SUMMER READING -- ACROSS AMERICA IN EIGHT BOOKS

Summer reading again.  Hey, you could pack up and hit the road, but noooo, you’re going to the beach.  Why not take America with you?  Here are eight short books to read you from coast-to-coast.

CALIFORNIA— Where I Was From, by Joan Didion — The Sacramento native goes home to a post-modern California of sprawl, beauty, and confusion.  

“One difference between the West and the South, I came to realize in 1970, was this: in the South they remained convinced that they had bloodied their land with history. In California we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it.” 

NEW MEXICO— Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather — This classic captures the blue skies, deep hopes, and “otherness” of New Mexico’s high country.

“Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!” 

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TEXAS— Goodbye to a River, by John Graves.  Put Thoreau on the Brazos, feed him salt pork, and you get this cool Texas sojourn. 

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“We don't know much about solitude these days, nor do we want to. A crowded world thinks that aloneness is loneliness, and that to seek it is a perversion.  Maybe so.  Man is a colonial creature and owes most of his good fortune to his ability to stand his fellows’ feet on his corns and the musk of their armpits in his nostrils. Company comforts him; those around him share his dreams and bear the slings and arrows with him. . .”

THE PLAINS— Great Plains, by Ian Frazier — Still the best book about the Plains.  New Yorker writer Frazier roams from Minnesota to points south, falling in love with the landscape and the lore.

“Away to the Great Plains of America, to that immense Western short-grass prairie now mostly plowed under!  Away to the still-empty land beyond newsstands and malls and velvet restaurant ropes!  Away to the headwaters of the Missouri. . .”

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THE DEEP SOUTH— Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward — A hurricane looms on the Gulf Coast in this stark and sexually frank National Book Award winner.

 “I realized that if I was going to assume the responsibility of writing about my home, I needed narrative ruthlessness. I couldn't dull the edges and fall in love with my characters and spare them. Life does not spare us.”   

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NEW JERSEY— Looking for America on the New Jersey Turnpike, by Angus Kress Gillespie and Michael Aaron Rockland — Sure the Garden State Parkway is ugly, but is it more?  How is it portrayed in song?  What’s it like to work there?  And does anyone at the Walt Whitman Service Center know who Whitman was?

1.  The Machine in the Garden State; 2.  Building the Pike; 3.  A River of Cash. 4.  The Authority of the Authority...”

NEW ENGLAND— The Stories of John Cheever — The boredom of suburban Connecticut spun into dreams and longing.  Just read “The Swimmer,” in which a man tries to swim across his neighborhood, pool to pool. 

“‘I just have this terrible feeling that I’m a character in a situation comedy,’ she said.  ‘That I’m in black and white and I can be turned off by anybody.’”

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THE NORTHWEST— A River Runs Through It, by Norman MacLean — Fly-fishing as a religion and a key to a complex American family.

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” 

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