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2018 Travel: Books Set in America

My second stop on my 2018 travel list is America; I travelled to the Niagara Falls State Park in New York State whilst on holiday in Canada.  Here are seven of my favourite books set in various states around the US.

26571. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.  Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior – to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos. Now with over 18 million copies in print and translated into forty languages, this regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.

2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
First published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into haves and have-nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity.  A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes the very nature of equality and justice in America.
3. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (2001) 37435
Set in South Carolina in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily Owens, whose life has been shaped around the blurred memory of the afternoon her mother was killed. When Lily’s fierce-hearted black “stand-in mother,” Rosaleen, insults three of the deepest racists in town, Lily decides to spring them both free. They escape to Tiburon, South Carolina–a town that holds the secret to her mother’s past. Taken in by an eccentric trio of black beekeeping sisters, Lily is introduced to their mesmerizing world of bees and honey, and the Black Madonna. This is a remarkable novel about divine female power, a story women will share and pass on to their daughters for years to come.
4. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
The hero-narrator of The Catcher in the Rye is an ancient child of sixteen, a native New Yorker named Holden Caulfield. Through circumstances that tend to preclude adult, secondhand description, he leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for three days. The boy himself is at once too simple and too complex for us to make any final comment about him or his story. Perhaps the safest thing we can say about Holden is that he was born in the world not just strongly attracted to beauty but, almost, hopelessly impaled on it. There are many voices in this novel: children’s voices, adult voices, underground voices-but Holden’s voice is the most eloquent of all. Transcending his own vernacular, yet remaining marvelously faithful to it, he issues a perfectly articulated cry of mixed pain and pleasure. However, like most lovers and clowns and poets of the higher orders, he keeps most of the pain to, and for, himself. The pleasure he gives away, or sets aside, with all his heart. It is there for the reader who can handle it to keep.
63365615. The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (1945)
Abandoned by her husband, Amanda Wingfield comforts herself with recollections of her earlier, life in Blue Mountain when she was pursued by ‘gentleman callers’. Her son Tom, a poet with a job in a warehouse, longs for adventure and escape from his mother’s suffocating embrace, while Laura, her daughter, has her glass menagerie and her memories.
6. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
Sylvia Plath’s shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity.   Esther Greenwood is brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under—maybe for the last time. In her acclaimed and enduring masterwork, Sylvia Plath brilliantly draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, even rational—as accessible an experience as going to the movies. A deep penetration into the darkest and most harrowing corners of the human psyche, The Bell Jar is an extraordinary accomplishment and a haunting American classic.
7. One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson (2013; review here) 17612752
Britain’s favourite writer of narrative non-fiction Bill Bryson travels back in time to a forgotten summer when America came of age, took centre stage, and, in five eventful months, changed the world for ever.  In the summer of 1927, America had a booming stock market, a president who worked just four hours a day (and slept much of the rest of the time), a semi-crazed sculptor with a mad plan to carve four giant heads into an inaccessible mountain called Rushmore, a devastating flood of the Mississippi, a sensational murder trial, and a youthful aviator named Charles Lindbergh who started the summer wholly unknown and finished it as the most famous man on earth. (So famous that Minnesota considered renaming itself after him.)  It was the summer that saw the birth of talking pictures, the invention of television, the peak of Al Capone’s reign of terror, the horrifying bombing of a school in Michigan by a madman, the ill-conceived decision that led to the Great Depression, the thrillingly improbable return to greatness of a wheezing, over-the-hill baseball player named Babe Ruth, and an almost impossible amount more.  In this hugely entertaining book, Bill Bryson spins a story of brawling adventure, reckless optimism and delirious energy, with a cast of unforgettable and eccentric characters, with trademark brio, wit and authority.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which, if any, take your fancy?

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American Literature Month: Short Story Collections

I thought that I would take the opportunity to recommend some wonderful short story collections during American Literature Month.  Whilst not all of these stories are set in the United States, all of the authors have American nationalities, and there is sure to be something of interest here for every reader.  For each, I have copied the official blurb.

1. Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger (1961)
“The author writes: FRANNY came out in The New Yorker in 1955, and was swiftly followed, in 1957 by ZOOEY. Both stories are early, critical entries in a narrative series I’m doing about a family of settlers in twentieth-century New York, the Glasses. It is a long-term project, patently an ambiguous one, and there is a real-enough danger, I suppose that sooner or later I’ll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely, in my own methods, locutions, and mannerisms. On the whole, though, I’m very hopeful. I love working on these Glass stories, I’ve been waiting for them most of my life, and I think I have fairly decent, monomaniacal plans to finish them with due care and all-available skill.”

