Andrea Reads America: North Carolina

Andrea Reads America map of books set in North Carolina
Andrea Reads America: North Carolina

I’m back in the South for a spell. North Carolina neighbors our home state of Virginia. It is a state we’ve visisted often, and whose climate, history, culture, and people are intimately familiar to me after growing up in Georgia and living here in Appalachia. The Appalachian mountains of Robert Morgan’s are particularly similar to our current home in the hills of Southwest Virginia, and the gardens of Garden Spells overflow with the flowers of my southern homes.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl book coverBiography: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Author: Harriet Jacobs, slave in North Carolina
Setting: 1870s North Carolina

What an amazing book. This biography of Harriet Jacobs and the Underground Railroad was published in 1861 — 1861! before the Civil War! — under the name Linda Brent.

Like so many books written by women, this one told a new (to me) perspective. I’ve read Roots and A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, along with other heart-wrenching accounts of slavery, but not with a focus on what it was like to be a female slave. This one is a woman’s account, including her living for 7 years in a cramped, unlit, unaired space where she could not even stand up. Seven years without going outside, without walking, without stretching, without seeing or talking to anyone except her grandmother who hid her in the same town as the master she had fled from. He traveled multiple times to New York to try to hunt her down. She lived in her hole under the same roof as her children for 7 years but could never speak to them for fear they’d reveal her hiding place; they didn’t even know she was there.

Jacobs lived this way to be free from her master’s lasciviousness. She lived this way rather than have him force himself on her — she was his property and he could do to her as he pleased — using her to breed more slaves he could then own. Her children, his property.

The secrets of slavery are concealed like those of the Inquisition. My master was, to my knowledge, the father of eleven slaves. But did the mothers dare to tell who was the father of their children?

An unexpected insight this book exposed is Jacob’s observation of how slavery debased everyone. Slave girls who came of age under their masters’ roof were chased by the white masters and reviled by the masters’ wives. Wives seethed in jealousy of fifteen-year-old slave girls who were desired and raped by the masters.

Slavery is a curse to the whites as well as the blacks. It makes the white fathers cruel and sensual; the sons violent licentious; it contaminates the daughters, and makes the wives wretched. And as for the colored race, it needs an abler pen than mine to describe the extremity of their sufferings, the depth of their degradation.

I feared the heaviness of this book. I often tell my mom I don’t like to dwell in the past. But this book is important. It is important to know these stories to understand our present, and to improve beyond the vile ways of our past. It’s also important because Harriet Jacobs is a strong and admirable woman. I would have crumbled in her circumstance. Jacobs was fiercely committed to being free, to not standing for the abuse, and for quietly fighting for her and her children’s’ freedom.

Gap Creek book cover
The Truest Pleasure book coverNovels: Gap Creek and The Truest Pleasure
Author: Robert Morgan, born Hendersonville, NC
Setting: western North Carolina

I’ve read Gap Creek twice, and now I want to read The Truest Pleasure again as well. Gap Creek explores the rawness of life in the Appalachians.

I reckon there’s nothing awkwarder in the world than the sight of two women in long dresses at either end of a crosscut saw.

In Gap Creek, protagonist Julie Harmon moves down the mountain from her family’s home, where she did the hard labor after her father’s death, to a home in the valley with her new husband.  There, she works harder than ever, navigating a new marriage, butchering hogs, collecting chestnuts from up the mountain when they had no other food to eat, and birthing her baby alone on the kitchen floor.  The first time I read Gap Creek was before we had children, and the childbirth scene was one I carried with me through labor, delivery, and to this day.  Morgan’s is the truest account of childbirth, from the laboring mother’s perspective, that I have ever read.  Likewise, his prose took me into the grease fire, the flooding creek, and the way of life of a hard-working, no-money, living off the land existence that I have not seen since Little House on the Prairie.  Only Morgan’s story is a grittier one, told from the perspective of an adult instead of a child.

Like Gap Creek, The Truest Pleasure also takes place in the western mountains of North Carolina.  It has been a few years since I’ve read it, and honestly, given the stoic nature of the husband in it, I remember it feeling more Midwestern than Appalachian.  But what sticks with me about The Truest Pleasure is that the protagonist, Ginny, is a Pentacostalist who speaks in tongues, to the shame of her husband.  I remember that Morgan did a brilliant job of putting the reader inside Ginny’s head, and like Dennis Covington’s account of snake-handling in Salvation on Sand Mountain, Morgan writes the Pentacostalist’s faith beautifully and convincingly, allowing an outsider like myself to understand the power of Ginny’s convictions and the bliss of her salvation.

Garden Spells book cover Novel: Garden Spells
Author: Sarah Addison Allen, born and raised in Asheville, NC
Setting: early 2000s North Carolina

I love this book so much. Garden Spells is the story of the Waverly women, each of whom has a gift: creating foods from flowers and herbs that, when eaten, make certain wishes come true; understanding, or bringing out, a person’s essence through the way they wear their hair; and knowing exactly where things belong (and who belongs together). The Waverly garden is home to plants that bloom out of season and apples that tell people’s’ destinies. The book is magical, includes charming characters and the love among women, and has a touch of romance. It’s one of those books I wanted to skip work for so that I could read it cover to cover in one sitting.

