Monday, 11 July 2011

Week 14: State - North Carolina

Hmm, maybe I should delete the "50 weeks" section of this blog (I honestly have no idea what week I'm on any more), but, for now at least, I have returned to carry on...

The colony of Carolina was established in 1663 when King Charles II of England granted a charter to start a new colony on the North American continent. Named in honour of his father Charles I (Latin: Carolus), the colony split into North Carolina and South Carolina in 1712 due to disputes over governance. Prior to this Sir Walter Raleigh established two colonies on the coast of North Carolina in the late 1580s, but both failed, though the capital of North Carolina, Raleigh, was named in his honour. It got its nickname The Old North State as the state did not vote to join the Confederacy during the Civil War until President Abraham Lincoln called on it to invade South Carolina. During the war North Carolina provided at least 125,000 troops to the Confederacy— far more than any other state, approximately 40,000 of whom never returned home. North Carolina was impoverished by the Civil War and hard hit by the Great Depression but Tobacco grew into a major industry, and today North Carolina is the leading producer of tobacco in the country. The state is also the largest textile employer in the United States, though in recent decades offshoring and industrial growth in countries like China has forced the economy to diversify and today Charlotte, the largest city in the state, is the second largest banking center in the United States (after New York). The western section of the state is part of the Appalachian Mountain range, and The Black Mountains subrange are the highest in the Eastern United States (Mount Mitchell is the highest point east of the Mississippi River). Tourism is the dominant industry in the mountains, and the state overall is the 6th most visited in the country in being, amongst other reasons, a top golf destination. North Carolina is also home to Fort Bragg, near Fayetteville, the largest military base in the United States. Severe weather occurs regularly in North Carolina and on average, the state receives a direct hit from a hurricane once a decade (only Florida and Louisiana are hit more often). North Carolina can claim two notable firsts: the first gold nugget found in the U.S. was found at the Reed Gold Mine (now a National Historic Landmark) in Cabarrus County in 1799, and the states unofficial motto "First in Flight" refers to the states honor in being the site of the first successful controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air flight, by the Wright brothers, near Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903.

The television show most associated with North Carolina is The Andy Griffith Show, which aired from 1960 to 1968. The series is set in the fictional small town of Mayberry, North Carolina, and was based on the real-life town of Mount Airy, North Carolina. The film Bull Durham (North Carolina is a state known for minor league sports) was based on the Durham Bulls of the Carolina League, and Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and the Oscar winning film adaptation follow a Confederate deserter's trek home through North Carolina... Firstly I started reading Serena by Ron Rash (set in 1929 against the backdrop of the North Carolina timber industry) but lost interest a third of the way through. Next I picked up a Thomas Wolfe novella (a North Carolina native) that turned out to not even be set in the state, and finally settled on The Marrow of Tradition by Charles Chesnutt.

Charles Chesnutt was an American author of mixed-race descent whose novels and short stories explored complex issues of racial and social identity in the post-Civil War South. His 1901 novel The Marrow of Tradition was a fictionalised retelling of the rise of the white supremacist movement in Wilmington, North Carolina, leading to the Wilmington Insurrection (or Massacre) of 1898 when whites took over the city and threw out the elected biracial government.

Review to follow at some point...

Wednesday, 29 June 2011


Well, the inevitable happened and the drama of life got in the way of keeping on schedule with my reading and blog-posting, as well as a disappointing book choice for North Carolina that I struggled through to about the halfway point before giving up. Nevertheless I intend very soon to pick up where I left off with a new book for the state. Watch this space...

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Mid-Atlantic States - A Summary

Time for another summary. I'm now around a week behind schedule (at least, I need to check!). Hopefully I'll stumble upon some nice short books soon. So unlikely I'll be picking Gone With the Wind for Georgia...

Week 7

The State: New York

The Book: Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote (1958)

Week 8

The State: New Jersey

The Book: American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997)

Week 9

The State: Pennsylvania

The Book: Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960)

Week 10

The State: Delaware

The Book: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (1996)

Week 11

The State: Maryland

The Book: A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler (1998)

Week 12

The State: West Virginia

The Book: Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb (1953)

Week 13

The State: Virginia

The Book: Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895)

Virginia and Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895)

The Battle of Chancellorsville, the principal engagement of the Chancellorsville Campaign, was the fifth costliest battle of the American Civil War. 17,197 Union and 13,303 Confederate casualties were counted in the fighting which lasted from April 30 to May 6, 1863 (May 3 was the second bloodiest day of the Civil War). The campaign was the most unevenly balanced of the war, and is known as Confederate General Robert E. Lee's "perfect battle" for his victory against a Union army better supplied, better rested and twice their size (60,892 against Maj. Gen Joseph Hooker's army of 133,868). Although the result was a victory for Lee's Army of Northern Virginia he lost some 22% of his force in the campaign, and just as seriously, he lost his most aggressive field commander, Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, to friendly fire, a loss that Lee likened to "losing my right arm." In reaction to the Union defeat President Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying, "My God! My God! What will the country say?" Although Stephen Crane was born six years after the end of the Civil War he surprised critics with his realistic portrayal of the battlefield in Red Badge of Courage, and it is widely believed that he based the battle on that of Chancellorsville, possibly taking inspiration from war stories told by members of the 124th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment (the Orange Blossoms), who first saw battle at Chancellorsville, in the town square of Port Jervis, New York where he resided. An overnight success at the age of 24, Crane died in 1900 following a severe hemorrhage of the lungs, aged just 28.

