Andrea Reads America: Mississippi

Andrea Reads America map of Mississippi books
Andrea Reads America: Mississippi

That’s quite a set of authors: Donna Tartt, Pulitzer winner for The Goldfinch; William Faulkner, Nobel  laureate; and Jesmyn Ward, two-time National Book Award winner, first for Salvage the Bones and second for Sing, Unburied, Sing, which I’m reading now. I’ve read multiple books by all of these authors, all of whom are expert at weaving a compelling story while making the setting a character in the book. Mississippi is hot and humid, filled with racial tension and poverty, and has that deep South mystery and darkness that spawns great literature. It was a pleasure to read this state.

salvage the bones book cover Novel: Salvage the Bones
Author: Jesmyn Ward, born 1977, DeLisle, Mississippi
Setting: coastal Mississippi at the time of Hurricane Katrina
Categories: Literary Fiction, African-American Fiction, Southern Fiction

Wow. Talk about setting being a character in a book. The Mississippi portrayed in this book is the bayou life of an African-American family filled with men, boys, and one girl, for the mother has died. Despite the poorness of the family, the scenes are rich. I was able to feel the sweltering heat, smell the sweat and mud, hear the barks and the slobbery panting of the story’s pit bull, China, raised and loved by Skeetah to fight in dog fights.

In the novel, Hurricane Katrina is making its way towards Louisiana and Mississippi. Our narrator, Esch, is the only female in the entire book, except for girls and women mentioned in passing, and she portrays the experience through that lens: the perspective of one girl in a sea of men.

There is deep love in this book. There is tenderness. The are also harsh realities, of poverty, of the strange conflicted world of pit bull fighting, of hunger, of a need to protect, of loss, and of aftermath. It is a beautiful book, and I am happily devouring Ward’s next one.

the sound and the fury book cover Novel: The Sound and the Fury
Author: William Faulkner, born New Albany, MS 1897
Setting: 1910 and 1928 Mississippi
Categories: Southern Gothic, Literary Fiction

Set in Mississippi in the early 1900s (1900-1928), The Sound and the Fury is the story of the Comspon family, and secondarily, the Bascoms who, according to the mother’s complaints, are not seen as being as high-born as the Compsons. There’s Benjy, the 33-year old who someone described on his birthday as being 3 for 30 years. There are Quentin the brother and Quentin the niece. There’s the mother closeted in her room because, as she says, “I am not one of those women who can stand things.” There are Jason the alcoholic father and Jason the ferocious brother, and there’s incest, and suicide, and swimming, and a wedding, and who knows what all else that I still haven’t figured out.

This is a difficult book to read, not because of the content (though if you are able to figure out the content, it is difficult, too), but because of the jumping back and forth through time, because multiple characters have the same name, and because the narrators are mentally unstable. Surprisingly, the difficulty of this book did not frustrate me or make me want to throw it against a wall, though that would be a valid reaction to it. Instead it made me want to know, what the hell is going on?

I read this book twice within the space of a week. I wrote more about the experience on my main blog, in The Sounds and the Fury: wut, so I don’t want to repeat myself here, but this book got into me. Two weeks after reading and re-reading it, I’m still thinking about it. It might be my favorite read of the year.

the little friend book cover Novel: The Little Friend
Author: Donna Tartt, born Greenwood, Mississippi,1963
Setting: 1960s Alexandria, Mississippi
Categories: Literary Fiction, Southern Fiction

I had no idea what to expect of this book. It began quickly with the murder of a child: a white boy hanged from a tree in the yard on Mother’s Day, like a lynching. Set in Mississippi in the 1960s, the book leads us through small town dramas of race and class that make you wonder, “Who did it?”

