Down These Mean Streets

‘But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.’

— Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder

One of our readers expressed an interest in my literary zip code of America’s mean streets, crime fiction, which led to me to spinning the wire racks—er, electronic shelves—of the American Library to see what caught my eye. I’m partial to that particularly atmospheric corner of the genre called noir or hardboiled fiction, which sprung from the pages of pulp magazines in the 1930s and found its way into novels (mainly of the luridly illustrated paperback sort), which were then adapted for the screen in that indelible style called film noir, with its shadowy street corners, cynical fast-talking private eyes and treacherous femmes fatales.

Chandler wrote of the style he helped to originate in the The Simple Art of Murder, pinpointing the departure of American crime fiction from the posh country homes of English detective stories, with their ‘hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish’. He credits his contemporary, Dashiell Hammett, the creator of the iconic private detective Sam Spade, with giving ‘murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse’. Chandler called this style ‘the American language’ and I don’t disagree. Having long been a fan of the American realist fiction of that era, I think that’s what first drew me to noir: it always seemed to be about something else, just below the surface. Not the murder, but the reasons for it. Not the crime, but the consequences of it. These social conditions and criminal motivations may change over time, but noir as a genre has proven flexible enough to keep up with them. For example, Chandler’s vivid descriptions of Depression-era Los Angeles (a character in and of itself) retain the prejudices of his time, particularly the assumption that only straight white men get to stride heroically down noir’s mean streets to battle corruption and where the women are either deadly knockouts or dishwater drabs. This assumption discounts the fact that even then, a number of influential books in the genre were penned by women, authors like Dorothy B. Hughes (In a Lonely Place), Vera Caspary (Laura), Margaret Millar (Beast in View) and Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train).

There are a few of Chandler’s books in the American Library, but you can’t go wrong with The Big Sleep, the first of the Philip Marlowe series, in which the wealthy but decrepit General Sternwood hires Marlowe to investigate blackmail over the alleged gambling debts of his youngest daughter, when it’s the older daughter who will prove to be Marlowe’s toughest adversary. Chandler plants the seeds early on when he has Sternwood observe that neither he nor his daughters ‘has any more moral sense than a cat.’ The Big Sleep is arguably one of the first and most rewarding detours on the long road trip of the American detective novel, the intersection where it kicks its way out of the pages of formulaic mystery and into the streets. As Vivian Sternwood says to Marlowe when they meet: ‘So you’re a private detective … I didn’t really know they existed, except in books.’

–post by Suzanne Solomon

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Reading America VII

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’.

THE OVERSTORY
State: Oregon
Read the E-book here

In “The Overstory”, Richard Powers tries to take on a unique artistic challenge, framing the narrative of his story around the structure of a tree. In Portland, Oregon, the book examines Mimi Ma’s conversion from corporate worker to environmental activist. “The Overstory” was awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES
State: Indiana
Read the E-book here

‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler is a novel about Rosemary, a young girl who has just gone off to college. Throughout the book, Rosemary slowly tells the reader about her familly, and their unhappiness, and her life growing up in Indiana. The book was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2014.

TALES OF MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION
State: Pennsylvania
Read the E-book here

Edgar Alan Poe is almost certainly America’s most famous horror writer. In many of the stories in ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination’ one can see the influence of Philadelphia, where Poe lived while writing some of his most famous yarns, including ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, which is included in this collection.

IMAGINE ME GONE
State: Maine
Read the E-book here

“Imagine Me Gone” by Adam Haslett, examines the life of a family impacted by depression. Though the topic is a serious one, the book deals with it with compasion, beautiful prose, and even a touch of levity.

ENEMY WOMEN
State: Missouri
Read the E-book here

Set in Missouri during the Civil War, Paulette Jiles’ “Enemy Women” takes a look at one woman who was captured and imprisoned, and her subsequent escape, and journey to try to rebuild a home and family for herself.

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Amanda Gorman, 2021 U.S. Inaugural Poet

The inauguration of Joe Biden, the 46th President of the United States, on 20 January 2021, was historic in a few ways. One was its virtual nature, the physical absence of crowds, necessary because of the global pandemic. Another was the swearing in of America’s first female Vice President, Kamala Harris, who is also the first woman of color to be elected to the position. It was notable for another reason, too: Amanda Gorman, the sixth inaugural poet, brought down the house with an electric reading of her poem The Hill We Climb. Selected for the spot by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, she follows in the footsteps of poets like Maya Angelou, Richard Blanco and Robert Frost. At 22, Gorman is the youngest person to receive the honor.

