Monthly Reading Summary: June in the United States

June was the first month that I experimented with my new geographical reading initiative, which means reading mostly (but not exclusively) authors from a particular country – or potentially books set in a specific country. I started off with the United States, because it is a country I often ignore in my reading. And it worked so well that I am certainly planning to continue doing this geographically themed reading at least until the end of year.

I read 8 novels by American authors, plus a biographical study of American women by an American woman – so a total of 9 books. Six women authors, including big names of the past such as Patricia Highsmith and Jane Bowles, popular contemporary authors such as Laura Lippman and Meg Wolitzer, and less well-known authors such as Laura Kasischke and Diana Souhami. The last of these, Wild Girls (review to come), is a book about the relationship and love life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, two wealthy American expats and artists living in Paris in the early 20th century. I first came across the chromatically restrained art of Romaine Brooks at the Barbican exhibition about artistic couples and wanted to know more about her.

The three male authors I read were Kent Haruf, Sam Shepard and David Vann, who all proved to be a very welcome respite from the rather self-absorbed American authors I have read previously (who may have put me off reading American books). Surprisingly, they all write about marginalised, impoverished or rural communities that we tend to think of as ‘typically’ American landscapes, filled with macho behaviour. Yet each of these authors demonstrate great sensitivity and empathy for human frailty.

So, all in all, quite a diverse and happy American reading experience, although I was perhaps less impressed with those particular books by Meg Wolitzer and Laura Lippman (compared with some of their others).

In addition to my focus on the US, I also had a bit of a Bristol CrimeFest hangover and read some more of the books I bought there. All three were enjoyable and very quick reads: Kate Rhodes’ atmospheric, closed island community in Ruin Beach, Charlie Gallagher’s almost viscerally painful He Will Kill You about domestic violence and Cara Black’s latest instalment in the Aimee Leduc series, Murder in Bel Air, which tackles France’s colonial past and present.

Last but not least, two books about betrayed women from very different decades: Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance set in the 1950s, while Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie is very much of the present moment and set in London. While the former remains stoic and resourceful, the latter is prone to self-destructive or self-belittling behaviour. Both books can be quite painful to read, although Queenie is also very funny in parts.

So, 14 books in total, 10 by women authors, zero in translation, which is quite unusual for me (reflects the geographical emphasis, I suppose).

Four More American Reads

June was my month of reading mainly American authors and I’ve done quite well in terms of reading, not so well in terms of reviewing. Therefore, I’ll write four mini reviews in this post, before I turn to my attention to Russian authors next week.

Cowboyland = Sam Shepard: Cruising Paradise

Strictly speaking, geographically, this is not cowboy territory, since most of the short stories, flash fictions, fragments of prose are set in the desert areas of South Dakot and New Mexico, so cattle would starve in these locations. But it has that Western feel to it: rough and ready men (and women), loners, dreaming of escape, unable to fully articulate their feelings. Sometimes a child is observing these grown-ups and quietly damning yet forgiving them for their inexplicable yearning. Dust and gravel, shoddy motel rooms, half-abandoned diners and service stations… it’s a road trip through the America that time forgot. Anything but Paradise, in fact. Made me miss the sensitive cowboy that Sam Shepard clearly was.

More defeated adults = David Vann: Aquarium

The Virginie Despentes of the Northwestern United States, except it’s even more poignant when seen through the eyes of a twelve-year old. This is a tragic portrayal of life at the margins, for those who are barely making ends meet, for those who somehow fall through the cracks in a society that has barely any safety nets. Caitlin and her mother nevertheless have managed to find a modus vivendi for themselves – imperfect, no frills, but acceptable, with a little imaginative outlet and escape for Caitlin at the local aquarium (which takes the place of a babysitter until her mother can pick her up after work). But then their whole world falls apart when Caitlin meets a suspiciously friendly old man at the aquarium and discovers things about her mother’s past that she would rather not have known.

This was a really dark and terrible book to read. Beautifully written, completely moving, with perhaps a rather too rushed ending (with a tiny glimmer of hope that didn’t feel quite real). I was torn between feeling sadness at the mother’s almost neverending hard work and her whole mind and soul embodying anger:

Welcome to the adult world, coming soon. I work so I can work more. I try not to want anything so maybe I’ll get something. I starve so I can be less and more. I try to be free so I can be alone. And there’s no point to any of it. They left out that part.

But then I hear of the child’s bewilderment and suffering and cannot quite forgive the adult who makes her feel like that, no matter how damaged that adult is herself.

The worst part of childhood is not knowing that bad things pass, that time passes. A terrible moment in childhood hovers with a kind of eternity, unbearable. My mother’s anger extending infinitely, a rage we’d never escape. She had always been my saftey, the two of us piled together on the bed… To have this place become unsafe left nowhere else.

Not So Golden Age = Laura Lippman: Lady in the Lake

1960s Baltimore was not an integrated town and Jews and blacks are still made to feel like outsiders. Maddie Schwartz is a spoilt housewife who suddenly goes through an existential crisis and decides to change her life. She moves out of her comfortable home, takes a young black policeman as her lover and starts working at a local newspaper, determined to make her name as a journalist, becoming somewhat unhealthily obsessed with the death of a black woman whom she labels the ‘lady in the lake’. Lippman is good at rendering Maddie’s (and everyone else’s) muddy motives for wanting to investigate the murder. None of the characters are particularly endearing, even though we hear from each of them in turn, even the most minor ones. I was not smitten with the storyline, but felt it provided a nice slice of American life in the mid 1960s.

Gilded Age = Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr Ripley

I suddenly had a craving to reread this, and of course made full use of my newly acquired Folio edition from Second Shelf. Ripley falls in love with the lifestyle, the glamour, the privileged ease that Dickie Greenleaf exhudes from every pore (as well as with Dickie himself). It has also made me want to see the two Ripley films again: Alain Delon as the hugely ambiguous and magnetic Ripley in En Plein Soleil, and Jude Law as the charismatic, moody Greenleaf in Minghella’s more recent film. This is, needless to say, not the cover that I have on my Folio edition, but a pulp cover dating from soon after the original publication.