Andrea Reads America: Massachusetts

Andrea Reads America Massachusetts book map
Andrea Reads America: Massachusetts

I could not wait to get to Massachusetts. I love the darkness and the seasons, the rocks and the sea, and the characters of New England. The Scarlet Letter has a special place in my heart. I read it in 10th grade, and wrote a paper on it for my literature class, and that paper was when I fell in love with writing. As I dug into the novel to write about it at age 16, the paper became less about being an assignment and more about being an exciting investigation into the symbolism and themes of fiction set among Puritans. It was my first real taste of appreciating literature. And it was just as satisfying at 42.

I had a hard time deciding among all of the literature of Massachusetts. I’ve ultimately read eight novels from Massachusetts, and if you have any plans to visit the state, either in literature or in real life, you can find a list of those books at the bottom of this post. I’ve included four books on the map above because even though I didn’t write any notes on The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry when I read it, I really enjoyed the book and wanted to make sure it got a spot here.

The Storied Live of A.J. Fikry book cover Book: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
Author: Gabrielle Zevin, graduated from Harvard in Cambridge, MA
Setting: Modern Alice Island, MA
Category: Contemporary Fiction

As I mentioned above, I neglected to write any notes when I read this book back in May. However, I remember eating it up. It had books, it had a baby, it had a cantankerous, softy book store owner in a small island community off the coast of New England. It had love and humor and was really just right up my alley.  I really enjoyed it, and I recommend it.

The Wedding by Dorothy West book cover

Book: The Wedding
Author: Dorothy West, lived in Martha’s Vineyard
Setting: 1950s Martha’s Vineyard, MA
Category: Literary fiction, African-American Fiction

The Wedding, set in a “colored” community in Martha’s Vineyard, is an exploration of just that: color in its shades of pale, nut-brown, ebony, and skin tones both among races and within the same race. Unlike most of the African-American fiction I’ve read, The Wedding is an exploration of Harvard-trained professors, black doctors, of socialite black women, of wealthy black society in Massachusetts, of wealthy 1950s African-Americans with maids and big houses.

The exploration of color is more than what I’ve read in many of my previous reads in my Andrea Reads America journey. In The Wedding, West does not just probe the tensions between black and white. She explores tensions within the community, and especially the attitudes towards blending: fair-skinned black folks marry whites or other fair-skinned blacks to preserve the right color (pale), and when someone in the community marries a dark-skinned person for love, they are shunned.

She had Gram and her mother watching her like hawks, making sure she understood that skin color was a direct barometer of virtue.

The most interesting scene in the book to me was when Shelby, blond-haired and blue-eyed child of a black father and white mother, wanders away from the Oval, the colored community. Her family spreads the word that she is lost, involves the police, and are in a panic for hours and hours while Shelby is missing. Meanwhile, Shelby wanders outside of the Oval, encounters whites of Martha’s Vineyard and is clearly lost, yet even with the description of what the missing child is wearing, none of the whites on the island put it together that Shelby is the missing child and therefore do nothing to respond to the missing child call. They’re looking for a dark-skinned child — an “Ovalite” — even though the description of the child doesn’t include the color of her skin. They make assumptions.

The book jumps back and forth in time, and from South to North in locale, building the history to the culmination of Shelby’s wedding day: Shelby a blond, blue-eyed daughter of a mixed color mother and dark father, to a white man. I won’t give away what happens when characters ignore love and marry only for color, status, and appearances.

The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever

Book: The Wapshot Chronicle
Author: John Cheever, born Quincy, Massachusetts
Setting: 1950s fishing village, MA
Categories: National Book Award Winner, Literary Fiction

I bought this book for three reasons: because I love John Cheever short stories, because I learned somewhere that Cheever’s stories were a strong influence for Mad Men, and because of circumstances in my life at the time. My Mom and I traveled to New York City together while I was reading Massachusetts, and I was between books, so I really wanted to buy a book while we were in NYC. We found a bookshop in Greenwich Village, and I saw this book there unexpectedly, and I was super excited to buy a book for my reading project from a bookshop in the Village.

I wasn’t crazy about this book. If you want a Massachusetts fishing village, read this book. The scenes in St. Botolphs, the small town by the sea, with hills and eccentrics and wild New England waters, put you in the landscape, fishing in a lake in the woods and plowing through waves in a rickety old boat. The writing is beautiful: each noun is evocative and each verb packed with action and imagery.

The Wapshot Chronicle chronicles the lives of three men of the Wapshot line: father Leander and his two sons, Moses and Coverly. Their paths are manly as is the writing. All the women in the book are either controlling, manipulative, or there to serve the men:

He had not fallen in love with her because of her gift with arithmetic, because of her cleanliness, her responsible mind or any other human excellence. It was because he perceived in her some extraordinary inner comeliness or grace that satisfied his needs.

