Jacki Kellum

Juxtapositions: Read My Mind

Category: Art of Memoir

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

Is Lying in Memoirs Cheating? On Denial, Lying, and Wearing Facades

The very popular book A Million Little Pieces was published as a Memoir, but later, it was exposed as a lie.  The same thing happened with the book Primates of Park Avenue. In fact, several books that have been published as Memoirs have been exposed as fabrications. Your first question might be Why?

Question: Why Would Anyone Publish A Book of Lies and Call It A Memoir?

Answer: Memoirs are popular and they fare well on the market

In her book The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr suggests that because of the rising popularity of memoirs, some have jumped on the bandwagon of memoir writing, simply to ride it for a better chance at sales. That is sleazy, but I feel better for those memoir-writing liars than I do for the people whose lies in memoirs are simply extensions of their facades.

Mary Karr Challenges the Memoirist to be Truthful

Although Karr defends a writer’s freedom, she says that she is irritated by writers who sell their lies as truth. She challenges Vivian Gornick’s opinion that whether or not she embellishes her stories is nobody’s business:

“It niggles the hell out of me never to know exactly what parts the fabricators have fudged….

“Well, if I forked over a cover price for nonfiction, I consider it my business. While it’s great she owned up to her deceits, it’s hard to lend credence to any after-the-fact confession….”

“So here I stand with my little stick, attempting to draw a line in the dirt for the sake of memoir’s authenticity. Truth may have become a foggy, fuzzy nether area. But untruth is simple: making up events with the intention to deceive…..You know the difference between a vague memory and a clear one, and the vague ones either get left out or labeled dubious. It’s the clear ones that matter most anyway, because they’re the ones you’ve nursed and worried over and talked through and wondered about your whole life. And you’re  seeking the truth of memory–your memory and character–not of unbiased history. ” Karr, Mary  The Art of Memoir, pgs.10-11.

Our Denials Impact Our Memoir Writing

To a certain extent, all of us delude ourselves. We do that every day, and we call that phenomenon Denial.  I write about Denial quite often. When we begin to write our memoirs, our writings might reflect some of the partial truths that have been tainted by our own delusions, but that is not the same thing as blatantly lying in one’s memoir.

I am well into the process of writing my memoir, and I am painfully aware that I wasted several years of my life, wearing a facade and because of that, there has always been an enormous duality about my existence. Even as a young child, I was aware that there was something different about me. Probably before I even went to school, I realized that I was thinking about and noticing things that other people did not seem to note. By the time that I was in school, I was becoming quite sure that the other kids and I were living in 2 different worlds. Yet, I was a very social child. I wanted people to like me. I wanted to fit in; and because of that, I became 2 different people.

I well remember 6th grade. The science teacher was talking about taste buds; and on that day, I dared to actually try to express what was on my mind. I said, “I wonder if everyone’s taste buds taste the same way. I wonder if a carrot tastes the same way to me as it does to you.”

Everyone else in the room snickered, and the teacher’s face glazed over.

I didn’t get an answer, but I became convinced of what I had always suspected. People just didn’t get me.

For the world, I became Miss Congeniality, but deep inside, I was someone else. It took many years for me to accept that other-else, but over time, she became my best friend-a friend that other people might only imagine was there. The best thing about growing older is that all of the me’s have shifted around. Now, the creative-me–who was formerly the closet-me and only a whisper within my own mind–has become the REAL me; and the other-me–the social-butterfly-me–has been laid to rest. Don’t get me wrong. I still do fun things, but now, I do the things that I truly enjoy and that are meaningful to me. Writing has helped me to distinguish who I really am and what I honestly enjoy.

Hiding in Plain Sight
by Jacki Kellum

Smiling, Joking, Dancing, Free
That’s the Social Side of Me.

Tossing kisses from my car,
Scared, Confused Alone We Are.

If you look, you will see
The Scared, Confused and Social Three.

People Who Lie In Memoirs Deny Themselves of the Therapeutic Benefit of Writing

The memoir writer who lies in his writing is missing the greatest advantage of writing memoir–the therapeutic advantage of writing, but that therapeutic advantage comes with a cost.

In her book The Art of Memoir, Karr also discusses the toll that memoir writing takes on the writer:

“But nobody I know who’s written a great one described it as anything less than a major-league shit-eating contest. Any time you try to collapse the distance between your delusions about the past and what really happened, there’s suffering involved. When I’m trying to edit or coach somebody through one, I usually wind up feeling like the mean sergeant played by Tom Berenger in Platoon. He’s leaning over a screaming soldier whose guts are extruding, and in a husky whisper, Berenger says through gritted teeth, ‘Take the pain,’ till the guy shuts up and mechanically starts stuffing his guts back in.

“No matter how self-aware you are, memoir wrenches at your insides precisely because it makes you battle with your very self–your neat analyses and tidy excuses….

“In terms of cathartic affect memoir is like therapy, the difference being that in therapy, you pay them. The therapist is the mommy, and you’re the baby, In memoir, you’re the mommy, and the reader’s the baby. And–hopefully–they pay you. (‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote for any cause but money,’ Samuel Johnson said). ” Karr, Mary  The Art of Memoir, pgs. xx-xi.

If We Write Memoir for Therapeutic Reasons, We Cheat Ourselves of Therapy When We Lie

Mary Karr adds the following about the writer’s need to be truthful in writing memoir:

“Forget how inventing stuff breaks a contract with the reader, it fences the memoirist off from the deeper truths that only surface five or ten or twenty. Yoes, you can misinterpret–happens all the time…But unless you’re looking at actual lived experience, the more profound meanings will remain forever shrouded. You’ll never unearth the more complex truths, the ones that counter that convenient first take on the past. A memoirist forging false tales to support his more comfortable notions–or to pump himself up for the audience–never learns who he is. He’s missing the personal liberation that comes from the examined life. …

“But whether you’re a memoirist or not, there’s a psychic cost for lopping yourself off from the past: it may continue to tug on you without your being aware of it. And lying about it can–for all but the most hardened sociopath–carve a lonely gap between your disguise and who you really are. The practiced liar also projects her own manipulative, double-dealing facade onto everyone she meets, which makes moving through the world a wary, anxious enterprise. It’s hard enough to see what’s going on without forcing yourself to look through the wool you’ve pulled over your own eyes.”  Karr, Mary  The Art of Memoir, pgs. 11-12.

In summary, I toss my hat into the ring with the people who believe that lying in memoir writing is cheating. I believe that the lying memoirist cheats his reader, but more importantly than that, I believe that the lying memoirist cheats himself.

©Jacki Kellum September 29, 2016

Facade

Pretending to Write at Barnes and Noble – Stephen King Says If You Are Serious about Writing, Read More and Write More

I know that you have seen them. They are the people who load all of their writing gadgets and gear into their SUV’s and spread it across one or two of the few available tables at Barnes and Noble. They arm themselves with a Grande Espresso, and then, they begin yet another day of pretending to write at Barnes and Noble.

