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

0

Reading the World: America (Part One)

Whilst I could have been clever and split this into fifty separate parts to denote every single one of the states of the good old USA, I feel that some of them would be horribly underrepresented, and some of them would inevitably include far too many books (New York State, I’m looking at you).  That said, I have decided to present five distinct parts of Reading the World on the American shores – theoretically one book for each state, although I will be encompassing the continent as a whole – and showcase fifty books which are set in America, and which I have very much enjoyed.  (NB. I have decided not to include many very popular classics, or modern classics – To Kill a Mockingbird, Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseThe Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, and East of Eden, for instance, for whilst I adore all of the aforementioned more than I could say, I do not want this to turn into one of the usual, predictable list which newspapers publish every so often to see how well read we are).  So, let us begin…

1. The Crucible by Arthur Miller (Massachusetts) 9780141182551
‘Arthur Miller’s classic parable of mass hysteria draws a chilling parallel between the Salem witch-hunt of 1692 – ‘one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history’ – and the American anti-communist purges led by Senator McCarthy in the 1950s. The story of how the small community of Salem is stirred into madness by superstition, paranoia and malice, culminating in a violent climax, is a savage attack on the evils of mindless persecution and the terrifying power of false accusations. A depiction of innocent men and women destroyed by malicious rumour, The Crucible is also a powerful indictment of McCarthyism and the ‘frontier mentality’ of Cold War America.’

2. The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken (Massachusetts)
‘The year is 1950, and in a small town on Cape Cod 28 year-old librarian Peggy Cort feels as if love and life have stood her up. Until the day James Carlson Sweatt – the ‘over-tall’ 11 year-old boy who’s the talk of the town – walks into her library and changes her life forever. Two misfits whose lonely paths cross at the circulation desk, Peggy and James are odd candidates for friendship. In James, Peggy discovers the one person who’s ever really understood her, and as he grows – six foot five at age twelve, then seven foot, then eight – so does her heart and their most singular romance. The Giant’s House is a strange, beautifully written and unforgettably tender novel about learning to welcome the unexpected miracle.’

97801413915403. Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison (South Carolina)
‘Carolina in the 1950s, and Bone – christened Ruth Anna Boatwright – lives a happy life, in and out of her aunt’s houses, playing with her cousins on the porch, sipping ice tea, loving her little sister Reece and her beautiful young mother. But Glen Waddell has been watching them all, wanting her mother too, and when he promises a new life for the family, her mother gratefully accepts. Soon Bone finds herself in a different, terrible world, living in fear, and an exile from everything she knows. “Bastard Out of Carolina” is a raw, poignant tale of fury, power, love and family.’

4. White Oleander by Janet Fitch (California)
‘White Oleander is a painfully beautiful first novel about a young girl growing up the hard way. It is a powerful story of mothers and daughters, their ambiguous alliances, their selfish love and cruel behaviour, and the search for love and identity.Astrid has been raised by her mother, a beautiful, headstrong poet. Astrid forgives her everything as her world revolves around this beautiful creature until Ingrid murders a former lover and is imprisoned for life. Astrid’s fierce determination to survive and be loved makes her an unforgettable figure.’

5. We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates (New York State) 9781841156996
‘The unforgettable story of the rise, fall and ultimate redemption of an American family. The Mulvaneys are seemingly blessed by everything that makes life sweet. They live together in the picture-perfect High Point Farm, just outside the community of Mt Ephraim, New York, where they are respected and liked by everybody. Yet something happens on Valentine’s Day 1976. An incident involving Marianne Mulvaney, the pretty sixteen-year-old daughter, is hushed up in the town and never discussed within the family. The impact of this event reverberates throughout the lives of the characters. As told by Judd, years later, in an attempt to make sense of his own past reveals the unspoken truths of that night that rends the fabric of the family life with tragic consequences.’

6. The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman (Florida)
‘Alice Hoffman is at her electrifying best in this fairy tale for grown-ups. The story begins with a little girl who makes a wish one snowy night and ruins her life. She grows up with a splinter of ice in her heart until one day, standing by her kitchen window, she is struck by lightning. Instead of killing her, this cataclysmic event sparks off a new beginning. She seeks out Lazarus Jones, a fellow lightning survivor. He is her opposite, a burning man whose breath can boil water and whose touch scorches. As an obsessive love affair begins between them, both are forced to hide their most dangerous secrets – what turned one to ice and the other to fire. The Ice Queen is a haunting story of passion, loss, second chances and the secrets that come to define us, if we’re not careful.’

