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.

Andrea Reads America: Louisiana

Map of books set in Lousiana: A Lesson Before Dying, The Missing, The Witching Hour
Andrea Reads America: Louisiana

Louisiana. What a great state for literature. Home to jazz and voodoo, swamp and plantations, artists, writers, drifters, and lost souls, Louisiana is fertile ground for novels rich with setting, mystique, and a search for truth. I had a hard time selecting from the several books I read, and I ultimately chose to highlight the books that provided the best sense of place for the cemetaries, Cajun and Creole culture, and steamy bayou of the Lousiana and New Orleans I know. Even though I am not writing up The Awakening, A Streetcar Named Desire, or A Confederacy of Dunces, I highly recommend all three in addition to the books below.

the-witching-hour Novel: The Witching Hour
Author: Anne Rice, born New Orleans, LA
Setting: 1980s New Orleans
Category: Dark Fantasy/Horror, Southern Gothic

The Witching Hour captures the allure of New Orleans in exactly the way I wanted: dark, sultry, mysterious, haunted, Gothic. There are voodoo and ghosts and the Garden District, live oaks and wrought iron fences, and Victorian mansions with personalities and spirits. There are voodoo dolls and heads in jars, possessions and witches, honeysuckle, jasmine, cicadas, and French Creole names.

The Witching Hour follows the history of the Mayfair family, back 300 years to when Suzanne Mayfair, a commoner in Scotland, dabbled in witchcraft and called forth the spirit of Lasher,  a dark-eyed, brown-haired man who is seen to this day at the Mayfair house on First Street in the Garden District of New Orleans. Throughout the generations, over 300 years, Lasher associated himself with the descendents of Suzanne, bringing both wealth and (seeming) insanity to the Mayfair family.

I hate to describe the plot because it doesn’t do the weaving of it justice.

Swamp this must have been once. A breeding place of evil.

This book is like a narcotic: the characters, the setting, the entanglement of the Mayfairs and a secret order who watches them, the occult, and the gauzy veil that falls over you while you read it. It is seductive and repulsive, beautiful and ugly, impossible to believe yet deliciously fun to imagine. The veil between worlds is thin in this book. The Witching Hour captures the dark undercurrents of New Orleans masterfully.

the-missing Novel: The Missing
Author: Tim Gautreaux, born Morgan City, LA
Setting: 1920s New Orleans and Mississippi River
Category: Historical Fiction

Set in the 1920s on a steamboat that travels up and down on the Mississippi River, The Missing took me into the jazz age of the deep New Orleans South. I loved the French interspersed throughout the novel, and the characters range from city-dwellers to folks who live so deep in the scrub and bayou you can’t even get to them — there are no roads.

In the story, a child is kidnapped under our Sam Simoneaux’s watch, and the novel is his search for her: he wants to make it right with the family she belongs to. This story is woven in with the loss of the Sam’s own family when he was a baby, and then his shelling a French girl’s home in WWI and her resulting orphaning because of his cannon fire.

The scenery is vivid: the bend of the steamboat’s dance floor under the pounding of 1000 feet two-stepping, the descriptions of the scrub forest, the accents and dialect of the characters, the feel of Louisiana through Sam’s story, family, and the novel’s characters.

My uncle never raised me to be big on revenge, you know? Most French people on the bayou are like that. Too poor to afford a grudge.

The Missing encompasses all sorts of missing things: missing children, missing family, the feeling you get when you miss those people, the missing (empty) parts of folks whose loved ones are missing. It is a story of being responsible for our actions, of justice verses revenge, and of all the things that are missing when the people in our lives are gone.

a-lesson-before-dying Novel: A Lesson Before Dying
Author: Ernest J. Gaines, born Pointe Coupee Parish (Louisiana)
Setting: 1940s fictitious Bayonne, LA
Categories: African-American literature, Historical Fiction

This book was an unexpected gem. I had never heard of it and added it at the last-minute despite having already read five books set in Louisiana, and I’m so glad I did.

Despite a story line that is hard to read, that makes me ashamed of our history and continued racism, of a black man wrongly accused, presumed guilty, and treated like an animal, this book has hope, pride, and a sense of goodness and dignity.

The story is of Jefferson, a black man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time when two other black men killed a white liquor store owner. Jefferson was the only person left alive at the scene, and despite being an innocent bystander he was promptly arrested and sentenced to death by electric chair. During his trial, Jefferson’s attorney defended him not on his innocence, but on the premise that he didn’t know any better because, as a black man, he was too ignorant to even know what he was doing at the liquor store.

Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.

The sentencing happens in the first chapter, and Jefferson, upon hearing he will be sentenced to death, loses all hope. He sees no point in believing himself to be any more than a farm animal, given how little control he has over his life.

