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: 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.

Andrea Reads America: Massachusetts

Andrea Reads America Massachusetts book map
Andrea Reads America: Massachusetts

I could not wait to get to Massachusetts. I love the darkness and the seasons, the rocks and the sea, and the characters of New England. The Scarlet Letter has a special place in my heart. I read it in 10th grade, and wrote a paper on it for my literature class, and that paper was when I fell in love with writing. As I dug into the novel to write about it at age 16, the paper became less about being an assignment and more about being an exciting investigation into the symbolism and themes of fiction set among Puritans. It was my first real taste of appreciating literature. And it was just as satisfying at 42.

I had a hard time deciding among all of the literature of Massachusetts. I’ve ultimately read eight novels from Massachusetts, and if you have any plans to visit the state, either in literature or in real life, you can find a list of those books at the bottom of this post. I’ve included four books on the map above because even though I didn’t write any notes on The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry when I read it, I really enjoyed the book and wanted to make sure it got a spot here.

The Storied Live of A.J. Fikry book cover Book: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
Author: Gabrielle Zevin, graduated from Harvard in Cambridge, MA
Setting: Modern Alice Island, MA
Category: Contemporary Fiction

As I mentioned above, I neglected to write any notes when I read this book back in May. However, I remember eating it up. It had books, it had a baby, it had a cantankerous, softy book store owner in a small island community off the coast of New England. It had love and humor and was really just right up my alley.  I really enjoyed it, and I recommend it.

The Wedding by Dorothy West book cover

Book: The Wedding
Author: Dorothy West, lived in Martha’s Vineyard
Setting: 1950s Martha’s Vineyard, MA
Category: Literary fiction, African-American Fiction

The Wedding, set in a “colored” community in Martha’s Vineyard, is an exploration of just that: color in its shades of pale, nut-brown, ebony, and skin tones both among races and within the same race. Unlike most of the African-American fiction I’ve read, The Wedding is an exploration of Harvard-trained professors, black doctors, of socialite black women, of wealthy black society in Massachusetts, of wealthy 1950s African-Americans with maids and big houses.

The exploration of color is more than what I’ve read in many of my previous reads in my Andrea Reads America journey. In The Wedding, West does not just probe the tensions between black and white. She explores tensions within the community, and especially the attitudes towards blending: fair-skinned black folks marry whites or other fair-skinned blacks to preserve the right color (pale), and when someone in the community marries a dark-skinned person for love, they are shunned.

She had Gram and her mother watching her like hawks, making sure she understood that skin color was a direct barometer of virtue.

The most interesting scene in the book to me was when Shelby, blond-haired and blue-eyed child of a black father and white mother, wanders away from the Oval, the colored community. Her family spreads the word that she is lost, involves the police, and are in a panic for hours and hours while Shelby is missing. Meanwhile, Shelby wanders outside of the Oval, encounters whites of Martha’s Vineyard and is clearly lost, yet even with the description of what the missing child is wearing, none of the whites on the island put it together that Shelby is the missing child and therefore do nothing to respond to the missing child call. They’re looking for a dark-skinned child — an “Ovalite” — even though the description of the child doesn’t include the color of her skin. They make assumptions.

The book jumps back and forth in time, and from South to North in locale, building the history to the culmination of Shelby’s wedding day: Shelby a blond, blue-eyed daughter of a mixed color mother and dark father, to a white man. I won’t give away what happens when characters ignore love and marry only for color, status, and appearances.

The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever

Book: The Wapshot Chronicle
Author: John Cheever, born Quincy, Massachusetts
Setting: 1950s fishing village, MA
Categories: National Book Award Winner, Literary Fiction

I bought this book for three reasons: because I love John Cheever short stories, because I learned somewhere that Cheever’s stories were a strong influence for Mad Men, and because of circumstances in my life at the time. My Mom and I traveled to New York City together while I was reading Massachusetts, and I was between books, so I really wanted to buy a book while we were in NYC. We found a bookshop in Greenwich Village, and I saw this book there unexpectedly, and I was super excited to buy a book for my reading project from a bookshop in the Village.

