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Reading the World: America (Part Five)

The final part of our epic reading tour around America!  If you have any stateside-set books to recommend to me, please do.

97808606837591. The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty (Mississippi)
‘The people of Mount Salus, Mississippi always felt good about Judge McKelva. He was a quiet, solid reassuring figure, just as a judge should be. Then, ten years after his first wife’s death, he marries the frivolous young Wanda Fay. No-one can understand his action, not least his beloved daughter, Laurel, who finds it hard to accept the new bride. It is only some years later, when circumstance brings her back to her childhood home, that Laurel stirs old memories and comes to understand the peculiarities of her upbringing, and the true relationship between her parents and herself.’

2. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (California)
‘On the eve of her ninth birthday, Rose Edelstein bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the slice. All at once her cheerful, can-do mother tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes perilous. Anything can be revealed at any meal. Rose’s gift forces her to confront the truth behind her family’s emotions – her mother’s sadness, her father’s detachment and her brother’s clash with the world. But as Rose grows up, she learns that there are some secrets even her taste buds cannot discern.’

3. Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields (Alabama) 9780805083194
‘After years of research, Charles J. Shields brings to life the warmhearted, high-spirited, and occasionally hardheaded woman who gave us two of American literature’s most unforgettable characters Atticus Finch and his daughter, Scout. At the center of Shields’s evocative, lively book is the story of Lee’s struggle to create her famous novel, but her colorful life contains many highlights her girlhood as a tomboy in overalls in tiny Monroeville, Alabama; the murder trial that made her beloved father’s reputation and inspired her great work; her journey to Kansas as Truman Capote’s ally and research assistant to help report the story of In Cold Blood. Mockingbird is unique, highly entertaining, filled with humor and heart is a wide-ranging, idiosyncratic portrait of a writer, her dream, and the place and people whom she made immortal.’

4. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (Idaho)
Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and Lucille, orphans growing up in the small desolate town of Fingerbone in the vast northwest of America. Abandoned by a succession of relatives, the sisters find themselves in the care of Sylvie, the remote and enigmatic sister of their dead mother. Steeped in imagery of the bleak wintry landscape around them, the sisters’ struggle towards adulthood is powerfully portrayed in a novel about loss, loneliness and transience.’

97801410301425. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards (Kentucky)
‘Families have secrets they hide even from themselves…It should have been an ordinary birth, the start of an ordinary happy family. But the night Dr David Henry delivers his wife’s twins is a night that will haunt five lives for ever. For though David’s son is a healthy boy, his daughter has Down’s syndrome. And, in a shocking act of betrayal whose consequences only time will reveal, he tells his wife their daughter died while secretly entrusting her care to a nurse. As grief quietly tears apart David’s family, so a little girl must make her own way in the world as best she can.’

6. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (Vermont/Wisconsin)
‘Tracing the lives, loves, and aspirations of two couples who move between Vermont and Wisconsin, it is a work of quiet majesty, deep compassion, and powerful insight into the alchemy of friendship and marriage.’

7. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (Massachusetts) 9780006551805
‘ ‘When her grandmother learned of Ashima’s pregnancy, she was particularly thrilled at the prospect of naming the family’s first sahib. And so Ashima and Ashoke have agreed to put off the decision of what to name the baby until a letter comes…’ For now, the label on his hospital cot reads simply BABY BOY GANGULI. But as time passes and still no letter arrives from India, American bureaucracy takes over and demands that ‘baby boy Ganguli’ be given a name. In a panic, his father decides to nickname him ‘Gogol’ – after his favourite writer. Brought up as an Indian in suburban America, Gogol Ganguli soon finds himself itching to cast off his awkward name, just as he longs to leave behind the inherited values of his Bengali parents. And so he sets off on his own path through life, a path strewn with conflicting loyalties, love and loss…’