Gorman begins her poem by asking how, as a nation, we can overcome adversity, alluding to the challenges the country has experienced over the past few years: the bitter political divisions, the grievous losses caused by the pandemic, and the renewed struggle for civil rights and equality for all Americans. She answers her question by invoking a just pride in the country’s past, but reminds us how that past inevitably shapes the promise of our future:

If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.

That is the promised glade, the hill we climb, if only we dare.

It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.

It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.

You can hear Gorman’s inaugural reading of The Hill We Climb here.*

Gorman, who, as is customary, composed the work for the inauguration (in poetry speak, this is known as an ‘occasional poem’), had a little over a month in which to write it. She sought inspiration in the work of her predecessors, as well as in speeches by Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Winston Churchill. The young poet was not a novice, however. She served as the first National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017, when she read her work at the Library of Congress at the inaugural ceremony for U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith.

Gorman grew up in Los Angeles, where her mother is a middle school teacher, with her twin sister, Gabrielle. She was an avid reader and fell in love with poetry at a young age. As she said in a 2018 TED talk to students in New York City: ‘Poetry is interesting because not everyone is going to become a great poet, but anyone can be, and anyone can enjoy poetry, and it’s this openness, this accessibility of poetry that makes it the language of people.’ Gorman graduated cum laude from Harvard University in 2020, and along the way has received a number of awards and honors, including the Poets & Writers Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award. She was also a 2020 Writer-in-Residence at our ‘sister’ American Library in Paris. 

Gorman’s poem is emblematic of spoken word poetry, with its rousing repetition and incantatory passages. Spoken word, as scholar Kathleen M. Alley has written, has its origins in ‘oral traditions and performance’ and is ‘characterized by rhyme, repetition, word play and improvisation’. Which brings me to another notable fact: like President Biden, Gorman has a speech impediment, which she overcame in part by writing poetry and reading her work aloud. ‘I don’t look at my disability as a weakness,’ Gorman told the Los Angeles Times. ‘It’s made me the performer that I am and the storyteller that I strive to be.’ 

This young American poet inspires for any number of reasons: her talent, her drive, her sense of style, her bravura performance, her confidence. But any writer’s measure of success ultimately lies in the work, in the words she crafts, and by that measure, Gorman succeeds brilliantly. ‘A poem should arise to ecstasy, somewhere between speech and song,’ wrote poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a long-time champion of spoken word, who died in San Francisco this week. Amanda Gorman’s poem soars over that bar, moving this writer to tears and hope for a future in which Americans ‘will rebuild, reconcile, and recover’:

For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it.

Gorman’s poetry collection, The Hill We Climb, will be published by Penguin Random House in September, along with her children’s book, Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem.

*I was advised by a Researcher and Reference Services librarian at the Library of Congress that the poem is protected by copyright, so the text is not reproduced here in full. 

 — post by Suzanne Solomon

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Reading America VI

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’.

SING, UNBURIED SING
State: Mississippi
Read the E-book here

Sing, Unburied, Sing, written by Jesmyn Ward, published by Bloomsbury and set in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, follows a family both literally and figuratively haunted by the past, by memory and by each other.

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
State: South Carolina
Read the E-book here

‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead imagines a world where the figurative underground railroad escape route for slaves becomes a literal underground railroad, in a fictionalized version of the antebellum south.

THE INTERPRETER OF MALADIES
State: Connecticut
Read the E-book here

The Interpreter of Maladies is renowned author Jhumpa Lahiri’s first published book. The short stories are set all along the New England coast where Lahiri was born and raised.

THE GOOD LORD BIRD
State: West Virginia
Read the E-book here

The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride, is a reimagining of John Brown’s famous failed raid on Harpers Ferry, as told by a fictionalized protagonist who witnesses the events.

THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS
State: Delaware
Read the E-book here

In Cristina Henriquez’ The Book of Unknown Americans, we find ourselves in Delaware as we journey with a family of immigrants in search of the American Dream.

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