Andrea Reads America: New Jersey

Andrea Reads America books set in New Jersey
Andrea Reads America: New Jersey

I was excited to read New Jersey — Jersey has so much personality! I thought I would come across organized-crime novels set among the ports of New Jersey, and honestly I was hoping to find a title like that. I wanted to read something like The Sopranos, and even checked to see if the show was based on a book so I could read it (it wasn’t). Then I checked to see if The Godfather was set in NJ, but it’s set in NY. The same goes for Patti Smith’s Just Kids which is an amazing book, which I thought would be set somewhat in NJ, but mostly it’s set in NYC. I adored Smith’s book. It’s a favorite from this reading project, and I’m glad I accidentally read it on my NJ reading adventure.

After not finding any mob books, and after reading a NYC-set book for NJ, I did find Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, which I never read as a pre-teen and I was delighted to read as an adult. I also found an unusual and unexpected novel about an Indian family’s experience after immigrating to America — a novel in which the author pushes “all the exotic things to the side as if they didn’t matter” as the protagonist learns to do by studying Hemingway. And of course I reread some of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels, which never let me down when I want a fun and easy Jersey-girl read that is sure to make me giggle.

Are you there God? It's Me, Margaret Novel: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
Author: Judy Blume, grew up in Elizabeth, NJ
Setting: Farbrook, NJ

Ex-pats of New York City, young Margaret’s parents moved to New Jersey, to the suburbs, where they could get away from the city and have a yard and a garden and some dirt to dig in.

When I groaned, “Why New Jersey?” I was told, “Long Island is too social, Westchester is too expensive, and Connecticut is too inconvenient.”

Margaret is 11, entering 6th grade in a new town, and meets young Nancy and joins her secret society where they mainly discuss their impending periods, rank which boys they like, and malign the tall, first-to-develop girl in their class. Margaret, coming from New York City, is expected to be more worldly and grown up, but she feels left behind by the girls she falls in with. She talks every night to God. Her parents — one raised Jewish and one Christian — have left it up to her to choose which faith to access God through.

I remember friends loving this book when I was growing up, but I never read it, and I wish I had. It shepherded an entire generation of girls through the mysteries of adolescence, and it’s a funny, real, and uplifting book. The thing I loved most about it was Margaret’s private and personal relationship with God without the baggage of an organized religion distracting from  that connection.

Family Life book cover Novel: Family Life
Author: Akhil Sharma
Setting: New Jersey

Beginning in India and ending in New Jersey, Family Life surprised me in its depiction of an immigrant experience. Rather than focusing on the family’s integration into and treatment by American society, the story is a fascinating look at Indian social norms and customs, transplanted to a new country, especially when something horrible happens within a family who needs a network of support and familiarity.

Placing an Indian family in the setting of American suburbs in NJ had an interesting effect on me: it made it very clear how similar humans are across cultures, like presenting false appearances to make everyone think what you want them to think about you.

Family Life is told from the perspective of Ajay, an Indian boy whose family moves to America, and soon after, Ajay’s older brother has an accident that leaves him brain-damaged and bed-ridden. Throughout the novel, Ajay navigates his parents’ downward spiral, the Indian community’s reaction to their misfortune, being other in an American school — being one of the Indians with an accent and who brings funny foods to lunch — and trying to impress everyone all along the way.

The most exciting and unexpected part of the book is when Ajay discovers writing. He discovers not by practicing writing, or even by reading good writing, but by reading about Hemingway. Ajay realizes he might achieve fame and fortune and the ability to travel the world by being a writer rather than a doctor or an engineer, and so he reads everything he can about Hemingway before actually reading Hemingway’s work. And then he begins to write. The writing allows him to both process and express what’s happening in his family, and I found that fascinating.

Writing the story changed me. Now I began to feel as if I were walking through my life collecting things that could be used later: the sound of a ping-pong ball was like a woman walking in high heels, the shower running was like television static. Seeing things as material for writing protected me.

One for the Money book coverNovel: One For the Money
Author: Janet Evanovich
Setting: Trenton, NJ

I love these Stephanie Plum books. I think there are 28 now. I remember starting them, many years ago, when Shelfari still existed. They’re fun for their New Jersey setting and personalities, which are entertaining.

Connie handed me the check and plucked at a clump of mascara hanging at the end of her left eyelash. “I’m telling you, it’s fucking hard to be classy,” she said.

They’re also fun because though they’re similar to the cosy detective/mystery formula with a bumbling, nosy-neighbor crime-solver, they’re different: Stephanie Plum is a bounty hunter. In the first book of the series, One For the Money, Stephanie loses her job as a lingerie salesperson due to a company merger. She has no money, has to pawn her appliances to pay rent, and she needs money fast. Her NJ mom, who’s always in Stephanie’s business, shares that their bonds-bailsman cousin Vinny is looking for someone to do the filing. Stephanie arrives to apply for the job and ends up as a fill-in bounty hunter instead.

She’s funny, gutsy, and acts without thinking, and through a combination of smart deduction, happy accidents, her Jersey attitude, and some very scary attacks, she manages to accomplish what many around her cannot. Plus, I love that New Jersey is another character in the books.

Cicadas buzzed, Dumpsters reeked, and a dusty haze hung in a perpetuity over softball fields statewide. I figured it was all part of the great adventure of living in New Jersey.

These are light, fun reads that are great for tearing through in one or two days.

