Andrea Reads America: Connecticut

Andrea Reads America Connecticut book map
Andrea Reads America: Connecticut

Finally! New England! After six states and six months, I have made my way to the east coast. And it feels good to be here.

The most familiar state I’ve read to this point is Alabama, which is similar to my home state of Georgia in enough ways that Alabama felt comfortable and known. But when I was off to Alaska and Arkansas, Arizona, California, and Colorado, these states in my home country were more foreign to me than I anticipated. Now, though, I’m in Connecticut, on the Atlantic coast that is my home coast, in a state where friends reside – friends who’ve told me stories of their Connecticut home towns, and a friend whose strange antique house I visited. In that towering Connecticut home the worn wood floors slanted, and the house had so many stairwells and cubby rooms that I got lost in the narrow corridors. I fell asleep wondering if I’d wake in our dark rickety room to a the bones of a tree limb scritching our window and a hollow-cheeked phantom hovering over my paralyzed body, its eye sockets empty and its mouth stretched into a skeletal grin. It was kind of fun. And reading Connecticut was fun, too, because I’ve been there. It feels good to read a familiar place.

Strangely, though, none of the Connecticut novels I read took place in haunted Colonial homes. I guess I’ll have to wait for Massachussettes for that. Instead I escaped to the meadow on the edge of a Puritan town in The Witch of Blackbird Pond, angsted alongside a twin as he grappled with his family history and his paranoid schizophrenic brother in I Know This Much Is True, and dropped my jaw at the story of an interracial love affair in a northern town, and how divergent its unfolding was in comparison to the same type of tale told in southern towns, in Ann Petry’s The Narrows.

The Narrows by Ann Petry book coverNovel: The Narrows
Author: Ann Petry, born 1908 Old Saybrook, Connecticut
Setting: 1950s Monmouth, Connecticut
Categories: Literary Fiction, African-American Fiction

Set in the 1950s in the fictitious New England town of Monmouth, Connecticut, The Narrows is a glimpse into a part of town near the river, near the dock on Dumble Street, in a neighborhood that some call The Narrows, and some call Little Harlem. The characters are a widow and her Dartmouth-educated adopted son, the bar owner across the street, the fastidious butler to the rich white family in the mansion, the butler’s sensual wife, a photographer whose art is before his time, a frustrated newspaper editor, and, of course, the rich white family in the mansion. Petry is a master of describing characters:

The mouth was really lovely, the lips – well, you know there were lip muscles there, it was a singer’s mouth.

The Narrows is the story of the young Dartmouth-trained black man, Link, his love affair with a wealthy white woman, and the impact their tryst has on the black community in a small New England town. Their affair is mostly hidden in the dark of night and in the penthouse of the Waldorf Astoria in New York, and after reading many similar books set in the small-town South, what fascinated me about this book was the difference in the fear levels of the mostly black cast of characters: those who knew about the affair didn’t like the pairing, but there was not a sense of life or death like it would have been during the same decade in the Deep South. When trouble came to Link regarding the white woman, there was an ease in The Narrows: Link did no wrong, he would be fine. This attitude from residents of Little Harlem shocked me. In the South, in stories like this one, the black community would fear for Link’s life regardless of his innocence. Families would hide, crosses would burn, and Link would have been lynched before they even got him to the jailhouse.

Perhaps they should have been more afraid. For despite the outer civility of the New Englanders, and despite the courts and police serving Link fairly, the inner feelings between whites and blacks were the same in small town Connecticut as they would have been in the South. The difference in Connecticut was that the racism, and the danger, were stealthy and discreet.

The language in The Narrows is beautiful, the characters are rich, and it is a must read for readers interested in stories of race in America.

I know This Much is True by Wally Lamb book coverNovel: I Know This Much Is True
Author: Wally Lamb, born Norwich Connecticut
Setting: Three Rivers, Connecticut
Categories: Contemporary Fiction

I Know This Much Is True is a big book, both in your hand and in your mind. Clocking in at nearly 900 pages, it is a beautifully told story of the identical twin of a paranoid-schizophrenic and the “healthy” twin’s grappling with navigating his role with his broken brother, within his broken family, and in light of his broken history. I Know This Much Is True is Dominick’s – the healthy twin’s – journey through past and present in an attempt to help his brother and, ultimately, to heal himself.

I reached down and picked some rocks off the beach. Chucked them, one by one, into the rolling surf. I don’t know how long I stood there, pitching stones.

