Andrea Reads America: Wisconsin

Andrea Reads America: Wisconsin

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Wisconsin. Maybe hockey and cheese? What I read felt more like Minnesota, but I probably didn’t read the right kinds of books to get the cliché Wisconsin. The Jesus Cow was the closest to dairy I got. I probably should have read a mystery to get the real scene setting I was looking for; I’ve found cozy mysteries are among the best for providing a sense of place. I was super excited to read The Art of Fielding again though. In fact, two of the books I read included a love of baseball. Is baseball big in Wisconsin, or was that just a coincidence?

Novel: The Art of Fielding
Author: Chad Harbach
Setting: Wisconsin

More about becoming excellent, about literature and baseball, and about the mixed up relationships among a close-knit group at Westish liberal arts college than about Wisconsin, I still couldn’t wait to read The Art of Fielding again when I got to Wisconsin on my reading tour. Filled with flawed and loveable characters, including my second favorite Owen in literature — an Owen who, like Owen Meany, is the centerpiece in a story that involves a baseball cracking into someone’s head — this Owen is a refined, elegant baseball player and scholar who reads books in the dugout with a reading light clipped to his baseball cap.

The Art of Fielding is a page-turner with depth and beauty, with a cast of characters I loved, and who I didn’t want to say goodbye to in the end.

Novel: Wingshooters
Author: Nina Revoyr
Setting: Central Wisconsin

Told from the perspective of a half-Japanese, half-white child who is abandoned by her parents to live with her grandparents in their small Wisconsin town, Wingshooters is a story of how blinded people can be to their own cruelty. Michelle’s white grandparents reject her Japanese mother but accept Michelle with full-hearted love and teach her how to stand up for herself against the racism she encounters as a mixed-race child in a white Wisconsin town.

But when a black couple comes to town, her grandfather and his friends show their true racist colors. Her grandfather does not see at all how the way he treats the black couple, and the hatred he shows them and their differentness, is exactly the same hatred he defends Michelle against from the town.

What I appreciate most about this book is how well it demonstrates the awful recognition that someone you love is capable of inflicting terrible harm, and with such unjustified hatred, because they are racist. How do you deal with that when you love them more than any other person on earth? It also clearly shows the ridiculousness of the “I’ve never seen that person do anything bad” argument when a man is accused of abuse. Abusive men hide their abuse well — of course they don’t present themselves to the world as abusers! — and so the world defends the abusers instead of their victims.

“This is your fault!” she cried out. “You could have stopped this! You could have stopped him the day Kevin went to the emergency room. You could have stopped him when they saw Kevin’s scars at school. But you had to stick by him, be his buddy. You had to deal with this like men.” Her face screwed up when she said this. “And instead of doing right by Kevin and me, you just looked the other way.”

nina Revoyr

Novel: The Jesus Cow
Author: Michael Perry
Setting: rural Wisconsin

Set in the small town of Swivel, WI, a tiny place the Interstate now runs through, The Jesus Cow is a comic story about a quiet bachelor farmer, Harley Jackson, whose new calf has a perfect likeness of Jesus on its flank. Harley tries to hide the calf at first, knowing the hubub it would create, but after the calf is spotted by the mail carrier, next thing Harley knows, his calf is all over the Internet, and pilgrims are trampling his private property for a glimpse of the sign from God. His farm turns into a full blown circus, with a talent agency managing every aspect of it, and Harley the quiet bachelor — along with the quiet town — gets swept away by it.

“Well… I… ah… yah! Yah!” In his eager panic to complete a sentence, he went full-on Norwegian.

Michael Perry

This was a fun, light read, and after living in Minnesota for a couple of years, I especially appreciated the Wisconsin accents and midwestern aloofness.

Andrea Reads America: West Virginia

Map of books set in West Virginia
Andrea Reads America: West Virginia

West Virginia is about an hour west of where we live in Virginia. On weekends, the parking lots at the Wal-Mart and Target in our neighboring town are filled with West Virginia license plates because they are the closest ones to some of the folks near the Virginia / West Virginia border in our part of the state.

We were awed by West Virginia’s emerald beauty when we camped there one summer. The Appalachian mountains there are deep and lush. They’re too steep and rocky for farming and are crowded close enough together to make them hard to pass (or build on). Most of the state is rural, and other than the dangerous jobs in mining coal, there aren’t a lot of money-making opportunities in West Virginia. In 2018, West Virginia had the 4th highest poverty rate in the US.

