is highly accurate, and it’s clear that this story takes place some time ago before many worried about strangers, criminals, or had cars, cellphones, and televisions.  Imagination was a commodity that children needed in large supply.  This is not to say that Betsy, Tacy, and Tib do not get into trouble.

Rating: Cinquain

Betsy-Tacy and Tib is the second book, and the girls are now eight years old.  It becomes clear that even though these books were written during a time when women were supposed to be mothers and wives, these girls have bigger dreams.  Betsy is a storyteller and she seems to have dreams of writing books, while Tacy wants to be a mother to a number of kids, just as her mother is.  Tib is torn.  To be an architect/engineer, mother, dancer, or something else.  When kids think about what they want to be when they grow up, their dreams are big and seem to be out of reach.  They are fantasies, like many of the stories these girls create in this book for Tib’s Aunt Dolly and themselves.  My daughter is riveted by these books and the fun and trouble these girls get into, from visiting the Mirror Palace to cutting chunks of their hair off to put in lockets.  These books remind me of the good old days when dreams were interchangeable and wonderful.

Rating: Cinquain

Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill is the third book and the girls are now age 10.  It’s great how accurate Maud Hart Lovelace captures the competition between young kids when it comes to celebrating birthdays and feeling left out when others have birthday parties and they do not.  But, ultimately, everything turns out well between Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, only to have a quarrel between Betsy and Tacy and their older sisters over who will become queen.  This book has a lot in it about conflict resolution, which younger kids can definitely use as friendships grow and change, as well as in their relationships with siblings.  My daughter enjoyed this one, but was a little unsure of the hubbub about kings and queens, even though she is an avid fan of princesses.  I liked the historical details about the Syrian immigrants and foreign affairs involving the King of Spain, as well as a tidbit about the current president being Theodore Roosevelt.  However, there are some “old-fashioned” ideas about immigrants and other cultures here that might need further explanation.

Rating: Quatrain

Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown is the fourth book, and at age 12, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib are a little too old for my daughter.  She lost interest in this book series with this book, as their adventures downtown and their prodding of Winona to take them to see the play Uncle Tom’s Cabin did not resonate with her.  She’s more interested in make-believe games and stories, and while these girls act as girls probably do at this age, manipulating a classmate is not a lesson I’d like my daughter to learn.  It’s also interesting from an adult perspective to see how times have changed — a prized possession for one of the girls is a beer calendar!  But here, we also see Betsy grow up and take an adventure to the new library on her own.  While she apprehensive, she’s happy to be on her own and she thrives in the books she finds and reads, but also in the attention she seems to receive from others about her own writing.  It’s wonderful to see her parents support her writing/art.  It’s a lesson that is often not passed on today, as kids are tested and too focused on subjects that will net them lucrative careers.

Rating: Tercet

Average rating for all 4 books: 4.25

About the Author:

Maud Hart Lovelace was born on April 25, 1892, in Mankato, Minnesota. She was the middle of three children born to Thomas and Stella (Palmer) Hart. Her sister, Kathleen, was three years older, and her other sister, Helen, was six years younger. “That dear family” was the model for the fictional Ray family. Maud’s birthplace was a small house on a hilly residential street several blocks above Mankato’s center business district. The street, Center Street, dead-ended at one of the town’s many hills. When Maud was a few months old, the Hart family moved two blocks up the street to 333 Center.

Shortly before Maud’s fifth birthday a “large merry Irish family” moved into the house directly across the street. Among its many children was a girl Maud’s age, Frances, nicknamed Bick, who was to be Maud’s best friend and the model for Tacy Kelly. Tib’s character was based on another playmate, Marjorie (Midge) Gerlach, who lived nearby in a large house designed by her architect father. Maud, Bick, and Midge became lifelong friends. Maud once stated that the three couldn’t have been closer if they’d been sisters.

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