The Statesider Reading List
The Statesider’s reviews of US travel books all in one handy place. What counts as a US travel book? Well, lots of things, we find. American cultures, regional foods, music scenes, cities and landscapes, flora and fauna, nonfiction and fiction, even the occasional cookbook. America encompasses many things and many perspectives — so does this list.
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2020 US Travel Books
Ghosts of Gold Mountain, by Gordon H. Chang. If I retained anything at all from American History in high school, it was that Chinese immigrants helped build the Transcontinental Railroad over the Sierra Nevada. It’s an essential fact in California history, but it always seemed to be the end of the story. Chang shows that it’s just the beginning of a complex American saga, as he follows the journey of the Railroad Chinese from Sacramento across the Sierra Nevada, racing to meet up with the westbound track in Promontory, Utah. This book is a lively read, and the parallels with today’s political landscape — complete with reliance on foreign labor mixed with xenophobic scapegoating — are hard to miss. Buy Now and Support Your Local Independent Bookseller
Sharks in the Time of Saviors, by Kawai Strong Washburn. Holy shit, what a book. Okay, that’s not an informative review, let me try again. I’ve not read anything that brings Hawaii to life in a more real, and at the same time more magical, way than this book. Washburn’s characters communicate the complexities of living as a modern Hawaiian in the islands and on the mainland. And even while members of this family take the bus or deliver packages or navigate relationships and live the every day, they hold deep ties to the ancient gods and Hawaii’s nature. What a book, so full of feeling and absolute heartbreak and poetry and love. Damn. What. A. Book. The audio version is top notch and I might have cried on the freeway at the end. (Pam) Order Now and Support Your Local Bookseller
Stay and Fight, by Madeleine Ffitch. Helen bugs out from Seattle with her boyfriend to a piece of land in Appalachian Ohio with some fairly clichéd ideas about living on the land. When the boyfriend bails, Helen becomes increasingly reliant on a redneck tree surgeon with a fondness for classic literature and a down-on-their-luck lesbian couple. To say things don’t go well would be an understatement, but the resilience this unlikely alliance find in each other is complicated and moving. It’s a good story, but it’s the physicality of the characters and their clear, strong voices that make this such a compelling read. ffitch comes out swinging on page one with a brutal description of an injury repaired with duct tape and… I couldn’t put it down. Order Now and Support Your Local Bookseller
Good Talk, by Mira Jacob. This graphic memoir about what it means to live at the intersection of multiple cultures in America is funny and sad and candid and full of so much feeling. Jacob is the daughter of Indian immigrants, her husband is Jewish. Her son is intensely curious about his own brown skin and what it means for his identity in America. Jacob tries, with endless patience and kindness, to guide him. While a lot of the book is funny, parts of it are infuriating and so tragic. I was particularly affected by the section about 9/11 and the angry, tender retelling of how she navigated finding out her in-laws endorsed Trump. Order Now and Support Your Local Bookseller
The Columbus Anthology, edited by Amanda Page. “I have called myself a Columbus native without considering what it means,” says Maggie Smith in an introductory verse to The Columbus Anthology, and this collection of 50 essays and poems (and one cartoon) about the Ohio capital takes those words as a challenge. An American anywhere, a city whose identity is its anonymity, Columbus makes a rich backdrop for a literary exploration — even more so in a time when statues of the city’s namesake are being toppled and destroyed and a petition is gathering thousands of signatures to rename Columbus “Flavortown.” Where Columbus goes from here is anyone’s guess, but we’ll meet you at Buckeye Donuts to suss it out. Order Now and Support Local Indie Bookstores
American Tacos: A History and Guide, by José R. Ralat. You might think that opening a book on tacos right now would be recipe for frustration, its pages loaded with delicious tacos that are just out of reach. You would be, in part, correct — this book will make you salivate like one of Pavlov’s dogs in a bell factory. But it’s also a satisfying meal by itself, and inspiration for future exploration both in the outside world and your own kitchen. Ralat, Taco Editor for Texas Monthly, rejects the “Abuelita Principle” that measures a taco’s authenticity by how closely it adheres to the “real” version made by grandma, and embraces the diversity of taco forms found in the wild and whatever its future evolution will bring. Order Now and Support Local Bookstores