This reduction of women to ornaments or obstacles made it difficult to me to enjoy the gorgeous aspects of this book, which is a shame. I’ve felt the same conflict when reading Cheever’s short stories, and as all of his male characters seem broken, frustrated, or somehow incomplete, like Don Draper in Mad Men, I wonder if that is part of his point, that when women are dispensable in a man’s life, when he can’t see half of the human population as full, independent persons outside of his own self-absorbed needs, he will never be whole. Or maybe he does just think women are inferior playthings for men, pleasant when they give men what men want, and annoying otherwise, who knows.

The Wapshot Chronicle explores the love between men, and their coming of age, and is sprinkled with vivid scenes from their lives, like beachside trysts, rainy rooftop escapades, and the running aground of Leander’s boat and its subsequent transformation into a gift shop. I’ve you’ve watched Mad Men, you will recognize elements of the show in Cheever’s works. The same mood carries through this book, though with an entirely different type of character, and in a seaside village rather than in Manhattan.

The Scarlet Letter book cover

Book: The Scarlet Letter
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne, born Salem, MA 1804
Setting: Puritan Boston, Massachusetts
Categories: Literary fiction, historical fiction

Set in somber, strict 17th Century Boston, The Scarlet Letter is the quintessential New England of those dark, Puritan times. Filled with delightfully dreary language, with words like odious, malevolent, wretched, and fiend showing up on nearly every page, Hawthorne paints a picture of pinched faces, dark forests, and shame and punishment for the sinner and protagonist, Hester Prynne. She is an unmarried woman who yet bears a child, and is sentenced to wear a scarlet letter A on the bosom of her dress to display her shame of adultery to the world.

Hawthorne portrays her as a strong and kind woman, good even, and filled with love: a protagonist and sympathetic character rather than a shameful one, despite her sin and her crime, which in those times were one and the same.

As I mentioned in the introduction, I read this book in high school, and it was the first paper I wrote that I was ever proud of. I kept the paper for years  before finally getting rid of it in one of our many moves, and now I wish I could read it to know my young me interpretation.

The current me is interested in the public shaming of Hester Prynne, and her grace in the face of it. Her lover’s shame, though, remained hidden, and while it killed him — weakening him physically, hobbling him, making his life wretched — it also inspired passionate sermons about sin that elevated him to angelic status with his unknowing congregation. It was his guilt and hypocrisy that spoke so truly to them, though they didn’t know of either.

What also interested me is the portrayal of their child. She is always associated with sunlight and wildness. Even her name, Pearl, is luminescent. She is elfin and sprite-like, full of life, and most importantly, is a part of nature, in contrast to the black, artificial laws of man that were so unnatural as to punish the people and the act that created her. While her mother and father’s sin is associated with scarlet — red, blood, scars — Pearl is continually associated with green, the color of new growth and of life.

I very much enjoyed rereading this book and the Puritan Massachusetts it took me to. I couldn’t read this state without reading Nathaniel Hawthorne.

For Further Reading in Massachusetts

Books I’ve read:
– The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
Books I’d still like to read:
Secret Harmonies, Andrea Barrett

I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.

8 Great Literary, Book Nerd, and Storytelling Podcasts

I am a huge fan of the podcast medium. I listen while I clean, while I walk, while I cook, while I dress after my shower. I do not subscribe to print periodicals that run book reviews, I am not a librarian, and I no longer work in a book store, but I am a reader who is interested in what’s going on in the book world, in reading culture, and who loves a well-told story. With limited time to consume print media, but with ample time to listen, I have become an avid fan of podcasts, and my hungry mind devours the bookish and storytelling podcasts below. These shows provide the literary fix I need as a word nerd. I plan special walks or add extra chores to my list when any of these drop new episodes. I hope you enjoy them, too.

The New Yorker Fiction Podcast icon on iTunesThe New Yorker Fiction Podcast: Hosted by New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman, this podcast highlights the best of the best of the short story. Each month an esteemed writer chooses a story from the archives of The New Yorker, reads it aloud, and then discusses it with editor Deborah Triesman. Many of the stories are classics, like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and the discussions are every book-lover’s book-club dream: Triesman and the reading-writer discuss what makes it a good story, they discuss craftsmanship, they attempt to tease out meaning, and – most importantly for any listeners who might one day hope to be published in The New Yorker – the discussions provide insight into the personality and inclinations of a high-quality fiction editor. My favorite episodes include David Sedaris reading Miranda July, Tessa Hadley reading Nadine Gordimer,  and Karen Russell reading Carson McCullers. Follow New Yorker Fiction on Twitter @NYerFiction.

