Andrea Reads America: Maryland

Andrea Reads America Book Map of Maryland
Andrea Reads America: Maryland

In our life before children, my husband and I lived in Maryland, in the D.C metro area. We lived in Tacoma Park and College Park, and we spent scores of weekends exploring the eastern shore, bicycling through Amish country, eating and drinking beers in Annapolis and Baltimore. I was hoping for literature that reflected our experiences of Maryland: forays into the city, hill country, sailing, the Chesapeake Bay. I wasn’t in the mood for Michener’s 880 page Chesapeake tome, which would likely take me years to finish (plus he wasn’t from Maryland and never lived in Maryland), so I settled for what I could find. I enjoyed the books I did read, but they did not reflect the Maryland I knew. Maybe one day I should write that book :-).

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Book: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave
Author: Frederick Douglass, born a slave in Maryland
Setting: 1830s Baltimore and rural Maryland
Category: Nonfiction, African-American Literature

I’ve read a lot of fiction about slavery, and have been shaken by those novels, but to read a nonfiction account by a former slave who taught himself to read and write, despite both the threat and reality of being whipped for it, is something else entirely.

Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye dried; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

Douglass’s narrative, set in the mid 1800s where he was a slave in both rural Maryland and in the city of Baltimore, is an eloquent illumination of the daily life and sufferings of slaves, not only in dramatic scenes like his hiding in the woods and the use of women slaves for “breeders,” but in details like the scanty ration of clothing he was given, the absence of bedding so he had to sleep on the ground, and the lack of time to even sleep for how hard he was worked.

How a human could have the grit to endure all of that — the oppression, the savagery, the chains and whips at every turn — and rise up above it awes me. Yet Douglass did. He heard a white man prohibit his wife from teaching slaves to read because education would cause them to overthrow their masters, and when Douglass heard that, he knew his route to freedom: literacy.

He sought education from children in the streets of Baltimore since he was forbidden the written word at home. Over years he taught himself to read and write. And the white man was right: Douglass’s intellect, though broken at some points by the nearly insurmountable obstacles of oppression, persisted. His mind found him a path to freedom. And then he taught others.

[My fellow slaves’] minds had been starved by their cruel masters. They had been shut up in mental darkness. I taught them, because it was the delight of my soul to be doing something that looked like bettering the condition of my race.

The human will is astonishing. It will not be stopped.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Novel: A Spool of Blue Thread
Author: Anne Tyler, lives in Maryland
Setting: 1930s-2016 Baltimore
Category: Contemporary fiction

Set in Baltimore, Maryland from the 1930s to current time, A Spool of Blue Thread tells the story of the Whitshank family –their mysterious beginnings with J.R. (Junior) and his marriage to Linne Mae, who was 13 to his 26 the first time they slept together — and the carefully constructed house that Junior built in an upper class neighborhood while he and Linne Mae lived in the working class Hampden neighborhood.

I find human beings and their interactions to be fascinating, especially at the family and class level. I devour the details that go on inside the walls of a household, and A Spool of Blue Thread captures the normalness of messiness beautifully, demonstrating that every family is dysfunctional. As Tyler writes of Abby, the daughter-in-law of Junior and Linnie Mae:

She couldn’t bear to think that their family was just another muddled, discontented, ordinary family.

Tyler crafts the characters masterfully — each is recognizable, with their traits and quirks, in people we know — and constructs their architecture as carefully, and with as much attention to quality, as J.R. constructed the house on Bouton road: the house in which all of their stories unfold. She tells a story of an ordinary family in a way that kept me turning the pages.