Red Badge of Courage was adapted into a 1951 film by director John Huston. Huston felt the film was his best to date but MGM were troubled by poor audience test results and what they felt was an anti-war tone to the film, and cut 19 minutes from the film. The Battle of Chancellorsville was also depicted in the 2003 film Gods and Generals, based on the novel of the same name. In the novel of Red Badge of Courage though, there are no references to the time and place of the action, and in a sense they are not important, as the novel is a study of the psychological fear felt by the soldier. In fact, because it follows a battle from one soldier's pespective it is (intentionally so) hard to follow what is happening on the larger scale, or even who is winning the battle (at times the private can barely see beyond ten feet for all the smoke on the battlefield), and it's to its credit that it effectively places the reader in the thick of the battle. At the time Red Badge of Courage was praised as a modern work and it still holds up as one of the most vivid fictional accounts of war on the front-line written.

Next: North Carolina...

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Week 13: State - Virginia

Virginia (named perhaps for the "Virgin Queen" Elizabeth I) is internationally reknowned as the site of the first English colony in the United States, Jamestown, founded in 1607 following a previous 1584 expedition by Water Raleigh to the "New World". One of those first settlers was John Smith, who in December of 1607 was captured by a Powhatan hunting party and, somewhat disputably, later claimed he was spared from execution due to the intervention of the chief's daughter, Pocahontas. Pocahontas later became famous when she converted to Christianity and married the English settler John Rolfe with whom she travelled to London in the last year of her life. Jamestown was the capital of the colony for 83 years (from 1616 until 1699) but today exists only as an archaeological site. Williamsburg became the colonial capital in 1699, but during the American Revolutionary War the capital was moved to Richmond at the urging of Governor Thomas Jefferson (due to Williamsburg's vulnerable location). Virginia was also the site of the Siege of Yorktown, the last major battle of the American Revolutionary War, in 1781. Virginia is nicknamed the "Old Dominion" (due to its historic title "Dominion" given by Charles II in remaining loyal to the Crown during the English Civil War) and sometimes the "Mother of Presidents" after the eight U.S. presidents born there (including four of the first five - George Washington (who also commanded Virginia's forces in the French and Indian Wars and the American Revolutionary War), Thomas Jefferson (who also founded the University of Virginia, a world heritage site, and designed The Virginia State Capitol, home to the Virginia General Assembly), James Madison, and James Monroe). African workers were first imported in 1619, and by 1860, almost half a million people, roughly 31% of the total population of Virginia, were enslaved, a division which contributed to the start of the American Civil War. During the war Virginia joined the Confederate States of America, while 48 counties in the northwest separated to form the new state of West Virginia, which remained loyal to the Union. General Robert E. Lee, born in the state, was the commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, and during the war more battles were fought in Virginia than anywhere else. Today the largest ancestry group in Virginia is African (19.6%), mostly descendants of enslaved Africans who worked on plantations, and in the 20th century Virginia played a key role in the civil rights movement, most notably in 1951 when Barbara Rose Johns, an African American rights activist, campaigned at the age of 16 for integration at her school in Farmville. In 1989 Douglas Wilder became the first African American elected as governor in the United States. Virginia has the highest concentration of technology workers of any state, and computer chips became the state's highest-grossing export in 2006. The Department of Defense is headquartered in Arlington at The Pentagon, the world's largest office building, and Virginia has the highest defense spending of any state per capita, providing the state with around 900,000 jobs.

Several films about Pocahontas have been made, including Walt Disney's 1995 animated feature, and Terrence Malick's 2005 The New World, both of which presented a fictional love affair between Pocahontas and John Smith. Three versions of John Fox Jr's novel The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, set in the Appalachian Mountains at the turn of the 20th century, have been filmed (the most recent in 1936), whilst numerous films set during the American Civil War have featured Virginia due to its prominent role in the war, including the 1965 James Stewart film Shenandoah and more recently Gods and Generals, which depicts the battles of First Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. The Battle of Chancellorsville (1863) was also the basis for my choice of book for Virginia: Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, first published in 1895.

This may be considered cheating, as the setting of Red Badge of Courage is never revealed (the book is a psychological examination of a single soldier during his first combat experiences in the Civil War), but historians have generally agreed that the battle depicted is that of Chancellorsville, and Crane also wrote a follow-up short story featuring the same protagonist who apparently explicitly states the setting of the novel. Plus I've fallen behind schedule and need something short to read!

Review to follow this week...

