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Read Around America: 14 Superb Books That Span the States

July 2 2021
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This summer, we’ve been hit hard with the wanderlust and will gladly travel via any mode of transportation—plane, train, and bookmobile. Consider this list your ticket to escape. These books will help you traverse the United States from sea to shining sea, and will surely put you in a bookcation “state” of mind.

The Turner House
by Angela Flournoy

Michigan

Sometimes, the best way to get to know a city is over time. In Angela Flournoy’s impressive debut, she introduces readers to Detroit through the story of the Turners, who have lived on Yarrow Street for more than 50 years and seen their city rise, fall, and change from a thriving metropolis to one with abandoned lots and embattled, divided neighborhoods. As ailing matriarch Viola decides that what’s best is to move in with her son, her children are called back to reckon with how their pasts will determine their family’s future.

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The Turner House
Angela Flournoy

In this masterful debut novel, 13 siblings must decide the fate of their mother’s Detroit home, which housed the family for 50 years before mirroring the disarray and crisis of the city around them by falling into debt and misfortune. Secrets, addiction, and even a malevolent spirit all work against the siblings, but in the end Angela Flournoy shows how it takes more than walls to keep a family together.

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Swamplandia!
by Karen Russell

Florida

I came to America from Panama when I was two, and lived in Miami until I left for college in North Florida. Florida is wildly misunderstood, and my most favorite thing about it is the natural beauty found in the state’s beaches, swamps, forests, and natural springs. So I consider a book set in the singular Everglades a real treat. SWAMPLANDIA! is a quirky and beautifully written story told by thirteen-year-old Ava as she tries to save her family’s alligator wresting park from corporate control (that is a very Florida sentence). Full of magical realism, transporting imagery, and strange characters, this big-hearted novel is sure to charm you if you give it a chance—much like Florida itself.

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Swamplandia!
Karen Russell

This blazingly original debut novel takes us to the swamps of the Florida Everglades. Set against a backdrop of hauntingly fecund plant life, it is an utterly singular novel about one family’s struggle to stay afloat and one unforgettable young heroine on a harrowing odyssey.

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Brooklyn
by Colm Tóibín

New York

Here’s what I would say to Colm Tóibín about this book: My heart! Look at what you did to my heart! With the help of a Brooklyn priest, an Irish girl arrives in New York City in the years following World War II, and begins working at a department store on Fulton Street in Brooklyn. She falls in love with a man from an Italian family, but news from Ireland threatens her future.

Even if you saw the movie, the book is worth the read. Immigration and immigration stories are central to New York City (past, present, and future), and this novel does something that many aspire to: It beautifully communicates love, loss, and the experience of leaving one place and trying to create a life in a new one. It’s an incredible New York tale, and showcases a number of different areas around the city.

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Brooklyn
Colm Tóibín

Acclaimed character actress Saoirse Ronan takes center stage as Eilis Lacey, a young woman who abandons small-town Ireland and the comfort of her mother's home for the anonymous shores of New York City. In Brooklyn, she finds a city in flux—a city where immigrants from Ireland and Poland live amongst Jewish and black communities—and just as she is beginning to fall in love with a young man, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her new life.

Release Date: November 6, 2015

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Song Yet Sung
by James McBride

Maryland

I'll read anything James McBride writes, and SONG YET SUNG is no exception. It's a rich, deeply affecting story about a runaway slave whose escape sets loose a chain of dramatic events among slave catchers, plantation owners, watermen, other runaway slaves, and free blacks. This is a novel about tragic triumph, violent decisions, and unexpected kindness.

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Song Yet Sung
James McBride

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That Old Ace in the Hole
by Annie Proulx

Texas

Winner of a National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and a PEN/Faulkner Award, Annie Proulx is a literary master who has penned eight incredible books (including CLOSE RANGE, which features the short story you’re probably familiar with—“Brokeback Mountain”) spanning American time and space. Through the young and aimless character Bob Dollar, who moves to the two-bit Texas town Woolybucket, THAT OLD ACE IN THE HOLE explores the beauty of Texas ranchland and the changes the American West has experienced in the last century. With descriptions of full landscapes, love, history, and a few bawdy moments, it’s a completely addictive read through and through.

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That Old Ace in the Hole
Annie Proulx

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Love Medicine
by Louise Erdrich

North Dakota

LOVE MEDICINE, Louise Erdrich’s wonderful novel-in-stories, which won her the National Book Critics Circle Award, is possibly my favorite among all her work. LOVE MEDICINE is set in a North Dakota reservation and tells the stories of two intertwined Native American families, the Kashpaws and the Lamartines/Nanapushes, following them through several generations. Louise Erdrich’s talent can be felt right away in the first story, where the beautiful but emotionally damaged June Kashpaw, who, in her efforts to redeem her life (she has just had sex with a stranger in his car, a man who calls her by another woman’s name), sets off for the home she had left behind a long time back on the reservation, and dies in a snowstorm. It is a powerful, heartbreaking story, written out in Erdrich’s unmistakable style, at once knife-sharp and poetic, and filled with original and memorable images that force us to look anew at the world.

