Reading America IV

They say reading takes you places, and our ‘Reading America’ project is designed to do just that. Each Friday, we put out a short video recommending a book set in a particular American state. In this way, we hope you can get a feel for the different cultures and geographies that make up the United States of America. Here are five more books from across the USA that we really think you should ‘check out’.

EDUCATED
State: Idaho
Read the E-book here

Tara Westover’s memoir tells the story of her escape from the cult that she was raised in. The book, which has become an international bestseller, is a gripping story about perseverance and escaping childhood trauma.

BELOVED
State: Ohio
Read the E-book here

Toni Morrison’s magnum opus, ‘Beloved’ is a must-read from one of America’s greatest writers. Honestly. It’s one of the best books ever written. Just read it.

THE BELL JAR
State: New York
Read the E-book here

Poet Sylvia Plath’s only novel is a semi-autobiographical novel that parallels the author’s own struggles with mental illness. The book examines what it means to feel like as a prisoner inside oneself (hence the title) and its enduring legacy speaks to the brilliant way Plath portrays this.

THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN
State: Missouri
Read the E-book here

Mark Twain’s novel chronicles the adventures of Huck Finn and escaped slave Jim as they journey down the Mississippi river on a raft. It’s a compelling look at how racism is instilled in children, and one boy’s awakening to the horrors of injustice.

FROM HERE TO ETERNITY
State: Hawaii
Read the E-book here

Written in 1951, in ‘From Here to Eternity’ James Jones follows Prew from high to low in this novel set at the advent of the US involvement in WWII and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.

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Election Day

The first presidential election I experienced while living abroad was in 2008. I was working for the United States Peace Corps at the time, living in a small village in rural Malawi. We had only been in the country for one month at the time, and were still living in small groups with a supervisor, while we completed our training and learned to speak rudimentary Chitumbuka.

The night of the election, myself and eight other members of my group gathered together at one of our supervisor’s houses. We brought over sleeping bags and mattresses and snacks and camped out in her living room. We had hitchhiked to the market on the border between Malawi and Mozambique a few days before, and bought pop corn, and cookies and coca-cola and fantas, so we were well-supplied.

The village where we were staying didn’t have electricity, so we tuned a small battery-powered radio to the BBC World Service to listen as the results came in. The week before, our supervisor had gone into the Peace Corps office and printed out blank maps of the United States for each of us, and every time a state was called for either Barack Obama or John McCain we colored it in, red or blue.

It was a very different election party from the ones I had attended back in America, sitting in front of a television, eating enormous amounts of snack foods, and texting friends all across the country throughout the night. But it was still fun to be with friends, eating popcorn, listening as the results came in.

Sometime in the morning, about an hour or so before sunrise, the radio called the election in favor of Barack Obama, and we listened to Obama give his victory speech, and to McCain’s concession. I felt, in those moments, a strange mix of nostalgia for home and a connection to Americans all across the globe. Wherever we were, most of us were probably listening to this same announcement, and it was affecting us all, no matter how long we had been away.

I’ve been away from America for most elections since then. I’ve developed a routine of listening to the radio, furiously texting friends, and opening roughly 23 tabs to different news and analysis sites online. Every election is different, but I’ve always found that same mix of nostalgia and connection sweeping over me at the end of the night.

The 2020 election is different from most. Wherever we are, most Americans watched the results alone, or with a few close members of our family. The stakes feel higher this time — the sense of tension and divisiveness far greater than it has ever been.

There’s an absurd amount of hope and optimism that goes into voting — it rests on the idea that it is the people themselves who make up a country, who decide on its leaders and policies. There’s a sense of connectedness at the core of that premise that stays true no matter where we are in the world, no matter what our situation is, and no matter what decisions we make when we send in our ballot.

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Introducing Suzanne Solomon, UEA American Library Scholar 2020/2021

Last year around this time, I visited the American Library (then known as the Second Air Division Memorial Library), located in the Forum, catercorner to the colorful stalls of Norwich Market, to hear a colleague in UEA’s creative-critical PhD program read her work at an event organized by library scholar Dr. Linda Sheppard. At that time, I had no inkling that I was to be a 2020-21 American Library Scholar alongside Margaret Sessa-Hawkins, also a postgraduate researcher (as PhD students are known) in the University of East Anglia’s Literature, Drama and Creative Writing department. I’d landed in Norwich from New York just a few weeks before and was trying to find my feet. It was a good sign that I was completely charmed by this medieval market town with its ancient city walls, winding river, a castle, two cathedrals and warm, welcoming people.

