Jacki Kellum

Juxtapositions: Read My Mind

Category: Annie Dillard

Book List to Celebrate the USA State by State

Once in a while on Facebook, I stumble across a bit of information that is truly worthwhile, like the list of 100 Books Across America: Fiction and Nonfiction for Every State.

For each of the states that are represented, at least one fiction, one nonfiction, and a popular or famous book is suggested. This is an excellent set of books for anyone to read, but this is particularly true for would-be writers who want to learn how to create a sense of place in their writing. Some of the books in the following list are by authors, like Annie Dillard and Barbara Kingsolver, who I consider to be the quintessential masters of developing a sense of place.

Books for Alabama

FictionFried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, Fannie Flagg 4.5 Stars

“Female friendships aren’t a new thing in literature, despite recent high temperatures induced by Ferrante-fever. This classic of Alabama fiction centers on the unlikely relationship—a friendship built, more than anything, on storytelling—between an 86-year-old woman in a nursing home and an unhappy middle-aged housewife. But it’s also a portrait of a community, and addresses issues of violence, race, homosexuality and aging over more than half a century. Fun fact: when the book was adapted into a film in 1991, Flagg wrote the screenplay, and was nominated for an Academy Award for her work.

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“The movie Fried Green Tomatoes is a 1991 comedy-drama film based on the novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg. Directed by Jon Avnet and written by Flagg and Carol Sobieski, it stars Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Mary-Louise Parker. It tells the story of a Depression-era friendship between two women, Ruth and Idgie, and a 1980s friendship between Evelyn, a middle-aged housewife, and Ninny, an elderly woman. The centerpiece and parallel story concerns the murder of Ruth’s abusive husband, Frank, and the accusations that follow. It received a generally positive reception from film critics and was nominated for two Academy Awards.” Wikipedia

IMBd Rating 7.7/10

NonfictionSouth to a Very Old Place, Albert Murray

“Jazz critic, novelist and essayist Albert Murray’s lyrical memoir about growing up in Alabama in the 1920s and 30s is steeped in music and reflection—on race, on youth, on the nature of home.

. . .

The Famous OptionTo Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee – 5 Stars

Harper Lee’s Pulitzer prize-winning masterwork of honor and injustice in the deep south—and the heroism of one man in the face of blind and violent hatred

One of the best-loved stories of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird has been translated into more than forty languages, sold more than forty million copies worldwide, served as the basis for an enormously popular motion picture, and was voted one of the best novels of the twentieth century by librarians across the country. A gripping, heart-wrenching, and wholly remarkable tale of coming-of-age in a South poisoned by virulent prejudice, it views a world of great beauty and savage inequities through the eyes of a young girl, as her father—a crusading local lawyer—risks everything to defend a black man unjustly accused of a terrible crime.

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IMBd Rating 8.3/10

Image and Text Credit for this Article to Lit Hub Here

Books for Alaska

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FictionThe Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey 4.5 Strs

“In this adaptation of a Russian fairy tale, set in Alaska in 1920 (which is probably as much like Russia as America has ever gotten), a pioneer couple desperate for a child builds one out of snow—and in the morning, they find that she has come alive. Ivey is a native Alaskan, and she manages to evoke the magic and violence of the place in equal measure.

. . .

NonfictionThe Last Light Breaking, Nick Jans

“Nick Jans is a celebrated chronicler of Alaska, both as a writer and as a photographer; his first book is a collection of essays about the time he spent living among the Inupiat Natives in the small village of Ambler, Alaska, a culture of the past being confronted with the future.

The Famous Option: The Call of the Wild, Jack London 4.5 Stars

Jack London’s novels and ruggedly individual life seemed to embody American hopes, frustrations, and romantic longings in the turbulent first years of the twentieth century, years infused with the wonder and excitement of great technological and historic change. The author’s restless spirit, taste for a life of excitement, and probing mind led him on a series of hard-edged adventures from the Klondike to the South Seas. Out of these sometimes harrowing experiences — and his fascination with the theories of such thinkers as Darwin, Spencer, and Marx — came the inspiration for novels of adventure that would make him one of America’s most popular writers.
The Call of the Wild, considered by many London’s greatest novel, is a gripping tale of a heroic dog that, thrust into the brutal life of the Alaska Gold Rush, ultimately faces a choice between living in man’s world and returning to nature. Adventure and dog-story enthusiasts as well as students and devotees of American literature will find this classic work a thrilling, memorable reading experience.” Amazon

IMBd 6.9/10

Books for Arizona

FictionAlmanac of the Dead, Leslie Marmon Silko

“A marvelous tapestry of narrative and voice that tells multiple stories from multiple times but more or less centers on contemporary Tucson, and the woman who is translating what may be an apocalyptic Aztec prophecy. Drug-dealers, shamans, revolutionaries, deviants, psychics and crime-lords cross and recross one another to create a grim cacophony of Native American history, experience and anger.

NonfictionThe Devil’s Highway: A True Story, Luis Alberto Urrea

“A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and essential reading for anyone with any kind of a opinion about any kind of wall, this book follows the fates of 26 Mexican men who crossed into Arizona via “the Devil’s Highway”—which is called that for all of the reasons you think—and unpacks “the politics of stupidity that rules both sides of the border.”

. . .

The Famous OptionThe Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver – 4.5 Stars

[In my opinion, Barbara Kingsolver (The Poinsonwood Bible} is one of America’s most eloquent writers]

The Bean Trees is bestselling author Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, now widely regarded as a modern classic. It is the charming, engrossing tale of rural Kentucky native Taylor Greer, who only wants to get away from her roots and avoid getting pregnant. She succeeds, but inherits a 3-year-old native-American little girl named Turtle along the way, and together, from Oklahoma to Tucson, Arizona, half-Cherokee Taylor and her charge search for a new life in the West.

“Written with humor and pathos, this highly praised novel focuses on love and friendship, abandonment and belonging as Taylor, out of money and seemingly out of options, settles in dusty Tucson and begins working at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires while trying to make a life for herself and Turtle.

“The author of such bestsellers as The Lacuna, The Poinsonwood Bible, and Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver has been hailed for her striking imagery and clear dialogue, and this is the novel that kicked off her remarkable literary career.” Amazon

Books for Arkansas

FictionThe Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks, Donald Harington – 4 Stars

“Donald Harington is a perfect cult author—not very widely read, but when read, obsessed over, not to mention compared to Nabokov, Faulkner, and García Márquez. Most of his many novels are set in the fictional Arkansas town of Stay More, and The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks (TAO TAO) is a thesis statement of sorts on his entire oeuvre, a self-referential, wordplay-heavy, bawdy, post-modern portrait of Harington’s personal Arkansas and six generations of its settlers, told as an architectural investigation complete with hand-drawn illustrations of the town’s buildings.

. . .

NonfictionBoy Erased, Garrard Conley – 4 Stars

“In Conley’s 2016 memoir, he recounts his childhood as the son of a Baptist minister in a small Arkansas town—and what happened when he, at nineteen, was forced to undergo gay conversion therapy or risk losing his family.

The Famous OptionI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou – 5 Stars

Books for California

FictionThe Sellout, Paul Beatty · Pocho, José Antonio Villarreal

California, I’m (not that) sorry to say, is just too big—both spatially and in the American consciousness—to cover with a single book. It’s also too big to cover with a hundred books, but we all do what we can. Here, I’ll recommend two, beginning with Paul Beatty’s difficult and hilarious The Sellout, which took home a slew of awards last year, and for good reason—it’s the most effective satire in recent memory, a provocative explosion of prose and police and politics, and is likely to become a milestone novel of the decade. For an older classic, try Pocho, a landmark work of Chicano literature that tells the story of a young Mexican-American boy, the child of immigrants, coming into his own—with some difficulty—in Depression-era California.

NonfictionTake This Man, Brando Skyhorse · 4.5 Stars

When Brando Skyhorse was three years old, his parents—both Mexican—split, his father fleeing from his dysfunctional mother. His mother took on a Native American identity, changing her name and raising Brando to believe that he was the son of an imprisoned Native American political activist, while presenting him with stepfather after errant stepfather. Only at 30 does he discover his actual origins, and begin to edge closer to his real father and true identity. If you’re not in the mood for memoir, you might try The History of Forgetting, a multi-generic “anti-tour” of Los Angeles that looks specifically at erasure—of neighborhoods, of cultures, of history—and investigates the way noir fiction and Hollywood films have represented the architecture, both internal and external, of the city.

The Famous OptionThe Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck  – 4.5 Stars

“First published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads—driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into Haves and Have-Nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity. A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America. At once a naturalistic epic, captivity narrative, road novel, and transcendental gospel, Steinbeck’s powerful landmark novel is perhaps the most American of American Classics.” Amazon

 

IMBd 8.1/10

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion – 4.5 Stars

“The first nonfiction work by one of the most distinctive prose stylists of our era, Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem remains, decades after its first publication, the essential portrait of America―particularly California―in the sixties. It focuses on such subjects as John Wayne and Howard Hughes, growing up a girl in California, ruminating on the nature of good and evil in a Death Valley motel room, and, especially, the essence of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, the heart of the counterculture.” Amazon

 

Books for Colorado

 

FictionPlainsong, Kent Haruf – 4.5 Stars

“A stark novel about the citizens of a tiny town tucked far away on the Colorado plains, and the way their lives unfold over the course of a year. But the sensations of place are as much the thrust of this novel as the characters in question—or perhaps it’s better to say that the prairie itself is a character, and one that binds all the others together.

NonfictionWhere the Water Goes, David Owen

“Water is our most important life-sustaining resource—and it’s going away. The Colorado River has shaped the American West for decades, geographically and politically, and the situation is deeply complicated. Owen’s exploration of the river, which takes him from Colorado to Mexico, examines the complex infrastructure, the water wars, the dangers, and the countless unanswerable questions about the future.

 

The Famous OptionThe Shining, Stephen King – 4.5 Stars

“Jack Torrance’s new job at the Overlook Hotel is the perfect chance for a fresh start. As the off-season caretaker at the atmospheric old hotel, he’ll have plenty of time to spend reconnecting with his family and working on his writing. But as the harsh winter weather sets in, the idyllic location feels ever more remote . . . and more sinister. And the only one to notice the strange and terrible forces gathering around the Overlook is Danny Torrance, a uniquely gifted five-year-old.” Amazon

The 1980 movie of The Shining starred Jack Nicholson IMBd Rating 8.4/10

 

Books for Connecticut

FictionEdwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright, Steven Millhauser

“When I think of Connecticut, I think of Edwin Mullhouse—or rather, I think of a certain kind of semi-repressed, wholly-bored suburban childhood that could give rise to Jeffrey Cartwright, the kind of kid who would obsess over his supposedly-brilliant next door neighbor enough to write his biography after his untimely death, age eleven. Like much of Millhauser’s work, it’s both savage satire and nostalgic portraiture, and like all of Millhauser’s work, it’s completely brilliant.

