#USofBooks~Guest Review United States of Books ~ Vermont ~ Songs in Ordinary Time


There’s a stereotype about Oscar-bait movies the come out late in the year, super-serious movies with super-serious actors about families in crisis, social unrest, a woman standing on her own, and so on. Nothing anyone really wants to see, but we all take it seriously. Yes, that’s a stereotype, an over-generalization, blah blah blah — but we all know that kind of movie. This book is like that — deadly serious, grim, full of people with no capacity for joy or to make a wise decision — or any action that involves a lack of melodrama.

I just couldn’t force myself to care about this one — not one bit.
The book centers on a divorced mother of three, Marie Fermoyle, and her children: Alice, Norm and Benjy. Marie’s barely scraping by, teeters between despondency and angry outbursts. Until Omar Duvall comes to town. The best thing that could possibly be said about Omar is that he’s a two-bit hustler and womanizer. Much worse could be said about him. Marie is so desperate for a way out of her life, that she falls for his flummery. Sam, Marie’s ex, is the town drunkard — an hopeless alcoholic, surviving on crumbs his sister gives him to get by, the children go out of their way to avoid him — as does pretty much everyone. The new priest in town, and Sam’s brother-in-law are pretty much the only exceptions to that. The priest is, well — he has problems, and the brother-in-law is henpecked and an obscene phone-caller. There are other characters — several, in fact — but let’s limit this to these characters. I could go on and on. Not unlike Morris.
This collection of characters are the greatest conglomeration of self-centered, self-pitying, self-deceived (often), self-justifying, and miserable people I can imagine. And everything they do (well, 99% of the things they do, anyway) make their lives worse (and half of that other 1% is ruined almost immediately). On page 508, I jotted down in my notes, “Please, someone, stop this book — just put these people out of their misery! Mine, too!”
These people are so miserable, so self-pitying that I laughed out loud when I read Marie thinking, “Hope . . . there was more of that in her veins than blood.” Really? I couldn’t believe that for a second. About 200 pages later, we read, “She was so very, very tired. All this, she thought, biting her lip, all this because once, a long time ago, she had made a fatal mistake. She had fallen in love too young with the wrong man. Imagine, it was as simple as that and now she would never catch up. She would never be happy.” That I could believe. That’s one of the most honest sentences in the book.
Each male character (I think without exception — two children, are probably exempt) is able to talk a good game, able to spin a tale about something to make the people around him believe in him — and typically even fools himself. It happens at least once for every character — each time I disliked them more and more for it.
The main plot centers around Marie falling for Omar’s line and risking everything while underwriting a pyramid scheme that he’s peddling (as does a whole lot of the town), while alienating her two older children along the way. Her youngest knows better than the others suspect how terrible Omar is, but he suppresses that information and knowledge so his mother can hopefully be happy. There are crimes not associated with Omar, people dying, people suffering, people trying (and generally failing) to escape their pasts and improve their life. There are two characters out of this that might succeed in improving their lot in life, but we’re not given enough information to know for sure — a couple of others that seem to have turned a corner, but if the 700 previous pages are any indication these latter characters are 5 pages away from running back around that corner the other way.
So why did Entertainment Weekly put this one on their list for Vermont? I’m only guessing here — there aren’t that many novels set in the Green Mountain State. There was nothing distinctly Vermont about this book, as far as I could tell. It was Anytown, USA — there was a lake nearby, a university not too far away (but far enough), a Roman Catholic Church in town (maybe a Protestant one, too — but I’m not sure), one drive in, and a few small towns within an hour or two by car. That’s really all we learn about the geography. The state name is invoked a few times, but otherwise, it could literally be anywhere — like The Simpsons‘ Springfield. I learned nothing about that state, its people, or anything beyond another lesson in endurance in the face of overwhelming tedium.
Plot(s), character, setting — this book failed on all three. It was well-written, I guess, but there was nothing special about even that. I really have nothing positive to say about this one, if you haven’t noticed.

