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One From the Archive: ‘Songs of Willow Frost’ by Jamie Ford ****

Songs of Willow Frost has been incredibly well reviewed; Helen Simonson, author of the marvellously entertaining Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, very much enjoyed it, and other critics have deemed it ‘dazzling’, ‘spellbinding’, ‘enchanting’ and ‘unforgettable’.

Published in 2013 and beginning in 1934, Songs of Willow Frost tells the story of William Eng, a young Chinese boy who resides at the Sacred Heart Orphanage in Seattle.  Whilst on an annual jaunt to the cinema to celebrate the given birthday of all of the boys who reside there, William is confronted by an image of an actress named Willow Frost, and is immediately convinced that she is his mother.  ‘The story of Willow Frost’, Ford tells us, ‘is far more complicated than any Hollywood fantasy’.  His mother, contrary to what he believes, is not dead; rather, she was placed into a ‘funny farm’ when he was small: ‘The lonely years had been easier to endure when he’d imagined his mother dead.  He hurt and he grieved, but that sorrow was less heartbreaking than the thought of his ah-ma alive and well, leaving him behind like a stray dog’.

The day on which we are introduced to our young protagonist is his twelfth birthday.  This is ‘a marvellous age’, he is told by Mother Angelini, ‘the precipice of adult responsibility’.  The room which William, the only Chinese boy in the orphanage, has to call home is perfectly evoked at the outset: ‘He kept his eyes closed as he listened to the bare feet of children, shuffling nervously on the cold wooden floor.  He heard the popping and billowing of sheets pulled back, like trade winds filling a canvas sail.  And so he ducked, on the favoring currents of his imagination, as he always did, to someplace else – anywhere but the Sacred Heart Orphanage, where the sisters inspected the linens every morning and began whipping the bed-wetters’.

Throughout, William’s own naivety and innocent ignorance of certain things is very touching indeed.  When the orphans are taken to the cinema, for example, he is made to sit in the ‘colored’ balcony, to which he has the following reaction: ‘Am I colored? William wondered.  And if so, what color am I?’  The social history of the period has been well evoked, and Ford encompasses such issues as the Great Depression and consequent spread of poverty; the state benefits in existence for orphans and the disabled; prohibition and its effects; and widespread racial prejudices.  Tired of the boundaries – both within the orphanage and society as a whole – which so tightly constrain him, William breaks free, setting out with his friend, a conscientious and caring blind girl named Charlotte, to find Willow Frost.

Songs of Willow Frost is both captivating and compelling, and holds a lot of interest from the very beginning.  Along with William’s story, we learn about Willow Frost’s past, and the mistakes which she is so determined not to repeat.  The writing within is sensual, and the third person perspective which Ford has chosen to use works wonderfully; it is not at all detached, as it can so often be, and the characters are followed in a manner which seems almost sensitive.  Songs of Willow Frost is at once literary in its style, and very easy to read.  The Chinese culture, along with all of its complexities, has been well exemplified.  The novel is reminiscent of Amy Tan’s work, in terms of the characterisation and the bridges both built and burnt between two such vastly different cultures.  There is much of interest within Songs of Willow Frost, and it is certainly a novel which I will be recommending.

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One From the Archive: ‘Young Hearts Crying’ by Richard Yates ****

I very much admire Richard Yates’ work.  Young Hearts Crying, published in 1984, is his penultimate novel, published eight years before his death.  The New Statesman describes his work as follows: ‘Bad couples, sad, sour marriages, young hopes corroded by suburban life’.

Here, Yates presents not just a married couple or a family to us, but a whole community; we are given a feel for how intrinsically individuals fit into a particular place or setting.  The protagonists of the piece, regardless, are a young married couple named Michael and Lucy Davenport.  The pair are very much in love at the beginning of the novel, yet cracks soon begin to appear within their marriage.  When Young Hearts Crying begins, Michael is a new Harvard graduate, who wants desperately to become a poet.  Rather than live upon Lucy’s sizeable trust fund, he is determined to make a living by himself; when he gets a job which he is not entirely satisfied with in New York, his friends and acquaintances begin to syphon off, doing bigger and better things.

