6

Armchair Travel: The USA (Part One)

I have been lucky enough to visit the United States on a few occasions, but given the sheer vastness of the country, I’m sure that there will always be states and cities which I really want to visit! I have collected together books from two states here, all of which I really, really want to go to, as soon as it’s safe. Part Two of this post will follow next month; there were just far too many books to choose from!

Georgia

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

‘With the opening line of Silver Sparrow, “My father, James Witherspoon is a bigamist,” Tayari Jones unveils a breathtaking story about a man’s deception, a family’s complicity, and the teenage girls caught in the middle. Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s families– the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode when secrets are revealed and illusions shattered. As Jones explores the backstories of her rich and flawed characters, she also reveals the joy, and the destruction, they brought to each other’s lives. At the heart of it all are the two girls whose lives are at stake, and like the best writers, Jones portrays the fragility of her characers with raw authenticity as they seek love, demand attention, and try to imagine themselves as women.’

Driving Miss Daisy by Alfred Uhry

‘The place is the Deep South, the time 1948, just prior to the civil rights movement. Having recently demolished another car, Daisy Wertham, a rich, sharp-tongued Jewish widow of seventy-two, is informed by her son, Boolie, that henceforth she must rely on the services of a chauffeur. The person he hires for the job is a thoughtful, unemployed black man, Hoke, whom Miss Daisy immediately regards with disdain and who, in turn, is not impressed with his employer’s patronizing tone and, he believes, her latent prejudice. But, in a series of absorbing scenes spanning twenty-five years, the two, despite their mutual differences, grow ever closer to, and more dependent on, each other, until, eventually, they become almost a couple. Slowly and steadily the dignified, good-natured Hoke breaks down the stern defenses of the ornery old lady, as she teaches him to read and write and, in a gesture of good will and shared concern, invites him to join her at a banquet in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. As the play ends Hoke has a final visit with Miss Daisy, now ninety-seven and confined to a nursing home, and while it is evident that a vestige of her fierce independence and sense of position still remain, it is also movingly clear that they have both come to realize they have more in common than they ever believed possible-and that times and circumstances would ever allow them to publicly admit.’

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

‘A sublime and seductive reading experience. Brilliantly conceived and masterfully written, this enormously engaging portrait of a most beguiling Southern city has become a modern classic. Shots rang out in Savannah’s grandest mansion in the misty, early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self-defense? For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares. John Berendt’s sharply observed, suspenseful, and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction. Berendt skillfully interweaves a hugely entertaining first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case. It is a spellbinding story peopled by a gallery of remarkable characters: the well-bred society ladies of the Married Woman’s Card Club; the turbulent young redneck gigolo; the hapless recluse who owns a bottle of poison so powerful it could kill every man, woman, and child in Savannah; the aging and profane Southern belle who is the “soul of pampered self-absorption”; the uproariously funny black drag queen; the acerbic and arrogant antiques dealer; the sweet-talking, piano-playing con artist; young blacks dancing the minuet at the black debutante ball; and Minerva, the voodoo priestess who works her magic in the graveyard at midnight. These and other Savannahians act as a Greek chorus, with Berendt revealing the alliances, hostilities, and intrigues that thrive in a town where everyone knows everyone else.’

Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

kira-kira (kee ra kee ra): glittering; shining Glittering. That’s how Katie Takeshima’s sister, Lynn, makes everything seem. The sky is kira-kira because its color is deep but see-through at the same time. The sea is kira-kira for the same reason and so are people’s eyes. When Katie and her family move from a Japanese community in Iowa to the Deep South of Georgia, it’s Lynn who explains to her why people stop on the street to stare, and it’s Lynn who, with her special way of viewing the world, teaches Katie to look beyond tomorrow, but when Lynn becomes desperately ill, and the whole family begins to fall apart, it is up to Katie to find a way to remind them all that there is always something glittering — kira-kira — in the future.’

Cane by Jean Toomer

‘First published in 1923, Jean Toomer’s Cane is an innovative literary work-part drama, part poetry, part fiction-powerfully evoking black life in the South. Rich in imagery, Toomer’s impressionistic, sometimes surrealistic sketches of Southern rural and urban life are permeated by visions of smoke, sugarcane, dusk, and fire; the northern world is pictured as a harsher reality of asphalt streets. This iconic work of American literature is published with a new afterword by Rudolph Byrd of Emory University and Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University, who provide groundbreaking biographical information on Toomer, place his writing within the context of American modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, and examine his shifting claims about his own race and his pioneering critique of race as a scientific or biological concept.’

