I was drinking a martini on the back deck last night, scrolling through email on my phone, when a subject line from Book Riot caught my eye: “Books Around America 🇱🇷 The Best Books Set In Every State.” I thought they might share one of the existing resources I’ve listed here, like the Business Insider list or the one from Brooklyn Magazine, as I think Book Riot might be where I originally found those.
This is my new favorite resource. Book Riot is attentive to diversity, and that’s one of the things I love so much about them. I’m thrilled to be able to look to this list as I navigate New Hampshire through to the end in Wyoming.
I fell off the Andrea Reads America wagon. Back in May, after I published my wrapup of Maryland books, I was eager to read Massachusetts in all of its New England glory.
I did read Massachusetts, kept notes on three books, and then read a fourth. I didn’t feel like making the map or the post for Massachusetts, but I wanted to move on to the next state, Michigan, so I told myself, “I’ll catch up on the blog later,” and I started reading Michigan.
I read some books from Michigan, kept notes on them, and in the back of my mind, knew I was building quite a backlog for this blog. I’d finished at least six books, and was almost through reading Michigan, but I still hadn’t published a Massachusetts write-up. I was now two states behind on the blog, and it was stressing me out. I didn’t want to read too far ahead of my writing, but I also didn’t want to stop reading.
I kept on consuming books. And I stopped taking notes.
I chose to put my head in the sand about the blog and basically just pretended it didn’t exist. I read two or three more books from Michigan. I didn’t keep any notes on them. I moved on to Minnesota, read three books from Minnesota, and didn’t keep notes from those books either.
At that point, I did actually know the blog existed, and I resigned myself to giving up. I was three states behind on writeups, had stopped taking notes on each book, and realised I was burned out on my project. Instead of moving on to the next state, I embarked on a re-reading spree. I revisited Bel Canto (South America), The Elegance of the Hedgehog (France), and the prequels to Lonesome Dove (Texas). I was thrilled to not have to write a recap after finishing each book. I’d close one book and open another with no need to do anything in between.
Now, after a two-month break, the re-reading spree has done its job. I feel refreshed and ready to return to my project. However, the lack of notes on the books I read are still an obstacle for me. I don’t want to proceed with the next state until these three states — Massachusetts, Michigan, and Minnesota — are written. And I don’t want to publish shoddy work.
To move forward, though, I’m going to have to accept that those writeups just aren’t going to be good. Right now, I’m going to have to push through. I’m going to have to go with the advice that Done is better than Perfect. I’ll get these writeups out, rough as they will be. At that point, I should be finished with my current re-read and will be ready to go with the next state.
And then I’ll only be two states away from the halfway point 😂.
I have a confession to make. A major motivator in my Andrea Reads America project is my ambition to read more Great American Literature. I’ve read Faulkner and Ellison and Steinbeck; I’ve read Cather and Walker and Lee; but Philip Roth – who’s he? John Updike? Never tried him. Toni Morrison? I want to read more of her work. As I work my way across the USA, reading three books set in each state, I aim to finally get to some of the big names that I might otherwise never read.¹
Following the lead of researchers Kidd and Costano, who published a recent paper in Science suggesting that reading literary fiction improves empathy, I turned to the Pulitzer and National Book Award lists to find examples of Great Literature. I compiled lists of winners and finalists, and based on blurbs, reviews, and Goodreads tags, I noted the setting of each book in my spreadsheet.² If the narrative was set primarily in a specific state within the United States of America – not in generic-town-USA, not overseas, but in a specific location within the US – I plotted it on the maps above.³ Books that are based mainly on a journey across states are, for the most part, not included.⁴ Full list of titles follows.⁵ ⁶
I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers.
¹ No, I do not plan to read every book listed here. Are you crazy?
² If I am wrong on any of these, please correct me. In cases where I haven’t read the book (i.e. most of them. 88% in fact.), I cannot be sure how much of the narrative takes place in a particular setting. Also, the stars on the maps do not indicate specific cities or setting within a state, only that the book is set in the state. I’d be here forever if I scaled down to city level, and I’ve got reading to do.