As protagonists, Michael and Lucy are both well built.  Whilst Michael is not at all likeable (I would go as far to say that he is actually moderately awful in most of his thoughts and behaviour), Lucy is; the balance struck between the pair, augmented by their small daughter Laura, is pitch perfect.  One of Yates’ definite strengths here is the way in which he encompasses secondary characters from all walks of life, from the privileged to the poverty-stricken.  Young Hearts Crying is not overly heavy in its plot, and whilst one is able to guess what is going to happen as the story moves forward without any great effort, these elements do not make it any less compelling.

I always say this of Yates, but he is an incredibly aware and perceptive author.  Young Hearts Crying is so well written, and whilst it is not his strongest novel, it is a great, striking and relatively easy read nonetheless.

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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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One From the Archive: ‘Tigers in Red Weather’ by Liza Klaussmann ****

Tigers in Red Weather begins on the east coast of America in September 1945, just after the end of the Second World War.  Cousins Nick and Helena have grown up spending a long spring of summers at Tiger House, the family’s estate on Martha’s Vineyard, a place which both women hold fondly in their memories.  

At the outset of the novel, we meet Nick and Helena, ‘wearing their slips and drinking gin neat out of old jelly jars’ in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Helena is about to get married for the second time and is on the cusp of moving to Hollywood, a decision which she views with some optimism: ‘At least this way I won’t turn into an old maid, mad as a hatter and warts on my nose’.  Simultaneously, Nick is travelling to meet her husband Hughes in St. Augustine, Florida.  The couple make their home here in a rented pre-fab, ‘just like all the others surrounding it’.  From the start, several small fissures reveal themselves in the relationship between the couple, and it is clear that calling them ‘happily married’ would be rather far from the truth.  Despite the cousins growing up together, their adult lives veer off in entirely different directions, living at opposite ends of the country and losing the regular contact with each other which they both heavily rely upon.

The second part of the novel begins in 1959 and lays focus upon Nick’s daughter Daisy, who believes her mother to be a ‘bit crazy’.  She and Nick are travelling to Tiger House to spend the summer with Helena and her son Ed.  Here, dawning understandings are realised by many of the characters.  When Daisy sees her mother and aunt on the porch of Tiger House, for example, she becomes ‘mesmerized.  It was as if her mother and aunt had been snatched away by goblins and replaced with fairies of some sort.  They looked so beautiful to her, and so different…  They could have said anything, and she would have loved them’.

We as readers learn a lot about the characters as the narrative progresses, from details about their pasts to their thoughts and feelings regarding a whole host of varied subjects.  Each character is given a plausible past and their relationships with one another have been crafted both sympathetically and skilfully.  The novel is strong in social history, and the inclusion of music and films throughout really historically grounds the novel.  A clever touch is the way in which we are able to see the technological progressions of such things as both time and the book go on.

Ed and Daisy’s discovery of a dead body in a seemingly abandoned shack in the woods soon shrouds the entire family, whose lives are already fraught with troubles and secrets.  Tigers in Red Weather becomes, in part – if rather a small part – a murder mystery story, but it is so much more than that.  It is an elaborate study of several characters, a rich social history which spans rather a wide chronological scale.

The novel is split into five separate sections, each of which follows a different character.  The majority of the novel uses the third person omniscient perspective and only the final section is told from the point of view of one of the characters.  The book is not a chronological one and some of these narratives do jump around a little in time, a technique which becomes a little confusing at times, but this is really the only drawback of the novel.  The conversations which Klaussmann has crafted between her characters work wonderfully.