The three books I read reflect the green abundance, poverty, and coal influence in the state.

Strange as this weather has been book coverNovel: Strange as this Weather Has Been
Author: Ann Pancake, native West Virginian
Setting: 1990s West Virginia during a coal boom

Strange as this Weather Has Been takes place in the 1990s and early 2000s in a hollow down the mountain from a strip mine. It is a book is about what happens below those mines on the mountainside, and what happens to the people living there when mountaintops are blown up so others can have “cheap coal”: massive floods that wash homes away, poisoned streams, secrecy and bullying by the coal companies, and as always, the poor losing out to the rich. It never seems to matter much when it’s the poor whose homes are destroyed.

Honey, you won’t never beat coal. It’s who has the money, the rich people always win, that’s how it’s always been, especially in the state of West Virginia.

This book has a tremendous sense of place, with verdant descriptions of the Appalachian mountains, how close the mountain people are to the land, and how they could sustain themselves from the mountain until the moutaintop removal devastated everything.

At first I didn’t believe everything they said — how nearly a thousand miles of streams had been filled with the rock and dirt that used to be the mountaintops, and how the fill had killed everything there. How what soul was left on the flattened tops was compacted so hard that if anything ever came back besides the grasses and shrubs the company sprayed on, it wouldn’t be for at least several hundred more years. How over fifty percent of the electricity in the United States came from coal.

The tension in the book isn’t just between the strip mining companies and the local population. The bigger tension is whether to stay or whether to go, and how the “If you don’t like it, just leave” argument is a bullying tactic that doesn’t take into account that leaving costs money, not just to get away, but to live elsewhere. More importantly, it doesn’t account for a person’s love and connection and claim to their homeland. This novel is a love story for the West Virginia mountains, and the heartbreak that happens when the object of your love is destroyed.

175AMemoir: The Glass Castle
Author: Jeannette Walls
Setting: 1960s/70s West Virginia

Set partly in the western desert, partly in West Virginia, and partly in New York City, The Glass Castle is Jeannette Walls’s memoir of growing up in a family that was always on the move as her dad lost job after job and her mom opted not to work so that she could paint. The most vivid parts of the book, and the deepest poverty and abuse, take place in West Virginia.

The house was a dinky thing perched high up off the road on a hillside so steep that only the back of the house rested on the ground. The front, including a drooping porch, jutted precariously into the air, supported by tall, spindly cinder-block pillars… Since we couldn’t afford to pay the town’s trash collection fee, our garbage was really piling up.

Neither parent changed their behavior even though their kids had no food and were pilfering lunches from school garbage cans. Yet despite the poverty, Walls presents it like an adventure, through the eyes of an innocent, if scrappy, child who doesn’t know any different. She does a magnificent job of making her parents sympathetic despite the abuse they subjected their children to, and she presents a life of hunger and filth as a romp rather than a tragedy.

We were also always dirty. Not dry-dirty like we’d been in the desert, but grimy-dirty and smudged with oily dust from the coal-burning stove.

What I love most about Walls’s book, aside from her wry humor, is how over and over again, she perfectly captures the lush beauty, and sometimes heart-of-darkness wildness, of the thick Appalachians.

During the winter you could see abandoned cars and refrigerators and the shells of deserted houses in the woods, but in spring the vines and weeds and moss grew over them, and in no time they disappeared.

John Henry Days book coverNovel: John Henry Days
Author: Colson Whitehead
Setting: Talcott, West Virginia

It’s 1996 and the US Postal Service is launching a set of folk hero stamps, one of them being John Henry, a black steel-driver from West Virginia said to have beat a steam drill in a race to bore through a mountain to build a rail tunnel. John Henry’s home town is having a celebration to commemorate the stamp, and John Henry Days is the stories of the people who come for it: a group of New York City junkateer journalists, a woman whose father was obsessed with John Henry and ran a John Henry museum out of their home in Harlem, a stamp collector, and the owners of the dumpy motel the out-of-towners stay at.

The book jumps around in time and points of view, sometimes to story-lines that never get picked back up, and the jumps were distracting. They made it too easy to put the book down – there wasn’t a flow to it, and it was too much work for me as the reader to connect the dots. It’s won lots of awards, though, so someone gets it :D. I just didn’t. The scenes in West Virginia were spot on, and I could picture the small town and the mountain John Henry had to drill through.