³ The spread is fascinating, isn’t it? What’s up, Western States? Also, look how many Pulitzer winners are set in New York: NINE if you include finalists. The committee was hooked on Maine for a while there, too. And the state with the most National Book Awards? Illinois. What does it all mean, people?!
⁴ My personal familiarity with the books came into play here. Though the story travels from Texas to Montana, I included Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove for Texas, mainly because the point of view is clearly Texan, and because McMurtry evokes Texas so beautifully that the state becomes a character in the story. I wonder if John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath works similarly for Oklahoma, as it is told from the Okie perspective as Oklahomans journey west to California. I do not remember the book well enough to feel comfortable plotting it in either Oklahoma or California. If you have strong feelings on this, please let me know in the comments.
⁵ Pulitzer Fiction Winners and Finalists by state setting
AL – To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1961)
AL – The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau (1965)
AK – The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (2013 finalist)
DC – Advise and Consent by Allen Drury (1960)
FL – Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens (1949)
FL – Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (2012 finalist)
GA – Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor (1956)
GA – The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1983)
IL – An Unfinished Season by Ward Just (2005 finalist)
IN – The Bright Forever by Lee Martin (2006 finalist)
IA – A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (1992)
LA – A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (1981)
ME – Tinkers by Paul Harding (2010)
ME – Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2009)
ME – Empire Falls by Richard Russo (2002)
MA – The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O’Connor (1962)
MI – Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2003)
MS – The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty (1973)
MS – The Reivers by William Faulkner (1963)
MO – The Way West by A. B. Guthrie (1950)
NE – The Echo Maker by Richard Powers (2007 finalist)
NJ – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (2008)
NJ – American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1998)
NM – House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday (1969)
NY – The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos (1990)
NY – Ironweed by William Kennedy (1984)
NY – The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever (1979)
NY – The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2001)
NY – Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser (1997)
NY – All Souls by Christine Schutt (2009 finalist)
NY – The Privileges by Jonathan Dee (2011 finalist)
NY – Mr. Ives’ Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos (1996 finalist)
NY – At Weddings and Wakes by Alice McDermott (1993 finalist)
ND – The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich (2009 finalist)
OH – The Town by Conrad Richter (1951)
OH – Beloved by Toni Morrison (1988)
OK – Mean Spirit by Linda Hogan (1991 finalist)
PA – The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (1975)
TN – A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor (1987)
TN – A Death in the Family by James Agee (1958)
TX – Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (1986)
TX – Collected Stories by Katherine Anne Porter (1966)
UT – The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer (1980)
VA – The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2004)
VA – The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron (1968)
WY – Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx (2000 finalist)
⁶ National Book Award Winners by state setting
CA – In America by Susan Sontag (2000)
FL – Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen (2008)
GA – Paris Trout by Pete Dexter (1988)
GA – The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1983)
HI – From Here to Eternity by James Jones (1952)
IL – The Man With the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren (1950)
IL – Herzog by Saul Bellow (1965)
IL – The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder (1968)
IL – So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (1982)
LA – The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1962)
LA – Victory Over Japan: A Book of Stories by Ellen Gilchrist (1984)
MA – The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever (1958)
MI – Them by Joyce Carol Oates (1970)
MN – Morte D’Urban by J. F. Powers (1963)
MS – Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (2011)
NE – Plains Song by Wright Morris (1981)
NE – The Echo Maker by Richard Powers (2006)
NJ – Goodbye Columbus by Philip Roth (1960)
NY – The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud (1959)
NY – World’s Fair by E. L. Doctorow (1986)
NY – Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (2009)
NC – Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann (1987)
NC – Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier (1997)
ND – The Round House by Louise Erdrich (2012)
PA – Ten North Frederick by John O’Hara (1956)
PA – The Centaur by John Updike (1964)
PA – Rabbit is Rich by John Updike (1982)
RI – Spartina by John Casey (1989)
WV – Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon (2010)
If you’ve read any of these and have opinions on them, please let me know. I’ve read a few and thought Bah, what’s the big deal? while others have blown me away. I’m curious what your thoughts are. Thanks!