Perhaps I am being too harsh, but when I see folks who are trying very hard to play one part or another, I remember the Drugstore Hunters in Mississippi. Until I was 53-years-old, I lived in the Deep South, and hunting is still a great sport in the South. The fall is the time for dove hunting, and people hunt ducks during the winter.  My ex-husband had four brothers and probably had at least ten male cousins. That family was serious about hunting, and they always came home from their hunting trips laughing about this “Drugstore Hunter” or that. A Drugstore Hunter is someone who buys all of the most expensive hunting gadgets and dresses himself beautifully for his hunts, but he is not actually a hunter. In fact, many of the drugstore hunters may never leave the lodge or the hunting camp. They may spend the entire hunt drinking and partying. When I see the people making a great show of writing at Barnes and Noble, I always chuckle and whisper under my breath: “Drugstore Writers.” For many years, I was probably a Drugstore Writer–someone who likes to pretend to write–but now, I am buckling down and actually moving forward a bit. My bedroom is on the top floor of my house, and when I write, I prop myself up on my bed, put my laptop on my lap, and I just write.

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My room isn’t usually this neat, however. In fact, I moved my bed toward the center of the room and I have a bookshelf loaded with books that I am currently reading. That bookshelf is next to my bed.

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I have decided to heed Stephen King’s advice:

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“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, p. 145.

“One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose….
“Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creations of believable characters, and truth-telling.  A novel like The Grapes of Wrath may fill a new writer with feelings of despair and good old-fashioned jealousy–‘I’ll never be able to write anything that good, not is I live to be a thousand’–but such feelings can also serve as a spur, goading the writer to work harder and aim higher. Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing–of being flattened, in fact–is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you. [p. 146]

“So we read to experience the mediocre and the outright rotten; such experience helps us to recognize those things when they begin to creep into our own work, and to steer clear of them. We also read to measure ourselves against the good and the great, to get a sense of all that can be done. And we read in  order to experience different styles.” King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, pgs. 146-47.

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“It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but ‘didn’t have time to read,’ I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject?

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. – Stephen King

“Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life, I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there all sorts of opportunities to dip it. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows. Waiting rooms were made for books–of course! But so are theater lobbies before the show, long and boring checkout lines, and everyone’s [p. 147] the john. You can even read while you’re driving, thanks to the audiobook revolution.

. . .

“Where else can you read? There’s always the treadmill….

“Once weaned from the ephemeral craving for TV, most people will find they enjoy the time they spend reading. I’d like to suggest that turning off that endlessly quacking box is apt to improve the quality of your life as well as the quality of your writing.” King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, pgs. 148-49.

“…when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic. That goes for reading and writing as well as for playing a musical instrument, hitting a baseball, or running the four-forty.

“The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate–four to six hours a day, every day–will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them….” Stephen King

“the real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing….Constant reading will pull you  into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.” King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, p. 150.

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“…’read a lot, write a lot’ is the Great Commandment….” King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, p. 151.

“I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book….” King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, p. 155.

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“Like you bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream. Your schedule–in at about the same time every day…exists in order to habituate yourself, to make yourself ready to dream….In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives….

“But you need the room, you need the door, and you need the determination to shut the door. You need a concrete goal, as well.

. . .

“Don’t wait for the muse.” – Stephen King

 

. . .

“This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic.”  King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, pgs. 156-57.

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Allow me to return to my initial point: if we are serious about writing, we won’t be flittering our days away, making a huge display of our efforts at Bares and Noble or at Starbucks or at any other public place. When I am at Barnes and Noble, I am looking at books or at all of the Drugstore Writers. I am not there to write. When I want to write, I prop up in my bed, and I turn the rest of the world off. Then, I begin to write. I don’t wait for my muse to beat me to my writing spot. I simply show up and write. Try it. It works.

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Yesterday, on jackikellum.com, I posted a great reading list for writers who want to write about their own lives, and honestly, all of us write about our own lives–in one way or another. Mary Karr Reading List Here

©Jacki Kellum September 25, 2016

Pretend

Too Many Books – Too Little Time – A List of Memoir Books to Read

Dillard, Annie. An American Childhood. This morning, I snapped the above photo of the bookshelf that is next to my bed. Believe it or not, I am trying to read all of these books at once. I know that this is a recipe for craziness, but I am 65 years behind in my reading, and I feel panicky about my need to catch up.

In undergraduate school and in my first master’s program, I studied writing, but I also studied painting at the same time. The job gods found me several positions teaching art and then, I painted for a while. During the same time, I was marrying and divorcing and raising three children. There simply wasn’t enough time for me to do anything at all with my writing, and I didn’t want to be reminded that I wasn’t writing. Last year, I began blogging, and now, I want to do some writing that is more serious. I regret all of those years that I didn’t write and more than that, I regret the years that I didn’t read either. On some days, I am in panic-button mode, and I flit from book to book, not really absorbing much at all. On saner days, I slow down and accept the reality that tackling my reading list is like approaching any other gargantuan task–it can only be accomplished one bite at a time.

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At the back of her book The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr provides a list of books that she believes every memoir writer should read.  The following books are in my local library’s collection. Most of these books came from Mary Karr’s list [Note-All of the images and reviews came from Amazon, where the books can be published]:
Product DetailsAllende, Isabel. The Sum of Our Days

In The Sum of Our Days, internationally acclaimed author Isabel Allende reconstructs the painful reality of her own life in the wake of the tragic death of her daughter, Paula. Narrated with warmth, humor, exceptional candor, and wisdom, this remarkable memoir is as exuberant and full of life as its creator. Allende bares her soul as she shares her thoughts on love, marriage, motherhood, spirituality and religion, infidelity, addiction, and memory—and recounts stories of the wildly eccentric, strong-minded, and eclectic tribe she gathers around her and lovingly embraces as a new kind of family.

 

Product DetailsAngelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Here is a book as joyous and painful, as mysterious and memorable, as childhood itself.I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings captures the longing of lonely children, the brute insult of bigotry, and the wonder of words that can make the world right. Maya Angelou’s debut memoir is a modern American classic beloved worldwide.

Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.

Poetic and powerful, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings will touch hearts and change minds for as long as people read.
 
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings liberates the reader into life simply because Maya Angelou confronts her own life with such a moving wonder, such a luminous dignity.”—James Baldwin

Product DetailsAugustine, Saint, Confessions

The son of a pagan father and a Christian mother, Saint Augustine spent his early years torn between conflicting faiths and world views. His Confessions, written when he was in his forties, recount how, slowly and painfully, he came to turn away from his youthful ideas and licentious lifestyle, to become instead a staunch advocate of Christianity and one of its most influential thinkers. A remarkably honest and revealing spiritual autobiography, the Confessions also address fundamental issues of Christian doctrine, and many of the prayers and meditations it includes are still an integral part of the practice of Christianity today.

Product DetailsBeah, Ishmael. A Long Way Gone.

This is how wars are fought now: by children, hopped-up on drugs and wielding AK-47s. Children have become soldiers of choice. In the more than fifty conflicts going on worldwide, it is estimated that there are some 300,000 child soldiers. Ishmael Beah used to be one of them.

