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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Reading America III

They say reading takes you places, and our ‘Reading America’ project is designed to do just that. Each week, we have been putting out a video online 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 the the books we recommended in September.

IN COLD BLOOD
State: Kansas
Read the E-book here

Truman Capote’s account of the murder of the Clutter family in Holcolm, Kansas, was an instant success, and arguably launched the “True Crime” genre. The murder had no apparent motive, and few clues. To find out more about the crime and how it was solved, check the book out.

A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES
State: Louisiana
Read the E-book here

Published 11 years after author John Kennedy Toole’s suicide, this picaresque novel was first a cult classic, before moving to become a mainstream success. It was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and, with its exploration of the French Quarter of New Orleans, provides a colorful look at one of the most vibrant areas of the United States.

THE ROUND HOUSE
State: North Dakota
Read the E-book here

A haunting book about justice, gender rights, racial inequality and indigenous rights, Louise Erdrich’s account of a rape on a fictionalized Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota won the 2012 National Book Award for fiction, the Minnesota Book Awards for the novel and short story and was a finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal. Though it was written in the 1980s, the book remains topical, and has been an enduring success.

I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS
State: Arkansas
Read the E-book here

The first of renowned poet Maya Angelou’s autobiographical series, this book is a poetic and at times tragic look at the deeply segregated and violently prejudiced southern state of Arkansas during the 1930s. The book chronicles Angelou’s life from her earliest memories until the birth of her son when Angelou was only seventeen years old. It is a lyrical look at the life of a brilliant poet.

JUST MERCY
State: Alabama
Read the E-book here

The memoir that spawned the movie, Bryan Stevenson’s autobiography is a rich account of his work representing those who can’t afford their own lawyer. The book delves deeply into Stevenson’s work, and in doing so, provides good understanding of the pervasive inequalities that plague the American justice system.

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Reading America II

They say reading takes you places, and our ‘Reading America’ project is designed to do just that. Each week, we have been putting out a video online 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 the second five books we recommend.

THE JUNGLE
State: Illinois
Read the E-book here

Upton Sinclair originally wrote The Jungle — a novel about the harsh conditions workers faced in the meat industry in the early 1900s — to try to motivate Americans to become socialist. The novel followed the plight of a family of Lithuanian immigrants to Chicago. As the book progresses, the family is forced to take jobs with dire working conditions, and eventually their poverty leads to everyone’s death except Jurgis, the protagonist. Although Sinclair, a journalist who frequently reported on exploitation and corruption, meant to provoke public outcry for safer working conditions, readers were most concerned with the health violations depicted in the novel. These did prompt reforms of the industry though, leading to Sinclair famously being quoted as saying that he was aiming to affect the public’s heart, but instead got its stomach.

THE LONG WINTER
State: South Dakota
Read the E-book here

For nearly a century, the ‘Little House on the Prarie’ book series has been a childhood staple in America. The fictionalized memoirs are written by Laura Ingalls Wilder about her experiences as a young pioneer settler in the midwest. “The Long Winter” is the sixth book in the series, and chronicles a stormy winter in South Dakota from 1880 to 1881, when Laura is about fourteen years old. Over the winter months, blizzard after blizzard hits the town, to the point where there isn’t enough coal to heat the buildings, trains stop running and food becomes scarce. Although Wilder frequently fictionalized her experiences for the books, this one is mostly accurate. The winter of 80/81 was known historically as “The Snow Winter” because of its frequent blizzards and extreme cold. For anyone interested in an engaging look at settler life in America, this is a great children’s read.

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE
State: Vermont
Read the E-book here

This novel, written by Shirley Jackson, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and is considered to be one of the best literary ghost stories of the 20th century. The plot follows four characters who go to the supposedly haunted Hill House, to see if they can get proof of the existence of the supernatural. While living in the house, the characters experience many strange events, and one of them seems to even become possessed by the house, although it’s not clear if this is just her own psychosis. This is one of the hallmarks of Jackson’s writing style book, which uses suspense and terror (the feelings that come before a fright) rather than sheer horror (which is the result of a fright) to spark a response in the reader.

SHOELESS JOE
State: Iowa
Read the E-book here

The basis for the popular movie ‘Field of Dreams’ “Shoeless Joe” by W.P. Kinsella is based around the Chicago Black Sox scandal of 1919. That year, eight Chicago White Sox players were accused of deliberately losing the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for money from a gambling syndicate. In the book, the protagonist, Ray, hears a voice telling him to build a baseball field in the middle of his Iowa corn field in order to give Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the players accused of corruption, a chance at redemption. The field then becomes a conduit to other baseball legends. Kinsella conceived the idea for Shoeless Joe at the famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop as his classmates loved his stories about baseball legends of old. The book features superb writing, and is a fantastic and fantastical portrayal of the sport of baseball.

THE HOUSE OF SEVEN GABLES
State: Massachusetts
Read the E-book here

Written by Nathanial Hawthorne in 1850, the plot revolves around a mansion built in the 17th century, and the Pyncheon family who inhabit it. The house is under a supposed curse, which was cast when Colonel Pyncheon seized the land on which the house was built from Matthew Maule by accusing him of witchcraft. Colonel Pyncheon was later found dead in his armchair during the housewarming party. The current Pyncheons also suffer from a series of misfortunes, including murder accusations. As the book progresses, the family look to find atonement, and to escape from the curse that hangs over their house. The book has had a strong influence on many science fiction writers, and has seen many film and television adaptations.

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