book riot podcast iconBook Riot Podcast: Described in their intro as “A weekly news and talk show about what’s new, cool, and worth talking about in the world of books and reading,” this, along with The New Yorker Fiction Podcast, is my favorite podcast. Hosts Jeff O’Neal and Rebecca Schinsky are the editors of Book Riot, and I like hanging out with them: they’re smart and they make me laugh. On the podcast, they don’t just talk about new releases or prize winners or good books that will make your to-be-read pile even more overwhelming (though that does happen), they cover news that is of interest to readers: new technology in the reading world, the latest research on how reading affects human behavior, notes from backstage in the publishing world, and encouragement for diversifying our reading lives to include authors and characters who don’t look like us. If you like books and you’re fun and you’re looking for a podcast that isn’t simply reviews or more talk about the latest NYT bestsellers, start with Book Riot. Follow Book Riot on Twitter at @BookRiot.

The Moth icon from iTunesThe Moth: True Stories Told Live The Moth is true stories told live on a stage, and the first time I listened, I was so inspired I paused the episode, leaned on my mop, and recorded a 15 minute story of my own onto my phone’s voice recorder. Since I first began listening I’ve heard Moth stories featured elsewhere, most notably on NPR’s This American Life and as inspiration for a Radiolab story about a man who forgave his daughter’s murderer via letters sent to and from the killer in jail. Moth stories are quality live storytelling, without notes. Most stories include comedic elements but they are all powerful (and true) narratives, often told by renowned storytellers or comedians, and sometimes told by regular people. I eagerly await every new episode. My favorite recent stories are Simon Noonan’s Every Expense Was Spared and Elise Hunter’s story about dumpster diving.  Follow The Moth on Twitter at @TheMoth.

Selected Shorts from PRI iconSelected Shorts: Let Us Tell You a Story I only recently found this storytelling podcast, and I am already in love with it. Kind of a mashup between The Moth and The New Yorker Fiction podcast, Selected Shorts are performed live as on The Moth. Unlike The Moth, though, where the storyteller tells his or her own true story, Selected Shorts are actors and performers reading others’ short fiction, as on The New Yorker Fiction Podcast. There is no discussion of the work as there is with The New Yorker, but each episode contains several quality works. The one I listened to today, Romantic Disasters, had a wonderful story from Miranda July (I seem to be a Miranda July fan) read by Parker Posey, in which the main character coaches an octogenarian swim team – without a body of water to instruct in. Follow Selected Shorts on Twitter @SelectedShorts.

Books on the Nightstand iconBooks on the Nightstand: Hosts Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman, who seem to have read everything and who also work in the publishing industry, give book recommendations and talk about the behind-the-scenes world of the book industry. They are friendly, funny, knowledgeable, and approachable, and I’ve read several of their recommendations, including A Compendium of Collective Nouns which Kindness talked about in Episode 251: Books, Words, and Punctuation. I have not been disappointed by any of their suggestions. Plus Ann loves Pat Conroy, and The Prince of Tides is one of my favorite books of all time, so that gives her a special place in my heart. Follow Books on the Nightstand on Twitter at @BksOnNightstand.

Bookrageous podcast iconBookrageous: a podcast about books and why they’re awesome: Bookrageous is like sitting around with friends and talking books. When I listen to this one, I often find myself opening my mouth to chime in, then realizing Josh, Jenn, and Rebecca are not sitting on my bathroom counter. They can’t hear me. It’s just my phone. But its fun to pretend. Follow Bookrageous on Twitter at @bookrageous.

 

The Readers Book Based Banter podcastThe Readers: This podcast’s tagline is “Book Based Banter,” which captures its charm brilliantly: the hosts are an Englishman and an American, and their exchanges tickle me. Every time Simon chuckles, which is often, I smile. I particularly loved episode 85: Your Country in Ten (or Eleven) books, in which they each selected ten books from their home country in an effort to showcase the culture and sense of place of the US and UK. My TBR list grew by 15 books that day. Follow The Readers on Twitter at @BookBasedBanter.

Dear Book Nerd podcast iconDear Book Nerd: Hosted by librarian Rita Meade, Dear Book Nerd is a podcast that grew out of Meade’s “Dear Book Nerd” advice column on Book Riot in which she answers questions like “What’s the Best Pickup Line to use on a Librarian?” The podcast is relatively new – 7 episodes as of this writing – and she has tackled questions ranging from how to not feel defensive about not reading literary fiction to the risky business of lending books. You can follow Rita Meade on Twitter @ScrewyDecimal.