Reading the World: America (Part Five)

The final part of our epic reading tour around America!  If you have any stateside-set books to recommend to me, please do.

97808606837591. The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty (Mississippi)
‘The people of Mount Salus, Mississippi always felt good about Judge McKelva. He was a quiet, solid reassuring figure, just as a judge should be. Then, ten years after his first wife’s death, he marries the frivolous young Wanda Fay. No-one can understand his action, not least his beloved daughter, Laurel, who finds it hard to accept the new bride. It is only some years later, when circumstance brings her back to her childhood home, that Laurel stirs old memories and comes to understand the peculiarities of her upbringing, and the true relationship between her parents and herself.’

2. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (California)
‘On the eve of her ninth birthday, Rose Edelstein bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the slice. All at once her cheerful, can-do mother tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes perilous. Anything can be revealed at any meal. Rose’s gift forces her to confront the truth behind her family’s emotions – her mother’s sadness, her father’s detachment and her brother’s clash with the world. But as Rose grows up, she learns that there are some secrets even her taste buds cannot discern.’

3. Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields (Alabama) 9780805083194
‘After years of research, Charles J. Shields brings to life the warmhearted, high-spirited, and occasionally hardheaded woman who gave us two of American literature’s most unforgettable characters Atticus Finch and his daughter, Scout. At the center of Shields’s evocative, lively book is the story of Lee’s struggle to create her famous novel, but her colorful life contains many highlights her girlhood as a tomboy in overalls in tiny Monroeville, Alabama; the murder trial that made her beloved father’s reputation and inspired her great work; her journey to Kansas as Truman Capote’s ally and research assistant to help report the story of In Cold Blood. Mockingbird is unique, highly entertaining, filled with humor and heart is a wide-ranging, idiosyncratic portrait of a writer, her dream, and the place and people whom she made immortal.’

4. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (Idaho)
Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and Lucille, orphans growing up in the small desolate town of Fingerbone in the vast northwest of America. Abandoned by a succession of relatives, the sisters find themselves in the care of Sylvie, the remote and enigmatic sister of their dead mother. Steeped in imagery of the bleak wintry landscape around them, the sisters’ struggle towards adulthood is powerfully portrayed in a novel about loss, loneliness and transience.’

97801410301425. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards (Kentucky)
‘Families have secrets they hide even from themselves…It should have been an ordinary birth, the start of an ordinary happy family. But the night Dr David Henry delivers his wife’s twins is a night that will haunt five lives for ever. For though David’s son is a healthy boy, his daughter has Down’s syndrome. And, in a shocking act of betrayal whose consequences only time will reveal, he tells his wife their daughter died while secretly entrusting her care to a nurse. As grief quietly tears apart David’s family, so a little girl must make her own way in the world as best she can.’

6. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (Vermont/Wisconsin)
‘Tracing the lives, loves, and aspirations of two couples who move between Vermont and Wisconsin, it is a work of quiet majesty, deep compassion, and powerful insight into the alchemy of friendship and marriage.’

7. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (Massachusetts) 9780006551805
‘ ‘When her grandmother learned of Ashima’s pregnancy, she was particularly thrilled at the prospect of naming the family’s first sahib. And so Ashima and Ashoke have agreed to put off the decision of what to name the baby until a letter comes…’ For now, the label on his hospital cot reads simply BABY BOY GANGULI. But as time passes and still no letter arrives from India, American bureaucracy takes over and demands that ‘baby boy Ganguli’ be given a name. In a panic, his father decides to nickname him ‘Gogol’ – after his favourite writer. Brought up as an Indian in suburban America, Gogol Ganguli soon finds himself itching to cast off his awkward name, just as he longs to leave behind the inherited values of his Bengali parents. And so he sets off on his own path through life, a path strewn with conflicting loyalties, love and loss…’

8. The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Mississippi)
‘Enter a vanished and unjust world: Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Where black maids raise white children, but aren’t trusted not to steal the silver…There’s Aibileen, raising her seventeenth white child and nursing the hurt caused by her own son’s tragic death; Minny, whose cooking is nearly as sassy as her tongue; and white Miss Skeeter, home from College, who wants to know why her beloved maid has disappeared. Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. No one would believe they’d be friends; fewer still would tolerate it. But as each woman finds the courage to cross boundaries, they come to depend and rely upon one another. Each is in a search of a truth. And together they have an extraordinary story to tell…’

97803305320139. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (California)
‘The Victorian language of flowers was used to express emotions: honeysuckle for devotion, azaleas for passion, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it has been more useful in communicating feelings like grief, mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now eighteen, Victoria has nowhere to go, and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. When her talent is discovered by a local florist, she discovers her gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But it takes meeting a mysterious vendor at the flower market for her to realise what’s been missing in her own life, and as she starts to fall for him, she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, and decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.’

10. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (Massachusetts)
‘We are beautiful, privileged and live a life of carefree luxury.We are cracked and broken. A story of love and romance.A tale of tragedy. Which are lies? Which is truth?’


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Flash Reviews (14th March 2014)

‘Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe’ by Fannie Flagg (Vintage)

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg ****
I had heard such great things about this novel that when I spotted it in Fopp, I just had to purchase a copy.  I am probably one of the few people who has not seen the film, which seems to be very popular, but after reading the book I can definitely see why it is.  The novel was first published in 1987, and is the first of Flagg’s works which I have read.  Harper Lee (one of my most treasured authors) calls it ‘a richly comic, poignant narrative’, and from the moment at which I spotted this upon the book’s lovely cover, I was almost entirely convinced that I would very much enjoy it.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe begins in Alabama in June 1929, a period and literary setting which I adore. The parallel story which runs alongside it begins in December 1985, in the Rose Terrace Nursing Home in the same state.   Both present and past stories are interspersed with weekly news bulletins from 1929.  This mixed narrative works well; it gives a real feel for the place in which the story is set, and its history, almost immediately.  It is clear that the notion of community is so important to Flagg, and it really comes across in the story which she has created. There was a real sense of warmth within some of the characters, and it was made entirely clear that those like Idgie – one of the main protagonists, and the co-owner of the Whistle Stop Cafe – were both revered and respected within their community.  I loved how headstrong she in particular was.

It looks rather a chunky book – indeed, the Vintage edition which I read runs to just over five hundred pages – but it is a surprisingly quick read.   Flagg’s style is very easy to get into, and the novel itself is sweet and rather heartwarming.  I would certainly recommend it to fans of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, the novel which I was reminded of throughout.

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The Big Sleep
by Raymond Chandler ***
I decided to read this hardboiled crime novel purely because it is one of Mark Hoppus of Blink 182’s favourites.  I can tell why he likes it, as throughout it felt like an incredibly masculine book.  The novel, first published in 1939, tells of a detective who often seems rather detached from the cases in which he dabbles.  Oddly, I found it devoid of emotion at times, and the behaviour which the characters demonstrated sometimes felt bizarre and inconsistent.  The protagonist, Philip Marlowe, reminded me somewhat of Dexter from Jeff Lindsay’s novels.  The most interesting aspect of The Big Sleep for me was its storyline.  It is quite unlike much of the crime literature which I have been reading of late, so in that respect I am glad that I can add  a Chandler novel to my read list.  The prose was so sparse throughout, however, that I do not think I will rush to read more of  Chandler’s work, but I would like to view the film of the same name to see how it compares.

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One of Gwen Raverat’s illustrations from ‘Period Piece’

Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood by Gwen Raverat ***
Cambridge is my local city, and it is one which I absolutely adore.  I will happily read anything which is set within it.  This was recommended to me by Lucy (thank you, Lucy!), who told me that it was an absolutely lovely book, and one which was well worth a read.

Gwen Raverat is the granddaughter of Charles Darwin, so along with the setting, the anthropological aspect interested me too.  The places which she describes throughout are familiar to me, and I loved being able to picture the scenes exactly as they are and, in most cases, how they have remained for centuries.  Throughout, lovely illustrations can be found, all of them by Raverat herself.

On reflection, Period Piece was not as I had expected before I began it.  I thought that it would be quaint and would focus more upon growing up in Cambridge than upon Raverat’s multitudinous collection of relatives, some of whom were wonderfully eccentric, but others whom were rather dull.  It was rather more of a familial than a geographical memoir, I suppose.  The book is certainly interesting with regard to the scenes which it paints, but I cannot help but feel a little disappointed by it, feeling as it did a tiny bit lacklustre at times.  Its charm was not quite consistent enough to make this a stand-out memoir.  Period Piece is certainly of worth to the modern reader in the sense that one can see how social attitudes have altered, but not as much more in the case of this reviewer.  Still, I certainly did not dislike it, so it receives a wholesome three stars.

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