She’s read more than 40 books to study the divided nation. Here are her takeaways — and book recommendations
Wildfires ravaged California last fall as I started my United We Read project, reading my way across the nation as we approach the 2020 election.
And the state is still on fire, including Napa Valley’s Howell Mountain, where I grew up, where fire, water, drought and the health of the farmland have always been top of mind. For the second month in a row, flames have forced my parents to evacuate my childhood home.
As I continue this project, my thoughts are consumed by our relationship to the land, a theme that has emerged in much of my reading about other states for the third installment. Culture is always tied to geography, and the books that have most resonated in my latest journey offer a visceral sense of place, often with divergent perspectives on how we choose to live on the land.
In an effort to learn more about our divided nation, I decided to read at least 52 books, one from each state, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, this past year. My first story, which ran in January, took me from Alabama to Connecticut. In Part 2, I read books from Delaware to Maine.
As of this writing, I’ve read from Maryland to Oklahoma. The most thought-provoking stories include a wonderful book set in Nebraska that is told through religion and how we grow food and a memoir that examines the healing power of land and family at a deer camp in the Midwest. I got lost in the deserts of Nevada and New Mexico, climbed a mountain in New Hampshire and went off the grid in Montana. I returned to cities I love through fresh lenses, experienced catastrophic dread in the Hamptons and hope on the shores of Massachusetts. Which is what this project is all about — understanding our fractured country through place.
Here’s Part 3 of my reading list.
I’ll begin with what has to be my favorite title in this installment, “Redhead by the Side of the Road.” The latest from Baltimore native Anne Tyler tackles the question of what happens when our comfortable daily routines are upended. At a time when we’re all experiencing disruptions, this light-hearted novel takes a compassionate look at the mundane and feels like a balm during what has been a particularly unrelenting news cycle. While I won’t give away the title’s meaning, consider it a metaphor for what we might misread that’s right in front of us.
Historical fiction is not generally a genre I gravitate toward, but a friend suggested “Beheld” by TaraShea Nesbit. The book reframes the story of the colonization of Plymouth and the Mayflower narrative, with a focus on the inner lives of women. The liberal use of the word “betwixt” notwithstanding, it’s a compelling exploration of friendship, character and the personal and political motivations that determine whose stories get told and whose voices are silenced.
Still, for the purpose of this project, I also wanted a more contemporary look at the state and turned to “Little Weirds” by Jenny Slate. The actress and comedian makes her literary debut in a series of original, sometimes dreamlike and beautifully written memoir essays that visit the ghosts — both figurative and literal — of her childhood in Milton and along the Atlantic from the vantage point of her 100-year-old house on a steep hill in Los Angeles.
In his stunning memoir “The Deer Camp,” environmental journalist and former Times editor Dean Kuipers explores the power of nature and our place in it. Kuipers takes us to woodsy and rural Michigan, where his father bought a piece of swamp as a deer camp to hunt with his three sons. At first, Kuipers and his brothers boycott visiting because of their difficult relationship with their father but ultimately agree to a habitat restoration project on the property. What transpires is an unforgettable story about childhood, family and the land that healed them all.
“History of Wolves” is an ambitious debut novel by Emily Fridlund, set in the icy backwoods of northern Minnesota. The teenage narrator, who lives in an abandoned commune with her parents, befriends a family that moves in across the lake, and a nightmarish story unfolds. The strength of this coming-of-age novel lies in Fridlund’s haunting descriptions of the icy winter landscape and her characters’ inner lives, which are every bit as bleak.
Winner of the Los Angeles Times Isherwood Prize for Nonfiction, Kiese Laymon’s memoir “Heavy” about growing up Black in Mississippi is one of the most powerful books I’ve read in years. It follows Laymon’s complicated relationship with his mother and his track as a college professor as he struggles with an eating disorder, as well as the weight of childhood, trauma, gambling and sexual violence. I highly recommend seeking this out as an audiobook: Laymon narrates, giving even more depth to this unforgettable story.
It’s 1976 in the Ozark Hills of Missouri, when a Black woman goes missing in the propulsive crime novel “Nothing More Dangerous.” Missouri native Allen Eskens begins the book with a note saying he started writing the story in 1991 as “a way to explore my own failing regarding notions of prejudice and racism.” He delivers a timely exploration of racism and resilience in a story that is equal parts coming-of-age and small-town mystery. I couldn’t put it down.
In “Surrender,” Irish Canadian expat Joanna Pocock seeks an escape from her life in London and moves with her family to Missoula, where she experiences a rapidly changing environment in the American West. The locals we meet in these pages — such as a transgender nomad who follows her food sources through seasonal migration, right-leaning wolf trappers and members of a scavenger community practicing ancestral hunting skills — all reflect disparate relationships to the natural world.
