If you’re anything like me, you enjoy reading a book that either takes place in or is about the place you’re going. If you’re not like me, you can just go ahead and stop reading… that’s what this blog post is about. I am going to recommend at least one book (usually more) that takes place in or is about every state in America.
Personally, I love getting the feel for a place that I’m travelling to–that’s what these books do best. The best part is that all of these items are available at your library!
“Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” by Fannie Flagg: This book is about an unlikely relationship between an 86-year-old woman in a nursing home and a middle-aged housewife. Violence and race are addressed as well.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee: Scout Finch, the young daughter of a local attorney in the Deep South during the 1930s, tells of her father’s defense of an African-American man charge with the rape of a white girl.
“The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey: Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart–he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season’s first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone–but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees. This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful, violent place, things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them.
“The Call of the Wild” by Jack London: This gripping story follows the adventures of the loyal dog Buck, who is stolen from his comfortable family home and forced into the harsh life of an Alaskan sled dog.
“Almanac of the Dead” by Leslie Marmon Silko: When the ex-mistress of a sinister cocaine wholesaler takes a job as secretary to a Native American clairvoyant who works the TV talk show circuit, she begins transcribing an ancient manuscript that foretells the second coming of Quetzalcoatl and the violent end of white rule in the Americas.
“The Bean Trees” by Barbara Kingsolver: Feisty Marietta Greer changes her name to “Taylor” when her car runs out of gas in Taylorville, IL. By the time she reaches Oklahome, this strong-willed young Kentucky native with a quick tongue and an open mind is catapulted into a surprising new life. Taylor leaves home in a beat-up ’55 Volkswagen bug, on her way to nowhere in particular, savoring her freedom. But when a forlorn Cherokee woman drops a baby in Taylor’s passenger seat and asks her to take it, she does…
“Boy Erased” by Garrard Conley: A poignant account by a survivor of a church-supported sexual-orientation-conversion therapy facility that claimed to “cure” homosexuality describes its institutionalized, intense Bible study program and the daily threats of his abandonment by family, friends and God, an experience that transformed the author’s relationships and self-understandings.
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou: Poet Maya Angelou recounts a youth filled with disappointment, frustration, tragedy, and finally hard-won independence. Sent at a young age to live with her grandmother in Arkansas, Angelou learned a great deal from this exceptional woman and the tightly knit black community there.
“The Sellout” by Paul Beatty: This is a biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality–the black Chinese restaurant.
“Take This Man” by Brando Skyhorse: This is the true story of a boy’s turbulent childhood growing up with five stepfathers and the mother who was determined to give her son everything but the truth. When he was three years old, Brando Kelly Ulloa was abandoned by his Mexican father. His mother, Maria, dreaming a more exciting life, saw no reason for her son to live his life as a Mexican just because he started out as one. The life of Brando Skyhorse, the American Indian son of an incarcerated political activist, was about to begin.
“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck: 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 it scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity.
“Plainsong” by Kent Haruf: A heartstrong story of family and romance, tribulation and tenacity, set on the High Plains east of Denver. In the small town of Holt, Colorado, a high school teacher is confronted with raising his two boys alone after their mother retreats first to the bedroom, then altogether. A teenage girl–her father long since disappeared, her mother unwilling to have her in the house–is pregnant, alone herself, with nowhere to go. And out in the country, two brothers, elderly bachelors, work the family homestead, the only world they’ve ever known.
“The Shining” by Stephen King: 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.
“Revolutionary Road” by Richard Yates: In the hopeful 1950s, Frank and April Wheeler appear to be a model couple: bright, beautiful, talented, with two young children and a starter home in the suburbs. Perhaps they married too young and started a family too early. Maybe Frank’s job is dull. And April never saw herself as a housewife. Yet they have always lived on the assumption that greatness is only just around the corner. But now that certainty is about to crumble. 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.
“The Book of Unknown Americans” by Cristina Henriquez: A boy and a girl who fall in love. Two families whose hopes collide with destiny. An extraordinary novel that offers a resonant new definition of what it means to be American. Arturo and Alma Rivera have lived their whole lives in Mexico. One day, their beautiful fifteen-year-old daughter, Maribel, sustains a terrible injury, one that casts doubt on whether she’ll ever be the same. And so, leaving all they have behind, the Riveras come to America with a single dream: that in this country of great opportunity and resources, Maribel can get better.
“Never Let Her Go” by Ann Rule: The murder of Anne-Marie Fahey, secretary to the governor of Delaware, is investigated fully, revealing the shocking affair with respected attorney Thomas Capano that eventually led to her death. Real life drama of a doomed young woman hopelessly trapped in a web of politics, sex, and murder by a charming, successful yet murderous lover.