NonfictionStone by Stone, Robert Thorson

“If you’ve spent any time in New England, you’ve seen them: old stone walls patterning the fields, sometimes in obvious places, between farms, and sometimes in stranger locales. This book, written by a professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Connecticut, tells the story of the stones, their effect on the landscape, and their relationship to the history of the region.

The Famous OptionRevolutionary Road, Richard Yates – 4 Stars

“Hailed as a masterpiece of realistic fiction and as the most evocative portrayal of the opulent desolation of the American suburbs since it’s publication in 1961, Revolutionary Road is the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a bright, beautiful, and talented couple who have lived on the assumption that greatness is only just around the corner. With heartbreaking compassion and remorseless clarity, Richard Yates shows how Frank and April mortgage their spiritual birthright, betraying not only each other, but their best selves.” Amazon

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“Revolutionary Road is a 2008 British-American romantic drama film directed by Sam Mendes. It was written by Justin Haythe and based on the 1961 novel of the same name by Richard Yates. This is the second on-screen collaboration among Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates, who previously co-starred in Titanic. The performances of DiCaprio and Winslet earned them a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama nomination and a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress respectively, and the film was nominated for a further three Golden Globes, four BAFTAs and three Oscars.” Wikipedia IMBd Rating 7.6/10

Books for Delaware

FictionThe Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina Henríquez

“A rickety apartment building in Western Delaware. Nine families of new Americans. Teenagers in love. Or, as one character puts it, “the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then?”

NonfictionNever Let Her Go, Ann Rule 4.5 Stars

“Former Seattle policewoman Anne Rule’s true crime book—her best, as some would have it—tells the story of Thomas Capano, who was one of the most powerful men in Delaware in 1996, when Anne Marie Fahey, his mistress (as it turns out, one of many) disappeared. Or, put in headline terms: Charming Sociopath Destroys the Lives of Many.”

IMBd 6.0/10

The Famous OptionFight Club, Chuck Palahniuk [One of my Favorite Book-Movie Combos – A Multi-faceted Read that is heavy in psychological overtones and symbolism.]

“n his debut novel, Chuck Palahniuk showed himself to be his generation’s most visionary satirist. Fight Club‘s estranged narrator leaves his lackluster job when he comes under the thrall of Tyler Durden, an enigmatic young man who holds secret boxing matches in the basement of bars. There two men fight “as long as they have to.” A gloriously original work that exposes what is at the core of our modern world.” Amazon

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IMBd Rating 8.8/10

Books for Florida

FictionNinety-Two in the Shade, Thomas McGuane

“No place in America is weirder than Florida, and, despite his Montana roots, McGuane can weird it up with the best of them—particularly in this crazed, excess-soaked Key Westian narrative of family and fishing and feuding.

NonfictionThe Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean

“In this modern classic Orlean, takes the reader into the Florida swamps and the strange world of orchid enthusiasts. On this quest, we meet John Laroche, who is so fixated on the idea of finding and cloning the elusive ghost orchid that he sets off to steal samples from Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve and lands himself in jail. A compelling study of place and obsession that makes it clear: flowers can be just as crazy-making as gold.place and obsession that makes it clear: flowers can be just as crazy-making as gold.

The Famous OptionTheir Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston – 4.5 Stars

“A deeply soulful novel that comprehends love and cruelty, and separates the big people from the small of heart, without ever losing sympathy for those unfortunates who don’t know how to live properly.” —Zadie Smith

One of the most important and enduring books of the twentieth century, Their Eyes Were Watching God brings to life a Southern love story with the wit and pathos found only in the writing of Zora Neale Hurston. Out of print for almost thirty years—due largely to initial audiences’ rejection of its strong black female protagonist—Hurston’s classic has since its 1978 reissue become perhaps the most widely read and highly acclaimed novel in the canon of African-American literature.

IMBd 6.6/10

Cross Creek by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Wonderful autobiographical account of Marjorie Rawlings living in Cross Creek, Florida, after moving from New York City in 1926. She tells it like it was getting along in the far south, trying to make a living by writing and growing oranges. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (August 8, 1896 – December 14, 1953) was an American author who lived in rural Florida and wrote novels with rural themes and settings. Her best known work, The Yearling, about a boy who adopts an orphaned fawn, won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1939 and was later made into a movie, also known as The Yearling.” Amazon

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Cross Creek House

Cross Creek Cookery by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings 4.5 Stars

The Classic Book on Southern Cooking
“First published in 1942, Cross Creek Cookery was compiled by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings at the request of readers who wanted to recreate the luscious meals described in Cross Creek — her famous memoir of life in a Florida hamlet.
Lovers of old-fashioned, down-home cooking will treasure the recipes for Grits, Hush-Puppies, Florida Fried Fish, Orange Fluff, and Utterly Deadly Southern Pecan Pie. For more adventuresome palates, there are such unusual dishes as Minorcan Gopher Stew, Coot Surprise, Alligator-Tail Steak, Mayhaw Jelly, and Chef Huston’s Cream of Peanut Soup.
Spiced with delightful anecdotes and lore, Cross Creek Cookery guides the reader through the rich culinary heritage of the deep tidal South with a loving regard for the rituals of cooking and eating.” Amazon

 

Cross Creek Movie Starring Mary Steenburgen  IMBd 7.1/10

The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings 4.5 Stars

“No novel better epitomizes the love between a child and a pet than The Yearling. Young Jody adopts an orphaned fawn he calls Flag and makes it a part of his family and his best friend. But life in the Florida backwoods is harsh, and so, as his family fights off wolves, bears, and even alligators, and faces failure in their tenuous subsistence farming, Jody must finally part with his dear animal friend. There has been a film and even a musical based on this moving story, a fine work of great American literature.” Amazon

IMBd 7.3/10

Books for Georgia

FictionCane, Jean Toomer

“A breakthrough in prose and poetical writing. . . . This book should be on all readers’ and writers’ desks and in their minds.”―Maya Angelou

“First published in 1923, Jean Toomer’s Cane is an innovative literary work―part drama, part poetry, part fiction―powerfully evoking black life in the South. Rich in imagery, Toomer’s impressionistic, sometimes surrealistic sketches of Southern rural and urban life are permeated by visions of smoke, sugarcane, dusk, and fire; the northern world is pictured as a harsher reality of asphalt streets.”

“A touchstone of the Harlem Renaissance, this novel uses poems, drama and fictional vignettes to paint a portrait of life for African-Americans in the 1920s south. It’s a striking book, both formally and lyrically. Plus, the descriptions of the state are pretty phenomenal:

“Through a canebrake that was ripe for cutting, the branch was reached. Under a sweet-gum tree, and where reddish leaves had dammed the creek a little, we sat down. Dusk, suggesting the almost imperceptible procession of giant trees, settled with a purple haze about the cane. I felt strange, as I always do in Georgia, particularly at dusk. I felt that things unseen to men were tangibly immediate. It would not have surprised me had I had vision. People have them in Georgia more often than you would suppose.

“I should mention the excellent The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers, which gives a fairly bleak view of the inhabitants of a small town in 1930s Georgia, and, for all you romantics out there, Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell.

NonfictionA Childhood: The Biography of a Place, Harry Crews

“A Childhood is the unforgettable memoir of Harry Crews’ earliest years, a sharply remembered portrait of the people, locales, and circumstances that shaped him―and destined him to be a storyteller. Crews was born in the middle of the Great Depression, in a one-room sharecropper’s cabin at the end of a dirt road in rural South Georgia. If Bacon County was a place of grinding poverty, poor soil, and blood feuds, it was also a deeply mystical place, where snakes talked, birds could possess a small boy by spitting in his mouth, and faith healers and conjure women kept ghosts and devils at bay.

“At once shocking and elegiac, heartrending and comical, A Childhood not only recalls the transforming events of Crews’s youth but conveys his growing sense of self in a world “in which survival depended on raw courage, a courage born out of desperation and sustained by a lack of alternatives.”

“Amid portraits of relatives and neighbors, Bacon County lore, and details of farm life, Crews tells of his father’s death; his friendship with Willalee Bookatee, the son of a black hired hand; his bout with polio; his mother and stepfather’s failing marriage; his near-fatal scalding at a hog-killing; and a five-month sojourn in Jacksonville, Florida. These and other memories define, with reverence and affection, Harry Crews’s childhood world: “its people and its customs and all its loveliness and all its ugliness.” Imaginative and gripping, A Childhood re-creates in detail one writer’s search for past and self, a search for a time and place lost forever except in memory.

“You’ve probably already read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, so how about something a little more terrifying: Harry Crews’s memoir of his young childhood in rural South Georgia, which packs more incident and grotesquerie into the first six years than other memoirists do in a lifetime—not to mention what Dwight Garner called “the most indelible scene in American literary memoir,” the moment when Crews is burned neck to toes in a vat of boiling water. Crews is a wondrous literary madman, and this is the story of the people and places that shaped him.” Amazon

The Famous OptionThe Color Purple, Alice Walker 4.5 Stars

““I am an expression of the divine, just like a peach is, just like a fish is. I have a right to be this way.” -Shug Avery from The Color Purple. The Color Purple by Alice Walker is an inspirational tale about a young woman named Celie overcoming the hand that life had dealt her: a sexually abusive father, a forced marriage with a husband she doesn’t love, and her sister heading off to be a missionary in Africa. Along her path of adversity, she meets a strong independent woman named Shug Avery. Shug shows Celie that life can be beautiful so long as you’re able to love yourself for who you are, and be free to live your life. Shug frees Celie through teaching her important lessons about God, and love, and gratitude.” Amazon

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IMBd Rating 7.8/10

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – 5 Stars

“Since its original publication in 1936, Gone With the Wind—winner of the Pulitzer Prize and one of the bestselling novels of all time—has been heralded by readers everywhere as The Great American Novel.

Widely considered The Great American Novel, and often remembered for its epic film version, Gone With the Wind explores the depth of human passions with an intensity as bold as its setting in the red hills of Georgia. A superb piece of storytelling, it vividly depicts the drama of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

This is the tale of Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled, manipulative daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, who arrives at young womanhood just in time to see the Civil War forever change her way of life. A sweeping story of tangled passion and courage, in the pages of Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell brings to life the unforgettable characters that have captured readers for over seventy years.

