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: Kansas

Map of books set in Kansas, USA
Andrea Reads America: Kansas

Tornadoes, thunderstorms, big sky; flat land, prairie, grasses as far as the eye can see: these were the things I craved from fiction set in the state of Kansas. And the books I read satiated my craving. On top of the immersing the reader in the tall grasses and violent storms of Kansas, these books also delivered on characters, taking the reader into the minds and lives of people who live in such a place.

Despite what many might consider a boring, endless landscape, Kansas fascinates me in its placement in our country: it is situated almost directly in the center of the continental United States. Each of these books showed a different facet of its openness, and the difficulty in pigeon-holing it into a particular region. In many ways it seems midwestern (Scent of Rain and Lightning), in others it seems like the South (Not Without Laughter), but the strongest feeling I get from it, that carries through all the books, is a sense of inner strength, captured most clearly in the pioneer spirit of Little House on the Prairie.

scent-of-rain-and-lightning Novel: The Scent of Rain and Lightning
Author: Nancy Pickard, born Kansas City
Setting: Contemporary small town Kansas
Categories: Mystery, Contemporary fiction

This is the second time I’ve read The Scent of Rain and Lightning — I can’t pass up a title like that — and I loved it just as much this time around as I did the first. Set in small town Kansas, “in a county where romantic partners were as scarce as yaks,” this novel is a thriller with compelling characters, perfect pacing, and a sense of place that crackles like the lightning in its title.

He didn’t try to explain ozone to her, or how raindrops hit rocks, releasing the fragrance of oils that plants had rubbed on them, or how spores in the ground give up their own earthy scent in the rain. He just took her out and let her sniff and sniff until she admitted that yes, it smelled good outside after a thunderstorm.

It is the story of Jody Linder whose dad was murdered when she was a child, whose mom disappeared the same night, and who is brought to her knees as an adult when, in the beginning of the novel, she hears that the man accused of killing her dad (and probably her mom as well) is being released from prison.

The book goes back in time from there, taking a dive into the characters — the rich and wholesome farm owners (Jody’s grandparents) and the angry and drunken hired help — the events that led to her father’s murder, and the background for the emotional scarring Jody carries.

There were so many things that could go wrong after something went right.

The pacing of the story kept me turning pages, and the relationships among the characters engaged me, but it’s the setting of the book that is most memorable, and that made me come back to it. It is not the Kansas of Little House on the Prairie, with descriptions of grasslands that reach out forever, but is instead the flatness, the farm, the one-bar town, the turbulent weather, and most memorable: Testament Rocks, Pickard’s fictionalized version of Monument Rocks, Kansas. This is a stone formation that still stands out in my mind, as it does in the otherwise flat landscape of Kansas, and that Jody returns to again and again in the story, to search for clues to her mother’s disappearance, and to climb for solitude and space to think.

not-without-laughter-cover Novel: Not Without Laughter
Author: Langston Hughes
Setting: 1930s Kansas
Categories: African-American fiction

While Not Without Laughter begins with a good Kansas storm, the strength of the novel is its characters, the contrasts among them, and the influences they have on Sandy, the young Kansas black boy whose coming of age story this is. Set in a small country town, in the home of Aunt Hager who is a former slave, Not Without Laughter is Sandy’s story of trying to make sense of the world around him while being pulled in all the directions his family expects of him.

His grandmother, Aunt Hager, expects family to stick together, to go to church, to keep her company. When all of her children leave her, she clings to Sandy, asking him to carry the laundry back and forth to the white folks she does the washing for, sharing her wisdom on the front porch at the day’s end.

White peoples maybe mistreats you an’ hates you, but when you hates ’em back, you de one what’s hurted, ’cause hate makes yo’ heart ugly — that’s all it does. It closes up de sweet door to life an’ makes ever’thing small an’ mean an’ dirty.

Sandy’s dad expects nothing from him, and in fact shows little interest, always playing guitar, always having fun, always running off to other cities, very rarely at home. His Aunt Harriet is tired of being a servant to whites; she is angry about the plight of blacks. She wants to make her way in the world as an actress or singer, and runs with a crowd Aunt Hagar doesn’t approve of. Aunt Tempy has distanced herself from the family, who she thinks acts too black, and is trying to model herself after whites. She expects Sandy to study and be a good representative of the Negro race. Most unexpectedly of all is his own mother, who wants him to drop out of school and get a job scrubbing floors, despite his education and intelligence, so he can help her with the rent.

Meanwhile, Sandy is an innocent kid who admires his dad’s and Aunt Harriet’s fun-loving spirits, who internalizes the constant disapproval and disdain that Aunt Hagar and Aunt Tempy have for his dad and Aunt Harrie, and who feels the weight of responsibility that Aunt Hagar, Aunt Tempy, and even Aunt Harrie place on him, holding him up while putting the fun-loving people in his life down.

You and me was foolish all right, breaking mama’s heart, leaving school, but Sandy can’t do like us. He’s gotta be what his grandma Hager wanted him to be — able to help the black race, Annjee! You hear me? Help the whole race!

The beauty in this book is that in his trying to make sense of it all, he decides that laughter and fun do not make his people lazy, it does not make them poor. It is quite the opposite: the laughter helps his people overcome their pain.

Through and above everything went laughter… That must be the reason, thought Sandy, why poverty-stricken old Negroes like Uncle Dan Givens lived so long — because to them, no matter how hard life might be, it was not without laughter.

little-house-on-the-prairieNovel: Little House on the Prairie
Author: Laura Ingalls Wilder
Setting: 1870s Kansas
Categories: Pioneer fiction, Children’s literature, Historical fiction

When the big woods of Wisconsin became too crowded, Pa, Ma, and the girls Laura, Mary, and Carrie, packed up the wagon and moved to the wild prairies of Kansas, where land was open and plentiful.

Set before Kansas was settled, Little House on the Prairie is a year under the open sky: a year in the life of a pioneer family who builds a log cabin and stable from logs they harvest from trees along the nearby creek, who digs their own well, who lives on cornmeal and whatever game Pa hunts, and who finds time to play and be free amidst the hard, hard work of being a settler.

The wind made a lonely sound in the grass. The camp fire was small and lost in so much space. But large stars hung from the sky, glittering so near that Laura felt she could almost touch them.

The wildness and freedom of the Kansas prairie is another character among the people of the book, and this is why I love Wilder’s Little House works. The place is alive. I can hear the wind, I can smell the sun-dried grass, I can feel the rough-hewn wood of the cabin walls. She brings us into what it’s like to chop your own trees to make your own lumber to build your own house. To make wooden pegs when you don’t have something as simple as a nail.

The books are refreshing in their wholesomeness, with stories of a family who find joy in a piece of calico cloth, a bag of white sugar, 8 squares of glass for a window. The simplicity of life is shocking, and I have to remind myself that simplicity comes with the costs of danger, and of endless hard, manual work.

For Further Reading in Kansas

Books I’ve read and recommend:
– The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Books that have been recommended to me that I’ve not yet read:
– In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

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.