“Fight Club” by Chuck Palahniuk: An underground classic since its first publication in 1996, Fight Club is now recognized as one of the most original and provocative novels published in this decade. Chuck Palahniuk’s darkly funny first novel tells the story of a god-forsaken young man who discovers that his rage at living in a world filled with failure and lies cannot be pacified by an empty consumer culture. Relief for him and his disenfranchised peers comes in the form of secret after-hours boxing matches held in the basements of bars. Fight Club is the brainchild of Tyler Durden, who thinks he has found a way for himself and his friends to live beyond their confining and stultifying lives. But in Tyler’s world there are no rules, no limits, no brakes.
“The Orchid Thief” by Susan Orlean: In Susan Orlean’s mesmerizing true story of beauty and obsession is John Laroche, a renegade plant dealer and sharply handsome guy, in spite of the fact that he is missing his front teeth and has the posture of al dente spaghetti. In 1994, Laroche and three Seminole Indians were arrested with rare orchids they had stolen from a wild swamp in south Florida that is filled with some of the world’s most extraordinary plants and trees. Laroche had planned to clone the orchids and then sell them for a small fortune to impassioned collectors.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston: 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.
“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker: This is the story of two sisters–one a missionary in Africa and the other a child wife living in the South–who sustain their loyalty to and trust in each other across time, distance, and silence.
“Unfamiliar Fishes” by Sarah Vowell: From the bestselling author of “The Wordy Shipmates” comes and examination of Hawaii’s emblematic and exceptional history, retracing the impact of New England missionaries who began arriving in the early 1800s to remake the island paradise into a version of New England.
“Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson: A modern classic, Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, who grow up haphazardly, first under the care of their competent grandmother, then of two comically bumbling great-aunts, and finally of Sylvie, the eccentric and remote sister of their dead mother. The family house is in the small town of Fingerbone on a glacial lake in the Far West, the same lake where their grandfather died in a spectacular train wreck and their mother drove off a cliff to her death. It is a town “chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere.” Ruth an Lucille’s struggle toward adulthood beautifully illuminates the price of loss and survival, and the dangerous and deep undertow of transience.
“Native Son” by Richard Wright: Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape. Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic. Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Wright’s powerful novel is an unsparing reflection on the poverty and feelings of hopelessness experienced by people in inner cities across the country and of what it means to be black in America.
“A Girl Named Zippy” by Haven Kimmel: When Haven Kimmel was born in 1965, Mooreland, Indiana, was a sleepy little hamlet. Nicknamed Zippy, she possessed big eyes and even bigger ears. In this loving memoir, Kimmel takes readers back in time to when small-town America was still in the innocent postwar period and treats readers to an appealing, and knowing, heroine.
“The Friendly Persuasion” by Jessamyn West: The Birdwells are a pacifist Quaker family in southern Indiana during the Civil War. 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.
“Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson: In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames’s life, he begins a letter to his young son, an account of himself and his forebears. Ames is the son of an Iowan preacher and the grandson of a minister who, as a young man in Maine, saw a vision of Christ bound in chains and came west to Kansas to fight for abolition: He “preached men into the Civil War,” then, at age fifty, became a chaplain in the Union Army, losing his right eye in battle. Reverend Ames writes to his son about the tension between his father–an ardent pacifist–and his grandfather, whose pistol and bloody shirts, concealed in an army blanket, may be relics from the fight between the abolitionists and those settlers who wanted to vote Kansas into the union as a slave state. And he tells the story of the sacred bonds between fathers and sons, which are tested in his tender and strained relationship with his namesake, John Ames Boughton, his best friend’s wayward son.
“The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” by Bill Bryson: Bill Bryson was born in the middle of the American century–1951–in the middle of the United States–Des Moines, Iowa–in the middle of the largest generation in American history–the baby boomers. As one of the bet and funniest writers alive, he is perfectly positioned to mine his memories of a totally all-American childhood for 24-carat memoir gold. Like millions of his generational peers, Bill Bryson grew up with a rich fantasy life as a superhero. In his case, he ran around his house and neighborhood with an old football jersey with a thunderbolt on it and a towel about his neck that served as his cape, leaping tall buildings in a single bound and vanquishing awful evildoers (and morons)–in his head–as “The Thunderbolt Kid.”
“A Thousand Acres” by 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.
“In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote: On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues. As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy. In Cold Blood is a work that transcends its moment, yielding poignant insights into the nature of American violence.
“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz chronicles the adventure of Dorothea in the land of Oz. A cyclone picks her up from her Kansas home, where she lives with her aunt and uncle, and deposits her in the fantastical land. She begins a journey along the yellow brick road to seek help from the Wizard of Oz. On her way, she meets her fair share of witches (good and band) and a scarecrow without a brain, a tinman without a heart and a cowardly lion. They travel together to the Emerald City to seek audience with the wizard.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe: Published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel was a powerful indictment of slavery in America. Describing the many trials and eventual escape to freedom of the long-suffering, good-hearted slave Uncle Tom, it aimed to show how Christian love can overcome any human cruelty. Uncle Tom’s Cabin has remained controversial to this day, seen as either a vital milestone in the anti-slavery cause or as a patronizing stereotype of African-Americans, yet it played a crucial role in the eventual abolition of slavery and remains one of the most important American novels ever written.