IMBd 8.2/10

 

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt 4.5 Stars

John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has been heralded as a “lyrical work of nonfiction,” and the book’s extremely graceful prose depictions of some of Savannah, Georgia’s most colorful eccentrics–remarkable characters who could have once prospered in a William Faulkner novel or Eudora Welty short story–were certainly a critical factor in its tremendous success. (One resident into whose orbit Berendt fell, the Lady Chablis, went on to become a minor celebrity in her own right.) But equally important was Berendt’s depiction of Savannah socialite Jim Williams as he stands trial for the murder of Danny Hansford, a moody, violence-prone hustler–and sometime companion to Williams–characterized by locals as a “walking streak of sex.” So feel free to call it a “true crime classic” without a trace of shame.

From Publishers Weekly

After discovering in the early 1980s that a super-saver fare to Savannah, Ga., cost the same as an entree in a nouvelle Manhattan restaurant, Esquire columnist Berendt spent the next eight years flitting between Savannah and New York City. The result is this collection of smart, sympathetic observations about his colorful Southern neighbors, including a jazz-playing real estate shark; a sexually adventurous art student; the Lady Chablis (‘ “What was your name before that?” I asked. “Frank,” she said.’ “); the gossipy Married Woman’s Card Club; and an assortment of aging Southern belles. The book is also about the wealthy international antiques dealer Jim Williams, who played an active role in the historic city’s restoration–and would also be tried four times for the 1981 shooting death of 21-year-old Danny Handsford, his high-energy, self-destructive house helper. The Williams trials–he died in 1990 of a heart attack at age 59–are lively matches between dueling attorneys fought with shifting evidence, and they serve as both theme and anchor to Berendt’s illuminating and captivating travelogue.
John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has been heralded as a “lyrical work of nonfiction,” and the book’s extremely graceful prose depictions of some of Savannah, Georgia’s most colorful eccentrics–remarkable characters who could have once prospered in a William Faulkner novel or Eudora Welty short story–were certainly a critical factor in its tremendous success. (One resident into whose orbit Berendt fell, the Lady Chablis, went on to become a minor celebrity in her own right.) But equally important was Berendt’s depiction of Savannah socialite Jim Williams as he stands trial for the murder of Danny Hansford, a moody, violence-prone hustler–and sometime companion to Williams–characterized by locals as a “walking streak of sex.” So feel free to call it a “true crime classic” without a trace of shame.
IMBd  6.6/10

Books for Hawaii

FictionShark Dialogues, Kiana Davenport

“A semi-fantastical seven-generation family saga that doubles as the history of Hawaii, Davenport’s first novel centers on Pono, a woman with supernatural gifts, and her four granddaughters, who return home every year from where they have been far-flung, “as if some swerving structure in their cells warped them forever backward to this lush, forbidding matriarch,” to come to terms with their family story.

NonfictionUnfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell

“A history of the Americanization of Hawaii told in Vowell’s smart-ass, ironic, whirlwind style. “Why is there a glop of macaroni salad next to the Japanese chicken in my plate lunch?” the book begins. “Because the ship Thaddeus left Boston Harbor with the first boatload of New England missionaries bound for Hawaii in 1819. That and it’s Saturday.” This makes for a vivid and amusing—if not exhaustive—exploration of our country’s furthest reaches.

The Famous OptionHawaii, James A. Michener

Pulitzer Prize–winning author James A. Michener brings Hawaii’s epic history vividly to life in a classic saga that has captivated readers since its initial publication in 1959. As the volcanic Hawaiian Islands sprout from the ocean floor, the land remains untouched for centuries—until, little more than a thousand years ago, Polynesian seafarers make the perilous journey across the Pacific, flourishing in this tropical paradise according to their ancient traditions. Then, in the early nineteenth century, American missionaries arrive, bringing with them a new creed and a new way of life. Based on exhaustive research and told in Michener’s immersive prose, Hawaii is the story of disparate peoples struggling to keep their identity, live in harmony, and, ultimately, join together.

Image result for hawaii michener movie

IMBd Rating 6.6/10 [ would rate that movie higher]

Books for Idaho

FictionTrain Dreams, Denis Johnson

New York Times Notable Book for 2011
One of The Economist‘s 2011 Books of the Year
One of NPR’s 10 Best Novels of 2011

“Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is an epic in miniature, one of his most evocative and poignant fictions.

“Robert Grainer is a day laborer in the American West at the start of the twentieth century—an ordinary man in extraordinary times. Buffeted by the loss of his family, Grainer struggles to make sense of this strange new world. As his story unfolds, we witness both his shocking personal defeats and the radical changes that transform America in his lifetime.

“Suffused with the history and landscapes of the American West—its otherworldly flora and fauna, its rugged loggers and bridge builders—the new novella by the National Book Award-winning author of Tree of Smokecaptures the disappearance of a distinctly American way of life.

“If you ask me, Train Dreams is the best thing Denis Johnson ever wrote. It is more arresting than Jesus’ Son by miles. The story—all 116 pages of it—begins in familiar territory, with a laborer on the American frontier, and spirals into a devastating surreality that more or less sums up the American experience—at least for some. Throughout is Johnson’s well-crafted, existentialist descriptions of the land in question, like this one:

The wolves and coyotes howled without letup all night, sounding in the hundreds, more than Grainier had ever heard, and maybe other creatures too, owls, eagles—what, exactly, he couldn’t guess—surely every single animal with a voice along the peaks and ridges looking down on the Moyea River, as if nothing could ease any of God’s beasts. Grainier didn’t dare to sleep, feeling it all to be some sort of vast pronouncement, maybe the alarms of the end of the world.

NonfictionIn the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country, Kim Barnes

Poet Kim Barnes grew up in northern Idaho, in the isolated camps where her father worked as a logger and her mother made a modest but comfortable home for her husband and two children. Their lives were short on material wealth, but long on the riches of family and friendship, and the great sheltering power of the wilderness. But in the mid-1960’s, as automation and a declining economy drove more and more loggers out of the wilderness and into despair, Kim’s father dug in and determined to stay. It was then the family turned fervently toward Pentecostalism. It was then things changed.

In the Wilderness is the poet’s own account of a journey toward adulthood against an interior landscape every bit as awesome, as beautiful, and as fraught with hidden peril as the great forest itself. It is a story of how both faith and geography can shape the heart and soul, and of the uncharted territory we all must enter to face our demons. Above all, it is the clear-eyed and moving account of a young woman’s coming of terms with her family, her homeland, her spirituality, and herself.

In presenting Kim Barnes the 1995 PENJerard Fund Award for a work-in-progress by an emerging female writer, the panel of judges wrote that “In the Wilderness is far more than a personal memoir,” adding that it stands “almost as a cautionary example of the power of good prose to distinguish whatever it touches.” Indeed, In the Wilderness is an extraordinary work, courageous, candid, and exquisitely written.

“Poet Kim Barnes’s memoir describes her childhood in the isolation of an Idaho logger camp, and what happened when her father lost his job and turned the family towards fundamentalism. “Perhaps because I was so young,” she writes early on, “what remains with me about those camps is not the trees and mountains, not the streams pulsing with red as the days shortened; what remains is a sense rather than a memory of place, a composite of smells, sounds, and images: the closeness of my parents as they slept beside me when the temperature dropped below zero; my mother’s hair tightly curling around my fingers; cigarettes, coffee, sweat, diesel, the turpentine scent of pine.”

The Famous OptionHousekeeping, Marilynne Robinson

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IMBd Rating 7.3/10

Housekeeping is a 1987 American comedy-drama film written and directed by Bill Forsyth and starring Christine Lahti, Sara Walker, and Andrea Burchill. Based on the 1980 novel Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, the film is about two young sisters growing up in Idaho during the 1950s. After being abandoned by their mother and raised by elderly relatives, the sisters are looked after by their eccentric aunt whose unconventional and unpredictable ways affect their lives.” Wikipediaa

Books for Illinois

FictionThe Coast of Chicago, Stuart Dybek

“Fourteen subtle stories about loners and strangers making their way through the Chicago streets; the second collection from Dybek, who grew up on the South side. These stories take moments of everyday life and elevate them into myth, and sometimes into magic, drawing out the dreamlike seams of experience. As a bonus, it includes the story “Pet Milk,” which is one of my all-time favorites.

See also: The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros (ousted here in favor of a place in Texas), Knock on Any Door, by Willard Motley, So Big, by Edna Feber, and the Saul Bellow oeuvre.

NonfictionThe Book of My Lives, Aleksandar Hemon

“To be fair, this book is split between the two cities of Hemon’s heart: Chicago and Sarajevo, where he was born. But the Chicago essays in this collection are so luminous that I simply couldn’t put another book in its place. “Reasons Why I Do Not Wish to Leave Chicago: An Incomplete, Random List” alone would be enough to keep it here.

See also, please, Margo Jefferson’s excellent memoir Negroland.

The Famous OptionNative Son, Richard Wright

Books for Indiana

FictionCrimes in Southern Indiana, Frank Bill

“A brutal and bloody debut, interconnected stories that confirm and expand all your worst thoughts about what humans can do to one another—not to mention what Southern Indiana is like. Not for the faint of heart—but certainly possessed of its own kind of elegance and intelligence, and clearly the work of a great writer.

See also: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, by Kurt Vonnegut and Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters

NonfictionA Girl Named Zippy: Growing up Small in Mooreland, Indiana, Haven Kimmel

“A witty ode to a youth spent in a town with a population of only 300—a town that by some “mysterious and powerful mathematical principle,” had had a population of only 300 for decades. “Sociologists and students of history imagine they know something of the United States in the sixties and seventies because they are familiar with the prevailing trends,” Kimmel writes in the prologue, “if they drew assumptions about Mooreland based on that knowledge, they would get everything wrong.” Well, now they won’t have to.

