Last summer while watching the first Democratic presidential debate, I realized I had become a stranger in my own country. As the candidates argued over healthcare and immigration policy, I wondered how one party could have become so internally fractured, to say nothing of an entire nation.
But isn’t this the process, or spectacle, of politics? Perhaps, but this time felt different. It occurred to me how little I knew of a person’s lived experience in Ohio or Montana, or even Arizona some 200 miles away.
That night, I set myself a reading project. In the year leading up to the 2020 election, I would read (at least) one book from each state, as well as from Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., prioritizing contemporary fiction and memoir, with the hope of exploring shared experiences, such as family, identity and a sense of home.
There are books for this project I cannot wait to read — books I was planning to read anyway, such as “In the Dream House” by Carmen Maria Machado, set in Indiana; “The Topeka School” by Ben Lerner for Kansas; and Louise Erdrich’s “The Night Watchman,” which takes place in her family’s native North Dakota, where her grandfather was tribal chairman for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Other books that weren’t on my radar and have since been recommended by friends include “Your House Will Pay” by Steph Cha, which Liz Newstat, a manager at my local Chevalier’s Books, promised I would (and did) love; and “Trust Exercise” by Susan Choi, which I’ve been saving to read for Texas ever since author Hilary Liftin mentioned the novel’s incredible structure.
I’ve started my 52 weeks, 52 books project alphabetically and, of this writing, have gotten as far as Connecticut.
Not surprisingly, the two books I chose from California reflect the racial and political tensions that occur as a result of living in a border state, and the disconnect between the rural and urban experience that is all too familiar. (Having grown up in Northern California and spent my adult life in Los Angeles, it was impossible to narrow the field to one book.)
Less expected have been the breathtaking isolation of the Alaska wilds, the moral ambiguity in working as a Border Patrol agent in Arizona, unrequited love in small-town Arkansas and the unexpected stories about the places we choose to call home.
Here’s my journey so far.
“Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi takes its name from the African American belief that death permits an enslaved person’s soul to travel back to Africa. The novel traces the paths of two half-sisters from Ghana and their descendants through eight generations to Southern plantations and coal mines in Alabama and Jazz Age Harlem. Their stories reflect the imprint of enslavement on our country’s DNA and the emotional trauma that is handed down.
Kristin Hannah’s “The Great Alone” is a book everyone seemed to love but me. A national bestseller, the book deals with a Vietnam vet who returns home with post-traumatic stress disorder and moves with his family to live off the grid in the last frontier of the Alaska wilds. Hannah writes gorgeously about landscape and isolation, and she draws on her family’s own experience of moving to Alaska. The Alaska setting underscores not only the state’s remoteness, but reveals an unsettling sense of disenfranchisement and lack of connection both geographically and emotionally as characters fight for survival against their environment and each other. The characters, however, never quite came alive for me. The bad guys were so bad and the good guys so good that the story felt contrived.
During the opening chapter of “The Line Becomes a River” by Francisco Cantú, I was mesmerized by his descriptions of the Arizona desert. The book’s premise is that in order to better understand violence at our border, Cantú joined the U.S. Border Patrol, where he tracked immigrants for several years and increasingly experienced a crisis of conscience. The writing is powerful, but the more I read about Cantú’s actions the more I was left feeling like the book was about the author’s need for absolution and an attempt to humanize or explain atrocities rather than condemn them.
Emily Skinner, the queer protagonist in “Cottonmouths” by Kelly J. Ford, is a college dropout forced to return to her hometown of Drear’s Bluff in rural Arkansas. Emily quickly reverts to her teenage patterns, including a fraught relationship with her mother and an unrequited high school obsession. Ford’s debut novel traces the sobering struggles of small-town meth addiction, sexual identity and the choices people make when good options are in short supply.
My hands-down favorite book of 2019 was Steph Cha’s “Your House Will Pay.” Almost 30 years after the 1992 L.A. riots, racial tensions in the city are at an all-time high. Cha fictionalizes the Latasha Harlins slaying and tells the story of two families — one African American and one Korean American — as they face down their shared histories of trauma. I could not put this book down.
In my Northern California pick, “The Golden State,” novelist Lydia Kiesling reimagines the road trip. Protagonist Daphne Nilson runs out on her life with her toddler, Honey, escaping San Francisco for the high desert with a romantic notion that life will be simpler in the secluded mobile home she has inherited. Kiesling writes about the complexities of motherhood as she paints a stunning portrait of California and the American West.
Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut story collection, “Sabrina & Corina,” is set largely in Denver, where indigenous Latina characters wrestle with male brutality, tragic family histories and gentrification in the High Plains of Colorado. I can’t recall having read fiction that centers on the indigenous experience in Colorado, especially its women. In this 2019 National Book Award finalist, Fajardo-Anstine tells these women’s stories with humanity and grace, often with humor, and an honesty that’s at once beautiful and devastating.
The narrator of Ocean Vuong’s coming-of-age novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” is Little Dog, a Vietnamese American son living with his loving but mentally abusive single mother in Hartford. In prose that is intimate and heartbreaking, Vuong examines a fractured family, the vulnerability of being gay and the survival options available to immigrants, such as working in a nail salon — “a place where dreams become calcified knowledge of what it means to be awake in American bones — with or without citizenship — aching, toxic, and underpaid.” At its core, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is a story about resilience and the redemptive power of human connection.
The wonderful surprise about this project is that without the framework of systematically reading books from each state, I might not have picked up a novel about a successful 37-year-old architect from New Haven, who survives a catastrophic car accident that leaves him quadriplegic and whose wife arranges to have a capuchin helper monkey come live with them to assist him with basic tasks. And yet, “Still Life With Monkey” by Katharine Weber, a second book set in Connecticut, turned out to be one of the more thought-provoking books I’ve read this last year in its consideration of intimacy, companionship and what makes a life worth living.
Fogarty is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work is anthologized in the forthcoming collection “Slouching Towards Los Angeles: Living and Writing and by Joan Didion’s Light.” This is the first in a series of occasional stories on the 52 weeks project.