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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: Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 342 pgs.
I am an Amazon Affiliate

Entertainment Weekly says, “In this richly moving novel about a woman who returns home to take care of her father, Kingsolver draws heavily on the state’s Native American and Hispanic cultures.” (Arizona)

Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver on its surface is about a broken young woman who finds that she is drawn back into the web of her childhood in Arizona. It’s a childhood that she doesn’t look back on fondly and one that she barely remembers, other than two tragic events and the distance between herself and her father. She had taken the best part of her childhood with her when she moved away, and that was her sister, Hallie. Codi is forced to return home to care for her father because Hallie has taken it upon herself to delve into the political jungles of Nicaragua to help people with their agriculture, despite the danger to herself.

“All morning I’d felt the strange disjuncture that comes from reconnecting with your past. There’s such a gulf between yourself and who you were then, but people speak to that other person and it answers; it’s like having a stranger as a house guest in your skin.” (pg. 40)

Codi is faced with some hard truths about her past and her father’s mythology about who her family is and was, but she also must face the harsh truth that she’s been running away from home since she was 15. She must learn to re-see the beauty in the Arizona dessert, mesas, farmland, and its people, who have a rich Native American history and connection to the land that is dying all around them. She’s a deeply flawed character who pursued a medical degree because she wanted to please her father, only to shy away from becoming a certified doctor by failing to complete her residency. She’s gun shy about relationships and she walks away at a moments notice, but it shouldn’t surprise those around her because she never really settles in — there are no pictures on the wall.

“Pay attention to your dreams: when you go on a trip, in your dreams you will still be home. Then after you’ve come home you’ll dream of where you were. It’s a kind of jet lag of the consciousness.” (pg. 9)

Readers should not expect the issue of the dying land or the environmental issues raised in the book to be resolved, and even the relationships Codi has with her father and her past boyfriend Loyd are a bit murky, though expected given the landscape and how little people speak to one another about their feelings. The weaving of Native American and Hispanic culture is well done, and it is through her time with Loyd that she begins to realize that she is not an outsider and that she never was. Home is where you belong, even if there is pain and heartache attached to it.

Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver is meditative, disjointed, and almost dreamlike in places, but at its core, it is a journey through the heart of family and finding a place in it.

Rating: Quatrain

About the Author:

Barbara Kingsolver is an American novelist, essayist, and poet. She was raised in rural Kentucky and lived briefly in Africa in her early childhood. Kingsolver earned degrees in Biology at DePauw University and the University of Arizona and worked as a freelance writer before she began writing novels. Her most famous works include The Poisonwood Bible, the tale of a missionary family in the Congo, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a non-fiction account of her family’s attempts to eat locally. Her work often focuses on topics such as social justice, biodiversity, and the interaction between humans and their communities and environments. Each of her books published since 1993 have been on The New York Times Best Seller list.

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Guest Review: Black Hills by Dan Simmons

The week takes us to South Dakota with Black Hills by Dan Simmons (audio book narrated by Erik Davies and Michael McConnohie)

Entertainment Weekly says – “Black Hills breathes life into the tale of a Sioux warrior believed General Custer’s ghost entered him at Little Big Horn.”

Review by Laura of 125Pages

three-half-stars  3.5 Stars

Black Hills was a very interesting listen. It follows Paha Sapa a 10 year-old Sioux boy as he rides through the aftermath of the battle of Little Big Horn, to his time working on the construction of Mt. Rushmore, to his last days. Now interesting doesn’t necessarily mean good or bad, it was different. The first thing to note is the time line of the story. It begins when he is 10 then the next chapter he is in his late 60’s, then he is a man in his 20’s. It took a few chapters to figure out the time line and honestly it would have made an easier time of it if the tale had not jumped back and forth as it did. The second thing to note is that Paha Sapa believes that the ghost of General Custer enters him at the battle and he spends his life listening to the voice in his head. Okay…. that happened. It actually detracted from the main story and the letters from Custer to his wife were pretty graphic and not in a good way. I’m not sure if they were included to add some spice to the tale, but I don’t need to hear about Custer’s sex life and manhood *shudder*. Item three, was the immense length. The audio book was well over 20 hours and at times I grew frustrated with the needless antidotes and facts ( the Chicago’s World Fair had lots of stuff and you will hear about it all). Now on to the good things, the world building was superb and the images the story created were vivid. Paha Sapa is a character that felt deeply and I loved the emotion in him.

