Reading outside of America

As usually happens when I stray from a routine, my reading for Andrea Reads America has been derailed. It started with The Shipping News¹. I skipped my annual reading of it last winter because I had just started this project, but I couldn’t go another winter without reading Proulx’s masterpiece. So in November, I left the United States to read Newfoundland. I was only going to be gone a few days.

shipping newsAnd I was, really. I vacationed in the bracing northern winter for a weekish, then came back to the US. But instead of picking up with Florida, which was next up after finishing my District of Columbia reads, I decided to skip ahead to Hawaii. I was preparing for travel to Kauai, and I really wanted to read some Hawaiian fiction as I awaited my vacation work trip.

I read two or three books set in Hawaii, but as you can imagine, since I escaped to those mystic islands in real life and not just in fiction, I didn’t take many any notes. I read on the beach. By the pool. I made no records. I did not write.

My reading project fell apart.

frenchman's creek 2When I returned home to the cold brittleness of winter, I wasn’t in the mood for Florida. I was in the mood for something more… moody. We talked books in Hawaii, and my friend Ben recommended I try Daphne du Maurier. I had heard her name before on The Readers podcast — Simon Savidge loves Rebecca and it is entirely possible that he mentions that title in every episode of the podcast — and the English countryside sounded exactly like what I wanted.

So instead of reading Florida, I read England. I read My Cousin Rachel. It gave me what I was craving: suspense, mood, landscape, romance, and skilled storytelling. Within minutes of finishing My Cousin Rachel, I started Frenchman’s Creek, which I enjoyed even more (there are pirates!). I would have started a third du Maurier except that I want to save her for those times when I hunger for that type of setting. When a certain mood and a certain landscape are the only thing that will sate a literary craving. You know the feeling.

master and margaritaI was so far gone after du Maurier, I decided what the hell. I’ll read this Russian novel my Secret Santa gave me. I have yet to complete a Russian work, unless Lolita counts. I tried to read The Brothers Karamazov, I really did. I couldn’t keep track of the characters and all their nicknames, and I just wasn’t into it. So I abandoned. But this new book, The Master and Margarita, it was a gift. And I read it.

long quiet highwayNow, I’m slowly making my way back to Andrea Reads America. I’m rereading Natalie Goldberg’s Long Quiet Highway, which at least takes place in the United States, even if it travels from New York to New Mexico to Colorado to Minnesota. This is the book that gave me permission to write, even if what I write is crap, and when I finished The Master and Margarita, I craved both the vibrance and the solitude of Goldberg’s prose.

When I’m done with this, with Goldberg’s quiet book, then, THEN, I swear I’m coming back. I’ll get back on track. I’ll read in order. I’ll begin with Florida and I’ll try not to stray.

At least not for a state or two.

¹ This review by Krista Stevens of The Shipping News gave me goosebumps. It’s so good.

Andrea Reads America: Washington, D.C.

Andrea Reads America DC Book Map
Andrea Reads America: Washington, DC

A long time ago, in our life before children, my husband and I lived in College Park, Maryland, three blocks from a metro station where the green line took us straight into downtown Washington, D.C. I had never lived near a city before, and I fell in love with D.C. The memorials, the museums; the statue gardens, the Tuba Christmas concert; New Years Eve at the reflecting pool, Fourth of July fireworks at the Washington monument; the lighting of the national Christmas tree at the White House, cherry blossoms at the Jefferson Memorial. The Washington Post delivered to our door.

We lived there in the first years of our marriage, and we had a garden where we tended echinacea, columbine, gerbera daisies, shasta daisies, and I grew a few vegetables along with tomatoes, basil, and arugula. We used the arugula in a pasta with a bacon and cream sauce, the basil for pesto every week, and ate the red tomatoes warm off the vine, sliced, salted, and dripping with summer.

It was a good life in D.C., and I miss it. I couldn’t wait to read novels set in the area we spent our rich early years, and I wasn’t disappointed. The books here represent three faces of D.C.: the timeless political drama of Capitol Hill, the transience of contemporary D.C. neighborhoods, and the racial tensions of a 1920s Georgetown.

Advise and Consent by Allen Drury book coverNovel: Advise and Consent
Author: Allen Drury, US Senate Correspondent 1940s
Setting: Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, 1950s
Categories: Pulitzer, Political Fiction

Set during the Cold War as the US and Russia reared against each other on all fronts — when they were racing to get to the moon first, when the US saw communism as evil, when tension was high and trust was low — Advise and Consent is a Washington, D.C.-set drama that follows the confirmation hearings of a controversial secretary of state nominee: controversial because he may be a former member of the Communist party.

Published in 1959 and awarded the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1960, I can imagine that Advise and Consent was a foundational work upon which later D.C. insider literature and TV series were built. Advise and Consent, like House of Cards, Scandal, and other political dramas, exposes the bargaining, gambling, and shady dealings that happen behind the scenes in private rooms in the Capitol, and in the Oval office. Dealings that are never overt, are never plainly spoken, are suggested obliquely through innuendo and sideways dealings, and are almost always at the expense of someone’s integrity.