Rife with symbolism (water and rivers), patterns (amputations and mental illness), and parallels (twins and repeated history), I Know This Much Is True is a joy for literature-lovers who love to puzzle and think, and it is also quick-paced and does not require deep analysis to keep the reader both interested and entertained. Dealing with issues of siblings, friendship, the authenticity of parenthood, of navigating loss and dark family history, of seeking and offering help, and ultimately, dealing with the essential question of how to overcome your past to become a better human being, I Know This Much Is True is a hopeful, redemptive novel that both surprised and warmed me despite its dark undercurrents.

I will be thinking about this one a long time as I parse the patterns in Domenick’s life – how his modern life parallels his grandfather’s beginnings as an Italian immigrant in Connecticut, how river metaphors run throughout the book, how rabbits and eerily similar scenes repeat throughout generations – and I will delight in the lesson learned that sometimes we don’t recognize our own ugliness until we see it displayed in someone else, and we might not see someone’s goodness until we remove our angry blinders and forgive them their mistakes even as we ask forgiveness for our own.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond Elizabeth George Speare book coverNovel: The Witch of Blackbird Pond
Author: Elizabeth George Speare, born 1908, moved to Connecticut in 1936
Setting: 1687 Wethersfield, Connecticut
Categories: Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction, Newbery Medal Winner

I have a weakness for Puritan literature – stern Colonists and unpainted wood structures and girls with names like Prudence, Charity, Mercy, and Thankful – and The Witch of Blackbird Pond delivers on all of those. Set in Connecticut in the years before the Revolutionary War, The Witch of Blackbird Pond is the story of an orphaned young woman, Katherine (Kit) Tyler) who makes the sea voyage from her family’s tropical plantation to the gloom of her aunt and uncle’s home in Connecticut.

The bleak line of shore surrounding the gray harbor was a disheartening contrast to the shimmering green and white that fringed the turquoise bay of Barbados which was her home.

Raised on an island by a grandfather who taught her to read, Kit – who swims and laughs and speaks frankly and freely – is sharply scrutinized the moment she steps off the boat.

In this harsh, buttoned-up place, where she passes a whipping post and the stocks on her way to church, Kit only feels comfortable in the meadows on the outskirts of town and in the cozy cottage of an outcast Quaker woman: the “witch” of Blackbird Pond. Hannah Tupper, the Quaker, is warm, kind, gentle, and wise, and she is everything an orphaned island girl in a Puritan world needs.

She could hear the crackling of the flames, the bubbling of the stew in the kettle, the scratching of the pen in Prudence’s fingers, the creak creak of Hannah’s chair and the drowsy purring of the yellow cat.

Kit and Hannah visit secretly and happily for a long time without incident, and all is well for many months. Then the children of the town start getting sick. The superstitious townspeople cry witchcraft, and Kit and Hannah are the witches they hunt.

Speare engages all the senses with her vivid language, and the Connecticut setting she evokes in The Witch of Blackbird Pond is everything you want from a New England historical novel. I’ve read this book more than once in my life, when I’ve itched to observe the strange, stern Puritans, and I know I will read it again.

For Further Reading in Connecticut

Books I have read and can recommend:
Joe College by Tom Perrotta
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Books that have been recommended to me and I have not yet read:
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Sleeping Father by Matthew Sharpe
New England White by Stephen Carter

I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.

Andrea Reads America: Colorado

Andrea Reads America Colorado book map
Andrea Reads America: Colorado

I set a dangerous precedent by reading six books in California instead of only three. When I arrived in Colorado on my reading tour I started out with three books. Then I read four. Then five. It’s a good thing I didn’t set a time limit for myself to finish this project; it felt good to read all those books, and I have a feeling it won’t be the last time I over-read a state.

Going into the Centennial State*, the only thing I knew about Colorado was the Rocky Mountains and skiing. After reading five books, I’ve seen so many facets of Colorado I don’t know which three to pick to best represent the state. Tough Cookie highlighted the ski-lodge culture, Little Miss Strange showed Denver in the tumult of the 1960s and 70s, Prayers For Sale takes the reader to the gold-mining days of Breckenridge, The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz grants entrée into modern Denver Chicano culture, and Plainsong takes us to the open plains of Colorado – plains I didn’t even know existed in Colorado until I read Haruf’s beautiful book.