“Five Days at Memorial” by Sheri Fink: Fink provides a landmark investigation of patient deaths at a New Orleans hospital ravages by Hurricane Katrina–and a suspenseful portrayal of the quest for truth and justice. After Katrina struck and the floodwaters rose, the power failed, and the heat climbed, exhausted caregivers chose to designate certain patients last for rescue. Months later, several health professionals faced criminal allegations that they deliberately injected numerous patients with drugs to hasten their deaths. Fink unspools the mystery of what happened in those days, bringing the reader into a hospital fighting for its life and into a conversation about the most terrifying form of healthcare rationing.
“A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole: When Marie decides to leave Bruce, she delivers herself of a torrent of ferocious humor and foul-mouthed vituperation concerning him and their marriage, not to mention love, hate, caring, commitment, and all the other current cliches about relationships. As he follows Marie and Bruce through breakfast, a friend’s party, and dinner, Wallace Shawn brilliantly orchestrates her savage attacks and his slyly passive defenses into a symphony of subversive propositions about the nature of the marital state.
“Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout: At the edge of the continent, in the small town of Crosby, Maine, lives Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher who deplores the changes in her town and in the world at large but doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her.
“We Took to the Woods” by Louise Dickinson Rich: In her early thirties, Louise Dickinson Rich took to the woods of Maine with her husband. They found their livelihood and raised a family in the remote backcountry settlement of Middle Dam, in the Rangeley area. Rich made time after morning chores to write about their lives. We Took to the Woods is an adventure story, written with humor, but it also portrays a cherished dream awakened into full life.
“The Cider House Rules” by John Irving: First published in 1985, The Cider House Rules is John Irving’s sixth novel. Set in rural Maine in the first half of this century, it tells the story of Dr. Wilbur Larch–saint and obstetrician, founder and director of the orphanage in the town of St. Cloud’s, ether addict and abortionist. It is also the story of Dr. Larch’s favorite orphan, Homer Wells, who is never adopted.
“The Great Gilly Hopkins” by Katherine Paterson: This timeless Newbery Honor Book from bestselling author Katherine Paterson is about a wisecracking, ornery, completely unforgettable young heroine. Eleven-year-old Gilly has been stuck in more foster families than she can remember, and she’s hated them all. She has a reputation for being brash, brilliant, and completely unmanageable, and that’s the way she likes it. So when she’s sent to live with the Trotters–by far the strangest family yet–she knows it’s only a temporary problem.
“Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace: A spoof on our culture featuring a drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation house near Boston. The center becomes a hotbed of revolutionary activity by Quebec separatists in revolt against the Organization of North American Nations which now rules the continent.
“Walden” by Henry David Thoreau: Walden is one of the best-known non-fiction books ever written by an American. It details Thoreau’s sojourn in a cabin near Walden Pond, amidst woodland owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. Walden was written with expressed seasonal divisions. Thoreau hoped to isolate himself from society in order to gain a more objective understanding of it. Simplicity and self-reliance were Thoreau’s other goals, and the whole project was inspired by Transcendentalist philosophy. This book is full of fascinating musings and reflections. As pertinent and relevant today as it was when it was first written.
“The Turner House” by Angela Flournoy: The Turners have lived on Yarrow Street for over fifty years. Their house has seen thirteen children grown and gone–and some returned; it h as seen the arrival of grandchildren, the fall of Detroit’s East Side, and the loss of a father. The house still stands despite abandoned lots, an embattled city, and the inevitable shift outward to the suburbs. But now, as ailing matriarch Viola finds herself forced to leave her home and move in with her eldest son, the family discovers that the house is worth just a tenth of its mortgage. The Turner children are called home to decide its fate and to reckon with how each of their pasts haunts–and shapes–their family’s future.
“The Virgin Suicides” by Jeffrey Eugenides: This beautiful and sad novel tells of a band of teenage sleuths who piece together the story of a twenty-year old family tragedy begun by the youngest daughter’s spectacular demise by self-defenstration, which inaugurates ‘the year of the suicides.’
“History of Wolves” by Emily Fridlund: Fourteen-year-old Linda lives with her parents in the beautiful, austere woods of northern Minnesota, where their nearly abandoned commune stands as a last vestige of a lost counter-culture world. Isolated at home and an outlander at school, Linda is drawn to the enigmatic, attractive Lily and new history teacher Mr. Grierson. When Mr. Grierson is charged with possessing child pornography, the implications of his arrest deeply affect Linda as she wrestles with her own fledgling desires and craving to belong.