The Famous OptionThe Friendly Persuasion, Jessamyn West – 5 Stars

“A quintessential American heroine, Eliza Birdwell is a wonderful blend of would-be austerity, practicality, and gentle humor when it comes to keeping her faith and caring for her family and community. Her husband, Jess, shares Eliza’s love of people and peaceful ways but, unlike Eliza, also displays a fondness for a fast horse and a lively tune. With their children, they must negotiate their way through a world that constantly confronts them-sometimes with candor, sometimes with violence-and tests the strength of their beliefs. Whether it’s a gift parcel arriving on their doorstep or Confederate soldiers approaching their land, the Birdwells embrace life with emotion, conviction, and a love for one another that seems to conquer all.
The Friendly Persuasion has charmed generations of readers as one of our classic tales of the American Midwest.” Amazon

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IMBd Rating 7.5/10

“Friendly Persuasion is a 1956 Civil War film starring Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, Anthony Perkins, Richard Eyer, Robert Middleton and Phyllis Love. The screenplay was adapted by Michael Wilson from the 1945 novel The Friendly Persuasion by Jessamyn West, and was directed by William Wyler. The film tells the story of a Quaker family in southern Indiana during the American Civil War and the way the war tests their pacifist beliefs.” Wikipedia

Books for Iowa

Cover of Gilead

Iowa

FictionGilead, Marilynne Robinson

The 2004 Pulitzer Prize winning novel
New York Times Top-Ten Book of 2004
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction

“Nearly 25 years after Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson returns with an intimate tale of three generations, from the Civil War to the 20th century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America’s heart. In the words of Kirkus, it is a novel “as big as a nation, as quiet as thought, and moving as prayer. Matchless and towering.” Gilead tells the story of America and will break your heart.”

“Marilynne Robinson is a national treasure, and Gilead is the first in her trilogy about the eponymous town of Gilead. The novel centers on Reverend John Ames, who is one of President Obama’s favorite literary characters, by the by—in a conversation the two had in Des Moines, the President called him “gracious and courtly and a little bit confused about how to reconcile his faith with all the various travails that his family goes through. And I was just—I just fell in love with the character, fell in love with the book, and then you and I had a chance to meet when you got a fancy award at the White House.” Gilead won both the Pulitzer prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2005.

“For another direction entirely, you may want to try Universal Harvester, by John Darnielle, a modern work of techno-horror, also quite good.

NonfictionThe Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson

“From one of the most affable writers around, a memoir of growing up in Des Moines in the 1950s, aided by one very specific persona (I bet you can guess).

The Famous OptionA Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley

“This powerful twentieth-century reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear centers on a wealthy Iowa farmer who decides to divide his farm between his three daughters. When the youngest objects, she is cut out of his will. This sets off a chain of events that brings dark truths to light and explodes long-suppressed emotions. Ambitiously conceived and stunningly written, A Thousand Acres takes on themes of truth, justice, love, and pride—and reveals the beautiful yet treacherous topography of humanity.” Amazon

Books for Kansas

FictionIn Cold Blood, Truman Capote

“At this point, Capote’s “nonfiction novel” is about as famous as The Wizard of Oz, but I’ve made an executive decision here and counted the latter below. The book tells the story of the brutal 1959 murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, and is based on Capote’s investigative work (Harper Lee came along), but also contains quite a number of changed facts, invented scenes, and literary liberties—hence its location in the fiction section.

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IMBd Rating 8.0/10

NonfictionAnd Hell Followed With it: Life and Death in a Kansas Tornado, Bonar Menninger

“In case you’d like to know what happens to those who don’t get magically transported to Oz when the tornado hits.

The Famous OptionThe Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum

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IMBd Rating 8.1/10

Books for Kentucky

FictionThe Sport of Kings, C. E. Morgan

“This is what happens when you get complacent,” one character tells another in Morgan’s phenomenal, Pulitzer-finalist novel, “when you don’t have the courage to dream big or grab the opportunities that are right before you. I mean, Tennesse Walkers? Give me a break. This is Kentucky—this land is destined for Thoroughbreds.” This is the best horse-racing novel in recent memory, for sure, but also a multi-generational epic of two Kentucky families, a novel about the history and present of racism in America, and a story of fate and future.

NonfictionClear Springs, Bobbie Ann Mason

A memoir of growing up on a farm in western Kentucky from novelist Bobbie Ann Mason, and an in-depth exploration of both three generations of her family and her own small corner of America:

The farm is one field to the east of the railroad track that used to connect New Orleans with Chicago. The track runs beside Highway 45, an old U.S. route that unites Chicago with Mobile, Alabama. Highway 45 goes past Camp Beauregard, a Civil War encampment and cemetery, and leads toward Shiloh, a Civil War battlefield, and continues to Tupelo, Mississippi, where Elvis Presley was born. On this highway when I was about ten, my dog Rags was killed, smashed flat, and nobody bothered to remove his body. For a long time, it was still there when we went to town—a hank of hair and a piece of bone. It became a rag, then a wisp, then a spot. It’s hard to explain the indifference of the family in this matter, for my heart ached for Rags. It had something to do with the immutability of fate. To my parents’ way of thinking, there was nothing that could be done to bring Rags back to life, and besides they were behind on the spring planting or perhaps the fall corn-gathering. There was always something.

The Famous OptionUncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe

Books for Louisiana

FictionA Kind of Freedom, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

“Sexton’s wonderful debut traces a family through three generations in New Orleans—from a star-crossed romance in the 1940s to the crack epidemic of the 1980s to the unfathomable changes wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Injustice, hope, ambition, and the history and truth of New Orleans are the underlying subjects of this novel, explored through the stories of these well-drawn characters.

“For a less-contemporary but also-great classic, you might try The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy.

NonfictionFive Days at Memorial, Sheri Fink

“A harrowing book that describes five days in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—five days in which the Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans was without power and staff was forced to create a system that prioritized some patients for evacuation and doomed others to death by euthanasia. The story here is gripping, but the moral questions it raises are even more so, and those will stick with you for a long time.

See also: Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans, edited by David and Bruce Rutledge

The Famous OptionA Confederacy of Dunces, James Kennedy Toole

[All the King’s Men]

Books for Maine

FictionOlive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout

“A Pulitzer Prize-winning linked collection of stories (or a novel-in-stories, if you prefer) set in the coastal town of Crosby, Maine, anchored by the large and fairly rude personage of Olive Kitteridge. One of those books that takes regular people in a regular place and makes them feel like epic characters in the story of all our lives.

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IMBd Rating 8.4/10

NonfictionWe Took to the Woods, Louise Dickinson Rich

“The very charming reflections of a woman who picks up and, well, takes to the woods—the woods of northern Maine, where supplies are as scarce as neighbors, but grit and humor are stocked in full.

The Famous OptionThe Cider House Rules, John Irving

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IMBd Rating 7.4/10

Books for Maryland

FictionThe Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth

“A fictionalized history of Maryland, or a satirical send-up of the historical novel, or a darkly comic postmodern epic, or a maddeningly complex exercise in esoterica, or (and you knew this was coming, didn’t you, you brilliant reader, you) all of the above.

NonfictionThe Beautiful Struggle, Ta-Nehisi Coates

“If you’re looking for some insight into one of America’s leading public intellectuals in your Maryland reading, try Coates’s memoir of growing up in West Baltimore with his father, an intellectual ex-Black Panther with a strict sense of discipline and a lot of love, who drew “a bright circle around 12 through 18. This was the abyss where unguided, black boys were swallowed whole, only to re-emerge on corners and prison tiers. Dad was at war with this destiny.”

The Famous OptionThe Great Gilly Hopkins, Katherine Paterson

Books for Massachusetts

Fiction: Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

“I know it’s not cool to like Infinite Jest anymore, but I still love it in all its enormous, cerebral absurdity, and I love the weird version of Boston it illuminates/invents. I’m not alone, either—here’s a detailed map of the area with markers for where moments in the book take place (or are referred to).

Nonfiction: Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Nick Flynn

“I admire Flynn’s poetry (his debut, Some Ether, is remarkable), but I first came to him through this memoir, which I picked up because of its top-notch title. The memoir centers on Flynn’s relationship with his father, whom he met for the first time at a homeless shelter—Flynn Jr. working there, Flynn Sr. sleeping there. The book is grim and hazy, the prose experimental at times and wrenching at others. Not a lot happens, despite the hysterical premise, but isn’t that just like a life?

The Famous Option: Walden, Henry David Thoreau

The Famous Option I Add: Gone Baby Gone, Dennis Lehane

Gone Baby Gone – 4.5 Stars

“Powerful and raw, harrowing, and unsentimental.”

Washington Post Book World

 

“Chilling, completely credible….[An] absolutely gripping story.”

Chicago Tribune

 

“Mr. Lehane delivers big time.”
Wall Street Journal

 

“In Gone, Baby, Gone, the master of the new noir, New York Times bestselling author Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Shutter Island), vividly captures the complex beauty and darkness of working-class Boston. A gripping, deeply evocative thriller about the devastating secrets surrounding a little girl lost, featuring the popular detective team of Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, Gone, Baby, Gone was the basis for the critically acclaimed motion picture directed by Ben Affleck and starring Casey Affleck, Ed Harris, and Morgan Freeman.

“Cheese Olamon, “a six-foot-two, four-hundred-and-thirty-pound yellow-haired Scandinavian who’d somehow arrived at the misconception he was black,” is telling his old grammar school friends Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro why they have to convince another mutual chum, the gun dealer Bubba Rugowski, that Cheese didn’t try to have him killed. “You let Bubba know I’m clean when it comes to what happened to him. You want me alive. Okay? Without me, that girl will be gone. Gone-gone. You understand? Gone, baby, gone.” Of all the chilling, completely credible scenes of sadness, destruction, and betrayal in Dennis Lehane’s fourth and very possibly best book about Kenzie and Gennaro, this moment stands out because it captures in a few pages the essence of Lehane’s success.

“Private detectives Kenzie and Gennaro, who live in the same working-class Dorchester neighborhood of Boston where they grew up, have gone to visit drug dealer Cheese in prison because they think he’s involved in the kidnapping of 4-year-old Amanda McCready. Without sentimentalizing the grotesque figure of Cheese, Lehane tells us enough about his past to make us understand why he and the two detectives might share enough trust to possibly save a child’s life when all the best efforts of traditional law enforcement have failed. By putting Kenzie and Gennaro just to one side of the law (but not totally outside; they have several cop friends, a very important part of the story), Lehane adds depth and edge to traditional genre relationships. The lifelong love affair between Kenzie and Gennaro–interrupted by her marriage to his best friend–is another perfectly controlled element that grows and changes as we watch. Surrounded by dead, abused, and missing children, Kenzie mourns and rages while Gennaro longs for one of her own. So the choices made by both of them in the final pages of this absolutely gripping story have the inevitability of life and the dazzling beauty of art.” Amazon

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Gone Baby Gone IMBd 7.7

Books for Michigan

FictionThe Turner House, Angela Flournoy

Flournoy’s recent debut—a finalist for the National Book Award—is a portrait of a family but also a portrait of their city: Detroit. The family home—and what to do about it—is the center of the novel, but the joy of it comes from the many characters, the matter-of-fact magic, and Flournoy’s excellent writing.

NonfictionDetroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, Mark Binelli

A series of essays about Detroit that moves past the flashy narratives and digs into the truth—both good and bad, both new and old—of the city.

