American Nations–A Useful and Sobering View of the History of the USA

American Nations:  A History of the Eleven Regional Cultures of North America

By Colin Woodard

Published 2011

Read May 2022

May 2022 is when this reader finished reading this enlightening and sobering book.  This reader has been working on reading this book for about a year.  Why so long?  The book is very approachable but simultaneously packed with historical information that takes time to digest.

Woodard starts with an Introduction that is very valuable to the reader.  Woodard explains his use of the term “nation”: “a group of people who share—or believe they share—a common culture, ethnic origin, language, historical experience, artifacts, and symbols”.  This differs from a “state” which he describes as “a sovereign political entity”.   He introduces the eleven nations with a brief summary of their characteristics and founding.    Having this initial snippet of each nation prepares the reader for what follows.

Part 1:  Origins 1590 to 1769 gives details of the founding of each of the following nations in order of their founding:  El Norte, New France, Tidewater, Yankeedom, New Netherland, The Deep South, the Midlands, and Greater Appalachia.  It’s sobering to note that between Jamestown and the Declaration of Independence there were about 160 years of waves of people arriving and settling in the New World with very different intentions for coming to the New World and with very different sets of values.  Those different intentions and values and intentions continue to permeate the values and aspirations of the people that live in those different areas—nations– of the country today.   

Part 2:  Unlikely Allies 1770 to 1815 is extremely interesting and helps dispute a concept we tend to have that the thirteen colonies were well unified in fighting for independence from King George.  It seems that is very far from the truth.  This account shows the waves of fighting for independence by the various nations, sometimes even their initial reluctance to do so, and sometimes actually warring against each other.  This section also covers the writing of the Constitution which is considered an amazing achievement.  It was amazing considering the very divergent views of the various nations.  In fact, some of the nations considered seceding from the union because of essentially anti-democratic aspects pushed by many we consider the Founding Fathers (who were from Tidewater).  In fact, these Founding Fathers did have an intention to suppress democracy and retain power for those like them—the elite.  It’s becoming more common knowledge that the Constitution not only allowed for slavery but prevented its abolishment for twenty years.  This was clearly a period of substantial conflict between the nations. 

Part 3:  Wars for the West 1816-1877 covers yet the continuing turbulent time, this section lasting over fifty years.  Yankeedom, the Midlands, The Deep South all spread westward with different intentions consistent with the values held by each of the nations.  Yankeedom needed more land for farming so communities of families headed west, just as communities of families had first come to the New World.  They established new towns, taxed themselves to build needed infrastructure, especially schools.  Overtime the religious orthodoxy of Yankeedom was eroded but the values of serving community remained well entrenched.    The Midlands moved west as well and recreated the towns and communities from which they migrated.  They were accompanied by a large immigration from Germany.  Although they shared the community-focused trait of Yankeedom, The Midlands were more heterogeneous in religious practices and were untroubled by diversity although “skeptical of slave labor, warfare, and the cult of the individual”.  The Borderlanders of Appalachia travelled west largely to live beyond the effective reach of government.  They left not in communities but rather as individuals or very small groups.  An interesting comparison of Yankeedom and the Borderlanders is given. Only a small part of it is recited here:  Yankeedom Midwesterners put their homes on the road, used written contracts, and buried their dead in town graveyards. Appalachian Midwesterners built their homes in the middle of their plots, negotiated verbal, honor-bound agreements, and put their relatives to rest in family plots or isolated graves.  The Borderlanders also preferred candidates who advocated for ordinary people and perceived Yankee neighbors as meddlesome and threatening to their individual freedom.  The slave culture of Tidewater was mainly hemmed in by Appalachia and lost some of its power over time.  It and the second/third-born sons of English gentry that founded it had been a dominant force when the Constitution was written.  The slave culture of The Deep South spread westward expanding its cotton economy which required a substantial slave population and which fed the demands of textile mills in both  New England and Old England.  “What others regard as an authoritarian society built on an immoral institution that concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a small elite, Deep Southern oligarchs viewed as the pinnacle of human achievement.  Theirs was a democracy modeled on the slave states of ancient Greece and Rome, whose elites had been free to pursue the finer things in life after delegating all drudgery to slaves and a disenfranchised underclass.”

An extremely interesting chapter in this section “War for the West” details the build up to the Civil War and describes it not as a struggle between “the North” and “the South” but rather a conflict between two coalitions.  One side was the Deep South and Tidewater.  The other side was Yankeedom.  The other nations considered breaking off and forming their own confederations “freed from slave lords and Yankees alike.”  The United States nearly broke into four pieces.  But for the attack on Fort Sumter which coalesced the coalitions, history might be very different.

Part four:   Culture Wars:  1878 to 2010 covers the topics of the Founding of the Far West, Immigration and Identity, Gods and Missions, Culture Clash, War/Empire/Military, and two chapters on the Struggle for Power—the Blue, Red, and Purple Nations.  Viewing these topics through the lens of American Nations gave this reader a new perspective on this part of our (always turbulent!) history as well.