Andrea Reads America: Washington

Andrea Reads America map of books set in Washington state
Andrea Reads America: Washington

I’ve never been to Washington, but I sure do want to go now. When I read the state, I  immersed myself in a Seattle bakery, on a sailboat on Puget Sound, and in the humor of Where’d You Go, Bernadette and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. I love fresh bread, being on boats on salt water, and laughing, so this was a pretty fantastic mix of books for me.

Bread Alone book cover Novel: Bread Alone
Author: Judith Ryan Hendricks, worked in a Seattle bakery
Setting: Seattle, WA

I first read Bread Alone several years ago when I was really into baking bread. I was excited to get to Washington on my reading project so I could read it again. Filled with scenes of coffee on wet days in Seattle, wood for stoves, and the comforting smells of fresh bread baking, it sucked me in immediately and me want to give up everything and become a baker.

Outside, the rain hasn’t stopped so much as paused, and the air is cold and scoured clean.

Bread Alone is a novel about a woman, Wynter, who is going through an unexpected divorce and who finds her way back to herself through baking bread. It’s a comforting book, and this probably won’t be the last time I read it, especially since it has recipes. It’d be a great book for fall or winter.

Just rocky, conifer-covered mountains thrusting up from the cold, blue Pacific. Air so clean it sears your throat with a sweet ocean smell.

Before the Wind Novel: Before the Wind
Author: Jim Lynch, born Seattle, lives in Olympia
Setting: Puget Sound, Washington

As a novice sailor, I was excited to finally find a novel about modern, local sailing (vs. round-the-world adventures). The main character of Before the Wind comes from a family of sailboat racers, and he lives on his boat in a marina on Puget Sound. The marina scene itself is entertaining, filled with the types of characters you’d expect who live on boats, and the types of boats you’d expect them to live on if you’ve ever spent time in small marinas on the coast.

What I really appreciated about this book was that the author doesn’t shy away from using the language of sailing, which is one of the reasons I wanted to read it. It puts the reader inside the mind of a sailor, what they think about, what they notice, what they fear, and who they read to learn more:

The line [from Joshua Slocum] our father made us memorize was: “To know the laws that govern the winds, and to know that you know them, will give you an easy mind on your voyage round the world; otherwise you may tremble at the appearance of every cloud.”

But this book isn’t just about sailing — it’s also a great story about a dysfunctional family who raced sailboats together when the kids were kids, the sister who had a magic about her on a boat, and their attempt to reunite as a family to sail one last race.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven Book: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
Author: Sherman Alexie, born Spokane, WA
Setting: 1970s Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, WA

Set primarily on an Indian Reservation in Spokane, Washington, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a book of short stories that are both hilarious and dispiriting, and are fiction based on on Alexie’s childhood and teenage years on the Reservation.

This morning I pick up the sports page and read the headline: INDIANS LOSE AGAIN.

Go ahead and tell me none of this is supposed to hurt me very much.

There is deep love and respect and a code of living among the tribe, but the primary tone of the stories is one of sadness, loss, and a broken people. Funny and modern, the stories are wonderfully written, enough so that I wanted to keep reading despite how sad it made me feel.

“Every one of our elders who dies takes a piece of our past away,” she said. “And that hurts because I don’t know how much of a future we have.”

Alcoholism is rampant in these stories, and mixed with that is a weaving of the mundane and what Alexie called Reservation Magic when someone asked if he’d describe this book as including elements of Magical Realism. This magic is woven throughout other Native American books I’ve read as well, as if the people of the tribes walk between the worlds.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette book cover Novel: Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Author: Maria Semple, lives in Seattle
Setting: Seattle, WA (and Antarctica)

What a refreshing, funny, and smart read! Based in Seattle after an catastrophe in LA, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the story of a genius architect, Bernadette Fox, her unassuming (also genius) husband who works at Microsoft, and their daughter Bee who goes to school at an elite private school overseen by overachieving, overbearing, helicopter parents. Bernadette is an eccentric recluse, which the busybody power-moms from the school cannot stand about her.

What I loved about this book, aside from the fact that it made me laugh, is that it shows what can happen when a creative genius is not creating: they destroy instead. Since the book sometimes uses narration from Bee, and sometimes correspondences between characters as chapters (emails and letters, for example), it’s also a really well-done demonstration of perspective, and how one person can be seen so differently by so many people, and how dangerous that can be.