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Armchair Travel: The USA (Part Two)

I am itching to get back into an aeroplane, and to be able to resume the exploring which I so adore. Until that can be a reality, however, I have started an Armchair Travel series here on the blog. There will loosely be one post, focused on a geographical location which I really want to visit, per month. Here is a collection of ten books set in three more US states which I can’t wait to visit.

Alaska

If You Lived Here I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska by Heather Lende

‘Tiny Haines, Alaska, is ninety miles north of Juneau, accessible mainly by water or air—and only when the weather is good. There’s no traffic light and no mail delivery; people can vanish without a trace and funerals are a community affair. Heather Lende posts both the obituaries and the social column for her local newspaper. If anyone knows the going-on in this close-knit town—from births to weddings to funerals—she does. Whether contemplating the mysterious death of eccentric Speedy Joe, who wore nothing but a red union suit and a hat he never took off, not even for a haircut; researching the details of a one-legged lady gold miner’s adventurous life; worrying about her son’s first goat-hunting expedition; observing the awe-inspiring Chilkat Bald Eagle Festival; or ice skating in the shadow of glacier-studded mountains, Lende’s warmhearted style brings us inside her small-town life. We meet her husband, Chip, who owns the local lumber yard; their five children; and a colorful assortment of quirky friends and neighbors, including aging hippies, salty fishermen, native Tlingit Indians, and volunteer undertakers—as well as the moose, eagles, sea lions, and bears with whom they share this wild and perilous land.’

Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick

‘It’s 1910. In a cabin north of the Arctic Circle, in a place murderously cold and desolate, Sig Andersson is alone. Except for the corpse of his father, frozen to death that morning when he fell through the ice on the lake. The cabin is silent, so silent, and then there’s a knock at the door. It’s a stranger, and as his extraordinary story of gold dust and gold lust unwinds, Sig’s thoughts turn more and more to his father’s prized possession, a Colt revolver, hidden in the storeroom. A revolver just waiting to be used…but should Sig use it, or not?’

Shopping for Porcupine: Life in Arctic Alaska by Seth Kantner

‘His story begins with the arrival of his father, Howard Kantner, to the remote Arctic of the 1950s and ends with him as a grown man settled in the same landscape. Through a series of moving essays and vivid photographs, ranging in subject from family histories to hunting stories, celebrations of people and places to a lament over a majestic wilderness rapidly disappearing, Shopping for Porcupine provides a compelling, intimate view of America’s last frontier — the same place that captivated so many readers of Ordinary Wolves.

Oregon

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

‘At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State — and she would do it alone. Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.’

Wild Life by Molly Gloss

‘It is the early 1900s and Charlotte Bridger Drummond is a thoroughly modern woman. The sole provider for her five young boys, Charlotte is a fiercely independent, freethinking woman of the West who fully embraces the scientific spirit that is sweeping the nation at the dawn of the industrial age. Thumbing her nose at convention, she dresses in men’s clothes, avoids housework whenever possible, and proudly supports her family by writing popular women’s adventure stories. Ready to show off her knowledge of the local flora and fauna and have an adventure of her own, Charlotte joins a search party for a child who has disappeared in the deepwood wilderness on the border between Oregon and Washington. But when she gets lost herself, she is thrust into a mysterious world that not only tests her courage but challenges her entire concept of reality Starving and half dead from exposure, Charlotte is rescued by a band of elusive, quasi-human beasts. As she becomes a part of the creatures’ extended family, Charlotte is forced to reconsider her previous notions about the differences between animals and humans, men and women, and above all, between wilderness and civilization Beautifully written and historically accurate, “Wild Life” is a highly original tale set at the very edge of civilization, where one woman takes on the untamed world of nature, and in the process, discovers much about the deepest recesses of her very own human nature. Putting a surprising, revitalizing, feminine spin on the classic legend of Tarzan and other wildman sagas, award-winning novelist Molly Gloss delivers a rich portrait of America’s northwestern frontier at the start of the twentieth century.’

Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith

‘Isabel is a single, twentysomething thrift-store shopper and collector of remnants, things cast off or left behind by others. Glaciers follows Isabel through a day in her life in which work with damaged books in the basement of a library, unrequited love for the former soldier who fixes her computer, and dreams of the perfect vintage dress move over a backdrop of deteriorating urban architecture and the imminent loss of the glaciers she knew as a young girl in Alaska. Glaciers unfolds internally, the action shaped by Isabel’s sense of history, memory, and place, recalling the work of writers such as Jean Rhys, Marguerite Duras, and Virginia Woolf. For Isabel, the fleeting moments of one day can reveal an entire life. While she contemplates loss and the intricate fissures it creates in our lives, she accumulates the stories—the remnants—of those around her and she begins to tell her own story.’

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

‘This debut novel tells the story of Rachel, the daughter of a Danish mother and a black G.I. who becomes the sole survivor of a family tragedy. With her strict African American grandmother as her new guardian, Rachel moves to a mostly black community, where her light brown skin, blue eyes, and beauty bring mixed attention her way. Growing up in the 1980s, she learns to swallow her overwhelming grief and confronts her identity as a biracial young woman in a world that wants to see her as either black or white. In the tradition of Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, here is a portrait of a young girl – and society’s ideas of race, class, and beauty.’

Maine

The Cider House Rules by John Irving

‘Raised from birth in the orphanage at St. Cloud’s, Maine, Homer Wells has become the protege of Dr. Wilbur Larch, its physician and director. There Dr. Larch cares for the troubled mothers who seek his help, either by delivering and taking in their unwanted babies or by performing illegal abortions. Meticulously trained by Dr. Larch, Homer assists in the former, but draws the line at the latter. Then a young man brings his beautiful fiancee to Dr. Larch for an abortion, and everything about the couple beckons Homer to the wide world outside the orphanage.’

Cost by Roxana Robinson

‘When Julia Lambert, an art professor, settles into her idyllic Maine house for the summer, she plans to spend the time tending her fragile relationships with her father, a repressive neurosurgeon, and her gentle mother, who is descending into Alzheimer’s. But a shattering revelation intrudes: Julia’s son Jack has spiraled into heroin addiction. In an attempt to save him, Julia marshals help from her looseknit clan: elderly parents; remarried ex-husband; removed sister; and combative eldest son. Ultimately, heroin courses through the characters’ lives with an impersonal and devastating energy, sweeping the family into a world in which deceit, crime, and fear are part of daily life.’

Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout

‘In her luminous and long-awaited novel, bestselling author Elizabeth Strout welcomes readers back to the archetypal, lovely landscape of northern New England, where the events of her first novel, Amy and Isabelle, unfolded. In the late 1950s, in the small town of West Annett, Maine, a minister struggles to regain his calling, his family, and his happiness in the wake of profound loss. At the same time, the community he has served so charismatically must come to terms with its own strengths and failings—faith and hypocrisy, loyalty and abandonment—when a dark secret is revealed. Tyler Caskey has come to love West Annett, “just up the road” from where he was born. The short, brilliant summers and the sharp, piercing winters fill him with awe—as does his congregation, full of good people who seek his guidance and listen earnestly as he preaches. But after suffering a terrible loss, Tyler finds it hard to return to himself as he once was. He hasn’t had The Feeling—that God is all around him, in the beauty of the world—for quite some time. He struggles to find the right words in his sermons and in his conversations with those facing crises of their own, and to bring his five-year-old daughter, Katherine, out of the silence she has observed in the wake of the family’s tragedy. A congregation that had once been patient and kind during Tyler’s grief now questions his leadership and propriety. In the kitchens, classrooms, offices, and stores of the village, anger and gossip have started to swirl. And in Tyler’s darkest hour, a startling discovery will test his congregation’ s humanity—and his own will to endure the kinds of trials that sooner or later test us all. In prose incandescent and artful, Elizabeth Strout draws readers into the details of ordinary life in a way that makes it extraordinary. All is considered—life, love, God, and community—within these pages, and all is made new by this writer’s boundless compassion and graceful prose.’

Have you read any of these? Where are you wanting to visit when we can all travel safely again?

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‘Snow’ by Marcus Sedgwick ****

I found the lovely little hardback edition of Marcus Sedgwick’s Snow whilst browsing in the library, and added it to the already large pile weighing down my arms.  I have read a few of Sedgwick’s novels to date, but had never encountered his non-fiction work, and was suitably intrigued to start reading it as soon as I returned home.  It was the perfect addition to my seasonal reading pile, which I like to collate as soon as every season begins to shift into the next.