The Epilogue chastens us to recognize that the United States is actually fairly fragile.  “A time might come that the only issue on which the nations find common ground is the need to free themselves from one another’s veto power.  Perhaps they’d join together on Capitol Hill to pass laws and constitutional amendments granting more powers to the states or liquidating may of the functions of the central government.”  (The author doesn’t suggest the Supreme Court might expedite this but over the last few days it seems that’s its intention.)  The author indicates a few paths that might be followed as the country splits into parts, consistent with the “respective national heritages”.   To remain the United States, “The United States needs its central government to function cleanly, openly, and efficiently because it’s one of the few things binding us together.”  

While we may think the current state of our government is unusual and that we’ve had stability for two hundred plus years, this book actually highlights how turbulent the history of the United States of American has actually always been and continues to be.  The path forward is not easy to predict but the author’s call to “respect the fundamental tents of our unlikely union” is very relevant. 

This reader is recommending this book to friends and family—it should be read by all those wishing to understand the current state of the USA.

A Canticle for Lebowitz: A Timely Classic

A Canticle for Leibowitz

By Walter M. Miller Jr.

Published 1959

Read Feb 2022

It is not surprising to this reader that the book has never gone out of print since its first publication in 1959.   This reader listened to an audiobook version and read a hard copy.  This reader was in college when she first read this book which was coincident with negotiation of SALT II—a treaty to reduce the likelihood of annihilation of the world by nuclear weapons.  As this reader finished reading the book this time, the world is working again to avoid nuclear war while the Putin’s invasion of Ukraine continues. 

Miller’s remarkable book has three parts, apparently originally written separately and then rewritten a bit to draw them together into one novel (1).  The first part, Fiat Homo (“Let There Be Man”) takes place 600 years after a global nuclear war (The Great Flame Deluge) that was rapidly followed by a backlash against knowledge and technology known as The Simplification. Shortly after The Simplification, the Albertian Order of Leibowitz was founded by Isaac Edward Leibowitz, an electrical engineer who had survived the war and who became a monk after he was unable to locate his wife who was presumed dead.  600 years after its founding, the monks residing at the abbey continue to work tirelessly to carry out the mission of their founder—to preserve books via memorization, copying, and careful storage of said Memorabilia.   The second part—Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light”) is set 600 years later as the world is beginning to come out of the dark ages following The Simplification.  Both outside and inside the abbey there are people who are rediscovering fundamental knowledge necessary to build such things as arc lamps.  Simultaneously, war between nation states is brewing.  The third part—Fiat Voluntas Tua (“Let Thy Will Be Done”) is set another 600 years later.  Much of the technology present during the Great Flame Deluge, including space flight and nuclear weapons, again exists.  As the section opens, there has been 50 years of potential nuclear war but the brink hasn’t yet been breached. 

In each part there is an interesting set of characters—the Abbott of the Abbey, a Brother in the Abbey, and someone else.  In Fiat Homo, the story opens as Brother Francis Gerard of Utah is enduring a Lenten vigil in the desert near some ruins and a “pilgrim with girded loins” comes by.  The unidentified old man identifies a rock for Brother Francis to use in building a shelter to protect him from the wolves while he sleeps.  Behind the rock is a metal door that leads to a bomb shelter.  This section then follows what happens after Brother Francis reveals his findings and his encounter with the “pilgrim with girded loins” to the priest visiting vigilantes to receive their confessions.  Much speculation springs up in the Abbey regarding who the pilgrim might be (is it Isaac Edward Leibowitz himself??)  Abbot Arkos works to mitigate the impact of the encounter on the canonization of Isaac Edward Leibowitz who had previously been beatified.  Monsignor Aguerra (God’s Advocate in the canonization process) and Monsignor Flaught (the Devil’s Advocate in the canonization process) join the cast of characters and visit the Abbey from their home base in New Rome (in an unidentified part of North America).  

In Fiat Lux, Thon Taddeo, a scholar and a bastard cousin of Hannegan, leader of Texarkana, wishes to review the Memorabilia at the Abbey of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz.  He engages Marcus Apollo, diplomat from New Rome to Texarkana, to beseech Abbot Dom Paulo to have the Memorabilia transferred to New Rome so he can study it.  Of course, that request is denied and Thon Taddeo eventually goes to the abbey to study the documents.  Brother Kornhoer demonstrates an arc light that he has built in the basement based on his study of the Memorabilia and some of Thon Taddeo’s writings.  Thon Taddeo is quite amazed that a mere monk could create such an invention but is certainly happy to use it to see the Memoribilia by the arc lamp’s light vs only candles. 

