Armchair travel as Plan B
November 18, 2008 3:40 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to read a book set in/about every US state, and would love recommendations from those living in or from each state. Actual travel I'd been hoping to do won't happen, so please help me make a journey via the library.

I've spotted Librarything's Tag Mash* and am digging through Wikipedia, but recommendations from people who love and know each state would be a huge help.

Anything goes (short stories included), but if you need some extra criteria to narrow it down:

- I really like good storytelling in simple language, rather than poetic prose. Raymond Carver, Richard Bausch, Stephen King and Douglas Coupland all do this for me in varied ways.
- I also really like stories about ordinary life. Conversely, I hate stories with new-agey themes.
- Stories where place is important would be good, or where there's a sense of the place's identity throughout. I realise one book won't get every bit of any state.
- Your personal canon is more interesting to me than Official Best Books. Weird and personal books are the best, when they're good. An engaging story set in a town I've never heard of would be a total joy.

I was really hoping to make a few long train journeys in the US this year but am going to be laid off soon and trying to avoid defaulting on my loans (oh boy oh boy!), so the library and Bookmooch will be helping me to have an imaginary tour as compensation.

(Previously about cities, from which I will be borrowing, but it's short.)

* Sorry, Delaware, but you're on the More Challenging list from the outset!
posted by carbide to Media & Arts (46 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Can we not proffer books that tell the story of other countries too? If you can't afford the trip to Alabama, you can't afford to fly to New Zealand either ;-)
I like Douglas Coupland's Microserfs for Seattle in the nineties.
And the Annie E Proulx short stories about Wyoming, but I've never been there, so a local might well say they are garbage.
(Peter Corris is gun at the feel of Sydney, Australia if we are allowed international destinations)
posted by bystander at 4:24 AM on November 18, 2008

South Dakota: Ian Frazier's On the Rez has a lot of insight about life on the Lakota reservations in the southwestern part of the state. South Dakota is about much more than the strained race relations between white people and Natives, but I find it's an aspect of life there that few outsiders know much about.
posted by lauranesson at 4:28 AM on November 18, 2008

carbide, take a look at Omnivoracious, which is making a list of books for each state based on the state's number of electoral college votes. Eventually, they'll have a list of 538 books.
posted by cgc373 at 5:09 AM on November 18, 2008

Delaware on Omnivoracious.
posted by cgc373 at 5:13 AM on November 18, 2008

Things come to mind for me are Clyde Edgerton's Raney for South Carolina and Lee Smith's On Agate Hill (a historical novel set just after the Civil War) or Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer for North Carolina.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:35 AM on November 18, 2008

A Connecticut book that isn't on the Omnivoracious list and I think should be: Stewart O'Nan's Last Night at the Lobster. Fits all of your criteria, and is about a part of the Nutmeg State that doesn't get much literary attention.
posted by gnomeloaf at 5:36 AM on November 18, 2008

The default book for Oklahoma (especially in High School) seems to be The Outsiders. It is a pretty good book, though.
posted by Shohn at 5:47 AM on November 18, 2008

For Maine, you can read The Lobster Chronicles if you want some non-fiction ("Greenlaw left swordfishing to return to Isle au Haut, seven miles off the coast of Maine, where her parents live.").

For fiction, you can try Empire Falls or other books by Richard Russo.
posted by mikepop at 5:50 AM on November 18, 2008

State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America sounds like it might fit the bill.
posted by Otis at 5:58 AM on November 18, 2008

Also by Richard Russo...Nobody's Fool about upstate New York. A lovely, lovely book.
posted by sully75 at 6:00 AM on November 18, 2008

For kansas, William Least Heat-Moon's PrairyErth...hell, in general, Blue Highways is a great travel read.
posted by notsnot at 6:14 AM on November 18, 2008

The Land Remembers, Ben Hogan.
Run, Rainey, Run, Mel Ellis.
The Story of my Boyhood and Youth, John Muir.
And, of course, A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold.
posted by Floydd at 6:33 AM on November 18, 2008

Anatomy of a Murder, set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula
posted by JimN2TAW at 6:34 AM on November 18, 2008

Stephen Fry in America is a series of vignettes of every state. There's also an accompanying BBC series which you could probably buy on DVD.
posted by Happy Dave at 6:43 AM on November 18, 2008

Also nonfiction, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is indelible and makes Savannah in the 1980s a major character...though most Georgians would probably find it a world away from their own lives.

Carl Hiaasen's books are apparently the distillation of what's different about Florida.