What is war like through the eyes of a child soldier? How does one become a killer? How does one stop? Child soldiers have been profiled by journalists, and novelists have struggled to imagine their lives. But until now, there has not been a first-person account from someone who came through this hell and survived.In A Long Way Gone, Beah, now twenty-five years old, tells a riveting story: how at the age of twelve, he fled attacking rebels and wandered a land rendered unrecognizable by violence. By thirteen, he’d been picked up by the government army, and Beah, at heart a gentle boy, found that he was capable of truly terrible acts.

Product DetailsBourdain, Anthony. Kitchen Confidential.
A deliciously funny, delectably shocking banquet of wild-but-true tales of life in the culinary trade from Chef Anthony Bourdain, laying out his more than a quarter-century of drugs, sex, and haute cuisine….
Most diners believe that their sublime sliver of seared foie gras, topped with an ethereal buckwheat blini and a drizzle of piquant huckleberry sauce, was created by a culinary artist of the highest order, a sensitive, highly refined executive chef. The truth is more brutal. More likely, writes Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential, that elegant three-star concoction is the collaborative effort of a team of “wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts, and psychopaths,”
Product DetailsCarr, David. The Night of the Gun.

From David Carr (1956–2015), the “undeniably brilliant and dogged journalist” (Entertainment Weekly) and author of the instant New York Times bestseller that theChicago Sun-Times called “a compelling tale of drug abuse, despair, and, finally, hope.”

Do we remember only the stories we can live with? The ones that make us look good in the rearview mirror? In The Night of the Gun, David Carr redefines memoir with the revelatory story of his years as an addict and chronicles his journey from crack-house regular to regular columnist for The New York Times.

Product DetailsCarroll, James. Practicing Catholic.
James Carroll turns to the notion of practice—both as a way to learn and a means of improvement—as a lens for this thoughtful and frank look at what it means to be Catholic. He acknowledges the slow and steady transformation of the Church from its darker, medieval roots to a more pluralist and inclusive institution, charting along the way stories of powerful Catholic leaders (Pope John XXIII, Thomas Merton, John F. Kennedy) and historical milestones like Vatican II. These individuals and events represent progress for Carroll, a former priest, and as he considers the new meaning of belief in a world that is increasingly as secular as it is fundamentalist, he shows why the world needs a Church that is committed to faith and renewal.
Product DetailsDidion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking.
From one of America’s iconic writers, a stunning book of electric honesty and passion. Joan Didion explores an intensely personal yet universal experience: a portrait of a marriage–and a life, in good times and bad–that will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband or wife or child.
The author of Slouching Towards Bethlehem and 11 other works chronicles the year following the death of her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne….
Product DetailsDillard, Annie. An American Childhood.
A book that instantly captured the hearts of readers across the country, An American Childhood is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard’s poignant, vivid memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s.
Annie Dillard remembers. She remembers the exhilaration of whipping a snowball at a car and having it hit straight on. She remembers playing with the skin on her mother’s knuckles, which “didn’t snap back; it lay dead across her knuckle in a yellowish ridge.” She remembers the compulsion to spend a whole afternoon (or many whole afternoons) endlessly pitching a ball at a target. In this intoxicating account of her childhood, Dillard climbs back inside her 5-, 10-, and 15-year-old selves with apparent effortlessness. The voracious young Dillard embraces headlong one fascination after another–from drawing to rocks and bugs to the French symbolists. “Everywhere, things snagged me,” she writes. “The visible world turned me curious to books; the books propelled me reeling back to the world.”
Product DetailsDouglass, Fredereck. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. 
Former slave, impassioned abolitionist, brilliant writer, newspaper editor and eloquent orator whose speeches fired the abolitionist cause, Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) led an astounding life. Physical abuse, deprivation and tragedy plagued his early years, yet through sheer force of character he was able to overcome these obstacles to become a leading spokesman for his people.
In this, the first and most frequently read of his three autobiographies, Douglass provides graphic descriptions of his childhood and horrifying experiences as a slave as well as a harrowing record of his dramatic escape to the North and eventual freedom.
Published in 1845 to quell doubts about his origins — since few slaves of that period could write — theNarrative is admired today for its extraordinary passion, sensitive and vivid descriptions and storytelling power.
Product DetailsDu Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk.
The Souls of Black Folk is a classic work of American literature by W. E. B. Du Bois. It is a seminal work in the history of sociology, and a cornerstone of African-American literary history. To develop this groundbreaking work, Du Bois drew from his own experiences as an African-American in the American society. Outside of its notable relevance in African-American history, The Souls of Black Folk also holds an important place in social science as one of the early works in the field of sociology.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) is the greatest of African American intellectuals–a sociologist, historian, novelist, and activist whose astounding career spanned the nation’s history from Reconstruction to the civil rights movement. Born in Massachusetts and educated at Fisk, Harvard, and the University of Berlin, Du Bois penned his epochal masterpiece, The Souls of Black Folk, in 1903. It remains his most studied and popular work; its insights into Negro life at the turn of the 20th century still ring true.

Product DetailsDubus, Andre, III. Townie.
After their parents divorced in the 1970s, Andre Dubus III and his three siblings grew up with their overworked mother in a depressed Massachusetts mill town saturated with drugs and everyday violence. Nearby, his father, an eminent author, taught on a college campus and took the kids out on Sundays. The clash between town and gown, between the hard drinking, drugging, and fighting of “townies” and the ambitions of students debating books and ideas, couldn’t have been more stark. In this unforgettable memoir, acclaimed novelist Dubus shows us how he escaped the cycle of violence and found empathy in channeling the stories of others―bridging, in the process, the rift between his father and himself.
Product Details
Dunham, Lena. Not That Kind of Girl.

Exuberant, moving, and keenly observed, Not That Kind of Girl is a series of dispatches from the frontlines of the struggle that is growing up. “I’m already predicting my future shame at thinking I had anything to offer you,” Dunham writes. “But if I can take what I’ve learned and make one menial job easier for you, or prevent you from having the kind of sex where you feel you must keep your sneakers on in case you want to run away during the act, then every misstep of mine will have been worthwhile.”

Praise for Not That Kind of Girl

Product Details Eggers, Dave. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. 
The literary sensation of the year, a book that redefines both family and narrative for the twenty-first century. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is the moving memoir of a college senior who, in the space of five weeks, loses both of his parents to cancer and inherits his eight-year-old brother. Here is an exhilarating debut that manages to be simultaneously hilarious and wildly inventive as well as a deeply heartfelt story of the love that holds a family together.

Literary self-consciousness and technical invention mix unexpectedly in this engaging memoir by Eggers, editor of the literary magazine McSweeney’s and the creator of a satiric ‘zine called Might, who subverts the conventions of the memoir by questioning his memory, motivations and interpretations so thoroughly that the form itself becomes comic.