I was wholly unprepared for “American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland” by Marie Mutsuki Mockett. The author inherits a Big Ag farm in Nebraska and resolves to broaden her perspective by reconciling what she calls the “divide” between atheist city dwellers such as herself and evangelical Christians living in what outsiders uncharitably call the “flyover states.” She joins a wheat harvest crew in this riveting exploration of faith, farming and understanding viewpoints that challenge her own and mine.
Winner of the Pen/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction, “A Prayer for Travelers” by Ruchika Tomar deals with female friendship and trauma against a dusty backdrop of desert highways, trailer parks and dismal bars. At the center of the story are two friends living in a small town on the border of Nevada and California, one missing and the other searching for her. The novel’s nonlinear structure only heightens the suspense.
As a lifelong runner and hiker, I was predisposed to enjoy Dan Szczesny’s travelogue, “The White Mountain.” Over the course of a year, Szczesny traverses the history and allure of New England’s highest peak, Mt. Washington. He joins poets and artists, adventurers and scientists in a quest to learn about the culture surrounding this beloved New Hampshire landmark.
Davon Loeb recounts the experience of growing up with a Black mother and Jewish father in suburban New Jersey in his memoir, “The In-Betweens.” Loeb writes that his story lies “somewhere between telling history and taking on history.” I was drawn to the connections Loeb draws between landscape and memory — from childhood moments with cousins in Alabama to weekend visitations with his father spent climbing trees off the Jersey Turnpike. He also explores the power of imagination and the conflicting views we form of ourselves.
There are three versions of prolific author and USC professor Percival Everett’s latest novel, “Telephone,” with three endings. I will read whatever Everett writes, so when time permits, I will seek out the other two, but the version I bought follows geologist Zach Wells, whose comfortable life in Los Angeles is upended when his daughter becomes terminally ill. The protagonist embarks on a quest to save a group of kidnapped Mexican women in New Mexico, echoing real-life femicides in the border city of Ciudad Juárez in the 1990s.
About six months into Donald Trump’s presidency during the escalation of the North Korean crisis, I re-reread Carolyn See’s novel “Golden Days,” about high times in the ’80s interrupted by a nuclear bomb falling on Los Angeles. The book left me feeling extremely uneasy, a sensation I experienced again reading Rumaan Alam’s “Leave the World Behind” during a global pandemic. The story begins with an affluent white family renting a home in the Hamptons. They are disrupted by a knock at the door from a Black couple fleeing the city in a moment of crisis. What unfolds is a provocative look at family, class and race over a long weekend gone horribly wrong.
I also read a second New York book. Back on the island of Manhattan, Sigrid Nunez contemplates life, death and the changing nature of friendships in her new novel, “What Are You Going Through.” Despite the story’s heartbreaking premise — a writer accompanying a friend with terminal cancer who wants to end her life in a New England Airbnb — Nunez tells a story with great compassion, humor and humanity.
In his debut novel, “In West Mills,” De’Shawn Charles Winslow writes a bighearted and richly told story about a family in a small North Carolina town. Set from the 1940s through the 1980s, the story traces the legacy of slavery on this community, with a female protagonist who lives by nobody’s rules but her own. Winslow’s characters are big on charm and wholly unforgettable. I’m looking forward to reading whatever is next from this singular new voice.
Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, “The Night Watchman,” follows her Chippewa family’s fight against the termination bill and Native dispossession from rural North Dakota during the 1950s. The legislation allowed the government to disband tribes. That history might seem well in the past, but Erdrich notes in her afterword that the Trump administration attempted to terminate the Wampanoag, “the tribe who first welcomed Pilgrims to these shores and invented Thanksgiving.”
Raised by deeply conservative and religious parents, Eliese Colette Goldbach grew up in the literal shadow of the ArcelorMittal steel mill in Cleveland. In her memoir, “Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit,” Goldbach grapples with sexual assault, a bipolar diagnosis and poverty, and the sheer grit that leads her to an intensely physical job working with molten metal and heavy machinery.
A finalist for the National Book Award, Brandon Hobson’s “Where the Dead Sit Talking” charts a teenage Cherokee boy’s journey through the foster care system in the ’80s and the inherited trauma from forced relocation and assimilation. I couldn’t stop thinking about this book and reached out to the author, a former social worker, when I heard he would be publishing a second novel, “The Removed,” due out in February 2021. His next story, he says, is also set in the Cherokee Nation and “has to do with resilience and grief and trauma, steeped in the history of the Trail of Tears.”
Which brings me back to land and displacement — what can we learn from history and what might we imagine for the future?
What’s next? The final installment of this series will end in Wyoming, with stop-offs in Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. So many of my favorite selections have been recommendations by readers, and I would be grateful to hear your recent fiction and memoir finds for the conclusion of this project.
Fogarty is a former Times editor who teaches writing and journalism at USC. Share your book suggestions with her on Twitter @heatherjohnfog and on Instagram @heatherjohnfogarty.
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