And you'll get a thousand recommendations on California (and a lot of them, from T.C. Boyle to Joan Didion, are excellent), but nothing has really felt "as California" to me as Michael Nava's Henry Rios Mysteries, which are Stephen-King readable and take place all over the state.
posted by kittyprecious at 6:56 AM on November 18, 2008

Kathryn Tucker Windham's 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey | Wiki

Actually, anything by her (about Alabama and the rest of the south) is probably good, but the ghost stories are fun.

I wish I could suggest more, but I've come to the realization that I haven't read much about my state.
posted by robtf3 at 6:59 AM on November 18, 2008

awww, JimN2TAW beat me to it.

but, more michigan:

cold, by john smolens. not the best book i've ever read, but feels very michigan in the winter.

here's a list of 2007 michigan notable books, many of which are about michigan stuff, not just by michiganders.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 7:21 AM on November 18, 2008

Archer Mayor writes a mystery series about Vermont that all have a wonderful sense of place and you can read one even if you're not immersed in the series.

I'd suggest Let Us Now Praise Famous Men for Alabama but it's not fiction, but it's a gripping read (with photos!) at the same time.

Almost all the books I've read about this area are non-fiction including the truly wonderful A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson which is actually about New Hampshire (and Vermont? I'm not sure) and shoudl be easy to get at your local library.

The Beans of Egypt Maine is a good Maine book though one that is contentious in these parts.

The Scarlet Letter takes place in Massachusetts, but it's a Colonial period book, but still pretty good. I also enjoyed The Frozen Water Trade [non-fiction] about the story of one person in early MA times who made a whole industry out of selling ice, a new idea at the time.
posted by jessamyn at 7:39 AM on November 18, 2008

Early nineties, kind of long, but fun: Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock by Jack Butler.

Donald Harington's novels are set in a fictional Ozark mountain town, called Stay More. They are humorous and evocative of the landscape and illustrate some of the isolation of the region, especially before, say 1980.

John Grisham's A Painted House (not a legal thriller) is set in the flat farming country of the North Eastern part of the state. Fictional, but heavily autobiographical nonetheless.

(Grisham's thrillers that take you to Memphis and Louisiana are highly evocative of place as well.)

Contemporary Southern writing in general: Oxford American Magazine and the New Stories from the South annual collection.
posted by nita at 7:58 AM on November 18, 2008

For Utah, Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey.
posted by netbros at 8:04 AM on November 18, 2008

I've enjoyed James Michener's Hawaii, and I know he has several other books like it. His books are historical fiction about a particular place (like Hawaii... Texas... etc.) His histories tend to start in like, DINOSAUR time and work its way up to the present. I found Hawaii SUPER informative and enjoyable! :)
posted by thejrae at 8:26 AM on November 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


This guy's stuff is a hoot to read, too. He's a little... chauvinistic... though, so some might find it mildly offensive. He admits it, though, so at least he's honest.
posted by Death by Ugabooga at 8:28 AM on November 18, 2008

Another option for Washington State is "Snow Falling on Cedars" by David Guterson.
posted by vito90 at 8:44 AM on November 18, 2008

Massachusetts nonfiction-- Mayflower.
posted by beccaj at 8:46 AM on November 18, 2008

Devil in the White City is a great (true) story about Chicago...and it has a lot to do with American history as well. The author manages to make a work of nonfiction read just like fiction. It's very engrossing.
posted by radioamy at 8:58 AM on November 18, 2008

Okla Hannali, by R. A. Lefferty, is a novel about the Choctaw's removal to Oklahoma and their experiences there. It is funny and sad at the same time.
posted by Quonab at 9:25 AM on November 18, 2008

If you're interested in historical fiction, for Indiana I would recommend The Friendly Persuasion, about a family of Civil War-era Quakers. It meets your "ordinary life" criterion particularly well. (And yes, I'd recommend it even without the MetaFilter connection.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:31 AM on November 18, 2008

I highly, highly recommend the short stories of Breece D'J Pancake as your West Virginia entry. His works meet all of the criteria you set forth in your question. Many other books have been set in WV, but as a native I can say that nobody (in fiction) captured the sense of place and spirit of the state better than Pancake. I should have an extra copy laying around, if you have trouble finding it.

