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!).

Connecticut and The Ice Storm by Rick Moody (1994)

The Ice Storm by Rick Moody is set in the real town of New Canaan in Fairfield County, Connecticut. A popular home for wealthy commuting New Yorkers since the advent of the railroad in 1868, its population more than doubled between 1950 and 1970 (from 8,001 to 17,451) as a result of its position at the centre of the modern architectural design movement from the late 1940s to the 1960s when a group of Havard students moved to the town and built around 80 to 100 modern homes. Other famous architects including Frank Lloyd Wright also built houses in the town. The Ice Storm is set following that population boom in 1973 and focuses on two suburban middle-class families typical of the time and place, with lengthy descriptions of their New Canaan modern homes replete with cornerless plastic furniture, high fidelity sound systems and water-beds. Today the town is one of the most affluent communities in the United States (in 2008 New Canaan was ranked first in the nation with the highest median family income). The town has also served as a popular shooting location for New England-set films, with the adaptations of Revolutionary Road, Stepford Wives (2004) and The Ice Storm (which shows several of the modern homes of the period inside and out) all being at least partly shot in New Canaan.

The Spotts House (built 1972), one of the modern homes in New Canaan to feature in the film version of The Ice Storm.

The Ice Storm was adapted into a 1997 film by Ang Lee starring, amongst others, Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver. I haven't seen the film in a long while and whilst I remember admiring it I can definitely say I enjoyed the book more. For one there is a lot more dark humour in the novel, especially in the way the comically inappropriate thoughts of the characters contrast with the seriousness of the situations they are in (I especially enjoyed the son Paul Hood's comparing his family’s problems with those of The Fantastic Four). This is obviously something that would have been very hard to transfer to film, not being able to enter the thoughts of the characters (though some voice-over narration is used), and as a result Ang Lee clearly decided to play up the more sombre, melodramatic and tragic elements of the plot. Also many of the more risqué sexual scenes in the book were excised - the black humour with which they are treated on the page being more in line with the films of Todd Solondz, and evidently would not have fitted with the tone of Ang Lee’s adaptation (one plot strand in the book involves a parent who brings his teenage son to a wife-swapping "key party" to be sexually initiated, with what could have been a borderline tasteless outcome were it not so wickedly funny). In all I’d say The Ice Storm is the book I’ve taken the most pleasure from on this challenge so far, and I’d recommend it to anyone with a slightly twisted sense of humour.

Next: New York!

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Week 6: State - Connecticut

Connecticut is the last state on the New England leg of this reading trip. Known as the Constitution State for being, somewhat debatably, the first state to have a written constitution (the Fundamental Orders of 1638-9), Connecticut is today known primarily for its wealth. The per capita income for 2007 was $54,117, ranking first among the states, though this does often overshadow the poorer regions of the state, mostly in the east (the state capital Hartford is one of the ten poorest cities in America). The western and southern area (part of the New York Tri-State area) is the most affluent and populous region of the state. Many music stars, radio and television personalities, and athletes have made temporary homes in the wealthy suburbs of Fairfield County. Connecticut is also home to the oldest public library in America (The Scoville Memorial Library founded 1771), New England's largest Protestant Church (The First Cathedral in Bloomfield), and Yale University, established in 1701, one of the most academically renowned and selective universities in the United States. The largest city is Bridgeport and Connecticut's center of population is in Cheshire, New Haven County.

Films set in Connecticut tend to focus on the wealthier side of life in the state: see the big country houses in Bringing Up Baby, Beetlejuice, Christmas in Connecticut, and Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House. While in the east side of the state the 1988 film Mystic Pizza was set in the real seaside village of Mystic in New London County.

Three popular books which focus on suburban life in Connecticut are Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin and The Ice Storm by Rick Moody. I almost wish I hadn't read The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin last year as it would have been the perfect choice for Connecticut. Not only is it very short (I read it in a day), but it's an enjoyable satire of wealthy American suburbs. Having narrowed down that choice though I've opted to go with The Ice Storm.

The Ice Storm was first published in 1994 to wide acclaim and was swiftly adapted into a 1997 film by Ang Lee. The book is set in the real town of New Canaan (currently the wealthiest town in Connecticut with a per capita income of $85,459) in 1973 against the backdrop of the Watergate scandal and the sexual revolution. Yes that's right, more adultery!

Review to follow this/next week...

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Rhode Island and The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike (1984)

So far on this trip around New England we have had two appearances of the supernatural (most prominently in Carrie, and with the brief appearance of the real-life executed “witch” Ann Hibbins in The Scarlet Letter), two cases of adultery (Constance Mackenzie and Hester Prynne’s illegitimate daughters in Peyton Place and The Scarlet Letter respectively), and small-town gossiping has been rife (nowhere more so than in Peyton Place). Now with John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick we have all three – a novel about gossiping adulterous witches. It makes sense that we have reached this point – the themes of fear of the supernatural and suspicion of one’s own neighbours are embedded into the roots of New England. The first known person to have been executed as a witch in the region was Alice Young at Hartford, Connecticut in 1647, just 19 years after the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A further 11 are recorded as having been executed from 1648 to 1688 (including Ann Hibbins) and from 1692 to 1693 the Salem Witch Trials led to the hanging of fourteen women and five men (more of the accused died from torture and in prison) famously dramatised in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. The episode is one of the darkest in America’s history and understandably the shadow it cast has long resonated in the literature of the region.

“Puritanism had landed smack on that rock and after regaining its strength at the expense of the soft-hearted Indians had thrown its steeples and stone walls all across Connecticut, leaving Rhode Island to the Quakers and Jews and antinomians and women.”

As with Peyton Place any work that features in its title the name of the town or city where the action occurs you would expect the said place to feature as prominently as any character, and in the Witches of Eastwick Updike includes some wonderfully biting passages describing both the fictional town and the state of Rhode Island, especially in the opening chapters. However, I'm disappointed to say the story did not bewitch me at all. Aside from a few key set-pieces (the tennis match, the hot-tub orgy, and a murder/suicide scene that is the main turning point) most of what happens over the course of the novel is related from one character to another after the fact during a series of extended gossip-sessions between the three witches, in a manner that I personally founded extremely tiresome. Even the Darryl Van Horne character appears mostly in the conversations of others, like a mysterious Gatsby-type figure. In the 1987 film Darryl Van Horne, played by Jack Nicholson, turns out to be the devil (cue some quite ridiculous and rather dated 1980s stop-motion). In the book there is barely even the implication, other than that his skin and, erm, bodily fluids are cold to the touch. He is devilish, Machiavellian even, but a man all the same. It is no wonder that fans of the book AND the film are so hard to pin down. I think it's safe to say I'm neither.

Next: Connecticut