Andrea Reads America: Pennsylvania

Andrea Reads America map of Pennsylvania books
Andrea Reads America: Pennsylvania

When I first started reading the state, I wasn’t sure if I was really getting a feel for what Pennsylvania is like. The main things I know Pennsylvania for are Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Hershey, and the Pennsylvania Amish. None of the books I read are specifically about Hershey or the Amish, but I did find books that represented the bustling Philly (Oreo and Buck), the industrial Pittsburgh (The Mysteries of Pittsburgh), and the cornfield-filled swaths of Pennsylvania that are more like its midwestern neighbor, Ohio, than like the cities on its eastern and western sides (The Lovely Bones).

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon book coverNovel: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
Author: Michael Chabon, graduated University of Pittsburgh
Setting: 1980s Pittsburgh (published 1988)

I loved this book. I tore through it in two days. It’s the story of Art Bechstein, son of a Jewish gangster from D.C. Art came to Pittsburgh for college, and he comes of age and into his sexuality there after meeting both Arthur (gay man) and Phlox (ultra-feminine heterosexual woman) at the university library.

He eagerly falls into Phlox’s orbit and wants to be in love with her, and maybe fools himself into thinking he truly is, but it’s Arthur with whom his adoration truly lies. Arthur is the only person he can be (mostly) real with. Arthur and Cleveland, the ultra-masculine bad boy who doesn’t give a shit that Arthur is gay, and is Arthur’s best friend.

Full of walks through Pittsburgh and landmarks I don’t know there, including The Cloud Factory — a building that puffs out perfect sheep-like, cotton puff clouds — the book paints a city of industry.

All the cicadas in the trees went ape, who knows why, and their music was as loud and ugly as a thousand televisions turned to the news. In Pittsburgh, even the cicadas are industrial.

I’m sure a lot of readers would hate Art and his indecision, fickleness, and seeming weakness, but it felt very real to me, and I loved every word of his journey.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold book coverNovel: The Lovely Bones
Author: Alice Sebold, grew up in suburbs of Philadelphia
Setting: 1970s rural Pennsylvania

Told from the point of view of a 13 year-old girl, Susie Salmon, who was murdered by a neighbor in a dugout in a cornfield, The Lovely Bones explores what happens after a murder — to the family, the murderer, and the victim after death. I love the ideas Sebold experiments with, especially the role of the dead in our lives, and us in their deaths.

What I appreciated most about this book wasn’t the shift in perspective, which was novel at the time of the book’s release in 2002 but is old news now. What I appreciated was that the climax was not what I expected it to be. The Lovely Bones was an easy-to-read narrative that was refreshing int its voice and direction, both of which were different from your typical crime mystery.

Sometimes, standing at the open window in the front hall, I would feel a breeze, and on that breeze was the music coming from the O’Dwyers house. As I listened to Mr. O’Dwyer run through all the Irish ballads he had ever learned, the breeze would begin to smell of earth and air and a mossy scent that meant only one thing: a thunderstorm.

Oreo book cover by Fran RossNovel: Oreo
Author: Fran Ross, born in Philadelphia 1935
Setting: 1960s Philadelphia

Written by an African American author from Philly, Oreo is a satirical novel about a mixed race girl with a Black mom and a Jewish dad. In the novel, she is on a quest to find her father who left when she was young.

Sassy, whip-smart, and code switching constantly between Yiddish, her grandmother’s Black dialect, fancy French food names, and intellectual, classical literature discussion, Oreo (black on the outside, white on the inside) left my head spinning. The book has been called “uproariously funny”, and I suppose is funny to people who get it, but the humor and intellect were way over my head. It felt full of inside jokes, and I am on the outside. That’s fine though, I don’t think I’m the intended audience.

Buck book cover by M.K. AsanteBook: Buck: A Memoir
Author: M.K. Asante, born Zimbabwe and raised in Philadelphia
Setting: 1990s Philadelphia

This is the Philly I was looking for: raw, real, on the streets. Buck is the memoir of M.K. Asante, a hip-hop artist, film-maker, and essayist who grew up in north Philadelphia, or as he calls it, Killadelphia, Pistolvania.

Malo (M.K.) grew up with an Afrocentrist father who was never home, a depressed choreographer mother who was home physically but not mentally, his older brother Uzi, who Malo idolized and who ended up in jail early in the book, and on the streets with his crew, one of whom was killed in Malo’s teen years.

[The funeral director] shows us the coffins and tells us, “the little ones, for teenagers like y’all, are my best sellers and business is booming! Booming!… But I want you to put me out of business. Put me under! I’d rather sink than to have to keep burying babies.

This is Malo’s story of growing up in the hood of North Philly, hanging out on corners, selling weed to make money, and living a dangerous life until something happens with his mom that changes all of that.

Now I see why reading was illegal for black people during slavery. I discover that I think in words. The more words I know, the more things I can think about… Reading was illegal because if you limit someone’s vocab, you limit their thoughts. They can’t even think of freedom because they don’t have the language to.

The language of Buck is fresh and natural, like you’re on the corner with Malo. The words flow easily from his pen, and I read every one of them in a single day.

Andrea Reads America: Oregon

Andrea Reads America map of Oregon books
Andrea Reads America: Oregon

Finally, the Pacific Northwest! I’ve only been to Portland in the Pacific Northwest, and it is enough to let me know that I want more: I want more Oregon, and I want to visit Washington state and northern California. I want to see and smell the lush green of a temperate rainforest, the massive, ancient trees, and the wild sea. I’m pretty sure our son would love the Pacific Northwest. He loves trees and gloomy grey rainy days that encourage lounging around inside all day reading books.