Product DetailsFey, Tina. Bossypants. 
Before Liz Lemon, before “Weekend Update,” before “Sarah Palin,” Tina Fey was just a young girl with a dream….
At last, Tina Fey’s story can be told. From her youthful days as a vicious nerd to her tour of duty onSaturday Night Live; from her passionately halfhearted pursuit of physical beauty to her life as a mother eating things off the floor; from her one-sided college romance to her nearly fatal honeymoon — from the beginning of this paragraph to this final sentence.
Tina Fey reveals all, and proves what we’ve all suspected: you’re no one until someone calls you bossy.
Product DetailsGilbert, Elizabeth. Eat, Pray, Love.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love touched the world and changed countless lives, inspiring and empowering millions of readers to search for their own best selves. Now, this beloved and iconic book returns in a beautiful 10th anniversary edition, complete with an updated introduction from the author, to launch a whole new generation of fans.

In her early thirties, Elizabeth Gilbert had everything a modern American woman was supposed to want—husband, country home, successful career—but instead of feeling happy and fulfilled, she was consumed by panic and confusion. This wise and rapturous book is the story of how she left behind all these outward marks of success, and set out to explore three different aspects of her nature, against the backdrop of three different cultures: pleasure in Italy, devotion in India, and on the Indonesian island of Bali, a balance between worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence.

Product DetailsGrealy, Lucy. Autobiography of a Face. 
This powerful memoir is about the premium we put on beauty and on a woman’s face in particular. It took Lucy Grealy twenty years of living with a distorted self-image and more than thirty reconstructive procedures before she could come to terms with her appearance after childhood cancer and surgery that left her jaw disfigured. As a young girl, she absorbed the searing pain of peer rejection and the paralyzing fear of never being loved.
“This is a young woman’s first book, the story of her own life, and both book and life are unforgettable.” —New York Times

“Engaging and engrossing, a story of grace as well as cruelty, and a demonstration of [Grealy’s] own wit and style and class.”—Washington Post Book World

Product DetailsHaley, Malcolm and Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
In the searing pages of this classic autobiography, originally published in 1964, Malcolm X, the Muslim leader, firebrand, and anti-integrationist, tells the extraordinary story of his life and the growth of the Black Muslim movement to veteran writer and journalist Alex Haley . In a unique collaboration, Haley worked with Malcolm X for nearly two years, interviewing, listening to, and understanding the most controversial leader of his time.

As voices of protest and change rose above the din of history and false promises, one voice sounded more urgently, more passionately, than the rest. Malcolm X—once called the most dangerous man in America—challenged the world to listen and learn the truth as he experienced it.

Product DetailsHamilton, Gabrielle. Blood, Bones & Butter. 

Before Gabrielle Hamilton opened her acclaimed New York restaurant Prune, she spent twenty hard-living years trying to find purpose and meaning in her life. Blood, Bones & Butter follows an unconventional journey through the many kitchens Hamilton has inhabited through the years: the rural kitchen of her childhood, where her adored mother stood over the six-burner with an oily wooden spoon in hand; the kitchens of France, Greece, and Turkey, where she was often fed by complete strangers and learned the essence of hospitality; Hamilton’s own kitchen at Prune, with its many unexpected challenges; and the kitchen of her Italian mother-in-law, who serves as the link between Hamilton’s idyllic past and her own future family—the result of a prickly marriage that nonetheless yields lasting dividends. By turns epic and intimate, Gabrielle Hamilton’s story is told with uncommon honesty, grit, humor, and passion.

Product DetailsHemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. 
Ernest Hemingway’s classic memoir of Paris in the 1920s, now available in a restored edition, includes the original manuscript along with insightful recollections and unfinished sketches.
In the preface to A Moveable Feast, Hemingway remarks casually that “if the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction”–and, indeed, fact or fiction, it doesn’t matter, for his slim memoir of Paris in the 1920s is as enchanting as anything made up and has become the stuff of legend. Paris in the ’20s! Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley, lived happily on $5 a day and still had money for drinks at the Closerie des Lilas, skiing in the Alps, and fishing trips to Spain. On every corner and at every café table, there were the most extraordinary people living wonderful lives and telling fantastic stories. Gertrude Stein invited Hemingway to come every afternoon and sip “fragrant, colorless alcohols” and chat admid her great pictures. He taught Ezra Pound how to box, gossiped with James Joyce, caroused with the fatally insecure Scott Fitzgerald (the acid portraits of him and his wife, Zelda, are notorious). Meanwhile, Hemingway invented a new way of writing based on this simple premise: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.”Product DetailsJacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. 
The true story of an individual’s struggle for self-identity, self-preservation, and freedom, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl remains among the few extant slave narratives written by a woman. This autobiographical account chronicles the remarkable odyssey of Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897) whose dauntless spirit and faith carried her from a life of servitude and degradation in North Carolina to liberty and reunion with her children in the North.
Written and published in 1861 after Jacobs’ harrowing escape from a vile and predatory master, the memoir delivers a powerful and unflinching portrayal of the abuses and hypocrisy of the master-slave relationship. Jacobs writes frankly of the horrors she suffered as a slave, her eventual escape after several unsuccessful attempts, and her seven years in self-imposed exile, hiding in a coffin-like “garret” attached to her grandmother’s porch.
A rare firsthand account of a courageous woman’s determination and endurance, this inspirational story also represents a valuable historical record of the continuing battle for freedom and the preservation of family.

Product DetailsKarr, Mary. The Liars Club.

When it was published in 1995, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club took the world by storm and raised the art of the memoir to an entirely new level, as well as bringing about a dramatic revival of the form. Karr’s comic childhood in an east Texas oil town brings us characters as darkly hilarious as any of J. D. Salinger’s—a hard-drinking daddy, a sister who can talk down the sheriff at twelve, and an oft-married mother whose accumulated secrets threaten to destroy them all. Now with a new introduction that discusses her memoir’s impact on her family, this unsentimental and profoundly moving account of an apocalyptic childhood is as “funny, lively, and un-put-downable” (USA Today) today as it ever was
Product DetailsKarr, Mary. Cherry. 
From Mary Karr comes this gorgeously written, often hilarious story of her tumultuous teens and sexual coming-of-age. Picking up where the bestselling The Liars’ Club left off, Karr dashes down the trail of her teen years with customary sass, only to run up against the paralyzing self-doubt of a girl in bloom. Fleeing the thrills and terrors of adolescence, she clashes against authority in all its forms and hooks up with an unforgettable band of heads and bona-fide geniuses. Parts of Cherry will leave you gasping with laughter. Karr assembles a self from the smokiest beginnings, delivering a long-awaited sequel that is both “bawdy and wise” (San Francisco Chronicle)
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Product DetailsKarr, Mary. Lit. 
Lit follows the self-professed blackbelt sinner’s descent into the inferno of alcoholism and madness–and to her astonishing resurrection. Karr’s longing for a solid family seems secure when her marriage to a handsome, Shakespeare-quoting blueblood poet produces a son they adore. But she can’t outrun her apocalyptic past. She drinks herself into the same numbness that nearly devoured her charismatic but troubled mother, reaching the brink of suicide. A hair-raising stint in ‘The Mental Marriott,’ with an oddball tribe of gurus and saviors, awakens her to the possibility of joy and leads her to an unlikely faith. Not since Saint Augustine cried, ‘Give me chastity, Lord-but not yet!’ has a conversion story rung with such dark hilarity. Lit is about getting drunk and getting sober, becoming a mother by letting go of a mother, learning to write by learning to live. Written with Karr’s relentless honesty, unflinching self-scrutiny, and irreverent, lacerating humor, it is a truly electrifying story of how to grow up–as only Mary Karr can tell it.
Product DetailsKing, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
….the author takes time to tell us the highlights of his life that influenced him into the writer he became. Heartfelt memories of his mother, brother, wife, and children were a joy to read, with me growing teary-eyed on an occasion or two. I was delighted to see small things in his childhood that reminded me of things to come in later books (like IT.) His mothers support of him from the beginning was, I think, a crucial part of his development. One of the more emotional areas of the books, it’s good to have someone fighting in your corner and keeping your hopes up. After his mother, there was his wife, all playing their big parts in who he became.