8. The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Mississippi)
‘Enter a vanished and unjust world: Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Where black maids raise white children, but aren’t trusted not to steal the silver…There’s Aibileen, raising her seventeenth white child and nursing the hurt caused by her own son’s tragic death; Minny, whose cooking is nearly as sassy as her tongue; and white Miss Skeeter, home from College, who wants to know why her beloved maid has disappeared. Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. No one would believe they’d be friends; fewer still would tolerate it. But as each woman finds the courage to cross boundaries, they come to depend and rely upon one another. Each is in a search of a truth. And together they have an extraordinary story to tell…’

97803305320139. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (California)
‘The Victorian language of flowers was used to express emotions: honeysuckle for devotion, azaleas for passion, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it has been more useful in communicating feelings like grief, mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now eighteen, Victoria has nowhere to go, and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. When her talent is discovered by a local florist, she discovers her gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But it takes meeting a mysterious vendor at the flower market for her to realise what’s been missing in her own life, and as she starts to fall for him, she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, and decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.’

10. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (Massachusetts)
‘We are beautiful, privileged and live a life of carefree luxury.We are cracked and broken. A story of love and romance.A tale of tragedy. Which are lies? Which is truth?’

 

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Reading the World: America (Part Three)

Ten more books, all set in the USA.  Again, I’ve tried not to be too obvious in my choices here, so I hope you find something on this relatively varied list to interest you.

1. The Dive From Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer (Wisconsin) 9780375727139
‘How much do we owe the people we love? Is it a sign of strength or weakness to walk away from someone in need? These questions lie at the heart of Ann Packer s intimate and emotionally thrilling new novel, which has won its author comparisons with Jane Hamilton and Sue Miller. At the age of twenty-three Carrie Bell has spent her entire life in Wisconsin, with the same best friend and the same dependable, easygoing, high school sweetheart. Now to her dismay she has begun to find this life suffocating and is considering leaving it and Mike behind. But when Mike is paralyzed in a diving accident, leaving seems unforgivable and yet more necessary than ever.’

2. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (California; review here)
‘In the din and stink that is Cannery Row a colourful blend of misfits – gamblers, whores, drunks, bums and artists – survive side by side in a jumble of adventure and mischief. Lee Chong, the astute owner of the well-stocked grocery store, is also the proprietor of the Palace Flophouse that Mack and his troupe of good-natured ‘boys’ call home. Dora runs the Bear Flag Restaurant with clockwork efficiency and a generous heart, and Doc, secreted away in his home at Western Biological Laboratories, is the fount of all wisdom.’

97806188717113. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (Pennsylvania)
‘A fresh and brilliantly told memoir from a cult favorite comic artist, marked by gothic twists, a family funeral home, sexual angst, and great books. This breakout book by Alison Bechdel is a darkly funny family tale, pitch-perfectly illustrated with Bechdel’s sweetly gothic drawings. Meet Alison’s father, a historic preservation expert and obsessive restorer of the family’s Victorian home, a third-generation funeral home director, a high school English teacher, an icily distant parent, and a closeted homosexual who, as it turns out, is involved with his male students and a family babysitter. Through narrative that is alternately heartbreaking and fiercely funny, we are drawn into a daughter’s complex yearning for her father. And yet, apart from assigned stints dusting caskets at the family-owned “fun home,” as Alison and her brothers call it, the relationship achieves its most intimate expression through the shared code of books. When Alison comes out as homosexual herself in late adolescense, the denouement is swift, graphic — and redemptive.’

4. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls (Arizona/West Virginia)
‘This is a startling memoir of a successful journalist’s journey from the deserted and dusty mining towns of the American Southwest, to an antique filled apartment on Park Avenue. Jeanette Walls narrates her nomadic and adventurous childhood with her dreaming, ‘brilliant’ but alcoholic parents. At the age of seventeen she escapes on a Greyhound bus to New York with her older sister; her younger siblings follow later. After pursuing the education and civilisation her parents sought to escape, Jeanette eventually succeeds in her quest for the ‘mundane, middle class existence’ she had always craved. In her apartment, overlooked by ‘a portrait of someone else’s ancestor’ she recounts poignant remembered images of star watching with her father, juxtaposed with recollections of irregular meals, accidents and police-car chases and reveals her complex feelings of shame, guilt, pity and pride toward her parents.’

