Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Week 5: State - Rhode Island

Rhode Island, or to give it its full title “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” (the longest name of any state), is famously the smallest of all 50 states (but the second highest in population density). Founded in the 17th century by, amongst others, Roger Williams, a theologian who was forced out of the strongly Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony for advocating freedom of religion, separation of church and state, abolition of slavery, and equal treatment to Native Americans, the colony was established on the principles of religious and political tolerance. Over the last century Rhode Island has become one of the most reliable democrat states in the country, having only voted Republican in the Presidential Elections seven times in the last ninety-six years. Rhode Island is known as the Ocean State (in reference to its large bays and inlets) and the capital and largest city is Providence.

In popular culture Rhode Island is best known today as the setting of the animation series Family Guy (set in the fictional town of Quahog) and most of the films by the Farrelly Brothers (who are native to the state), from their debut Dumb and Dumber (which opens in Providence before moving to Aspen, Colorado), though Me, Myself & Irene, to their most recent Hall Pass. The 1956 musical High Society was set around a wedding in Newport, which was also where John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier married three years earlier. However, there have not been a great deal of notable novels set in the state, so picking one was not a difficult task:

John Updike is the first writer chosen on this section of the trip not have been born in the New England region. Updike was born in Pennsylvania but moved to Massachusetts in his late twenties, where he continued to live until his death in 2009 at the age of 76. Updike set numerous novels in the region, most famously Couples, set in the fictional town of Tarbox (which many asserted was based on the town of Ipswich, MA where he lived). Aside from its lesser regarded sequel (The Widows of Eastwick) The Witches of Eastwick was his only novel set in Rhode Island. The reviews on amazon seem to be greatly divided between fans of Updike (4 and 5 stars) and those who have come to the book as fans of the film (1 and 2 stars). I fall into neither category this being my first Updike. I remember seeing the film a long time ago and thinking it a mildly entertaining vehicle for Jack Nicholson’s eyebrows so if anything the prospect that I’m in for something very different is not such a bad thing.

Review to follow this/next week…

Monday, 28 March 2011

Massachusetts and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

The Scarlet Letter tells the story of Hester Prynne, who is punished for conceiving through an adulterous affair, and is set during the years 1642 to 1649 in a Puritan village near Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, an English settlement established in 1628 which included much of present-day central New England. The Puritans were a group of English Protestants who felt that the Church of England post-Reformation was still too tolerant towards practises associated with the Catholic Church, around 21,000 of whom migrated to New England between 1630 and 1640 and supported the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans dominated the governance of the colony and the laws of the land were strongly influenced by the religious leaders. The punishment for adultery in Puritan Boston was death by hanging, and Hawthorne makes a point of explaining in the opening chapters that the enforced wearing of a scarlet A for “adultery” (an invention of Hawthorne’s rather than a real punishment) would have been seen as a lenient sentence for the time. While The Scarlet Letter is a work of fiction, it features several real historical figures as characters, including Ann Hibbins, who was executed for witchcraft in 1656, and Richard Bellingham, who was the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony when the story opens in 1642 and with whom Hester pleads with not have her daughter taken away from her.

The Scarlet Letter has been adapted for the screen on numerous occasions, so it was a surprise on reading it for the first time that, unlike nearly every film version, the novel does not describe the adulterous affair itself in any detail. The story actually opens after Hester Prynne has been marked with the red letter “A” and follows her and the unnamed father of her child, who is revealed to the reader as the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, living with their guilt and remorse (openly and secretly respectively) over the following seven years. It’s a deeply philosophical and psychological novel that reminded me at points of Crime and Punishment in the manner in which it depicts a man whose inner turmoil with his guilt and the burden that it places on his soul manifests itself into a physical illness that threatens to take his life. Despite what I foolishly predicted The Scarlet Letter is a difficult read, and I would be hard-pushed to recommend it to anyone not interested in 19th century American literature. It’s easy to see why it is so revered as one of the great American novels, but it moves at a weighty pace and I don’t feel like I especially got much out of it by treating it as a quick read... So, moving swiftly on...