2. The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor (1991)
“The publication of this extraordinary volume firmly established Flannery O’Connor’s monumental contribution to American fiction. There are thirty-one stories here in all, including twelve that do not appear in the only two story collections O’Connor put together in her short lifetime–Everything That Rises Must Converge and A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

3. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (2000) 
“Mr. Kapasi, the protagonist of Jhumpa Lahiri’s title story, would certainly have his work cut out for him if he were forced to interpret the maladies of all the characters in this eloquent debut collection. Take, for example, Shoba and Shukumar, the young couple in “A Temporary Matter” whose marriage is crumbling in the wake of a stillborn child. Or Miranda in “Sexy,” who is involved in a hopeless affair with a married man. But Mr. Kapasi has problems enough of his own; in addition to his regular job working as an interpreter for a doctor who does not speak his patients’ language, he also drives tourists to local sites of interest. His fare on this particular day is Mr. and Mrs. Das–first-generation Americans of Indian descent–and their children. During the course of the afternoon, Mr. Kapasi becomes enamored of Mrs. Das and then becomes her unwilling confidant when she reads too much into his profession. “I told you because of your talents,” she informs him after divulging a startling secret.”

4. The Collected Stories by Eudora Welty (1980)
“Including the earlier collections A Curtain of GreenThe Wide NetThe Golden Apples, and The Bride of the Innisfallen, as well as previously uncollected ones, these forty-one stories demonstrate Eudora Welty’s talent for writing from diverse points-of-view with “vision that is sweet by nature, always humanizing, uncannily objective, but never angry” (Washington Post).”

5. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers (1951)
“In The Ballad of the Sad Café, a tale of unrequited love, Miss Amelia, a spirited, unconventional woman, runs a small-town store and, except for a marriage that lasted just ten days, has always lived alone. Then Cousin Lymon appears from nowhere, a little, strutting hunchback who steals Miss Amelia’s heart. Together they transform the store into a lively, popular café. But when her rejected husband Marvin Macy returns, the result is a bizarre love triangle that brings with it violence, hatred and betrayal.”

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Short Story Series: Part One

I adore reading short stories, and don’t see many reviews of collections on blogs in comparison to novels and the like.  I thought that I would make a weekly series to showcase short stories, and point interested readers in the direction of some of my favourite collections.  Rather than ramble in adoration for every single book, I have decided to copy their official blurb.  I have linked my blog reviews where appropriate.

1. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams by Sylvia Plath
‘This collection of short stories, essays, and diary excerpts highlights her fierce concentration on craft, the vitality of her intelligence, and the yearnings of her imagination. Featuring an introduction by Plath’s husband, the late British poet Ted Hughes, these writings also reflect themes and images she would fully realize in her poetry. “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams” truly showcases the talent and genius of Sylvia Plath.’

2. Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
‘An awkward teen with a terrible haircut has a reversal of fortune when he finds artefacts from the future lining a seagulls’ nest. In a godforsaken barn, Presidents Eisenhower, John Adams and Rutherford B. Hayes are bemused to find themselves reincarnated as horses. Clyde and Magreb – he a traditional capes-and-coffins vampire, she the more progressive variety – settle in an Italian lemon grove in the hope that its ripe fruit will keep their thirst for blood at bay.’

3. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters by J.D. Salinger
‘First published in “The New Yorker” in the 1950s, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction” are two novellas narrated by Buddy Glass, a character often said to be a portrait of Salinger himself. In the first, Buddy has taken leave from the army during World War II to attend the wedding of the eldest Glass brother, Seymour, and an atmosphere of portentous suspense sets the scene for the tragedy that will follow. In the second, Buddy reminisces about Seymour and the novella unfolds into a deep and far-reaching exploration of a complex and sad character which displays all the tenderness and subtlety which distinguish the best of Salinger’s writing.’

4. Collected Stories by Carol Shields
‘In the Collected Stories we bring together Carol Shields’ original short-story volumes, Various Miracles, The Orange Fish and Dressing Up for the Carnival, as well as many stories not previously published in the UK, including ‘Segue’, her last work. In these stories the author combines the dazzling virtuosity and wise maturity that won so many readers to her prize-winning novels such as The Stone Diaries and Unless.’

5. The Whole Story and Other Stories by Ali Smith
‘This is a brilliant new collection of stories from a much loved and highly praised author. It presents stories for people who’ve grown up being told time is running out and don’t want it to. How do you ever know the whole story? How do you ever know even part of the story? How do you find meaning when chance and coincidence could, after all, just be chance and coincidence? In a celebration of connections and missed connections, an inquiry into everything from flies and trees and books to sex, art, drunkenness and love, Smith rewrites the year’s cycle into a very modern calendar.’