Guest post: Love’s Labor

Map: New Jersey, setting of “Love’s Labor” by Ryder Ziebarth
This is a guest post from Ryder Ziebarth who contributed in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is New Jersey. Enjoy!

The front views from our New Jersey farmhouse windows sweep across a ten-acre field of timothy. The grass, thigh high now, violet tipped and rippling in the wind like an incoming tide, is almost ready for the second cutting, but surely the farmer who cuts and bales the hay won’t be cutting on Labor Day. Still. I must remind myself to call him, tell him the fields are still too soaked with late summer rain to run the tractor through.

Drinking my coffee in this quiet house while my husband sleeps, I search the field and see the doe; the one who yesterday stood sentry there, with the grass to her flanks. She is standing between two roadside cedars. Now, I am sure that nestled beneath her is a newborn fawn – cinnamon and white spotted – delicate as a bone china teacup teetering on the edge of a table.

I must make sure the farmer won’t be cutting this weekend. I want to give the mother a few more days with her baby. I linger at the window, my eyes now watching my daughter, my first born, my only, drive her jeep away, down the dirt road running parallel to the field. She’s risen and packed early, wanting to get on her way, so much work ahead this semester. Her own life her priority. But she will slow as she passes the doe and her fawn, recognizing the bond. She will not beep her car horn one more time as she usually does, mindful not to startle the fragile pair, but rolls down her window and waves her hand into the air. She knows I wave back, watching her car pull onto the main road stretching out in front of her.

Ryder Ziebarth grew up on the farm she writes about. She is a freelance writer, a Nantucket Book Festival Advisor and currently a candidate for a MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, N Magazine, Brevity, as well as other print and online sources. Her daughter, a singer, is in  her last year at Berklee College of Music. Ryder ‘s work can be seen at Notes from the Field.

Guest post: Barnegat Bay Winter

This is a guest post from writer Cynthia Graham who responded to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is South Jersey.

I remember the acrid smell of singed duck feathers and my father’s loud voice. He had returned from an early January adventure on Barnegat Bay with my uncle Ken who was the caretaker of Sandy Island Gunning Club. Later in the day, over a roast duck dinner, Dad would begin the story by describing how the Bay was frozen over.

I could picture it. The flat expanse, meadows no longer softly striped in bands of green and pale Autumn gold, but dried, colorless, then the Bay, itself, sparkling in crusted shades of white and gray, going on for miles until it bumped against Long Beach Island, where Dad was born.

Dad explained that in the darkness of this winter morning he and Ken had checked the wooden runners on the bottom of the sneakbox, pressing the strips of brass smooth so the boat would move silently across the ice. They loaded supplies for the small shack on the island in the Bay, stashed a thermos of hot clam chowder made by Dad’s sister Peg, and headed north from the Bonnet Club where Peg catered to the city slicker duck hunters who visited this area of South Jersey.

Ken was at the bow of the small army green boat and Dad at the stern. Behind them they could hear an occasional rumble as cars rolled over the wooden causeway bridge connecting the Mainland to the Island. But that was off to the south and they were headed northeast, across the salt ice.

Dad whistled as they pushed, the tune of “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine”, background music for flocks of starling, whirling and swishing like the folds of a dancer’s satin gown, coming to rest on meadow grasses then wheeling again into the cloudless sky.

Ken was quiet, puffs of breath from his chapped lips like a steam train. They went on this way until they approached the channel. Here the ice was a different color, a dark blue shading to black in spots.

Through squinted eyes Ken looked west to bare trees silhouetted against the lightening sky, oak forests, orange and yellow only a few months before. Dad looked east into the sun, still low on the horizon. He could just make out a small bump, their destination. His fingers flexed inside his gloves. “Better get a move on, “ Ken said.

Encased in their heavy coats the men bent their backs and leaned into the push. The boat slid easily until the channel ice fell away under it with a crack. The two men scrambled, arms and legs like windmill blades. Ken’s legs went into water and were left dangling when he threw his torso onto the boat. Dad told us, “The good Lord must a kicked me in the ass, cause I never even got my feet wet. I just climbed that boat like a ladder.”

Dad brought up the ice hook from the bottom of the boat and poled from the bow, pushing off thicker ice. Ken whose legs were already wet hung his feet off the stern, kicking like a makeshift motor. At the eastern edge of the channel where the ice was thicker the men got out of the boat and began the slide toward the Gunning Club.

Once inside they started up the kerosene heater and Ken got out of his wet clothes. After downing the warm clam chowder, the men restocked the shelves, made coffee and probably opened a bottle of blackberry brandy hidden high on a shelf and kept for emergencies, and for the city folk who came to shoot their limit of whatever duck was in season.

Dad never told us about the trip back across the Bay or how he had shot the blackduck. But for dinner that night Mom roasted that duck, made gravy and potatoes, and opened the crabapple jelly she had put up the summer before. Dad fell asleep early, his face and legs twitching with icy memories.

Cynthia Inman Graham grew up between Barnegat Bay and the Pine Barrens. She graduated from Trenton State College, married her husband, Don, and left the US, backpacking the world, seven months on an Israeli kibbutz, substituting in Nairobi, Kenya, teaching in Vientiane, Laos, eleven years in the Australian Outback, and finally two years in Alaska, before returning to Manahawkin, NJ. She recently retired from teaching English as a Second Language. Her writing has been published in The Sandpaper, FATE, and the Stockton Stockpot, and Graham received Stockton’s MiMi Swartz Award for Creative Non-Fiction in 2012.