To make narrowing the list less painful, I chose the three titles I felt best represented Colorado as character, and then wrote about Little Miss Strange and Tough Cookie separately. If you are interested in reading Colorado beyond the books listed below, please see Sarajean Henry is my hero (Little Miss Strange) and Ski lodges, killers, and cookies: a Colorado win (Tough Cookie). Otherwise, enjoy the swagger of Chicano Denver, the brittle cold of gold-mining Breckenridge, and the sweeping plains east of the Rockies.

*Colorado became a state in 1876, 100 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and so it has been nicknamed The Centennial State.

Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas book coverNovel: Prayers for Sale
Author: Sandra Dallas, lives Denver, Colorado
Setting: 1930s Middle Swan (Breckenridge), Colorado
Categories: Historical Fiction

Set in Middle Swan on The Devil’s Backbone, the high ridge where Breckenridge perches in Summit County, Colorado, Prayers for Sale takes place during the mining boom of the late 1930s. Middle Swan, loosely based on the geography and history of Breckenridge, is a gold dredge town, where the gold boats screech and clatter all day long, with silence being a torment rather than a relief because quiet means the dredge has stopped. And the dredge stopping often heralds a grisly death.

Prayers for Sale is stories within a story. The widow Hennie Comfort, an 86-year-old mountain woman, imparts town tales to newcomer Nit Spindle, a young woman who travelled to Colorado from Kentucky to start a life with her new husband. Both women have lost babies, both women hail from the mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky, and both women seek companionship in the high altitudes where it can snow any month of the year, and where they never know if the men will come back after a day on the gold dredge.

Sandra Dallas shows the colorful nature of a gold mining town – the hookhouse, the social statuses, the differences between mining and dredging, the danger, the strength of the women, and my favorite, the mining jargon that makes its way into everyday speech: “Tap ‘er light” to say take it easy and “deep enough” to say it’s time to stop. Hennie’s storytelling takes place over quilt piecing, raspberrying, cooking, and baby birthing, and her relationship with Nit explores the beauty of women’s friendships. Quilters will enjoy the well-researched quilting scenes and storytellers will appreciate Hennie’s penchant for spinning a good yarn.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf book coverNovel: Plainsong
Author: Kent Haruf, born Pueblo, Colorado
Setting: 1980s(?) Holt, Colorado
Categories: Literary Fiction, National Book Award Finalist

Set on the high plains east of Denver, Colorado, in an unspecified decade when teachers used ditto machines, smoked in the teachers’ lounge, and when people used payphones, Plainsong is a quiet, elegant book. Told through the intersecting stories of seven characters – Guthrie, a highschool teacher whose depressed wife has left him and their two boys; the two boys (10 and 9); a widowed teacher Guthrie’s age; a pregnant teen; and the McPheron brothers, two balding bachelors who know no other life but their insular cattle ranch – Plainsong pieces together a community of what many would consider broken or half-formed people. None have partners, either because they lost their mate or they never had one, and none have an intact parent-set.

Yet solitude is not their story. Their stories are the way they navigate life through their own solidity – Guthrie standing up to a bully family whose jock son is failing Guthrie’s class; Guthrie’s boys taking responsibility for their paper route, watching high schoolers have sex, baking cookies with a housebound newspaper customer, helping herd cattle; Maggie helping the pregnant teen find shelter and asserting herself romantically; the 17-year old’s choices about her pregnancy; and the old bachelor brothers changing everything they know late in life, after decades of sameness – and through their coming together as community.

In addition to expertly weaving these stories together, Haruf’s treatment of the plains setting is gorgeous. It is both gentle and harsh, with the lives of Colorado ranch animals often paralleling and informing the human stories. This book was eloquent, telling the story of plain, ordinary people and the grace inherent in them. It was optimistic in a quiet, down-to-earth, unsentimental way that made me believe in the goodness of humanity.

The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz by Manuel Ramos book coverNovel: The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz
Author: Manuel Ramos, born Florence, Colorado
Setting: 1990s Denver, Colorado
Categories: Mystery, Crime Drama, Latino/Chicano Fiction

Set in the late 1980s or early 1990s in Denver, Colorado, The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz reaches back through time, via Chicano lawyer Luis Móntez, to a night 20 years prior when an ambitious revolutionary, Rocky Ruiz, was gunned down by men in white hoods.

Packed with machismo, mystery, raucous courtroom scenes, and adulation of a young Chicana lawyer, the novel take the reader into an old story of a Chicano brotherhood that is 20 years gone at the beginning of the novel. Móntez and his former revolutionary brothers are no longer young and are established men in their Denver community: an attorney, a judge, a proprietor of an anti-gang, anti-drug community center. Yet when they begin to receive threatening phone calls, Rocky’s traumatizing death, which they’ve spent the past 20 years trying to forget, rushes back to them.