“Main Street” by Sinclair Lewis: “This is America–a town of a few thousand, in a region of wheat and corn and dairies and little groves.” So Sinclair Lewis-recipient of the Nobel Prize and rejecter of the Pulitzer-prefaces his novel Main Street. Lewis is brutal in his depictions of the self-satisfied inhabitants of small-town America, a place which proves to be merely an assemblage of pretty surfaces, strung together and ultimately empty.
“The Sound and the Fury” by William Faulkner: This is the tragedy of the Compson family, featuring some of the most memorable characters in literature: beautiful, rebellious Caddy; the manchild Benjy; haunted, neurotic Quentin; Jason, the brutal cynic; and Dilsey, their black servant. Their lives fragmented and harrowed by history and legacy, the character’s voices and actions mesh to create what is arguably Faulkner’s masterpiece and one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century.
“Enemy Women” by Paulette Jiles: For the Colleys of southeastern Missouri, the war between the states is a plague that threatens devastation, despite family avowed neutrality. For eighteen-year-old Adair Colley, it is a nightmare that tears apart her family and forces her and her sisters to flee. The treachery of a fellow traveler, however, brings about her arrest, and she is caged with the criminal and deranged in a filthy women’s prison.
“Bettyville” by George Hodgman: When George Hodgman leaves Manhattan for his hometown of Paris, Missouri, he finds himself–an unlikely caretaker and near-lethal cook–in a head-on collision with his aging mother, Betty, a woman of wit and will. Will George lure her into assisted living? When hell freezes over. He can’t bring himself to force her from the home both treasure–the place where his father’s voice lingers, the scene of shared joke, skirmishes, and behind the dusty antiques, a rarely acknowledged conflict: Betty, who speaks her mind but cannot quite reveal her heart, has never really accepted the fact that her son is gay.
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” Ernest Hemingway wrote. “It’s the best book we’ve had.” A complex masterpiece that spawned controversy right from the start (it was banished from the Concord library shelves in 1885), it is at heart a compelling adventure story. Huck, in flight from his murderous father, and Jim, in flight from slavery, pilot their raft through treacherous waters, surviving a crash with a steamboat and betrayal by rogues. As Normal Mailer has said, “The mark of how good Huckleberry Finn has to be is that one can compare it to a number of our best modern American novels and it stands up page for page.”
“A River Runs Through It” by Norman MacLean: From its first magnificent sentence, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing,” to the last, “I am haunted by waters,” A River Runs Through It is an American classic. Based on Norman Maclean’s childhood experiences, the title novella has established itself as one of the most moving stories of out time; it captivates readers with vivid descriptions of life along Montana’s Big Blackfoot River and its near magical blend of fly fishing with the troubling affections of the heart.
“My Antonia” by Willa Cather: Willa Cather’s My Antonia is considered one of the most significant American novels of the twentieth century. Set during the great migration west to settle the plains of the North American continent, the narrative follows Antonia Shimerda, a pioneer who comes to Nebraska as a child and grows with the country, inspiring a childhood friend, Jim Burden, to write her life story. The novel is important both for it literary aesthetic and as a portrayal of important aspects of American social ideals and history, particularly the centrality of migration to American culture.
“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” by Hunter S. Thompson: This cult classic of gonzo journalism 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.
“A Separate Peace” by John Knowles: Gene was a lonely, introverted intellectual. Phineas was a handsome, taunting, daredevil athlete. What happened between them at school one summer during the early years of World War II is the subject of A Separate Peace. A great bestseller for over 30 years–one of the most starkly moving parables ever written of the dark forces that brood over the tortured world of adolescence.
“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz: Oscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight, lovesick Dominican ghetto nerd. From his home in New Jersey, where he lives with his old-world mother and rebellious sister, Oscar dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to a curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture tragic accidents, and above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still waiting for his first kiss, is just its most recent victim.
“Bless Me, Ultima” by Rudolfo Anaya: Stories filled with wonder and the haunting beauty of his culture have helped make Rudolfo Anaya the father of Chicano literature in English, and his tales fairly shimmer with the lyric richness of his prose. Acclaimed in both Spanish and English, Anaya is perhaps best loved for this classic bestseller. Antonio Marez is six years old when Ultima comes to stay with his family in New Mexico. She is a curandera, one who cures with herbs and magic. Under her wise wing, Tony will test the bonds that tie him to his people, and discover himself in the pagan past, in his father’s wisdom, and in his mother’s Catholicism. And at each life turn there is Ultima, who delivered Tony into the world-and will nurture the birth of his soul.
