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Reading the World: America (Part Two)

Again, I have tried to make these choices exciting and not that predictable, but I simply could not resist including Eowyn Ivey’s novel, which I’m sure the majority of people have read by now.

1. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (Alaska; review here9780755380534
‘Alaska, the 1920s. Jack and Mabel have staked everything on a fresh start in a remote homestead, but the wilderness is a stark place, and Mabel is haunted by the baby she lost many years before. When a little girl appears mysteriously on their land, each is filled with wonder, but also foreboding: is she what she seems, and can they find room in their hearts for her? Written with the clarity and vividness of the Russian fairy tale from which it takes its inspiration, The Snow Child is an instant classic.’

2. Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub (Wisconsin/California)
‘At once a delicious depiction of Hollywood s golden age and a sweet, fulfilling story about one woman s journey through fame, love, and loss. “Boston Globe” In 1920, Elsa Emerson is born to the owners of the Cherry County Playhouse in Door County, Wisconsin. Elsa relishes appearing onstage, where she soaks up the approval of her father and the embrace of the audience. But when tragedy strikes her family, her acting becomes more than a child s game of pretend. While still in her teens, Elsa marries and flees to Los Angeles. There she is discovered by Hollywood mogul Irving Green, who refashions her as an exotic brunette screen siren and renames her Laura Lamont. But fame has its costs, and while Laura tries to balance career, family, and personal happiness, she realizes that Elsa Emerson might not be gone completely.’

97801431209573. The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai (Missouri)
‘Lucy Hull, a children’s librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, finds herself both kidnapper and kidnapped when her favorite patron, ten-year-old Ian Drake, runs away from home. Ian needs Lucy’s help to smuggle books past his overbearing mother, who has enrolled Ian in weekly antigay classes. Desperate to save him from the Drakes, Lucy allows herself to be hijacked by Ian when she finds him camped out in the library after hours, and the odd pair embarks on a crazy road trip. But is it just Ian who is running away? And should Lucy be trying to save a boy from his own parents?’

4. Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane (Massachusetts)
‘US Marshal Teddy Daniels has come to Shutter Island, home of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, to find an escaped murderer named Rachel Solando. As a killer hurricane bears down on the island, the investigation deepens and the questions mount. How has a barefoot woman escaped from a locked room? Who is leaving them clues in the form of cryptic codes? And what really goes on in Ward C? The closer Teddy gets to the truth, the more elusive it becomes. And the more he begins to believe that he may never leave Shutter Island. Because someone is trying to drive him insane…’

5. Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby (Pennsylvania) 9780141020648
‘Annie’s put fifteen years into safe, slightly obsessive Duncan, and now she’d like her money back, please. It’s time to move on. But she lives in Gooleness, the north’s answer to a question nobody asked. Is she really going to find real, proper, feel-it-deep-down-in-your-boots love on a damp and windy seafront? Or perhaps she should follow her heart and pursue Tucker, the reclusive American rock star, who keeps emailing her his smart advice. But between Annie and her second chance lie a few obstacles. There’s Malcolm, the world’s most judgemental therapist, and Barnesy, the north’s most extrovert dancer. There’s what men and women will do and won’t do for love. And, of course, there’s Tucker…  Hilarious and tender, this bestselling novel will move you in ways both profound and surprising. ‘

6. Wildwood by Colin Meloy (Oregon)
‘In Wildwood, Prue and her friend Curtis uncover a secret world in the midst of violent upheaval a world full of warring creatures, peaceable mystics, and powerful figures with the darkest intentions. And what begins as a rescue mission becomes something much greater as the two friends find themselves entwined in a struggle for the very freedom of this wilderness. A wilderness the locals call Wildwood.Wildwood captivates readers with the wonder and thrill of a secret world within the landscape of a modern city. It feels at once firmly steeped in the classics of children’s literature and completely fresh at the same time. ‘

97801560316607. Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum (Minnesota)
‘For fifty years, Anna Schlemmer has refused to talk about her life in Germany during World War II. Her daughter, Trudy, was only three when she and her mother were liberated by an American soldier and went to live with him in Minnesota. Trudy’s sole evidence of the past is an old photograph: a family portrait showing Anna, Trudy, and a Nazi officer, the Obersturmfuhrer of Buchenwald. Driven by the guilt of her heritage, Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins investigating the past and finally unearths the dramatic and heartbreaking truth of her mother’s life. Combining a passionate, doomed love story, a vivid evocation of life during the war, and a poignant mother/daughter drama, Those Who Save Us is a profound exploration of what we endure to survive and the legacy of shame.’

8. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (Oregon)
‘Tyrannical Nurse Ratched rules her ward in an Oregon State mental hospital with a strict and unbending routine, unopposed by her patients, who remain cowed by mind-numbing medication and the threat of electroshock therapy. But her regime is disrupted by the arrival of McMurphy – the swaggering, fun-loving trickster with a devilish grin who resolves to oppose her rules on behalf of his fellow inmates. His struggle is seen through the eyes of Chief Bromden, a seemingly mute half-Indian patient who understands McMurphy’s heroic attempt to do battle with the powers that keep them imprisoned.’

9. The Awakening by Kate Chopin (Louisiana) 9780199536948
‘This sensuous book tells of a woman’s abandonment of her family, her seduction, and her awakening to desires and passions that threated to consumer her. Originally entitled “A Solitary Soul, ” this portrait of twenty-eight-year-old Edna Pontellier is a landmark in American fiction, rooted firmly in the romantic tradition of Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson. Here, a woman in search of self-discovery turns away from convention and society, and toward the primal, from convention and society, and toward the primal, irresistibly attracted to nature and the senses.’

10. The Secret History by Donna Tartt (Vermont)
‘Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and for ever.’

 

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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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One From the Archive: ‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey *****

First published in March 2012.

The Snow Child begins in November 1920 beside Alaska’s Wolverine River.  The novel, which is based upon a Russian fairytale, opens with the character of Mabel who has moved to the ‘wilderness silence’ of Alaska with her husband Jack.  The couple are previous residents of Pennsylvania.

The tragic circumstances of their pasts are outlined from the start.  Mabel suffered a miscarriage ten years earlier, which has weighed on her mind and body ever since.  The couple are childless and have inadvertently moved to a secluded place which is void of children.  Their life together is consequently set against the backdrop of an all-invading winter darkness.

Ivey has woven a sombre darkness throughout the novel, which fits perfectly with both the setting and the characters.  As they realise just how isolated they are from the rest of the world, the loneliness of Jack and Mabel grows from the start and their relationship takes on a fractious hue.  The couple make their living with difficulty.  Jack is a farmer and Mabel sells homemade pies in the nearby town of Alpine, which is ‘nothing more than a few dusty, false-fronted buildings perched between the train tracks and the Wolverine River’.

Those around them try their best to help the couple, advising them on farming and how to survive in the Alaskan wilderness.  One couple in particular, George and Esther Benson, seem to take Jack and Mabel under their wing.  They slowly begin to let others into the isolation which they have themselves created.  In essence, Jack and Mabel’s new life helps them to connect with others in their community, as well as those they believed they had lost.  Relationships grow, build and shift as the story moves forwards.

When the first snow of winter sets in, Jack and Mabel make the snow child of the novel’s title, an act which serves to bring them closer together.  It gives them a shared understanding and makes the balance of their relationship improve dramatically.  The morning after the snow child is made, Jack sees a figure dashing through the trees.  Both the relationship which the couple build with the snow child, and Ivey’s portrayal of it, are wonderful.

The Snow Child uses a third person narrative perspective throughout.  The chapters follow both characters equally and the thoughts of each character are shown within the narrative.  The inclusion of several letters between Mabel and her sister Ada was a lovely touch.  The interactions between Jack and Mabel are so touching.  The  characters have been formed with such sensitivity on Ivey’s behalf that their pain comes to life on the page.

Ivey’s writing style is beautiful.  It is clear that each word throughout the novel has been chosen with the utmost care.  The result is a wonderful flowing narrative which lends itself well to the story.  She sets the scene superbly with such vivid and well-written descriptions.

True to the form of traditional fairytales, The Snow Child is sinister and heartbreakingly sad in places.  The story is a beautiful one, filled with equal measures of hope and sadness.  It is a novel filled with small triumphs and kindnesses, a perfect wintry tale.  It is difficult to believe that The Snow Child is a debut novel.  It is incredibly accomplished, polished and skilled, and feels as though it was written by a master storyteller.

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Best Books on the North

I like to theme my reading around the seasons as far as I can, and what better thing to post in the run-up to Christmas than a list of best books set in the wintry north?  The first five are books which I have very much enjoyed and would highly recommend, and the last five are those which are high on my wishlist.

1. The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen ***** (Various parts of Scandinavia)
2. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey ***** (Alaska)
3. Naive. Super by Erlend Loe ***** (Norway)
4. The Winter Book by Tove Jansson ***** (Finland)
5. The Siege by Helen Dunmore **** (Russia)

6. The Red Scarf by Kate Furnivall (Siberia)
7. With the Lapps in the High Mountains: A Woman Among the Sami, 1907-1908 by Emilie Demant Hatt (Northern Sweden)
8. Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy (Siberia)
9. Victoria by Knut Hamsun (Norway)
10. The Crow-Girl: The Children of Crow Cove by Bodil Bredsdorff (Denmark)

Which are your favourite books set in the north?