Washington

The Light on the Islands: Tales of a Lighthouse Keeper’s Family in the San Juan Islands by Helen Glidden

‘Readers can once again enjoy Helene Glidden’s classic The Light on the Island, as this 50th Anniversary Edition retells the touching story of a young girl growing up on Patos Island in the San Archipelago of Washington State. Her parents raised thirteen children while her father served as the Patos Island lighthouse keeper from 1905 – 1913. Helene reminisces about the adventure and heartbreak experienced on a beautiful but remote island where smugglers, old timers, and “God” weave in and out of their lives.’

Freaky Green Eyes by Joyce Carol Oates

‘Sometimes Franky Pierson has a hard time dealing with life. Like when her parents separate and her mother vanishes, Franky wants to believe that her mom has simply pulled a disappearing act. Yet deep within herself, a secret part of her she calls Freaky Green Eyes knows that something is terribly wrong. And only Freaky can open Franky’s eyes to the truth.’

A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from my Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg

‘When Molly Wizenberg’s father died of cancer, everyone told her to go easy on herself, to hold off on making any major decisions for a while. But when she tried going back to her apartment in Seattle and returning to graduate school, she knew it wasn’t possible to resume life as though nothing had happened. So she went to Paris, a city that held vivid memories of a childhood trip with her father, of early morning walks on the cobbled streets of the Latin Quarter and the taste of her first pain au chocolat. She was supposed to be doing research for her dissertation, but more often, she found herself peering through the windows of chocolate shops, trekking across town to try a new pâtisserie, or tasting cheeses at outdoor markets, until one evening when she sat in the Luxembourg Gardens reading cookbooks until it was too dark to see, she realized that her heart was not in her studies but in the kitchen. At first, it wasn’t clear where this epiphany might lead. Like her long letters home describing the details of every meal and market, Molly’s blog Orangette started out merely as a pleasant pastime. But it wasn’t long before her writing and recipes developed an international following. Every week, devoted readers logged on to find out what Molly was cooking, eating, reading, and thinking, and it seemed she had finally found her passion. But the story wasn’t over: one reader in particular, a curly-haired, food-loving composer from New York, found himself enchanted by the redhead in Seattle, and their email correspondence blossomed into a long-distance romance. In A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, Molly Wizenberg recounts a life with the kitchen at its center. From her mother’s pound cake, a staple of summer picnics during her childhood in Oklahoma, to the eggs she cooked for her father during the weeks before his death, food and memories are intimately entwined.’

Steal the North by Heather Brittain Bergstrom

‘Vocally graceful and fearlessly intimate, Steal The North, Heather Brittain Bergstrom’s remarkable debut novel, is a strikingly beautiful portrait of modern identity, faith, family, and love in all its forms. Emmy Nolan is a sheltered and introverted sixteen-year-old living in Sacramento with her mom, Kate, when a phone call comes from an aunt she never knew existed. Fifteen years earlier, Kate had abandoned her only sibling, Beth, fleeing their tiny eastern Washington town and the fundamentalist Baptist church that had condemned her as a whore. Beth, who’s pregnant for what she knows is the last time after countless miscarriages, believes her only hope to delivering the baby is Emmy’s participation in a faith healing ceremony. Emmy reluctantly goes. Despite uncovering her mom’s desperate and painful past, she soon finds she has come home–immediately developing a strong bond with her aunt Beth and feeling destined to the rugged landscape. Then Emmy meets Reuben Tonasket, the Native American boy who lives next door. Though passion-filled and resilient, their love story is eerily mirrorThed by the generation before them, who fear that their own mistakes are doomed to repeat themselves in Emmy and Reuben. This is a marvelously imaginative and deeply felt debut, one whose characters live at nearly intolerable levels of vulnerability. Yet, as fragile as they may seem, Bergstrom has imbued them with a tremendous inner strength, proving that the question of home is a spiritual one, that getting over the past is hope for the future, and that the bond between family is truly unbreakable.’