5. The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan (California) 9780006550525
‘Olivia Yee is only five years old when Kwan, her older sister from China, comes to live with the family and turns her life upside down, bombarding her day and night with ghostly stories of strange ancestors from the world of Yin. Olivia just wants to lead a normal American life. For the next thirty years, Olivia endures visits from Kwan and her ghosts, who appear in the living world to offer advice on everything from restaurants to Olivia’s failed marriage. But just when she cannot bear it any more, the revelations of a tragic family secret finally open her mind to the startling truths hidden in Kwan’s unorthodox vision of the world.’

6. Stoner by John Williams (Missouri)
‘William Stoner enters the University of Missouri at nineteen to study agriculture. A seminar on English literature changes his life, and he never returns to work on his father’s farm. Stoner becomes a teacher. He marries the wrong woman. His life is quiet, and after his death his colleagues remember him rarely. Yet with truthfulness, compassion and intense power, this novel uncovers a story of universal value. Stoner tells of the conflicts, defeats and victories of the human race that pass unrecorded by history, and reclaims the significance of an individual life. A reading experience like no other, itself a paean to the power of literature, it is a novel to be savoured.’

97812500101937. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente (Nebraska; review here)
‘Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.’

8. The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather (Colorado)
‘Beautiful and lyrical, this third novel by Willa Cather follows the life of Thea Kronberg from her childhood in 19th-century Nebraska to her career as a renowned opera singer.  Since the time of its publication in 1915, this novel had captivated readers with its sharp observations, shimmering descriptions, sly humor, and its provocative heroine a feisty young woman who strives to create her own destiny, regardless of social restrictions.’

9. A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (Louisiana) 9780141190273
‘Fading southern belle Blanche Dubois depends on the kindness of strangers and is adrift in the modern world. When she arrives to stay with her sister Stella in a crowded, boisterous corner of New Orleans, her delusions of grandeur bring her into conflict with Stella’s crude, brutish husband Stanley. Eventually their violent collision course causes Blanche’s fragile sense of identity to crumble, threatening to destroy her sanity and her one chance of happiness.’

10. A Million Little Pieces by James Frey (Minnesota)
‘By the time James Frey enters a drug and alcohol treatment facility, he has so thoroughly ravaged his body that the doctors are shocked he is still alive. Inside the clinic, he is surrounded by patients as troubled as he: a judge, a mobster, a former world-champion boxer, and a fragile former prostitute. To James, their friendship and advice seem stronger and truer than the clinic’s droning dogma of How to Recover. James refuses to consider himself a victim of anything but his own bad decisions. He insists on accepting sole accountability for the person he has been and the person he may becomewhich he feels runs counter to his counselor’s recipes for recovery. He must fight to survive on his own terms, for reasons close to his own heart. And he must battle the ever-tempting chemical trip to oblivion.’

 

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Reading the World: America (Part Two)

Again, I have tried to make these choices exciting and not that predictable, but I simply could not resist including Eowyn Ivey’s novel, which I’m sure the majority of people have read by now.

1. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (Alaska; review here9780755380534
‘Alaska, the 1920s. Jack and Mabel have staked everything on a fresh start in a remote homestead, but the wilderness is a stark place, and Mabel is haunted by the baby she lost many years before. When a little girl appears mysteriously on their land, each is filled with wonder, but also foreboding: is she what she seems, and can they find room in their hearts for her? Written with the clarity and vividness of the Russian fairy tale from which it takes its inspiration, The Snow Child is an instant classic.’

2. Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub (Wisconsin/California)
‘At once a delicious depiction of Hollywood s golden age and a sweet, fulfilling story about one woman s journey through fame, love, and loss. “Boston Globe” In 1920, Elsa Emerson is born to the owners of the Cherry County Playhouse in Door County, Wisconsin. Elsa relishes appearing onstage, where she soaks up the approval of her father and the embrace of the audience. But when tragedy strikes her family, her acting becomes more than a child s game of pretend. While still in her teens, Elsa marries and flees to Los Angeles. There she is discovered by Hollywood mogul Irving Green, who refashions her as an exotic brunette screen siren and renames her Laura Lamont. But fame has its costs, and while Laura tries to balance career, family, and personal happiness, she realizes that Elsa Emerson might not be gone completely.’