I wasn’t crazy about this book. If you want a Massachusetts fishing village, read this book. The scenes in St. Botolphs, the small town by the sea, with hills and eccentrics and wild New England waters, put you in the landscape, fishing in a lake in the woods and plowing through waves in a rickety old boat. The writing is beautiful: each noun is evocative and each verb packed with action and imagery.

The Wapshot Chronicle chronicles the lives of three men of the Wapshot line: father Leander and his two sons, Moses and Coverly. Their paths are manly as is the writing. All the women in the book are either controlling, manipulative, or there to serve the men:

He had not fallen in love with her because of her gift with arithmetic, because of her cleanliness, her responsible mind or any other human excellence. It was because he perceived in her some extraordinary inner comeliness or grace that satisfied his needs.

This reduction of women to ornaments or obstacles made it difficult to me to enjoy the gorgeous aspects of this book, which is a shame. I’ve felt the same conflict when reading Cheever’s short stories, and as all of his male characters seem broken, frustrated, or somehow incomplete, like Don Draper in Mad Men, I wonder if that is part of his point, that when women are dispensable in a man’s life, when he can’t see half of the human population as full, independent persons outside of his own self-absorbed needs, he will never be whole. Or maybe he does just think women are inferior playthings for men, pleasant when they give men what men want, and annoying otherwise, who knows.

The Wapshot Chronicle explores the love between men, and their coming of age, and is sprinkled with vivid scenes from their lives, like beachside trysts, rainy rooftop escapades, and the running aground of Leander’s boat and its subsequent transformation into a gift shop. I’ve you’ve watched Mad Men, you will recognize elements of the show in Cheever’s works. The same mood carries through this book, though with an entirely different type of character, and in a seaside village rather than in Manhattan.

The Scarlet Letter book cover

Book: The Scarlet Letter
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne, born Salem, MA 1804
Setting: Puritan Boston, Massachusetts
Categories: Literary fiction, historical fiction

Set in somber, strict 17th Century Boston, The Scarlet Letter is the quintessential New England of those dark, Puritan times. Filled with delightfully dreary language, with words like odious, malevolent, wretched, and fiend showing up on nearly every page, Hawthorne paints a picture of pinched faces, dark forests, and shame and punishment for the sinner and protagonist, Hester Prynne. She is an unmarried woman who yet bears a child, and is sentenced to wear a scarlet letter A on the bosom of her dress to display her shame of adultery to the world.

Hawthorne portrays her as a strong and kind woman, good even, and filled with love: a protagonist and sympathetic character rather than a shameful one, despite her sin and her crime, which in those times were one and the same.

As I mentioned in the introduction, I read this book in high school, and it was the first paper I wrote that I was ever proud of. I kept the paper for years  before finally getting rid of it in one of our many moves, and now I wish I could read it to know my young me interpretation.

The current me is interested in the public shaming of Hester Prynne, and her grace in the face of it. Her lover’s shame, though, remained hidden, and while it killed him — weakening him physically, hobbling him, making his life wretched — it also inspired passionate sermons about sin that elevated him to angelic status with his unknowing congregation. It was his guilt and hypocrisy that spoke so truly to them, though they didn’t know of either.

What also interested me is the portrayal of their child. She is always associated with sunlight and wildness. Even her name, Pearl, is luminescent. She is elfin and sprite-like, full of life, and most importantly, is a part of nature, in contrast to the black, artificial laws of man that were so unnatural as to punish the people and the act that created her. While her mother and father’s sin is associated with scarlet — red, blood, scars — Pearl is continually associated with green, the color of new growth and of life.

I very much enjoyed rereading this book and the Puritan Massachusetts it took me to. I couldn’t read this state without reading Nathaniel Hawthorne.

For Further Reading in Massachusetts

Books I’ve read:
– The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
Books I’d still like to read:
Secret Harmonies, Andrea Barrett

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.