Fifty Shades of States

I’d like to state that some novels capture a state — the feel, the ambiance, the streets, etc.

That obvious fact occurred to me last week as I read Tom MacDonald’s The Charlestown Connection, a mystery set in Massachusetts — mostly Boston’s Charlestown section (pictured above). The novel has interesting characters, but just as interesting is its you-are-there descriptions of various places in Beantown.

Many other novels, of course, do the same with other states in the U.S. I won’t give examples from all 50 states, but will mention one or more books from more than 20 states — listed alphabetically. They might or might not be the ultimate novels set in those states, but they’re in the discussion. And my apologies to non-U.S. readers of this blog for today’s U.S.-centric post. ūüôā

Alabama: Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Caf√© contains a double bonus — great evocations of The Yellowhammer State’s present (as of the novel’s 1980s publishing date) and past.

Arizona: Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale is the story of four women who live in Phoenix.

Arkansas: Charles Portis’ True Grit has an 1870s setting in places such as the rural Dardanelle area and the more citified Fort Smith.

California: Way too many novels to name are set in The Golden State, but, to offer just some examples, there are various John Steinbeck books (East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and so on). Also, the crime fiction of Walter Mosley (such as Devil in a Blue Dress) and Sue Grafton (her alphabet mysteries) expertly conveys the vibe of Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Santa Barbara (the city that Grafton’s Santa Teresa is based on), and other California locales.

Florida: Also set in the 1870s, The Yearling captures the atmosphere of a rural/backwoods part of The Sunshine State as author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings focuses on a boy and his fawn.

Georgia: Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye — a hypnotic 1941 novel that includes an unusual (for its time) look at homosexuality — takes places at an Army base in The Peach State.

Hawaii: David Lodge’s Paradise News is initially set in the United Kingdom but then moves to Hawaii — with the state’s many charms depicted amid the plot involving an ill relative and a romance.

Indiana: Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, which has a strong theme of “old money” vs. “new money,” is set in Indianapolis.

Louisiana: Anne Rice’s multigenerational The Witching Hour spends many chapters in New Orleans — an evocative place for a spooky novel.

Maine: Many of Stephen King’s intense works are of course set here, and Richard Russo’s Empire Falls and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge also unspool in The Pine Tree State. Strout’s title character is…flinty.

Maryland: A number of Anne Tyler novels, including The Accidental Tourist and Ladder of Years, are set in or near Baltimore.

Michigan: Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex stars the gender-confused Cal/Calliope, but a major supporting “character” is Detroit.

Minnesota: Sinclair Lewis placed many of his memorable novels in the Midwest, with Main Street set in The North Star State.

Mississippi: The setting of many a William Faulkner novel, including As I Lay Dying and Light in August.

Missouri: The adventures in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer happen in The Show-Me State.

New Jersey: Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao toggles between the Dominican Republic and a well-described Garden State.

New York: Like California, New York (and especially New York City) is the locale for countless novels. Just five examples from different times would be Adam Langer’s Ellington Boulevard (set in the 21st century), James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain (20th century), Jack Finney’s Time and Again (20th and 19th centuries), Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (19th century), and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer (18th century). Time and Again‘s superb photos of NYC in the late 1800s add to the effect.

Ohio: Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio — of course.

Pennsylvania: The Keystone State’s two biggest cities are covered in Lisa Scottoline’s Philadelphia-set mysteries (such as The Vendetta Defense) and in more than one Michael Chabon novel (including Wonder Boys).

Rhode Island: In¬†Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland,¬†Subhash leaves India for graduate studies in Rhode Island and stays there after college as the novel’s dramatic events continue to unfold.

South Dakota: The roamin’ Jack Reacher goes to The Mount Rushmore State in Lee Child’s 61 Hours, and boy is it cold and snowy in that thriller.

Tennessee: Cormac McCarthy’s atmospheric novel Suttree is set in Knoxville.

Washington: Maria Semple’s colorful Where’d You Go, Bernadette includes a satiric look at Seattle.

It of course helps if authors live in/have lived in a state they’re writing about, but there’s always visiting and/or researching the place — as Lee Child did for 61 Hours.

I know I left out many states, authors, and books. Which novels do you associate with certain states? If it’s a state you live or lived in, did the author render things accurately and interestingly?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about the November 6 election — is here.