Next: Rhode Island

Friday, 18 March 2011

Week 4: State - Massachusetts

Massachusetts, 'The Bay State', is the most populous state in the New England region, two-thirds of whom reside in the metropolitan area of Boston, the fifth largest city in the United States (and one of the oldest). Massachusetts is one of the most historically and culturally significant states. It is home to the site of Plymouth Rock, traditionally seen as the landing point of the Mayflower pilgrims in 1620, Harvard University, the oldest institution of higher learning in the U.S. (founded in 1636), and was witness to both the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party, both iconic events in the lead up to the American Revolutionary War. Massachusetts was also the name of the Bee Gees first hit single. Not quite so historic perhaps.

Many works of fiction have been set in Massachusetts, mostly in the city of Boston. Films include The Departed, Good Will Hunting, The Social Network (Harvard University), and The Town (Charlestown, Boston). The successful television series Cheers, Ally McBeal and Boston Legal are all set in Boston. The most notable contemporary author writing out of Boston is Dennis Lehane, whose novels Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone and Shutter Island, all set in and around the city, have been turned into critically acclaimed feature films in the last ten years. Classic works of fiction set in the state include Little Women by Louisa May Alcott set in the town of Concord during and after the Civil War, The Bostonians by Henry James set in late 19th century aristocratic Boston, and Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible which dramatised the infamous 1692 Salem Witch Trials.

Any of those would have been legitimate choices, not having read any of them myself (bar the Crucible, which is a play anyway), but instead, perhaps foolishly, I have opted to go for a much older book, one of the first mass produced works of literature to be published in the United States:

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, first published in 1850 and set in Puritan Boston in the 1640s, has a reputation for being a difficult read, though I suspect this may be down to the young age at which American children are forced to read it in school and their unfamiliarity with the language. Having gone to school in England though, where every other book we are told to read is riddled with “thou hast thy” and characters who speaketh like thiseth, I’m hoping I won't have any real problems with it.

Review to follow next week...

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Vermont and All That I Have by Castle Freeman (2009)

All That I Have is a novel by Castle Freeman set in rural southern Vermont around the Green Mountain National Forest region of the state. Referred to as the 'granite backbone' of the state, the forest was established in 1932, as a result of uncontrolled over-logging, fire and flooding. The protagonist is Lucian Wing, a local county sheriff whose career path has been tied to his home state. Having chosen the Navy out of school over college but not having much care for ships (Vermont is New England’s only landlocked state) he wound up in port patrol dealing with drunks. That experience helped him get into the state police back in Vermont after a brief stint working in the forest for his uncle's logging business. After a year and a half of that he quit to become the local sheriff’s deputy, eventually taking over, unopposed in election, from the retiring sheriff himself. In the U.S. the role of the sheriff varies from state to state. In Vermont the elected sheriff is primarily an officer of the County Court, but in the absence of a local police force in rural towns law enforcement patrol is performed as well. As Lucian himself explains due to the costs of the sheriff’s department being paid for by the taxpayers this can lead to more bookkeeping work than actual policing when the town boards and treasurers want to "bite every dime you spend". All That I Have is about dealing with that unexciting side of sheriffing, which as Lucian describes it "is like being the bouncer at the Ladies' Aid Lunch: when things are going normally, they don't work you too hard".

I’d definitely recommend All That I Have to anyone looking for a fast-paced easy read. I don’t quite get the Cormac McCarthy comparisons, other than that they both have an economical style of prose. Freeman’s writing has a lighter semi-comic tone, halfway between the small-town quirkiness of the Coen Brothers' Fargo and the dry wisecracking of Philip Marlowe. The plot itself is pure detective-noir, albeit relocated to a rural setting – an item belonging to some rich mysterious foreigners goes missing and the chief culprit can’t be located. It’s entertaining stuff, and Freeman has a natural gift for dialogue and a Chandler-esque way with a simile.