97801431209573. The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai (Missouri)
‘Lucy Hull, a children’s librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, finds herself both kidnapper and kidnapped when her favorite patron, ten-year-old Ian Drake, runs away from home. Ian needs Lucy’s help to smuggle books past his overbearing mother, who has enrolled Ian in weekly antigay classes. Desperate to save him from the Drakes, Lucy allows herself to be hijacked by Ian when she finds him camped out in the library after hours, and the odd pair embarks on a crazy road trip. But is it just Ian who is running away? And should Lucy be trying to save a boy from his own parents?’

4. Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane (Massachusetts)
‘US Marshal Teddy Daniels has come to Shutter Island, home of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, to find an escaped murderer named Rachel Solando. As a killer hurricane bears down on the island, the investigation deepens and the questions mount. How has a barefoot woman escaped from a locked room? Who is leaving them clues in the form of cryptic codes? And what really goes on in Ward C? The closer Teddy gets to the truth, the more elusive it becomes. And the more he begins to believe that he may never leave Shutter Island. Because someone is trying to drive him insane…’

5. Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby (Pennsylvania) 9780141020648
‘Annie’s put fifteen years into safe, slightly obsessive Duncan, and now she’d like her money back, please. It’s time to move on. But she lives in Gooleness, the north’s answer to a question nobody asked. Is she really going to find real, proper, feel-it-deep-down-in-your-boots love on a damp and windy seafront? Or perhaps she should follow her heart and pursue Tucker, the reclusive American rock star, who keeps emailing her his smart advice. But between Annie and her second chance lie a few obstacles. There’s Malcolm, the world’s most judgemental therapist, and Barnesy, the north’s most extrovert dancer. There’s what men and women will do and won’t do for love. And, of course, there’s Tucker…  Hilarious and tender, this bestselling novel will move you in ways both profound and surprising. ‘

6. Wildwood by Colin Meloy (Oregon)
‘In Wildwood, Prue and her friend Curtis uncover a secret world in the midst of violent upheaval a world full of warring creatures, peaceable mystics, and powerful figures with the darkest intentions. And what begins as a rescue mission becomes something much greater as the two friends find themselves entwined in a struggle for the very freedom of this wilderness. A wilderness the locals call Wildwood.Wildwood captivates readers with the wonder and thrill of a secret world within the landscape of a modern city. It feels at once firmly steeped in the classics of children’s literature and completely fresh at the same time. ‘

97801560316607. Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum (Minnesota)
‘For fifty years, Anna Schlemmer has refused to talk about her life in Germany during World War II. Her daughter, Trudy, was only three when she and her mother were liberated by an American soldier and went to live with him in Minnesota. Trudy’s sole evidence of the past is an old photograph: a family portrait showing Anna, Trudy, and a Nazi officer, the Obersturmfuhrer of Buchenwald. Driven by the guilt of her heritage, Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins investigating the past and finally unearths the dramatic and heartbreaking truth of her mother’s life. Combining a passionate, doomed love story, a vivid evocation of life during the war, and a poignant mother/daughter drama, Those Who Save Us is a profound exploration of what we endure to survive and the legacy of shame.’

8. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (Oregon)
‘Tyrannical Nurse Ratched rules her ward in an Oregon State mental hospital with a strict and unbending routine, unopposed by her patients, who remain cowed by mind-numbing medication and the threat of electroshock therapy. But her regime is disrupted by the arrival of McMurphy – the swaggering, fun-loving trickster with a devilish grin who resolves to oppose her rules on behalf of his fellow inmates. His struggle is seen through the eyes of Chief Bromden, a seemingly mute half-Indian patient who understands McMurphy’s heroic attempt to do battle with the powers that keep them imprisoned.’