Monday, 30 May 2011

West Virginia and The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb (1953)

Harry Powell, the widow-killing antagonist of Davis Grubb's West Virginia-set Night of the Hunter, was based on the real-life serial-killer Harry F. Powers who operated from his small home, Quiet Dell, near a West Virginia hamlet where he lived with his wife Luella, posing as a "wealthy widower" in lonely-hearts columns. In 1931 it would become known in the media as the "murder farm" when the bodies of Asta Eicher, 50, a Chicago widow and her three children (Greta, 14; Harry, 12, and Anabel, 9) were unearthed in the grounds of Power's garden and garage during the investigation into their disappearance. Eicher, who struggled to raise her three children, had responded to an "American Friendship" ad which read "Wealthy widower worth $150,000. Has income from $400 to $2,000 a month." After the family went missing a series of love letters led the police to Powers home where the bodies of the mother and children had been buried in shallow graves. The body of another woman was discovered in the garage, Dorothy Lemke, a 50 year old divorcée from Northboro, Mass who had gone missing around the same time. Although Powers only ever confessed to the five murders, there was a strong suspicion that he killed before, and a search of his home yielded a trunk-load of correspondence from more than 100 love-starved widows and spinsters from all over the country suggesting that he had been operating as a love racketeer for more than a decade. In 1932 Powers was convicted of his crimes and sentenced to death by hanging. There are numerous similarities with Harry Powell of Night of the Hunter, most obviously his name, that he operates in West Virginia, and that he preys on lonely widows, but Davis Grubb's protanist is not solely motivated by money. Instead he is compelled by what he believes to be the word of God to take the lives of sinners, specifically lustful widows (the money is further motivation). In this aspect the character is firmly routed in the Southern Gothic tradition in its use of irony to examine the character of the rural South. Powell - who has love and hate tattooed on the knuckles of his hands - claims to be an agent of love but is in fact the complete opposite.

The book also includes some wonderful descriptions of the Ohio Valley, where the majority of the book takes place:

"In the Ohio Valley it is the river that gives and takes the seasons. It is as if that mighty stream were the vast, alluvial artery of the land itself so that when the towns grow weary of snows and harsh fogs the great heart pumps green spring blood down the valley and the banks are warmed and nourished by it and soon the whole environing earth blossoms despite itself and the air comes alive and lambs caper and bleat upon the hillside paths. And so now it was the prime of spring in the bottomlands. Soon the redbone hound would kelt in the creek hollows on nights when the moon was a curl of golden hair against the shoulder of the Ohio hills. Soon the shantyboat people would join their fiddle and mouth-harp racket to the chorus of green frogs down under the mists in the moonlit willows."

I took great relish in reading this book. Despite its pulpy subject matter it's very well written, it moves at a lightning pace, with some truly nail-biting sequences in which the serial-killer pursues the children in an unrelenting almost Terminator-like manner down the Ohio River, and the character of Harry Powell is a wonderfully horrific creation. I re-watched the 1955 Charles Laughton-directed Robert Mitchum film adaptation after finishing the book (I've not seen it in ten years). It still holds up as a great, truely unique film in its appliance of an expressionist style to a rural setting, and although the book doesn't have the surrealism of Charles Laughton's vision it's a shame that it has been overshadowed by the growing reputation of the film over the years. Most of the films dialouge is lifted straight from the page, and it's to Grubb's credit that he created such a believable monster.

Next: Virginia

Monday, 23 May 2011

Week 12: State - West Virginia

West Virginia, originally part of the state of Virginia, became in 1863 the only state in the Union to secede from a Confederate state during the American Civil War, following sharp division over the issue of secession from the Union (its original Native American name of Kanawha was subsequently changed to West Virginia). Following its founding it became known as The Mountain State for being the only state to lie entirely with the Appalachia Mountain range (also explaining its motto - Montani Semper Liberi, "Mountaineers are always free."), a factor which has profoundly affected its economy (West Virginia is second only to Wyoming in coal-production in the United States) and the lifestyles of its residents. John Denver's song "Take Me Home, Country Roads" describes the experience of driving through the West Virginian countryside, and many locals refer to their home state as Almost Heaven, in reference to the opening line of the song. West Virginia is the least populous south-eastern state, and only 1.1% of the state's residents are foreign-born (the lowest in the country). The largest city and state capital is Charleston.

Films set in West Virginia include The Mothman Prophecies as well as the 1975 non-fiction book which formed the basis for the film (both focusing on Point Pleasant in Mason County), Wrong Turn (set in the forests of West Virginia), and the 1955 Robert Mitchum thriller The Night of the Hunter, which just so happens to also be the book I've selected for this state.

After struggling through Anne Tyler in Maryland I knew I had to pick something I would enjoy this time, and I know I can't go wrong with this one. Although the film, now considered a classic, was a critical and box office failure on its initial release, the book by Davis Grubb, first published in 1953, was a bestseller and National Book Award finalist, and is now well regarded as a classic of the Southern Gothic genre.

Review to follow this week...