Then after a while, the story winds this way and that, like the snakes the young protagonist, Harriet, steals from a snake-handling wannabe preacher, who is brother to the most dangerous men in town — hard, rough, violent men who are amped on meth, and who cook and deal meth from their booby-trapped lab in the middle of the Mississippi woods, and who shoot at black folks for sport.  As the reader, I first wondered, “Wow, is Donna Tartt serving up a murder mystery?” as the murdered boy’s sister seeks revenge on his killers, who she must first find. Then, as the stories unfold, I wondered, “Maybe this isn’t about who did it after all.”

There are many layers in this novel, and as with all of her books, I find myself afterwards trying to figure it all out. The racial commentary is very clear, as is the class commentary, but I’m not sure what it all means in the end, or if it means anything at all.

What I do know is that Donna Tartt nailed the oppressive swampy heat and mosquito, snake-infested landscape of the low country of Mississippi. As the novel progresses, she nails the characters of the deep South as well: the dialect, the prejudices, the pride, and the oblivion.

This one was a page turner, and a brain-prodder as well. At the end I wanted to start at the beginning again, but I didn’t. Instead I kept a list of questions I want to ask when I come across someone who’s read it recently.

For Further Reading in Mississippi

Books I’ve read:
– As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
The Optimist’s Daughter, Eudora Welty
Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

Books I want to read:
Long Division, Kiese Laymon

 

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: Minnesota

Andrea Reads America map of Minnesota books
Andrea Reads America: Minnesota

At last, Minnesota! I think Minnesota may be the state that inspired this Andrea Reads America reading project. Several years ago, my husband, our two small children, and I moved from Florida to Minnesota. I had lived on the southeast coast my entire life, with a few years in Maryland and a winter in Maine thrown in the mix for variety.

The midwest, though, and Minnesota. Those places were foreign to me. I had no idea what to expect. In my anxious anticipation of this big move, I wanted to learn about the region we were moving to, and I wanted to learn in a way that would sink in for me: through fiction.

The most effective and lasting way I am going to understand a place, a people, or a time period, is through a well-written story. I remember hating history in elementary school and high school, and even when I first started college. Then, college history professor assigned novels for a post-civil war US history course, and history came alive me. It became human, absorbing, and relevant.

So before we moved to Minnesota, I researched Minnesota authors. I compiled titles set in the state. I devoured wintry, prairie, and Twin Cities-set books: Summit Avenue, An Untamed Land, Long Quiet Highway, On the Banks of Plum Creek. And when we arrived, the state was not a shock to me. I felt like I knew it a little bit, and was prepared.

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis book cover

Book: Main Street
Author: Sinclair Lewis, born Sauk Centre, Minnesota 1885
Setting: Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, 1910
Categories: Literary Fiction (Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for his body of work)

Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, in the early 1900’s, is a frontier settlement to Carol Kennicot, an educated woman from the city who has a grand idea to descend on a small town USA: she will make it beautiful, snazz it up, bring in culture.

She thought of the coming Northern winter, when the unprotected houses would crouch together in terror of storms galloping out of that wild waste. They were so small and weak, the little brown houses. They were shelters for sparrows, not homes for warm laughing people.

To the residents of Gopher Prairie, who built the settlement with their sweat and their blood and their own hands, it is already beautiful, perfect, solid, and working. They don’t need the outside ideas of an educated city woman to come stir things up, a woman who says provocative things at parties, who didn’t play a part in building the town yet wants to come in and criticize and change it.

Main Street is about many things: provinciality, conservatism, hard-working people close to the land, the subtle ways women are kept down and powerless, and the tension between disruptors and those who are set in their ways. To Carol, the outsider who swooped in on this prairie town,

I came trusting them. They beat me with rods of dullness.

Whereas to Vida, a woman who helped build the town,

These people that want to change everything all of a sudden without doing any work, make me tired! Here I have to go and work for four years, picking out the pupils for debates, and drilling them, and nagging at them to get them to look up references, and begging them to choose their own subjects — four years, to get up a couple of good debates! And she comes rushing in, and expects in one year to change the whole town int a lollypop paradise with everybody stopping everything else to grow tulips and drink tea. And it’s a comfy homey old town too!

