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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‘Of Scars and Stardust’ by Andrea Hannah ****

The protagonist of Andrea Hannah’s Of Scars and Stardust is Claire Graham, a seventeen-year-old who has moved from Ohio to New York City, in order to try and escape a tragedy in her hometown.  It is the disappearance of her younger sister, Ella, which sparks her return to Amble, the small town which she hails from.

The presence of wolves in Amble is a story widely believed by many of its residents, and is used as a deterrent for many things around the area: ‘exasperated parents used them as a warning for not eating all your peas at dinner – the wolves might be watching, so you better do it’.  The sense of foreboding which goes hand in hand with the very existence of the creatures has been built in a manner which is nothing short of stunning.  Hannah has ensured that her prose becomes taut – and consequently tense – at the most pivotal moments of the novel.

From the very beginning of Of Scars and Stardust, Hannah has set out the personality of her young lead character: ‘I followed.  Because I always followed.’  Her friends view her as sensible and serious, and her best friend Rae asks her, rather early on in her narrative, ‘Can’t you ever just, like, go with the flow, Claire?’.  Claire is the keeper of secrets, sworn to silence when Rae runs away with her boyfriend at the start of the novel.  The relationships between Claire and other characters – whether with Rae’s brother Grant, or her own sister Ella – have been carefully considered.

Throughout, Claire’s discomfort has been perfectly captured, and her many complexities help to build a believable character.  Her behaviour and actions fit well with the situations in which she finds herself, and a lot of thought has clearly been put into her creation.  Her first person narrative voice is strong.  Hannah’s descriptions wonderfully build the sense of place: the cornfields ‘blurred into a smear of brown and dropped over into the cement sky’, for example.  Hannah also places great importance upon each and every character she focuses upon, however small their role in the novel.  Of Claire’s friend Grant, Hannah describes the way in which ‘the freckles on his nose looked just like the Big Dipper, with its handle pointing to his eyebrows’, and of a stranger at a party, ‘His face was drenched in light, like tiny fireflies stuck in the folds of his almost-beard’.

So many themes can be found within Of Scars and Stardust‘s pages – family, loyalty, self-discovery, the notion of coping, love in many guises, assumptions, disappearance and grief amongst them.  Of Scars and Stardust is an intriguing and well written novel, which is sure to absorb any reader.  The pace of the whole is perfect, as is the arc of both the characters and situations in which they find themselves.

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Sula by Toni Morrison ****

My real life book club was attempting to read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas this August.  I thought they were being a little overambitious, and I must admit that until I read a marvellously favourable review of it, I was not keen in the slightest to join in.  Before I could even get my hands on a copy, the decision to read it was changed as everyone was struggling so much with it.  We were told to choose our own books instead and comment upon them at our next meeting.

I was unsure about what to choose.  The last time we had a free choice for what to read, I chose the brilliant The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, and despite my enthusiasm for it, I doubt if anybody has read it on my recommendation.  I toyed with the idea of reading a Virginia Woolf or a Charles Dickens, since my suggestions for group reads by both authors have been spurned by those who have never read them.  When mentioning that we should read The Waves by Virginia Woolf a few months ago, I received a series of grimaces, and before I had as much as mentioned Dickens as a candidate for another idea I had (choosing one author and each person then reading a book by them and commenting upon it), I was told, ‘Now, literature graduate, no Dickens or Hardy’.  What to choose, then?  Which book could I extract from my to-read shelves which wouldn’t bore the other book club members (all of whom are at least twenty years older than me, I might add), and which they might like to read?  I went to William Faulkner first, all set to review the excellent As I Lay Dying, but then I spotted rather a new addition to my shelves – Sula by Toni Morrison.  It is by a Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize winner, which is impressive enough already, and it sounded marvellous.  Why not?, I thought.  I had been looking forward to reading one of Morrison’s books for an age as I’ve heard such great things about her, and this slim volume seemed a good one to begin with.

In her introduction to Sula, Morrison states that in this novel, she aimed to ‘use folk language, vernacular in a manner neither exotic nor comic, neither minstrelized nor microscopically analyzed’.  She goes on to say, ‘I wanted to redirect, reinvent the political, cultural, and artistic judgments saved for African American writers’.

The novel begins in 1919 and takes place in Ohio, in a segregated dwelling place known as ‘the Bottom’.  The retrospective perspective in the opening paragraph shows the way in which the landscape of the Bottom has altered over time.  Morrison tells of how the Bottom was left to a slave by his master, on the condition that he would ‘perform some very difficult chores’ in return.  In consequence, ‘The nigger got the hilly land, where planting was backbreaking, where the soil slid down and washed away the seeds, and where the wind lingered all through the winter’.  She tells the story of two young girls, Nel and Sula, who grow up with one another in the Bottom.

Morrison has historically grounded her story in the most marvellous manner.  Throughout she gives details which relate to a particular moment or period in time, such as a character named Shadrack fighting in the First World War, and the rehabilitation which follows:

“… not daring to acknowledge the fact that he didn’t even know who or what he was… with no past, no language, no tribe, no source, no address book, no comb, no pencil, no clock… and nothing nothing nothing to do… he was sure of one thing only: the unchecked monstrosity of his hands.”

The psychology which Morrison presents in this way is sensitively and skilfully wrought.  Along with the historical and period details, she has included rather sad experiences which her characters undergo due purely to their race or class.  During a long train journey, Nel’s mother, Helene, becomes desperate for the toilet, but has to wait until they stop in a station which has a bathroom for ‘Colored Women’.  There are none, and she has to humiliate herself by using a row of bushes just out of sight in consequence.  Nel is told that she cannot play with Sula merely on account of her mother being “sooty”.  Helene tells her daughter that she cannot speak Creole and that Nel cannot either, in the hope of leaving her past behind her:

“I don’t talk Creole.”  She glanced at her daughter’s wet buttocks.  “And neither do you.”

The entirety of the novel is incredibly sensory: ‘saffron dust’, ‘let the tenor’s voice dress him in silk’, ‘let the fingers that danced on wood kiss his skin’, for example.  The scene is so well set, which allows the book to unleash its full power.  The storyline is not at all predictable, and veers the reader in unexpected directions.  It is beautifully written throughout, and would certainly have earnt a place on my treasures shelf if the ending hadn’t been a little disappointing and it had been a little longer.