Next: Massachusetts

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Week 3: State - Vermont

Vermont, the third state in New England on this trip, is the second least populous state in the United States, perhaps understandable given that 77% of the state is covered by forest. At 625,741 it's population is less than the city of Boston, and 400,000 less than Rhode Island, the smallest state in the country. The state capital is Montpelier and the largest and most populous city is Burlington which, with a population of only 42,417, is smaller than Salisbury in England. Nicknamed the 'Green Mountain State', after the mountain range that runs like a spine down most of the length of the state, Vermont has often featured high up in the list of states you are most likely to live the longest in, having been ranked number one as the healthiest state seven times between 2001 and 2008, and ranking second in the nation for safety in 2009 (even though Vermont has some of the most relaxed gun control laws in the country). Vermont was also the first state to abolish slavery and is the leading producer of maple syrup in the United States (two completely unrelated facts there).

Notable films set in Vermont include Dead Poets Society, What Lies Beneath, and the David Mamet film State and Main (set in the small town of Waterford, Caledonia County).

I started to suspect very early on in this endeavour that there were no classic novels set in Vermont to easily choose from. I've still yet to find any (and if you know of any it's too late now), so for the first time I've had to go with a relatively obscure writer, Castle Freeman.

Castle Freeman is a resident of Vermont who has written four novels to date, all of which have been set in his home state. I have gone with his most recent, All That I Have, published in 2009. Why? Well the reviews include comparisons to Cormac McCarthy, who I like very much, and a quote from the great singer-songwriter Nick Cave: "I loved this book". Good enough for me. Oh, and it's short. Really short.

Review to follow later this week.

Monday, 14 March 2011

New Hampshire and Peyton Place by Grace Metalious (1956)

Agh, one week in and I really bit off more than I could chew with Peyton Place. At nearly 500 pages long and with all the world news events going on in the last week it was a struggle to get through it in time, but I made it eventually, only 3 days behind schedule.

First published in 1956 Peyton Place takes place from 1937 to 1944 against the backdrop of the eponymous town of the title. While no such place exists in New Hampshire it is based on a number of real towns, most notably Gilmanton, Laconia and Alton, all located in Belknap County where Grace Metalious lived. The details of Peyton Place are typical of the region: all the characters are white and mostly Protestants or Congregationalists (a system of Protestant independent church governance established in New England in the 17th century), and like many towns of the region Peyton Place is built around its local industries, in this case the dominant one being lumber (Laconia was likewise built around lumber and grist mills). The richest man in town is Leslie Harrington the owner of the local lumber mill, and the poorest is Lucas Cross, a woodsman (an odd-job man for the lumber industry), who lives in a tar-paper shack on the outskirts of town.

What shocked America at the time of publication was not only that the morals of the characters who inhabit this typical small New England town, irrespective of their class, are no more stringent than those in the big cities, but the implication that these closeted, highly suspicious and self-righteous communities – where everyone knows everyone and rumours spread like wildfire (symbolised by an actual forest fire that burns outside of town towards the end of the second act) – actually drive people to sin rather than harbour them from it. So over the course of the novel the town plays witness to adultery, abortion, rape, incest, murder and more. Metalious’ fellow New Englanders were so offended by the unwanted reputation the success of the novel thrust upon them that they initially attempted to prevent her from being buried in the Gilmanton town cemetery upon her early death in 1964 at the age of 39 (they eventually relented).

Peyton Place was later adapted into both a successful 1957 feature film and a 1960s television series, both of which dramatically toned down the content of the novel, but it paved the way for every ‘skeletons in the closet’ depiction of small town life since, from Twin Peaks to Desperate Housewives, as well as every soap opera on television today. I enjoyed Peyton Place more than I thought I would. It’s by no means the best book ever written (even if it is one of the best selling), and it took a while to get used to the melodramatic soap-opera dialogue, but the characters are believably written (it has often been speculated exactly how autobiographical they were) and its attitude towards sex is surprisingly frank for the time in which it was published.

I still wish I had picked something shorter though.