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Week 11: State - Maryland (and Washington D.C.)

Maryland, the first state south of the Mason-Dixon line on this trip, was in 1790 chosen as the location of the nations new capital when George Washington, the first President of the United States, selected land to be ceded to the District of Columbia for the creation of the Federal Capital, renamed Washington, D.C. the following year in his honour. Although the District is not part of any U.S. state and is instead directly overseen by the federal government, it currently sits solely on land ceded by Maryland as the land also provided by Virginia was retro-ceded back to the state in 1846. Located within the district are The White House, the centres of all three branches of the U.S. federal government, the J. Edgar Hoover Building (headquarters of the FBI), many national museums and war memorials, the Lincoln Memorial and Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the historic Ford's Theatre (site of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln), the Washington Monument, and the the National Archives which houses the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Washington, D.C. also hosts 174 foreign embassies as well as the headquarters of the World Bank.

Outside of the cities and suburbs surrounding Washington, DC, the majority of the population of Maryland is located in and around Maryland's most populous city, Baltimore, the largest independent city in the United States (in not being part of any county). Baltimore is also the largest U.S. seaport in the Mid-Atlantic and was once the second leading port of entry for immigrants to the United States. During the War of 1812, the British military attempted to capture the port, which was protected by Fort McHenry, and it was during this bombardment that Francis Scott Key, a Maryland lawyer aboard a British ship where he had been negotiating for the release of an American prisoner, witnessed the bombardment and later wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner", a poem recounting the attack, which was later set to music and became the official National Anthem of the United States in 1931. The state as a whole has a booming economy led by the computer industry and scores of federal government jobs in and around the Washington area. As a result Maryland households are currently the wealthiest in the country, with a 2009 median household income of $69,272 (ahead of New Jersey and Connecticut), and the poverty rate is the lowest in the country. Maryland is known alternately as Little America, due to the diverse variety of its topography (despite the absence of any natural lakes), The Old Line State, or The Free State. The capital is Annapolis.

Notable films set in and around Washington, D.C. include, aside from all the numerous depictions of historical and fictional U.S. Presidents, All the President's Men (based on the Woodward and Bernstein reporting of the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post), The Exorcist (set in Georgetown), Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Minority Report, as well as the T.V. Shows The West Wing, and The X-Files. In rural Maryland The Blair Witch Project is set in and around the town of Burkittsville, whilst films set in Baltimore include 12 Monkeys and The Accidental Tourist. Baltimore native Barry Levinson has set a series of films in Baltimore (Diner, Tin Men, Avalon and Liberty Heights), as has fellow resident John Waters who parodies the city extensively in his films (Pink Flamingos, Hairspray). The acclaimed crime dramas Homicide: Life On the Street and The Wire are also both set in Baltimore. Contemporary writers based in Baltimore include Anne Tyler, author of The Accidental Tourist, and Tom Clancy (the film adaptation of his novel The Sum of All Fears features the destruction of Baltimore by a nuclear bomb). For my choice of novel at first I was tempted to cheat and go with The Exorcist, which is set in Georgetown in Washington, but having felt that I've read too many books lately which have been turned into films I've already seen I've decided to go with one by Anne Tyler.

A Patchwork Planet was first published in 1998 and like many of Anne Tyler's novels is set in Baltimore. I've read the book over the last week and as I've fallen behind schedule I won't be posting a separate review. It's not the kind of book I would normally read and I found her writing a little too whimsical for my tastes, though I understand this is part of the appeal to her fan base and A Patchwork Planet has been largely praised elsewhere. It's also the first book on this trip where I've felt the setting hasn't played a large role as a character in the story. The plot focuses on a divorced 30-year-old former juvenile from Baltimore who has proved to be a disappointment to his affluent family from Guilford by not amounting to anything more than his dead-end career as a handyman for the elderly. Guilford is a distinctive residential neighbourhood in the northern part of Baltimore comprising of 680 family dwellings ranging from modest homes to stately mansions, many with swimming pools, extensive landscaping and old-fashioned streetlights. There are also a number of scenes set in Penn Station, the main train station in Baltimore (built 1911) and the eighth busiest rail station in the United States.

Next: West Virginia

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Delaware and Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (1996)

Wilmington, the largest city in the state of Delaware, and the setting for Chuck Palahniuk's 1996 novel Fight Club, has a longstanding reputation as an attractive hub to businesses and corporations due to its efficient judicial system and pro-business finance laws, including laws protecting Delaware chartered corporations from hostile takeovers and The Financial Center Development Act of 1981 which removed the cap on interest rates that banks may legally charge customers. As a result Wilmington has become a national financial center for the credit card industry. Many major credit card issuers, including Bank of America, Chase Card Services, and Barclays Bank of Delaware are headquartered in Wilmington, as are the American operations of the United Kingdom's HSBC. All this goes some way to explaining why Chuck Palahniuk had Wilmington in mind when he wrote Fight Club, with its anti-consumer culture themes and scenes of organised "mischief" directed against large corporations. Although the book never explicitly states where it is set, there are clues peppered throughout, though much more prominently so in the 1999 David Fincher film adaptation (the narrator's business card includes the suburban Wilmington zip code 19808 and the Delaware area code 302, his apartment building Pierson Towers has as its motto "A Place to Be Somebody" - the city motto for Wilmington, Delaware state flags, Delaware license plates, and the other cities mentioned as starting up new fight clubs include New Castle, Delaware City, and Penns Grove, NJ, which are all very close to Wilmington).