The Famous OptionThe Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides

Books for Minnesota

FictionHistory of Wolves, Emily Fridlund

Here’s another recent one: a novel about a 14-year-old girl who finds herself more or less alone, untethered by her ex-commune-member parents, in the cold woods of northern Minnesota—until a new family moves in across the lake and she finds herself all wound up in their mysterious lives. Lots of evocative descriptions of the desolation and isolation of the landscape here, a kind of cold emptiness that permeates the rest of the book.

NonfictionThe Latehomecomer, Kao Kalia Yang

Kao Kalia Yang was born in a Hmong refugee camp in Vietnam. From there, her family made it to the US, settling in St. Paul. As much as this is a classic American story of the immigrant experience in a new place, it is also an exploration of the Hmong people—a group about which most Americans are completely ignorant. The winner of the 2009 Minnesota Book Award.

The Famous OptionMain Street, Sinclair Lewis

Books for Mississippi

FictionSing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

I love everything Ward writes, so here I’ll just pick her most recent novel, the story of a family haunted—by their own sins, by the sins of their country, by those that have gone and by those that are still here. Ward mixes the terrifyingly real and the silkily surreal in the best of ways, and this novel should be read by everyone.

NonfictionOne Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty’s another one—anything she writes is good. This is her memoir of growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, where she was born in 1909, and of the places she knew, and of course, of becoming one of the south’s greatest writers (though she never would have put it that way) among them.

The Famous OptionThe Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner

Books for Missouri

FictionEnemy Women, Paulette Jiles

This is the wonderful Paulette Jiles’s first novel: the story of a young woman living in the Ozarks during the Civil War. Her family has staunchly remained neutral, but that doesn’t stop soldiers from throwing her in jail. Fantastic, unsentimental writing and a captivating story.

By the way, Missouri has a lot of good fiction to its name. Others I’d have liked to include: Stoner, by John Williams, Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell, Fifth Born, by Zelda Lockhart, and The Moonflower Vine, by Jetta Carleton.

NonfictionBettyville, George Hodgman

When George Hodgman goes home to Paris (Paris, Missouri) for his mother’s 91st birthday party, he isn’t intending to stay. After all, Paris hadn’t been kind to him as a young gay man, and his mother hadn’t much approved of—or tried to understand—that “lifestyle.” But Betty needs help, and George stays, and the result is a funny, tender-hearted memoir of love and family and coming home again.

See also: the truly hilarious Priestdaddy by Patrica Lockwood.

The Famous OptionAdventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

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IMBd Rating 8.2/10

Books for Montana

FictionFools Crow, James Welch

A coming-of-age story about a young Blackfoot living in the Montana he’s always known, where the natural world, dreams, and the old ways guide a peaceful life—but of course, white men are coming to change everything. In some ways, it’s a story we (unfortunately) already know well, but the prose makes it a standout.

NonfictionThis House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind, Ivan Doig

Doig is a celebrated chronicler of Montana, his homeland, with some sixteen books to his name. In his memoir, a finalist for the 1979 National Book Award for Contemporary Thought, he tells the story of his Montana childhood, with the death of his mother, his grieving father, and the other lives and the wild world that surrounded him.

The Famous OptionA River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean

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IMBd Rating 7.3/10

Books for Nebraska

FictionDalva, Jim Harrison

In this novel, a woman named Dalva returns to the Nebraska of her youth to seek out the son she abandoned 30 years earlier, and finds, perhaps it is needless to say, rather more than she expected.

NonfictionOld Jules, Mari Sandoz

Nebraskan novelist Mari Sandoz’s Old Jules is a biography of her pioneer father. “I have also,” she writes in the foreword, “tried in a larger sense to make it the biography of a community, the upper Niobrara country in western Nebraska. The book grew out of a childhood and adolescence spent among the story-tellers of the frontier . . . out of the long hours in the smoky old kitchen on the Running Water, the silent hours of listening behind the stove or in the wood box, when it was assumed that of course I was asleep in bed.”

The Famous OptionMy Antonia, Willa Cather

“My Ántonia is a novel published in 1918 by American writer Willa Cather, considered one of her best works. It is the final book of her “prairie trilogy” of novels, preceded by O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark.

The novel tells the stories of an orphaned boy from Virginia, Jim Burden, and the elder daughter in a family of Bohemian immigrants, Ántonia Shimerda, who are each brought as children to be pioneers in Nebraska towards the end of the 19th century. Both the pioneers who first break the prairie sod for farming, as well as of the harsh but fertile land itself, feature in this American novel. The first year in the very new place leaves strong impressions in both children, affecting them lifelong.

“This novel is considered Cather’s first masterpiece. Cather was praised for bringing the American West to life and making it personally interesting.”

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IMBd Rating 6.7/10

Books for Nevada

FictionBattleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins

This is a fantastic collection—strange and wan and oddly sexy and troubled and very much rooted in its setting. As Antonya Nelson put it in the New York Times Book Review, the most striking thing about the book

is its physical landscape, especially as it affects the people who stake their claims on its inhospitable terrain. The reader is introduced to Reno’s founders, both the notorious and the anonymous; to figures who are insiders as well as outsiders; to personalities with historical pedigrees and to ones concocted to perfectly fit the crime. The point of view roams, but the Nevada setting provides a hard ground on which the reader counts for stability. Although the individual stories stand alone, together they tell the tale of a place, and of the population that thrives and perishes therein.

NonfictionVegas: Memoir of a Dark Season, John Gregory Dunne

Despite its subheading, this book isn’t exactly nonfiction. It’s not exactly fiction, either. Dunne told The Paris Review: “I always thought of Vegas as a novel, but Random House said, It doesn’t read like a novel, and I said, A novel is anything the writer says the book is, and since I made most of it up, it can’t be nonfiction. So we ended up calling it a fiction. A lot of it is true. The prostitute did write poetry, although the poetry I used in Vegas is not hers. It was actually written by my wife, who as a child had memorized a lot of Sara Teasdale poems. I can write you bad poetry, she said. So there are two little poems in there that Joan actually wrote.” Which honestly should be all you need to seek it out, but it’s also funny and very filthy, if that helps.

For more traditional works of nonfiction, you might check out Robert Laxalt’s Sweet Promised Land, or any of the many books about how some particular number of particular some kind of people took Vegas and how you can too!

The Famous OptionFear & Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson

Books for New Hampshire

FictionThe Virgins, Pamela Erens

I adore this delicious novel about young love and longing at a New Hampshire boarding school, told with a James Salterian distance that turns it into a book as much about the power of storytelling as it is about teenage sex (or the lack thereof).

NonfictionKooKooLand, Gloria Norris

In the 1960s, Norris was a tough nine-year-old growing up in the projects of Manchester with a violent and tyrannical father and a terrified mother. Over the course of this memoir, she escapes—but not without leaving some pieces behind, and taking some others along with her.

The Famous OptionA Separate Peace, John Knowles

Books for New Jersey

FictionThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz

Well, this probably could have gone into the “famous” category, what with its heap of prizes, but it seemed ill-advised to crowd Roth, considering he’s not going to get any other love on this list. Díaz’s fantastic debut novel stars the unforgettable Oscar, a chubby Dominican-American nerd who may or may not be a victim of an old family curse that reached across the ocean from the Dominican Republic to Paterson, New Jersey.

A hat tip, too, to David Gates’s Jernigan, another fine Jersey novel about a young American discontent.

NonfictionThe Pine Barrens, John McPhee

Anyone who’s seen The Sopranos knows something about the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, but McPhee’s work uncovers much more—about the ecology and history of the unusual place, a vast silty wilderness in the middle of the state, as well as those who live there, the pineys, who many in the state consider to be “weird and sometimes dangerous barefoot people who live in caves, marry their sisters and eat snakes.” A relatively early example of McPhee’s wonderful writing about place.

The Famous OptionPortnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth

 Book by Nelson Johnson

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IMBd Rating 8.6/10

Books for New Mexico

FictionBless Me, Ultima, Rudolfo Anaya

Take the coming-of-age story you know and add a curandera—the titular healer who comes to live with six-year-old Antonio Juan Márez y Luna and his family in in 1940s Guadalupe, New Mexico. Catholicism and magic, man and nature, mother and father are all at odds here, but the central story is about the relationship of Antonio and Ultima, who does her best to guide him through the conflicts.

NonfictionGreat River, Paul Horgan

Horgan’s epic Pulitzer Prize-winning book, published in 1955, traces the Rio Grande through the Southwest, telling the stories of multiple peoples of the region as it goes. This was only the first of two Pulitzers Horgan would get for New Mexico-related works—the other, Lamy of Santa Fe, rather undermines Willa Cather’s classic below.

The Famous OptionDeath Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather

Books for New York

FictionSpeedboat, Renata Adler · Open City, Teju Cole

Like California, New York is a place of many novels, and so I couldn’t limit to myself to just one here. Even two is ludicrously insufficient—you know the drill. For me, Adler’s Speedboat, despite being written in the 70s, is the novel that most closely reflects the feeling of being a young woman in New York City, in all its poetic, fragmented, harsh, discursive dream-sense. Cole’s Open City represents an experience outside of my own—its protagonist, so to speak, is a young Nigerian immigrant—but is equally recognizable and vital to anyone who has walked the streets of the city, both feet and brain loosed to wander. Both of these selections, I see only now, are essentially plotless, which seems rather fitting for our fair city, in which chance and change and aimlessness reign.

Of course, if you so desire, you may exchange either of the above for Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, Don Delillo’s Underworld, Toni Morrison’s Jazz, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker, etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum. Everyone has their own New York, after all.

NonfictionJust Kids, Patti Smith · Up in the Old Hotel, Joseph Mitchell

Two modern classics here: Patti Smith’s touching memoir of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, spangled with 60s luminaries and luminaries-in-training, and the 1992 mega-collection of Joseph Mitchell’s writing about New York, all of it originally published in The New Yorker.

The Famous Option(s)The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald · The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger · Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

[The Famous Option(s) I Add]: Breakfast at Tiffany’s 

[The Famous Option(s) I Add]: Wiseguy [Basis for Movie Good Fellas]

[The Famous Option(s) I Add]: Last of the Mohicans

[The Famous Option(s) I Add]: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

[The Famous Option(s) I Add]: Rip Van Winkle

Books for North Carolina

FictionSerena, Ron Rash

Ron Rash’s fourth novel is sometimes likened to an Appalachian Macbeth, with king and queen as Depression-era logging magnates—but honestly, Serena is much more terrifying than Lady Macbeth: the trees might come to her, but she’s going to cut them all down, and anyone else who might come with them. And the trees are in full effect here, as Rash’s lyrical descriptions of the North Carolina mountains flesh out the book in all its grim glory.