Jewish Authors and Characters

The horrific October 27 massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue (shown above) made me think of many things — including the terror the shooting targets felt, the grief of surviving families, the easy access to guns supported by Republican politicians beholden to the far-right National Rifle Association, white-supremacist Trump’s refusal over the years to strongly denounce neo-Nazis, and more.

Given what I blog about each week, I also thought about Jewish authors — and Jewish characters created by Jewish or non-Jewish authors. Characters who are depicted sympathetically and three-dimensionally, as well as characters depicted in stereotypical or even anti-Semitic ways.

Some Jewish authors focus often on Jewish themes, while other Jewish authors are more “generalist,” for lack of a better word. Some, of course, veer between the two approaches in their various novels and stories.

When one thinks of Jewish or partly Jewish authors, among the names that come to mind are Isaac Asimov, Saul Bellow, Judy Blume, Michael Chabon, E.L. Doctorow, Stanley Elkin, Nora Ephron, Nadine Gordimer, Joseph Heller, Erica Jong, Franz Kafka, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Elsa Morante, Walter Mosley, Jodi Picoult, Marcel Proust, Mordecai Richler, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, to name just a few.

I’ve read some or a lot of each writer mentioned above, and wanted to mention several of their works with Jewish protagonists.

Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay stars two Jewish cartoonist cousins who have echoes of real-life “Superman” creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, while E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel is a novel loosely based on the 1950s case that saw Julius and Ethel Rosenberg executed for allegedly spying for the Soviet Union. Among Doctorow’s other books is his novel/memoir-hybrid World’s Fair.

One of Stanley Elkin’s novels is The Rabbi of Lud — enough said. Erica Jong’s sexually frank¬†Fear of Flying stars Jewish journalist Isadora Wing.

Among Bernard Malamud’s novels are The Assistant and The Fixer — with the first featuring Morris Bober, an aging Jewish refugee who operates a struggling grocery store in a working-class neighborhood of Brookyn, NY; and the second focusing on Yakov Bok, a Jewish handyman unjustly imprisoned in Czarist Russia.

Elsa Morante’s most famous work is History — a tremendous novel, set in fascist Italy during the World War II era, about the struggles of a timid half-Jewish woman (Ida) and her two sons (Nino and the precocious Useppe — the latter born after Ida was raped by a German soldier).

Walter Mosley is more known as an African-American writer, but he’s half-Jewish. One of the notable supporting characters in his popular Easy Rawlins mystery series is union organizer Chaim Wenzler of A Red Death. Who reminds me of the liberal politics of a good percentage of American Jews.

Philip Roth burst into major literary celebrity with Portnoy’s Complaint — starring Alexander Portnoy, a lust-ridden Jewish guy who is quite interested in non-Jewish females and has some mother issues. Goodbye, Columbus and a number of other Roth novels also have strong Jewish themes.

Mordecai Richler’s multi-generational Solomon Gursky Was Here might be the only fictional work that includes a section starring a Jewish Eskimo! Considered by some a candidate for “The Great Canadian Novel,” the book is loosely based on the Canadian-Jewish Bronfman family of liquor renown.

I’ve read many of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories (none of his novels yet), and they of course wonderfully chronicle Jewish life.

Then there are non-Jewish writers with prominent Jewish characters.

For instance, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda features the memorable Daniel (a wealthy ward who initially doesn’t know he’s Jewish), the kind/beleaguered Mirah Lapidoth (who crosses paths with Daniel), and Mirah’s visionary brother Ezra Mordecai Cohen — along with various equally memorable non-Jewish characters. It’s one of my very favorite novels.

William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice has Nathan Landau, the Jewish lover of the Catholic Sophie years after her devastating Holocaust trauma.

One character in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is Simon Rosedale, a Jewish businessman interested in marrying Lily Bart for the social prestige she could bring him. Simon is sort of stereotypical in a way, but he does have a kinder element or two.

And among Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe cast are the Jewish characters of Rebecca (non-stereotypical) and her father Isaac of York (a rather stereotypical merchant and money-lender).

Yes, there are of course some troubling depictions of Jewish people in literature — also including the miserly villain Fagin in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and the money-lender Shylock in William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. Also, the great Fyodor Dostoevsky has occasional bits in his novels that can be considered anti-Semitic.

Who are your favorite Jewish authors and characters? Your thoughts about them?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about the upcoming November 6 election and more — is here.