9. The Awakening by Kate Chopin (Louisiana) 9780199536948
‘This sensuous book tells of a woman’s abandonment of her family, her seduction, and her awakening to desires and passions that threated to consumer her. Originally entitled “A Solitary Soul, ” this portrait of twenty-eight-year-old Edna Pontellier is a landmark in American fiction, rooted firmly in the romantic tradition of Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson. Here, a woman in search of self-discovery turns away from convention and society, and toward the primal, from convention and society, and toward the primal, irresistibly attracted to nature and the senses.’

10. The Secret History by Donna Tartt (Vermont)
‘Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and for ever.’

 

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American Literature Month: ‘Crossing to Safety’ by Wallace Stegner ****

Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety was recommended to me by the lovely Andrea, and was purchased as my second #TBR20 reward.  Before I began, I had no real idea as to what the novel was about, but I am so thankful that it was recommended to me, and just in time for American Literature Month too.

Stegner won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for his novel Angle of Repose, and I for one am so surprised that he isn’t better known or more widely read – here in the United Kingdom, at least.  Crossing to Safety is his final novel, published in 1987, when he was 78 years old.  It has been heralded by The Washington Post as ‘a magnificently crafted story…  brimming with wisdom’. 

Crossing to Safety centres around two young couples, Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang, who meet one another during the Great Depression.  The husbands both work within the English Department at the University of Wisconsin, and the wives are both pregnant.  They forge a lifelong friendship with one another almost immediately.  This ‘becomes increasingly complex as they share decades of love, loyalty, vulnerability and conflict’.  It is, says its blurb, ‘a beautiful and deeply moving exploration of the struggle of four people to come to terms with the trials and tragedies of everyday life’.

The novel is largely told from the perspective of Larry, who is looking back upon the pasts of both couples in the summer of 1972.  Larry and Sally have returned to the Langs’ cottage because Charity is ‘at death’s door’.  We are given a picture of the past dependency the couples have shared with one another in the following speech of Sally’s: ‘”They’re the only family we’ve ever had.  Our lives would have been totally different and a lot harder without them…  Except for Charity I wouldn’t be alive. I wouldn’t have wanted to be”‘.  Stegner has rather cleverly included a thread of omniscient narrative too, which loses none of the pull or interest which Larry’s voice holds.

The opening passage which Stegner crafts is beguiling: ‘Floating upward through a confusion of dreams and memory, curving like a trout through the rings of previous risings, I surface.  My eyes open.  I am awake’.  The descriptions which he provides of the natural world bring it immediately to life, and he uses personification marvellously: ‘I ignore the Ridge House road and choose instead the narrow dirt road that climbs around the hill to the right…  It is a road I have walked hundreds of times, a lovely lost tunnel through the trees, busy this morning with birds and little shy rustling things, my favourite road anywhere’, and ‘Over Stannard Mountain the air is hot gold, and as I watch, the sun surges up over the crest and stares me down’.  So much thought has been put into every element of Crossing to Safety, from the fresh and striking dialogue exchanges to the deftly crafted characters who are brought to life as three-dimensional beings beneath Stegner’s pen.

The Penguin Classics Edition which I read is introduced by Jane Smiley, herself a recipient of the Pulitzer.  Smiley terms Stegner the ‘anti-Henry James’, as he places much interest into such things as ‘how towns are founded ad built, how leisure and culture are supported and paid for, how wealth is made, and how people retain their human complexity in the most primitive conditions’.  She goes on to write that the novel ‘takes as one of its central subjects the nature of long-term marriage…  it explores two marriages in the twentieth-century mould, one without money and one with money…  it is more the complex depiction, sometimes light but often dark, of the multiple compromises involved in three marriages – that of the Morgans, that of the Langs, and that between the Morgans and the Langs’.  To Smiley, the Langs ‘personify old money and new’, and the Morgans ‘personify self-help’.

There is so much within Crossing to Safety to admire; the novel is incredibly intelligent, and full to the brim with both beautiful quotes and profundity.  If you do nothing else today, please go and seek out a copy of this novel, and then join me in thanking Andrea.

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