NonfictionKlansville, USA: the Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan, David Cunningham

Apparently—and somewhat incredibly—in the 1960s, North Carolina had more Klan members than all of the other southern states combined. Also incredibly—and horribly, and disgustingly, and frighteningly—the history of the KKK has become suddenly much more relevant to your daily life than it was a month ago. Here’s some history.

The Famous OptionCold Mountain, Charles Frazier

New York Times Best Seller for 62 Weeks

“Sorely wounded and fatally disillusioned in the fighting at Petersburg, a Confederate soldier named Inman decides to walk back to his home in the Blue Ridge mountains to Ada, the woman he loves. His trek across the disintegrating South brings him into intimate and sometimes lethal converse with slaves and marauders, bounty hunters and witches, both helpful and malign. At the same time, the intrepid Ada is trying to revive her father’s derelict farm and learning to survive in a world where the old certainties have been swept away. As it interweaves their stories, Cold Mountain asserts itself as an authentic odyssey, hugely powerful, majestically lovely, and keenly moving.”

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IMBd Rating 7.2/10

Books for North Dakota

FictionThe Grass Dancer, Susan Power

Power’s debut novel, set on a North Dakota Sioux reservation, won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for Best First Fiction when it was published in 1995. It jumps around, through decades and characters, but somewhat centering on the young Harley Wind Soldier, whose mother has been silent ever since his father and brother died seventeen years before.

Though I’ve barred myself from including wide-ranging travel narratives, I do feel that I should mention John Steinbeck’s musings on North Dakota in Travels with Charley here:

Curious how a place unvisited can take such a hold on the mind so that the very name sets up a ringing. To me such a place was Fargo, North Dakota. . . If you will take a map of the United States and fold it in the middle, eastern edge against western, and crease it sharply, right in the crease will be Fargo. On double-page maps sometimes Fargo gets lost in the binding. That may not be a very scientific method for finding the east-west middle of the country, but it will do. But beyond this, Fargo to me is brother to the fabulous places of the earth, kin to those magically remote spots mentioned by Herodotus and Marco Polo and Mandeville. From my earliest memory, if it was a cold day, Fargo was the coldest place on the continent. If heat was the subject, then at that time the papers listed Fargo as hotter than any place else, or wetter or drier, or deeper in snow. That’s my impression anyway.

NonfictionThe Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere, Debra Marquart

Poet Debra Marquart’s memoir of growing up on a dairy farm in North Dakota begins with opposition. “Farmboys,” she writes. “How we avoided them when they came around, their hands heavy with horniness, their bodies thick with longing. Be careful of farmboys, we warned each other. They know how to plant seeds.” And all oppositions in this volume come down to one: the beauty of her ancestral home, and her nagging connection to it, rams up against Marquart’s desire to leave, to get as far away as possible, resulting in a lovely meditation on identity and place.

The Famous OptionLove Medicine, Louise Erdrich

Books for Ohio

FictionBeloved, Toni Morrison

Maybe the greatest American novel of all time—a ghost story about the America’s biggest and most omnipresent demon. Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Sula are also essential Ohio reading. Luckily, your bookshelf has no limits.

Also recommended: Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, in which a young girl disappears from a small town in Ohio in the 1970s.

NonfictionAmerican Splendor, Harvey Pekar

A chronicle of the day-to-day goings-on and existential crises of Harvey Pekar, native of Cleveland, Ohio, written by Pekar and illustrated by such luminaries as Alison Bechel, Robert Crumb, and Gilbert Hernandez. Surprisingly addictive.

The Famous OptionWinesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson

Books for Oklahoma

FictionTrue Grit, Charles Portis – 4.5 Stars

This is a delightful novel, in which the very forthright Mattie Ross hires a man “with grit” to help her hunt down the villain who has killed her father and fled into the Indian territories (now Oklahoma). Though much of the novel takes place in Arkansas, all the really memorable parts (the villain-shooting, the horseback-riding, the trapped halfway inside a bat cave while rattlers swarm out of a nearby skeleton-ing) happen over the border, and perhaps this is why is has been referred to as “The Great Oklahoma Novel.” In either state, it’s a must-read.

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IMBd Rating 7.6/10

NonfictionKillers of the Flower Moon, David Grann

The recent blockbuster from New Yorker writer David Grann tells the story of the Osage, Native Americans who are shoved into a corner of Oklahoma—only to find oil beneath it and become extremely wealthy. Then someone begins to murder them. More than two dozen people were shot, poisoned, or otherwise killed between 1920 and 1924, and eventually, the F.B.I was sent to investigate.  Grann turns the whole story into a captivating large-scale murder mystery that also happens to be true.

The Famous OptionThe Outsiders, S. E. Hinton

5 Stars

“The Outsiders is a coming-of-age novel by S. E. Hinton, first published in 1967 by Viking Press. Hinton was 15 when she started writing the novel, but did most of the work when she was 16 and a junior in high school.[1] Hinton was 18[2] when the book was published. The book follows two rival groups, the Greasers and the Socs (pronounced by the author as /ˈsoʊʃɪz/, short for Socials), who are divided by their socioeconomic status. The story is told in first-person narrative by protagonist Ponyboy Curtis.

“The story in the book takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1965,[2] but this is never stated in the book.” Wikipedia

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IMBd Rating 7.2/10

Books for Oregon

FictionLittle Century, Anna Keesey

A vivid novel about a teenage orphan who does what all orphans used to do, and heads west, to the frontier town of Century, Oregon, where she finds her cattle ranching cousin and a whole world she never imagined. Jonathan Evison puts it this way in the New York Times Book Review:

The real star of the novel is Oregon’s high desert, a vast, quiet plain Keesey captures in many of its dynamic moods, in language ranging from the plain­spoken to the elegant. Esther observes the lay of the land after arriving: “As far as she might walk to, or even see, to one side or the other, all is gray and sleeping under a shiver-thin coverlet of old snow.” And like all well-wrought settings, Keesey’s high desert has woven itself into the fabric of its inhabitants, as it has for Pick: “He remembered, always, the desert of his childhood. The vast quiet, the singular negotiations between a cold, calm man and a colder, calmer plain.”

I also have to mention Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn. What’s more Portlandian than freaks, amirite?

NonfictionHole in the Sky, William Kittredge

This gorgeous memoir takes place on Kittredge’s family cattle land in Warner Valley, what should have been a paradise and instead was simply the setting for his fall. In the first chapter, he writes:

Maybe children wake to a love affair every other morning or so; if given any chance, they seem to like the sight and smell and feel of things so much. Falling for the world could be a thing that happens to them all the time, I hope so, I hope it is purely commonplace. I’m trying to imagine that it is, that our childhood love of things is perfectly justifiable. Think of light and how far it falls, to us. To fall, we say, naming a fundamental way of going to the world–falling.

. . .

In the evening my father would drive along the central banks to study his crops as they emerged in undulating rows across the dark peat soil of the old swamplands. We could speculate on how much the seedlings had grown in just one day. We thought we could smell the growing. That little boy had no intimation that those moments would come to stand in memory as his approximation of perfection: his family, his life before him, the world in renewal.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – 4.5 Stars

The Famous OptionOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey

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IMBd Rating 8.7/10

Books for Pennsylvania

FictionThe Pittsburgh Cycle, August Wilson

Fiction: Fences, August Wilson

• Now a Major Motion Picture directed by Denzel Washington, and starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis (winner of the Academy Award and Golden Globe for her role)
• Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play 

“In his work, Mr. Wilson depicted the struggles of black Americans with uncommon lyrical richness, theatrical density and emotional heft, in plays that give vivid voices to people on the frayed margins of life.”—The New York Times – Amazon

From legendary playwright August Wilson, the powerful, stunning dramatic work that won him critical acclaim, including the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize.

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IMBd Rating 7.2/10

I also want to mention John Edgar Wideman’s Philadelphia Fire, a ferocious novel inspired by the real-life 1985 bombing of an African-American commune in Philadelphia.

NonfictionAn American Childhood, Annie Dillard

In Dillard’s lovely memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh, she remembers Penn Avenue, which “smelled of gasoline, exhaust fumes, trees’ sweetness in the spring, and, year round, burnt grit,” the “orange, clangy, beloved” streetcars, the cobblestones made from river mud, the “sidewalks whose topography was as intricate as Pittsburgh’s, and as hilly . . . cut into so many parts, so many legal divisions, that no one was responsible for all of it, and it all crumbled.”

The Famous OptionThe Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold

Books for Rhode Island

FictionThe Witches of Eastwick, John Updike

A coven of three thrives in the town of Eastwick: two divorcées and a widow, all of whom, once shed of their husbands, developed uncanny powers and now use them for general mischief and misandry. Enter Darryl Van Horne, mysterious un-handsome stranger, who rather stirs the cauldron, resulting in death, destruction, and a darkly hilarious ending.

NonfictionDown City, Leah Carroll

When you think ‘Rhode Island,’ you probably don’t immediately think ‘mafia’—but it was mob-connected drug dealers who murdered Leah Carroll’s mother when she was a toddler, and who got off light in return for spilling what they knew. Her alcoholic father, on the other hand, dies while she’s a teenager. This memoir is a portrait of them both, and of the daughter they left scrambling, and finally the story of the the double-sided coin of Providence in the 90s, both the suburbs and the seedy side.

The Famous OptionMy Sister’s Keeper, Jodi Picoult

Books for South Carolina

Bastard Out of Carolina – 4.5 Stars

FictionBastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison

A classic of rural Southern literature, this harrowing novel is narrated by Bone, whose mother, in an attempt to legitimize the child she had out of wedlock at 15, marries a man (“Daddy Glen”). Perhaps needless to say, he only makes things worse, sexually abusing his stepdaughter and driving an even bigger wedge through the center of the family.

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IMBd Rating 7.5/10

NonfictionBrown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson

Woodson’s elegant memoir in verse, which won a 2014 National Book Award, tells the story of her childhood in Greenville, South Carolina (and later, New York, which affords her an effective contrast—”We remember the collards growing/ down south, the melons, fresh picked/ and dripping with a sweetness New York / can never know”) in the late 60s. It’s a book about transitions, a girl becoming a writer, a family moving from South to North, and the larger cultural shift, too—or lack thereof: “In downtown Greenville, / they painted over the WHITE ONLY signs, / except on the bathroom doors, / they didn’t use a lot of paint/ so you can still see the words, right there / like a ghost standing in front / still keeping you out.”

