California 

Represent (North): Suicide Blonde- Darcey Steinke

The writers of the article where I found my inspiration for this project concluded that because California was so vastly different from north to south, they would have to chose two books to represent the state as a whole. From what I’ve read online, it seems as though ‘NorCal’ is famous for; Michelin star restaurants, decent wine & Victorian architecture. ‘SoCal’ on the other hand is the place to go for; sandy beaches, celeb spotting & outstanding Mexican food. I’ll let you know, as I’m heading there this summer! 

Having heard of ‘Suicide Blonde’ before,  I had high hopes for this book. Unfortunately, I was bitterly disappointed from the very beginning. Every turned page was heavy with the expectation that something interesting would finally happen. I totally accept that maybe I’m missing the whole point of the book, but nevertheless, my copy is off to the thrift shop. I just couldn’t connect or sympathize with any of the bizarre characters. Jesse our protagonist: a self confessed cheater who defines herself by making bad choices, is in a relationship with Bell: an egotistical guy who is avoiding the blinding truth of his own sexuality. Instead of taking responsibility, both of them blame their parents and events within their childhoods for the crooked direction in which their lives have taken. 

After making the decision to leave Bell, Jesse visits Madam Pig, a lady she helps around the house once a week. Madam Pig combines red wine and agoraphobia (afraid to go outside) which results in lavish parties and extreme self loathing. She sends Jesse on a mission to find her daughter, who actually turns out to be an ex-girlfriend. Madison: a spiteful risk taker who purposefully hurts those around her, introduces Jesse to a whole new world rife with prostitution, transvestites and hard drugs. 

The one intriguing part of the book I picked up on was the alternative side of San Francisco that you never hear about. Not the Golden Gate Bridge, but the underworld beneath it. Not the gorgeous Victorian architectural neighbourhoods but the forgotten suburbs with overgrown empty lots. Not the glossy shopping areas but the raw, neon signed x-rated, no-go zones. I found it truly fascinating to see San Francisco written about like that, but after a few quick searches on the internet, nothing was to be found of that nature.

Represent (South): The White Boy Shuffle- Paul Beatty

This book is so sought after in the state of New Jersey, I had to put myself on a months waiting list. Sadly, I’m astonished and disappointed to say my local library system only has one copy of a book which is of such a high caliber. Written by Paul Beatty as his debut novel in 1996, we accompany Gunnar Kaufman as he pursues his own identity and he attempts to find his place within society. Even though I cannot confirm, I believe this coming of age tale is loosely based on the author’s life and his own experiences growing up in Los Angeles.  

Gunnar, his two sisters and his mother live in a largely white neighbourhood of Santa Monica. His friends are all white and he attends a school where he is referred to as “the funny, cool black guy.” As summer approaches, his mother suggests he and his siblings attend an ‘all black summer camp’ which raises the objection that the other children “are different from us.” Horrified that her children have become adrift from their own heritage, she packs up her family and moves them to Hillside, a western suburb of Los Angeles. In this community the faces are predominantly black or brown, the playgrounds are gang territory and having the right basketball shoes is key to your social success. 

Gunnar struggles to adapt to this drastically new environment. He has a concept of what it means ‘to be black’ and uses this to make efforts to befriend the local kids, all attempts end in disaster until one day when he shoots an incredible hoop during a basketball game. Despite eventually immersing himself into the ghetto lifestyle, he can’t quite shake off some of his ‘white habits.’ Being hopeless and flustered on the dance floor, prompts his friends to christen his movements as “The White Boy Shuffle.”

This novel really allowed me to contemplate what it means to grow up as an African American in America. We see and hear so many negative stories about racism occurring everyday in our world; in schools, in the workplace, in public places. And in a way that is a straightforward kind of racism, white people feeling and acting superior to everybody else is nothing new after all. But what happens to those who suffer a type of racism within their own ethnic groups? Those who are seen to be outsiders due to their personality or the way they speak or the way they act, despite their shared ancestry? A term was created for just that in 1989 by essayist Trey Ellis: ‘cultural mulatto.’ “A person who is highly educated and usually a part of the middle or upper-middle class, and therefore assimilates easily into traditionally white environments.”

Paul Beatty has created what I can only call a masterpiece of modern writing. He has managed to intertwine a funny, engaging tale about reaching adulthood, whilst highlighting a lesser known phenomenon within our society. After publishing “The White Boy Shuffle” and gaining critical acclaim but not many readers, Paul Beatty has gone on to be the first American author to receive the Man Booker Prize for his novel ‘The Sellout.’ I cannot wait to read more of his work!

Most Read: Just Kids- Patti Smith

This 278 page memoir gives us an intriguing glimpse into a turbulent chapter of New York City’s history. The 60’s & 70’s were defining era’s for The Big Apple, but were unpredictable times riddled with; economic crisis, strikes, anti-war protests, drug abuse and HIV. But through all that cloudy uncertainty came visionary creativity that knew no boundaries. 

Establishments like The Chelsea Hotel attracted a plethora of ‘starving artists’ who paid the rent when they could or by offering up their handicrafts as a substitute. Notable past tenants of the ‘Chelsea’ include; Mark Twain, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin & Bob Dylan. The city encouraged this movement in the early 60’s by converting old factories and sweatshops in SoHo into cheap spaces for artists to live and work in. 

Patti Smith (the author) and Robert Mapplethorpe are brought together by a blue Persian necklace in a bookstore and a chance encounter one evening in the East Village. From that rusty park bench, their destinies are intertwined indefinitely until the end. They begin as young lovers, but as Robert struggles to come to terms with his own sexuality, they chose to settle for a supportive, platonic friendship instead.“We promised that we’d never leave one another again, until we both knew we were ready to stand on our own. And this vow, through everything we were yet to go through, we kept.”

I loved reading a first hand encounter of the gritty NY that I have heard so much about since first arriving in The States. The seedy Times Square of the past, before the Broadway billboards and the flashing lights. The vibrant, developing neighbourhoods just discovering their own potential. The resourcefulness and passion of the residents to strive to overcome and surpass every obstacle placed in their way. No one can argue that New York City is a very special place. It has it’s own orbit that pulls people towards it, enveloping them into the vibrant mass with unquestionable acceptance.