The remainder of the novel is the protagonist, Grant Wiggins, the teacher at the black school, visiting Jefferson in jail, trying to convince Jefferson of his humanity. Wiggins does not want to do this. He want to run away from this awful, uncomfortable situation. But he does it because his aunt and Jefferson’s naanan pressure him to do so.

Miss Emma knows that the state of Louisiana is about to take his life, but before that happens she wants something to remember him by… She wants memories, memories of him standing like a man.

The treatment of blacks by whites in this book is shameful, and it was only 60-70 years ago. In this situation it seems there can be no hope. But Gaines writes this beautifully, and with great dignity. I felt strengthened at the end rather than defeated.

For Further Reading in Louisiana

Books I’ve read and recommend:
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
Books that have been recommended to me that I’ve not yet read:
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

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: Kentucky

Map of three books set in Kentucky
Andrea Reads America: Kentucky

When I read Kentucky, I was hoping for horse races and bourbon, bluegrass and moonshine. I did get that in one book, My Bluegrass Baby by Molly Harper. Because the main character worked for the tourism board for Kentucky, the novel gave me all the accoutrement I craved from a book set in Kentucky. I recommend it for a fun read to get you in the mood for Derby, or if you are looking for a quick romance with sass and a definite sense of being in Kentucky.

I also read three other Kentucky-set books. None tickled me like My Bluegrass Baby, but they each give a deeper sense of life in the state, and of life in general.

riverofearth

Novel: River of Earth
Author: James Still, lived in a log cabin in Kentucky
Setting: Depression era coal mining camps of rural Kentucky
Category: Literary fiction

Moving from mining camp to mining camp during the Depression, the family in this book follow the river of earth — coal — to try to survive. And survive is barely what they do. A miner’s life is a hard one, but for the father in this book, it’s the only life.

His wife, meanwhile, nearly starves to death while also having to feed her husband’s free-loading brothers. Each time the mines close, she makes a life on the land growing crops, and is bright and happy to do so. The food she grows, and the clear sunshine she grows it in, gives her hope. As soon as she gets ahead of things, with plants in the ground and food on the table, though, her husband, Brack, itches to get underground and mine coal. He uproots the family over and over to live in dirty, dusty mining camps.

“The mines hain’t opened yet,” Father said. “They’re laying a new spur o’ track so it won’t be long. No use stirring the top of the ground if you’re going to dig your bread underside.”

The best part of this book is the voice. The author does an amazing job with language. I couldn’t understand much of the dialogue, like “crap” for “crop,” or “pull a rusty” for playing a prank, and I had to puzzle through it. I loved it for that, though. Dialect fascinates me, and when it’s done well it adds as much to the sense of place as painting a picture of the scenery would.

birds-of-opulence Novel: The Birds of Opulence
Author: Crystal Wilkinson, raised in Indian Creek, Kentucky
Setting: 1960s-1990s fictitious black township of Opulence, Kentucky
Category: African-American fiction, Literary fiction

Set in the small black township of Opulence, Kentucky, and spanning the years from the ’60s to the ’90s, this short novel is a snapshot of the births, lives, pregnancies, and deaths of four generations of African-American women: the birds of Opulence. Peppered throughoutt the book are glimpses into this small town world, like the annual July Church gathering, the Dinner on the Grounds. Everyone who grew up in Opulence and has scattered across the country returns, the women don their pretty dresses and hats, the men wear suits and ties, and after church services, they feast.

Many a marriage has begun at Dinner on the Grounds, and many a union has been broken there too, when strange eyes meet across the churchyard.

The more interesting story, though is the patterns in the women’s lives, of becoming women — and mothers — before they are ready, and the consequences they must bear that the men simply walk away from, invisible and unscathed. The women, though, they carry the visible signs, and therefore the blame and the shame, and their lives are changed forever.

icy-sparks Novel: Icy Sparks
Author: Gwyn Hyman Rubio, lives in Kentucky
Setting: 1950’s eastern Kentucky mountains
Category: Literary fiction

Rural Kentucky, in a small town where different is not acceptable, and Icy Sparks is born As she grows up, she has uncontrollable ticks — fits where she “pops her eyes out,” swears at her teachers, and jerks her body in ways she cannot control. She hates herself for it, and the rest of the town does, too.

This novel is her coming of age story, her finding of other “differents,” her stay at an institution with other kids with mental or physical differences, and the deep trust and relationships she builds, particularly with her grandmother and grandfather, and her morbidly obese adult friend Emma, who becomes her teacher when Icy can no longer attend school.

The most soulful part of the book comes near the end, when Icy finds her people and her voice, a way to accept her jerks and croaks, and the deep love others have for her and her for them. The novel ends with unexpected hope, and is beautiful for it.

For Further Reading in Kentucky

Books I’ve read and recommend:
– My Bluegrass Baby by Molly Harper
Books that have been recommended to me that I’ve not yet read:
– Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

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.