Thursday 3 November 2011

My own USA challenge

A couple of days ago I came across a book challenge that I thought would suit me down to the ground. The idea is to read 50 books, one for each of the 50 American states, in a year, and you can read about it here. My first thought was to go ahead and do it and then I had a second one (I do occasionally). How on earth was I really going to devote about two thirds of my reading space next year to just one challenge? Even in a perfect world that's just not going to happen... A third thought was obviously required.

The third thought went like this: why don't I do this challenge on my own? Make it last over several years, maybe even five, and really explore the topic properly. It's no secret that I love the USA. We've been three times and hope to go again within the next couple of years (real life keeps getting in the way though). And there's *so* much of the country that I'm longing to see. So far we've stayed mainly to the east, only getting as far west as Memphis. It's not far enough, I truly want to see The Rockies before I pop my clogs... and many other places as well: too many to mention and the sad truth is that I likely will not get to them all - this could be a good way of 'seeing' some of these places while still sitting comfortably in my armchair.

I think doing a personal challenge like this would really inspire me for our next trip. Plus *educate* me. There's much to learn about this wonderful country and, for me, books are the way to do it (although TV docs are fantastic too.) I plan, not just to read one book for each state, but several. Fiction will hopefully include something historical and something modern. Non-fiction might be history, travel, or something modern. I honestly don't know for sure... I suspect I'll go where my nose takes me and what an adventure!!! I thought I 'should' start in January 2012, but phooey to that! It's a personal thing so I'm going to start right away, in fact have already started with a children's book, The Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder of course.

This belonged to my eldest daughter, she had four or five in the series which she read and read and read and are still here now on the bookshelf in our grand-daughter's room. I read The Little House in the Big Woods a couple of years ago and have been wanting to read the rest for ages. Here's my opportunity. In The Little House, Ma and Pa and the three girls up sticks and move to Kansas from Wisconsin. I'm already fascinated by this amazing trip they undertook *without* the safety nets which we're used to in the modern age. So Kansas will be my first stop on this epic literary travel around the United States.

I will also probably read a few 'general' books about all of the states. On my shelves I have Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck, my beautiful Atlas of North American Exploration, Colonial American Travel Narratives, Roughing It by Mark Twain, River Horse by William Least Heat-Moon, American Nomads by Richard Grant, and Stephen Fry's America. The possiblities are endless (and it's seems I already have half of them on my bookshelves, LOL.)

Here's a final map, my favourite as it happens as I'm keen on physical maps that show the lie of the land, the obstacles that people faced when exploring, and that make me wonder at their sheer audacity and bravery. (I don't think this can really be understated.)

The last thing to add is that I would love some help with titles. If you have a favourite book set in a particular state, or several, to recommend, please do. If you know which is the best book about Lewis and Clark, please say. *Or* if you just want to say that you think I'm completely barmy to take this on, feel welcome to say that too. Except that I already know it... and for some reason I'm not put off... just really, really excited.

Happy reading!



Anonymous said...

Cath, I think this sounds fun. Feel free to send me an email if you get stuck on a particular state and can't find something. Did you know that Stop You're Killing Me website has a location index? Look here:

By the way, isn't it funny that you are fascinated with US locations and I feel the same about books set in your part of the world. Grass is always greener huh?

My Gallery of Worlds said...

Oh I think it's a wonderful idea Cath ;) It'll be fun exploring the US through your eyes :D

LizF said...

I think that it is a brilliant idea and I shall watch with interest and be ready to take notes for any books that catch my eye!
I know you like your crime novels so you could do worse than read Nevada Barr's series about Park Ranger Anna Pigeon which are set in the different National Parks around the USA.

Yvonne @ Fiction Books Reviews said...

Hi Cath,

Wow! that is some challenge that you have set yourself, but it sounds like great fun and I shall be watching out for the reading list as you progress, so that I can make a note of anything I fancy reading, as you are sure to come acroos some unusual titles and unexpected candidates!

I suppose my one small reservation may be that you didn't want to do the same kind of idea around The British Isles first and chose to head across the pond.

Have you already read 'The Secret Life Bees' by Sue Monk Kidd? I really enjoyed it and it deals with the issues of racial tension in 60s South Carolina.

Have fun with the challenge and plenty of updates please, whilst you are on your 'armchair travels'


Margaret @ BooksPlease said...

This was a little bit tempting and then I thought maybe not and wondered (like Yvonne) about doing the same kind of thing around Britain. I'm going to think about it.

I'll be looking forward to seeing what you come up with and learning some geography at the same time.

