Andrea Reads America: Michigan

Andrea Reads America Michigan book map
Andrea Reads America: Michigan

I had two things I was excited about when I arrived in Michigan on my literature tour: re-reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which I first read in high school, and something with deep, cold, icy, and snowy winter.

I was happy to experience both. As a bonus, Middlesex, which I read immediately after The Autobiography of Malcolm X, included a storyline in which one of the characters worked in the Nation (of Islam) Temple # 1 in Detroit: a temple that also appears in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and is clearly a major part of Detroit’s history.

Middlesex book cover by Jeffrey Eugenides Book: Middlesex
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides, born Detroit 1960
Setting: 1960s Detroit and Grosse Pointe
Categories: Pulitzer winner, Literary fiction

Beginning in Greece with a brother and sister who fall in love with each other as they flee overseas to America while their city burns, Middlesex is the story of Calliope turned Cal: the hermaphroditic grandchild of Desdemona and Lefty, who grew up in a small village and didn’t know that intermarrying close relatives could have genetic consequences. They emigrate to Detroit in the 1920s, and this novel is a story of struggling to survive in a world and a society where you are on the bottom.

Mixed with their story of Old Word making its way to the New are also the stories of the Nation of Islam, with whom Desdemona found a job when her husband/brother’s speakeasy was rendered irrelevant by the end of Prohibition. The Nation of Islam “began to take shape in the midst of poverty-stricken Detroit,” and alongside the Greek assimilation is the story of the 1967 race riots of Detroit. And alongside those stories is the story of Calliope, who when she finally hears doctors throwing around words about her condition follows a trail of synonyms in the dictionary to arrive at “hermaphrodite… See synonyms at MONSTER.”

In terms of giving a sense of place, the parts of the book set in Michigan are marvelous, whether racing a bootlegging car across a frozen lake at night, barricaded behind Greek cafe doors during the race riots, smokestacks and car factories, or in the woods of the Upper Peninsula, Middlesex delivered on showing Michigan.

Now the Detroit River sped past and the city loomed. Lefty stared out at the motor cars parked like giant beetles at the curbsides. Smokestacks rose everywhere, cannons bombarding the atmosphere. There were red brick stacks and tall silver ones, stacks in regimental rows or all alone puffing meditatively away, a forest of smokestacks that dimmed the sunlight and then, all of a sudden, blocked it out completely.

The Autobiography of Malcom X book cover Book: The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Authors: Malcolm X and Alex Haley
Setting: 1950s-1960s Detroit and Harlem
Categories: Biography

“Detroit Red” was the Michigan-born Harlem hustler Malcolm Little who, after years of thought and avid reading during his prison sentence, reformed, cleaned himself up, and became a follower of Elijah Muhammad and a minister of the Nation of Islam. When he was released from prison, he replaced his surname with the letter X to indicate he didn’t know his true African name. He rejected the surname associated with the white slave owners of his ancestors, and went by the name Malcolm X for the remainder of his life.

Malcolm X named himself the angriest black man in America. He spoke bald, uncomfortable truths about the black man’s plight and the real circumstances of ghettos and why they exist. He spoke of beatings, and prejudices, and keeping blacks in menial service roles and certain parts of town, and of the suspicion a black person suffers anytime they’re not in the right role or the right part of town. He advocated for blacks to protect themselves against the violence — the beatings, lynchings, lashings — of white men, and was called violent for that.

His story is a potent, fearless telling of the what the African-American people have suffered the past 400 years, and how utterly ridiculous and insensitive it is for a privileged white person to say, “They just need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, those lazy, good-for-nothings living off the system.” The white man has no idea what it’s like to navigate the American landscape — finding a job, getting an education at a good school, living in a decent neighborhood, or even just walking down the street — in black skin.

This is an important book. However, as a woman, it enraged me to see Malcolm X treat women the same way he complained of the white man treating blacks: beating them, forbidding education, thinking he knows what’s best for them, keeping them in “their place.” And he didn’t even see it. How will we ever progress with this kind of blindness?

Winter Study book cover by Nevada Barr Book: Winter Study
Author: Nevada Barr, worked as a Park Ranger on Isle Royale in Michigan
Setting: winter on Isle Royale, an island National Park in Lake Superior
Categories: Mystery

I did not keep notes on this book, but I remember it had everything I wanted by the time I had gotten through the heft of the previous two Michigan books. It gave me Michigan winter on frozen Lake Superior, in a closed-for-the-winter National Park where the only inhabitants have conflicts of interest regarding the wolf population on the island. I didn’t have to think, I just got to sit back and ride the words.