Black Hills is a book to read if you have a lot of time and are okay with being bogged down by details. The lush scenery it evoked was superb and I truly felt a part of Paha Sapa’s life. At the end I really did enjoy it, but a good 1/3 of the book was unnecessary to get the heart of the story across.

Favorite lines – Then the young men, streaming blood on their painted chests and backs, would stand and begin their dancing and chanting, leaning back from or toward the sacred tree so that their bodies were often suspended totally by the rawhide and horn under their muscles. And always they stared at the sun as they danced and chanted.

Guest Review: Jim the Boy by Tony Earley

This week takes us to North Carolina. Entertainment Weekly says – “A boy named Jim come of age during the depression in a secluded North Carolina hamlet where the state’s history looms large and maps of the Confederacy still hang in his classroom.”

Review by Laura of 125Pages

Jim the Boy by Tony Earley is a sweet tale of a young man that begins on his 10th birthday and ends on his 11th. Jim Glass has a mother and three uncles that raise him in tiny Aliceville, North Carolina. Jim is an ordinary boy, obsessed with baseball, fascinated with the train that comes through the town, and palling around with his friend Penn. His father died just before he was born and he relies on his uncles for his manly needs and his mother for love and comfort.

It was very interesting to me how the location played almost a separate character. Earley ensured that the landscape was detailed and well described.

The closer they drew to the mountain, the more uneven the land became. White outcroppings of quartz began to spill from the red banks along the side of the road. The road pitched up and down over short, steep hills, on the sides of which clung upland farms. Corn and sweet potatoes and small, cash patches of tobacco and cotton grew in terraced fields that carefully followed the contours of the hills.

Jim is a character that is simple and sweet. He feels deeply and is not afraid to show his emotions. I particularly enjoyed the internal dialogue he had while trying to figure out what to say to a boy stricken with polio. The vivid descriptions and picture of a small, mostly idyllic, town made me enjoy the book more than I thought I would. This was a quick read and while I enjoyed it, I will not read the second in the series as it did not suck me in enough.

Favorite lines – Once Amos died, Jim’s father would become as ancient and faceless as a man in the Bible, a man walking away until he is finally impossible to see. Once Amos was gone, Jim would be alone in the world in a way he had never been alone before.

Guest Review: A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton

State of Wisconsin: A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton
— Review by Teri at Sportochick’s Musings

amapofworldSynopsis:

One unremarkable June morning, Alice Goodwin is, as usual, trying to keep in check both her temper and her tendency to blame herself for her family’s shortcomings. When the Goodwins took over the last dairy farm in the small Midwestern town of Prairie Center, they envisioned their home a self-made paradise. But these days, as Alice is all too aware, her elder daughter Emma is prone to inexplicable fits of rage, her husband Howard distrusts her maternal competence, and Prairie Center’s tight-knit suburban community shows no signs of warming to “those hippies who think they can run a farm.”

A loner by nature, Alice is torn between a yearning for solitude coupled with a deep need to be at the center of a perfect family. On this particular day, Emma has started the morning with a violent tantrum, her little sister Claire is eating pennies, and it is Alice’s turn to watch her neighbor’s two small girls as well as her own. She absentmindedly steals a minute alone that quickly becomes ten: time enough for a devastating accident to occur. Her neighbor’s daughter Lizzy drowns in the farm’s pond, and Alice – whose own volatility and unmasked directness keep her on the outskirts of acceptance – becomes the perfect scapegoat. At the same time, a seemingly trivial incident from Alice’s past resurfaces and takes on gigantic proportions, leading the Goodwins far from Lizzy’s death into a maze of guilt and doubt culminating in a harrowing court trial and the family’s shattering downfall.

Review:

An outstanding depiction of dairy farm life in Wisconsin. I am from the state of Wisconsin and was curious of how this book could represent our fine dairy state. I can say that the descriptions and the feel of Howard’s daily farm life run true for dairy farmers. I was raised on a dairy farm and slipped back into my childhood where I milked cows by hand. I could smell the farm smells she was describing and I felt nostalgic for a time in the past that many people will never know or understand. To this day I have friends who are farmers who feel like Howard. Who yearn to smell the dirt, till the soil and have mannerisms much like him.