“Death Comes for the Archbishop” by Willa Cather: Willa Cather’s best known novel is an epic–almost mythic–story of a single human life lived simply in the silence of the southwestern desert. In 1851, Father Jean Marie Latour comes to serve as the Apostolic Vicar to New Mexico. What he finds is a vast territory of red hills and tortuous arroyos, American by law but Mexican and Indian in custom and belief. In the almost forty years that follow, Latour spreads his faith in the only way he knows–gently, all the while contending with an unforgiving landscape, derelict and sometimes openly rebellious priests, and his own loneliness. Out of these events, Cather gives us an indelible vision of life unfolding in a place where time itself seems suspended.
“Open City” by Teju Cole: A haunting novel about identity, dislocation, and history, Teju Cole’s Open City is a profound work by an important new author who has much to say about our country and our world. Along the streets of Manhattan, a young Nigerian doctor named Julius wanders, reflecting on his relationships, his recent breakup with his girlfriend, his present, his past. He encounters people from different cultures and classes who will provide insight on his journey–which takes him to Brussels, to the Nigeria of his youth, and into the most unrecognizable facets of his own soul.
“Just Kids” by Patti Smith: 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 Chelsea Hotel 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.
“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald: The story of the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby and his love for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan, of lavish parties on Long Island at a time when, The New York Times remarked, “gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession,” it is an exquisitely crafted tale of America in the 1920s that resonates with the power of myth. A novel of lyrical beauty yet brutal realism, of magic, romance, and mysticism, The Great Gatsby is one of the great classics of twentieth-century literature.
“The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger: This is the story of Holden Caufield with his idiosyncrasies, penetrating insight, confusion, sensitivity and negativism. Holden, knowing he is to be expelled from school, decides to leave early. He spends three days in New York City and tells the story of what he did and suffered there.
“Serena” by Ron Rash: The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to the mountains–but she soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattlesnakes, even saving her husband’s life in the wilderness. Together this lord and lady of the woodlands ruthlessly kill or vanquish all who fall out of favor. Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pembertons’ intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel as the story moves toward its shocking reckoning.
“Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier: Cold Mountain is an extraordinary novel about a soldier’s perilous journey back to his beloved at the end of the Civil War. Based on local history and family stories passed down by the author’s great-great-grandfather, Cold Mountain is the tale of a wounded solider, Inman, who walks away from the ravages of the war and back home to his prewar sweetheart, Ada. Inman’s odyssey through the devastated landscape of the soon-to-be-defeated South interweaves with Ada’s struggle to revive her father’s farm, with the help of an intrepid young drifter named Ruby. As their long-separated lives begin to converge at the close of the war, Inman and Ada confront the vastly transformed world they’ve been delivered.
“The Plague of Doves” by Louise Erdrich: A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, The Plague of Doves–the first part of a loose trilogy that includes the National Book Award-winning The Round House and LaRose–is a gripping novel about a long-unsolved crime in a small North Dakota town and how, years later, the consequences are still being felt by the community and a nearby Native American reservation. Through generations have passed, the town of Pluto continues to be haunted by the murder of a farm family. Evelina Harppart Ojibwe, part white–is an ambitious young girl whose grandfather, a repository of family and tribal history, harbors knowledge of the violent past. And Judge Antone Bazil Coutts, who bears witness, understands the weight of historical injustice better than anyone. Through the distinct and winning voices of three unforgettable narrators, the collective stories of two interwoven communities ultimately come together to reveal a final wrenching truth.
“Beloved” by Toni Morrison: This is the story–set in post-Civil War Ohio–of Sethe, an escaped slave who has risked death in order to wrench herself from a living death; who has lost a husband and buried a child; who has borne the unthinkable and not gone mad: a woman of “iron eyes and backbone to match.” Sethe lives in a small house on the edge of town with her daughter, Denver, her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, and a disturbing, mesmerizing intruder who calls herself Beloved.
“Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson: In a deeply moving collection of interrelated stories, this 1919 American classic illuminates the loneliness and frustrations–spiritual, emotional and artistic–of life in a small town.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” by David Grann: In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, they rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe. Then, one by one, the Osage began to be killed off. The family of an Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, became a prime target. Her relatives were shot and poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more and more members of the tribe began to die under mysterious circumstances.
“The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton: No one ever said life was easy. But Ponyboy is pretty sure that he’s got things figured out. He knows that he can count on his brothers, Darry and Sodapop. And he knows that he can count on his friends–true friends who would do anything for him, like Johnny and Two-Bit. But not on much else besides trouble with the Socs, a vicious gang of rich kids whose idea of a good time is beating up on “greasers” like Ponyboy. At least he knows what to expect–until the night someone takes things too far.