Author Manuel Ramos infuses the text with Chicano style, intermingling Spanish and English, and even clarifying the term Chicano** (Mexican-American), which Móntez calls himself, but his father Jesús rolls his eyes at:

Chicano was a derogatory word as far as [Jesús] was concerned. “If you want to be called ‘boy Mexican,’ that’s up to you, boy.” What made him really laugh was that most of my comrades in the movement did not speak Spanish.

The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz is a fast, fun, crime drama with a different character set than my usual mystery sleuths, which I admit, are pudgy, bumbling white women named, oh, Agatha Raisin, or dapper Englishmen named Richard Jury. Author Manuel Ramos adds a new voice to the crime drama genre, and as Director of Advocacy for Colorado Legal Services, Colorado’s legal aid program, he lends an authenticity to both the Denver crime scene and the legal actions that follow. The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz is the first in a series of mysteries starring Luis Móntez.

**The best consensus I can find on the differences between the terms Hispanic, Latino, and Chicano are as follows. The terms describe heritage – “regions of origin” – not race:

  • Hispanic describes persons hailing from Spanish-speaking countries (i.e. not Brazil, which speaks Portuguese)
  • Latino describes persons of Latin-American heritage (including Brazil)
  • Chicano describes persons of Mexican heritage living in the United States. Chicano is sometimes seen as derogatory, as Jesus demonstrates in The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz, though the author Manuel Ramos claims the term for his lead character and has himself taught Chicano Literature at the University level.

For Further Reading in Colorado

Books I have read and can recommend
Little Miss Strange by Joanne Rose
Tough Cookie by Diane Mott Davidson
Books that have been recommended to me and I have not yet read:
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle
Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbow
The Magic of Ordinary Days by Ann Howard Creel
Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.

Andrea Reads America: California

Andrea Reads America California Book Map
Andrea Reads America: California

California. I don’t think I stopped grinning when I got to California after reading wintry Alaska, then dry Arizona, then dusty Arkansas. I needed The Golden State for a little R&R. California’s got coasts and mountains, sunshine and sea air, artists, writers, actors, bums, train-hoppers, redwoods, vineyards, canneries, marine biologists, beautiful blondes with perfect straight teeth, surfers, smugglers, avocados and strawberries and oranges and lemons, and immigrant populations from China and Japan and Mexico. It is a diverse state, shiny and new and full of hope: a reading dream come true for me, the American dream come true for others, false hope for many, and hard work for everyone but the bums.

The books I selected for my project were a tiny sampling from the deep pool of California-set titles by California authors. The experience of reading this state was a luxury, like sitting by a glittering pool with a frozen daquiri and a stack of books on the lounge chair next to me. There was so much author diversity – men, women, black, white, Hispanic, Chinese-American, Indian-American, Japanese-American – I kicked back and read California for weeks. There is surf, there are freeloaders, there are migrant workers and mail order brides; there is an imagined future of what happens after the gluttony bubble bursts. And I loved every second of it.

California was a fun ride.

The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow book cover on andreareadsamerica.comNovel: The Dawn Patrol
Author: Don Winslow, lives San Diego, CA
Setting: 2000s Pacific Beach, CA
Categories: Mystery, Crime drama

Published in 2008 and set in modern day Pacific Beach, California, The Dawn Patrol was everything I wanted from a California read: waves, water, hilarious surf lingo, characters with names like High Tide and Cheerful, a murder, page-turning suspense, a fast pace, and the best scenery I could have asked for. For the first time so far on my Andrea Reads America journey, I didn’t want to just read about a place, I wanted to be there.

There are days when that drive along the 101 is so beautiful, it will break your fucking heart. When you look out the window and the sun is painting masterpieces on the water…

The Dawn Patrol are a group of six surfers who are a cop, a lifeguard Love God, a giant Samoan who works for Sand Diego’s public works department, a kid named Hang Twelve, a soon-to-be pro-surfer “California girl,” and Boone Daniels, a private investigator and the hero of our story. The Dawn Patrol gathers on the waves every morning to surf before they start their jobs in the real world. They are as tight as family, and all play roles in this well-told, perfectly paced mystery that goes deeper than the original crime of a stripper’s murder. As is always the case in a decent mystery series, our P.I. Boone Daniels has depth and is haunted by past mistakes: the child molestor that got away.

