Andrea Reads America: New Hampshire

Map of books set in New Hampshire v2
Andrea Reads America: New Hampshire

I’m not sure what I thought of New Hampshire before I started reading it. Quintessential New England is probably what I thought: crisp autumns with warm-toned leaves, icy sidewalks on prep school campuses, and windy, wintry beaches.

John Irving.

Prior to this reading project, everything I knew about New Hampshire I had learned from John Irving novels and from a day trip to Portsmouth during the winter we lived in Maine. After reading beyond John Irving, though, I have a bit of a feel for the coast, the mill towns of the 1920s, and am reminded of Exeter Academy: the prep school for boys that makes appearances in nearly every Irving novel, and is the setting of A Separate Peace as well. I love a good New England boarding school setting.

A Prayer for Owen MeanyNovel: A Prayer for Owen Meany
Author: John Irving, born Exeter, NH 1942
Setting: 1950s-1960s Gravesend, New Hampshire (based on Exeter)

I love John Irving and his flawed, dysfunctional, funny, and good characters. By good, I mean that as messed up as they are, they are ultimately good people who love deeply and with great loyalty.

A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of my top five favorite books. I re-read it for this project, and it held up. I still adore Owen Meany, and I am still in awe of the way John Irving can build a novel. He has several novels set in New Hampshire, including The Hotel New Hampshire and Last Night in Twisted River, but son of a granite worker in the granite state, Owen Meany may be the New Hampshirest of all. Only a New Hampshire native would be able to confirm.

We don’t enjoy giving directions in New Hampshire — we tend to think that if you don’t know where you’re going, you don’t belong where you are.

I love John Irving primarily for his characters, and Owen Meany is the best one of all. The narrator of his story makes an audacious claim in the first sentence of the book, and it is possibly this claim — and it’s fulfillment through the phenomenal construction of this book — that makes this book one of my favorites of all time:

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice — not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God.

A Separate Peace by John KnowlesNovel: A Separate Peace
Author: John Knowles, 1945 graduate of Exeter Academy
Setting: Summer 1939, Exeter Academy, New Hampshire

What a beautiful, sad book about friendship and false security in a New Hampshire all-boys boarding school in the beginning of WWII — the summer of 1939 — when the boys of the story weren’t of age yet to go off to war.

Narrated by Gene (the smart one) about his friend Phineas (the athletic one), A Separate Peace takes place primarily during the summer session of school, when the seniors are preparing to go to war, and the normally rigid rules are relaxed for the summer for these boys who are still young and innocent and living in the safe, protected vitality of youth.

We were careless and wild, and I suppose we could be thought of as a sign of the life the war was being fought to preserve.

The friendship between Gene and Phineas has the world wondering if they are gay. Knowles says that if they were, he would have written it into the book. And it makes me think of how differently people view friendship between men — that if men are close and have a deep friendship — with anyone — they must be lovers.

But the closeness of Phineas and Gene reminds me of the deep friendships I have with the girlfriends of my teenage years, which were never suspect to anyone as being anything more than friendship. I wouldn’t give those friendships up for anything, and my girlfriends are one of the best parts of me, even still, at age 44. It makes me sad that if men have a close relationship — a real, deep, close, and loving relationship — with someone of any gender, then it must be sexual, they must be lovers. Society won’t accept it any other way, and that’s a true loss for men.

At any rate, I love this book, and I especially love Finny. He’s one of the most loveable characters I’ve ever come across. One of the genius things Knowles does with this book, through Gene, is to show how we project our own weaknesses and flaws onto others who are completely innocent of the thing we suspect them of, like when Gene thinks Finny is jealous of him for Gene’s good grades, when in fact Finny doesn’t give a fig about that. It is Gene who is jealous of Finny. Jealous enough to act impulsively in a way that robs Finny of the thing that is most important to him, and that is the thing that Gene is most jealous of.

Peyton PlaceNovel: Peyton Place
Author: Grace Metalious, born 1924 Manchester, NH
Setting: 1956 fictitious Peyton Place, New Hampshire

Maybe it was just because of “Place” in the title, but this book felt like a prime time soap opera, like the TV show Melrose Place. It felt like the author tried to think up every scandalous thing that might happen in a small community, then put it all in one book: murder, rape, incest, illegal abortion, abuse, assault on women, despicable characters getting their comeuppance (but not through the moral strength of others), and yet everyone loves the place they live, this little town of Peyton Place, and is fiercely loyal to and protective of it.

The author often refers to the ways of Northern New Englanders, but the behaviors she describes — provencialness, gossip, nosiness, turning the other way when they see something horrible happen to their neighbor — these characters seem like universal characters in every small town ever. I don’t feel like I know New Hampshire any better because of this book.

