Andrea Reads America: New Jersey

Andrea Reads America books set in New Jersey
Andrea Reads America: New Jersey

I was excited to read New Jersey — Jersey has so much personality! I thought I would come across organized-crime novels set among the ports of New Jersey, and honestly I was hoping to find a title like that. I wanted to read something like The Sopranos, and even checked to see if the show was based on a book so I could read it (it wasn’t). Then I checked to see if The Godfather was set in NJ, but it’s set in NY. The same goes for Patti Smith’s Just Kids which is an amazing book, which I thought would be set somewhat in NJ, but mostly it’s set in NYC. I adored Smith’s book. It’s a favorite from this reading project, and I’m glad I accidentally read it on my NJ reading adventure.

After not finding any mob books, and after reading a NYC-set book for NJ, I did find Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, which I never read as a pre-teen and I was delighted to read as an adult. I also found an unusual and unexpected novel about an Indian family’s experience after immigrating to America — a novel in which the author pushes “all the exotic things to the side as if they didn’t matter” as the protagonist learns to do by studying Hemingway. And of course I reread some of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels, which never let me down when I want a fun and easy Jersey-girl read that is sure to make me giggle.

Are you there God? It's Me, Margaret Novel: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
Author: Judy Blume, grew up in Elizabeth, NJ
Setting: Farbrook, NJ

Ex-pats of New York City, young Margaret’s parents moved to New Jersey, to the suburbs, where they could get away from the city and have a yard and a garden and some dirt to dig in.

When I groaned, “Why New Jersey?” I was told, “Long Island is too social, Westchester is too expensive, and Connecticut is too inconvenient.”

Margaret is 11, entering 6th grade in a new town, and meets young Nancy and joins her secret society where they mainly discuss their impending periods, rank which boys they like, and malign the tall, first-to-develop girl in their class. Margaret, coming from New York City, is expected to be more worldly and grown up, but she feels left behind by the girls she falls in with. She talks every night to God. Her parents — one raised Jewish and one Christian — have left it up to her to choose which faith to access God through.

I remember friends loving this book when I was growing up, but I never read it, and I wish I had. It shepherded an entire generation of girls through the mysteries of adolescence, and it’s a funny, real, and uplifting book. The thing I loved most about it was Margaret’s private and personal relationship with God without the baggage of an organized religion distracting from  that connection.

Family Life book cover Novel: Family Life
Author: Akhil Sharma
Setting: New Jersey

Beginning in India and ending in New Jersey, Family Life surprised me in its depiction of an immigrant experience. Rather than focusing on the family’s integration into and treatment by American society, the story is a fascinating look at Indian social norms and customs, transplanted to a new country, especially when something horrible happens within a family who needs a network of support and familiarity.

Placing an Indian family in the setting of American suburbs in NJ had an interesting effect on me: it made it very clear how similar humans are across cultures, like presenting false appearances to make everyone think what you want them to think about you.

Family Life is told from the perspective of Ajay, an Indian boy whose family moves to America, and soon after, Ajay’s older brother has an accident that leaves him brain-damaged and bed-ridden. Throughout the novel, Ajay navigates his parents’ downward spiral, the Indian community’s reaction to their misfortune, being other in an American school — being one of the Indians with an accent and who brings funny foods to lunch — and trying to impress everyone all along the way.

The most exciting and unexpected part of the book is when Ajay discovers writing. He discovers not by practicing writing, or even by reading good writing, but by reading about Hemingway. Ajay realizes he might achieve fame and fortune and the ability to travel the world by being a writer rather than a doctor or an engineer, and so he reads everything he can about Hemingway before actually reading Hemingway’s work. And then he begins to write. The writing allows him to both process and express what’s happening in his family, and I found that fascinating.

Writing the story changed me. Now I began to feel as if I were walking through my life collecting things that could be used later: the sound of a ping-pong ball was like a woman walking in high heels, the shower running was like television static. Seeing things as material for writing protected me.

One for the Money book coverNovel: One For the Money
Author: Janet Evanovich
Setting: Trenton, NJ

I love these Stephanie Plum books. I think there are 28 now. I remember starting them, many years ago, when Shelfari still existed. They’re fun for their New Jersey setting and personalities, which are entertaining.

Connie handed me the check and plucked at a clump of mascara hanging at the end of her left eyelash. “I’m telling you, it’s fucking hard to be classy,” she said.

They’re also fun because though they’re similar to the cosy detective/mystery formula with a bumbling, nosy-neighbor crime-solver, they’re different: Stephanie Plum is a bounty hunter. In the first book of the series, One For the Money, Stephanie loses her job as a lingerie salesperson due to a company merger. She has no money, has to pawn her appliances to pay rent, and she needs money fast. Her NJ mom, who’s always in Stephanie’s business, shares that their bonds-bailsman cousin Vinny is looking for someone to do the filing. Stephanie arrives to apply for the job and ends up as a fill-in bounty hunter instead.

She’s funny, gutsy, and acts without thinking, and through a combination of smart deduction, happy accidents, her Jersey attitude, and some very scary attacks, she manages to accomplish what many around her cannot. Plus, I love that New Jersey is another character in the books.

Cicadas buzzed, Dumpsters reeked, and a dusty haze hung in a perpetuity over softball fields statewide. I figured it was all part of the great adventure of living in New Jersey.

These are light, fun reads that are great for tearing through in one or two days.

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.