[In the second part of the book, King discusses the craft of writing.]

 Product DetailsKrakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air.
A bank of clouds was assembling on the not-so-distant horizon, but journalist-mountaineer Jon Krakauer, standing on the summit of Mt. Everest, saw nothing that “suggested that a murderous storm was bearing down.” He was wrong. The storm, which claimed five lives and left countless more–including Krakauer’s–in guilt-ridden disarray, would also provide the impetus for Into Thin Air, Krakauer’s epic account of the May 1996 disaster.
By writing Into Thin Air, Krakauer may have hoped to exorcise some of his own demons and lay to rest some of the painful questions that still surround the event.
Product DetailsLeast Heat-Moon, William. Blue Highways: A Journey into America.
Hailed as a masterpiece of American travel writing, Blue Highways is an unforgettable journey along our nation’s backroads. William Least Heat-Moon set out with little more than the need to put home behind him and a sense of curiosity about “those little towns that get on the map-if they get on at all-only because some cartographer has a blank space to fill: Remote, Oregon; Simplicity, Virginia; New Freedom, Pennsylvania; New Hope, Tennessee; Why, Arizona; Whynot, Mississippi.” His adventures, his discoveries, and his recollections of the extraordinary people he encountered along the way amount to a revelation of the true American experience.
Product DetailsMacdonald, Helen. H Is for Hawk

The instant New York Times bestseller and award-winning sensation, Helen Macdonald’s story of adopting and raising one of nature’s most vicious predators has soared into the hearts of millions of readers worldwide. Fierce and feral, her goshawk Mabel’s temperament mirrors Helen’s own state of grief after her father’s death, and together raptor and human “discover the pain and beauty of being alive” (People). H Is for Hawk is a genre-defying debut from one of our most unique and transcendent voices. “Breathtaking . . . Helen Macdonald renders an indelible impression of a raptor’s fierce essence—and her own—with words that mimic feathers, so impossibly pretty we don’t notice their astonishing engineering.” —Vicki Constantine Croke, New York Times Book Review

 

Product DetailsMandela, Nelson. Conversations with Myself.
Nelson Mandela is one of the most inspiring and iconic figures of our age. Now, after a lifetime of recording thoughts and events, hardships and victories, he has opened his personal archive, which offers unprecedented insight into his remarkable autobiography.

From letters written in the darkest hours of his twenty-seven years of imprisonment to the draft of an unfinished sequel to Long Walk to Freedom, Conversations with Myself gives readers access to the private man behind the public figure. Here he is making notes and even doodling during meetings, or transcribing troubled dreams on the desk calendar in his prison cell on Robben Island; writing journals while on the run during the anti-apartheid struggle in the early 1960s, and conversing with friends in almost seventy hours of recorded conversations. Here he is neither icon nor saint.

Product DetailsMartin, Steve. Born Standing Up.

 The riveting, mega-bestselling, beloved and highly acclaimed memoir of a man, a vocation, and an era named one of the ten best nonfiction titles of 2007 by Time and Entertainment Weekly.

In the mid-seventies, Steve Martin exploded onto the comedy scene. By 1978 he was the biggest concert draw in the history of stand-up. In 1981 he quit forever. This book is, in his own words, the story of “why I did stand-up and why I walked away.”

Emmy and Grammy Award–winner, author of the acclaimed New York Times bestsellers Shopgirl andThe Pleasure of My Company, and a regular contributor to The New Yorker, Martin has always been a writer. His memoir of his years in stand-up is candid, spectacularly amusing, and beautifully written.

Product DetailsMayle, Peter. A Year in Provence.
In this witty and warm-hearted account, Peter Mayle tells what it is like to realize a long-cherished dream and actually move into a 200-year-old stone farmhouse in the remote country of the Lubéron with his wife and two large dogs. He endures January’s frosty mistral as it comes howling down the Rhône Valley, discovers the secrets of goat racing through the middle of town, and delights in the glorious regional cuisine. A Year in Provence transports us into all the earthy pleasures of Provençal life and lets us live vicariously at a tempo governed by seasons, not by days.
Product DetailsMcBride, James. The Color of Water.

Who is Ruth McBride Jordan? A self-declared “light-skinned” woman evasive about her ethnicity, yet steadfast in her love for her twelve black children. James McBride, journalist, musician, and son, explores his mother’s past, as well as his own upbringing and heritage, in a poignant and powerful debut, The Color Of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother.The son of a black minister and a woman who would not admit she was white, James McBride grew up in “orchestrated chaos” with his eleven siblings in the poor, all-black projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn. “Mommy,” a fiercely protective woman with “dark eyes full of pep and fire,” herded her brood to Manhattan’s free cultural events, sent them off on buses to the best (and mainly Jewish) schools, demanded good grades, and commanded respect. As a young man, McBride saw his mother as a source of embarrassment, worry, and confusion—and reached thirty before he began to discover the truth about her early life and long-buried pain.

Product DetailsMcCourt, Frank. Angela’s Ashes. 

A Pulitzer Prize–winning, #1 New York Times bestseller, Angela’s Ashes is Frank McCourt’s masterful memoir of his childhood in Ireland.

“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

So begins the luminous memoir of Frank McCourt, born in Depression-era Brooklyn to recent Irish immigrants and raised in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. Frank’s mother, Angela, has no money to feed the children since Frank’s father, Malachy, rarely works, and when he does he drinks his wages. Yet Malachy—exasperating, irresponsible, and beguiling—does nurture in Frank an appetite for the one thing he can provide: a story.

Product DetailsMoody, Anne. Coming of Age in Mississippi.
Written without a trace of sentimentality or apology, this is an unforgettable personal story—the truth as a remarkable young woman named Anne Moody lived it. To read her book is to know what it is to have grown up black in Mississippi in the forties an fifties—and to have survived with pride and courage intact.
In this now classic autobiography, she details the sights, smells, and suffering of growing up in a racist society and candidily reveals the soul of a black girl who had the courage to challenge it. The result is a touchstone work: an accurate, authoritative portrait of black family life in the rural South and a moving account of a woman’s indomitable heart.

Product DetailsNafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books.Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Azar Nafisi, a bold and inspired teacher, secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. Some came from conservative and religious families, others were progressive and secular; some had spent time in jail. They were shy and uncomfortable at first, unaccustomed to being asked to speak their minds, but soon they removed their veils and began to speak more freely–their stories intertwining with the novels they were reading by Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, as fundamentalists seized hold of the universities and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the women in Nafisi’s living room spoke not only of the books they were reading but also about themselves, their dreams and disappointments.