Next: Vermont.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Week 2: State - New Hampshire

New Hampshire, the second state in New England on this trip, is renowned for being the first state to declare independence from Great Britain in January 1776, while its state motto "Live Free or Die" is famous throughout the United States and has lent itself to the names of two novels, three films and an episode of the Sopranos. Known as 'The Granite State' in reference to its geology, the White Mountains cover a quarter of the state, the highest summits of which are all named after former U.S. Presidents in order of serving (the tallest being Mount Washington). The population of New Hampshire is 1.3 million, the capital is Concord and the largest city is Manchester.

Notable films set in New Hampshire include On Golden Pond (Squam Lake), Our Town (based on the play by Thornton Wilder and inspired by the town of Peterborough, Hillsborough County where Wilder spent his summers), Jumanji (filmed in Keene, Cheshire County) and In the Mouth of Madness (inspired by the works of New England resident H. P. Lovecraft).

The quintessential New Hampshire author is John Irving who was born in 1942 in Exeter, Rockingham County (also the birthplace of New Hampshire's most famous living writer Dan Brown) and has set many of his novels in the state. The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany and A Widow for One Year all feature schools based on the Phillips Exeter Academy of which Irving is an alumnus, while Last Night in Twisted River opens on a logging settlement on the Androscoggin River.

However, as Irving's novels tend to often feature lengthy excursions to Vienna where Irving studied in his twenties I have settled on the best selling novel to date to have been set in New Hampshire - Peyton Place.

First published in 1956, selling 60,000 copies in its first week of release, and going on sell over 32 million copies, Peyton Place was written by Grace Metalious who was born in 1924 in the mill town of Manchester, NH. The fictitious town that lends its name to the title of the novel was based on a composite of Gilmanton, the village where Metalious lived, Laconia, and Alton, all in Belknap County. Its scandalous subject matter (including incest, abortion, and adultery) caused instant controversy upon publication, especially with the inhabitants of small town New England who had inspired it.

Review to follow next week...

Maine and Carrie by Stephen King (1974)

"Carrie White is no ordinary girl"

The blurb on the back cover refers of course to Carrie's latent telekinetic abilities but it's clear to all that Carrie does not fit in even before her powers become apparent. The basic plot of Carrie stems from perceived notions of normalcy and social acceptance in King's home state of Maine (the character of Carrie is partly a composite of two girls King knew from his childhood), one of the most White Anglo-Saxon Protestant states in the USA and politically a middle of the road swing state (though in the last five Presidential elections it has voted Democrat it was held by the Republicans throughout the 1970s). In contrast Carrie White's mother is a hard-line fundamentalist Christian who warns one of the teachers at Carrie’s school that the Lord is "reserving a special burning seat in Hell for her" for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution to the children, and tries to dissuade Carrie from attending Christian Church Camp for what she sees as the "Sin and Backsliding" of the Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists in attendance. It’s a great example of where the setting plays such an important role: you could not have set Carrie in Mississippi or Alabama where Margaret White's Christian fundamentalist views would not have stood out so dramatically. It’s also what makes most of King’s stories so effective – the distance between his imagination and the reality of life in Maine could not be greater. The New England region has overall the lowest violent crime and homicide rate in the United States, and Maine has the lowest crime rate in the New England region. It's probably no coincidence that the three most influential American horror writers of the last two hundred years – Edgar Allen Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King – were/are all native to New England and have set many of their stories there. The best way to induce terror is to lull your reader into a false sense of security, and there are few places you can feel safer than in the docile suburbia of Maine, New England.

Carrie was of course adapted into a 1976 feature film by director Brian De Palma starring Sissy Spacek and remains to this day one of the most successful and beloved adaptations of a King novel (as well as the first). It’s also a relatively faithful adaptation – the only major difference being the manner in which it ends – so I don’t see any real need to relate the plot here. If you’ve not seen it go rent it immediately! The book itself is not as impressive as the film but has a raw economical pace that you only usually find in the first novel of a struggling writer, with the plot stripped down to its bare bones. It’s hard to imagine King could deliver a book like this today given the level of success he has achieved since, but I found it a pleasantly satisfactory read with some effective if primitive use of colour imagery (Carrie's surname is "White", the Devil is described as "black", Carrie's prom dress is red and images of blood bookend the story), and a number of highly kinetic sequences that still read well.

Coming next: New Hampshire.