I enjoyed Fight Club as a fast-paced, blackly-comic entertaining read. The film, which I have seen on numerous ocassions, is incredibly faithful to the source material (whole sections of dialogue are lifted from the page), albeit more streamlined and linear, and at times the book even reads like a treatment for the film, with its concise prose effectively satirising the bite-size slogans of large corporations. Despite all this though I don't feel the book is as significant as the film which, released in 1999, came at a point when independent cinema in American had grown stagnant with lazy Tarantino imitations and helped, along with a number of other independent films released the same year (most notably Being John Malkovich), breathe new life into American cinema. Although the film was not a success on its original cinema run (due to a studio who didn't know how to market it), its reputation on DVD grew to the cult classic it now stands as. Chuck Palahniuk is a thoughtful and witty writer but it is debatable whether he would have achieved the subsequent success he has were it not for the boost the film gave him (all susequent attempts to adapt his work for the screen have stalled at the development stage, with the exception of the box office failure Choke).

Next: Maryland

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Week 10: State - Delaware

Delaware, known as The First State for being on December 7, 1787 the first state to ratify the Constitution of the United States, is the second smallest of the fifty states (and the 45th most populous), ahead only of Rhode Island in size. Today Delaware is primarily known as the most corporate business-friendly state in the country. Its Court of Chancery (one of the few remaining in the nation, which has jurisdiction over equity cases and corporate disputes) and the Delaware General Corporation Law have formed a worldwide reputation for granting broad discretion to corporate boards of directors and giving great flexibility to corporations to manage their affairs. For these reasons, a great number of companies are incorporated in Delaware (over 50% of US publicly traded corporations and 60% of the Fortune 500 companies), including 60% of the companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Aside from its beaches and tax-free shopping Delaware does not thrive on tourism (the Visit Delaware website boasts "Delaware, We're not far from where you are!"), and in addition to being the only state without a commercial air service, it has no places designated as national parks, national seashores, national battlefields, national memorials, or national monuments. There are also no network broadcast-television stations operating solely in Delaware. Wilmington is the state's largest city and its economic hub, and the state capital is Dover.

I was worried early on that there were no good books set in Delaware. In fact in terms of films set in the state I have yet to find any I have heard of either: Trigger Man (2007) or Wrestling (2008) anyone? I consulted some other forums undergoing similar endeavors and most of them had skipped the state altogether. Not wanting to be beaten so easily I did a little bit more research and eventually found a book that, although it never states directly where it is set, I have on good authority is set in the city of Wilmington.

Fight Club was published in 1996 and was Chuck Palahniuk's first novel. It was later turned into a 1999 film by David Fincher, and to prove it's set in Delaware here's a direct quote from Fincher's DVD audio commentary:

00:25:35: "The book takes place in Wilmington, Delaware, because that’s like a headquarters for a lot of credit card companies. We wanted to make the film take place in Wilmington, Delaware, but there’s some kind of clearance issues if it’s a specific town then you have to get clearances for specific names, streets, you know, apartment buildings."

Review to follow this week...

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Pennsylvania and Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960)

Pennsylvania’s John Updike, as with New Hampshire’s Grace Metalious and Peyton Place, is another writer who has taken the places and people that he grew up surrounded by and has moulded them into a work of fiction. Thus, in 'Rabbit, Run' Reading in south-eastern Pennsylvania where Updike was born - the fifth most populous city in the state - becomes Brewer, and the borough of Mt. Penn becomes Mt. Judge, as does the nearby mountain peak after which it is named. The most famous landmark of Mt. Penn is the Pagoda Hotel, renamed in Updike’s fictional world as the Pinnacle Hotel, a Japanese-style novelty building built in 1908 which somehow managed to withstand anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II and now stands as a symbol of the city of Reading.