In my experience there is also a small mindedness in small towns as well and this story shows how this can effect and destroy families. During the course of this book the story brought up old feelings from the past and it was a hard read for me. I will say that it is well written and speaks truth of subjects most don’t talk about. It shows how some people who have been wronged have a huge capacity of forgiveness and that some can’t or never will forgive themselves or others.

This book is about being afraid to say the truth or not wanting to hear the truth. Even more it’s about standing behind someone even if you don’t know the truth. It shows that love can be taken for granted, felt but never shared and it can be renewed over time through the fires of life. That sometimes the people you fear the most are the ones with the saddest story.

Though there were times I felt it got a tad slow the overall book is very emotional and in the end I was still wondering “is this considered a happy ending” because all I could do was cry for Howard, Alice and Theresa.

I give this 4 STARS and recommend it for all readers of fiction.

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United States of Books: Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (audio)

Entertainment Weekly chose Geek Love for Oregon. The magazine said, “A twisted couple populate their freak show with their own children in this modern classic. It’s weird, carnivalesque, and unnerving: not unlike Portland on a given night. Need more? Kurt Cobain was a fan.”

Source: Audible
Audiobook, 15+ hours
I am an Amazon Affiliate

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, narrated by Christina Moore, is a family saga of love, obsession, and revenge among the freaks at the Binewski traveling show. In many ways this novel reminded me of American Horror Story: Freak Show. Al and Lil populate the show with their own children, those they have disfigured by ensuring Lil drinks and subjects herself to all manner of poisons, insecticides, and other torturous devices. Their efforts to save the traveling carnival from bankruptcy requires more than traditional dwarfs and extraordinarily tall men and women. The Binewskis have concluded that the rise of basketball and other entertainments have made these traditional freak show participants obsolete.

Much of this is narrated by Oly, an albino hunchback, as she recalls the past and her brother Arturo the Aquaboy, who became so consumed with jealousy, that he would do anything to be on top and take over the carnival from his father. Oly, despite being a hunchback, is on the outside of the clan, and she’s treated more as a servant than a family member, even by the brother she loves beyond all reason. While her relatives seek to get by under Arturo’s reign or escape it, Oly seeks to bind herself to him in the only way she knows.

Dunn’s novel examines the love inside a family of freaks, but it really could apply to any family, especially if jealousies are allowed free reign and grow out of control. What’s interesting is how much Oly is unlike her family in that she sees the “norms” as not something to be despised, but as something that could be loved. Her transformation and distance from her family is complete later on in the novel when she gives birth.

Christina Moore does an admirable job with the narration, and it is easy to follow each character. However, the setting in Oregon is not front-and-center and many times, readers will forget that the carnival is even in the state, particularly when other cities in other states are more frequently mentioned like Spokane. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, narrated by Christina Moore, takes a while to get used to, and there is some very strong language and sexual content that some readers would not prefer. Overall, the novel was just plain odd.

RATING: Tercet

About the Author:

Katherine Dunn is best known for her beloved novel “Geek Love,” which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1989. She is also the author of the novels “Attic” (1970) and “Truck” (1971). A fourth novel, entitled “The Cut Man,” has been in-progress for decades and was purportedly scheduled for a September 2008 release.

Dunn is also known as a prolific sports journalist in the field of boxing, and has written several articles on the subject.

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Guest Review: Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

West Virginia:  Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

Synopsis from Goodreads:

A brilliant novel that captures the dusty, dark, and beautiful world of small-time horse racing, where trainers, jockeys, grooms and grifters vie for what little luck is offered at a run-down West Virginia track.

lordmisruleReviewed by Elisha of Rainy Day Reviews!:

This won the National Book Award. How fun is that? I was looking forward to reading this because not only did it win that award, but it is about horse-riding. My dad and his siblings grew up with animals. My dad’s dad grew up on a farm. My daughter loves horses and has rode a horse a few times. I grew up with horses at my church. So, I was especially excited to read a novel about horses.