The Dawn Patrol, in addition to plopping me beachside among surfers in sunny California, also gave me a great story with characters I came to love. So far there is only one more book in the Boone Daniels series. I hope Winslow plans to write more.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler book cover on andreareadsamerica.comNovel: Parable of the Sower
Author: Octavia Butler, born 1947 in Pasadena, California
Setting: 2025 near Los Angeles, California
Categories: Speculative fiction, Dystopian fiction, Afrofuturism

Parable of the Sower, set in 2024-2027 Los Angeles, California, is the story of Lauren, the hyperempathetic daughter of a preacher (she feels others’ physical pain, often to the point of debilitation). The United States as we know it has collapsed into near anarchy as rain no longer falls in many regions, cars are abandoned because fuel is unaffordable, drugs that make people want to burn and kill are rampant, and middle-class families live inside walled communities to protect themselves from the chaos outside.

Even as a preteen Lauren sees her family’s walled life as unsustainable, and the God her father follows is not the god she believes in. She sees that change will come – big changes where she will need to know how to live off the land and protect herself with guns – and when her community’s wall is breached and her neighborhood is burned to the ground, she is thrust into the outside world where she knew she would one day end up, and where she must now survive.

Though, like Butler, Lauren is an African American girl growing up in a mixed race neighborhood, Butler does not write about race as if it were a central issue in this book; race is often little more than a descriptor or a side note. However, whereas most science fiction casts a Caucasian male in the hero role, Butler casts a young black woman: rather than pontificating about race issues, Butler embeds an African American leader in her story and leaves it at that. I liked that aspect, that there isn’t a lot of explaining or reasoning that or why the heroine is black: she just is. On with the story.

Throughout the novel, despite the misery and seeming hopelessness, Butler offers a different future through Lauren’s resourcefulness and in the less populated regions of northern California, Oregon, Washington, and Canada:

So many people hoping for so much up there where it still rains every year, and an uneducated person might still get a job that pays in money instead of beans, water, potatoes, and maybe a floor to sleep in.

It was strange to visit Highway 101 and other California landmarks, which were portrayed as idyllic in other books, through Parable of the Sower‘s lens of violence and chaos, but that’s what dystopian fiction does: it jars us. It provides an imagined future as a cautionary tale. It makes us think about the world as we know it, and imagine it as it might one day be, and maybe even inspire us to make changes in our lives to prevent the imagined chaos from happening.

For more on Parable of the Sower, please see A dystopian California: not unimaginable.

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck book cover  on andreareadsamerica.comNovel: Cannery Row
Author: John Steinbeck, born 1902, Salinas, California
Setting: 1930s Monterey, California
Categories: Literary Fiction

Cannery Row, set during the Great Depression, is a surprisingly (and subtly) funny character sketch of the rundown community along the strip of sardine canneries in Monterey, California. From the Chinese grocer, Lee Chong, to the specimen-collecting Doc, to the bums Mack and the boys at the flophouse, to Dora and the girls at the neighborhood brothel, to the tomcats and freed frogs and lonely gopher without a mate, the inhabitants of Cannery Row – along with the smell of the tides, the whang of rocks thrown against corrugated metal, and the pearly light of the quiet mornings before each day’s antics begin – exhibit the personality of a place through both its people and its atmosphere. Steinbeck has captured and characterized place brilliantly in this way and has shown a California different from all the other books I’ve read. The only similar portrayal was Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, but Kerouac’s focus was human characters while Steinbeck’s aim was to characterize Cannery Row, the place, through its residents.

I was looking forward to California for the excuse to read a Steinbeck I haven’t yet read. Cannery Row did not disappoint. Steinbeck’s sentences had me reaching for my pen and notebook nearly every page to record his genius lines; his prose is rhythmic and beautiful:

Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses…

There is something about Steinbeck that moves me. He writes close to the earth and deep into our humanness, and he is able to evoke an atmosphere that satisfies my hunger for a sense of place, scratches my itch for exploring our humanity – our eccentricities and foibles, our kindnesses and will to keep trying – and that asks the big questions, like how do we go on in the face of disappointment and failure, and what would a beer milk shake taste like?

For more on Cannery Row, please see Steinbeck, Steinbeck, he’s my man.

For Further Reading in California

Books I have read and can recommend:
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
Books that have been recommended to me and I have not yet read:
Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
Mistress of the Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Lê Thi Diem Thúy
Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson
Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse
Goodbye to All That by Margot Candela
Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien
Love and War in California by Oakley Hall

I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.