I’d already known about the American Library’s mission to memorialize the lives and service of the 2nd Air Division personnel stationed in East Anglia during WWII. My interest was personal: my father, Flight Officer Eugene L. Solomon, was stationed at Grafton-Underwood during the war, part of the Eighth Air Force, 41st Combat Bombardment Wing, 1st Bombardment Division, 384th Bomb Group (Heavy). He’d signed up as soon as he came of age, in 1943, and qualified to fly B-17s. Co-piloting ‘Hell’s Messenger’, his squadron had the distinction of dropping the final bombs of the war on Axis industrial targets (the Skoda Armament Works) on 25 April 1945. I often look at the silk escape map that was among his war memorabilia, along with his U.S. Army Air Corps pilot’s wings. My younger brother’s family also has some of these items, and my nephews created a shadow box to preserve his history.

I would soon learn about the Library’s role as a center of American culture and literature. I’m an American postgraduate researcher in crime fiction, with a background in law and publishing. Born in Miami, Florida, I obtained my juris doctor from the University of Florida, and, after a successful career as a legal editor and writer in New York City, moved to Norwich to pursue a PhD in creative-critical writing. My thesis is a feminist re-examination of the femme fatale figure in noir fiction, paired with a novel about a trio of teenaged grifters reunited as adults. Noir fiction would’ve played a big part in the paperbacks the troops read during the war, along with their adaptions in the films they watched, with femmes fatales in the starring roles.

That reading I attended in the autumn of 2019 was fabulous, chock full of the talent UEA’s creative writing program is justly known for, including my colleague (now Dr.) Elspeth Latimer. I walked out energized and ready to meet the challenges ahead in a year that would bring many, including a global pandemic. In the spring of 2020, encouraged by my academic supervisors, Professor Henry Sutton and Dr. Nonia Williams, I put in my application for the UEA American Library scholarship. Fast-forward to October of 2020, as I begin my year as a library scholar, including writing this, my first blog post for the Library. While my dad passed away in 2009, I’m certain he would have been proud and gratified at how his service has inspired me. I am thrilled to have been selected for this honor and look forward to contributing to the American Library’s cultural, historical and memorial mission.

Suzanne at the UEA Live reading at National Centre for Writing, March 2020, photo by Ellen Hardy.

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The Nobel and poetry

If your first reaction upon hearing that American poet Louise Glück had been awarded the nobel prize for literature was, “Who?” you are not alone. Even though Glück’s work has been intensely lauded over the years (she was the American Poet Laureate in 2003-04, won the National Book Award in 2014 and was given a National Medal of Arts and Humanities in 2015) she will still have been a relative unknown for many people before being awarded the most prestigious prize in literature.

Part of this may be down to the genre Glück works in. Poetry is not necessarily the most popular of the literary genres. When I mention poems I love in conversation, I frequently hear comments like, “I just don’t read poetry,” or “I don’t understand it” or “It’s not my thing.” The situation has gotten to the point where an essay in The Atlantic a few years ago categorized all non-poets as people, “who generally don’t read poetry.” But now that a poet has won the 2020 Nobel prize, the spotlight has turned to her, and to poetry, and it’s a great opportunity to shine a light on Glück’s work, and, by extension, on poetry in general. 

One of the problems with trying to recommend the quintessential Glück collection is that her work is incredibly varied. The 77-year-old has 12 full collections of poetry and two chapbooks to her name. Each of them vary fairly significantly in tone, style and theme. 

If you like raw, cutting poetry, Glück’s collection “The Triumph of Achilles”, which was written in the wake of a divorce, and won the National Book Critics Circle Award would be a good fit. For those who tend to enjoy books that are both popular and critically acclaimed, “The Wild Iris”, which has poems depicting a gardener’s conversation with garden flowers and which won the Pulitzer Prize, is a good choice. For those who like their poems to be more epic, Glück’s book-length poem “October”, published in the wake of September 11, is a good read.

While Glück may not be the easiest introduction to poetry, she is known for her precision and austerity — frequently being compared to poets like Emily Dickinson or Elizabeth Bishop. Writing recently in The Guardian, Fiona Sampson said she loves Glück because she, “has the extraordinary writer’s gift of making clear what is, outside the world of her poem, complex.” This, I think, is the ultimate beauty of poetry, and why everyone should give it a fair chance. It has the ability to help us see things from a different perspective, to understand things in new ways.

Whichever book you choose to check out (and you can find a couple in the Norwich library catalogue), do keep in mind that Glück recently gave out her own suggestion to those who want to become more familiar with her. In an interview with the Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media Glück said that, “I would suggest they not read my first book unless they want to feel contempt.”

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