Anne Tyler is a Pulitzer winner, and this book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I think I have found a new author to love.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott FitzgeraldShort story: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald, lived in Baltimore
Setting: 1860 – 1930s Baltimore
Category: Short stories, Literary Fiction

We all know the story of Benjamin Button now, right? The story about the man who was born old and aged backwards? What I didn’t know about this story is that it was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and that it was set in Baltimore, Maryland. What I also didn’t know was that Fitzgerald lived in Baltimore for several years after Paris and New York, and that Maryland was where his wife Zelda was hospitalized in the 1930s for mental illness, and where Fitzgerald was hospitalized 9 times for alcoholism.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is very short, barely 40 pages, and is both strange and comical. Benjamin is born in 1860 as a 70 year-old man, and what struck me about this short story, since I’m reading for setting, is how unlike the Baltimore of today is the Baltimore in this book. Granted, I’ve only been exposed to certain parts of Baltimore: the grittier parts from Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (the book that spawned the HBO series The Wire) and the modern parts I’ve visited down by the Inner Harbor.

But in this book, Fitzgerald refers to ante bellum Baltimore, debutantes, and Baltimore society, reminding me that Maryland, and Baltimore, were part of the South. I don’t know why I think of Maryland as being both North and South, especially after reading Frederick Douglass’s book — perhaps because it is the northernmost east coast state south of the Mason Dixon line — but thinking of Baltimore with white, ante bellum Southern “society” was a place my mind had never gone before. It makes sense Fitzgerald would be the one to introduce it.

The story itself was only okay. It was a quick read that Fitzgerald thought was very funny, but it had deeper implications about age and how we interact with it. The movie was quite a departure from the original text, especially with regards to Benjamin’s romantic interest, which remained true throughout the film, and faded with his youth and his wife’s aging in the book (see above about deeper implications about age and how we interact with it). The book felt truer to what the reality would be in such a bizarre circumstance, while the movie was much sweeter.

For Further Reading in Maryland

Recommended books I’ve not yet read:
– Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Anne Tyler
– The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Ann Brashares
– Red Kayak, Priscilla Cummings
– Jacob Have I Loved, Katherine Paterson

I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.

Andrea Reads America: Maine

map-of-books-set-in-maine
Andrea Reads America: Maine

In 2005, my husband and I spent a winter in Maine. More than 100 inches of snow fell during the three months we were there. Snow was waist- or thigh-high many times throughout our brief stay there, and icicles would sometimes reach all the way to the ground. I didn’t see the earth — the dirt below the snow — for three months. Only whiteness and the black ribbons of rivers and roads. My husband and a friend of ours walked across the street to the beach, through chest-high snow drifts and wind they had to lean into, at midnight to listen to ocean waves slush onto the shore under a blanket of ice during a blizzard. It was a wild winter, especially for someone who grew up among live oaks and palm trees in the warmth of coastal Georgia.

Another year, we camped in Maine’s Acadia National Park during a summer when we lived in Maryland. We drove up and down the Maine coast visiting lighthouses and eating lobster rolls. We drove to quaint New England towns, walked barefoot on the warm cobbles of Maine beaches, watched fog roll in, and smelled the Christmas scent of firs on every hike.

I miss Maine, and was very excited to arrive there in my reading journey. I read multiple books set there, just because. As I read through the states, I’m finding that some of the books with the best sense of place are mysteries. The stories aren’t always new, but the settings are usually exactly what I’m looking for. Maine was no exception. I’m including only one mystery in my write-up, but check the list at the bottom of the post for another series.

olive-kitteridge-book-coverNovel: Olive Kitteridge
Author: Elizabeth Strout, born Portland, Maine
Setting: early 2000s Crosby, Maine
Category: Contemporary fiction, Literary fiction, Pulitzer winner

Told through a series of short stories set in Crosby, Maine, in some of which Olive is a central character and in most of which she is peripheral, Olive Kitteridge is a novel of aging, of compassion, of cantankerousness, and of regret. Strout’s use of different points of view is genius in that she not only exhibits the town’s perception of Olive — her sharpness, crochetyness, sternness, and her formidableness as a teacher — but it also shows how her actions, how her bluntness cuts through the haze of depression, desperation, and loneliness of people with whom nobody else will be real. Olive inadvertently rescues multiple people in the book, and despite her impatience for morons, she takes care of people easily and without resentment.

