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willoyd

Willoyd's Tour of the States.

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21 hours ago, willoyd said:

still not half way!

Nearly though! Were these last changes just for preference? I know it's considered a classic but I hated In Cold Blood, it made me feel really uncomfortable. 

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On 04/10/2021 at 8:51 PM, Hayley said:

Nearly though! Were these last changes just for preference? I know it's considered a classic but I hated In Cold Blood, it made me feel really uncomfortable. 

 

I'm an inveterate list maker and tweaker!  I set out my criteria, but at the time I made the original list I knew a lot less about American literature than I do now (I still don't know it well!).  In particular, I'm finding out more about where books are set, and which books are 'famous' - America literature appears much more regional, and authors who might be very well known in and around their state may be virtually unknown elsewhere.  Just to give one example, I'd barely heard of Wendell Berry before starting the tour, but he's one of only two (I think) living authors published by Library of America.

 

As a result, I've been shuffling books around on and off.  The latest shift around was triggered by the fact that I decided that 'In Cold Blood' didn't sufficiently fit the criteria.  But that meant shifting around elsewhere too.....

 

My aim is that by the end I'll have read a really good cross-section of twentieth century American literature. I've already read some stonking books - a couple of  six star reads, a fair number of fives, and several authors I definitely want to follow up, or have already started to follow up, further: Willa Cather, Larry McMurtrey, Wendell Berry and Louise Erdrich just for starters (oh and, of course, Toni Morrison!).

Edited by willoyd

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23 minutes ago, willoyd said:

My aim is that by the end I'll have read a really good cross-section of twentieth century American literature. I've already read some stonking books - a couple of  six star reads, a fair number of fives, and several authors I definitely want to follow up, or have already started to follow up, further: Willa Cather, Larry McMurtrey, Wendell Berry and Louise Erdrich just for starters (oh and, of course, Toni Morrison!).

Your method of tweaking the list as you go is working then! 

 

24 minutes ago, willoyd said:

America literature appears much more regional, and authors who might be very well known in and around their state may be virtually unknown elsewhere.

I do find that very interesting. It's not something I'd thought about before.

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Books (and states!) 23 and 24:

 

Missouri: Mrs Bridge by Evan S. Connell  *****

Completely coincidentally read after The Stone Diaries, and in so many ways so similar: a biography of a fictional woman, playing very much the wealthy wife and mother role in mid-twentieth century midwest America - similar husband, similar children (2 girls, one boy).  Different personality, different mindset, different atmosphere, written rather more sparingly, but the comparison was fascinating. Both books in very different ways say much about the society the women grow up in.  This book was followed up ten years later by a parallel volume, Mr Bridge, with both books combinedi into a film starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.  The second book is already on order!

 

Wyoming:  The Virginian by Owen Wister *****

The original Western, which sneaks in, just, as a 20th century book by barely a couple of years; this is the oldest book on my tour, just pipping Ethan Frome. In some respects, it shows it too, with some attitudes that would look distinctly out of place in a 21st century novel - the west is very Anglo-Saxon for instance! - but putting those aside, it was an absorbing novel, with the caveat that this, as pointed out in the introduction, is a somewhat romanticised view of the cowboy world. On that, I would have preferred rather more of the 'cowboy' story and a bit less of the romance, but the tension between the two was, after all, very much at the heart of Wister's story: masculine vs feminine, West vs East. Having been an avid fan of the TV series in my younger years, I was amazed to find Trampas was the original 'baddie', although a wee bit disappointed that, unlike other characters who were vividly developed, he remained somewhat 2-dimensional throughout.
Overall though, the book stood up well some 120 years down the line from its original publication - a ripping yarn with a strong romantic streak, peppered with humour and pathos, and, very important on this tour, a strong sense of place,  It made an interesting counter-point to Lonesome Dove, a rather more modern take on the West.  I really enjoyed it and can see why it remains something of a classic.