VT Map US of Books

#USofBooks~Guest Review United States of Books ~ Nevada ~ Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

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Review by Wattle @ Whimsical Nature

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, Narrated by Ron McLarty

Rating: 2/5

Synopsis: In Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race, Raoul Duke (Thompson) and his attorney Dr. Gonzo (inspired by a friend of Thompson) are quickly diverted to search for the American dream. Their quest is fueled by nearly every drug imaginable and quickly becomes a surreal experience that blurs the line between reality and fantasy. But there is more to this hilarious tale than reckless behavior, for underneath the hallucinogenic facade is a stinging criticism of American greed and consumerism.

Review: I’ve been to Las Vegas exactly once, I thought it was a bit odd, a bit dirty and not a place I would like to spend any considerable amount of time in.

I felt similar things toward this book. I’ve tried to read it before in paperback, and I put it down after five pages or so. I have seen the film and hated it; so when I saw this on my list for review I was a little worried.

Rightly so, it turns out.

I opted to listen to the audiobook in the hope that I would find it more engaging than if it were text. Ron McLarty did a wonderful job with the narration, I really liked listening to him, but Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was such a tedious story. The 6 hours I spent listening to it felt like 6 years.

This story is meant to be hilarious and surreal. I think I laughed once, and it was more of a derisive snort than actual laughter. I’m still not entirely sure what the point of the book was, there was such excess and stupidity and vastly irresponsible behavior.

If it was trying to teach me a lesson, I failed to see it (unless that lesson was – don’t do drugs). The characters were all unlikeable; the story felt like it was just a rambling bunch of sentences thrown together with little direction. The content was definitely not for me (I don’t even drink, so the characters desire to be constantly wasted was beyond me), I felt the casualness of their drug taking and ridiculous behavior in general was more worrying than amusing.

I gave it two stars, 1.5 for the narration (which was really very good) and 0.5 for the work itself – it was much too far out of my comfort zone and just a bit too strange for me to get into. A pity, because I think if it had been written in a different way, it would have been a much more engaging work.

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#USofBooks~Guest Review United States of Books ~ Oklahoma ~ The Grapes of Wrath

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(From Goodreads.com)

First published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into haves and have-nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity.

A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes the very nature of equality and justice in America.

 Sensitive to fascist and communist criticism, Steinbeck insisted that “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” be printed in its entirety in the first edition of the book—which takes its title from the first verse: He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” As Don DeLillo has claimed, Steinbeck shaped a geography of conscience” with this novel where there is something at stake in every sentence.” Beyond that—for emotional urgency, evocative power, sustained impact, prophetic reach, and continued controversy—The Grapes of Wrath is perhaps the most American of American classics.


By C.H. Armstrong

C.H. Armstrong Books & Blog (www.charmstrongbooks.com)

5 Stars

When The Grapes of Wrath was released in 1939, it was not only an instant bestseller, but it was met with no small amount of criticism and anger. Steinbeck brought to the world the devastation of the Dust Bowl but, more importantly, the horrors and blatant racism that greeted migrant workers searching for better lives. For as many who read Steinbeck’s epic novel and heralded it as the true “Great American Novel,” an equal number were aghast at the raw truths he portrayed and sought to have it banned or even burned. Nearly seventy years later, it’s still at the center of much controversy and is listed as Number Two among the Top 10 Most Banned Books (Shortlist.com).


The Grapes of Wrath is an epic novel depicting the mass westward migration of Oklahomans (and neighboring states) during The Great Depression of the 1930s and the simultaneous Dust Bowl.  It was a time when the overuse of the land had turned the once fertile farming soil into dust, making it unfit for the growing of crops.  With no money coming in from the crops, banks swooped in and called in loans on the land, and forced tenant farmers and their families out of the homes they’d known for generations.  The result was mass homelessness that led to a great migration to California and nearby states in search of jobs.


At the center of Steinbeck’s novel is the Joad family. Their eldest son has just been released from prison and returns home to find his family packing up their meager belongings, ready to depart for California and hopes for a better life. So begins the story of the Joad family and their journey west. But they soon realize that their travels will neither be easy, nor as idyllic as they had imagined. Instead of green fields of orange trees ripe with fruit just for the picking, they’re met with numerous hardships and discrimination. California – the land of plenty and the focus of their dreams – doesn’t want them. They’re not only barred from entrance but, once gaining access, are met with conditions more deplorable than those they’ve left behind.