Product DetailsOates, Joyce Carol. A Widow’s Story.
Unlike anything Joyce Carol Oates has written before, A Widow’s Story is the universally acclaimed author’s poignant, intimate memoir about the unexpected death of Raymond Smith, her husband of forty-six years, and its wrenching, surprising aftermath. A recent recipient of National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, Oates, whose novels (Blonde, The Gravedigger’s Daughter,Little Bird of Heaven, etc.) rank among the very finest in contemporary American fiction, offers an achingly personal story of love and loss. A Widow’s Story is a literary memoir on a par with The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and Calvin Trillin’s About Alice.

Product DetailsOlsen, Tillie. Silences.
First published in 1978, Silences single-handedly revolutionized the literary canon. In this classic work, now back in print, Olsen broke open the study of literature and discovered a lost continent—the writing of women and working-class people. From the excavated testimony of authors’ letters and diaries we learn the many ways the creative spirit, especially in those disadvantaged by gender, class and race, can be silenced. Olsen recounts the torments of Melville, the crushing weight of criticism on Thomas Hardy, the shame that brought Willa Cather to a dead halt, and struggles of Virginia Woolf, Olsen’s heroine and greatest exemplar of a writer who confronted the forces that would silence her.

Product DetailsPatchett, Ann. Truth & Beauty: A Friendship
Ann Patchett and the late Lucy Grealy met in college in 1981, and, after enrolling in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, began a friendship that would be as defining to both of their lives as their work. In Grealy’s critically acclaimed memoir, Autobiography of a Face, she wrote about losing part of her jaw to childhood cancer, years of chemotherapy and radiation, and endless reconstructive surgeries. In Truth & Beauty, the story isn’t Lucy’s life or Ann’s life, but the parts of their lives they shared. This is a portrait of unwavering commitment that spans twenty years, from the long winters of the Midwest, to surgical wards, to book parties in New York. Through love, fame, drugs, and despair, this is what it means to be part of two lives that are intertwined . . . and what happens when one is left behind.

Product DetailsRaban, Jonathan. Bad Land: An American Romance.
Jonathan Raban ambles and picks his way across the Montana prairie, called “The Great American Desert” until Congress offered 320-acre tracts of barren land to immigrants with stardust in their eyes. Raban’s prose makes love to the waves of land, red dirt roads, and skeletons of homesteads that couldn’t survive the Dirty Thirties. As poignant as any romance novel, there’s heartbreak in the failed dreams of the homesteaders, a pang of destiny in the arbitrary way railroad towns were thrown into existence, and inspiration in the heroism of people who’ve fashioned lives for themselves by cobbling together homes from the ruined houses of those who couldn’t make it. Through it all, Raban’s voice examines and honors the vast open expanses of land and pays homage to the histories of families who eked out an existence.

Product DetailsRadziwill, Carole. What Remains.
A stunning, tragic memoir about John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife Carolyn Bissett, and his cousin Anthony Radziwill, by Radziwill’s widow, now a star of The Real Housewives of New York.
What Remains is a vivid and haunting memoir about a girl from a working-class town who becomes an award-winning television producer and marries a prince, Anthony Radziwill. Carole grew up in a small suburb with a large, eccentric cast of characters. At nineteen, she struck out for New York City to find a different life. Her career at ABC News led her to the refugee camps of Cambodia, to a bunker in Tel Aviv, and to the scene of the Menendez murders. Her marriage led her into the old world of European nobility and the newer world of American aristocracy.

Product DetailsRed Cloud with Bob Drury and Tom Clavin. The Heart of Everything that Remains.
An acclaimed New York Times bestseller, selected by Salon as a best book of the year, the astonishing untold story of the life and times of Sioux warrior Red Cloud: “a page-turner with remarkable immediacy…and the narrative sweep of a great Western” (The Boston Globe).
Red Cloud was the only American Indian in history to defeat the United States Army in a war, forcing the government to sue for peace on his terms. At the peak of Red Cloud’s powers the Sioux could claim control of one-fifth of the contiguous United States and the loyalty of thousands of fierce fighters. But the fog of history has left Red Cloud strangely obscured. Now, thanks to the rediscovery of a lost autobiography, and painstaking research by two award-winning authors, the story of the nineteenth century’s most powerful and successful Indian warrior can finally be told.
.“Unabashed, unbiased, and disturbingly honest, leaving no razor-sharp arrowhead unturned, no rifle trigger unpulled….a compelling and fiery narrative” (USA TODAY), this is the definitive chronicle of the conflict between an expanding white civilization and the Plains Indians who stood in its way.

Product DetailsSantiago, Esmeralda. When I Was Puerto Rican.
Esmeralda Santiago’s story begins in rural Puerto Rico, where her childhood was full of both tenderness and domestic strife, tropical sounds and sights as well as poverty. Growing up, she learned the proper way to eat a guava, the sound of tree frogs in the mango groves at night, the taste of the delectable sausage called morcilla, and the formula for ushering a dead baby’s soul to heaven. As she enters school we see the clash, both hilarious and fierce, of Puerto Rican and Yankee culture. When her mother, Mami, a force of nature, takes off to New York with her seven, soon to be eleven children, Esmeralda, the oldest, must learn new rules, a new language, and eventually take on a new identity. In this first volume of her much-praised, bestselling trilogy, Santiago brilliantly recreates the idyllic landscape and tumultuous family life of her earliest years and her tremendous journey from the barrioto Brooklyn, from translating for her mother at the welfare office to high honors at Harvard.

StSmith, Patti. Just Kids. 

In Just Kids, Patti Smith’s first book of prose, the legendary American artist offers a never-before-seen glimpse of her remarkable relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the epochal days of New York City and the ChelseaHotel in the late sixties and seventies.  An honest and moving story of youth and friendship, Smith brings the same unique, lyrical quality to Just Kids as she has to the rest of her formidable body of work—from her influential 1975 album Horses to her visual art and poetry.

Product DetailsStrayed, Cheryl. Wild.
A powerful, blazingly honest memoir: the story of an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike that broke down a young woman reeling from catastrophe—and built her back up again.

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and to do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker, and the trail was little more than “an idea, vague and outlandish and full of promise.” But it was a promise of piecing back together a life that had come undone.

Strayed faces down rattlesnakes and black bears, intense heat and record snowfalls, and both the beauty and loneliness of the trail. Told with great suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor,Wild vividly captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

Product DetailsThompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing in Las vegas. 

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the best chronicle of drug-soaked, addle-brained, rollicking good times ever committed to the printed page.  It is also the tale of a long weekend road trip that has gone down in the annals of American pop culture as one of the strangest journeys ever undertaken.

Now this cult classic of gonzo journalism is a major motion picture from Universal, directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro.