Throughout, Klaussmann’s descriptions are often original: a train which ‘smelled like bleach and excitement’ – and sometimes rather lovely: ‘The oak tree in the backyard cut pieces from the moon’.  The entire novel is incredibly well written.

Tigers in Red Weather is rather an absorbing and incredibly intriguing read from the outset, and it is certainly a masterful debut.  It is an exceedingly well planned and well thought out novel, and Klaussmann has really done justice both to her characters and to the story which she has constructed.

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Reading the World: America (Part Four)

Ten more books from my shelves, ranging from the glamorous to the inventive, and featuring some of my all-time favourite protagonists.

97814472120721. Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann (Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts; review here)
‘The epitome of East Coast glamour, Tiger House is where the beautiful and the damned have always come to play in summer, scene of martinis and moonlit conspiracies, and newly inherited by the sleek, beguiling Nick. The Second World War is just ending, her cousin Helena has left in search of married bliss in Hollywood, and Nick’s husband is coming home. Everything is about to change.Their children will suprise them. One summer, on the cusp of adolescence, Nick’s daughter and Helena’s son make a sinister discovery that plunges the island’s bright heat into private show more’

2. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (Maine)
‘Olive Kitteridge: indomitable, compassionate and often unpredictable. A retired schoolteacher in a small coastal town in Maine, as she grows older she struggles to make sense of the changes in her life. She is a woman who sees into the hearts of those around her, their triumphs and tragedies. We meet her stoic husband, bound to her in a marriage both broken and strong, and a young man who aches for the mother he lost – and whom Olive comforts by her mere presence, while her own son feels overwhelmed by her complex sensitivities. A penetrating, vibrant exploration of the human soul, the story of Olive Kitteridge will make you laugh, nod in recognition, wince in pain, and shed a tear .’

3. The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown (Ohio) 9780007393718
‘An eccentric and totally irresistible read’ Glamour Rosalind. Bianca. Cordelia. The Weird Sisters. Rose always first, Bean never first, Cordy always last. The history of our trinity is fractious – a constantly shifting dividing line, never equal, never equitable. Two against one, or three opposed, but never all together. Our estrangement is not drama-laden – we have not betrayed one another’s trust, we have not stolen lovers or fought over money or property or any of the things that irreparably break families apart. The answer, for us, is much simpler. See, we love each other. We just don’t happen to like each other very much.’

4. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (Georgia)
‘Set in a small town in the American South, it is the story of a group of people who have little in common except that they are all hopelessly lonely. A young girl, a drunken socialist and a black doctor are drawn to a gentle, sympathetic deaf mute, whose presence changes their lives. This powerful exploration of alienation is both moving and perceptive.’

97800995186245. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (Connecticut)
‘Hailed as a masterpiece from its first publication, Revolutionary Road is the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a bright young couple who are bored by the banalities of suburban life and long to be extraordinary. With heartbreaking compassion and clarity, Richard Yates shows how Frank and April’s decision to change their lives for the better leads to betrayal and tragedy.’

6. An Abundance of Katherines by John Green (Illinois)
‘When it comes to relationships, Colin Singleton’s type is girls named Katherine. And when it comes to girls named Katherine, Colin is always getting dumped. Nineteen times, to be exact. On a road trip miles from home, this anagram-happy, washed-up child prodigy has ten thousand dollars in his pocket, a bloodthirsty feral hog on his trail, and an overweight Judge Judy – loving best friend riding shotgun – but no Katherines. Colin is on a mission to prove The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability, which he hopes will predict the future of any relationship, avenge Dumpees everywhere, and finally win him the girl. Love, friendship, and a dead Austro-Hungarian archduke add up to surprising and heart-changing conclusions in this ingeniously layered comic novel about reinventing oneself.’

7. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (Washington) 9780749010720
‘1986, The Panama Hotel The old Seattle landmark has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made a startling discovery in the basement: personal belongings stored away by Japanese families sent to interment camps during the Second World War. Among the fascinated crowd gathering outside the hotel, stands Henry Lee, and, as the owner unfurls a distinctive parasol, he is flooded by memories of his childhood. He wonders if by some miracle, in amongst the boxes of dusty treasures, lies a link to the Okabe family, and the girl he lost his young heart to, so many years ago.’

8. The Professor’s House by Willa Cather (New Mexico)
‘On the eve of his move to a new, more desirable residence, Professor Godfrey St Peter finds himself in the shabby study of his former home. Surrounded by the comforting, familiar sights of his past, he surveys his life and the people he has loved: his wife Lillian, his daughters and, above all, Tom Outland, his most outstanding student and once, his son-in-law to be. Enigmatic and courageous – and a tragic victim of the Great War – Tom has remained a source of inspiration to the professor. But he has also left behind him a troubling legacy which has brought betrayal and fracture to the women he loves most…’

97803857224389. Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (South Carolina)
‘Ella Minnow Pea is a girl living happily on the fictional island of Nollop off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop was named after Nevin Nollop, author of the immortal pangram, * The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. Now Ella finds herself acting to save her friends, family, and fellow citizens from the encroaching totalitarianism of the island s Council, which has banned the use of certain letters of the alphabet as they fall from a memorial statue of Nevin Nollop. As the letters progressively drop from the statue they also disappear from the novel. The result is both a hilarious and moving story of one girl s fight for freedom of expression, as well as a linguistic tour de force sure to delight word lovers everywhere.’

10. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (Mississippi)
‘The death and burial of Addie Bundren is told by members of her family, as they cart the coffin to Jefferson, Mississippi, to bury her among her people. And as the intense desires, fears and rivalries of the family are revealed in the vernacular of the Deep South, Faulkner presents a portrait of extraordinary power – as epic as the Old Testament, as American as Huckleberry Finn.’

 

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Reading the World: America (Part Three)

Ten more books, all set in the USA.  Again, I’ve tried not to be too obvious in my choices here, so I hope you find something on this relatively varied list to interest you.

1. The Dive From Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer (Wisconsin) 9780375727139
‘How much do we owe the people we love? Is it a sign of strength or weakness to walk away from someone in need? These questions lie at the heart of Ann Packer s intimate and emotionally thrilling new novel, which has won its author comparisons with Jane Hamilton and Sue Miller. At the age of twenty-three Carrie Bell has spent her entire life in Wisconsin, with the same best friend and the same dependable, easygoing, high school sweetheart. Now to her dismay she has begun to find this life suffocating and is considering leaving it and Mike behind. But when Mike is paralyzed in a diving accident, leaving seems unforgivable and yet more necessary than ever.’

2. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (California; review here)
‘In the din and stink that is Cannery Row a colourful blend of misfits – gamblers, whores, drunks, bums and artists – survive side by side in a jumble of adventure and mischief. Lee Chong, the astute owner of the well-stocked grocery store, is also the proprietor of the Palace Flophouse that Mack and his troupe of good-natured ‘boys’ call home. Dora runs the Bear Flag Restaurant with clockwork efficiency and a generous heart, and Doc, secreted away in his home at Western Biological Laboratories, is the fount of all wisdom.’

97806188717113. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (Pennsylvania)
‘A fresh and brilliantly told memoir from a cult favorite comic artist, marked by gothic twists, a family funeral home, sexual angst, and great books. This breakout book by Alison Bechdel is a darkly funny family tale, pitch-perfectly illustrated with Bechdel’s sweetly gothic drawings. Meet Alison’s father, a historic preservation expert and obsessive restorer of the family’s Victorian home, a third-generation funeral home director, a high school English teacher, an icily distant parent, and a closeted homosexual who, as it turns out, is involved with his male students and a family babysitter. Through narrative that is alternately heartbreaking and fiercely funny, we are drawn into a daughter’s complex yearning for her father. And yet, apart from assigned stints dusting caskets at the family-owned “fun home,” as Alison and her brothers call it, the relationship achieves its most intimate expression through the shared code of books. When Alison comes out as homosexual herself in late adolescense, the denouement is swift, graphic — and redemptive.’

4. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls (Arizona/West Virginia)
‘This is a startling memoir of a successful journalist’s journey from the deserted and dusty mining towns of the American Southwest, to an antique filled apartment on Park Avenue. Jeanette Walls narrates her nomadic and adventurous childhood with her dreaming, ‘brilliant’ but alcoholic parents. At the age of seventeen she escapes on a Greyhound bus to New York with her older sister; her younger siblings follow later. After pursuing the education and civilisation her parents sought to escape, Jeanette eventually succeeds in her quest for the ‘mundane, middle class existence’ she had always craved. In her apartment, overlooked by ‘a portrait of someone else’s ancestor’ she recounts poignant remembered images of star watching with her father, juxtaposed with recollections of irregular meals, accidents and police-car chases and reveals her complex feelings of shame, guilt, pity and pride toward her parents.’

5. The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan (California) 9780006550525
‘Olivia Yee is only five years old when Kwan, her older sister from China, comes to live with the family and turns her life upside down, bombarding her day and night with ghostly stories of strange ancestors from the world of Yin. Olivia just wants to lead a normal American life. For the next thirty years, Olivia endures visits from Kwan and her ghosts, who appear in the living world to offer advice on everything from restaurants to Olivia’s failed marriage. But just when she cannot bear it any more, the revelations of a tragic family secret finally open her mind to the startling truths hidden in Kwan’s unorthodox vision of the world.’

6. Stoner by John Williams (Missouri)
‘William Stoner enters the University of Missouri at nineteen to study agriculture. A seminar on English literature changes his life, and he never returns to work on his father’s farm. Stoner becomes a teacher. He marries the wrong woman. His life is quiet, and after his death his colleagues remember him rarely. Yet with truthfulness, compassion and intense power, this novel uncovers a story of universal value. Stoner tells of the conflicts, defeats and victories of the human race that pass unrecorded by history, and reclaims the significance of an individual life. A reading experience like no other, itself a paean to the power of literature, it is a novel to be savoured.’

97812500101937. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente (Nebraska; review here)
‘Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.’

8. The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather (Colorado)
‘Beautiful and lyrical, this third novel by Willa Cather follows the life of Thea Kronberg from her childhood in 19th-century Nebraska to her career as a renowned opera singer.  Since the time of its publication in 1915, this novel had captivated readers with its sharp observations, shimmering descriptions, sly humor, and its provocative heroine a feisty young woman who strives to create her own destiny, regardless of social restrictions.’

9. A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (Louisiana) 9780141190273
‘Fading southern belle Blanche Dubois depends on the kindness of strangers and is adrift in the modern world. When she arrives to stay with her sister Stella in a crowded, boisterous corner of New Orleans, her delusions of grandeur bring her into conflict with Stella’s crude, brutish husband Stanley. Eventually their violent collision course causes Blanche’s fragile sense of identity to crumble, threatening to destroy her sanity and her one chance of happiness.’

10. A Million Little Pieces by James Frey (Minnesota)
‘By the time James Frey enters a drug and alcohol treatment facility, he has so thoroughly ravaged his body that the doctors are shocked he is still alive. Inside the clinic, he is surrounded by patients as troubled as he: a judge, a mobster, a former world-champion boxer, and a fragile former prostitute. To James, their friendship and advice seem stronger and truer than the clinic’s droning dogma of How to Recover. James refuses to consider himself a victim of anything but his own bad decisions. He insists on accepting sole accountability for the person he has been and the person he may becomewhich he feels runs counter to his counselor’s recipes for recovery. He must fight to survive on his own terms, for reasons close to his own heart. And he must battle the ever-tempting chemical trip to oblivion.’

 

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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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