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Sometimes we like to write about happenings or news or stuff that, while only loosely within our authority, give off a certain – say – profundity. It’s part of our all-around service to bring these to your discerning attention.

Reading America VIII

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’.

BALTIMORE NOIR
State: Maryland
Read the E-book here

For mystery fans, Baltimore is a mecca for crime fiction. In this collection, edited by Laura Lipman, the reader encounters 16 detective stories, which deal with mobster and murders, drug dealers and bullies. All the while, each story gives readers a feel for the darker side of one of America’s original 13 colonies — the gritty underbelly of (the actually quite charming if you ever happen to visit) Baltimore.

HOUSE MADE OF DAWN
State: New Mexico
Read the E-book here

House Made of Dawn, by N. Scott Momaday, is a book often credited with starting the American Indian literary renaissance. Set on a reservation in New Mexico, the plot follows the struggles of Abel, who has extreme PTSD after fighting in World War Two. Abel lives both inside and outside of American Indian society, and the book follows him as he struggles to find where he fits in the world, offering a compelling portrayal of the geography of New Mexico, and the emotional struggles of loss in the process.

FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS
State: Nevada
Read the E-book here

The most well-known work from iconoclast journalist Hunter S. Thompson, ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ is based on a road trip Thompson took with Chicano activist Oscar Zeta Acosta. While the book had mixed reviews at the time, it is now known for its unique style of writing — a mix of prose poetry, and its drug addled portrayal of one of the most decadent American cities.

PIGS IN HEAVEN
State: Oklahoma
Read the E-book here

The first of Barbara Kingsolver’s books to appear on the New York Times bestseller list, ‘Pigs in Heaven’ follows the story of Taylor Greer and her adopted Cherokee daughter, Turtle. The book examines the issues that arise when indigenous children are adopted out of tribal society, looks at ways to mitigate this, focusing especially on the traditions of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma in the process.

A WALK IN THE WOODS
State: Tennessee
Read the E-book here

In the late 90s, Bill Bryson and his friend Stephen Katz decided to hike the Appalaichan Trail, a hiking trail through the Appalaichan Mountains in America that stretches all the way from Georgia to Maine. The book is a hilarious and poignant piece of travel/nature writing that showcases many American states, but especially Tennessee, where Bryson and Katz take a significant break.

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Female Rage in Harlem: Ann Petry’s ‘The Street’

If you ask a fan of American noir about classic crime fiction set in Harlem, they’ll likely recommend Chester Himes’s novel A Rage in Harlem (1957), the first in his series featuring the gleefully bent, hellraising detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. You may also hear about Rudolph Fisher’s The Conjure-man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem (1932), in which a physician and a NYPD detective team up to solve the murder of an African immigrant and Harvard graduate turned fortune-teller. Both of these books are by Black authors who also wrote literary fiction, social realist novels like Himes’s searing If He Hollers Let Him Go and social satire like Fisher’s The Walls of Jericho.

I’ve mentioned in this blog my fondness for the American realist fiction of the early to mid-20th century, which went out of vogue after the Second World War, giving way to more caustic social commentary like Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. A certain subset of crime novels maintained the social realist tradition, applying a dark filter by using social conditions to stand in for the fateful imperative of the noir universe that leads inevitably to the protagonist’s downfall. Arguably, Ann Petry’s Harlem novel The Street, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1946, is one of these—a literary novel with elements of classic noir, as well as a forerunner to the domestic noir popular today. The American novelist Tayari Jones, writing in The Guardian, called Petry ‘a pioneer of the literary thriller’, along with Patricia Highsmith. Petry herself, as she wrote in a 1950 essay, considered her books social commentary, ‘derived from the best known murder story in literature’—the biblical Cain and Abel—and posing the same discomfiting question: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’

Ann Petry (born Anna Houston Lane in 1908) was raised in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, where her father owned a local pharmacy and her mother worked as a beautician and later as a licensed podiatrist. Theirs was one of four Black families in a picturesque but racist small town. Petry trained as a pharmacist and worked in the family business, but was writing all the while, sending out stories and receiving ‘enough rejection slips to paper any fair-sized room’, as she said in a 1948 piece in a craft magazine. She moved to Harlem with her husband, George David Petry, in 1938, soon after publishing her first story. While working as a newspaper editor, she continued to churn out short fiction, until she was contacted by an editor asking if she was working on a novel. The result was The Street, which would sell over a million copies, the first book by a Black American novelist to do so.