97803303516907. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (Alaska)
‘By examining the true story of Chris McCandless, a young man, who in 1992 walked deep into the Alaskan wilderness and whose SOS note and emaciated corpse were found four months later, internationally bestselling author Jon Krakauer explores the obsession which leads some people to explore the outer limits of self, leave civilization behind and seek enlightenment through solitude and contact with nature. ‘

8. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor (Tennessee)
‘Flannery O’Connor’s first novel is the story of Hazel Motes who, released from the armed services, returns to the evangelical Deep South. There he begins a private battle against the religiosity of the community and in particular against Asa Hawkes, the ‘blind’ preacher, and his degenerate fifteen-year-old daughter. In desperation Hazel founds his own religion, ‘The Church without Christ’, and this extraordinary narrative moves towards its savage and macabre resolution. ‘

9. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (Michigan) 9780007528646
”I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of l974.’ So begins the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides and her truly unique family secret, born on the slopes of Mount Olympus and passed on through three generations. Growing up in 70s Michigan, Calliope’s special inheritance will turn her into Cal, the narrator of this intersex, inter-generational epic of immigrant life in 20th century America. Middlesex won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.’

10. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (New York State)
‘Nicole Krauss explores the lasting power of the written word and the lasting power of love. ‘When I was born my mother named me after every girl in a book my father gave her called “The History of Love”…’ Fourteen-year-old Alma Singer is trying to find a cure for her mother’s loneliness. Believing she might discover it in an old book her mother is lovingly translating, she sets out in search of its author. Across New York an old man called Leo Gursky is trying to survive a little bit longer. He spends his days dreaming of the love lost that sixty years ago in Poland inspired him to write a book. And although he doesn’t know it yet, that book also survived: crossing oceans and generations, and changing lives…’

 

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

American Literature Month: ‘Bastard Out of Carolina’ by Dorothy Allison ****

I purchased Dorothy Allison’s debut novel on the recommendation of Mercy, who runs one of my favourite BookTube channels.  I adore books set within the Southern states of America, and was so surprised that I hadn’t come across Bastard Out of Carolina before.  An author like Allison, who has been likened to both Flannery O’Connor and my beloved Harper Lee, is certainly deserving of a lot of space on my bookshelf.

 Bastard Out of Carolina has such a wonderful premise, one which automatically sent me rushing to AbeBooks to order a copy: ‘[South] Carolina in the 1950s, and Bone – christened Ruth Anna Boatwright – lives a happy life, in and out of her aunt’s houses, playing with her cousins on the porch, sipping ice tea, loving her little sister Reece and her beautiful young mother. But Glen Waddell has been watching them all, wanting her mother too, and when he promises a new life for the family, her mother gratefully accepts. Soon Bone finds herself in a different, terrible world, living in fear, and an exile from everything she knows.’

The Boatwrights are essentially a ‘white trash’ family, living in a relatively small town in Greenville County, South Carolina during the 1950s.  The whole is told from Bone’s perspective, and her opening passage is so intriguing: ‘I’ve been called Bone all my life, but my name’s Ruth Anne.  I was named for and by my oldest aunt.  Aunt Ruth.  My Mama didn’t have much to say about it, since strictly speaking she wasn’t there’.  Unsure of her father’s identity, Bone is ‘certified a bastard by the state of South Carolina’, something which profoundly affects her throughout her formative years.

Allison has rendered her debut both gritty and dark.  The whole of Bastard Out of Carolina is gripping, and contains so many memorable scenes and characters.  Bone’s first person perspective works perfectly with the unfolding story, and one is immediately given a feel for her world.  I was reminded throughout of Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys and Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries; there is the same feel of absorption here, and a wonderfully memorable narrator.

Published in 1992, Bastard Out of Carolina is a modern classic in all respects; it is a powerful, poignant, memorable and important coming-of-age novel.  It is taut and so well crafted, and in every respect, it is an admirable work.  I for one cannot wait to get stuck into Allison’s other books.

Purchase from The Book Depository