Sea Glass by Anita Shreve book coverNovel: Sea Glass
Author: Anita Shreve, lived and died in NH
Setting: 1929 coastal New Hampshire

Sea Glass was better than Peyton Place for giving me a feel for New Hampshire: for working in the mills (which was a thing, apparently, in the 1920s-1930s in New Hampshire), the unions, the strikes, and more importantly (to me), the coast of New Hampshire, with its fog and empty winter beaches, and sea glass that washed up on the shore.

I wasn’t really sure of the point of the sea glass in the book — it’s the title, and the main character collects it, and her husband jeers at her for it — be what greater significance has it? I got the feeling the author just likes sea glass and wanted to include it somehow, which is totally fine. I like sea glass too, and its appearances in the book made me happy.

But there could be more to it than that. Perhaps the deeper purpose of the sea glass is that it is mysterious, scratched and worn, its sharp edges smoothed by the tumbling it endures in the turbulence of its existence. And it is unbreakable, like Honora, this story’s main character.


Andrea Reads America: Nevada

Andrea Reads America map of books set in Nevada
Andrea Reads America: Nevada

Nevada is a rich state for stories. I was pleasantly surprised by two of the Nevada books I read, just stunned by how good they were and how much they made me think. The Ox-Bow Incident and Battleborn were out of the blue successes for me. I went into them knowing and expecting nothing, and I emerged pleased, impressed, and fulfilled in the way that only a good book can make me feel.

The Ox-Bow Incident book cover

Novel: The Ox-Bow Incident
Author: Walter Van Tilburg Clark, grew up in Reno, NV
Setting: 1885 American West

Set in the wild west in Nevada after the American Civil War, and during the time that cattle thieves were hanged for that crime, The Ox-Bow Incident is an unexpected Western. It’s not about cowboys and Indians, or chasing bad guys across the open plains with dust and shooting and the good guys winning.

Instead this book is about the terrible, stupid things men will do to each other, to women, to innocent people, to their own sons, all in the name of masculinity and not appearing weak.

Most men are more afraid of being thought cowards than of anything else, and a lot more afraid of being thought physical cowards than moral ones.

In a saloon, when someone comes in shouting about cattle being stolen and a man being killed, the cowboys in the small town get angry, yelling and egging each other on about the injustices of it. The sheriff is away, and they don’t want to wait on the law because they don’t trust it to do justice, and in no time they’ve formed a lynch mob to chase the rustlers down and hang them. The mob set their faces and their posture, daring any man to not join them. Even men who know what they’re doing is wrong — that they should wait for the sheriff, that the men they’re chasing down deserve a trial outside of the reactive emotions of a bunch of cowboys — even men who are uneasy about joining this mob join it nonetheless.

We’re doing it because we’re in the pack, because we’re afraid not to be in the pack.

The problem is, they don’t have the whole story, any shred of evidence, or anything close to the truth when they set off on their lynching expedition after what prove to be innocent men.

Battleborn book cover by Claire Watkins

Book: Battleborn
Author: Claire Vaye Watkins
Setting: short stories from gold rush to modern times, set in Nevada

I don’t normally read short story collections, or if I do, I read them slowly because I get distracted between stories. Not Battleborn. I tore through this as if it were a novel. I didn’t want it to end. The writing is sharp, the characters real, the stories compelling, and of all the Nevada-set books I read, this one best captured the landscape, the people, and the feel of being in the state.

I almost didn’t read this book, because I had already read 3 or 4 books set in Nevada, but I was reading some of the Goodreads reviews, and one reviewer wrote, “Once you know whom Claire Vaye Watkins’ father was, it is impossible to forget that fact and you’re not surprised that she tells stories that are consistently tough and hard.”

So of course I looked up who her father was. Her parlour trick, she calls it. Her father was Paul Watkins, Charles Manson’s right-hand man. This is mentioned nowhere on the book jacket, nor in her biography. The stories stand without needing to be bolstered by this fact, but I admit that once I learned it, I was curious and picked up Battleborn, and I’m glad I did.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas book cover Hunter S. ThompsonNovel: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Author: Hunter S. Thompson
Setting: 1960s Las Vegas

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is probably the most famous book associated with Nevada, but it is not by any means the best. It was okay. It’s flashy and full of drugs, and I guess makes people feel cool.

I’m not sure how I feel about this book. The writing is terrific — fast and frenzied and perfectly demonstrative, perfectly showing not telling, the wild savagery of two men with a convertible car, pumped full of LSD and mescaline, various other drugs, cocaine, weed, and alcohol, on the loose in Las Vegas. Yet through the muddle and fog of all the drugs, amidst all the frenzy, the writing is sharp and clear.

In the wake of destruction these characters leave, including the drugging, raping, and abandonment of a teenage girl, I cannot call the book hilarious as so many others seem to find it. Maybe they think it’s funny because they can relate to the dumb shit things these guys do on drugs? More likely they’d tell me to lighten up, that I have no sense of humor. It’s true, I don’t find it funny to use and demean other people. I’m tired of trying to pretend it’s no big deal all the people who get hurt so that boys can be boys.

