Andrea Reads America: Georgia

Andrea Reads America Georgia Book Map deluxe
Andrea Reads America: Georgia

I have arrived in my home state on my US reading tour. Georgia. Where there is no way I can narrow the greats to only three books, and where as you can see by the map, I have cheated. I don’t know what it is about Southern literature, and why it has its own subgenre — Southern Gothic — but there is something about books entrenched in the deep South that appeals to me. Much of Southern literature is dark, with colorful and backwards characters, and there are undercurrents, always undercurrents, of hypocrisy, moral twisting, and a lack of self-awareness. Of masks of shoulds, and supposed-to-dos, and pretending for the sake of appearances.

But those things are human, not just Southern. Maybe I am fascinated because the American South is my home, and its history is both rich and mournful. Slavery blended African and New World, without the consent of the Africans who were brought here. It bred tensions that exist today, a pushing, pulling, and blending of cultures and cuisines and dialects, leaving contradictory, paradoxical relations between races, and endless struggles around social structure, wealth, and status. But there’s also the sullen heat, oppressive humidity, and the perfect soil — and perfect climate — for cotton, which built an economic powerhouse on the backs of slaves: an economic structure that collapsed with the abolition of slavery, leaving the proud whites poor, and the freed slaves poorer.

At any rate. Before I get to my three official picks, I want to acknowledge my cheats. Any Georgia book list is not complete without Gone With The Wind. I’ve read Mitchell’s masterpiece multiple times, and it has made me understand my home state in a way that no history class ever could. Since Gone With The Wind is always on every Georgia book list, I don’t feel it needs yet another hoorah here, so I’ve decided not to highlight it in my three picks. I couldn’t bear to not mention it at all, though, because it really is one of the best books I’ve read that truly captures the essence of a place. Likewise, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood is a raw, honest, must-read memoir written by Janisse Ray, who grew up wild and isolated in a rural Georgia junkyard, dirt poor and daughter of fundamentalist Christians.

Because I’m from the coast of Georgia, I can’t go without mentioning favorite beach reads set in my home town of Tybee Island, the beach Savannah residents flock to on summer weekends, and that seems to be gaining popularity as a tourist destination as well. For a break from Southern Gothic, and for fast, fun, and funny reading, I adore Mary Kay Andrew’s Savannah Breeze series. And finally, the ultimate cheat, who doesn’t make an appearance on the map (due to space), is Carson McCullers, with her brilliant Ballad of the Sad Café (which features a hunchback, small town gatherings on the store porch, and a fist-fighting female café owner) and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, which I am currently reading (and devouring).

Are you still there? If so, awesome! Now that my cheats are out of the way, let’s get on to my three picks for Georgia 🙂

The Color Purple book cover by Alice Walker coverNovel: The Color Purple
Author: Alice Walker, born 1944 in Eatonton, GA
Setting: 1930s rural Georgia
Categories: African American Fiction, Literary fiction, Pulitzer, National Book Award

The Color Purple by Alice Walker is one of the finest novels I have ever read. Walker was born in Eatonton, Georgia, where I spent much of my childhood catching yellow-bellies in the creek, digging potatoes with my Grandaddy, and shucking corn with my Nannie. Walker’s novel is set before my time, but she captures the feel of middle Georgia beautifully.

The marvel of The Color Purple, aside from its brilliantly written dialogue, authenticity, warmth, and spiritual truths, is that Celie, the main character, in the face of a devastating life, somehow manages to find resilience, humor, intimacy, and even joy. She is confronted continually with a world that beats her down, as she writes to her sister here about her husband:

He laugh. Who you think you is? he say. You can’t curse nobody. Look at you. You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddam, he say, you nothing at all.

After a childhood with a father who rapes her, and after being married off to a husband who abuses her, Celie would have every reason to believe a statement like the above. But she doesn’t buy into it. She doesn’t fight it, she doesn’t become an angry, raging woman. Instead, from a life that brutalizes her, she gets tired of it all, says Screw it, and moves in her own direction.

Miss Celie, You better hush. God might hear you.

Let ‘im hear me, I say. If he ever listened to poor colored women the world would be a different place, I can tell you.