Product DetailsTrillin, Calvin. About Alice. In Calvin Trillin’s antic tales of family life, she was portrayed as the wife who had “a weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day” and the mother who thought that if you didn’t go to every performance of your child’s school play, “the county would come and take the child.” Now, five years after her death, her husband offers this loving portrait of Alice Trillin off the page–his loving portrait of Alice Trillin off the page–an educator who was equally at home teaching at a university or a drug treatment center, a gifted writer, a stunningly beautiful and thoroughly engaged woman who, in the words of a friend, “managed to navigate the tricky waters between living a life you could be proud of and still delighting in the many things there are to take pleasure in.”

Product DetailsAutobiography of Mark Twain.

Twain is widely rumored to have stated that the full version of his life could not be released until 100 years after his death. What Twain allowed to be published at the time comprises a rambling collection of anecdotes and ruminations rather than a more typical autobiography.His innovative notion – to “talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment” – meant that his thoughts could range freely. Twain thought his autobiography would be most entertaining if he went off on whims and tangents in non-sequential order. This book will be a real joy for all fans of Mark Twain.

Product DetailsWalls, Jeanette. The Glass Castle.
Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn’t stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an “excitement addict.” Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.

Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town — and the family — Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents’ betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.

What is so astonishing about Jeannette Walls is not just that she had the guts and tenacity and intelligence to get out, but that she describes her parents with such deep affection and generosity. Hers is a story of triumph against all odds, but also a tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that despite its profound flaws gave her the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.

For two decades, Jeannette Walls hid her roots. Now she tells her own story. A regular contributor to MSNBC.com, she lives in New York and Long Island and is married to the writer John Taylor.

Product DetailsWelty, Eudora. One Writer’s Beginnings.
Eudora Welty was born in 1909 in Jackson, Mississippi. In a “continuous thread of revelation” she sketches her autobiography and tells us how her family and her surroundings contributed to the shaping not only of her personality but of her writing. Homely and commonplace sights, sounds, and objects resonate with the emotions of recollection: the striking clocks, the Victrola, her orphaned father’s coverless little book saved since boyhood, the tall mountains of the West Virginia back country that become a metaphor for her mother’s sturdy independence, Eudora’s earliest box camera that suspended a moment forever and taught her that every feeling awaits a gesture. She has recreated this vanished world with the same subtlety and insight that mark her fiction.

Even if Eudora Welty were not a major writer, her description of growing up in the South–of the interplay between black and white, between town and countryside, between dedicated schoolteachers and the public they taught–would he notable. That she is a splendid writer of fiction gives her own experience a family likeness to others in the generation of young Southerners that produced a literary renaissance. Until publication of this book, she had discouraged biographical investigations. It undoubtedly was not easy for this shy and reticent lady to undertake her own literary biography, to relive her own memories (painful as well as pleasant), to go through letters and photographs of her parents and grandparents. But we are in her debt, for the distillation of experience she offers us is a rare pleasure for her admirers, a treat to everyone who loves good writing and anyone who is interested in the seeds of creativity.

Product DetailsWinterson, Jeanette. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

“Magnificent . . . A tour de force of literature and love.”—Vogue

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is raucous. It hums with a dark refulgence from its first pages. . . . Singular and electric . . . [Winterson’s] life with her adoptive parents was often appalling, but it made her the writer she is.”—The New York Times

“[Winterson is] one of the most daring and inventive writers of our time—searingly honest yet effortlessly lithe as she slides between forms, exuberant and unerring, demanding emotional and intellectual expansion of herself and of us. . . . In Why Be Happy,, [Winterson’s] emotional life is laid bare . . . [in] a bravely frank narrative of truly coming undone. For someone in love with disguises, Winterson’s openness is all the more moving; there’s nothing left to hide, and nothing left to hide behind.”—Elle

Jeanette Winterson’s bold and revelatory novels have earned her widespread acclaim, establishing her as a major figure in world literature. She has written some of the most admired books of the past few decades, including her internationally best-selling first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the story of a young girl adopted by Pentecostal parents, that is now often required reading in contemporary fiction classes.

 

Panic

Mark Twain, E.B. White, Stephen King, Mary Karr, William Zinsser, and Other Writers on Style

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The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – ’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning. Mark Twain

John Updike was a Harvard Graduate and a long-time contributor to the New Yorker. He wrote numerous short stories, some of which could be called memoirs, and he also wrote The Witches of Eastwick and many, many other things. You could probably say that Updike’s writing and Twain’s writing were about as different as lightning and lightning bugs, but even Updike, the Ivy League writer, recognized the brilliance of Mark Twain’s Down-Home, River Rat Voice, which would probably NOT be called Stylish. Mark Twain’s voice was filled with a Huck-Finnishness that was “right” for Huck Finn. Therefore, while Mark Twain may not have written Stylishly, he definitely had  Style.

In a Paris Review interview, Updike said the following about Mark Twain’s voice and his authentic use of language–or his Style:

It comes down to what is language? Up to now, until this age of mass literacy, language has been something spoken. In utterance there’s a minimum of slowness. In trying to treat words as chisel strokes, you run the risk of losing the quality of utterance, the rhythm of utterance, the happiness. A phrase out of Mark Twain—he describes a raft hitting a bridge and says that it “went all to smash and scatteration like a box of matches struck by lightning.” The beauty of “scatteration” could only have occurred to a talkative man, a man who had been brought up among people who were talking and who loved to talk himself. I’m aware myself of a certain dryness of this reservoir, this backlog of spoken talk. A Romanian once said to me that Americans are always telling stories. I’m not sure this is as true as it once was. Where we once used to spin yarns, now we sit in front of the tv and receive pictures. I’m not sure the younger generation even knows how to gossip. But, as for a writer, if he has something to tell, he should perhaps type it almost as fast as he could talk it.

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“When a prisoner of style escapes, it’s called an evasion.”
― Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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“To achieve stye, begin by affecting none.”
― E.B. White, The Elements of Style

E.B White was another person who wrote for The New Yorker, and he was the co-author of The Elements of Style, which is the quintessential guide for writing correctly. White’s book Charlotte’s Web is considered to be the perfect junior fiction novel, but he wrote other things equally well. His essays are beautifully written. E.B. White could have affected in words any style that he wanted, but he realized the futility of affectation. E.B. White was satisfied writing as himself–in a style that William Zinsser calls Breeziness.

Breeziness

“There is a kind of writing that sounds so relaxed that you think you hear the author talking to you. E.B. White was probably its best practitioner, thought many other masters of the style–James Thurber, V.S. Pritchett, Lewis Thomas–come to mind. I’m partial to it because it’s a style….The common assumption is that the style is effortless. In fact the opposite is true: the effortless style is achieved by strenuous effort and constant refining. ” Zinsser, William. On Writing Well, pgs. 232-33.

 In his book On Writing Well, William Zinsser said the following about the importance of a writer’s voice:

“I wrote one book about baseball and one about jazz. But it never occurred to me to write one of them in sports English and the other in jazz English. I tried to write them both in the best English I could, in my usual style. Though the books were widely different in subject, I wanted readers to know that they were hearing from the same person…. My commodity as a writer, whatever I’m writing about, is me. And your commodity is you. Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page….” Zinsser, William. On Writing Well, p. 232.

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“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed. [p.117]

”Remember that the basic rule of  vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word…but it won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean.”― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, pgs. 117-118.