Because that’s really what Advise and Consent is about. It’s about integrity and how far that may get you, and where it may fall short, and how nearly impossible it is to maintain in politics. It is a bitter irony that those who serve out of a genuine drive to do what’s right for the country cannot do so and also sustain their integrity.

“This is a cruel town,” he said, “when you get on the wrong side of it. A great town and a good town, and a petty town, and a cruel town. And nobody ever knows from day to day which face it is going to put on.”

Like classic films upon which so many contemporary movies are based, Advise and Consent was not novel to me because I’ve seen it done so many times by its successors. However, the subtlety, the lack of sensationalism, and the impossible choices politicians must make —  sacrificing principles to accomplish a greater goal — is executed exquisitely in this book. The characters are real, their dramas are relateable, and the book does not ask the reader to take great leaps like modern excessive dramas do. With every decision a character makes, the reader can see the quandry. The reader is there with him asking, well, what can he do? And the answer is never easy.

You are One of ThemNovel: You Are One of Them
Author: Elliott Holt, born Washington, D.C.
Setting: Washington, D.C. and Moscow 1980s
Categories: Contemporary Fiction, Literary Fiction

Set against the backdrop of Cleveland Heights, a Washington, D.C. neighborhood during the 1980s, when the US feared of nuclear attack from Russia, You Are One of Them is a story of trust and betrayal, not among nations, but between childhood friends.

Daughter of divorced parents — a neglectful father who abandons her for a new family in his native England, and an anxiety-ridden mother afraid of leaving the house — Sarah Zuckerman befriend Jenny Jones, her new across-the-street all-American neighbor who has just moved to D.C from the wholesome heartland: from Ohio.

Mrs. Jones was always there to ask about our day. She smiled a lot. At first it made me nervous — there was something unsettling about all that grinning — but my mother said that people smiled more in Ohio.

In their girlhood Sarah and Jenny do typical childhood things: play hide and seek in the woods, leave notes for each other in a secret chink in church stones, and write letters to Yuri Andropov, the leader of the USSR, asking for peace.

The story is of the all-American girl whose letter made her famous, whose letter took her to the USSR, and of Sarah, whose idea it had been to write the letters, but who was left behind, who wasn’t the perfect American, and who spends the rest of her life chasing Jenny’s memory.

Though the author is a D.C. native, and much of the first half of the novel takes place in D.C., my favorite scenes were in Russia. The Russian characters, the contrast between D.C and Moscow, and the similarities, were compelling and I could not stop turning pages.

But the best part is Sarah’s ending, when she finally catches Jenny’s ghost and realizes what she’s been holding onto, releases it, grows up, has that epiphinal moment when she becomes her true self — and then stands up for it.

River Cross my HeartNovel: River Cross My Heart
Author: Breena Clarke, born Washington, D.C.
Setting: Georgetown, Washington, D.C., 1920s
Categories: African American Fiction, Historical Fiction

Set in Georgetown in the 1920s, River, Cross My Heart tells the story of a young swimmer, Johnnie Mae, whose younger sister drowns in the Potomac River in summer — while the white children in Georgetown cool off in the clean, safe, turquoise water of the whites-only pool.

Legends abound that the Potomac River is a widowmaker, a childtaker, and a woman-swallower.

Filled with rich scenes of food and family, the black Georgetown community, and childhood friendships and rivalries, River, Cross My Heart follows the grief, the coming together, and the recovery of the community in the wake of Clara’s death.

One of the things I loved about this book is that it shows this D.C. neighborhood in all the seasons, including the oppressive heat of summer, the spookiness of a graveyard at Halloween, the sharp cold of winter, and the birth of new life in spring.

It’s also a time period  I know little about in D.C. history. I reveled experiencing Georgetown as a small Southern town rather than the elite metropolitan neighborhood it is today. There are gardens and laundry lines, feasts with traditional Southern soul food, tensions between white and black, kids being kids, a “witch” woman, and a cast of characters that make me long for a neighborliness that I haven’t encountered in my lifetime.

 

For Further Reading in Washington, D.C.

Books that have been recommended to me and I have not yet read:
The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos (writer for The Wire)
Echo House by Ward Just
Heartburn by Nora Ephron
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu

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: Delaware

Delaware book map
Andrea Reads America: Delaware

As a character in Cristina Henriquez’s brilliant Book of Unknown Americans says:

Who comes to the United States and ends up in Delaware?

Which was my thought exactly as I read first a romance novel showing the strong German roots of the Delaware Amish, then a novel about Italian immigrants in Wilmington, and then finished Delaware off with Henriquez’s Book of Unknown Americans which tells the stories of Americans of Latino ancestry living in – you guessed it – Delaware.

Delaware always seemed to me a land of farms and rolling hills, like what I saw on bicycle rides through the Delmarva peninsula when we lived in Maryland, but after reading these books I see there are thriving cultural populations in the cities of Delaware. I see the state in a whole new way now.

Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez book coverNovel: The Book of Unknown Americans
Author: Cristina Henriquez, born in Delaware
Setting: Delaware
Categories: Contemporary Fiction, Hispanic Fiction

Set in modern day Delaware, in an apartment building populated by immigrants from Mexico, Paraguay, Panama, this powerful book tells the stories of these unknown people, most of whom are American citizens or legal immigrants with visas, who are treated like slaves, animals, and idiots because they are perceived as “wetbacks,” “illegals,” “lazy Mexicans,” and other insulting stereotypes.

We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then?

The underlying story in The Book of Unknown Americans is deep and beautiful. Told from the points of view of several characters who live in the apartment building, the tale is of an outcast boy and a girl who would have been out of his league but for an accident that left her brain damaged and ostracized. Both rejected by their peers, they are the only ones who understand and appreciate each other. Her family worked two years to get the necessary paperwork to legally bring her to the US from Mexico so she could go to a special school, and The Book of Unknown Americans explores their struggle to pursue the American Dream.

To balance the hard issues Henriquez deals with, she also injects the story with wonder and beauty,

In México, men sold ice out of carts they attached to bicycles. Here, it was falling from the sky.

and with humor:

Celia told me about the provisions we would need for winter – heavy coats and a stack of comforters and something called long underwear that made me laugh when she tried to describe it.

The Book of Unknown Americans is layered, dealing with guilt and fault and blame, dealing with concepts of home, and dealing with belonging, and citizenship, and citizenry. Moreover it explores not a single culture, but the human conditions of joy, heartache, and love: the love of adolescents, of parents for children, of husbands and wives, of friends, and of nations.

Courting Ruth by Emma Miller. Fiction set in DelawareNovel: Courting Ruth
Author: Emma Miller, lives in Kent County, Delaware
Setting: Delaware
Categories: Christian Fiction, Romance

You know what I love about this reading project? I’m reading books that I would have never otherwise read, like Emma Miller’s Courting Ruth: an Amish romance novel.

An Amish romance novel.

Courting Ruth is set in Seven Poplars, a fictitious Amish community in rural Delaware that reflects the farms and fields of the author’s Delaware upbringing. Filled with rural imagery, earthy landscapes, and funny farmhouse metaphors, Courting Ruth is warm and wholesome. Not to mention I’m always going to love a book that describes my common-colored eyes as “nutmeg brown with dashes of cinnamon and ginger.”

Also, this book made me hungry.

My husband and I used to live in Maryland where we’d often visit the Amish market on Saturdays to buy cheeses, pastries, and homemade ice cream. This book triggered memories of that market, of how simple it felt to be there, with the Amish in their Plain dress, with honey wood walls, worn communal-picnic tables, walls lined with cases of golden loaves and rustic pies, heavy mechanical cash registers dinging with real bells and slamming shut with satisfying ka-chunks. And women with their aprons and men with their beards.

I learned from this book that a man’s beard signifies that he’s married, that the Amish faith instructs that its followers live apart from the world, that pride is to be avoided, and that I can totally romanticize the simple life.

The sun-warmed boards felt good on the soles of Ruth’s bare feet.

I loved this book for its bucolic landscapes, and for the pies, and for the summer evenings. But most of all I loved it for the warmth and security it made me feel.

The Saint of Lost Things by Christopher Castellani book coverNovel: The Saint of Lost Things
Author: Christopher Castellani, born & raised in Wilmington, DE
Setting: Wilmington, Delaware
Categories: Contemporary Fiction

Set in 1953 Wilmington, Delaware, in the Italian district around Seventh and Eighth Streets, The Saint of Lost Things is a year in the lives of an immigrant Italian family at varying states of integration into their new American lives. There are the brothers Mario and Antonio: Mario the effusive restauranteur and manager of Stella’s Italian restaurant, and Antonio the smart but timid older brother who works an assembly line in an auto factory but dreams of opening a proper Italian restaurant one day – one that is sophisticated and elegant. Mario and Antonio live together with their wives, Ida and Madellena, and their parents, all of them in an apartment on Eighth Street.

The Saint of Lost Things focuses on the struggles of Antonio and Madellana as they find their way in America, childless for seven years and resigned to a life without a large Italian family of their own. In the story, Madellena constantly looks back in time toward her small Italian village where she left her lover, her sister, and her weeping mother to come to America with Antonio, a stranger whom she married.

He stares into his whiskey the way a woman stares into a lake, as if seeking an honest answer from the reflection.

As is often the way with books that include the mannerisms and language of another country – famiglia, la musica, bambinaThe Saint of Lost Things, just in putting the sound of the Italian language in my head, made me hungry for Italian food. It also made me romanticize Italian culture – the closeness of families, the tradition, the loyalty, and the focus on passion – while also showing that exclusion and prejudice are sadly, a human theme, as when several members of the Italian community repeatedly vandalize the new black family’s house in an attempt to drive them out of the neighborhood.

Mostly, though The Saint of Lost Things is about making new life, and new love.

For Further Reading in Delaware

Books that have been recommended to me and I have not yet read:
I’m On My Way But Your Foot is On My Head by Bertice Berry
Contents Under Pressure by Lara M. Zeises
The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls by Julie Shumacher
Final Price by Gregory Smith

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.