What I love about The Color Purple is that despite the world’s endless battering, despite the abuse from the men in her life, despite the loss of a sister and of a lover, Celie finds a strength inside her. She finds a direction, and she finds a strength.

Well, I say, we all have to start somewhere if us to do better, and our own self is what us have to hand.

She finds a strength in part because she finds love: love from another woman, love for a God who is not a white man with a beard but who is in trees and fields and the color purple, love for her lost sister whom she pours her heart out to in the letters that are this novel. With all that love, she finds herself, and she finds herself worthy.

For further reading about Alice Walker and other Southern women authors, please see Reading Southern Women.

Flannery O'Connor: The Complete Stories book coverBook: The Complete Stories
Author: Flannery O’Connor, born 1925 in Savannah, GA
Setting: 1940s rural Georgia
Categories: Southern Gothic, Short Stories

Grotesque. Sharp. Funny. Moral.
Dry. Smart. Twisted. Poignant.
Charming.

Flannery O’Connor’s short stories make me think of a mash-up of Patsy Cline’s country music and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. O’Connor’s settings — with the heat, humidity, red clay, drawling dialect, racial tension, and moral righteousness — take you deep into small towns and back woods of central Georgia, and the stories are bizarre, populated with characters of the deep South whose convoluted minds O’Connor grants us entreé to.

O’Connor’s writing is tight, with every metaphor, every descriptor, contributing to the mood of the story:

She leaned a little closer and got a whiff of him that was like putting her nose under a buzzard’s wing.

Her stories are cunning. They are both alarming and witty as they examine deep truths and hypocrisies of Southern culture — outward appearances that mask judgement and racism; the struggles with Satan and rapture, Heaven and hell, class and color; and my favorite aspect, the poignant yet funny inner worlds of of her characters:

He had written a note and pinned it in his pocket. IF FOUND DEAD SHIP EXPRESS COLLECT TO COLEMAN PARRUM, CORINTH, GEORGIA.

Her characters make the stories, and it is impossible to walk away from an O’Connor story without marveling not only at her sharp wit and even sharper intelligence, but also her humility in the face of her genuine struggles with her faith in God and Church.

For further reading about Flannery O’Connor, please see Flannery, My Fire.

Paris Trout by Pete Dexter book coverNovel: Paris Trout
Author: Pete Dexter, born 1943, raised in Milledgeville, GA
Setting: 1940s small-town Georgia
Category: Literary Fiction, National Book Award

Set in a liquor-dry, small fictitious town in Georgia, Paris Trout is a vivid account of a stubborn white man, Paris Trout, who is driven by a convoluted set of principles that allow him to abuse his wife because she belongs to him as a husband, and to kill a black girl and a black woman because they happen to be in the same house as a black man who owes Paris Trout money.

Written in a series of chapters titled for different characters, this book is a page turner. The plot is paced like a runaway train, and you can’t look away from the wreck you know will happen. There were portions that were exceedingly violent, portions that made me want to quit the book. But as soon as I was ready to put it down in disgust, the chapter would end and a new character voice would begin.

Paris Trout won the 1988 National Book Award, and I can see why. Though the setting is clearly Georgia, with its red clay, moonshine, and Southern sensibilities, the story is universal. Paris Trout is white and comes from a solid, respected family. He is an important man in the county. His social station carries more weight than the crimes he commits. As such, his story plays into one of the more potent themes that runs throughout the stories of the characters: appearances.

‘I didn’t have to make a living up there. I didn’t have people watching me.’

She closed her eyes as if she could not stand to see him. ‘What is left for them to see, Carl?’ she said. ‘You were the best Boy Scout in the world when you were eleven years old, and somehow that has obligated you to be the best Boy Scout forever.’

Paris Trout takes a fascinating look at  appearances: how people cultivate them, how color dictates them, and how absolutely devastating it can be when the appearance the world sees — or chooses to see — is out of sync with the truth of a person.

The way he’s crazy isn’t that far off center so most of the time he seems like anyone else… Ordinary people might consider things in the abstract, but bad intentions aren’t what crazy is about. Even if we’re all on the same road, Paris Trout doesn’t have any brakes.