Updike described Reading as “a grand place—thriving downtown, factories pouring out smoke and textiles and steel and pretzels and beer. It was a town that made things. It was a muscular, semi-tough kind of place.” And likewise ‘Rabbit, Run’ is a tough, unsentimental book that I enjoyed much more so than The Witches of Eastwick (see Rhode Island). The story deals with 26-year old former high-school athletics star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom who walks out on his dead-end job, his alcoholic pregnant wife and young son, and takes up with a prostitute. Updike makes no attempt to glamorise his protagonist or portray him as a Holden Caulfield-esque anti-hero, and the book was written as a response to On The Road in portraying the hurt that is brought to those around you if you try to walk away from your life. Updike is a writer who likes to beautify or poeticise the mundane, and whereas writers dealing with similar themes such as Fante or Bukowski could be seen as the anti-Updike, in that the simplicity of their prose (which I personally love) reflects the normalcy of the situations, Updike writes in a much weightier prose, which can be tortuous at times but is aided by the fluidness of the present tense - one of several well regarded, early usages of the style. Updike returned to the character of Rabbit in the sequels Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), Rabbit at Rest (1990), and Rabbit Remembered (2001). The book was also adapted into a little seen 1970 film starring James Caan as Rabbit and was also the key inspiration for the 2002 Eminem film 8 Mile (the screenplay opens with a quote from the film "If you have the guts to be yourself...other people'll pay your price," the main protagonist is nicknamed “Rabbit”, the film opens with the character moving in with his alcoholic mother after having dumped his pregnant girlfriend, and the last song on the soundtrack is called “Rabbit Run”).

Next: Delaware

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Week 9: State - Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania, arguably the most historically important state in the founding of the United States, is known as the Keystone State, due both to its central location among the original Thirteen Colonies, and also because of the number of important American documents signed in the state (including the Declaration of Independence). Philadelphia even served as the temporary capital of the United States from 1790–1800 while the Federal City was under construction in the District of Columbia. Pennsylvania also played a large role in the American Civil War, and the Battle of Gettysburg, fought in and around the town of Gettysburg from July 1–3, 1863, was the battle with the largest number of casualties in the war, and is often described as the war's turning point. The largest city in the state is Philadelphia (1.5 million people as of 2010), the City of Brotherly Love, and the fifth most populous city in the United States. Philadelphia was the site of the first medical school in the country (founded 1765 at the college of Philadelphia), the first nationally chartered bank (the Bank of North America, founded 1781), the first art school and museum (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts founded 1805), and the first zoo in the United States (opened 1874). Today Philadelphia has more public art than any other American city, and has played a prominent role in popular music, hosting the American end of the 1985 Live Aid concert at John F. Kennedy Stadium and the 2005 Live 8 concert at Ben Franklin Parkway, named, as with the Ben Franklin Bridge, after Philadelphia's most famous resident, who ran away to the city at the age of 17. Pennsylvania is also the snack food capital of the world. It leads all other states in the manufacture of pretzels and potato chips, and the U.S. chocolate industry is centered in the town of Hershey which, orginally named Derry Church, was renamed Hershey in 1906 after the growing popularity of Hershey's Chocolate. The second largest city is Pittsburgh, known as "The Steel City" for its history as a steel manufacturing base, and the capital is Harrisburg.

Of films set in the state those set in Philadelphia include (obviously!) Philadelphia and The Philadelphia Story, as well as Rocky and all its sequels (its most famous sequence being when Stallone runs up the long flight of steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of the largest art museums in the United States). Adventureland and Flashdance are both set in Pittsburgh while George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and its many sequels are all set in and around the city. Outside of the main cities The Deer Hunter is set in Clairton, Allegheny County, Groundhog Day is set in Punxsutawney during its now famous Febuary 2nd holiday of the same name, while the US version of the popular television comedy The Office is set in the real town of Scranton. Pennsylvania is also the birthplace of author John Updike who I have already come across once on this trip in Rhode Island when I dismissed his The Witches of Eastwick as the book I have enjoyed the least so far. However, I have decided to return for a second go at this writer with his breakthrough 1960 novel Rabbit, Run.

Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom is Updike's most famous creation, featuring in four novels and one novella, all of which take place in the fictional city of Brewer, Pennsylvania - a city which shares many characteristics with Reading where Updike was born and raised. The quote on the back from the Observer states "It is sexy, in bad taste, violent and basically cynical". Sounds great.

Review to follow this/next week...

New Jersey and American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997)

American Pastoral is the posthumous narrative of the life of fictional former high-school sports star Seymour "The Swede" Levov, born and raised in the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark where Philip Roth himself grew up (the novel is narrated by Roth's alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman). While Weequahic was a largely middle class Jewish neighborhood prior to the 1960s (when Roth would have been living there) the demographic makeup of the area, as was the case with the rest of Newark, was altered radically following the 1967 Newark riots, an event that provides a dramatic backdrop to the unfolding story as Seymour Levov stands his ground against the riot that is tearing his own family apart. The 1967 Newark riots were a major civil disturbance that occurred between July 12 and July 17, 1967 when a large number of African-Americans, feeling largely disenfranchised, powerless and subject to police brutality, took to the streets after a rumour spread that John H. Smith, a black cabdriver, had been killed in police custody following his arrest for improperly passing a police car. The six days of rioting, looting, and destruction left 26 dead, 725 injured and led to close to 1,500 arrests. Property damage exceeded $10 million. Although in American Pastoral Seymour Levov, who has taken over his father's glove factory "Newark Maid", bravely refuses to flee during the riots, he, like many other industries based in the city, eventually moves his factories out of the city. The 1967 riots resulted in a significant population loss of both white and black middle classes and the city lost over 100,000 residents between 1960 and 1990. Poverty remains a consistent problem in Newark, despite its revitalization in recent years.

