When I first started reading the state, I wasn’t sure if I was really getting a feel for what Pennsylvania is like. The main things I know Pennsylvania for are Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Hershey, and the Pennsylvania Amish. None of the books I read are specifically about Hershey or the Amish, but I did find books that represented the bustling Philly (Oreo and Buck), the industrial Pittsburgh (The Mysteries of Pittsburgh), and the cornfield-filled swaths of Pennsylvania that are more like its midwestern neighbor, Ohio, than like the cities on its eastern and western sides (The Lovely Bones).
Novel: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
Author: Michael Chabon, graduated University of Pittsburgh
Setting: 1980s Pittsburgh (published 1988)
I loved this book. I tore through it in two days. It’s the story of Art Bechstein, son of a Jewish gangster from D.C. Art came to Pittsburgh for college, and he comes of age and into his sexuality there after meeting both Arthur (gay man) and Phlox (ultra-feminine heterosexual woman) at the university library.
He eagerly falls into Phlox’s orbit and wants to be in love with her, and maybe fools himself into thinking he truly is, but it’s Arthur with whom his adoration truly lies. Arthur is the only person he can be (mostly) real with. Arthur and Cleveland, the ultra-masculine bad boy who doesn’t give a shit that Arthur is gay, and is Arthur’s best friend.
Full of walks through Pittsburgh and landmarks I don’t know there, including The Cloud Factory — a building that puffs out perfect sheep-like, cotton puff clouds — the book paints a city of industry.
All the cicadas in the trees went ape, who knows why, and their music was as loud and ugly as a thousand televisions turned to the news. In Pittsburgh, even the cicadas are industrial.
I’m sure a lot of readers would hate Art and his indecision, fickleness, and seeming weakness, but it felt very real to me, and I loved every word of his journey.
Novel: The Lovely Bones
Author: Alice Sebold, grew up in suburbs of Philadelphia
Setting: 1970s rural Pennsylvania
Told from the point of view of a 13 year-old girl, Susie Salmon, who was murdered by a neighbor in a dugout in a cornfield, The Lovely Bones explores what happens after a murder — to the family, the murderer, and the victim after death. I love the ideas Sebold experiments with, especially the role of the dead in our lives, and us in their deaths.
What I appreciated most about this book wasn’t the shift in perspective, which was novel at the time of the book’s release in 2002 but is old news now. What I appreciated was that the climax was not what I expected it to be. The Lovely Bones was an easy-to-read narrative that was refreshing int its voice and direction, both of which were different from your typical crime mystery.
Sometimes, standing at the open window in the front hall, I would feel a breeze, and on that breeze was the music coming from the O’Dwyers house. As I listened to Mr. O’Dwyer run through all the Irish ballads he had ever learned, the breeze would begin to smell of earth and air and a mossy scent that meant only one thing: a thunderstorm.
Author: Fran Ross, born in Philadelphia 1935
Setting: 1960s Philadelphia
Written by an African American author from Philly, Oreo is a satirical novel about a mixed race girl with a Black mom and a Jewish dad. In the novel, she is on a quest to find her father who left when she was young.
Sassy, whip-smart, and code switching constantly between Yiddish, her grandmother’s Black dialect, fancy French food names, and intellectual, classical literature discussion, Oreo (black on the outside, white on the inside) left my head spinning. The book has been called “uproariously funny”, and I suppose is funny to people who get it, but the humor and intellect were way over my head. It felt full of inside jokes, and I am on the outside. That’s fine though, I don’t think I’m the intended audience.
Book: Buck: A Memoir
Author: M.K. Asante, born Zimbabwe and raised in Philadelphia
Setting: 1990s Philadelphia
This is the Philly I was looking for: raw, real, on the streets. Buck is the memoir of M.K. Asante, a hip-hop artist, film-maker, and essayist who grew up in north Philadelphia, or as he calls it, Killadelphia, Pistolvania.
Malo (M.K.) grew up with an Afrocentrist father who was never home, a depressed choreographer mother who was home physically but not mentally, his older brother Uzi, who Malo idolized and who ended up in jail early in the book, and on the streets with his crew, one of whom was killed in Malo’s teen years.
[The funeral director] shows us the coffins and tells us, “the little ones, for teenagers like y’all, are my best sellers and business is booming! Booming!… But I want you to put me out of business. Put me under! I’d rather sink than to have to keep burying babies.
This is Malo’s story of growing up in the hood of North Philly, hanging out on corners, selling weed to make money, and living a dangerous life until something happens with his mom that changes all of that.
Now I see why reading was illegal for black people during slavery. I discover that I think in words. The more words I know, the more things I can think about… Reading was illegal because if you limit someone’s vocab, you limit their thoughts. They can’t even think of freedom because they don’t have the language to.
The language of Buck is fresh and natural, like you’re on the corner with Malo. The words flow easily from his pen, and I read every one of them in a single day.