Reading the World: America (Part One)

Whilst I could have been clever and split this into fifty separate parts to denote every single one of the states of the good old USA, I feel that some of them would be horribly underrepresented, and some of them would inevitably include far too many books (New York State, I’m looking at you).  That said, I have decided to present five distinct parts of Reading the World on the American shores – theoretically one book for each state, although I will be encompassing the continent as a whole – and showcase fifty books which are set in America, and which I have very much enjoyed.  (NB. I have decided not to include many very popular classics, or modern classics – To Kill a Mockingbird, Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseThe Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, and East of Eden, for instance, for whilst I adore all of the aforementioned more than I could say, I do not want this to turn into one of the usual, predictable list which newspapers publish every so often to see how well read we are).  So, let us begin…

1. The Crucible by Arthur Miller (Massachusetts) 9780141182551
‘Arthur Miller’s classic parable of mass hysteria draws a chilling parallel between the Salem witch-hunt of 1692 – ‘one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history’ – and the American anti-communist purges led by Senator McCarthy in the 1950s. The story of how the small community of Salem is stirred into madness by superstition, paranoia and malice, culminating in a violent climax, is a savage attack on the evils of mindless persecution and the terrifying power of false accusations. A depiction of innocent men and women destroyed by malicious rumour, The Crucible is also a powerful indictment of McCarthyism and the ‘frontier mentality’ of Cold War America.’

2. The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken (Massachusetts)
‘The year is 1950, and in a small town on Cape Cod 28 year-old librarian Peggy Cort feels as if love and life have stood her up. Until the day James Carlson Sweatt – the ‘over-tall’ 11 year-old boy who’s the talk of the town – walks into her library and changes her life forever. Two misfits whose lonely paths cross at the circulation desk, Peggy and James are odd candidates for friendship. In James, Peggy discovers the one person who’s ever really understood her, and as he grows – six foot five at age twelve, then seven foot, then eight – so does her heart and their most singular romance. The Giant’s House is a strange, beautifully written and unforgettably tender novel about learning to welcome the unexpected miracle.’

97801413915403. Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison (South Carolina)
‘Carolina in the 1950s, and Bone – christened Ruth Anna Boatwright – lives a happy life, in and out of her aunt’s houses, playing with her cousins on the porch, sipping ice tea, loving her little sister Reece and her beautiful young mother. But Glen Waddell has been watching them all, wanting her mother too, and when he promises a new life for the family, her mother gratefully accepts. Soon Bone finds herself in a different, terrible world, living in fear, and an exile from everything she knows. “Bastard Out of Carolina” is a raw, poignant tale of fury, power, love and family.’

4. White Oleander by Janet Fitch (California)
‘White Oleander is a painfully beautiful first novel about a young girl growing up the hard way. It is a powerful story of mothers and daughters, their ambiguous alliances, their selfish love and cruel behaviour, and the search for love and identity.Astrid has been raised by her mother, a beautiful, headstrong poet. Astrid forgives her everything as her world revolves around this beautiful creature until Ingrid murders a former lover and is imprisoned for life. Astrid’s fierce determination to survive and be loved makes her an unforgettable figure.’

5. We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates (New York State) 9781841156996
‘The unforgettable story of the rise, fall and ultimate redemption of an American family. The Mulvaneys are seemingly blessed by everything that makes life sweet. They live together in the picture-perfect High Point Farm, just outside the community of Mt Ephraim, New York, where they are respected and liked by everybody. Yet something happens on Valentine’s Day 1976. An incident involving Marianne Mulvaney, the pretty sixteen-year-old daughter, is hushed up in the town and never discussed within the family. The impact of this event reverberates throughout the lives of the characters. As told by Judd, years later, in an attempt to make sense of his own past reveals the unspoken truths of that night that rends the fabric of the family life with tragic consequences.’

6. The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman (Florida)
‘Alice Hoffman is at her electrifying best in this fairy tale for grown-ups. The story begins with a little girl who makes a wish one snowy night and ruins her life. She grows up with a splinter of ice in her heart until one day, standing by her kitchen window, she is struck by lightning. Instead of killing her, this cataclysmic event sparks off a new beginning. She seeks out Lazarus Jones, a fellow lightning survivor. He is her opposite, a burning man whose breath can boil water and whose touch scorches. As an obsessive love affair begins between them, both are forced to hide their most dangerous secrets – what turned one to ice and the other to fire. The Ice Queen is a haunting story of passion, loss, second chances and the secrets that come to define us, if we’re not careful.’

97803303516907. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (Alaska)
‘By examining the true story of Chris McCandless, a young man, who in 1992 walked deep into the Alaskan wilderness and whose SOS note and emaciated corpse were found four months later, internationally bestselling author Jon Krakauer explores the obsession which leads some people to explore the outer limits of self, leave civilization behind and seek enlightenment through solitude and contact with nature. ‘

8. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor (Tennessee)
‘Flannery O’Connor’s first novel is the story of Hazel Motes who, released from the armed services, returns to the evangelical Deep South. There he begins a private battle against the religiosity of the community and in particular against Asa Hawkes, the ‘blind’ preacher, and his degenerate fifteen-year-old daughter. In desperation Hazel founds his own religion, ‘The Church without Christ’, and this extraordinary narrative moves towards its savage and macabre resolution. ‘

9. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (Michigan) 9780007528646
”I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of l974.’ So begins the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides and her truly unique family secret, born on the slopes of Mount Olympus and passed on through three generations. Growing up in 70s Michigan, Calliope’s special inheritance will turn her into Cal, the narrator of this intersex, inter-generational epic of immigrant life in 20th century America. Middlesex won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.’

10. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (New York State)
‘Nicole Krauss explores the lasting power of the written word and the lasting power of love. ‘When I was born my mother named me after every girl in a book my father gave her called “The History of Love”…’ Fourteen-year-old Alma Singer is trying to find a cure for her mother’s loneliness. Believing she might discover it in an old book her mother is lovingly translating, she sets out in search of its author. Across New York an old man called Leo Gursky is trying to survive a little bit longer. He spends his days dreaming of the love lost that sixty years ago in Poland inspired him to write a book. And although he doesn’t know it yet, that book also survived: crossing oceans and generations, and changing lives…’

 

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