American Pastoral is a speculative study of a life, as imagined by Nathan Zuckerman, and whilst the plot sounds like prime political thriller material along similar lines to the 1999 film Arlington Road - the teenage daughter of a perfect middle-class suburban family becomes a wanted terrorist in hiding - the plot is merely a thin clothesline on which Roth hangs his lengthy meditations on the many changes that American life underwent during the 1960s and 1970s. So along the way we get extended meticulous digressions on everything from the glove-making industry to cattle-breeding and beauty pageants and more besides. It can be a trying read if you‘re one for plot-driven fiction and it is no surprise that with few possible exceptions Roth has never been truly successfully adapted for the screen - as this is his style. Roth is a highly astute writer in both his very precise prose and big ideas but I would never recommend him as a gripping read.

Next: Pennsylvania

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Week 8: State - New Jersey

New Jersey, known famously as The Garden State, is the second Mid-Atlantic state on this trip. The 4th smallest state it lies entirely within the metropolitan areas of New York City and Philadelphia making it the most densely populated state in the United States (8.7 million people). It is also the second wealthiest behind Connecticut in terms of median income and has the highest percentage of millionaire households, although the largest city in the state, Newark, is the fourth poorest city in America and poverty has been a long standing issue in the industrial cities of the north (the more affluent communities are all in the suburbs of New York and Philadelphia). New Jersey is home to more scientists and engineers per square mile than anywhere else in the world, and is the resting place of Thomas Edison who built his first industrial research laboratory in Menlo Park in the town of Raritan, which changed its name to Edison in 1951 in his honor. Edison also did most of his work in developing motion picture technology at his laboratory in the town of West Orange where he constructed the Black Maria - the first motion picture studio in 1893. New Jersey is also the home state of Frank Sinatra, who was born in Hoboken, and Bruce Springsteen, who hails from Freehold and has sung of New Jersey life throughout his career. Historically New Jersey was the site of the first Miss America Pageant (1921 in Atlantic City), the first drive-in movie theatre (1933 in Camden), and in 1937 witnessed the destruction of the LZ 129 Hindenburg passenger airship when it caught fire in attempting to dock at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station. The George Washington Bridge connecting Fort Lee, New Jersey to New York City is the world's busiest bridge in terms of vehicular traffic, and the New Jersey Turnpike, which features heavily in the opening titles of The Sopranos, is the best known toll road in the country. The capital is Trenton.

Films set in New Jersey include most of the output of Kevin Smith (his first three films, Clerks., Mallrats and Chasing Amy, were dubbed the "New Jersey Trilogy"), Garden State, The Wrestler (Elizabeth, Union County), and Be Kind Rewind (Passaic, Passaic County). Several television series have also been set in the state, most notably the HBO series The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, the latter set in prohibition-era Atlantic City, home to the longest boardwalk in the world. The most celebrated New Jersey novelist would have to be Philip Roth, who has set the majority of his books in the state, many semi-autobiographical and examining middle-class Jewish American life in and around the city of Newark where he was born in 1933 and raised. To date I have read only one novel by Philip Roth - Portnoy's Complaint (1969) - the novel that made his name, so in this instance I have gone with the book that won him the Pulitzer Prize, American Pastoral.

American Pastoral, first published in 1997, is part of the Zuckerman (Roth's alter-ego) series of novels and focuses on the life of Newark athletics star Swede Levov and the tragedy that befalls him when his teenage daughter transforms into a domestic terrorist. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam war during the late 1960s it takes place mostly within the city of Newark and the ficticious town of Old Rimrock, New Jersey.

Review to follow this/next week:

Thursday, 14 April 2011

New York and Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote (1958)

Holly Golightly, the main focus of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's, lives in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the most affluent area of New York City in "a brownstone in the East Seventies" (a brownstone being a terraced apartment building built in brown sandstone) around the corner from a bar on Lexington Avenue, one of the north-south streets that runs through the centre of the Upper East Side from 21st Street to 131st Street. Holly does not have a job and when we meet her she lives alone, but she pays her rent through keeping an array of various rich male suitors, one of whom pays her $100 a week simply to visit him in prison. Holly Golightly is a compound of several genre-types long associated in film and literature with the big city and New York especially – the boy/girl of humble origins seeking fame/fortune or a new life in the big city (The Jazz Singer, Funny Girl, Midnight Cowboy), the socialite (The Flapper, Dinner at Eight, Dark Victory), and the gold-digger (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, Bonfire of the Vanities). With its awe-inspiring skyscrapers, iconic landmarks, and with its historic status as a gateway to the country for immigrants, New York City has long been seen as a beacon to those seeking the American dream. Capote's own mother left the husband she married as a teenager and abandoned relatives to move to New York City seeking a wealthier life (and husband) when he was just a child.