Of all the books I read for Oregon, Mink River by Brian Doyle captured its atmosphere best. I almost didn’t read it because I had already read three books from Oregon and was ready to move on, but the crow on the cover made me think it might give me what I was really looking for: a book where the setting is as much a character as the humans. And it delivered on that.

mink river by brian doyle book coverNovel: Mink River
Author: Brian Doyle, former editor of the University of Portland’s magazine
Setting: fictitious coastal village of Neawanaka, OR

Mink River is rich with rain, mud, cedars, ferns, a crow that talks and a bear that carries broken-bodied patients, old friends, young friends, families who are kind to one another, families who hurt each other, healers, families of Native American ancestry, families of Irish ancestry, a boisterous old logger, a wood-carver, a pub owner, a fisherman, a doctor who lives by the sea, a gentle police officer who loves opera…

The beauty in this book is in these people and the landscape. It tells the stories of a community by creating a form that is itself communal: some chapters are told in particular characters’ voices in their own time and place, while others will include a single sentence for each character, sharing what everyone in the village is doing at the exact same moment. The landscape is always present: the rainy season; the smells of the mud, the sea, the forest, the pub; the conjuring of trees and birds by merely mentioning their names – spruce, hemlock, cedar and crow, cormorant, heron.

Oh, hell, I’ll get you some big old cedar. There’s something special in an old cedar. It’s seen an awful lotta life. It’s a smart old thing and the smart stays in the tree.

There is subtle magic like you read in Irish or Native American lore, and Doyle brings the feeling of community to life by sharing stories separately, bringing them together, separating them, and joining them again. It’s a heart-warming book that’s both sharp and tender, and it was the Oregon I was looking for.

no one belongs here more than you by miranda july book coverBook: No One Belongs Here More Than You
Author: Miranda July, moved to Portland, OR after college
Setting: Portland, OR

I first heard a Miranda July short story on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast. David Sedaris, my favorite humor writer, read July’s “Roy Spivey.” The story was funny and unusual and made me want to read more of her work.

July lived in Portland for a while, and No One Belongs Here More Than You is a collection of short stories, many of which are set there. The stories don’t paint a visual picture of Portland — what it looks like, what the air smells or feels like — but the characters are indicative of what I have experienced of Portland in that they are not mainstream U.S.A. There’s a feeling of inclusion and progressiveness in Portland: nearly every restaurant I’ve been to there includes vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options; gender-neutral restrooms are common; bicycle lines are as wide as car lanes.

Portland feels accepting to me, and July’s quirky characters feel right for Portland, like Maria who gives lessons to elderly adults who want to learn how to swim. They don’t have a pool, though, so she teaches them by providing bowls of water to put their faces in as they lay on the floor, learning to breathe to the side, then adding the arms and the legs to glide across the brown linoleum floor.

I was the kind of coach who stands by the side of the pool instead of getting in, but I was busy every moment… I was talking constantly, like an aerobics instructor, and I blew the whistle in exact intervals, marking off the sides of the pool. They would spin around in unison and go the other way.

That’s the kind of stories July tells, and I love them.

the residue years by mitchell jackson book cover(Autobiographical) Novel: The Residue Years
Author: Mitchell S. Jackson
Setting: 1990s neglected neighborhood in Portland, OR

This was a wake-up book to read after lauding Portland for being inclusive. As a white person who loves the city of Portland, who considers it progressive and filled with good food and people who care about community and the environment, I assumed inclusion of non-whites was part of the idyllic package. Mitchell S. Jackson, who “grew up black in a neglected neighborhood in America’s whitest city, Portland, Oregon,” shows a different side of Portland.

The Residue Years is the story of a black family, specifically the interwoven story of its two narrators: Grace, the crack addict mother who’s trying to recover after her fall from corporate America to ramshackle crack houses, and her son Champ, who is in college and trying to make a better life for his mom and brothers while also selling drugs to be able to afford that life.

At times I struggled because the author seemed to be trying too hard — I was aware of his writing because out-of-place fancy words would show up in Champ’s sections without being woven in naturally, and that was distracting. At the same time, the language was also fresh and alive, with a modern rhythm that has stuck with me. I also despised Champ’s womanizing and misogyny. I got my hopes up at one point because he called himself out on his abuse of women, but he disappointed me by blaming it on his mother instead of owning it and trying to change it.

Until the final quarter of the book, I wasn’t really into it. But in those final pages, Jackson pulls threads together to show the sad, vicious cycle of addiction, how addict parents affect their children’s’ lives, how prejudice and bias feed that cycle, and how everything, sadly, comes full circle in the end.

wildwood by colin meloy book coverNovel: Wildwood
Author: Colin Meloy
Setting: Portland, OR

Written by the singer and songwriter for Portland-based band The Decemberists, Wildwood is set in a magical forest across the river from Portland, Oregon.  The book begins with Prue and her baby brother Mac on a day out together. When they’re at the playground, he is carried off across the river by crows. Wildwood is Prue’s quest to find Mac and bring him back home.

The Wildwood is a wood of talking animals — of uniformed coyote soldiers, golden eagles who transport small children, and rabbits who wear colanders for helmets. I had the same feeling with Meloy as I had with Jackson — that he often tries to show off fancy words — but the setting of Wildwood is beautiful. Meloy creates a hidden world in a forest in the Pacific Northwest, with underground warrens, peaceful farming villages, and a wonderful cast of animal characters.

It is a fun read and would be appropriate for 8-10 year old readers. It’s long for that age, but I think that’s probably the level of the story and characters.