“Little Century” by Anna Keesey: In the lawless frontier town of Century, Oregon, Esther Chamber is met by her distant cousin, a laconic cattle rancher named Ferris Pickett. But this town on the edge of civilization is in the midst of a very real range in a story of dispossession, greed, and ecstatic visions of America.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey: Boisterous, ribald, and ultimately shattering, Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel has left an indelible mark on the literature of our time. This is the unforgettable story of a mental ward and its inhabitants, especially the tyrannical Big Nurse Ratched and Randle Patrick McMurphy, the brawling, fun-loving new inmate who resolves to oppose her. We see the struggle through the eyes of Chief Bromden, the seemingly mute half-Indian patient who witnesses and understands McMurphy’s heroic attempt to do battle with the powers that keep them all imprisoned.
“An American Childhood” by Annie Dillard: Pulitzer prize winning author Annie Dillard’s poignant, vivid memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950’s details the exhilaration of a young, vibrant girl discovering the world around her and exploring it with a keen mind and curiosity.
“The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold: When we first meet 14-year-old Susie Salmon, she is already in heaven. This was before milk carton photos and public service announcements, she tells us; back in 1973, when Susie mysteriously disappeared, people still believed these things didn’t happen. In the sweet, untroubled voice of a precocious teenage girl, Susie relates the awful events of her death and her own adjustment to the strange new place she finds herself. It looks a lot like her school playground, with the good kind of swing sets. With love, longing, and a growing understanding, Susie watches her family as they cope with their grief, her father embarks on a search for the killer, her sister undertakes a feat of amazing daring, her little brother builds a fort in her honor and begin the difficult process of healing. In the hands of a brilliant novelist, this story of seemingly unbearable tragedy is transformed into a suspenseful and touching story about family, memory, love, heaven, and living.
“The Witches of Eastwick” by John Updike: Toward the end of the Vietnam era, in a snug little Rhode Island seacoast town, wonderful powers have descended upon Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie, bewitching divorcees with sudden access to all that is female, fecund, and mysterious. Alexandra, a sculptor, summons thunderstorms; Jane, a cellist, floats on the air; and Sukie, the local gossip columnist, turns milk into cream. Their happy little coven takes on new, malignant life when a dark and moneyed stranger, Darryl Van Horne, refurbishes the long-derelict Lenox mansion and invites them in to play. Thenceforth scandal flits through the darkening, crooked streets of Eastwick–and through the even darker fantasies of the town’s collective psyche.
“My Sister’s Keeper” by Jodi Picoult: Conceived to provide a bone marrow match for her leukemia-stricken sister, teenage Kate begins to question her moral obligations in light of countless medical procedures and decides to fight for the right to make decisions about her own body. New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult tells the emotionally riveting story of a family torn apart by conflicting needs and a passionate love that triumphs over human weakness. Anna is not sick, but she might as well be. By age thirteen, she has undergone countless surgeries, transfusions, and shot so that her older sister, Kate, can somehow fight the leukemia that has plagued her since childhood. The product of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, Anna was conceived as a bone marrow match for Kate–a life and a role that she has never challenged–until now.
“Bastard Out of Carolina” by Dorothy Allison: Greenville County, South Carolina, a wild, lush place, is home to the Boatwright family-rough-hewn men who drink hard and shoot up each other’s trucks, and indomitable women who marry young and age all too quickly. At the heart of this astonishing novel is Ruth Anne Boatwright, known simply as Bone, a South Carolina bastard with an annotated birth certificate to tell the tale. Observing everything with the mercilessly keen eye of a child, Bone finds herself caught in a family triangle that will test the loyalty of her mother, Anney. Her stepfather, Daddy Glen, calls Bone “cold as death, mean as a snake, and twice as twisty,” yet Anney needs Glen. At first gentle with Bone, Daddy Glen becomes steadily colder and more furious-until their final, harrowing encounter, from which there can be no turning back.
“Brown Girl Dreaming” by Jacqueline Woodson: Raised in South Caroline and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world.
“The Secret Life of Bees” by Sue Monk Kidd: Set in South Carolina in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily Owens, whose life has been shaped around the blurred memory of the afternoon her mother was killed. When Lily’s fierce-hearted black “stand-in mother,” Rosaleen, insults three of the deepest racists in town, Lily decides to spring them both free. They escape to Tiburon, South Carolina–a town that holds the secret to her mother’s past. Taken in by an eccentric trio of black beekeeping sisters, Lily is introduced to their mesmerizing world of bees and honey, and the Black Madonna.
“Lakota Woman” by Mary Brave Bird: A powerful autobiography of Mary Brave Bird who grew up fatherless in a one-room cabin without running water or electricity on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.
“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown: First published in 1970, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee generated shockwaves with it frank and heartbreaking depiction of the systematic annihilation of American Indian tribes across the western frontier. In this nonfiction account, Dee Brown focuses on the betrayals, battles, and massacres suffered by American Indians between 1860 and 1890. He tells of the many tribes and their renowned chiefs–from Geronimo to Red Cloud, Sitting Bull to Crazy Horse–who struggled to combat the destruction of their people and culture.