For Further Reading in Georgia

Books I’ve read and recommend:
Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Anne Burns
Delrium of the Brave by William C. Harris, Jr.
Lighthouse by Eugenia Price
Books that have been recommended to me and I have not yet read:
Peachtree Road by Anne Rivers Siddons
Cane by Jeane Toomes
Run with the Horsemen by Ferrol Sams
A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews

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.

Andrea Reads America: Washington, D.C.

Andrea Reads America DC Book Map
Andrea Reads America: Washington, DC

A long time ago, in our life before children, my husband and I lived in College Park, Maryland, three blocks from a metro station where the green line took us straight into downtown Washington, D.C. I had never lived near a city before, and I fell in love with D.C. The memorials, the museums; the statue gardens, the Tuba Christmas concert; New Years Eve at the reflecting pool, Fourth of July fireworks at the Washington monument; the lighting of the national Christmas tree at the White House, cherry blossoms at the Jefferson Memorial. The Washington Post delivered to our door.

We lived there in the first years of our marriage, and we had a garden where we tended echinacea, columbine, gerbera daisies, shasta daisies, and I grew a few vegetables along with tomatoes, basil, and arugula. We used the arugula in a pasta with a bacon and cream sauce, the basil for pesto every week, and ate the red tomatoes warm off the vine, sliced, salted, and dripping with summer.

It was a good life in D.C., and I miss it. I couldn’t wait to read novels set in the area we spent our rich early years, and I wasn’t disappointed. The books here represent three faces of D.C.: the timeless political drama of Capitol Hill, the transience of contemporary D.C. neighborhoods, and the racial tensions of a 1920s Georgetown.

Advise and Consent by Allen Drury book coverNovel: Advise and Consent
Author: Allen Drury, US Senate Correspondent 1940s
Setting: Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, 1950s
Categories: Pulitzer, Political Fiction

Set during the Cold War as the US and Russia reared against each other on all fronts — when they were racing to get to the moon first, when the US saw communism as evil, when tension was high and trust was low — Advise and Consent is a Washington, D.C.-set drama that follows the confirmation hearings of a controversial secretary of state nominee: controversial because he may be a former member of the Communist party.

Published in 1959 and awarded the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1960, I can imagine that Advise and Consent was a foundational work upon which later D.C. insider literature and TV series were built. Advise and Consent, like House of Cards, Scandal, and other political dramas, exposes the bargaining, gambling, and shady dealings that happen behind the scenes in private rooms in the Capitol, and in the Oval office. Dealings that are never overt, are never plainly spoken, are suggested obliquely through innuendo and sideways dealings, and are almost always at the expense of someone’s integrity.

Because that’s really what Advise and Consent is about. It’s about integrity and how far that may get you, and where it may fall short, and how nearly impossible it is to maintain in politics. It is a bitter irony that those who serve out of a genuine drive to do what’s right for the country cannot do so and also sustain their integrity.

“This is a cruel town,” he said, “when you get on the wrong side of it. A great town and a good town, and a petty town, and a cruel town. And nobody ever knows from day to day which face it is going to put on.”

Like classic films upon which so many contemporary movies are based, Advise and Consent was not novel to me because I’ve seen it done so many times by its successors. However, the subtlety, the lack of sensationalism, and the impossible choices politicians must make —  sacrificing principles to accomplish a greater goal — is executed exquisitely in this book. The characters are real, their dramas are relateable, and the book does not ask the reader to take great leaps like modern excessive dramas do. With every decision a character makes, the reader can see the quandry. The reader is there with him asking, well, what can he do? And the answer is never easy.

You are One of ThemNovel: You Are One of Them
Author: Elliott Holt, born Washington, D.C.
Setting: Washington, D.C. and Moscow 1980s
Categories: Contemporary Fiction, Literary Fiction

Set against the backdrop of Cleveland Heights, a Washington, D.C. neighborhood during the 1980s, when the US feared of nuclear attack from Russia, You Are One of Them is a story of trust and betrayal, not among nations, but between childhood friends.

Daughter of divorced parents — a neglectful father who abandons her for a new family in his native England, and an anxiety-ridden mother afraid of leaving the house — Sarah Zuckerman befriend Jenny Jones, her new across-the-street all-American neighbor who has just moved to D.C from the wholesome heartland: from Ohio.