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Love Medicine
Louise Erdrich

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Ohio
by Stephen Markley

Ohio

Set over the course of a single evening, four former high school classmates converge on their hometown in northeastern Ohio. Passionate, drug-abusing young activist Bill Ashcraft returns to town with a mysterious package strapped to the undercarriage of his truck. Across town, Stacey Moore reluctantly confronts her family and the mother of her best friend and first love, searching for closure after his disappearance. Classmate and Iraqi veteran Dan Eaton goes on a date with the high school sweetheart he wishes he could forget, and beautiful-but-fragile Tina Ross reconnects with a washed-up high school football star. As the story evolves, these four separate stories come together as one. The joining of these narratives unearths dark secrets, revisiting old regrets and uncovering bitter betrayals.

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Ohio
Stephen Markley

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The Wild Inside
by Christine Carbo

Montana

What was supposed to be a pleasant father-son camping trip beneath the clear skies of Glacier National Park turned into a full-fledged nightmare when Ted Systead’s father was attacked by a bear and dragged to his death. Now, twenty years later, Ted is a Special Agent for the Department of the Interior and has been called back to investigate a similar horrific murder—but this time, the victim was tied to a tree before being mauled. As Ted investigates, he realizes that the locals are wary of outsiders treading on their territory. Ted’s search for answers leads him deep into the wilderness on the trail of the killer, until he reaches a shocking and unexpected conclusion.

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The Wild Inside
Christine Carbo

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West
by Carys Davies

Kentucky

The title gives it away: this story will bring readers deep into the West. When Cy Bellman hears that the bones of massive creatures have been discovered in Kentucky, he immediately abandons his former life to see for himself if giant monsters are still alive and roaming the earth. Leaving his daughter, Bess, with his sister, Cy sets off on an adventurous trek into the wilderness. Back in Pennsylvania, Bess eagerly awaits her father’s letters as she tracks his route on maps. As Bellman travels deeper and deeper into the American frontier, the eeriness of the unknown begins to unfold.

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West
Carys Davies

Named a Best Book of the Year by The Sunday Times (UK) * The Guardian (UK) * The Washington Independent Review of Books * Sydney Morning Herald * The Los Angeles Public Library * The Irish Independent * Real Simple *

Finalist for the Rathbones Folio Prize

“Carys Davies is a deft, audacious visionary.” —Téa Obreht

When widowed mule breeder Cy Bellman reads in the newspaper that colossal ancient bones have been discovered in the salty Kentucky mud, he sets out from his small Pennsylvania farm to see for himself if the rumors are true: that the giant monsters are still alive and roam the uncharted wilderness beyond the Mississippi River. Promising to write and to return in two years, he leaves behind his only daughter, Bess, to the tender mercies of his taciturn sister and heads west.

With only a barnyard full of miserable animals and her dead mother’s gold ring to call her own, Bess, unprotected and approaching womanhood, fills lonely days tracing her father’s route on maps at the subscription library and waiting for his letters to arrive. Bellman, meanwhile, wanders farther and farther from home, across harsh and alien landscapes, in reckless pursuit of the unknown.

From Frank O’Connor Award winner Carys Davies, West is a spellbinding and timeless epic-in-miniature, an eerie parable of the American frontier and an electric monument to possibility.

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The Stars Are Fire
by Anita Shreve

Maine

Based on the true story of Maine’s largest wildfire, this novel will take your breath away as Shreve expertly raises the stakes one word at a time. What begins as an exploration of an unhappy marriage turns and twists into a captivating tale of survival, betrayal and one woman’s extraordinary strength in the face of devastating loss. THE STARS ARE FIRE will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.

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The Stars Are Fire
Anita Shreve

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The Japanese Lover
by Isabel Allende

California

Isabel Allende, one of our most magical living storytellers, offers a cinematic, multigenerational tale in THE JAPANESE LOVER. In 1939, Alma is forced to move to San Francisco after the Nazis invade Poland. In San Francisco, she falls in love and begins an affair with a shy, tender gardener before he is forced to live in a wartime internment camp for Japanese Americans. Years later, as Alma nears the end of her life, her grandson and caretaker begin to unravel the secrets of the love affair that has defined Alma’s life.

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The Japanese Lover
Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende’s latest novel spans from Poland in the 1930s to present-day San Francisco. This sweeping love story explores questions of identity, abandonment, redemption, and the unknowable impact of fate on our lives.