The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen

‘Set against the backdrop of one of the most virulent epidemics that America ever experienced-the 1918 flu epidemic-Thomas Mullen’s powerful, sweeping first novel is a tale of morality in a time of upheaval. Deep in the mist-shrouded forests of the Pacific Northwest is a small mill town called Commonwealth, conceived as a haven for workers weary of exploitation. For Philip Worthy, the adopted son of the town’s founder, it is a haven in another sense-as the first place in his life he’s had a loving family to call his own. And yet, the ideals that define this outpost are being threatened from all sides. A world war is raging, and with the fear of spies rampant, the loyalty of all Americans is coming under scrutiny. Meanwhile, another shadow has fallen across the region in the form of a deadly illness striking down vast swaths of surrounding communities. When Commonwealth votes to quarantine itself against contagion, guards are posted at the single road leading in and out of town, and Philip Worthy is among them. He will be unlucky enough to be on duty when a cold, hungry, tired-and apparently ill-soldier presents himself at the town’s doorstep begging for sanctuary. The encounter that ensues, and the shots that are fired, will have deafening reverberations throughout Commonwealth, escalating until every human value-love, patriotism, community, family, friendship-not to mention the town’s very survival, is imperiled. Inspired by a little-known historical footnote regarding towns that quarantined themselves during the 1918 epidemic, “The Last Town on Earth” is a remarkably moving and accomplished debut.’

0

Snapshots: Georgia (January 2020)

A wonderful weekend spent in the lovely city of Kutaisi, Georgia.

00:11 Central Park | 01:07 Parliament | 01:25 Rioni River | 01:35 Bagrati Cathedral and views | 02:08 Cable car and Besik Gabashvili theme park | 03:19 Prometheus Caves | 04:42 Boating on an underground lake | 05:35 Kutaisi State Historical Museum | 06:15 Botanic Gardens

Music: http://www.bensound.com

2

‘A Hero of Our Time’ by Mikhail Lermontov ****

Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, which was first published in 1839, was my choice for the Georgia stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  According to its translator Paul Foote, it ranks as ‘one of the earliest of the great Russian novels.’  It was written towards the end of Lermontov’s very short literary career, killed as he was in a duel at the age of 26, and was published just two years before his death.

Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, the tongue-in-cheek ‘hero’ of the novel ‘was offered to the public not as a model but as a condemnation of the period.  Restless, cynical, disillusioned, sometimes cruel, he shares with many nineteenth-century Russian heroes a sense of superfluousness.’  Foote goes on to give some historical context to Pechorin’s – and Lermontov’s – world: ‘The period in which he wrote – the 1830s – was an important transitional step in Russian literature, when verse surrendered its pre-eminence to the story and the novel, and the great age of Russian literature began.’  Interestingly, Lermontov’s career ‘ran parallel’ to Pushkin’s, with both poets turning to prose towards the end of their writing lives.9780140447958

A Hero of Our Time is made up of five separate short stories, which have not been chronologically ordered; they give a series of episodes, essentially, in which elements of Pechorin’s life are shown to the reader.  Three of these are journal entries of Pechorin’s, but we learn more of his character from those which are narrated by others, and tell of his exploits.  Of Lermontov’s protagonist, Foote believes: ‘The only comfort Pechorin has is his conviction of his own perfect knowledge and mastery of life.  He despises emotions and prides himself on the supremacy of his intellect over his feelings.’  He is, however, Foote goes on to say, ‘more than a mere social type.  He is also a psychological type, the dual character, in conflict with himself, torn between good and evil, between idealism and cynicism, between a full-blooded desire to live and a negation of all that life has to offer.’  Foote also believes that Pechorin is a highly autobiographical portrait of Lermontov himself, who exhibited many of the same traits as his ‘hero’.

Lermontov’s descriptions are as dramatic as they are resplendent; when he writes about Georgia, for instance: ‘What a glorious place that valley is!  Inaccessible mountains on all sides, red-hued cliffs hung with green ivy and crowned with clumps of plane-trees, yellow precipices streaked with rivulets; high up above lies the golden fringe of the snow, while below the silver thread of the Aragva – linked with some nameless torrent that roams out of a black, mist-filled gorge – stretches glistening like a scaly snake.’

A Hero of Our Time is the first example of the psychological novel in Russia; whilst it is perhaps not ‘psychological’ in the same extent as we would expect nowadays, there are many examples to be found in which Pechorin deliberately manipulates those around him, largely for his own gain.  At the time in which he was writing, there was no established tradition of Russian prose; rather, this was one of the first books of its kind, and as Lermontov had no rules to follow, he can be credited as one of the first masters of the Russian novel.  There is much here to admire.  The translation feels seamless, and reads fluidly.  Pechorin is a complex, mysterious, and deplorable character, who feels markedly realistic.  A Hero of Our Time is rather a quick read, particularly when compared to other Russian classics, but is both interesting and memorable.

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

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.’

 

Purchase from The Book Depository