Andrea Reads America: Maryland

Andrea Reads America Book Map of Maryland
Andrea Reads America: Maryland

In our life before children, my husband and I lived in Maryland, in the D.C metro area. We lived in Tacoma Park and College Park, and we spent scores of weekends exploring the eastern shore, bicycling through Amish country, eating and drinking beers in Annapolis and Baltimore. I was hoping for literature that reflected our experiences of Maryland: forays into the city, hill country, sailing, the Chesapeake Bay. I wasn’t in the mood for Michener’s 880 page Chesapeake tome, which would likely take me years to finish (plus he wasn’t from Maryland and never lived in Maryland), so I settled for what I could find. I enjoyed the books I did read, but they did not reflect the Maryland I knew. Maybe one day I should write that book :-).

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Book: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave
Author: Frederick Douglass, born a slave in Maryland
Setting: 1830s Baltimore and rural Maryland
Category: Nonfiction, African-American Literature

I’ve read a lot of fiction about slavery, and have been shaken by those novels, but to read a nonfiction account by a former slave who taught himself to read and write, despite both the threat and reality of being whipped for it, is something else entirely.

Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye dried; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

Douglass’s narrative, set in the mid 1800s where he was a slave in both rural Maryland and in the city of Baltimore, is an eloquent illumination of the daily life and sufferings of slaves, not only in dramatic scenes like his hiding in the woods and the use of women slaves for “breeders,” but in details like the scanty ration of clothing he was given, the absence of bedding so he had to sleep on the ground, and the lack of time to even sleep for how hard he was worked.

How a human could have the grit to endure all of that — the oppression, the savagery, the chains and whips at every turn — and rise up above it awes me. Yet Douglass did. He heard a white man prohibit his wife from teaching slaves to read because education would cause them to overthrow their masters, and when Douglass heard that, he knew his route to freedom: literacy.

He sought education from children in the streets of Baltimore since he was forbidden the written word at home. Over years he taught himself to read and write. And the white man was right: Douglass’s intellect, though broken at some points by the nearly insurmountable obstacles of oppression, persisted. His mind found him a path to freedom. And then he taught others.

[My fellow slaves’] minds had been starved by their cruel masters. They had been shut up in mental darkness. I taught them, because it was the delight of my soul to be doing something that looked like bettering the condition of my race.

The human will is astonishing. It will not be stopped.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Novel: A Spool of Blue Thread
Author: Anne Tyler, lives in Maryland
Setting: 1930s-2016 Baltimore
Category: Contemporary fiction

Set in Baltimore, Maryland from the 1930s to current time, A Spool of Blue Thread tells the story of the Whitshank family –their mysterious beginnings with J.R. (Junior) and his marriage to Linne Mae, who was 13 to his 26 the first time they slept together — and the carefully constructed house that Junior built in an upper class neighborhood while he and Linne Mae lived in the working class Hampden neighborhood.

I find human beings and their interactions to be fascinating, especially at the family and class level. I devour the details that go on inside the walls of a household, and A Spool of Blue Thread captures the normalness of messiness beautifully, demonstrating that every family is dysfunctional. As Tyler writes of Abby, the daughter-in-law of Junior and Linnie Mae:

She couldn’t bear to think that their family was just another muddled, discontented, ordinary family.

Tyler crafts the characters masterfully — each is recognizable, with their traits and quirks, in people we know — and constructs their architecture as carefully, and with as much attention to quality, as J.R. constructed the house on Bouton road: the house in which all of their stories unfold. She tells a story of an ordinary family in a way that kept me turning the pages.

Anne Tyler is a Pulitzer winner, and this book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I think I have found a new author to love.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott FitzgeraldShort story: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald, lived in Baltimore
Setting: 1860 – 1930s Baltimore
Category: Short stories, Literary Fiction

We all know the story of Benjamin Button now, right? The story about the man who was born old and aged backwards? What I didn’t know about this story is that it was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and that it was set in Baltimore, Maryland. What I also didn’t know was that Fitzgerald lived in Baltimore for several years after Paris and New York, and that Maryland was where his wife Zelda was hospitalized in the 1930s for mental illness, and where Fitzgerald was hospitalized 9 times for alcoholism.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is very short, barely 40 pages, and is both strange and comical. Benjamin is born in 1860 as a 70 year-old man, and what struck me about this short story, since I’m reading for setting, is how unlike the Baltimore of today is the Baltimore in this book. Granted, I’ve only been exposed to certain parts of Baltimore: the grittier parts from Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (the book that spawned the HBO series The Wire) and the modern parts I’ve visited down by the Inner Harbor.

But in this book, Fitzgerald refers to ante bellum Baltimore, debutantes, and Baltimore society, reminding me that Maryland, and Baltimore, were part of the South. I don’t know why I think of Maryland as being both North and South, especially after reading Frederick Douglass’s book — perhaps because it is the northernmost east coast state south of the Mason Dixon line — but thinking of Baltimore with white, ante bellum Southern “society” was a place my mind had never gone before. It makes sense Fitzgerald would be the one to introduce it.

The story itself was only okay. It was a quick read that Fitzgerald thought was very funny, but it had deeper implications about age and how we interact with it. The movie was quite a departure from the original text, especially with regards to Benjamin’s romantic interest, which remained true throughout the film, and faded with his youth and his wife’s aging in the book (see above about deeper implications about age and how we interact with it). The book felt truer to what the reality would be in such a bizarre circumstance, while the movie was much sweeter.

For Further Reading in Maryland

Recommended books I’ve not yet read:
– Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Anne Tyler
– The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Ann Brashares
– Red Kayak, Priscilla Cummings
– Jacob Have I Loved, Katherine Paterson

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: 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.