An American Sunrise, by Joy Harjo. Pardon us while we take a brief break from travel to read some poetry from this new collection from the US’s first Native American Poet Laureate. These are poems that ask to be read aloud: spare, rhythmic, it seems wrong to leave them trapped in the four square walls of the page. If there was ever a time to read poetry aloud to yourself — or to those with you — this is it. And Harjo’s poems, while often looking back into the country’s past, evoke current events in ways that make them seem penned for the moment. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
Overground Railroad: The Green Book & Roots of Black Travel in America, by Candacy Taylor. In this new history of The Green Book, the most popular guidebook for Black travelers in America during the Jim Crow era, Taylor not only recounts the chronology of the guide through its publishing run from 1936-1967, she hits the highway herself and tracks down what remains today of the Black-owned and Black-friendly businesses listed in the guides. Fewer than 5% are still in operation. The book details the many threats and challenges faced on the road, as well as by air and rail, and the community that developed in the network of businesses that welcomed Black travelers. All of this history is beautifully brought to life in the design of the book (by Anderson Newton Design), with both historic and present-day photos by Taylor on her trip, as well as covers from all of the Green Book editions. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
Canyon Dreams: A Basketball Season on the Navajo Nation, by Michael Powell. This may be a book about basketball, but you don’t need to know a jump shot from a finger roll to enjoy this richly painted portrait of a season of “rez ball” in Najavo Nation. A hard book to categorize, Canyon Dreams isn’t just “Hoosiers” in northern Arizona; it’s as much a book about the landscape, the internal and external pressures on Navajo culture, and the dreams of the young players as it is about a run for the championship. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America, by Carrie Gibson. If the 1619 Project got you thinking about other ways the origin story of America can be told, add El Norte to your reading list. In this detailed and engagingly-written history of the Spanish influence in North America from Ponce de León to today, Gibson attempts to correct the long-held Mayflower-centric telling of America’s roots with stories that have for too long been pushed to margins or ignored completely. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
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2019 US Travel Books
Volcanoes, Palm Trees, and Privilege: Essays on Hawaii, by Liz Prato. This wry, introspective book feels a bit like a “real Hawaii for beginners” guide. It teaches us why tourists experience Hawaii the way we do — and, in doing so, shows us how to be better guests. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
This America: The Case for the Nation, by Jill Lepore. Lepore’s snappy read on the history of American history (yep), the difference between patriotism and nationalism, and what defines America feels essential in our era. This little book is rich with meaningful insights. And while it doesn’t pull punches, it engenders a surprising optimism, calling on our better natures to fulfill the dream of an inclusive, vibrant, patriotic nation. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
Best American Travel Writing 2019, edited by Alexandra Fuller & Jason Wilson. In the new 2019 edition of Best American, roughly a third of the stories take place in the US, and it’s a powerful set of choices. Don’t expect a vacation from the tumult of American politics: these stories dive head-on into issues of the day, including immigration, climate change, social justice, invasive species, American identity, and rampaging bachelorette parties. Rahawa Haile’s powerful, layered story “I Walked from Selma to Montgomery” is a standout, as is…actually, they’re all wonderful (even the ones that go farther afield — we’ll allow it). Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke, by Andrew Lawler. What happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke? Lawler is hardly the first to venture into the murky mystery of the total disappearance of over 100 colonists that has captivated historians for centuries. Lawler’s book goes considerably deeper than others — perhaps as deep as will ever be possible — blending historical research with modern-day archaeology and travel to layout the case, dead end by dead end. The evidence suggests a quintessentially American solution to the mystery. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