The Famous OptionThe Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd – 4.5 Stars

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IMBd Rating 7.3/10

Books for South Dakota

FictionSkins, Adrian C. Louis

This debut novel by Louis, also a prolific poet, is set on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, where beleaguered tribal cop—complete with alcoholic brother and failing marriage—Rudy Yellow Shirt hits his head and wakes up changed into a ferocious vigilante and sets out to save, or otherwise avenge, his people. It doesn’t turn out exactly right, as you might imagine. A grim portrait of life on a reservation, infused with dark humor and not a little violence.

See also: Shadowbahn, by Steve Erickson, in which the twin towers reappear in the badlands, and one of them has Elvis’s twin living inside.

Lakota Woman – 4.5 Stars

NonfictionLakota Woman, Mary Brave Bird (Mary Crow Dog)

Brave Bird’s memoir, which won an American Book Award in 1991, describes her youth on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota and her participation in the American Indian Movement, including her participation at seventeen in the incident at Wounded Knee in 1973, where, “during a firefight, with bullets crashing through one wall and coming out the other,” she gave birth to her first child.

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IMBd Rating 7.4/10

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee – 4.5 Stars

The Famous OptionBury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown

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IMBd Rating 7.2/10

The Famous Option: Dances with Wolves, Michael Blake – 4.5 Stars

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IMBd Rating 8.0/10

Tennessee

FictionWise Blood, Flannery O’Connor

O’Connor’s first novel is a brutal and bizarre masterpiece of Southern Gothic literature, in which a man—the grandson of a preacher—comes back from World War II a sworn atheist, but finds himself not quite capable of escaping his belief. As O’Connor herself put it in the preface to a 1962 edition, “The book was written with zest and, if possible, it should be read that way. It is a comic novel about a Christian malgré lui, and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.”

NonfictionMy Own Country, Abraham Verghese

In the mid-80s, Abraham Verghese was a young doctor living in Johnson City, Tennessee, “the embodiment of small-town America, 72 churches watching over the flock, the perfect symmetry of the Lions and Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, with their staggered meeting dates.” Then patients began appearing with an unknown, deadly illness. A specialist in infectious diseases, Verghese was the best-equipped doctor in the area to deal with this sudden rash of what turned out of HIV-positive patients, but still, he watched the number of AIDS cases go from zero to eighty over four years. I read this memoir long ago, in high school, and still I remember it, and the sense of both the specific place and the country at large that it imparted.

The Famous OptionA Death in the Family, James Agee

Books for Texas

FictionWoman Hollering Creek, Sandra Cisneros

A classic collection of short stories—mostly about Mexican-American women, largely set in San Antonio, though the border is crossed and crossed again in mind and body—separated into three sections that investigate childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. The end effect is a tapestry of longing and belonging, a portrait in pattern.

NonfictionThe Liar’s Club, Mary Karr

No one writes like Mary Karr—all whip-crack heart and shiny-edged eyes—and her memoir of growing up in an East Texas oil town is a full-fledged knockout.

The Famous OptionLonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry

Books for Utah

FictionRiders of the Purple Sage, Zane Grey

One of the early important Westerns, written in 1912 by prolific author, American West mythologizer, and capable dentist Zane Grey, in which a young woman escapes the Mormon community that persecutes her, picking up a couple of cowboys along the way.

NonfictionRefuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, Terry Tempest Williams

“Everything about Great Salt Lake is exaggerated,” Terry Tempest Williams writes in the prologue to her landmark work. “[T]he heat, the cold, the salt, and the brine. It is a landscape so surreal one can never know what it is for certain.” What is for certain is that her mother is dead, from cancer brought on by nuclear testing in the nearby desert, just like most of the other women in her family. What is for certain is that the birds are disappearing. This is an evocative memoir of loss joined with an examination of humanity’s fraught relationship to nature—and certain humans’ peace with it.

The Famous OptionThe Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer

Books for Vermont

FictionThe Secret History, Donna Tartt

I lived for four years in rural Vermont, and I can tell you true: no novel feels as much like the state as Donna Tartt’s masterpiece of a debut. It follows a group of classics students at the fictional Hampden College as they seek transcendence and devolve into murder—and then as they deal with the aftermath. There is plenty of snow.

NonfictionBag Balm and Duct Tape: Tales of a Vermont Doctor, Beach Conger

Everyone in Vermont uses Bag Balm, and in case you don’t know what that is, it is a sort of salve originally meant to rub into cows’ udders (those would be the bags) after milking, but which Vermont humans use to treat chapped lips, rough hands, burns, and skin irritations of almost every variety. This chummy memoir tells the story of a young M.D. who comes from California to rural Vermont and adapts to life as a country doctor.

The Famous OptionPollyanna, Eleanor H. Porter

Books for Virginia

FictionThe Known World, Edward P. Jones

Set 20 years before the Civil War in Manchester County, this Pulitzer Prize-winning debut tells the story of a young slave who became a slave owner himself, before dying at the age of 31 and leaving his wife to grapple with his legacy. A complex and challenging novel that everyone should read.

NonfictionThe Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, Annette Gordon-Reed

Charlottesville has a bizarre relationship with Thomas Jefferson—as Jia Tolentino recently mentioned in her piece about the city’s history of racism in The New Yorker—and Monticello makes for an uneasy tourist attraction. But it’s still a fascinating one, with tendrils that spool out in many directions, including that of Sally Hemings, the slave Thomas Jefferson kept as a “mistress.” Historian Annette Gordon-Reed’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning book tells the story of Sally Hemings and her family—including the six children she had with Jefferson, and spanning from the 1700s to 1826—as well as the history of slavery in Virginia.

I must also mention Hold Still, the memoir by photographer Sally Mann, which skillfully evokes the loamy magic of certain parts of the state, using both narrative and photography to weave together a sometimes-disturbing, sometimes-idyllic view.

The Famous OptionBridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson

[Another Famous Option: Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly

I am adding Hidden Figures because it is a book about research done at the NASA Langley Research  Center in Virginia.

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Books for Washington

FictionThe Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie

Really, everything Alexie writes is a delight, so if you’re going to Washington (or even if you aren’t—the book ranges a bit anyway), I’d suggest loading up. This collection of connected short stories focuses primarily on Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, young Native American men who live on a reservation in Spokane. Alexie is adept at braiding the realistic and surrealistic, the contemporary and the traditional, the hilarious and the heartbreaking, and these stories add up to exhilarating portraiture of a place and a group of people.

NonfictionThis Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff

A darkly funny, fraught memoir of a troubled childhood spurred by an abusive stepfather in Concrete, Washington that proves going West doesn’t always—or perhaps ever—solve all your problems. A useful American lesson, that.

The Famous OptionSnow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson

Books for West Virginia

FictionJohn Henry Days, Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days tackles the story of American folk hero John Henry (the “steel-driving man”) through an opportunistic and kind of terrible young journalist, J. Sutter, sent to West Virginia to attend a John Henry festival and see the unveiling of a John Henry stamp.

I also want to mention Ann Pancake’s Strange as This Weather Has Been, a heavily-researched and brilliantly-written novel about the ravages of coal mining on one particular family.

NonfictionThe Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls

This widely-beloved memoir is about Walls and her siblings growing up in (among other places) the ditchwater town of Welch, West Virginia, at the mercy of their alcoholic father and erratic mother. Now a film—but read it first.

The Famous OptionRocket Boys, Homer Hickam

Books for Wisconsin

FictionAmerican Dervish, Ayad Akhtar

In this first novel, Akhtar tells one of the most American stories there is: that of a first-generation citizen, the child of immigrants, carving out a place for himself that has room for both his heritage and the possibilities open before him. Hayat is a young Pakistani-American whose life is upended when his mother’s beautiful friend Mina comes to stay with them in Milwaukee, bringing with her a deep faith—and a disruptive one. As Akhtar has said, the novel asks questions about femininity and faith, and the way these intersect with cultural conflicts in America. Mina, after all, “is imbued with a spiritual force, the book’s most powerful and inspiring agent of change. And yet she is a paradox: deeply devout, bound by her tradition, subject—in tragic ways—to a patriarchal order with which she struggles.”

Also, a shout-out to Craig Thompson’s Blankets, which nails the snow and isolation involved in any Wisconsin winter.

NonfictionEvicted, Matthew Desmond

Forget having a room of one’s own—many American citizens can’t even keep a roof over their heads. The winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction, Desmond’s crushing book is a deep-dive into the a varied group of people struggling to keep shelter in Milwaukee, and the cycle of poverty, loss, and systematic disenfranchisement that keeps shoving them out onto the streets.

The Famous OptionLittle House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder

Books for Wyoming

FictionCowboys and East Indians, Nina McConigley

Here’s a version of Wyoming you may not be familiar with, even if you’ve spent every second of your life there: Wyoming as seen from the perspective of the other kind of Indian—the kind actually from India. These ten stories examine the many facets of being brown in Wyoming—and being a cross-dresser, a mother, kleptomaniac exchange student—but also the feeling of Wyoming itself. It won a 2014 Pen Open Book Award, and the judge’s citation noted that the book “gives us Wyoming precisely the way we expect it—in landscape, sky, and animal life—and in ways we don’t.” Which is precisely what I want when I travel by literature.

NonfictionThe Solace of Open Spaces, Gretel Ehrlich

This classic series of essays relates Ehrlich’s experiences living on a small farm in Wyoming (cow punching is a thing), but also uses her specific stance to take a wider look at America at large. For instance, in one essay, she writes:

From the clayey soil of northern Wyoming is mined bentonite, which is used as filler in candy, gum, and lipstick. We Americans are great on fillers, as if what we have, what we are, is not enough. We have a cultural tendency toward denial, but being affluent, we strangle ourselves with what we can buy. We gave only to look at the houses we build to see how we build against space, the way we drink against pain and loneliness. We fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there.

Clarity of vision is of paramount importance here. The writing is beautiful but not quaint, particularly, and the journey is one of knowledge and discovery. As Judith Moore put it in The New York Times:

Although Miss Ehrlich’s suffering eventually abates, what comfort Wyoming gives her comes hard won. The Solace of Open Spaces depends upon none of the cheap effects—purple sunset, the face of God in still water—that breed what theologians call ”cheap grace,” salvation too easily won. By the time Miss Ehrlich meets a Wyoming man and they marry, she has been to the mountaintop and seen the mountain for what it is.