Sedgwick has always been fascinated by snow, and has travelled to many cold parts of the world in order to get closer to it.  After moving from Kent to a mountain chalet in France’s Haute-Savoie region, which borders Italy and Switzerland, ‘for the first time, he truly understood what it meant to live in a place where snowfall shaped the rhythms and boundaries of life.’

91vxoaic14lSnow is split into six sections, a number which has been selected to represent the six sides of a snowflake; a nice touch, I feel, and it is certainly an approach which works well.  In each of these chapters, Sedgwick explores ‘the art, literature and science of snow’, and places these alongside his own experiences.  Alongside this, he explores the wider implications of snowfall.  The blurb comments that Sedgwick also looks into ‘climate change for himself, asking if snow could become a thing of the past’ – rather a scary thought.

From the outset, Sedgwick’s descriptive writing really helps to set the scene.  He writes from his new home in France, commenting: ‘Looking down the valley now, between the humps of the nearby hills that lie like a line of vast migrating mammoths, the tip of the summit of Mont Blanc is making one of its rare appearances sans chapeau – without a hat – above the cloud that almost perpetually envelops the peak.  But yesterday the snow laid down its marker for the season, made its opening move, letting us know it’s on its way in earnest.  It is October 16.’

He opens with a fascinating section on the origins of different words for snow and their usage, before moving on to explore the scientific elements which will determine which kinds of snow will fall.  I admit that the science geek within me loved revisiting facts such as the following: ‘… the six-armed star shapes, known as dendrites, are not the only kind possible.  It’s also possible for snow to fall as needles, columns, hollow columns, six-sided prisms and plates.’  Sedgwick goes on to write: ‘Once snow lands, drifts, accumulates, thaws, refreezes, slides and so on, it develops even more intricacy, even greater wildness, but that’s another matter again.’

Sedgwick reminisces throughout the book about the winters of his childhood, and how they awakened his great love of snow; of ‘snowmen, snowball fights, icicles as dashers or as ice-dragon teeth, the snow seems to me now to have been a (literally) brilliant canvas for the imagination.’  His vision of the future is nowhere near as rosy as his reminiscences for years gone by, but his stark comments sadly feel realistic.  He comments: ‘At some point in our future then, there will be no more snow, no more ice…  Real snow – fresh, natural, ephemeral and almost supernatural – that will be gone.  Icicles like dragons’ teeth, lakes to skate on: these will be gone too.  The temperature of the world will have risen to the point where such things will live only in the memory of those old enough to remember, and then snow will take on itself an even deeper symbolism; it will become even more magical, mystical.  It will stand then for what we have lost.’

First published in 2016, and coming in at just over 100 pages, Snow would make a wonderful gift, or serve as a lovely choice for something a little different to read during the winter months.  It is a tome by a prolific but quite underrated author, and feels quite different from his other work which I have read to date.  One can see, however, in novels like My Swordhand is Swinging and Blood Red, Snow White, the influence of the winter.

Snow is absorbing, and the scope which Sedgwick has achieved within such a short book is admirable.  He continually notes how the weather is in the Haute-Savoie, and also beautifully captures how whole communities have come to live within, and rely upon, the snow.  He explores the myths and legends based around the snow – surprisingly few of them exist – and reinforces the power and reach of the snow as a weather phenomenon.  For a slim book, there is certainly a lot packed in, and much to consider.

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One From the Archive: ‘A Love Like Blood’ by Marcus Sedgwick ****

A Love Like Blood is Marcus Sedgwick’s first novel for adults.  He is acclaimed as a young adult author, and has turned his hand to a varied range of subjects within his fiction.  The prologue of his newest offering opens in Sextanio in Italy in 1968, and its beginning is certainly intriguing: ‘Dogs are barking in the night.  He’s somewhere in the broken village on the hilltop opposite me’.  Using such prose, Sedgwick is able to set the scene within A Love Like Blood immediately. 

In the first chapter, which begins in Paris in 1944, the reader is taken into the narrator’s memories.  ‘Paris,’ Charles Jackson explains, ‘was free, and I was one of the very few Englishmen to see it’.  Our narrator is twenty five years old at this point in time, and is a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, an experience which he explains threw him straight into adulthood.  It is an interesting technique to begin a book close to the end of the Second World War rather than at its beginning, and it does work well here.  Sedgwick puts across the point that the city is so changed from one week to the next, and the way in which he portrays this information contributes to the strong sense of history which the novel holds.