I’m finding again and again that it is the mysteries that have the best sense of place, and Winter Study was no exception. If you want a good page turner to curl up by the fire with, and you want snow, ice, wolves, science mixing with politics and ego, and a murder on an isolated island that is cut off from the rest of the world during winter, then this is a book for you.

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

The Internet failed me! My first Indiana read was a bust.

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields book cover

I don’t mean to shock you, but it’s true: you can’t trust everything you read on the Internet. The Brooklyn Magazine map of the best books for every state claims that Carol Shield’s The Stone Diaries is the best book of Indiana, but I think the magazine was putting more emphasis on literariness than on sense-of-place when it compiled the list (The Stone Diaries won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction).

I read The Stone Diaries because it was pitched as a novel set in Indiana, but I was disappointed by how little of the novel actually takes place there. The novel is set mainly in Canada, with a few scenes in Indiana and a few more in The Orkneys. More importantly, aside from the scenes in Scotland, setting was mostly irrelevent in this story. It could have taken place anywhere: place was definitely not a third character in the story. I did not walk away from the book feeling like I knew any more about Indiana than I did when I started reading.

That being said, as I begin my second Indiana novel and quarries are mentioned in the opening pages, perhaps I’m not giving The Stone Diaries enough credit for capturing Indiana. In the opening scene of Shield’s novel, we are introduced to Mercy Stone Goodwill, the mother of the novel’s protagonist, Daisy, and I immediately tied Mercy’s maiden name to the book’s title.

Yet the stone of the story is more than the Stone lineage carried through Mercy, and as I read more from Indiana, it seems stone is a part of Indiana as well. Stone is a metaphor used throughout The Stone Diaries, from Daisy’s quarry-man-turned-stone-carver father who builds a replica of a Great Pyramid in his back yard, to her paleobotanist niece who searches for fossils: “Life turned to stone.” Fossils. Like statues. Like the words engraved on a tombstone. Life turned to stone.

Rock runs throughout the book — a fictitious autobiography — in nearly every chapter. The novel, and its structure, seems to be making a point about the impossibility of shoving the whole of one person’s life into finite words, and the difficulties inherent in penning an autobiography. Shields is clever with her narrative choices, sometimes naming the person who’s perspective we are hearing, sometimes telling the story through letters to Daisy, and sometimes narrating through an omnicisient narrator whose identity is unclear, but who seems to be Daisy herself.

The way Shields executes changes in point of view is brilliant because she demonstrates how unattainable it is to share the full story of a life, and to share it accurately. From Daisy’s friends we hear different opinions than we do from her children or former lovers. And Daisy herself — what was her perspective? It’s difficult to know, but Shields certainly gives clues that help you form a theory.

While the book didn’t blow me away, and I’m still thinking about the significance of stone throughout it, there was a genius in the way Sheilds ended the novel, sharing the detritus of Daisy’s life, and how much the mundane odds and ends we leave can tell about us.

I think part of the cleverness of the title, along with the way Shields demonstrates the difficulties of sharing or knowing a person’s true story, is a play on the expression, “written in stone.” When a biography is set on paper, with specific perpectives shared and words carefully chosen, the written, indelible story persists long after the person is gone, like a statue carved of stone.

If you have a favorite book set in Indiana and written by an Indiana author, please let me know in the comments! I’m currently reading The Bright Forever by Lee Martin, and I am getting a good feel for Indiana from it.

Andrea Reads America: Idaho

Andrea Reads America Idaho book map
Andrea Reads America: Idaho

Idaho is my first venture to the American Northwest, in real life and in fiction. Before reading the state, I knew little about Idaho except that Boise is there and Idaho is known for potatoes. None of the books I read made reference to Boise or potatoes. Instead I experienced the railroads, forests, and small frontier towns of northern Idaho, and I learned about life on a reservation there — and the future ramifications of a one woman’s reservation upbringing.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Novel: Housekeeping
Author: Marilynne Robinson, born Sandpoint, Idaho
Setting: 1940s or ’50s glacial lake in northern Idaho
Categories: Literary fiction, Pulitzer nominee

Housekeeping, a book that captures both the wild and the tame, is a book about keeping a house in all of the senses of the word: the way we clean and organize our homes; whether we have a physical structure for a home or are transients; how we keep the members of a household in our minds; and the way others judge us based on any aspect of our housekeeping. If we keep our homes tidy, we are respected; if there are cobwebs, broken windows, or hoarded newspapers and tin cans, we are not. If we have a physical house, we are trusted; if we are transient, we are not. If we mourn (and recover from) the deaths of members of our household in the expected manner, we are accepted; if we mourn (and recover from) them incorrectly, we are not.