Lewis’s descriptions of the town and of the prairie are gorgeous. It is clear that the setting is deep in his bones: he knows this place. I highlighted passage after passage with descriptions of wheat, emptiness, land, prairie clouds. The themes Lewis explores are in this novel are timeless and important, but it is this sense place that I loved most about Main Street.

The Latehomecomer book cover Book: The Late Homecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir
Author: Kao Kalia Yang, lives in Minnesota
Setting: Laos, Thailand, and St. Paul, Minnesota, 1960s-today
Categories: Memoir

The Latehomecomer begins in Laos with a family and a people recruited by the US to fight in Vietnam. They are promptly abandoned to be slaughtered in their own homeland when the US withdraws. This memoir tells of their escape into Thailand, where they are contained by fences in transition camps for years, starving and homeless before finally being transitioned to the US for asylum.

The author’s family is split once they arrive in the US — some go to California and some go to Minnesota — and this book is Kalia’s telling of that journey from a home that was no longer a home, the journey of no longer being of a land, and the journey to a new country: poor, not speaking the language, in a new climate, and ostracized by the country her people died for.

Kalia was a child in Thailand, when she and her family were kept in a transition camp there. She absorbed the stories of their past through her grandmother, whose gift for storytelling Kalia inherited, and at whose knee Kalia would sit, asking to be retold the stories again and again. She preserves them now through her own writing.

This was one of those books — those nonfiction books — that I found myself thinking, “I can’t believe this is real, that people actually have to endure these things.” It is humbling. There is great beauty, though, in the grounding that family and tradition provide, even when you’ve lost everything.

The Real Minerva by Mary Sharratt book cover Book: The Real Minerva
Author: Mary Sharratt, born Minneapolis, Minnesota
Setting: Minerva, Minnesota, 1923
Categories: Historical Fiction

I didn’t write any notes for myself after reading this one, but I know enough to say that this was one of my favorite reads from Minnesota. I read it before we moved there, and this book was one of the re-reads I was looking forward to when I started this reading project. It is earthy, with strong women, and I enjoyed it as much the second time I read it as I did the first. Rather than write a recap without notes, I’ll just leave you with a quote from it that captures some of the scenery I love:

Cora’s farm was so cut off from Minerva, Penny began to think of it as an island. Standing at the mailbox, she looked out over the fields. The wind skimmed the wheat, a tawny ocean stretching to meet a horizon unbroken by silos or rooftops.

The Real Minerva provides Sharratt’s portrayal of rural Minnesota, while her novel Summit Avenue, which is equally good, transports you to St. Paul and Minneapolis during the first World War. I recommend both for Minnesota reads.

For Further Reading in Minnesota

Books I’ve read:
– Long Quiet Highway, Natalie Goldberg
Summit Avenue, Mary Sharratt
On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura Ingalls Wilder
An Untamed Land, Lauraine Snelling

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: Michigan

Andrea Reads America Michigan book map
Andrea Reads America: Michigan

I had two things I was excited about when I arrived in Michigan on my literature tour: re-reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which I first read in high school, and something with deep, cold, icy, and snowy winter.

I was happy to experience both. As a bonus, Middlesex, which I read immediately after The Autobiography of Malcolm X, included a storyline in which one of the characters worked in the Nation (of Islam) Temple # 1 in Detroit: a temple that also appears in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and is clearly a major part of Detroit’s history.

Middlesex book cover by Jeffrey Eugenides Book: Middlesex
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides, born Detroit 1960
Setting: 1960s Detroit and Grosse Pointe
Categories: Pulitzer winner, Literary fiction

Beginning in Greece with a brother and sister who fall in love with each other as they flee overseas to America while their city burns, Middlesex is the story of Calliope turned Cal: the hermaphroditic grandchild of Desdemona and Lefty, who grew up in a small village and didn’t know that intermarrying close relatives could have genetic consequences. They emigrate to Detroit in the 1920s, and this novel is a story of struggling to survive in a world and a society where you are on the bottom.