Much of this second section involves intrigue around Hannegan’s intentions to expand his empire.  The author also, however, spends a chapter on a discussion between Abbott Dom Paulo and an old hermit, known as Benjamin and whom Dom Paulo calls an Old Jew.  Apparently the two men have enjoyed spirited discussions over the years.  In this chapter they speak about the differences in their spiritual faiths (the Three and the One), whether or not a new Renaissance is going to dawn, and what a new dawn might mean to the Abbey.   Benjamin claims to have been waiting for Him to come for thirty-two centuries which Dom Paulo doesn’t believe.  But, Benjamin also claims to be the man Brother Francis met six centuries previous and who buried him when he was killed on the road from New Rome and who told the abbey where to find his remains… who is he really? 

In Fiat Voluntas Tua, Abbot Zerchi oversees the greatly expanded Abbey.  The modern addition is across a busy highway from the original Abbey and there is an underpass that allows foot travel between the two.  Two superpowers have been in a cold war situation for the last fifty years and the brink of war is being crossed.  Abbot Zerchi receives an order from New Rome to proceed with a plan to send the Memorabilia and persons from the Abbey to join others who will all go to Alpha Centuri to start anew.  He works to convince Brother Joshua to agree to become a priest and spiritual leader for the trip. 

While there are some pretty dark moments in the book, including violent deaths of individual characters, the need for Mercy camps to identify individuals whose exposure to fallout means certain death, and Zerchi’s regular encounters with Mrs. Graves who has a second head growing from her shoulder, there are some wonderful bursts of comedy as well.  In section one, Brother Francis’s bumbling confessions and his discussions with Abbot Akros are quite funny at times.  In section two, the dinner Abbot Dom Paulo gives for Thon Taddeo is crashed by the Abbey’s not fully welcomed guest, The Poet, which provides wonderful comedy.  In the third section, Abbot Zerchi’s attempts to use the “Abominable” Autoscribe (which automatically translates input to the desired language) to dictate memos are quite amusing as are the Q&A sessions between reporters and the defense minister as he fields questions about rumors of nuclear tests. 

Some of the themes are quite universal and enduring including:  1) man’s desire to seek knowledge and create new technologies; 2) the desire of some to hold power over others and expand their empires at all costs; 3) man’s general inability to learn from the past despite the magnitude of the lessons; 4) religions, here in the form of the Catholic Church, will be ever-lasting and add value to the world despite their imperfections.    Miller’s work is quite impressive.  It was commercially successful as he uses engaging characters, wonderful dialog, occasional humor, and overall great writing to weave these ideas into a story that attracts a wide range of readers.

Miller (2) was trained and worked as an engineer.  During World War II he was a radioman and tail gunner and flew over fifty bombing missions in Europe.  The Benedictine Abbey at Mount Cassino was founded in AD529 and was suspected to be a garrison and ammunition storage area for the Germans so it was a target taken out in a mission that Miller flew.  After the war, Miller converted to Catholicism (2).   He wrote over three dozen short stories published in science fiction magazines.  After the success of A Canticle for Leibowitz, he withdrew from public and became a recluse.  A book he was working on when he committed suicide in 1996, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was finished as he requested by a friend and published in 1997.  It’s likely that Miller suffered from PTSD as a result of his bombing missions and especially the one involving the Abbey at Mount Cassino (1). 

This reader wonders if this book should be on (or return to) the reading list for high school students.

The Color of Water

The Color of Water:  A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother

By James McBride

Published 1995

Read Feb 2022

The Color of Water is this reader’s first exposure to James McBride, mainly because it was the only e-book or audiobook by McBride that was available for take out in this reader’s library system.  All of the other McBride books had waiting lists. 

The Color of Water is partly a biography of McBride’s mother, partly a memoir of McBride’s life, and certainly meant to be a tribute to his remarkable mother as noted in the subtitle.  This reader listened to this book which was a great way to read it as McBride wrote chapters that are in his voice and chapters that are in his mother’s voice and the audiobook used a man’s voice for McBride and a woman’s voice for his mother. 

James McBride knew his story.  He knew he was the eighth child born to Ruth McBride of twelve total and the last one whose father was Dennis McBride.  Dennis McBride died of lung cancer before he was born.  He knew his mother subsequently married Hunter Jordan, who raised Ruth’s children as his own and with whom she had four more children.  He knew his mother embraced Christianity and that Dennis McBride and his mother started a church.  He knew his mother valued education and the (Christian) church above all else and while they lived in Red Hook, a rough neighborhood in Brooklyn. She had sent her children to public schools in Jewish neighborhood where she was sure that learning was a priority.  He knew his mother mourned two husbands and somehow managed to keep all the children in school and food on the table despite great obstacles.  He knew all of his siblings went to college and half of them went to graduate or professional post-grad school.  He knew his skin and that of his siblings was dark, that they lived in black neighborhoods, and that his mother had light skin.  He knew she never spoke of race and, when asked, said God was The Color of Water, neither white nor black.  He knew she never spoke of her parents or family.