In a 1949 article about Harlem, Petry wrote that many viewed it as a ‘lawless, violent community, inhabited by just two kinds of people—the poor and the criminal.’ But it also contained a wealthy professional class, as well as creative royalty: the writers, poets, artists, performers and musicians that put it on America’s—and the world’s—cultural map. Petry, who covered Harlem society in her newspaper column, and got to know its working poor through her activism, was well acquainted with the contradictions of her adopted neighborhood. If Harlem was a paradox, it was one created in the pressure cooker of racism and economic exploitation: ‘an anachronism—shameful and unjustifiable, set down in the heart of the biggest, richest city in the world.’

The titular street of Petry’s novel is 116th Street, where the protagonist Lutie Johnson moves with her eight-year-old son, Bub, after leaving her unfaithful husband and quitting her job as a domestic worker for a white family. She doesn’t blame her ex for the unravelling of their marriage as much as she does the conditions of ‘the only job she could get,’ where she had to live with her employers and take care of their son, away from her own family for weeks at a time. Rather than stay with her hard-drinking father and his blowsy girlfriend, Lutie takes a tiny top floor rear apartment overlooking an airshaft in a walk-up building. Her neighbors include the building’s superintendent, a tall, gaunt man who terrorizes his dog and the woman who lives with him, and Mrs. Hedges, the occupant of the first floor front apartment, who keeps watch over the street with eyes ‘as still and as malignant as the eyes of a snake.’

Working in a steam laundry and studying for the civil service exam, Lutie finally lands a job as a file clerk. But despite her hard work and frugality, she can’t keep up with the bills, and her son notices the strain it causes. When he tries to help by shining shoes, she snaps and slaps him, upset that he is being conditioned for servitude, like the other boys on the street who ‘take it for granted they’ve got to sweep floors and mop stairs the rest of their lives.’ The exhausting rat race and grinding misery all around them wear her down, making her irritable and short with him. He is determined to find a way to help his mother and falls under the sway of the Super, who takes advantage of Bub’s innocence to employ him in a scheme that will lead to tragic consequences, causing Lutie’s worst fears to come true.

The racism and sexism of her world offer Lutie few choices: to return to a life of domestic servitude or to become a sexual commodity. That second threat is always present: in the hungry eyes of the lurking Super; in the appraising glance of Mrs. Hedges, who runs a brothel (protected by the local police precinct) from her apartment; in the predatory clutches of the white nightclub owner and racketeer who hears her sing and wants her for himself. Even as she thinks she is finally escaping the crucible of 116th Street, Lutie will learn that what looks like a way out is another trap. ‘If you live on this damn street, you’re supposed to want to earn a little extra money sleeping around nights.’ Lutie will refuse, and her act of resistance sets into motion a chain of events that will threaten everything she fought so hard to preserve.

Petry thought that the success of the best social realist novels lay in verisimilitude and in well-drawn characters who elicited empathy, leading the reader to think: ‘Yes, that is how it must have been.’ Lutie Johnson is ‘as real as one’s next-door-neighbor, predictable and yet unpredictable, lingering in the memory.’ And Petry’s depiction of Harlem in The Street poses a question that Americans are still asking themselves today: Am I my brother’s keeper? She writes: ‘In one way or another, the novelist who criticizes some undesirable phase of the status quo is saying that man is his brother’s keeper and that unless a social evil (war or racial prejudice or anti-Semitism or political corruption) is destroyed man cannot survive but will become what Cain feared he would become—a wanderer and a vagabond on the face of the earth.’

— 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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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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