In Housekeeping, Lucille and Ruth, the two young girls of this novel whose lives are marked by death and abandonment, diverge on the “correct” and “incorrect” means of keeping house. When their aunt Slyvie arrives to take care of them, looking like a hobo who has arrived by jumping a train (which she did), the girls learn a new way to live. Ruth takes to Sylvie’s ways; Lucille does not.

Sylvie is a non-traditional house keeper: she is a drifter. The town does not know what to make of her, arriving in a boxcar to care for her orphaned nieces, sleeping on benches with a newspaper over her face. At home — home being a somewhat foreign concept to her — she stores tin cans, bottles, and magazines:

Sylvie only kept them, I think, because she considered accumulation to be the essence of housekeeping.

Sylvie is a wanderer, and Ruth follows her in her wanderings. This book speaks in dream-like scenes, vivid with wildness when outside of the structure of a house: scenes of crumbling houses in the forest, of stealing a boat on the wild lake that claimed the lives of the girls’ grandfather and mother, of crossing a railroad bridge, on foot, unprotected in the dark of night, and of burning a house full of sentimental objects. Housekeeping explores the stock we put into houses, and in keeping them.

Robinson’s writing is gorgeous, and engages all the senses:

There the wind would be, quenching the warmth out of the air before the light was gone, raising the hair on our arms and necks with its smell of frost and water and deep shade.

Robinson’s was my favorite Idaho read. I cannot wait to get to Iowa so I can read more of her work.

The Jailing of Cecelia Capture by Janet Campbell HaleNovel: The Jailing of Cecelia Capture
Author: Janet Campbell Hale, lives on the Coeur d’Alene Reservationin De Smet, Idaho
Setting: 1960s-1980s California & Idaho
Categories: Native American Fiction

Set in the 1980s, mainly in a jail cell in California with flashbacks to 1960s and 70s Idaho and Washington, The Jailing of Cecelia Capture tells the story of a poor, Native American welfare mother who grows up on a reservation in Idaho and escapes that land — and her family — as soon as she is able. She sees better things for herself than a drunken father and a spiteful mother, something better than poverty, something better than a traditional squaw role.

Like the author, who is of an Idaho tribe but grew up in Washington state and California, this book is more about how a tribal upbringing on a reservation shapes Capture more than it is about Idaho. Cecelia’s is a hard life, full of disappointments, bad choices, and a constant trying-and-failing to find her place, and her people, in the world.

She had been the daughter of a half-insane, mean old woman and an ineffective alcoholic father, and she had grown up poor and unwanted. She had been an unmarried welfare mother and finally become a drunk herself.

It is when she is jailed for drunk driving, and is incarcerated for days instead of hours, not knowing why she isn’t being released, that Ceceliais forced to stop running, stop drinking, and take a hard look at her life. She fought all her life to get somewhere, but despite her trying, she had had gotten nowhere but a jail cell.

What is refreshing about this book is that it is not a predictable rags to riches story. It is, however, a story that needs to be told, and is one that will stick with me for a while. Cecelia isn’t a particularly likable character, or even admirable, and those flaws make her story  realistic: she is lost and has no role models. I don’t like her, but I believe her story, and sadly, I believe it is a story of many, not just of Cecelia Capture.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
Novel: Train Dreams
Author: Denis Johnson
Setting: 1920s panhandle of Idaho
Categories: Literary Fiction, Pulitzer nominee

Train Dreams shows northern Idaho in its pioneer days: the early 1900s, when forests were being felled for timber, and train trestles were being built for the Spokane International. Johnson shows a northwestern state in its original form, rugged and wild, even as man attempted to wrestle the land to submission:

Swarms of men did away with portions of the forest and assembled structures as big as anything going, knitting massive wooden trestles in the air of impassable chasms, always bigger, longer, deeper.

When I first finished the book, it felt simple. Straightforward. I didn’t understand that there might be something more to understand about it. Despite its small size — only 69 pages — Train Dreams is filled with vivid scenes of what life was like in Idaho during this time.

As the novella sank in, I realized these scenes are bigger than a small story set in small-town frontier Idaho: the shameful treatment of Chinese immigrants and of natives who were there before the white man; the big woods and their felling; forest fires that consume entire landscapes; wild animals and solitary men; the building of tracks; the whistles of trains; and how all of these scenes show the blending of wild and tame — and the morphing of one to the other. More importantly, these potent scenes demonstrate the role man plays in the balance between the civilized world and the wilderness:

God needs the hermit in the woods as much as he needs the man in the pulpit.

Books that have been recommended to me and I have not yet read:
The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon by Tom Spanbauer
Borrowed Horses by Sian Griffiths
Girl Imagined by Chance by Lance Olsen