What James McBride didn’t know was who his mother really was.  After he had graduated from Oberlin College and was a journalist, he convinced her to talk to him about her past.  He anticipated the exercise would take a few sessions but it actually took eight years—her story was only very slowly revealed to him.  He eventually learned that his mother was the daughter of a failed Orthodox rabbi who did not successfully keep a job as a rabbi in a synagogue.  He opened a store in the last town in which he was employed as a rabbi.  The town was an anti-Semitic and racist small southern town.    He set up the store in a black section and overcharged and otherwise misused his patrons.  McBride learned that his mother’s father was sexually abusive to his mother and her sister.  Her mother’s father mistreated his wife, cheated on her, and raised a second family while remaining legally wed to his mother.  We learn that Ruth’s name was actually Rachel but she gave up that name when she gave up her family to live in New York City.  He learned that she felt most at home in the company of blacks and she embraced her husband’s Christian religion, both of which fully separated her from her family.  McBride tells a moving story of his mother’s challenges and of her triumphs and how she set twelve children on exceptional paths. 

James McBride eventually became a successful writer and musician but only after narrowly escaping a life of crime and drugs that he started towards while a teenager.  He landed an acceptance to Oberlin College.  After graduation he tried his hand at journalism for several years but eventually decided he could be both a musician and a writer.

While this reader is not usually a fan of memoirs, this is a very special one.  McBride found a truly engaging way to reveal his story, that of his mother, and how he worked through his identity as a mixed-race person.  In the end he comes to understand that his mother’s relentless focus on education and church instilled in him and his siblings that learning and finding a way to serve others is really much more important than the race box you are required to check on too many forms.  This reader looks forward to getting notification that his books are available for me to read. 

The Most Fun We Ever Had—Great Family Saga

The Most Fun We Ever Had

By Claire Lombardo

Published 2019

Read Feb 2022

Lombardo’s long (~550pages) debut novel is a winner in this reader’s opinion.  It’s a family saga covering about four decades in the lives of Marilyn Connelly and David Sorenson and their children.  Marilyn and David meet in 1975 in Chicago when both are undergraduates (making them contemporaries of this reader).  When David learns that he’s been accepted to medical school in Iowa, he proposes marriage to Marilyn and she accepts.  She intends to finish her undergraduate degree in Iowa but loss of credits in the transfer process, loneliness as David is consumed in his studies and she knows no one, and ultimately a pregnancy ahead of their schedule mean Marilyn drops out of college.  Her career as homemaker/mother is solidified when their second daughter arrives less than a year after the first.

The “Irish twins” Wendy and Violet are clearly sisters—both best friends and fierce competitors– and as different as can be imagined. Wendy is caustic, turbulent, seemingly strong but tending towards self-destructive.   Wendy refuses to go to college, moves out of the house, meets the love of her life whom she marries and loses him to cancer at a young age after their son dies as a baby.  Violet is a type-A personality who gets her law degree, marries another lawyer, has two children, has a seemingly perfect life, but suffers from depression.  Violet’s lack of appreciation for the apparent wonderfulness of her life infuriates Wendy whose life has been so disrupted by the deaths of her baby and husband. Younger sister Liza has a long-term partner who is in a very deep state of depression.  Liza becomes pregnant and her partner leaves her when he learns she’s had an affair.  Nine years after Liza’s birth Marilyn and David decide to take another spin at parenthood and generate Grace whose nickname evolves from “gosling” to “goose” as she grows up although she feels no one in the family will ever realize she’s become an adult.  The daughters are convinced their parents have a perfect marriage and that they can never attain such perfection in their own lives.  Actually, while David and Marilyn have an enviable relationship, it is, of course, far from perfect. 

Wendy and Violet share a special secret.  When Violet found herself pregnant, Wendy took her in and helped her hide from the family during her pregnancy.  Fifteen years later, Violet’s son comes into the family’s life providing an interesting view into the family and the relationships between the various members of it. 

The structure of the book is interesting if complex.  The author shifts back and forth in time and between various characters as she gives their perspective on various events/scenes in their lives.  The story of David and Marilyn’s relationship is the only thing told chronologically; the author heads these chapters with the dates that the chapter covers.  The complexity of the structure and the varying points of view emphasizes the complexity of the life of any family.  No two children have the same childhood, even when they are separated in age by less than a year, and especially when they are separated in age by over a decade.  The parents’ persona each vary by year and even by month with respect to their level of exhaustion from caring for their children, their home, their work, and their own relationship with each other.  The author captures this evolution with accuracy despite her own relative youth.  Being the “gosling” in her own family likely gave her some help in depicting this. 

The author beautifully captures some great parenting moments.  One in particular is the scene when Violet questions her mother about her decision to leave college, a possibility Violet can’t fathom; Marilyn’s responses are not satisfactory to Violet.  This scene so nicely highlights that many of the choices we face in life aren’t the ones we anticipated having but they are the ones we have and we have to make decisions nonetheless. 