I have already made no secret of the fact that I am not a fan of the 1961 film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The main problem I have with it is that the story pivots around this central character of Holly Golightly who is portrayed by Audrey Hepburn as adorably charming - deeply naïve, but at no great harm to herself or others. She is an extroverted girl of extravagant wants who at the end of the picture realises all she really needs is the love of a good man. In other words it's a Hollywood fairytale romance. The Holly Golightly of Capote’s novella is an infinitely more complex character who is by turns a prostitute in all but name (she casually boasts, whether honestly or falsely is never made explicit, of the numerous rich men she beds as an escort), a kleptomaniac, staggeringly materialistic, and at best (in her defence) someone who may have undiagnosed mental health problems. She even tells a cat to “f*ck off” – I don’t remember Audrey Hepburn doing that! In the end if there is one thing that everyone agrees on, it’s not that she needs love, she needs psychiatric help, or at least protecting from herself. And yet somehow she still manages to make even our level-headed narrator fall for her (although no romantic relationship blossoms between the two as it does in the film). Capote's character feels much more believable - everyone knows or has met a Holly Golightly - and Capote was himself unhappy with the many changes to the film adaptation and stated that Paramount had double-crossed him in every way. It’s a shame, because it’s a great book, and one that can be read in a few hours at that. So why bother watching the film?

Next: New Jersey

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Week 7: State - New York

To summarise the state of New York without stating the obvious is no easy task, and so it goes without saying that New York State is of course synonymous with New York City, the most populous city in the United States (over 8 million people), home to the largest central business district in the United States (Midtown Manhattan), the largest stock exchange in the world (The New York Stock Exchange), the most visited tourist attraction in the United States (Time Square), and more high-rise buildings and skyscrapers than any other city in the country (and second in the world behind Hong Kong), including most famously the Empire State Building. Between 1892 and 1954 more than 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island, the main entrypoint to the country, just north of Liberty Island where the Statue of Liberty stands (a gift from France to mark the Centennial of the American Declaration of Independence), and today New York is home to the largest African American population and the second largest Asian American population in the United States. Most recently the city was the main site of the September 11, 2001 attacks, when nearly 3,000 people died in the destruction of the World Trade Center. The state itself is the nation's third most populous state with over 19 million people, though in contrast with New York City the vast majority of the state is dominated by a rural landscape, with the first state park in the United States established at Niagara Falls in 1885. New York State is known as The Empire State, and the state capital is Albany.

There have been more films set in New York than possibly any other city in the United States (at least outside of California), and as result there are far too many to list here, but to break it down by area we've seen films set in The Bronx (Marty, A Bronx Tale, Summer of Sam), Brooklyn (Saturday Night Fever, Do The Right Thing, Dog Day Afternoon), Manhattan (Wall Street, The Apartment, Manhattan, Taxi Driver, West Side Story, Gangs of New York), Queens (Coming to America, Spider-Man), and outside of the city Long Island (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Amityville Horror) and Buffalo (Buffalo '66, Bruce Almighty) amongst many others. The majority of the films of Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Spike Lee and the late Sidney Lumet have been set in the city of New York. The sitcom Friends, which followed a group of six Manhattan-ites, was one of the most popular TV shows of the 1990s.

Books set in New York not eligible as I've already read them include The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and American Psycho by Bret Eaton Ellis. Other famous books set in New York include The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, The Godfather by Mario Puzo, and The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe amongst many others I don't have the space to list. But once again, rather predictably, I've gone for the shortest option.

Yes I am aware that Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote is technically a novella, but I never ruled out inclusion of this shorter form of fiction. First published in 1958 and set in the early 1940s in Manhattan’s upper east side, the book was famously adapted into a 1961 film adaptation starring Audrey Hepburn, which updates the setting to the present. I only watched the film for the first time last year and found it to be horribly dated, especially in Mickey Rooney’s painfully racist portrayal of Holly Golightly’s Japanese landlord Mr Yunioshi. I’m hoping the book will have more of a timeless quality to it.

Review to follow this week...

Monday, 11 April 2011

New England - A Summary

Okay, first leg of the trip complete and only a couple days behind schedule. Here's a summary of what I've read so far:

Week 1

The State: Maine

The Book: Carrie by Stephen King (1974)

Week 2

The State: New Hampshire

The Book: Peyton Place by Grace Metalious (1956)

Week 3

The State: Vermont

The Book: All That I Have by Castle Freeman (2009)

Week 4

The State: Massachusetts

The Book: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

Week 5

The State: Rhode Island

The Book: The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike (1984)

Week 6

The State: Connecticut

The Book: The Ice Storm by Rick Moody (1994)

I should also point out that all but one of the above books I managed to find in my local library, so hurrah for libraries (especially Hornsey library)!

So far we've had more adulterous affairs than I care to count, numerous illegitimate children, and the Devil tormenting everyone from Carrie White to Hester Prynne. Hmm, maybe these are just the kind of books I'm more inclined to read rather than a reflection on the region. But anyway, after that WASP overload I'm looking forward to moving swiftly on to New York and civilisation (just kidding any New Englanders!).