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The Great Alone
by Kristin Hannah

Alaska

By the bestselling author of THE NIGHTINGALE, THE GREAT ALONE is an explosive, heartfelt family drama. Ernt Allbright is a volatile Vietnam war vet eager to make a fresh start for his family on the Alaskan frontier. Leni, his thirteen-year-old daughter, is struggling to find her place among a turbulent time and within a turbulent household. Her mother, Cora, is desperate to please the man she loves, even as she sees him deteriorating. Together, they must survive the winter in their small cabin as darkness closes in on all sides.

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The Great Alone
Kristin Hannah

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Housekeeping
by Marilynne Robinson

Idaho

HOUSEKEEPING is the story of sisters Ruth and Lucille, who are abandoned by their mother in her hometown of Fingerbone on the shores of a vast inky lake surrounded by foreboding mountains in northern Idaho. Their grandfather lies below its waters—a victim of a train derailment—as does their mother, who after leaving her daughters sent her car soaring from a cliff into its depths. The girls end up in the care of their aunt, Sylvie. She’s a wanderer recalled from riding the rails, whose indifference to social codes powerfully influences Ruth and proves just as powerfully off-putting to Lucille, who craves normalcy.

Over the years, as I’ve read and reread HOUSEKEEPING, it’s come to serve as a touchstone for me, a warning when I yearn for the safety of an ordinary sentence or a predictable book. Take the rowboat out onto the lake, I tell myself. Hop the train bound for unexplored territory. Run into the unknown, not in fear but in the exhilarating necessity of seeking the new.

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Housekeeping
Marilynne Robinson

You might mistake this book for a quiet pastoral, but it’s so much bigger than that. The internal lives of the women passing through and lingering in the house near Fingerbone are by turns haunting, exhilarating, and, ultimately, profound. It’s also just a teensy bit mystical, as if the house is constantly surrounded by fog.

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The Wedding Veil
by Kristy Woodson Harvey

North Carolina 

One legendary wedding veil ties four women together across generations. In present day, it’s Julia’s wedding day in North Carolina. She is adorned with her great-grandmother’s wedding veil, which was bequeathed to her by a mysterious woman on a train. Despite the luck that the veil should bring Julia, she decides to flee to the Virgin Islands alone, for what was to have been her honeymoon. Later, she and her grandmother, Babs, work to uncover the history of the veil. In a parallel story line, in 1914, Edith Vanderbilt, following the death of her husband, is struggling to maintain the beautiful Biltmore Estate, with her daughter, Cornelia. We follow them through the years as Cornelia’s sense of duty to maintain the home—and legacy—conflicts with her yearning to build a life outside it. Alternating between a romantic comedy feel in the present day with a historical fictionalized peek into an intriguing family’s North Carolina estate, THE WEDDING VEIL revolves the characters in both time frames around one shared sacred object.

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The Wedding Veil
Kristy Woodson Harvey

The New York Times bestselling author of Under the Southern Sky and the Peachtree Bluff series brings “her signature wit, charm, and heart” (Woman’s World) to this sweeping new novel following four women across generations, bound by a beautiful wedding veil and a connection to the famous Vanderbilt family.

Four women. One family heirloom. A secret connection that will change their lives—and history as they know it.

Present Day: Julia Baxter’s wedding veil, bequeathed to her great-grandmother by a mysterious woman on a train in the 1930s, has passed through generations of her family as a symbol of a happy marriage. But on the morning of her wedding day, something tells her that even the veil’s good luck isn’t enough to make her marriage last forever. Overwhelmed and panicked, she escapes to the Virgin Islands to clear her head. Meanwhile, her grandmother Babs is also feeling shaken. Still grieving the death of her beloved husband, she decides to move out of the house they once shared and into a retirement community. Though she hopes it’s a new beginning, she does not expect to run into an old flame, dredging up the same complicated emotions she felt a lifetime ago.

1914: Socialite Edith Vanderbilt is struggling to manage the luxurious Biltmore Estate after the untimely death of her cherished husband. With 250 rooms to oversee and an entire village dependent on her family to stay afloat, Edith is determined to uphold the Vanderbilt legacy—and prepare her free-spirited daughter Cornelia to inherit it—in spite of her family’s deteriorating financial situation. But Cornelia has dreams of her own. Asheville, North Carolina has always been her safe haven away from the prying eyes of the press, but as she explores more of the rapidly changing world around her, she’s torn between upholding tradition and pursuing the exciting future that lies beyond Biltmore’s gilded gates.

In the vein of Therese Anne Fowler’s A Well-Behaved Woman and Jennifer Robson’s The Gown, The Wedding Veil brings to vivid life a group of remarkable women forging their own paths—and explores the mystery of a national heirloom lost to time.

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Photo credit: iStock / WerksMedia

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