The American Dream? A Journey on Route 66, by Shing Yin Khor. Anyone who has been on a long road trip will recognize the joys and angsts of this playful graphic memoir that recounts the story of a 2016 Route 66 journey of a Malaysian-American artist and her doggie pal, Bug. It’s not all Christmas-style breakfast burritos, friendly strangers and kitschy roadside art: she confronts the cliché of trying to “find yourself” on the road, chafes against casual racism, discovers the art of pooping in a hole, and tries to come to grips with what she’s really looking for in the crumbling towns of the American West. Teens and grown-ups alike will enjoy this one. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, by Colin Dickey. The Salem witch trials, the Winchester Mystery House, the whole seance medium thing… Dickey’s book retells these stories (and a whole lot more). But the book isn’t just a collection of spooky woo, Dickey provides detailed historical context for plantation ghosts and hidden staircases. You’d think a historical debunking would suck the meaning out of these stories, but quite the reverse is true. Dickey seems to suggest that our ghost stories, our hauntings, are what we use to put off reckoning with the truth. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, by Michael W. Twitty. When we talk about Southern food, what are we really talking about — and what parts of the story are we overlooking? In this remarkable James Beard Award-winning book (it won both the James Beard Award for Writing, and Book of the Year in 2018), culinary historian Michael W. Twitty explores his own past and the hidden history of Southern cuisines, including their roots in African and Native American traditions. Read the full interview with the author and order now from your local bookseller.
Some people don’t want to acknowledge the connection because it makes them realize how much they are beholden to a multicultural America, and things wouldn’t be the same without this country’s contributions from all its residents.
Mariam Sharma Hits the Road, by Sheba Karim. When gorgeous Ghaz “shames” her conservative family by appearing on a billboard for underwear, best friends Mariam and Umar spring her and the three go on a classic road trip. There’s junk food and divey hotels and what Ghaz calls “the road trip effect.” But there’s also a deeper exploration of what it means to be Pakistani and/or Indian and/or Muslim and/or Hindu in America. Ghaz’s overbearing family is just the beginning; Umar is a devout Muslim and gay, and Mariam was abandoned by her father as a child. The book is layered, sometimes a rollicking good time, sometimes dark, always lively. It’s going to make a really fun movie. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State, Lawrence Wright. There’s a famous Faulkner quote: “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” In God Save Texas, Wright seems to be saying, “To understand American, you must first understand a place like Texas.” Wright so clearly loves his home state, even while he stares right at what makes Texas so completely messed up in so many different ways. Wright looks at Texas as a proving ground for GOP strategy, at the state’s obsession with guns, at the immigration battle on the Texas border, at Texas as a stand-in for the soul of America, and he doesn’t come across as particularly optimistic. But somehow, this book still makes a person itch to drive the backroads looking for dinosaur bones, or live music, or the weirdness that makes Texas what it is. Order Now Through Your Local Book Store
Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s new Melting-Pot Cuisine, by Edward Lee. Edward Lee is the son of Korean immigrants, a master of Southern cooking, an advocate for US road trips…and, oh yes, someone you might know from Top Chef, Mind of a Chef, Fermented, Smoke and Pickles, 610 Magnolia, or his James Beard Award-winning book, Buttermilk Graffiti. We talked with him about American diversity, fried chicken, and, of course, cake vs. pie. Read the full interview and order a copy from your local bookstore.