When The Grapes of Wrath was first released, it was met with criticism from groups crying foul at Steinbeck’s depictions for how migrant workers were treated. In truth, Steinbeck revealed that his novel was a watered-down version of the true horrors of the workers – the truth was worse than the fiction of his novel.

As a native Oklahoman and one who finds pride in the name “Okie,” I can only tell you that I truly loved this novel. I loved Steinbeck’s descriptive prose; but more than that, I loved the truth behind his words, which echoed through my mind long after I turned the last page.


Many will say that The Grapes of Wrath is a depressing novel. On the contrary, I found it to be a book of hope and a testament to the strength of the human spirit.  Yes, it was difficult to read about the hundreds of thousands of starving migrant people; and it was even more difficult to come to terms with the fact that “this really happened!”  But what I really got from the story was a lesson in discrimination and racism, and hope for the future of mankind.  You see, even when all had been taken from them and there seemed to be no real hope in the foreseeable future, the Okies refused to just lay down and die.  They refused to let the “big guy” get the best of them.  They trudged on through death, hopelessness, starvation and despair.  They did their best to keep their families together, and they never failed to lend a helping hand to one whose need was even greater than their own.  Nearly 100 years later, the majority of Oklahomans still possess those admirable qualities.

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#USofBooks~Guest Review United States of Books ~ Hawaii ~ The Descendants

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For more information on the United States of Books (click here for details).

The United States of Books the State of Hawaii

 Reviewer ~ Teri at Sportochick’s Musings
The Descendants 
by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Reviewed using Audible and eBook
~ Synopsis ~
Narrated in a bold, fearless, unforgettable voice and set against the lush, panoramic backdrop of Hawaii, The Descendants is a stunning debut novel about an unconventional family forced to come together and re-create its own legacy.

Matthew King was once considered one of the most fortunate men in Hawaii. His missionary ancestors were financially and culturally progressive–one even married a Hawaiian princess, making Matt a royal descendant and one of the state’s largest landowners.

Now his luck has changed. His two daughters are out of control: Ten-year-old Scottie is a smart-ass with a desperate need for attention, and seventeen-year-old Alex, a former model, is a recovering drug addict. Matt’s charismatic, thrill-seeking, high-maintenance wife, Joanie, lies in a coma after a boat-racing accident and will soon be taken off life support. The Kings can hardly picture life without her, but as they come to terms with this tragedy, their sadness is mixed with a sense of freedom that shames them–and spurs them into surprising actions.

Before honoring Joanie’s living will, Matt must gather her friends and family to say their final goodbyes, a difficult situation made worse by the sudden discovery that there is one person who hasn’t been told: the man with whom Joanie had been having an affair, quite possibly the one man she ever truly loved. Forced to examine what he owes not only to the living but to the dead, Matt takes to the road with his daughters to find his wife’s lover, a memorable journey that leads to both painful revelations and unforeseen humor and growth. 

~ Review ~

★ ★ ★ 1/2

Though traditionally this book would not of caught my eye I was interested in reading it because of my love for Hawaii. From the start, the author did an admirable job of creating irritating spoiled children in the characters of Scottie and Alex. The addition of Alex’s friend, Sid, who has his own set of problems and annoyingness rounded off for me a difficult read. It is not that the book isn’t well written but I wanted to take all of them over my knee and spank them or hug them to death.

As a mother, I was stressed during this whole book and angry with Matt that he had not been more present in his daughter’s upbringing and he allowed his wife free rein without question. As the story went on though he started to show superb judgement in how he handled so many of the new situations that showed up. The author did a fine job in the steadiness of Matt still making mistakes and where his aha moments happened, causing a change in his thoughts and actions.

Joanie is written in a very believable manner and one wonders if she ever thought of the damage she was doing to her children or if she was that clueless that she thought she was helping them. Her character is not likable for all the thoughtless damage she did to everyone around.

For me, the interaction between Matt and Sid had the most impact of the story. Both of these two saved each other is ways that only they understood. What these two did for each other was amazing and heartfelt making me cry.