Edited by willoyd

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#25 Wisconsin: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld ****

(copied across from my reading blog thread)

My first book of the year, a book group choice, but one that nicely satisfies one of my aims this year, to read some bigger books. At over 600 pages it certainly counts as one of those!  Having said that, it proved a fairly rapid read - more to do with the readability than any physical aspect of the book!

With the main character, Alice, modelled on Laura Bush, the wife of George W Bush, it opens with the couple in bed in the White House, and Alice contemplating her marriage: she's betrayed the President (we don't know how) and is not certain how her marriage is going to progress - we then move into flashback and Alice tells the story of her life and how she got to this point.  Whilst Alice is modelled on Laura Bush, it becomes fairly quickly apparent that Alice is not actually Laura Bush: there are enough differences, not least that the story, until it reaches Washington, is set in Wisconsin rather than Texas - which meant that rather neatly but unexpectedly, I found I could slot it in as my Tour of the USA book for that state!.  However, there are some key aspects where the 2 lives coincide, aspects, or events, which inevitably impact massively on the women's respective lives.  It would be too much of a spoiler to itemise them all, but one which has been well-flagged in reviews, and occurs early on enough not actually spoil, is that it's well documented that Laura Bush, at the age of 19, drove through a stop sign one evening, and collided with a car coming along the other road, killing the driver, a boy who she knew well.  A similar incident occurs to Alice, but the circumstances and the aftermath are pure fiction. 

I initially thought that a lot of this book would be about the rise to the Presidency, but in fact that barely features. Three quarters of the book is about the Alice's life before Charlie (her husband) runs for political status, whilst the last quarter (there are 4 parts) jumps to a couple of years after they reach the White House.  But the parts are all strongly connected.  What the book does focus on is Alice's relationship with Charlie: they love each other, but they are political opposites - Alice is a signed up Democrat.  There social background is also very different (as were the real-life couples').  So, how does Alice work this, how does she compromise her political beliefs and principles to handle that relationship.  Or does she?  I have to admit, I did find the book quite hard going at times, not because of its readability (as we know), but because of of the extent of the navel-gazing, or internal monologue, and, to be honest, some of the repetition.  The challenge and its resolution, the moral hurdles Alice has to negotiate make for fascinating reading, but a good editor would have made this even better (interesting to hear only the other day the presenters of the Book Club Review podcast saying exactly the same about Sittenfeld's latest, 'Rodham', another alternative history biography). I never felt the desire to abandon the book, but I did find myself skimming on occasions.

When we came to the book group discussion, I think I was the most positive about the book.  Most felt it overlong, a good proportion found Alice frustratingly annoying ('Why was she such a doormat?' was one's question that summed this up neatly), but I have to say that I never once thought that: rather the opposite: this was very much a woman trying to balance her obvious love for her partner with the fact that they were such diametric opposites in so many areas - how did she handle this.  It may have been the life of an American First Lady, but so much of it reflected the questions pretty much every couple must face at one time or the other.  In her own way, I found Alice to be a rather strong character.

In summary: a generally engaging read, with a few patches of longeuse that would have benefited from a stronger editor, asking some very human questions. It certainly made for a good book club read.  A promising start to the year, with the added bonus that I've taken my Tour of the USA score up to 25 - one off half way! : 4 stars out of 6.

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#26 Connecticut:  The Stepford Wives by Iran Levin **

Well, it took until almost half-way through the tour, but I finally reached a book that was genuinely disappointing. There have been a couple which were 'alright', and about which I couldn't get particularly enthusiastic, but none, until now, where I came away thinking that was a distinctly unsatisfactory read.  Supposedly this was a satire, and I suspect it was in its day, but reading this fifty years on, it just felt horribly dated, with wooden characters and a plot line lacking in any credibility.  And no, unlike many other books, I found myself unable to suspend my disbelief, not least because it was such an unpleasant read.  In fact, I'm almost talking myself into 1 star, but perhaps better to leave it at that, and just walk away, relieved that it was only 138 pages long, barely an evening's read.  A tedious evening, it has to be said.  2 stars out of 6.

 

Edited by willoyd

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