This debut novel is long, but so nicely done that this reader didn’t mind the length at all.  This author was reminded of Anne Patchett in her ability to draw the reader into the lives of her characters so that the reader enjoyed every word spent with them.  This reader was well satisfied with the author’s approach to the book’s closure.  This reader hopes that Lombardo’s next offering is as rich and beautifully textured.

Remembering Laughter–Stegner’s Amazing Debut

Remembering Laughter

By Wallace Stegner

Published 1937

Read Feb 2022

This author continues to explore Stegner’s canon which is quite remarkable although not fully appreciated.  Remembering Laughter apparently was written as a submission to a contest held in 1936, which he won (1). The novella (about 160 pages) launched Stegner’s exceptional writing career. 

Elspeth moves in with her older sister, Margaret, and her husband, Alec, on their farm in Iowa.  Elspeth revels in her new surroundings and life.  Margaret seeks to find friends and potential marital matches for her sister.  Unfortunately for all of them, Elspeth and Alec make one fateful trip to the barn loft resulting in Alec’s only child, a son.  The discovery of the affair destroys all of their previous relationships but the three remain living together, along with their “nephew”. 

No page of this novella is wasted.  While telling this sad tale, Stegner also conveys marvelous descriptions of the scenery of the farm, exquisite perceptions of the rural social scene into which Margaret is trying to bring Elspeth, and conveys the frigidity of the relationships following the betrayal.   Even in his debut, Stegner demonstrates amazing gracefulness and ability to address human truths. 

Beekeeper of Aleppo and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits

By Laila Lami

Published 2005

Read Nov 2021

The Beekeeper of Aleppo

By Christy Lefteri

Published 2019

Read Feb 2022

This reader is coupling together these two books in a single essay to allow her to compare and contrast them.

Both books deal with refugees fleeing dire situations who need to cross a body of water in a dangerous way—a rubber boat—and usually engage with smugglers to accomplish the goal of getting to their desired destination and stay there.

In Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, the north African refugees are primarily seeking a place where they can work, make a living, and send money home to family so they can join them.  One of the refugees has gotten herself in trouble politically and is seeking refuge to avoid her enemies.

In The Beekeeper of Aleppo, the primary characters are fleeing Syria because the war has demolished their neighborhood.  Also, Nuri has been warned that he will have to take up arms with the unit that holds their neighborhood or he will be killed.  Other characters Nuri encounters are leaving various countries for various reasons. 

With respect to structure, both books tell their stories in an asynchronous manner.  Time and place of the setting change from section to section.  Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits starts with the sea crossing, turns back to pre-crossing life, and then moves to post-crossing times.  “Current” in The Beekeeper of Aleppo is while Nuri and his wife Afra’s stay at a “B and B” in London housing a number of refugees and while they  work with a social worker to prepare for their asylum hearing.  Sections jump back to various times in Nuri’s life with most emphasis on deciding to flee Syria and various stages of their journey to get to London.

The biggest differences between the books are choice of the primary character and point of view.  In Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, there are four Moroccan characters, two men and two women.  By choosing these four characters, the author explores the differing drivers for leaving Morocco.  Of course, all are seeking a better life.  The two men are seeking a place to find work that can support them and their families, preferably that utilize their university training.  Their outcomes are very different but both come to an understanding of what’s important to them.  One woman is fleeing an abusive husband.  The other woman is fleeing due to an issue she created for herself in speaking against the current government.  The author tells us what the particular character is saying, thinking, and feeling, and sometimes includes dialogue and characters that point out other issues.  For example, the female student hopes that her friend’s father can use influence to get her a position, something he does for others and which he knows is an abuse of his power.  The chapters are focused on individual characters with their primary connection being that they all cross the sea together.

In The Beekeeper of Aleppo, Nuri generally narrates the story although the author uses some recalled dialog and emails between Nuri and his cousin as well.  While following Nuri and Afra on their perilous journey, there is much time spent with Nuri providing us his thoughts and feelings.  This allows us to more deeply understand the trauma that cause both Nuri and his wife to suffer both physical (Afra’s blindness) and mental (Nuri’s less obvious PTSD) distress.  Since Nuri is telling us the story vs an all-knowing narrator, the reader must rely on Nuri’s words to slowly reveal what they are really going through beyond the physical challenges of trying to escape from the devastation of Syria and we slowly understand that Nuri is suffering a breakdown while at awaiting his asylum hearing in the UK.     Both are interesting books that provide the reader a glimpse into the plight of refugees.  Given a choice of the two, this reader would promote The Beekeeper of Aleppo for its skill in using the narration of a single character to probe very deeply into the psyche of one refugee whose story is far too common

Journal of the Plague Year—Can We Learn?

Journal of the Plague Year

By Daniel DeFoe

Published 1722

Read Jan 2022

One of the book discussion groups to which this reader belongs chose this book for their consideration.  This reader first attempted to read a recent edition with illustrations but found it difficult to stay engaged with the relatively dry text.  Fortunately, an audiobook was located with a great reader which made the book much more interesting.  Certainly, one of the attributes of the book that doesn’t please this reader is that it is written in one long passage devoid of chapters or breaks. 