Good luck.

Thomas Hogglestock said...

Minnesota: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis. One of the seminal works of American fiction by Nobel laureate Lewis happens to be about life in small town Minnesota (my home state). This is an excellent book.

District of Columbia: I know we aren't a state but I would think that half a million of us (more than Wyoming)would count in this challenge. But then that would up your requirement to 51. If you don count us in you should choose Echo House by Ward Just. He is a really fine writer and really captures the old days of Washington family dynasties.

Nebraska: O, Pioneers! or My Antonia by Willa Cather. Cather is a total treat if you haven't tried her.

Kentucky: Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett.

New Mexico: Death Comes for the Archbishop. Another classic from Cather.

As for visiting the US, even though I am from Minnesota and it is a really fantastic place to live, I wouldn't go out of my way to visit if I were you. Head out the Rockies, or the Grand Tetons, or the Grand Canyon, Pacific Northwest, the California different than the east.

Thomas Hogglestock said...

I don't know if you have read any of Bill Bryson's hilarious and insightful travelogues, but A Walk in the Woods is about his attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. Might be a multistate one to consider.

Nan said...

I think this is a wonderful idea. I'll be reading your reports with great interest. There are many, many places in this huge country I've never visited, and probably never will. If I have traveling money in the future, I'll go to your land. I'm interested in the challenge Margaret mentioned. :<) I know, I know. Hopeless Anglophile.

Nulaanne said...

Cath, this is a great idea. When you get to reading about Washington and Oregon let me know. I love the history of these two states, and as I live in the Pacific Northwest I can hook you up with some great book titles by local authors.

Silsbee said...

This post makes me excited about my own country. ;)

I'll try to think of some titles for you and drop by again later. In the meantime, have fun! :)

DesLily said...

wow Cath that's called biting off more than you can chew LOL.. but such a great idea for someone who is facinated with America like you are!..I am guessin I feel quite the same about England you have moors and forests that I'd love to see! I'd say lets meet in the middle but I can't swim! LOL...If I come across anything good for this challenge of yours I'll email you right away!!

Cath said...

Kay: Thanks, I will certainly do that if I get stuck. And I'll check out that website later. Yes, I've spoken with a few Americans who are fascinated with the UK, while I'm fascinated with the USA. But I've always been interested in what goes on outide my own country, *much* as I love England too.

I thought of you the other day as I was finishing my latest Flavia de Luce book. The author mentioned in the achknowedgements how much he'd enjoyed a visit and talk at the crime bookshop (the name escapes me) in Scotsdale, Arizona, and I know this is a favourite haunt of yours too.

Kelly: I'm kind of thrilled with the idea too. :-)

LizF: Well now, another person elsewhere has suggested the Anna Pigeon series too. I hadn't heard of those at all but if two people mention them there must be something in it. I'll download book one to my Kindle later.

Yvonne: Hopefully I will come across some hidden gems and if so I'll be sure to mention them in my posts.

I've travelled quite a bit around the UK and love it, but it's not unknown territory and I wanted to do something where I had no idea where my reading would take me... thus The USA it is.

No, I haven't read The Secret Life of Bees, though I've heard of it of course. I will add it to the list. At some stage I'll post a list of suggestions I've had because it's quite an interesting one. A personal friend has sent me loads of titles.

Margaret: I think doing the same kind of thing around Britain would be huge fun. I would love to read your posts about that if you ever decide to try it!

Cath said...

Thomas: Thank you for such an excellent list of suggestions! I'm delighted. Willa Cather had not occurred to me, I know of her of course but not read anything by her yet.

Funnily enough I did wonder about The District of Columbia and think I will cover that too. And maybe New York City as well as I'm not sure if it's officially part of New York state or not. I think both deserve their own section.

The Kentucky rec is very welcome as it's one of the states I've travelled through and thought stunningly pretty.

I hear what you say about travelling out east and how stunning it is and one day I hope to do that. But I have to confess that Minnesota is a state that I have wanted to visit for donkey's years and if I ever got the opportunity I would go like a shot.

Yes, I have read some Bill Bryson, including his Walk in the Woods. Loved it to bits. This year I read his Neither Here Nor There, about Europe, and can recommend that if you've never read it. Hilarious.

Nan: I think one of the things that's fascinates me about the US is its vastness. It took us a while to adjust to that on our wanders. I'd look on the map, direct my husband somewhere saying it looked like five miles away, and it would turn out to be twenty. LOL. But oh boy did we have fun...

It seems there might be several interested in Margaret's idea...