The Famous OptionClose Range, Annie Proulx

How to Create Characters in Writing – Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre as Character & Annie Dillard’s Father

Most stories center around a central character. The character may be a fuzzy, white circus dog or it may be a girl in Kansas whose life is turned topsy-turvy by a wicked witch and a tornado. The character may be a narcissistic Southern debutante whose life is destroyed by the Civil War or it might be that of the narcissist’s sweet and meek cousin Miss Melanie Hamilton. The character might be that of a New Englander who is forced to wear a letter “A” on her dress or it might be that of a pompous, arrogant, and zealous 16th-century minister. Regardless of who they are and what their predicaments become through the workings of the plot, stories focus upon characters. The better the writer can create his characters, the better his stories will be.

If the story is fiction, such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, we may begin to understand the character by the words she speaks in dialogue:

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” ― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

“I am not an angel,’ I asserted; ‘and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself. Mr. Rochester, you must neither expect nor exact anything celestial of me – for you will not get it, any more than I shall get it of you: which I do not at all anticipate.” ― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Or our understandings of a story’s character might evolve as we observe what a person actually does.

“You can tell a lot about a fellow’s character by his way of eating jellybeans. ” ― Ronald Reagan

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” ― Abraham Lincoln

“Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” ― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

“Grudges are for those who insist that they are owed something; forgiveness, however, is for those who are substantial enough to move on.”
― Criss Jami, Salomé: In Every Inch In Every Mile

When writing nonfiction, might approach the creating of his characters differently, but his approach should not be less creative. Look at some of the ways that Annie Dillard creates the character of her father in her book of memoir An American Childhood:

Annie Dillard is an exemplary memoir writer, and her memoir books read like great fiction.

In chapter 1 of her book American Childhood, Dillard demonstrates her skill with creating setting or sense of place for her memoir Here. 

In chapter 2 of the same book, Dillard skillfully brings her dad back to life Here:

Image result for an american childhood by annie dillard  “In 1955, when I was ten, my father’s reading went to his head.
“My father’s reading during that time, and for many years before and after, consisted for the most part of Life on the Mississippi. … There were dozens of copies of Life on the Mississippi on the living-room shelves.
. . .
“When all this reading went to my father’s head, he took action. .. He quit the firm his great-grandfather had [p. 6] founded a hundred years earlier down the river at his family’s seat in Louisville, Kentucky; he sold his own holdings in the firm. He was taking off for New Orleans.

“New Orleans was the source of the music he loved: Dixieland jazz, O Dixieland. In New Orleans men would blow it in the air and beat it underfoot, the music that hustled and snapped, the music whose zip matched his when he was a man-about-town at home in Pittsburgh, working for the family firm; the music he tapped his foot to  when he was a man-about-town in New York for a few years after college working for the family firm by day and hanging on at Jimmy Ruan’s on Fifty-second Street with Zutty Singleton, the black drummer who befriended him, and the rest of the house band.” Dillard, An American Childhood, pgs. 6-7.

Dillard begins to create the character of her dad in an anecdotal way. Afterward, she begins to develop his character through description:

“When our mother met Frank Doak, he was twenty-seven: witty, boyish, bookish, unsnobbish, a good dancer. He had grown up an only child in Pittsburgh, attended Shady Side Academy, and Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, where he studied history. He was a lapsed Presbyterian and a believing Republican. ‘Books make the man,’ read the blue bookplate in all his books.” Dillard, An American Childhood, p. 8.

A few paragraphs later, Dillard allows us to observe her father’s behavior, and she allows us to enter into his thought process–that is an important part of a character.

“It was a long way to New Orleans. . . . It was September; people had abandoned their pleasure boats for the season; their children were back in school. There were no old salts on the docks talking river talk. People weren’t so friendly as they were in Pittsburgh. There was no music except the dreary yacht-club jukeboxes playing ‘How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?’ Jazz had come up the river once and for all. . . . He was living alone on  beans in a boat and having witless conversations with lockmasters. He mailed out sad postcards.
“From phone booths all down the Ohio River he talked to Mother. She told him that she was lonesome, too, and that three children–maid and nanny or no–were a handful.She said, further, that people were starting to talk. She knew Father couldn’t bear people’s talking. For all his dreaminess, he prized respectability above all. . . .After only six weeks, then–on the River at Louisville–he sold the boat and flew home.” Dillard, An American Childhood, p. 10.

In a masterful way, Dillard allows us to process her dad’s thoughts through what her mother has said to him, and afterward, we witness her dad’s response. Her dad’s response suggests the essence of Dillard’s father’s character.

“Choices determine character.” ― Brandon Mull, Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary

Because good  characterization is vital to good storytelling, it is an important skill to study. When our stories have been told, it is the characters within those stories that have the power to stay.

“All morning I struggled with the sensation of stray wisps of one world seeping through the cracks of another. Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes — characters even — caught in the fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you.” ― Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale

But her father is not the main character in Dillard’s memoir–Dillard is. When we read what Dillard says of her reaction to her father’s trip down the river, we begin to discover a bit about Dillard herself:

“Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along; is this sad? They walk like sleepwalkers, in full stride; they wake like people brought back from cardiac arrest or from drowning. . . .

‘i woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years. I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again. I woke at intervals until, by that September when Father went down the river, the intervals of waking tipped the scales, and I was more often awake than not. I noticed this process of waking, and predicted with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.

“Consciousness converges with the child as a landing tern touches the outspread feet of its shadow on the sand: precisely, toe hits toe. The tern folds its wings to sit; its shadow dips and spreads over the sand to meet and cup its breast.
“Like any child, I slid into myself perfectly fitted, as a diver meets her reflection in a pool. Her fingertips enter the fingertip on the water, her wrists slide up her arms. The diver wraps herself in her reflection wholly, sealing it at the toes, and wears it as she climbs rising from the pool, and ever after. [p. 11]
“I never woke, at first, without recalling, chilled, all those other waking times, those similar stark views from similarly lighted precipices: dizzying precipices from which the distant, glittering world revealed itself as a brooding and separated scene–and so let slip a queer implication, that I myself was both observer and observable, and so a possible object of my own humming awareness. Wherever I stepped into the porcelain bathtub, the bath’s hot water sent a shock traveling up my bones. The skin on my arms pricked up, and the hair rose on the back of my skull, I saw my own firm foot press the tub, and the pale shadows waver over it, as if I were looking down from the sky and remembering this scene forever. The skin on my face tightened, as it had always done whenever I stepped into the tube, and remembering it all drew a swinging line, loops connecting the dots, all the way back. You again.” Dillard, An American Childhood, pgs. 11-12.

In the opening lines of the movie version of Gone Baby Gone, the narrator raises another important consideration of character. In many cases, people are determined by their settings and the circumstances into which they are born:

Patrick Kenzie: I always believed it was the things you don’t choose that makes you who you are. Your city, your neighborhood, your family. People here take pride in these things, like it was something they’d accomplished. The bodies around their souls, the cities wrapped around those. I lived on this block my whole life; most of these people have. When your job is to find people who are missing, it helps to know where they started. I find the people who started in the cracks and then fell through. This city can be hard. When I was young, I asked my priest how you could get to heaven and still protect yourself from all the evil in the world. He told me what God said to His children. “You are sheep among wolves. Be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.”

How to Create a Character in Writing?

  1. Describe the way that the person looks. Be specific. Do not use cliché expressions like handsome or beautiful. Dig deeper and find words to tell what about the person makes him handsome or her beautiful. Don’t just say that he had black hair. Tell if the hair is straight, spiked, curly, and whether is reaches to the person’s navel or whether it is clipped above the ears.
  2. Allow the character to speak and allow the reader to understand the character by the words that he speaks and by his accent and by his use or abuse of grammar. If the character is Amish, he will use the words that Amish people use. If the character is from the 16th-century, he will speak in another way.
  3. Place your character in the setting that tells more about who he is. Is your character rural or is he a professor of law at Harvard?
  4. Use your five senses to tell more about the character. Does he smell like the pipe that he smokes in his library or does he smell like garlic? If so, why?

©Jacki Kellum October 16, 2016

A Lesson on Creating Great Characters for Writing – Annie Dillard – An American Childhood

Annie Dillard is an exemplary memoir writer, and her memoir books read like great fiction.

creative-nonfiction-jacki-kellum-1000

In chapter 1 of her book American Childhood, Dillard demonstrates her skill with creating setting or sense of place for her memoir Here. 

In chapter 2 of the same book, Dillard skillfully brings her dad back to life:

Image result for an american childhood by annie dillard  “In 1955, when I was ten, my father’s reading went to his head.
“My father’s reading during that time, and for many years before and after, consisted for the most part of Life on the Mississippi. … There were dozens of copies of Life on the Mississippi on the living-room shelves.
. . .
“When all this reading went to my father’s head, he took action. .. He quit the firm his great-grandfather had [p. 6] founded a hundred years earlier down the river at his family’s seat in Louisville, Kentucky; he sold his own holdings in the firm. He was taking off for New Orleans.

“New Orleans was the source of the music he loved: Dixieland jazz, O Dixieland. In New Orleans men would blow it in the air and beat it underfoot, the music that hustled and snapped, the music whose zip matched his when he was a man-about-town at home in Pittsburgh, working for the family firm; the music he tapped his foot to  when he was a man-about-town in New York for a few years after college working for the family firm by day and hanging on at Jimmy Ruan’s on Fifty-second Street with Zutty Singleton, the black drummer who befriended him, and the rest of the house band.
. . .
“Back in New Orleans where he was headed they would play the old stuff, the hot, rough stuff–bastardized for tourists maybe, but still the big and muddy source of it al. Back in New Orleans where he was headed the music would smell like the river itself, maybe, like a thicker, older version of the Allegheny River at Pittsburgh, where he heard the music beat in the roar of his boat’s inboard motor; like a thicker, older version of the wide Oio River at Louisville, Kentucky, where at his family’s summer house he’s spent his boyhood summers mucking about in boats.

“Getting ready for the trip one Saturday, he roamed around our big brick house snapping his fingers. He had put a record on: Sharkey Bonano, ‘Li’l Liza Jane.’ I was reading Robert Louis Stevenson on the sunporch: Kidnapped. I looked up from my book and saw him outside; he had wandered out to the lawn and was standing in the wind between the buckeye trees and looking up at what must have been a small patch of wild sky. Old Low-Pockets. he was six feet [p. 7] four, all lanky and leggy; he had thick brown hair and shaggy brows, and a mild and dreamy expression in his blue eyes.

“When our mother met Frank Doak, he was twenty-seven: witty, boyish, bookish, unsnobbish, a good dancer. He had grown up an only child in Pittsburgh, attended Shady Side Academy, and Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, where he studied history. He was a lapsed Presbyterian and a believing Republican. ‘Books make the man,’ read the blue bookplate in all his books.

 

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