I was excited to read New Jersey — Jersey has so much personality! I thought I would come across organized-crime novels set among the ports of New Jersey, and honestly I was hoping to find a title like that. I wanted to read something like The Sopranos, and even checked to see if the show was based on a book so I could read it (it wasn’t). Then I checked to see if The Godfather was set in NJ, but it’s set in NY. The same goes for Patti Smith’s Just Kids which is an amazing book, which I thought would be set somewhat in NJ, but mostly it’s set in NYC. I adored Smith’s book. It’s a favorite from this reading project, and I’m glad I accidentally read it on my NJ reading adventure.
After not finding any mob books, and after reading a NYC-set book for NJ, I did find Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, which I never read as a pre-teen and I was delighted to read as an adult. I also found an unusual and unexpected novel about an Indian family’s experience after immigrating to America — a novel in which the author pushes “all the exotic things to the side as if they didn’t matter” as the protagonist learns to do by studying Hemingway. And of course I reread some of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels, which never let me down when I want a fun and easy Jersey-girl read that is sure to make me giggle.
Novel: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
Author: Judy Blume, grew up in Elizabeth, NJ
Setting: Farbrook, NJ
Ex-pats of New York City, young Margaret’s parents moved to New Jersey, to the suburbs, where they could get away from the city and have a yard and a garden and some dirt to dig in.
When I groaned, “Why New Jersey?” I was told, “Long Island is too social, Westchester is too expensive, and Connecticut is too inconvenient.”
Margaret is 11, entering 6th grade in a new town, and meets young Nancy and joins her secret society where they mainly discuss their impending periods, rank which boys they like, and malign the tall, first-to-develop girl in their class. Margaret, coming from New York City, is expected to be more worldly and grown up, but she feels left behind by the girls she falls in with. She talks every night to God. Her parents — one raised Jewish and one Christian — have left it up to her to choose which faith to access God through.
I remember friends loving this book when I was growing up, but I never read it, and I wish I had. It shepherded an entire generation of girls through the mysteries of adolescence, and it’s a funny, real, and uplifting book. The thing I loved most about it was Margaret’s private and personal relationship with God without the baggage of an organized religion distracting from that connection.
Novel: Family Life
Author: Akhil Sharma
Setting: New Jersey
Beginning in India and ending in New Jersey, Family Life surprised me in its depiction of an immigrant experience. Rather than focusing on the family’s integration into and treatment by American society, the story is a fascinating look at Indian social norms and customs, transplanted to a new country, especially when something horrible happens within a family who needs a network of support and familiarity.
Placing an Indian family in the setting of American suburbs in NJ had an interesting effect on me: it made it very clear how similar humans are across cultures, like presenting false appearances to make everyone think what you want them to think about you.
Family Life is told from the perspective of Ajay, an Indian boy whose family moves to America, and soon after, Ajay’s older brother has an accident that leaves him brain-damaged and bed-ridden. Throughout the novel, Ajay navigates his parents’ downward spiral, the Indian community’s reaction to their misfortune, being other in an American school — being one of the Indians with an accent and who brings funny foods to lunch — and trying to impress everyone all along the way.
The most exciting and unexpected part of the book is when Ajay discovers writing. He discovers not by practicing writing, or even by reading good writing, but by reading about Hemingway. Ajay realizes he might achieve fame and fortune and the ability to travel the world by being a writer rather than a doctor or an engineer, and so he reads everything he can about Hemingway before actually reading Hemingway’s work. And then he begins to write. The writing allows him to both process and express what’s happening in his family, and I found that fascinating.
Writing the story changed me. Now I began to feel as if I were walking through my life collecting things that could be used later: the sound of a ping-pong ball was like a woman walking in high heels, the shower running was like television static. Seeing things as material for writing protected me.
Novel: One For the Money
Author: Janet Evanovich
Setting: Trenton, NJ
I love these Stephanie Plum books. I think there are 28 now. I remember starting them, many years ago, when Shelfari still existed. They’re fun for their New Jersey setting and personalities, which are entertaining.
Connie handed me the check and plucked at a clump of mascara hanging at the end of her left eyelash. “I’m telling you, it’s fucking hard to be classy,” she said.
They’re also fun because though they’re similar to the cosy detective/mystery formula with a bumbling, nosy-neighbor crime-solver, they’re different: Stephanie Plum is a bounty hunter. In the first book of the series, One For the Money, Stephanie loses her job as a lingerie salesperson due to a company merger. She has no money, has to pawn her appliances to pay rent, and she needs money fast. Her NJ mom, who’s always in Stephanie’s business, shares that their bonds-bailsman cousin Vinny is looking for someone to do the filing. Stephanie arrives to apply for the job and ends up as a fill-in bounty hunter instead.
She’s funny, gutsy, and acts without thinking, and through a combination of smart deduction, happy accidents, her Jersey attitude, and some very scary attacks, she manages to accomplish what many around her cannot. Plus, I love that New Jersey is another character in the books.
Cicadas buzzed, Dumpsters reeked, and a dusty haze hung in a perpetuity over softball fields statewide. I figured it was all part of the great adventure of living in New Jersey.
These are light, fun reads that are great for tearing through in one or two days.