Mixed with their story of Old Word making its way to the New are also the stories of the Nation of Islam, with whom Desdemona found a job when her husband/brother’s speakeasy was rendered irrelevant by the end of Prohibition. The Nation of Islam “began to take shape in the midst of poverty-stricken Detroit,” and alongside the Greek assimilation is the story of the 1967 race riots of Detroit. And alongside those stories is the story of Calliope, who when she finally hears doctors throwing around words about her condition follows a trail of synonyms in the dictionary to arrive at “hermaphrodite… See synonyms at MONSTER.”

In terms of giving a sense of place, the parts of the book set in Michigan are marvelous, whether racing a bootlegging car across a frozen lake at night, barricaded behind Greek cafe doors during the race riots, smokestacks and car factories, or in the woods of the Upper Peninsula, Middlesex delivered on showing Michigan.

Now the Detroit River sped past and the city loomed. Lefty stared out at the motor cars parked like giant beetles at the curbsides. Smokestacks rose everywhere, cannons bombarding the atmosphere. There were red brick stacks and tall silver ones, stacks in regimental rows or all alone puffing meditatively away, a forest of smokestacks that dimmed the sunlight and then, all of a sudden, blocked it out completely.

The Autobiography of Malcom X book cover Book: The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Authors: Malcolm X and Alex Haley
Setting: 1950s-1960s Detroit and Harlem
Categories: Biography

“Detroit Red” was the Michigan-born Harlem hustler Malcolm Little who, after years of thought and avid reading during his prison sentence, reformed, cleaned himself up, and became a follower of Elijah Muhammad and a minister of the Nation of Islam. When he was released from prison, he replaced his surname with the letter X to indicate he didn’t know his true African name. He rejected the surname associated with the white slave owners of his ancestors, and went by the name Malcolm X for the remainder of his life.

Malcolm X named himself the angriest black man in America. He spoke bald, uncomfortable truths about the black man’s plight and the real circumstances of ghettos and why they exist. He spoke of beatings, and prejudices, and keeping blacks in menial service roles and certain parts of town, and of the suspicion a black person suffers anytime they’re not in the right role or the right part of town. He advocated for blacks to protect themselves against the violence — the beatings, lynchings, lashings — of white men, and was called violent for that.

His story is a potent, fearless telling of the what the African-American people have suffered the past 400 years, and how utterly ridiculous and insensitive it is for a privileged white person to say, “They just need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, those lazy, good-for-nothings living off the system.” The white man has no idea what it’s like to navigate the American landscape — finding a job, getting an education at a good school, living in a decent neighborhood, or even just walking down the street — in black skin.

This is an important book. However, as a woman, it enraged me to see Malcolm X treat women the same way he complained of the white man treating blacks: beating them, forbidding education, thinking he knows what’s best for them, keeping them in “their place.” And he didn’t even see it. How will we ever progress with this kind of blindness?

Winter Study book cover by Nevada Barr Book: Winter Study
Author: Nevada Barr, worked as a Park Ranger on Isle Royale in Michigan
Setting: winter on Isle Royale, an island National Park in Lake Superior
Categories: Mystery

I did not keep notes on this book, but I remember it had everything I wanted by the time I had gotten through the heft of the previous two Michigan books. It gave me Michigan winter on frozen Lake Superior, in a closed-for-the-winter National Park where the only inhabitants have conflicts of interest regarding the wolf population on the island. I didn’t have to think, I just got to sit back and ride the words.

I’m finding again and again that it is the mysteries that have the best sense of place, and Winter Study was no exception. If you want a good page turner to curl up by the fire with, and you want snow, ice, wolves, science mixing with politics and ego, and a murder on an isolated island that is cut off from the rest of the world during winter, then this is a book for you.

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.