Me Talk Pretty One Day book cover Book: Me Talk Pretty One Day
Author: David Sedaris
Setting: Raleigh, NC (and later, other cities)

This is possibly the funniest book I’ve ever read. I remember eight years ago, when we lived near St. Paul, MN, while our daughter was at skating lessons on the ice below me, I passed the time in the rink stands with tears streaming down my face as I read this book. I kept closing it because the pages were riddled with swearing and all sorts of offensive language that I didn’t want any of our Minnesota-nice neighbors to see me laughing so hard at.

David Sedaris makes me laugh until I hurt. He’s crass, irreverent, makes hilarious fun of himself, and he is a master of the written English language. Me Talk Pretty One Day is my favorite collection of his, and since the first half of it takes place in North Carolina, I had to include it here.

Andrea Reads America: New York

Andrea Reads America map of books set in New York
Andrea Reads America: New York

Y’all, New York has so. Many. Good. Books. I’m only sharing five here, but there are many, many more. New York City is vibrant, and overflows with artists, writers, musicians, and creatives. Before officially arriving in New York on my reading tour of the US, I had already read multiple books set there: The Great Gatsby, The Bell Jar, The Goldfinch, Invisible Man, Bright Young Things...

After visiting New York City with my mom last year, I was excited to officially read New York so I could re-read some of those, and also read new ones that moved onto my to-be-read list because of this reading project. Looking at my map, I realize now that everything I read took place in NYC, which was an oversight. But there’s just so much good stuff set there! And there’s still more to read, like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, and James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain. 

With so much to read from New York, I narrowed it down to five that show New York City at different points in time and from different points of view: the old and new white rich of the 1920s, the Black Harlem of the great Depression, the Italian Mafia of the same time period (the Mafia controlled the numbers gambling described in My Daddy was a Number Runner), the 1960s and 70s art and music scene (think Chelsea Hotel and Warhol’s Factory), and the modern-day New York of an orphaned adolescent who is taken in by a wealthy Park Avenue family and ends up in the art underworld.

The Great Gatsby book cover Novel: The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald, lived in NY as a child and later, with Zelda
Setting: 1920s New York City

Despite having read this before, I was caught off guard this time by how good it is, and what a strong statement it makes about the chasm between the rich and the poor: the confidence with which each approaches the world, and how important the age and origin of wealth is.  Those who have always been wealthy approach the world with utter confidence, as if they own it (because they do), and they have no understanding for what it’s like to not be privileged.

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…

Gatsby starts his life poor. He gets rich by the wrong means and for the singular reason of impressing Daisy, who was born wealthy and knows no other way of life. Ultimately, Gatsby is too much of a risk to Daisy, regardless of whether she loves him. For people like Tom and Daisy, the comforts of social station and wealth, and the privilege of carelessness that come with them, are worth more in the end than the depth of human relationships. And the Great Gatsby, despite his riches, winds up poor Gatsby in the end.

“They’re a rotten crowd’, I shouted across the lawn. ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

I love that this book is short because that means I can read it over and over again, once every few years, and get new meaning from it. It is wonderfully written. And of course I loved the scene in The Plaza since my mom and I went to the Palm Court there for cocktails and afternoon tea on our trip.

Daddy Was a Number Runner book coverNovel: Daddy Was a Number Runner
Author: Louise Meriwether, grew up in Harlem in the Depression
Setting: 1930s Harlem, NYC

Set during the Depression, Daddy Was a Number Runner is narrated by Francie, a 12-year-old girl growing up in Harlem with no food, and with nobody in the family having a job. When the Depression hit, her dad was let go from his painting job, one of the few types of jobs black men were allowed by the whites to have. The only income their family had was whatever he earned by playing the numbers.

Filled with norms of the time, like husbands forbidding their wives to work — even while their children starved — to preserve his fragile masculinity, Daddy Was a Number Runner demonstrates what the families do to survive. For example, young, innocent Francie learns that when she goes to the butcher and baker, if they feel her breasts she gets an extra meat bone or roll to take home to the family.

Two soup bones. I hoped Mother would be impressed. I passed the bakery shop and Max the Baker was outside sweeping the tile. I got extra rolls from him, too, whenever he got the chance to feel me.

The author succeeds in sharing the sad and frustrating story simply through that — story — without injecting emotion that would undermine the poignancy if Meriwether handled it any other way. As it is, it is plain and clear what is right and wrong because it is told matter-of-factly through the innocent perspective of a child who knows no other way of living.

There was nothing else to say. Either you was a whore like China Doll or you worked in a laundry or did day’s work or ran poker games or had a baby every year.