DeFoe suggests this book is the actual journal of someone who lived through the 1664 plague, perhaps an uncle.  DeFoe was only five at the time so had no direct knowledge of it.  He likely did a fair amount of research to put this material together which could appropriately be described as fictionalized journalism.

Of course, being in the midst of this Covid-19 pandemic made this book quite popular and it is quite interesting to see the parallels between this pandemic and that one and to consider what is different and why.


  • A regular public record of data was available:  then:  Bill of Mortality gave deaths and number due to the plague was published by parish; now New York Times, CDC, departments of health give various statistics regularly
  • Distrust that the public records were really reliable
  • Hope that the disease would stay away from a person’s parish/country—but of course not the case
  • The disease spread across the city/country
  • Attempts to prevent the spread via some sort of lockdown—then:  people locked in their residences in London; now:  declaration of lockdown by various governing bodies
  • Attempts to keep immigrants/foreigners out and blame them for the disease
  • Lack of understanding of the method of spread at least during the early days of the pandemic
  • Lack of effective treatment but desperate attempts to apply various unsubstantiated methods of cure despite their dangers
  • More rapid spread in areas of high density
  • More impact on the lower income population—in London due to cramped living quarters and higher concentration of fleas and lice; in the US lower income filling jobs that must be done in person so having increased exposure in the workplace
  • Lack of full understanding of the disease leads individuals to form their own opinions about the disease


  • Scientific and epidemiological tools are currently available to study the disease at various levels—population, organ, molecule—which allowed rapid vaccine and treatment development compared as well as (eventually) an understanding of means of transmission

Th author spends much effort and pages on speculation of the means of transmission based on his observations and analysis of the data.  He also is quite adamant that locking people into their homes once someone in the household was infected both increased the spread within the household and did little to reduce spread into the community as it was easy to circumvent those assigned to keep watch of the household.

It is disappointing, frankly, that our reaction to Covid-19 has not been informed by the various bouts of the plague nor the various bouts of other deadly infectious agents—SARS, Eboli, Influenza.  The population in this country and others seem destined to fail to learn from any of this history and to have similar outcomes over and over.  Perhaps those reading this book and accounts of the 1918 influenza and other infectious disease pandemics might help break this cycle.  This reader isn’t convinced that will happen.  Those in the battle of treating the disease or dealing with various economic fallout of the pandemic have limited time to share their learning and will likely be fully consumed to getting their respective responsibilities back to somewhat normal as the pandemic winds down—-unfortunately. 

All the Little Live Things—An Under-Appreciated Master Work from Wallace Stegner

All the Little Live Things

By Wallace Stegner

Published 1967

Read Jan 2022   

While some descriptions of this book say something like “Joe and Ruth Allston return….”, the reverse is actually true.  This book was written in 1967 and the first book in which Stegner introduces us to Joe and Ruth Allston.   In this book, Joe is very recently retired as a literary agent.  The Spectator Bird was written in 1976 and Joe is seven or eight years into retirement.  The comment about them returning really reflects the situation that was true for this reader—hungry for more from Stegner after recently reading The Spectator Bird which won the National Book Award and Crossing to Safety (published 1987) which is also well known, and have already read The Angle of Repose (published 1971) which won the Pulitzer Prize, this reader turned to this book which received less fanfare but which, in this reader’s opinion, is even better than The Spectator Bird

Joe and Ruth Allston have recently moved to a currently rural area about 30 minutes from a university town in California.  They have purchased land from a developer who bought part of a farm that is still owned by one of their neighbors.  Joe and Ruth have built a house and are now working on landscaping.

The book opens with our narrator, Joe, lamenting about the death of Marion.  He is clearly impacted by this death—she was too young, too full of life, and someone he clearly loved.  After this prologue the book goes back to about the time Joe and Ruth meet Marion.  But first we are introduced to Jim Peck, a bearded philosophy student.  He seeks permission to camp on part of their property.  They grant it and he builds a tent platform on the other side of the creek from their home and a bridge to reach it that requires great balance and dexterity to cross.   Marion and her husband and young daughter buy and move into a house down the hill from and on the same side of the creek as the Allstons.

The Allstons become fast friends with Marion and her family quite quickly.  Marion chastises Joe for killing insects and animals he declares pests.  She loves all living things.  Her love of life is dazzling and engaging.  In contrast, Joe Allston becomes increasingly annoyed with Jim Peck as he expands his camp to include a tree house and as he invites many other young people to hang out with him day and night.  Jim Peck has tapped the Allston electric and water lines and even puts up a mailbox. Ruth is less annoyed and suggests Joe is just railing against the societal changes that young people are driving—free thinking and free love among them. 

This reader won’t share more of the story but will comment on aspects that make this book an even better one than The Spectator Bird in this reader’s humble opinion. 