However, it was not quite what I expected. Although I am not sure what I expected. Black beauty perhaps? Black beauty this was not. This was gritty and dirty (pun not intended). There was drug use (both illegal and legal) that surprised me. There was also gambling (although there was a track, so I can’t be surprised there), and characters that you typically would not want as your neighbors, but may not know; if they were. Although the story was intense and new to me, I am not sure I care for this type of story. I may not have been the right reader for this book, but I am glad I read it and gave it a shot.

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Guest Review: Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

North Dakota: Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

— Reviewed by Teri at Sportochick’s Musings

Synopsis:

The first of Louise Erdrich’s polysymphonic novels set in North Dakota — a fictional landscape that, in Erdrich’s hands, has become iconic — Love Medicine is the story of three generations of Ojibwe families. Set against the tumultuous politics of the reservation, the lives of the Kashpaws and the Lamartines are a testament to the endurance of a people and the sorrows of history.

love-medicine4 Star Review:

Wow is all I can say because I was not expecting this to be such a good read. Having chosen to read this because I am part Cherokee and into anything that is about Native Americans, I found it filled with tradition and expansive descriptions.

In the beginning there was a point where I got confused with all the people in this book. Thankfully the author did a supreme job of keeping the reader clear in each storyline as the book wove through generations of these families lives with a family tree included in the book.

As in all families there are twists and turns to the stories and the crossing of family lines creating great drama in each short story. What is obvious to this reader is the great care the writer takes in explaining with compassion and non-judgement the cause and effects of each characters actions through three generations. I never felt like judging their lives or criticizing their life decisions.

Reading this was powerful and filled me with many emotions and at the end of the book I can’t explain why but I want to cry and as I prepare this review I still feel like crying.

I give it 4 STARS and recommend you give it a read.

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Guest Review: A Death in the Family by James Agee

Tennessee — A Death in the Family by James Agee

Synopsis from GoodReads:

Published in 1957, two years after its author’s death at the age of forty-five, A Death in the Family remains a near-perfect work of art, an autobiographical novel that contains one of the most evocative depictions of loss and grief ever written. As Jay Follet hurries back to his home in Knoxville, Tennessee, he is killed in a car accident– a tragedy that destroys not only a life but also the domestic happiness and contentment of a young family. A novel of great courage, lyric force, and powerful emotion, A Death in the Family is a masterpiece of American literature.

deathfamilyReview by Elisha of Rainy Day Reviews!:

This autobiography was hard to put down. It was well-written, gripping, and so sad. Even though this was a tragic story, it was so compelling, loving, and very relatable to others. However, because this is a very sad and depressing book, it is important (I think) to take breaks and read this at a pace because this book is very emotional and full of anguish, it is easy to internalize the words inwards. The writing was sovereign and somber.

Yes, this is a good read, however, it is a depressing read.

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Guest Review: House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday

New Mexico: House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday

Synopsis from Goodreads:

The magnificent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of a proud stranger in his native land.

He was a young American Indian named Abel, and he lived in two worlds. One was that of his father, wedding him to the rhythm of the seasons, the harsh beauty of the land, the ecstasy of the drug called peyote. The other was the world of the twentieth century, goading him into a compulsive cycle of sexual exploits, dissipation, and disgust. Home from a foreign war, he was a man being torn apart, a man descending into hell.

house-dawnReview by Elisha of Rainy Day Reviews!:

This was a new kind of read for me. It was different. I’m still sort of reeling from the book. This book felt very political for me. Which I wasn’t expecting with in turn left a bitter taste in my mouth because then it felt that the author had an agenda that he wasn’t willing to divulge to his readers. I wanted to enjoy the book, but it seemed mundane and wordy to me. I hope to read this again soon, and hopefully get a better feel, a deeper sense of what the author was trying to convey. I did find it well written (minus the wordy-ness) and poetic, and even though this can be read in one sitting, I would recommend reading this more than once to better understand the contents, the quotes, the characters, and their relationships.

I do recommend this book.

I borrowed this book from my local library.

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Guest Review: Spartina by John Casey

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

— review by 125Pages

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.”

spartinaSpartina 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.

three-stars

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Guest Review: Rabbit, Run by John Updike

rabbitrunRabbit, Run by John Updike
Reviewer ~ 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 babies 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.

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

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