For this review I listened to it via audible and referenced the eBook version as well. I wonder if I had only read the book if I would have had a different outcome in my review. Though I haven’t seen the movie, I wonder how this book would come across on the screen,  and out of curiosity I will see it though.

I give this 3-1/2 STARS.


#USofBooks~Guest Review United States of Books ~ New Hampshire ~ A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

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A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Author: H. C. Newton at The Irresponsible Reader
★ ★ ★ ★


[Marilyn Monroe] was just like our whole country — not quite young anymore, but not old either; a little breathless, very beautiful, maybe a little stupid, maybe a lot smarter than she seemed, and she was looking for something . . . She was never quite happy, she was always a little overweight. She was just like our whole country.

I’m not sure why I picked that quotation from this book, but there’s something that appealed to me about it (even if I don’t necessarily agree). You’ll note that there are both upper and lower case letters there — Owen Meany’s dialogue is always given to us in all caps. Which is annoying (it’s supposed to be), and difficult to read in extended speeches (Owen’s voice is hard to listen to), and makes you wish he’d shut up (duplicating the experience of most people who heard him).

A medical explanation for this is given, eventually. But the only explanation that Owen needs is that God gave him his voice. The same for his diminutive stature (about 5′ 0″ as an adult) — God made him that way, for His own reason.

But I’m getting ahead of myself — John Irving’s probably best known for The World According to Garp, which was one of the bigger disappointments of my college reading, so I wasn’t really looking forward to spending more time with him. You add in the fact that this is a 500+ page book with only nine chapters, and it’s downright intimidating. I’m not going to say that you shouldn’t be intimidated and that it’s a pretty easy read — it’s a challenge, it’s frequently a slog — but in the end, it’s rewarding.

When the book starts, Johnny Wheelwright (the narrator) doesn’t seem particularly fond of Owen Meany — in fact, you get the impression that he’s just one of those kids he happens to know, and he’s not that happy about it. But before long, it’s clear that he and Owen are really close — even though (because?) Owen’s responsible for the greatest tragedy of Johnny’s childhood.

John finds himself as an observer to Owen’s life, as his defender, his advocate, his way to the greater world. While Owen is constantly trying to help his friend — help him to achieve, help him to think, help him to believe. It’s a great friendship — and without the other, each was diminished. Owen less so, but in important ways.

The narrative is rambling — John starts to tell us about something, the plot moves forward a bit, but then he goes back in history to give context. Sometimes weeks, sometimes years and far more detail than you think is necessary. Eventually, you see that this is sort of the approach that the overall narrative is taking — John has something he needs to tell the reader, but he doesn’t want to. So he tells you many other things, anecdotes, vignettes, details you don’t need — anything to delay what he wants to say. He does get to it. And by that time, you’re not sure you want him to.

The story is told from the perspective of forty-something John, now a teacher at a Private School in Toronto — he spends his days reading the news about the United States, and ranting (or trying not to) to anyone near him about what President Reagan is doing. I’m not sure why we spend so much time dwelling on him in the present, we don’t need it — it adds almost nothing to the narrative. If anything, I think it might lessen the impact of the rest. The adult John telling the story about his childhood, about Owen, about their growing up together, and so on is essential — we need his perspective, his distance. What we don’t need is to hear John’s rants about Reagan, the poor reading/study habits of teenage girls.

I’m not sure that I get a whole lot of understanding of New Hampshire from this book — Owen’s family working in the granite industry doesn’t tell us much, New Hampshire is The Granite State — everyone who survived 4th grade knows that. If anything, Irving was wanting to talk about America — as an ideal, and as something that falls short of that ideal. Monroe was one example, John Kennedy’s moral failings another, Vietnam a recurring theme, and, of course, the Iran-Contra Scandal. Each of these, as either a representative individual, or representative act, demonstrates how far (in John’s/Owen’s view, at least) the United States has fallen short of the ideals it should strive for — if not achieve.

Ultimately, when I enjoyed this book, it felt like it was in spite of what I was reading. But I laughed, I cared, I kept reading — and then when I was finished, I appreciated the work as a whole, and felt a lot more affection for it than I expected. It’s hard to explain, but I liked this one and heartily recommend it.

New Hampshire