6. Belated by Elisabeth Russell Taylor
‘From award-winning writer Elisabeth Russell Taylor comes a dazzling new collection of short stories. Whether examining the unspoken deals brokered in every marriage, the inherent menace of daily exchanges or the secret lives of the unattached, each of these sixteen stories sparkles with Russell Taylor’s extraordinary talent. ‘The Contract’ brilliantly reimagines Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin; ‘Supporting Roles’ reverses the client-therapist relationship; ‘Charlotte’ looks at the life of a Jewish immigrant in postwar London; ‘Les Amants’ is a lyrical paean to love and loss in rural France; ‘Take Care’ sees the visitors getting too comfortable in a house that’s not theirs; ‘The Inquest’ is a whimsical feat of magical realism; while ‘Who She?’ and ‘Carter’ explore the mysteries and complications of identity. Here is a writer unafraid to probe the dark corners of character, who sharpens her teeth on the casual cruelties, subtle ironies and alarming contradictions of everyday life.’

My review can be found here.

7. New York Stories, edited by Diana Secker Tesdell
‘An irresistible anthology of classic tales of New York in the tradition of “Christmas Stories, Love Stories, “and “Stories of the Sea. ” Writers have always been enthralled and inspired by New York City, and their vibrant and varied stories provide a kaleidoscopic vision of the city’s high life, low life, nightlife, and everything in between. From the wisecracking Broadway guys and dolls of Damon Runyon to the glittering ballrooms of Edith Wharton, from the jazz- soaked nightspots of Jack Kerouac and James Baldwin to the starry- eyed tourists in John Cheever and Shirley Jackson to the ambitious immigrants conjured by Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz– this is New York in all its grittiness and glamour. Here is the hectic, dazzling chaos of Times Square and the elegant calm of galleries in the Met; we meet Yiddish matchmakers in the Bronx, Haitian nannies in Central Park, starving artists, and hedonistic yuppies–a host of vivid characters nursing their dreams in the tiny apartments, the lonely cafes, and the bustling streets of the city that never sleeps.’

8. The Doll’s House and Other Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner
‘Recently discovered in the New York Public Library archives, these four short stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner are as sharply insightful and observant as all her writing. They are published for the first time exclusively in ebook format alongside the new editions of her celebrated novels The Corner that Held Them and Lolly Willowes, which have brand new introductions by Philip Hensher and Sarah Waters.’

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Most disappointing books of 2014

Hello and a Happy New Year! 🙂

I’m really sorry for my long absence from the blog, but things got really busy and time proved to be insufficient for most of my activities.

Instead of a list of the best books I read in 2014, I decided to compile a list of the most disappointing ones, because, sadly, there were quite a few of them. I will make some brief comments about why they were disappointing for me, so if you would like to see a full review on any of them just let me know 🙂 In no particular order, here is my list:

1. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger **

I had heard so many great things about this book, and having bought it since last year, I was really looking forward to reading it. However, my high expectations were everything but met. I found the book rather dull and boring, and even though I expected to finish it within a few hours, it actually took me a couple of months to do it. I wasn’t particularly fond of the main character, Holden, either. I expected something big to happen by the end, but the book let me down in that aspect as well.

2. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut **

I am usually not so absolute with authors, but this book, having been the first of Vonnegut’s I read, made me reluctant to pick up any of his other books. The plot and the premise were so very interesting and I was convinced I would be in for a fabulous read, but that was far from what I eventually experienced. I recognise that Vonnegut has a rather poignantly humorous writing style, but I’m sad to say it was not for me. I caught myself struggling so much while reading, and I couldn’t wait until the book was finally over.

3. In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki ***

This book looked like one I would thoroughly enjoy, since its main theme is the praising of the Japanese lifestyle and parts of their culture. As a Japanophile, I usually adore such writings, but this one disappointed me a bit. It lacked the passion I expected it to have, and I found it a bit boring in some parts.

4. Happy Days by Samuel Beckett **

Since I’m usually not really fond of Beckett’s plays, I should have tried to avoid this one. However, I was obliged to read it for one of my university courses, and I have to admit that I have never struggled so much in reading a play. It is flooded by stage directions that obstruct the reading experience, and it tired me out so much. Despite its tiny length, I had to take many breaks whilst reading in order for me to concentrate on it. I’m not doubting the great messages its analysis brings to light, but I believe this play would probably be better watched rather than read.

5. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest ***

Another book I expected to thoroughly enjoy but didn’t. I love fantasy and science fiction, and this book was good, but nothing more than that. It didn’t make me feel very excited while reading and often I was quite reluctant to pick it up and continue reading it. The plot was nice, some of the characters wanted a bit more working out, but it wasn’t anything particularly great.

6. The Skriker by Caryl Churchill **

Who would have thought that a play about fairies would be so un-fairy-like? The dialogues were confusing, the characters not particularly interesting and the premise rather dull for my liking.

7. The Gunslinger by Stephen King **

That was my first Stephen King book, and I didn’t find it as compelling as I had expected. I didn’t really like the writing style and the plot was confusing and very disorganized. Despite the fact that it was the first book in the series, I believe King didn’t introduce his world and the characters adequately for the reader to grasp what is going on. Sometimes, the chapters seemed unconnected with each other, and it looked to me more like an amateur writer’s first draft than a book by such a well-known author.

8. The Metamosphosis by Franz Kafka **

This book had been sitting on my self since last year, as well. The plot had an interesting premise and again I had heard so many wonderful things about it, but when I finally got around to reading it I was very disappointed. It tired me quite a lot and it took me a long time to finish it. I didn’t ike the ending and I felt that even though the story wanted to convey a certain message, it failed in doing so for me.

I am sure you have read some of the books I mentioned here, so I would love to hear your opinions and thoughts on them.

I hope you all have a great (reading) year!

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‘My Salinger Year’ by Joanna Rakoff ****

The names and ‘identifying traits’ of many of the real-life people in Joanna Rakoff’s memoir, My Salinger Year, have been changed, but, she assures us, ‘this is the actual story of my Salinger year’.  Her autobiography tells of her year living in New York in the mid-1990s after completing her Master’s degree at University College London, working as an assistant at a famous literary agency.

The beginning of Rakoff’s book paints a vivid picture of a swathe of young women commuting to their first after-college positions in New York City, ‘all of us clad in variations on a theme – the neat skirt and sweater, redolent of Sylvia Plath at Smith’.  She goes on to say that she and the many other women in her position lived ‘never belying the fact that we got into this business not because we wanted to fetch glasses of water for visiting writers but because we wanted to be writers ourselves, and this seemed the most socially acceptable way to go about doing so, though it was already becoming clear that this was not at all the way to go about doing so’.

There is almost a feel of The Devil Wears Prada to Rakoff’s story at its beginning, working as she is for a woman set in her ways, who can be famously tricky to get on with.  Before appointing Rakoff, she had been ‘interviewing potential assistants for months’.  Rakoff is almost immediately put in charge of fending off those who are intent upon learning about J.D. Salinger, the agency’s most important client.  They long to know where he lives so that they can ‘interview him or give him a prize or an honorary degree or who knows what’.  Rakoff is honest and earnest, confiding that she had never read any of Salinger’s work, and detailing some of the replies which she wrote to the fanmail which arrived for him, which was, under strict instruction, not to be sent on.  She sets out the ins and outs of her personal life alongside her job, and the way in which they sometimes overlap has been marvellous worked.

Throughout, My Salinger Year is so well written.  The scenes which Rakoff illustrates come to life immediately; particularly vivid is her description of New York entirely shut down by a blizzard.  As a memoir, it is compelling; as a piece of literary criticism, it is fascinating and sometimes even profound.  My Salinger Year is sure to interest everyone who has ever wondered what life is like working within a literary agency, or who wants to learn more about life in the book world – or, indeed, about what J.D. Salinger, the man, was like.

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Treasured Playlists (‘The Catcher in The Rye’)

We love playlists here at The Literary Sisters, and April came up with the wonderful idea of compiling several to accompany some of our favourite books.  The first which I have chosen is The Catcher in The Rye by J.D. Salinger, which I first read as a sixteen-year-old and have encountered many times since.  Hopefully the songs which I have chosen will go both with the story and general feel of the book very well indeed.  Enjoy!

1. The First Song – Noah Gundersen and The Courage
2. Never Love Again – Cherbourg
3. Coded in Concrete – Kim Churchill
4. I Am Disappeared – Frank Turner
5. Bound for Glory – Peasant
6. Jejune Stars – Bright Eyes
7. Deyanu, Enough – Zach Fleury
8. Heartbeats – Jose Gonzalez
9. Ghost – Bombay Bicycle Club
10. The Tide Pulls From the Moon – William Fitzsimmons
11. There Is a Light That Never Goes Out – Sara Lov
12. Ler’d’lune – Lerin Herzer
13. Lynchburg – This Winter Room
14. Turn and Leave – The Colorful Quiet
15. The Wanting Comes in Waves – The Decemberists