“Wise Blood” by Flannery O’Connor: Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor’s astonishing and haunting first novel, is a classic of twentieth-century literature. It is the story of Hazel Motes, a twenty-two-year old caught in an unending struggle against his innate, desperate faith. He falls under the spell of a “blind” street preacher named Asa Hawks and his degenerate fifteen-year-old daughter, Lily Sabbath. In an ironic, malicious gesture of his own non-faith, and to prove himself a greater cynic than Hawks, Hazel Motes founds The Church Without Christ, but is still thwarted in his efforts to lose God. He meets Enoch Emery, a young man with “wise blood,” who leads him to a mummified holy child, and whose crazy maneuvers are a manifestation of Hazel’s existential struggles. This tale of redemption, retribution, false prophets, blindness, blindings, and wisdom gives us one of the most consuming characters in modern fiction.
“A Death in the Family” by James Agee: On a sultry summer night in 1915, Jay Follet leaves his house in Knoxville, Tennessee, to tend to his father, whom he believes is dying. The summons turns out to be a false alarm, but on his way back to his family, Jay has a car accident and is killed instantly. Dancing back and forth in time and braiding the viewpoints of Jay’s wife, brother, and young son, Rufus, Agee creates an overwhelmingly powerful novel of innocence, tenderness, and loss that should be read aloud for the sheer music of it prose.
“The Liars’ Club” by Mary Karr: In this funny, razor-edged memoir, Mary Karr, a prize-winning poet and critic, looks back at her upbringing in a swampy East Texas refinery town with a volatile, defiantly loving family. She recalls her painter mother, seven times married, whose outlaw spirit could tip into psychosis; a fist-swinging father who spun tales with his cronies–dubbed the Liars’ Club; and a neighborhood rape when she was eight. An inheritance was squandered, endless bottles emptied, and guns leveled at the deserving and undeserving. With a raw authenticity stripped of self-pity and a poet’s eye for the lyrical detail, Karr shows us a “terrific family of liars and drunks…redeemed by a slow unearthing of truth.”
“Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry: A love story, an adventure, and an epic of the frontier, Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic Lonesome Dove, the third book in the tetralogy, is the grandest novel ever written about the last, defiant wilderness of America. Journey to the dusty little Texas town of Lonesome Dove and meet an unforgettable assortment of characters. Richly authentic, beautifully written, and always dramatic, Lonesome Dove is a book to make us laugh, weep, dream, and remember.
“Riders of the Purple Sage” by Zane Grey: Zane Grey’s best-known novel, Riders of the Purple Sage, was first published in 1912. One of the earliest Western novels, it tells the story of Jane Withersteen’s struggle to overcome persecution within her Mormon church. With the help of her friends, she overcomes adversity to find herself, a child who needs her and her true love in the process.
“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt: Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and forever, and they discover how hard it can be to truly live and how easy it is to kill.
“Pollyanna” by Eleanor Porter: When orphaned, eleven-year-old Pollyanna comes to live with austere and wealthy Aunt Polly, her philosophy of gladness brings happiness to her aunt and other unhappy members of the community.
“The Known World” by Edward Jones: Henry Townsend, a black farmer, bootmaker, and former slave, has a fondness for Paradise Lost and an unusal mentor–William Robbins, perhaps the most powerful man in antebellum Virginia’s Manchester County. Under Robbins’s tutelage, Henry becomes proprietor of his own plantation–as well as of his own slaves. When he dies, his widow, Caldonia, succumbs to profound grief, and things begin to fall apart at their plantation: slaves take to escaping under the cover of night, and families who had once found love beneath the weight of slavery begin to betray one another. Beyond the Townsend estate, the known world also unravels: low-paid white patrollers stand watch as slave “speculators” sell free black people into slavery, and rumors of slave rebellions set white families against slaves who have served them for years.
“The Hemingses of Monticello” by Annette Gordon-Reed: Historian and legal scholar Gordon-Reed presents this epic work that tells the story of the Hemingses, an American slave family, and their close blood ties to Thomas Jefferson.
“Bridge to Terabithia” by Katherine Paterson: Jess Aarons has been practicing all summer to he can be the fastest runner in the fifth grade. And he almost is, until the new girl in school, Leslie Burke, outpaces him. The two become fast friends and spend most days in the woods behind Leslie’s house, where they invent an enchanted land called Terabithia. One morning, Leslie goes to Terabithia without Jess and a tragedy occurs. It will take the love of his family and the strength that Leslie has given him for Jess to be able to deal with his grief.