On a trip to a chateau just outside Paris to view some artefacts with his CO, one of the items which Charles is shown is said to be one of the earliest known depictions of vampires.  He is startled and has to hurtle outside to get some fresh air.  He finds himself wandering into a bunker and there, he witnesses a man ‘drinking’ from a wound upon the body of a young woman.

Throughout, the sense of place and its importance in the grand scheme of things has been well thought out.  The book moves from Paris to Cambridge and back again.  On his second trip to Paris, Charles finds the couple whom he saw in the bunker eating in a busy brasserie, and he decides to follow them.  He is an honest narrator, but there are times at the start of the book in which he seems too preoccupied with himself and his own problems.  Just at the point that this begins to become a little wearing, it stops altogether.

Elements of mystery are tied up with those of horror in the novel, and the way in which the plot unfolds does not feel too dissimilar to that of Dracula at times.  Blood is, of course, a central theme – Charles becomes an expert in haemotology, and there is also the presence of the vampire, for example.  Although some of the elements of the plot are quite other-worldly, it is still, oddly, eminently believable.  Foreboding drips in here and there, and whilst things are able to be presupposed to a point by the reader, there are many surprising moments which aim to throw us off the track.  Sedgwick’s writing is easy to get into, and is not stylistically complex in any way.  Indeed, it does not feel too dissimilar to the style in which he writes for his younger audience.  In A Love Like Blood, he has crafted a great novel, and the plot points have been well placed into the whole so that there is not a dull moment.

Purchase from the Book Depository

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‘A Love Like Blood’ by Marcus Sedgwick ****

A Love Like Blood is Marcus Sedgwick’s first novel for adults.  He is acclaimed as a young adult author, and has turned his hand to a varied range of subjects within his fiction.  The prologue of his newest offering opens in Sextanio in Italy in 1968, and its beginning is certainly intriguing: ‘Dogs are barking in the night.  He’s somewhere in the broken village on the hilltop opposite me’.  Using such prose, Sedgwick is able to set the scene within A Love Like Blood immediately.

‘A Love Like Blood’ by Marcus Sedgwick

In the first chapter, which begins in Paris in 1944, the reader is taken into the narrator’s memories.  ‘Paris,’ Charles Jackson explains, ‘was free, and I was one of the very few Englishmen to see it’.  Our narrator is twenty five years old at this point in time, and is a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, an experience which he explains threw him straight into adulthood.  It is an interesting technique to begin a book close to the end of the Second World War rather than at its beginning, and it does work well here.  Sedgwick puts across the point that the city is so changed from one week to the next, and the way in which he portrays this information contributes to the strong sense of history which the novel holds.

On a trip to a chateau just outside Paris to view some artefacts with his CO, one of the items which Charles is shown is said to be one of the earliest known depictions of vampires.  He is startled and has to hurtle outside to get some fresh air.  He finds himself wandering into a bunker and there, he witnesses a man ‘drinking’ from a wound upon the body of a young woman.

Throughout, the sense of place and its importance in the grand scheme of things has been well thought out.  The book moves from Paris to Cambridge and back again.  On his second trip to Paris, Charles finds the couple whom he saw in the bunker eating in a busy brasserie, and he decides to follow them.  He is an honest narrator, but there are times at the start of the book in which he seems too preoccupied with himself and his own problems.  Just at the point that this begins to become a little wearing, it stops altogether.

Elements of mystery are tied up with those of horror in the novel, and the way in which the plot unfolds does not feel too dissimilar to that of Dracula at times.  Blood is, of course, a central theme – Charles becomes an expert in haemotology, and there is also the presence of the vampire, for example.  Although some of the elements of the plot are quite other-worldly, it is still, oddly, eminently believable.  Foreboding drips in here and there, and whilst things are able to be presupposed to a point by the reader, there are many surprising moments which aim to throw us off the track.  Sedgwick’s writing is easy to get into, and is not stylistically complex in any way.  Indeed, it does not feel too dissimilar to the style in which he writes for his younger audience.  In A Love Like Blood, he has crafted a great novel, and the plot points have been well placed into the whole so that there is not a dull moment.

Purchase from the Book Depository