First some similarities.  Both books have wonderful descriptions of the surroundings and of the events that occur.  In this book Stegner’s love of nature is very evident.  Joe’s descriptions of the antics of the birds that occupy hours of his time, of the battle he rages with the gopher who wants to undermine his garden, and of the tragic event that occurs on the bridge that all use to cross the creek to reach their property are all quite remarkable.  Both books comment on the encroachment of developments into land previously farmed.  Both books deal very well with the emotional transformations that accompany retirement.  Both books reveal the loss of the Allston’s only son by drowning in a surfing accident—or was it an intentional act—and the guilt Joe feels about this.   

Both books demonstrate Stegner’s value of marriage.  Joe loves Marion but only in a friendship way.  He comments she is almost like a daughter he wishes he would have had.  There is never anything untoward about their relationship but it is clearly special and he shares with Marion feelings about his life that he may never have shared with Ruth.  In The Spectator Bird, Ruth was becoming concerned about Joe’s feelings for Astrid and he admits to the reader that had he not been married he would have considered a relationship with Astrid.  But he was married so that consideration was fully off the table. 

So– what is different.  The Spectator Bird reveals a hidden part of Astrid’s life that has some intersection with Joe’s mother that is rather spectacular and something that a modern Netflix series could use for a very engaging series. Perhaps this is an aspect that made this book so much more popular than others he wrote.  All The Little Living Things has nothing similarly spectacular although there is an out-of-wedlock pregnancy that results from “free love” practiced in Jim Peck’s camp and which Joe disfavors.  In the end, much of this book is about a man wrestling with the fact that some of his long-held values are being challenged by a changing society—something widely experienced in the 1960’s.  Simultaneously Joe is experiencing a second loved one following a path he really doesn’t want them to take and he can’t make them change course.  The latter is a universal situation.  Sons and daughters sometimes take different paths than their parents hoped for and sometimes there are devastating consequences for all.  Friends make choices we don’t want them to make.   Stegner beautifully tells us one man’s trials and reminds us that we can’t always have things the way we want them to be. 

Crossing to Safety—Stegner’s Comments on Marraige and Ambition

Crossing to Safety

By Wallace Stegner

Published 1987

Read Nov 2021

Larry Morgan narrates the story of the friendship between he and his wife, Sally, and Sid and Charity Lang.  He begins with their arrival to Sid and Charity’s Vermont camp as they’ve been summoned there by Charity who is dying of cancer.  Larry sweeps back to the beginning of their friendship which begins when Larry and Sally come to Madison, WI in the early 1930’s for a one-year contract Larry has to teach in the English department of the University of Wisconsin.  He and Sally have moved from California and have very few resources so they count their pennies very closely.   Sid is also an instructor in the English department.  Sid and Sally have been in Madison for six years hailing from the east, Ivy league schooling and money.  Larry and Sally are invited to a dinner party at Sid and Charity’s home and their lives are transformed by the evening when Sid and Charity embrace them as bosom friends. 

Larry wants to be a successful writer and pours all his energies, when not dealing with his teaching responsibilities, into writing and submitting his work for publication.   Sally is supportive but also grateful for her friendship with Charity so that she has someone with whom to spend time while Larry focuses on his work.  Sally and Charity have bonded quickly as expectant mothers.  Larry’s focus pays off and some of his work is published that year but budget constraints due to the Depression means Larry can’t be offered another contract by the university.  Charity is adamant that Sid earns tenure as Charity’s father has done and has little patience with Sid’s desire to write and publish poetry.  The English department also can’t give Sid tenure this year which means he has also lost his job.  Sid and Charity and their kids return to the Lang family camp in Vermont for the summer and take Sally with them while Larry teaches a summer class before he joins them. 

Larry’s narration tells of the friendship that survives through four decades although Larry and Sid’s paths diverge and both couples face a number of difficult times.  Larry does become a successful writer but Sally contracts and survives polio and is left with serious physical disability.   Sid eventually gains a tenured position but feels he has failed his domineering wife who has followed in her mother’s footsteps of bossing her husband around and orchestrating everything that happens in the household.

While this is a novel about a lasting friendship, it may primarily actually be a book about marriage.  Here we see two marriages that survive despite their challenges and the pressure they put upon the respective marriages.  A. O. Scott wrote in a New York Times article  “Stegner’s settings range from academia and the literary world to mining camps and boomtowns, but his most consistent subject is marriage, represented in a mode more epic than romantic. Monogamy, with its crags and chasms, is the most salient and imposing feature in his imaginative landscape, the human undertaking around which all the others are organized.”   The Lang’s marriage is clearly not always a happy one but neither Sid nor Charity could conceive of not remaining married.  Larry reveals that he is dependent on Sally as much as she is on him.   He can’t imagine life without her.  In this, his last novel, Stegner shows us lives lived within the bonds of marriage, something he clearly reveres. 