King continues:

“Must you write complete sentences each time, every tie: Perish the thought. If your work consists only of fragments and floating clauses, the Grammar Police aren’t going to come and take you away.”  Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, p. 120.

King listed some of his pet peeves: “That’s so cool,” “and “at the end of the day.” Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, p. 122.

“You should avoid the passive tense….Suppose, for instance, a fellow dies in the kitchen but ends up somewhere else. The body was carried from the kitchen and placed on the parlor sofa is a fair way to put this, although ‘was carried’ and ‘was placed’ still irk the shit out of me…. What I would embrace is Freddy and Myra carried the body out of the kitchen and laid it on the parlor sofa. Why does the body have to be the subject of the sentence, anyway? It’s dead, for Christ’s sake!”  Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, p. 123.

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For 30 years, Mary Karr has taught memoir writing at Syracuse University, and in her book The Art of Memoir, she offers some great thoughts about the importance of the writer’s voice and his style [Note–Karr’s advice is good for writing in genres other than memoir, too]:

“Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice. It’s the delivery system for the author’s experience–the big bandwidth cable that carries in lustrous clarity every pixel of someone’s inner and outer experiences. Each voice is cleverly fashioned to highlight a writer’s individual talent or way of viewing the world. …It may take a writer hundreds of rough trial pages for a way of speaking to start to emerge unique to himself and his experience, both carnal and interior experiences come back with clarity,and the work gains an electrical charge. For the reader, the voice has to exist from the first sentence. [p. 35].

“Because memoir is such a simple form, its events can come across–in the worst books–as thinly rendered and haphazard. But if the voice has a high enough voltage, it will carry the reader through all manner of assholery and tangent because it almost magically conjures in her imagination a fully realized human. We kind of think that the voice is the narrator. It certainly helps if the stories are riveting, but a great voice renders the dullest event remarkable.

“The secret to any voice grows from a writer’s finding  a tractor beam of inner truth about psychological conflicts to shine the way. While an artist consciously constructs a voice, she chooses its elements because they’re natural expressions of character. So above all, a voice has to sound ike the person wielding it–the super-most interesting version of that person ever–and grow from her core self.

“Pretty much all the great memoirists I’ve met sound on the page like they do in person. If the page is a mask, you rip it off only to find that the writer’s features exactly mold to the mask’s form, with nary a gap between public and private self. These writer’ voices make you feel close to–almost inside–their owners. Who doesn’t halfway consider Huck Finn or Scout a pal?

“The voice should permit a range of emotional tones–too wiseass, and it denies pathos; too pathetic, and it’s shrill. It sets and varies distance from both the material and the reader00from cool and diffident to high-strung and close. The writer doesn’t choose these styles fo much as he’s born to them, based on who he is and how he experienced the past.

“Voice isn’t just a manner of talking. It’s an operative mindset and way of perceiving that naturally stems from feeling oneself alive inside the past. That’s why self-awareness is so key. The [p. 36]  writer who’s lived a fairly unexamined life–someone who has a hard time reconsidering a conflict from another point of view may not excel at fashioning a voice because her defensiveness stands between her and what she has to say.  Also, we naturally tend to superimpose our present selves onto who we were before, and that can prevent us from recalling stuff that doesn’t shore up our current identities. Or it can warp understanding to fit more comfortable interpretations…..

“However you charm people in the world, you should do so on the page. ….Charm is from the Latin carmen: to sing.  By ‘charm,’ I mean sing well enough to held the reader in thrall. Whatever people like about you in the world will manifest itself on the page….You’ll need both sides of yourself–the beautiful and the beastly–to hold a reader’s attention…. [p.36]

“All the good lines can’t be the memoirist’s. Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir, pgs. 35-38.

“Unfortunately, nobody tells a writer how hard cobbling together a voice is. Look under ‘voice’ in a writing textbook, and they talk about things that seem mechanical–tone, diction, syntax. Dho, the writers says with a forehead smack. Diction is merely word choice, what variety of vocabulary you favor.  Syntax is whether sentences are long or short, how they’re shaped, with or without dependent clauses, etc., Some sentences meander, others fire off like machine-gun runs. Tone is the emotional tenor of the sentences; it’s how the narrator feels about the subject.  Robert Frost said anytime he heard wordless voices through a wall, tone told him who was angry, who bemused, who about to cry. For me, psyche equals voice, so your own psyche–how you think and see and wonder and scudge and suffer–also determines such factors as packing and what you [p. 45] write about when. Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir, pgs. 45-46.

“…voice grows from the nature of a writer’s talent, which stems from innate character….e don’t see events objectively: we perceive them through ourselves. And we remember through a filter of both who we are now and who we once were.
So the best voices include a writer’s insides. Watching her mind feel around to concoct or figure out events, you never lose sight of the ego’s shape, its blind spots, dislikes, wants.” Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir, pgs. 47.

“…a memoirist can’t help but show at each bump in the road how her perceptual filter is distorting what’s being take in. In other words, she questions her own perceptions as part of the writing process…..

“The noise each makes speaks his character into being. …

“But how dare I speak of truth in memoir, when it’s common knowledge that the subjective, egoistic perception is a priori warped by falsehood–perhaps mildly so in self-serving desires, or wildly so in hardwired paranoia?…

“…the self-aware memoirist constantly pokes and prods at his doubts like a tongue on  a black tooth. [p. 48].

“The goal of a voice is to speak not with objective authority but with subjective curiosity. …

“To chirp my story like some bouncy cheerleader would be to lie. That grimness has to make it in. …

“A quest for self-knowledge drives such a writer to push past the normal vanity she brings to party dressing. She somehow manages to show up at the ball boldly naked.” Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir, pgs. 45-49.

“A quest for self-knowledge drives such a writer to push past the normal vanity she brings to party dressing. She somehow manages to show up at the ball boldly naked.” Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir, p. 49.

In summary,  it would seem to me that a writer who has style is one who is not trying to be stylish. He is simply a person who talks to his readers, and his words are recorded on a page. He is also a person who is honest about who he is, and he is able to communicate with that honesty. To quote Mary Karr again:

“Any memoirist’s false selves (plural_ will take turns plastering themselves across his real mouth to silence the scarier fact of who he is. Writing as directly as possible out of that single  ‘true’ core…will naturally unify pages. Otheri=wise, there will be inconsistencies that read as fake.

“False choices based on who you wish you were will result in places where the voice goes awry or the details chosen ring false. If Helen Keller wrote from the viewpoint of a nearsighted girl rather than a blind one or if May Angelou made herself [p. 151] an orphaned paraplegic or a light-skinned black girl who could pass in the Jim Crow South . . .  well, you can see how their stories would’ve been bled of raw power.” Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir, pgs. 151-52.

“No matter how much you’re gunning for truth, the human ego is also a stealthy, low-crawling bastard, and for pretty much everybody, getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle…..The best you can hope for is to rip off each mask as you find it blotting out your vision.” [p. 153].

“We each nurture a private terror that some core aspect(s) of either our selves or our story must be hidden or disowned.”  Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir, pgs. 153-54.

©Jacki Kellum September 21, 2016

Stylish

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