Mrs. Jones was always there to ask about our day. She smiled a lot. At first it made me nervous — there was something unsettling about all that grinning — but my mother said that people smiled more in Ohio.

In their girlhood Sarah and Jenny do typical childhood things: play hide and seek in the woods, leave notes for each other in a secret chink in church stones, and write letters to Yuri Andropov, the leader of the USSR, asking for peace.

The story is of the all-American girl whose letter made her famous, whose letter took her to the USSR, and of Sarah, whose idea it had been to write the letters, but who was left behind, who wasn’t the perfect American, and who spends the rest of her life chasing Jenny’s memory.

Though the author is a D.C. native, and much of the first half of the novel takes place in D.C., my favorite scenes were in Russia. The Russian characters, the contrast between D.C and Moscow, and the similarities, were compelling and I could not stop turning pages.

But the best part is Sarah’s ending, when she finally catches Jenny’s ghost and realizes what she’s been holding onto, releases it, grows up, has that epiphinal moment when she becomes her true self — and then stands up for it.

River Cross my HeartNovel: River Cross My Heart
Author: Breena Clarke, born Washington, D.C.
Setting: Georgetown, Washington, D.C., 1920s
Categories: African American Fiction, Historical Fiction

Set in Georgetown in the 1920s, River, Cross My Heart tells the story of a young swimmer, Johnnie Mae, whose younger sister drowns in the Potomac River in summer — while the white children in Georgetown cool off in the clean, safe, turquoise water of the whites-only pool.

Legends abound that the Potomac River is a widowmaker, a childtaker, and a woman-swallower.

Filled with rich scenes of food and family, the black Georgetown community, and childhood friendships and rivalries, River, Cross My Heart follows the grief, the coming together, and the recovery of the community in the wake of Clara’s death.

One of the things I loved about this book is that it shows this D.C. neighborhood in all the seasons, including the oppressive heat of summer, the spookiness of a graveyard at Halloween, the sharp cold of winter, and the birth of new life in spring.

It’s also a time period  I know little about in D.C. history. I reveled experiencing Georgetown as a small Southern town rather than the elite metropolitan neighborhood it is today. There are gardens and laundry lines, feasts with traditional Southern soul food, tensions between white and black, kids being kids, a “witch” woman, and a cast of characters that make me long for a neighborliness that I haven’t encountered in my lifetime.

 

For Further Reading in Washington, D.C.

Books that have been recommended to me and I have not yet read:
The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos (writer for The Wire)
Echo House by Ward Just
Heartburn by Nora Ephron
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu

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.

Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners mapped by US setting

I have a confession to make. A major motivator in my Andrea Reads America project is my ambition to read more Great American Literature. I’ve read Faulkner and Ellison and Steinbeck; I’ve read Cather and Walker and Lee; but Philip Roth – who’s he? John Updike? Never tried him. Toni Morrison? I want to read more of her work. As I work my way across the USA, reading three books set in each state, I aim to finally get to some of the big names that I might otherwise never read.¹

Map of Pulitzer winners and finalists set in each US state on andreareadsamerica.wordpress.com
Pulitzer Prize fiction winners and finalists set in specific US states
Map of National Book Award Fiction Winners set in each US state on andreareadsamerica.wordpress.com
National Book Award fiction winners set in specific US states

Following the lead of researchers Kidd and Costano, who published a recent paper in Science suggesting that reading literary fiction improves empathy, I turned to the Pulitzer and National Book Award lists to find examples of Great Literature. I compiled lists of winners and finalists, and based on blurbs, reviews, and Goodreads tags, I noted the setting of each book in my spreadsheet.² If the narrative was set primarily in a specific state within the United States of America – not in generic-town-USA, not overseas, but in a specific location within the US – I plotted it on the maps above.³ Books that are based mainly on a journey across states are, for the most part, not included.⁴ Full list of titles follows.⁵ ⁶

I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. 

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¹ No, I do not plan to read every book listed here. Are you crazy?

² If I am wrong on any of these, please correct me. In cases where I haven’t read the book (i.e. most of them. 88% in fact.), I cannot be sure how much of the narrative takes place in a particular setting. Also, the stars on the maps do not indicate specific cities or setting within a state, only that the book is set in the state. I’d be here forever if I scaled down to city level, and I’ve got reading to do.