As women were limited in the jobs they were permitted by whites to work, so were black men. They were relegated to the lowliest jobs and had no hope to be employed at any level whites deemed them beneath. They were not lazy. They could not pull themselves up by their bootstraps: they were continually pushed back down. They were disallowed from working and were left to starve in their own country.

Daddy Was a Number Runner is important in American literature. While there are plenty of coming of age books about black boys or white girls set in NYC, this is the singular fictional account of a black girl growing up in Harlem during the Depression. Her perspective is unique.

The Godfather book cover Novel: The Godfather
Author: Mario Puzo, born and raised in Manhattan
Setting: 1940s New York

The Godfather was everything I wanted it to be: strong, memorable characters; the intrigue of the Mafia and its intricate social structure and underground business network; a feel for the Corleone New York;  and most importantly, a story that pulled me in and made everything else disappear. Puzo created a world I was happy to be a voyeur into and not have to be a part of.

It was mere good manners, to proclaim that you were in his debt and that he had the right to call upon you at any time to redeem your debt by some small service.

What I like about The Godfather is that the characters are both sympathetic and horrifying. Like in HBO’s The Wire, where the bad guys are good and the good guys are bad, even though Don Corleone has people murdered left and right, it’s hard not to like and admire him. He’s not a villain you love to hate. He’s smart. He loves his family. He’s a master negotiator.

“Never get angry,” the Don had instructed. “Never make a threat. Reason with people.” The word “reason” sounded so much better in Italian, ragione, to rejoin.

The Corleone and other Families deal in blood for business, and that is extreme. But it is clever hyperbole to illustrate how people making good money can lose their humanity for the good of the business.

I don’t like bloodshed. I’m a businessman and blood costs too much money.

Just Kids book cover Patti Smith Book: Just Kids
Author: Patti Smith, lived in NY
Setting: 1960s-1970s New York City

Wow! This was an unexpected gem, and is one of my favorite books of my reading tour so far. I didn’t know who Patti Smith was when I read this book — I knew the photos of her, but before reading Just Kids I didn’t know if she was a poet, artist, or rock ‘n’ roll star (all three).

This is the autobiographical story of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, when they were “just kids”: homeless artists living on the streets of New York City, eventually finding hovels to live in, making money at odd jobs and making their art, but mostly finding contentment (for a while) in their love and bond with one another, soul mates in art and creativity.

Patti Smith has a true artist’s soul, and I loved reading about her time at the Chelsea Hotel, meeting people like Janice Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, not being impressed by Andy Warhol, and ultimately gaining fame by accident before her ambitious lover Mapplethorpe, who wanted more than anything to be famous.

I admit I am a sucker for this time period — and especially for the music and art scene of the 60s and 70s –and I loved Patti Smith after reading this book. She is strong and compassionate. She is authentic, a lover, an artist, and a raw, vibrant (and funny) soul.

Someone at Max’s asked me if I was androgynous. I asked what that meant. “You know, like Mick Jagger.” I figured that must be cool. I thought the word meant both beautiful and ugly at the same time.

The Goldfinch book coverNovel: The Goldfinch
Author: Donna Tartt
Setting: modern New York and Nevada

I adapted the following writeup from the original on my Butterfly Mind blog.

By the final 200 pages you could barely pry this book from my hands.

Set in modern-day New York City, in an abandoned neighborhood development outside Vegas, and a little bit in Amsterdam, The Goldfinch is the story of Theo Dekker, son of an absent alcoholic dad and a stable, art-loving mom. At age 13, Theo is suspended from school, and as he and his mom kill time at an exhibit before meeting the principal, the museum is bombed in a terrorist attack. Theo survives, but his mother does not.

The saga that follows is impossible to resist – PTSD, a 13-year-old orphan living with a friend on Park Avenue, an alcoholic dad who whisks Theo off to Vegas, a friendship with a Russian boy named Boris, drugs and drugs and drugs, and always the painting, tugging, gripping Theo in its clutches as surely as alcoholism grips his father, as opiate pills grip Theo, as the chain grips the little yellow goldfinch to the wall.

The Goldfinch is dark alleys and golden sunlight, it is the constant grapple with who is good and who is bad, who is the right one to love, who is the wrong one; it is about how can I be any other than who I am. The Goldfinch made me want to be reckless. It made me grateful that I’m not. It gave me a new favorite character – Boris – though in real life I would never feel safe with him. The Goldfinch is about being shackled to things against our will – objects, memories, addictions, genetics – and finding beauty in the darkness.

In it, Tartt captures the addict perfectly – the distortion between the addict’s internal world and his external actions, his justifications, his own belief that he is good even while he is behaving badly, the lying, the covering up, the brilliant high, the tar black low, the emotional depths, the passion for who and what he loves, the aspiring to great ends via shady, ugly means.

The Goldfinch, as any great art will do, showed me a life I’ll never know while making me see my life differently. The thing about this book, aside from Tartt nailing the struggle of the addict, the wrestling with trying to be good while knowing you are acting badly, is that Tartt shows us we can never escape who we truly are, and what can we do about that?