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).

Rural America: Kent Haruf’s Plainsong

So many people have recommended Kent Haruf to me, for his pared down style and description of what one might call ‘heartland’ America in the fictional town of Holt in the prairies of East Colorado.

Holt County, the country all flat and sandy again, the stunted stands of trees at the isolated farmhouses, the gravel section roads running exactly north and south like lines drawn in a child’s picture book and the four-strand fences rimming the barrow ditches, and now there were cows with fresh calves in the pastures behind the barbed-wire fences and here and there a red mare with a new-foaled colt, and far away on the horizon to the south the low sandhills that looked as blue as plums.

I personally hate flat, wide-open country. It feels more suffocating to me than mountains, and it’s this suffocation in the small town in the middle of nowhere that Haruf captures so well in his trilogy. He also uses flat, plain, unadorned language which fits well with this landscape (and with the simple church music that the title Plainsong refers to).

I started with his first novel to be written in his distinctive utilitarian style (although he published a couple of novels before that with the same kind of setting). Plainsong describes the lives of several individuals and families in a small farming community: aging brother farmers, who understand each other almost without words; a pregnant teenager kicked out by her mother who is taken in by the old farmers although they don’t know much about women; young boys whose mother suffers from depression and leaves home, leaving them with their baffled schoolteacher dad; another schoolteacher who helps the pregnant girl, although her own father is proving a handful with his dementia.

The stories build up gradually, patiently, layer after layer, from small details, everyday observations and the different points of view. No insight into the characters’ inner feelings other than what they say or do. Yet by the end you feel you know them well.

At times the style can grate on you and feel drab and repetitive. To think that I was afraid my sentences were too long! Here is a typical one:

He went out into the hall again past the closed door and on into the bathroom and shaved and rinsed his face and went back to the bedroom at the front of the house whose high windows overlooked Railroad Street and brought out shirt and pants from the closet and laid them out on the bed and took off his robe and got dressed.

But the advantage with this minute observational style is that it keeps both the writer and the reader at arm’s length, prevents the story from descending into melodrama and sentimentality. There are plenty of elements here that could have veered into cliche territory in the hands of another writer. Here, it feels like a universal and timeless story. Or at least, a universal story for the American rural community, that ferocious mix of cruelty and kindness, of stubbornness and innocence. Life is hard, unsparing for pretty much everyone, but it is what it is. And those patient, uncomplaining people make the best of it. It’s the small examples of humanity and the survival instinct of the pioneers who headed west that inspire Haruf’s work, although a few of his characters fall by the wayside.

There are also moments of almost reluctantly poetic descriptions too, but nothing is overdone:

The empty house… The broken –down neglected locust trees, shaggy barked, the overgrown yard, the dead sunflowers grown up everywhere with their heads loaded and drooping, everything dry and brown now in the late fall, dust-coated, and the sunken house itself diminished and weathered.

I have a sneaking suspicion that if I read more of Kent Haruf, I will feel that his trilogy could be the quintessential Great American Novel.