The Lincoln Highway–Ten Days and Sprawling

The Lincoln Highway

By Amor Towles

Published 2021

Read Dec 2021

This reader’s book club tends to read recently published literary fiction so chose this one for our Jan 2022 discussion.  This reader put holds on all formats of the book in two library systems, both of which had purchased multiple copies due to the expected demand for the book following the author’s success with A Gentleman in Moscow.  This reader was delighted to get both a large print copy (~650 pages) and an audiobook copy fairly quickly.  This reader settled on the audiobook and sent the large print copy on to another eager reader.

This reader did learn about the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental road for automobiles in the United States, dedicated in 1913, but the book is really about four young characters in 1954 who are seeking various futures for themselves. 

Emmett, 18, newly released from a work-camp after serving a sentence for involuntary manslaughter, and his precocious brother Billy, 8, plan to drive from their family home in Nebraska, now in foreclosure after their father’s death, to San Francisco.  Emmett is planning to flip houses there and make enough money to both sustain the business and provide a stable home for his brother.  He is wiling to entertain Billy’s plan to find their mother who left them eight years prior but sent postcards to them on her journey to San Francisco.  The last one, sent on a July 4th, indicated she planned to spend every July 4th holiday in San Francisco.  Thus, their goal is to get to San Francisco and meet her on July 4th.  (Where, how, etc TBD….)    Billy wants to take the Lincoln Highway to get there and Emmett is fine with that as well.

Their plan is disrupted when they go to the barn sheltering Emmett’s car only to discover that two of Emmett’s workcamp mates had stowed away in the warden’s car that had driven Emmett home.  Wallace “Woolly” Wolcott Martin had revealed to his friend Duchess that Woolly’s grandfather had put away $150,000 in cash for him in a safe in the family’s camp in the Adirondacks in New York State.  Woolly is willing to get the money and share with Duchess and Duchess is more than happy to accommodate.

Duchess wants Emmett to go to Woolly’s family camp before going to San Francisco.  Emmett remains focused on getting to San Francisco but is willing to drop Duchess and Woolly off at a train station so they can start their journey east.  Duchess manages to separate Emmett from his car long enough to “borrow” it leaving Billy behind.  Thus starts the adventure of Emmett and Billy trying to catch up with Duchess and Woolly to retrieve their car so they can drive to San Francisco.

Over the course of about 650 pages and ten days, we follow this pair of travelers from Nebraska to the Adirondacks via New York City where Duchess stops to visit some old acquaintances and a suburb of New York City where they all end up at Woolly’s sister’s home.   Over the course of those pages and days, we learn something of the backstory of all the characters; we meet a number of other characters and learn much of their stories; we hear stories from Billy’s beloved compendium of stories about 24 heros by  Abacus Abernathe; we watch Wholly wonder at the sites of New York City he never saw before despite growing up in New York City; we watch Billy learn about the world outside of his limited experiences in Nebraska; we wonder whether the two sets of travelers can actually ever connect; we wonder what will happen if they do.

Certainly, Towls is a clever writer.  He has apparently provided some links between this book and his others that fans may notice and enjoy.  He is able to confidently write about the wealthy characters and their surroundings.  However, despite the length of the book and the time spent on their backstories, the characters sometimes feel fairly flat to this reader, verging on being caricatures: Duchess–the troublemaker from a broken and dysfunctional family raised by a scoundrel father and the whores he visits; Woolly—the hapless friend who is addicted to some kind of “medicine” that keeps him calm and manageable; Emmett—the straight arrow brother focused on getting a fresh start in California; Billy—the precocious brother.  The author provides enough backstory for Duchess to encourage you to consider feeling empathy for him.  The author provides insufficient detail of Woolly’s story to make clear from what he suffers and why he takes the actions he does at the end of the story. This reader wondered if Woolly’s situation was somewhat like that of Rosemary Kennedy, although that is only this reader’s speculation.  Emmett is driven and focused and a good person (the manslaughter he committed was clearly very involuntary and accidental) so the author doesn’t spend too much time with him aside from moving the plot along.  Billy is extremely precocious for an eight-year-old but this reader found his naivete and his reactions to events generally believable.  

This particular reader was sometimes annoyed by the level of detail provided in what seemed like irrelevant tangents.  For example, as Duchess is listening to (someone else’s) records of Frank Sinatra, we listen to him think about how Frank is standing during the song, what he’s wearing, how he’s holding his cigarette, and more.  If a reader can take a lot of time reading the book (or have a completely free day or two to fully devote to it), they will likely savor this detail more than did this reader.  This reader wondered a number of times why the editor didn’t require some trimming….  The writing gets tighter near the end of the book as we hear from several viewpoints the last few scenes of the story.    This reader anticipates that this tighter writing allows reviewers to forget some of the pages that needed editing and for them to provide highly favorable reviews of the book, which this reader agrees are generally merited. More editing would have made this book closer to a “10”, but the book is one that this reader can recommend.