The characters in her town hold up mirrors to Olive: reflections of youth, hunger, child-rearing, or unhappiness. Her grown son’s marriage to a “know-it-all,” his move to the opposite coast, his divorce, his second marriage, and ultimately his therapy, hold the most revealing mirror of all, perhaps the only mirror that Olive, and not just the reader, looks into at all. All the other stories reveal Olive to the reader, but her son’s story reveals Olive to herself.

The first time I read Olive Kitteridge I did not appreciate it, but this time it wowed me. It is a story about growing old, about going through life trying to tackle hard things, and only near the end figuring any of it out. It is about not throwing love away. It is about life being hard, but taking care to not let that make you cranky and turn you into a monster. I could understand where the bitter women in this book were coming from, but that crankiness, no matter how justified, will only isolate a person, will only ruin her own life. Will only make her miserable.

rigged-for-murder-book-cover-by-jenifer-leclair Novel: Rigged for Murder
Author: Jenifer LeClair, sails frequently in Gulf of Maine
Setting: Gulf of Maine, and fictitious Granite Island
Category: Murder Mystery

My husband and I started sailing this summer, and while I don’t want to be caught in a storm off Maine’s rocky coast, I’ll always be keen to read about one. Rigged for Murder is a fast-paced thriller where all the suspects are trapped on a wooden schooner in exactly the setting I wanted: stormy, salty, wild, and cold.

His eyes stung from the horizontal rain and the salt spray blown off the tops of the waves. The liquid air had worked its way under his hood and ran cold down the back of his neck. He’d sailed in lots of foul weather, but this was a bad sea.

LeClair is an experienced sailor and peppers the dialogue with sailing and lobstering language that deepens the sense of place, and along with the stormy seas of the Gulf of Maine, she delivers an isolated island with rocky cliffs and coves, lobster boats and fir trees, and even a bed and breakfast with warm showers and a trail through the Christmas-tree scented forest.

The setting was everything I craved, not just with the land of Maine, but with the roiling sea and the maritime history of it, too. I’m glad there are more in the series for when I’m landlocked and want the adventure of being on sailboat.

edinburgh-by-alexander-chee-book-coverNovel: Edinburgh
Author: Alexander Chee, grew up partially in Maine
Setting: contemporary Maine
Category: Asian American fiction, LGBT fiction

Almost all of these boys are blond. Which is to say, I am the one who isn’t.

This book begins with Fee, a Korean-American pre-teen in a New England choir, and introduces us to the innocence of young boys with voices like angels, and the molestation they suffer at their choir master’s summer camps in the woods of Maine. As innocents they are naturally confused, and know it is wrong. To compound his confusion, as Fee is victim and watches his closes friends also be victimized, Fee grows up knowing he is gay, and mixes this up with the obviously wrong thing the choir master does. Fee’s sexuality is impossibly intertwined with this monster in his life, and as if being gay weren’t difficult and scorned enough, he can’t separate his homosexuality from the wrongs his choir director did.

The book follows Fee into adulthood, incorporating Korean myth and beautiful, poetic language with grace and elegance. It is a book filled with beauty, sadness, and wisdom.

Love ruins monsters.

There were times I was so invested in the characters and the story I would forget the book is set in Maine. Then Chee would drop a passage like this:

The next morning the trees split from the cold. The water freezing inside the trees tears the fibers of the wood, and the wind pulls them apart.

Or this:

The water, even in summer, is the temperature of an ice cube melting in your shirt. The stones of the beach warm us as we walk up and lie down on them to dry off.

And then I would remember Maine. Chee’s writing is beautiful, as is this novel.

For Further Reading in Maine

Books I’ve read and recommend:
– Carrie, by Stephen King
– Clammed Up (Maine Clambake Series #1), Barbara Ross
– The Cider House Rules, by John Irving
– The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey
– Stern Men, by Elizabeth Gilbert

I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.