³ The spread is fascinating, isn’t it? What’s up, Western States? Also, look how many Pulitzer winners are set in New York: NINE if you include finalists. The committee was hooked on Maine for a while there, too. And the state with the most National Book Awards? Illinois. What does it all mean, people?!

⁴ My personal familiarity with the books came into play here. Though the story travels from Texas to Montana, I included Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove for Texas, mainly because the point of view is clearly Texan, and because McMurtry evokes Texas so beautifully that the state becomes a character in the story. I wonder if John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath works similarly for Oklahoma, as it is told from the Okie perspective as Oklahomans journey west to California. I do not remember the book well enough to feel comfortable plotting it in either Oklahoma or California. If you have strong feelings on this, please let me know in the comments.

⁵ Pulitzer Fiction Winners and Finalists by state setting

AL – To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1961)
AL – The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau (1965)
AK – The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (2013 finalist)
DC – Advise and Consent by Allen Drury (1960)
FL – Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens (1949)
FL – Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (2012 finalist)
GA – Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor (1956)
GA – The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1983)
IL – An Unfinished Season by Ward Just (2005 finalist)
IN – The Bright Forever by Lee Martin (2006 finalist)
IA – A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (1992)
LA – A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (1981)
ME – Tinkers by Paul Harding (2010)
ME – Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2009)
ME – Empire Falls by Richard Russo (2002)
MA – The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O’Connor (1962)
MI – Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2003)
MS – The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty (1973)
MS – The Reivers by William Faulkner (1963)
MO – The Way West by A. B. Guthrie (1950)
NE – The Echo Maker by Richard Powers (2007 finalist)
NJ – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (2008)
NJ – American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1998)
NM – House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday (1969)
NY – The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos (1990)
NY – Ironweed by William Kennedy (1984)
NY – The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever (1979)
NY – The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2001)
NY – Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser (1997)
NY – All Souls by Christine Schutt (2009 finalist)
NY – The Privileges by Jonathan Dee (2011 finalist)
NY – Mr. Ives’ Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos (1996 finalist)
NY – At Weddings and Wakes by Alice McDermott (1993 finalist)
ND – The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich (2009 finalist)
OH – The Town by Conrad Richter (1951)
OH – Beloved by Toni Morrison (1988)
OK – Mean Spirit by Linda Hogan (1991 finalist)
PA – The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (1975)
TN – A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor (1987)
TN – A Death in the Family by James Agee (1958)
TX – Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (1986)
TX – Collected Stories by Katherine Anne Porter (1966)
UT – The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer (1980)
VA – The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2004)
VA – The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron (1968)
WY – Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx (2000 finalist)

⁶ National Book Award Winners by state setting

CA – In America by Susan Sontag (2000)
FL – Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen (2008)
GA – Paris Trout by Pete Dexter (1988)
GA – The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1983)
HI – From Here to Eternity by James Jones (1952)
IL – The Man With the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren (1950)
IL – Herzog by Saul Bellow (1965)
IL – The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder (1968)
IL – So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (1982)
LA – The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1962)
LA – Victory Over Japan: A Book of Stories by Ellen Gilchrist (1984)
MA – The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever (1958)
MI – Them by Joyce Carol Oates (1970)
MN – Morte D’Urban by J. F. Powers (1963)
MS – Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (2011)
NE – Plains Song by Wright Morris (1981)
NE – The Echo Maker by Richard Powers (2006)
NJ – Goodbye Columbus by Philip Roth (1960)
NY – The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud (1959)
NY – World’s Fair by E. L. Doctorow (1986)
NY – Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (2009)
NC – Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann (1987)
NC – Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier (1997)
ND – The Round House by Louise Erdrich (2012)
PA – Ten North Frederick by John O’Hara (1956)
PA – The Centaur by John Updike (1964)
PA – Rabbit is Rich by John Updike (1982)
RI – Spartina by John Casey (1989)
WV – Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon (2010)

If you’ve read any of these and have opinions on them, please let me know. I’ve read a few and thought Bah, what’s the big deal? while others have blown me away. I’m curious what your thoughts are. Thanks!

This was originally published February 3, 2014 on Andrea Badgley’s Butterfly Mind.