If you're intrigued by the stories and want to know more about it and its inhabitants, please please please do yourself the favor of reading John O'Brien's At Home in the Heart of Appalachia. This book is the reason I added the "in fiction" qualifier to my above statement about Pancake capturing the sense of place in WV, as O'Brien nailed it perfectly. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
posted by arco at 9:47 AM on November 18, 2008

(of course, the "it" in the first sentence of my second paragraph should refer to the state of WV, not the book of stories. just to unnecessarily carlify.)
posted by arco at 10:14 AM on November 18, 2008


John Steinbeck, my favorite being Cannery Row. For a more current look at the Los Angeles area, there are two mystery writers that I really like - Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. Connelly being more serious and Crais more for the black humor. Both of them describe real places in and around LA and the Hollywood Hills. If you start their books, read them in order for maximum enjoyment.
posted by jvilter at 10:51 AM on November 18, 2008

For Colorado (particuarly rural Colorado) : Plainsong by Kent Haruf
posted by The Gooch at 10:58 AM on November 18, 2008

Among the states I've lived in, two short story collections -- very much in the Raymond Carver vein -- immediately spring to mind:

For California, I'll pimp my friend Rich and suggest Richard Lange's Dead Boys, all set in and around Los Angeles.

For Wyoming, I'm a big fan of Richard Ford's Rock Springs (some of them are also set in Montana).
posted by scody at 11:01 AM on November 18, 2008

I've never lived there, but the lyrical descriptions in Shoeless Joe made me fall in love with Iowa.
posted by triggerfinger at 11:23 AM on November 18, 2008

Moloka'i is about the Hawaiian leper colony (island) of the same name, around 1890-1900. A very good read.
posted by at 11:35 AM on November 18, 2008

The Bean Trees has a lot of Arizona in it, as well as a couple of other states.
posted by sondrialiac at 11:41 AM on November 18, 2008

Yes, seconding Plainsong. I'm from that area. Although the people are quite idealized as simple country folk, it has the landscape down pat.
posted by sondrialiac at 11:42 AM on November 18, 2008

The are two definitive Kansas books:

Non-fiction: In Cold Blood

Fiction: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

And there's What's The Matter With Kansas? about the rise of political conservatism in the state.
posted by amyms at 12:15 PM on November 18, 2008

New Mexico - Mayordomo by Stanley Crawford.
Great book by an outsider who (in no small way and yet not fully) becomes part of the ancient culture of NM as it centers around water and its control and uses.

Worth a read and definitely evokes the space.
posted by Seamus at 12:37 PM on November 18, 2008

West Virginia - Pinckney Benedict's short stories.
posted by Seamus at 12:38 PM on November 18, 2008

Another one: for New Mexico, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather -- she gives a wonderfully rich sense of the Southwestern landscape throughout the novel. (And if you like Cather, there's also My Antonia and O Pioneers!, both of which are set in Nebraska.)
posted by scody at 2:58 PM on November 18, 2008


Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' Cross Creek.


Practically anything by William Faulkner, but especially The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, and As I Lay Dying. AILD is the most accessible if you're new to Faulkner.


Alice Walker's The Color Purple and anything by the brilliant Flannery O'Connor.
posted by isogloss at 6:03 PM on November 18, 2008

Oregon: Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion. (Kesey is better known for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.)
posted by neuron at 7:28 PM on November 18, 2008

Walker of Time, and its sequel, Tag Against Time, are two amazing young adult novels that I read as a kid growing up in Arizona. The first one deals with some Hopi/Native American history and the second one has a wider view of Arizona history.
posted by jschu at 9:57 PM on November 18, 2008

Mary Karr's The Liars' Club captures East Texas well. She writes with wonderful clear language that seems simple and direct but then packs an emotional punch. She's funny and sad at the same time.
John Graves Goodbye to a River for Central Texas. Lovely.
Larry McMurtry has some great stuff about a number of places Western US.
Louisiana: The Moviegoer by Walker Percy - New Orleans and nearby areas.
John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley as he drives around with his dog.
posted by dog food sugar at 7:21 AM on November 19, 2008

Wisconsin: A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold.

Michigan's Upper Peninsula: Anatomy of a Murder, Robert Traver.

Neither is my all-time favorite book ever, but both of them are so true to their settings that, when I read them, I am surprised to look up and find that I'm not there again.
posted by teremala at 5:36 PM on November 19, 2008

This is the most amazing list, thank you all so much. I think I'm going to be reading off it for a while, and it hits both some of my favourite books and some I already have on my to-read list (scody, I've wanted to read Dead Boys since I saw you mention it before!).

Sorry for checking back in a bit late.
posted by carbide at 2:15 PM on November 23, 2008

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