Nulaanne: All I can say is, 'Yes please'. It would be wonderful to get some inside information about books from your specific area... yet another region that I would kill to visit.

Silsbee: Your state is fabulous... I know this because we travelled through it in 1996. So like England, and yet not. If you can think of any books from there I would love to hear about them when you have a moment. (No rush.)

Pat: Yep, I could likely end up with false teeth with all this chewing. LOL. But I'm always up for wild challenges and luckily if it takes me ten years it takes me ten years. I love the learning part of a project like this. And maybe it never will finish, I might want to carry on and on...

Yes, our moors *are* lovely and I'm lucky enough to live on the doorstep of two - Exmoor and Dartmoor. But I don't think we have forests like yours. Driving from Pittsburgh to Lake Erie a few years ago neither Peter nor I could get over the hugeness of the forests. True wilderness. Like something out of The Last of the Mohicans!

DesLily said...

ohhh but you have Puzzlewood Forest and Sherwood Forest....?

Cath said...

Pat: I haven't personally seen either of those forests. Pretty sure they must be lovely but for true wilderness on a huge scale you would have to look to countries like Canada, the USA, Russia. Henry VIII cut down our forests and I'm guessing they never really recovered. LOL.

Cath said...

Pat: I told a lie... I just googled Puzzlewood forest to see where it was and it's in the Forest of Dean... which I have actually been too. An it is indeed very pretty. :-)

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful idea, Cath. I may just do this myself for there are books I haven't yet read centered around states here.
The Little House books are among my favorites and I go back to them again and again. Make sure you read Farmer Boy, the only Wlder book not about Laura. It gives a wonderful picture of farming life in New York state.
Thomas has some wonderful suggestions. You might want to check out BookSnob. Rache is from London and just spent a year in New York City. As she embarked upon her trip, she included a link called Reading America. There are wonderful books on her list.

Thomas Hogglestock said...

New York City is indeed a part of New York state, but you are on the right track I think to consider it separately. There are so, so, many novels about NYC and its boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and Staten Island that I didn't even bother recommending any. Finding one about upstate New York is a totally different story. In fact, I am having trouble thinking of one that doesn't involve a New York City character outside the city.

Fascinating that you want to go to Minnesota. It doesn't register for most visitors to the US. I loved living there (for 22 years) tons of art, music, and theatre.

DesLily said...

two states I always wanted to see and never have are Colorado (helps the grand canyon is in part of it) and for "trees" and farms.. Montana. and Oregon and.. LOL see, like you I haven't seen anything of my own country!!

ohh you have seen puzzlewood?!!! and no photo's?????? I guess you just have to go again and get pictures!! many movies have been filmed there!..

Cath said...

Lifeonthecutoff: I'll keep an eye out for any posts you make about books set in any of the American states. It would be wonderful if you were tempted to do this too.

Yes, I will read Farmer Boy. I don't own it but can easily buy or borrow a copy from the library.

And thanks for your suggestion of visiting 'Booksnob's' list, I'll search that out as soon as I can.

Thomas: Thanks for clarifying the New York city thing. Although it is part of the state I still think I'll consider it separately along with Washington DC.

As for books set in New York state, Lifeonthecutoff just mentioned 'Farmer Boy' by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and I can add A Gathering Light (known as A Northern Light in the US) by Jennifer Donnelly. It's set in 1906 in a small farming community in the northern woods. My review is here:

It won the 2004 Carnegie medal and deservedly so. I absolutely loved it to bits and it was definitely one of the best books I read in 2009. In fact I think I may even have chosen it as my best read of that year.

Oh Pat, we need to go on road-trip one of these days as I want to see Oregon and Montana (and Colorado) as well. And Washington state! The list is endless. Peter once suggested we sell the house, buy a Winnibago and take a couple of years touring the USA and Canada. Then real life happened. LOL!

Margaret @ BooksPlease said...

Cath, I decided to do a similar project, calling it 'Britain in Books'. It's on my blog here.

Cath said...

Margaret: I'm delighted you decided to do a British version of my challenge, maybe a few others here will join you? I left a comment on your post with a link to my Cornish fiction list. Good luck!

Sue said...

Just stumbled on your idea and I couldn't help adding my own 2 cents. Willa Cather, for sure! If you haven't read any Sandra Dallas, she sets most of her books in her native Colorado and really evokes the setting. I would recommend Prayers for Sale or Whiter than Snow.

Cath said...

Sue: Thanks for your recs! I'll definitely be readiing something by Sandra Dallas as others have recced her too. I believe Tallgrass was mentioned as being good.