I saw this book as much more sad and bleak than it seems to have a reputation for, which makes me wonder what it’s really supposed to be about: “A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.” Is the point that it’s all a farce? There is no American Dream? That people are brutal, that reality is brutal, and that people are making shit up just as much as these two guys pumped full of drugs — seeking and seeking but never finding? Is the meaning to point out the destructive path of debauchery and that it only results in being strung out, not satisfied?

Or is Thompson really trying to say that the life these guys live in this book is a good life — that gambling and high living is the American Dream? That doing whatever you want, destroying everything in your path, and getting away with it is the true dream?

No mercy for a criminal freak in Las Vegas. This place is like the Army: the shark ethic prevails — eat the wounded. In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity.

God help us all, that’s depressing.

I wasn’t prepared to like this book, and I’m still not sure if I did. But I do respect Thompson’s writing prowess. He knows how to use words. And punctuation. He uses punctuation perfectly for pacing. He makes it all seem effortless and natural.

Life Among the Piutes book coverBook: Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims
Author: Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, first Native American woman known to secure a copyright and publish in English
Setting: 1850s-1880s Nevada

Speaking of depressing. More raping and stealing and destroying and overpowering.

The mothers are afraid to have more children, for fear they shall have daughters, who are not safe even in their mother’s presence.

Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins was daughter of the chief of the Piutes (or Paiutes) tribe, a peaceful people living in the western part of what is now Nevada. Her father saw white man as a brother, and taught his tribe to welcome whites with open arms. She learned English, and this book is her non-fiction account of her tribe’s first contact with explorers and settlers, and their earnest attempts to keep peace and maintain a meager living on the shrinking land the whites permitted them to have in the years that followed.

Hopkins was an interpreter between her tribe and the white settlers and soldiers, and so she has a unique perspective of being in both worlds. If you are interested in Native American history, this is definitely a book to read.

Andrea Reads America: Nebraska

Andrea Reads America Nebraska book map
Andrea Reads America: Nebraska

As seems to be the trend lately, I did not take adequate notes on the books I read from Nebraska. I read these books months ago, then went off on a Daphne du Maurier reading binge which led me on a winding tour that included a re-read of The Shipping News, a couple of beach reads on vacation, and Dracula. I now only have vague impressions of the Nebraska books, which I’ll record here quickly and without polish so that I won’t let this recap post stand in the way with moving on to Nevada in my reading journey.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell book cover Novel: Eleanor & Park
Author: Rainbow Rowell, born Omaha, NE
Setting: 1986 Omaha, Nebraska

While this book could have been set anywhere — the setting doesn’t stand out as a character to me — this was my favorite of the Nebraska books I read. I heard about it over and over again on the Book Riot podcast, and it had been on my to-read pile for a good two years before I finally landed in Nebraska and picked it up. It was worth the wait. I was instantly immersed in the story and the characters, two outsiders in high school, Eleanor and Park. I won’t go into a synopsis — those are all over the Internet and are written by folks for whom the work was fresher on their minds when they wrote about it — I’ll just say I loved this book and the way it made me think and feel.

My Ántonia book coverNovel: My Ántonia
Author: Willa Cather, grew up in Nebraska
Setting: the great plains of frontier Nebraska

Unlike Eleanor & Park, the setting of My Ántonia is as much a character in the novel as Ántonia herself, or as smitten Jim who narrates the story. I often crave pioneer, prairie-set fiction, and My Ántonia and Cather’s other novellas are some of the best I’ve read.

This is my second or third reading of My Ántonia, a beautiful book that transports me to the harsh and wild life of settlers on the great plains.

There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.

As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it, the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.

Bead on an Anthill A Lakota Childhood book coverBook: Bead on an Anthill: A Lakota Childhood
Author: Daphne Red Shirt
Setting: 1960s and 70s Pine Ridge Reservation in northern Nebraska

Told from her perspective as a native American child growing up on a reservation in Nebraska, these stories of daily life are poignant in their innocence. The simple accounts of a child, as any child would chatter on about, show more than she tells. The notes I have are heartbreaking:

Scarcity: following ants to collect the beads they had carried off from the Lakota camp.

Being weighted down by her buckskin costume at the county fair and having to dance and be on display in front of whites, and be a spectacle — entertainment for them, and her hating to dance. But loving to do the same dance in camp in front of only her own people, and not having to wear the buckskin costume to do it.

Being surrounded by death, and the first death that affected her being her oldest sister, 18 years older, who was like a mother to her but who died from liver failure from drinking wine like water for too many years.

Plains Song by Wright MorrisNovel: Plains Song
Author: Wright Morris
Setting: late 1800’s early 1900’s Nebraska

This book I don’t recall as well, except that I remember it having a powerful sense of place. I remember the women are strong and endure, as they had to when attempting to settle on the American frontier. Kirkus Reviews has a nice writeup of this little known (and little written about) 1981 National Book Award winner, if you like frontier fiction and want to know more.