“The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” by Sherman Alexie: Sherman Alexie’s darkly humorous story collection weaves memory, fantasy, and stark reality to powerfully evoke life on the Spokane Indian Reservation. The twenty-four linked tales in Alexie’s debut collection–an instant classic–paint an unforgettable portrait of life on and around the Spoke Indian Reservation, a place where “Survival=Anger x Imagination,” where HUD houses and generations of privation intertwine with history, passion, and myth. We follow Thomas Build-the-Fire, the longwinded storyteller no one really listens to; his half-hearted nemesis, Victor, the basketball star turned recovering alcoholic; and a wide cast of other vividly drawn characters on a haunting journey filled with humor and sorrow, resilience and resignation, dreams and reality. Alexie’s unadulterated honesty and boundless compassion come together in a poetic vision of a world in which the gaps between past and present are not really gaps after all.
“This Boy’s Life” by Tobias Wolff: In this unforgettable memoir of boyhood in the 1950s, we meet the young Toby Wolff, by turns tough and vulnerable, crafty and bumbling, and ultimately winning. Separated by divorce from his father and brother, Toby and his mother are constantly on the move. Between themselves they develop an almost telepathic trust that sees them through their wandering from Florida to a small town in Washington State. Fighting for identity and self-respect against the unrelenting hostility of a new stepfather, Toby’s growing up is at once poignant and comical. His various schemes–running away to Alaska, forging checks, and stealing cars–lead eventually to an act of outrageous self-invention that release him into a new world of possibility.
“Snow Falling on Cedars” by David Guterson: This is the kind of book where you can smell and hear and see the fictional world the writer has created, so palpably does the atmosphere come through. Set on an island in the straits north of Puget Sound, in Washington, where everyone is either a fisherman or a berry farmer, the story is nominally about a murder trial. But since it’s set in the 1950s, lingering memories of World War II, internment camps and racism helps fuel suspicion of a Japanese-American fisherman, a lifelong resident of the islands. It’s a great story, but the primary pleasure of the book is Guterson’s renderings of the people and the place.
“The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls: The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a penetrating look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette’s brilliant father captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who hated anything to do with domesticity. The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered.
“American Dervish” by Ayad Akhtar: Hayat Shah is a young American in love for the first time. His normal life of school, baseball, and video games has previously been distinguished only by his Pakistani heritage and by the frequent chill between his parents, who fight over things he is too young to understand. Then Mina arrives, and everything changes. Mina is Hayat’s mother’s oldest friend from Pakistan. She is independent, beautiful and intelligent, and arrives on the Shah’s doorstep when her disastrous marriage in Pakistan disintegrates. Even Hayat’s skeptical father can’t deny the liveliness and happiness that accompanies Mina into their home. Her deep spirituality brings the family’s Muslim faith to life in a way that resonates with Hayat as nothing has before. Studying the Quran by Mina’s side and basking in the glow of her attention, he feels in a way that resonates with Hayat as nothing has before. Studying the Quran by Mina’s side and basking in the glow of her attention, he feels an entirely new purpose mingled with a growing infatuation for his teacher. When Mina meets and begins dating a man, Hayat is confused by his feelings of betrayal. His growing passions, both spiritual and romantic, force him to question all that he has come to believe is true.
“Evicted” by Matthew Desmond: The author takes us into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to tell the story of eight families on the edge. Arleen is a single mother trying to raise her two sons on the 20 dollars a month she has left after paying for their rundown apartment. Scott is a gentle nurse consumed by a heroin addiction. Lamar, a man with no legs and a neighborhood full of boys to look after, tries to work his way out of debt. Vanetta participates in a botched stickup after her hours are cut. All are spending almost everything they have on rent, and all have fallen behind. The fates of these families are in the hands of two landlords: Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher turned inner-city entrepreneur, and Tobin Charney, who runs one of the worst trailer parks in Milwaukee. They loathe some of their tenants and are fond of others, but as Sherrena puts it, “Love don’t pay the bills.” She moves to evict Arleen and her boys a few days before Christmas. Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. But today, most poor renting families are spending more than half of their income on housing, and eviction has become ordinary, especially for single mothers.
“Little House in the Big Woods” by Laura Ingalls Wilder: A year in the life of two young girls growing up on the Wisconsin frontier, as they help their mother with the daily chores, enjoy their father’s stories and singing, and share special occasions when they get together with relatives or neighbors.
“The Solace of Open Spaces” by Gretel Ehrlich: A stunning collection of personal observations that uses images of the American West to probe larger concerns in lyrical, evocative prose that is a true celebration of the region.
“Close Range” by Annie Proulx: Annie Proulx’s masterful language and fierce love of Wyoming are evident in this collection of stories about loneliness, quick violence, and wrong kids of love. In “The Mud Below,” a rodeo rider’s obsession marks the deepening fissures between his family life and self-imposed isolation. In “The Half-Skinned Steer,” an elderly fool drives west to the ranch he grew up on for his brother’s funeral, and dies a mile from home. In “Brokeback Mountain,” the difficult affair between two cowboys survives everything but the world’s violent intolerance.