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Things New & Strange: A Southerner’s Journey Through the Smithsonian Collections by G. Wayne Clough. There have been 13 Secretaries of the Smithsonian, but only one — the author of this singular, joyous book — was born in the South. After retiring from the post, Clough went on a peculiar scavenger hunt, combing the Smithsonian’s vast natural history collection to see what stories actual specimens could tell about his childhood home of South Georgia. Each turn of the page reveals surprises, jumping from giant sloths to longleaf pines, personal history to regional biogeography, early Native American archaeology to Little Richard, all weaving together to tell a rich story of one small slice of America. If only every region was lucky enough to get such a loving, nuanced biography. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
The Hour of Land by Terry Tempest Williams. Part personal memoir, part history, Williams travels the lesser known back stories of twelve national parks. The writing is beautifully lyrical and packed with emotion and the stories she unearths as the book unfolds are genuinely enlightening. It’s an education into the politics of our parks, revealing ways in which the creation and management of these places we tend to take for granted has not always been easy or universally supported. Plus, apparently it is crazy hard to become a guide at Gettysburg National Military Park. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
Andy’s Summer Read Pick:
Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, by Ben Goldfarb. “Trying to mitigate floods or improve water quality? There’s a beaver for that. Hoping to capture more water for agriculture in the face of climate change? Add a beaver.” Travel along with writer Ben Goldfarb in this hugely entertaining journey into the world of one of America’s most notorious, industrious, and misunderstood residents. Winner of the 2019 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award, and one of my favorite environmental reads from the past year, this charming science meets travel meets lots and lots of beavers tale will make you reassess everything you think you know about our dam-building friends. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
Doug’s Summer Read Pick:
Mississippi Solo, by Eddy Harris. I live a few blocks from the Mississippi River, and sometimes forget that it’s not just a banal local landmark. Eddy Harris has no such illusions. The river, he writes, “is laden with the burdens of a nation.” This poetic travelogue about his canoe trip down the waterway’s two-thousand-mile length captures the spirit of each paddle-stroke and stopover, with added poignancy coming from Harris’s status as a young black man traveling alone. People stare in Minnesota; there are racists with shotguns in Arkansas — and, throughout the book, there are plenty of unexpected welcomes. It’s all a hell of a personal journey but also, quietly, a striking portrait of a nation. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
Pam’s Summer Read Pick:
Sourdough by Robin Sloan. A friend recently read this book and found it delightful but so odd that it’s not for everyone. “You might like it,” she told me. Here’s how right she was: I’d read it already and yeah, it’s odd. It’s part Silicon Valley, part immigrant story, part weird punk farmer’s market, and one of the main characters is a batch of sourdough starter. The other main character, Lois Clary, is a robotics engineer who teaches a robot she’s working on to knead bread. The book is about food and finding your tribe and oh, just read it, it’s a delight. Also, I now tend to my own starter, in no small part because of this book. I’m not nearly as good to mine as Lois is to hers — she plays music for it — but my bread isn’t bad. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen. There many narratives about travelers heading into the world to discover themselves, not nearly as many about those who have left US borders to discover America. Hansen digs deep — so deep it hurts — into the impact America global policy has had on the world and on our identity. Ya got yer CIA, yer Marshall Plan, yer covert Central American ops, and if you consider yourself a self-aware American, you might nod your head with a wry “ouch.” But there are also Turkish highways, the Iowa Writers Workshop, Time Magazine, Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire, and so much more. It’s a tough read, but not because of the writing. It’s the harsh light of self examination that makes this difficult … and essential. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
Zoo Nebraska by Carson Vaughan. The escaped chimps were the last straw, the end of a dream. The Statesider’s Pam Mandel talks with author Carson Vaughan about his new book, Zoo Nebraska, the story of a small town that never lived up to its big ambitions. Read the Statesider interview with Carson Vaughan and order now from your local bookstore.
Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery by Heather Andrea Williams. Pieced together from newspaper ads, oral history accounts, and historical documents, this book tells the stories of families built and broken during and after the end of American slavery. The clear-eyed journalistic presentation of the facts doesn’t take away from the horror of the era at all; it underscores how dehumanized, how much of commodity, the stolen people were. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
Owning Memory: How a Caribbean Community Lost Its Archives and Found Its History by Jeannette Allis Bastian. Who is the gatekeeper of history? Whose stories get held up as the most important? We’re constantly grappling with these questions, but they’re especially complex in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The territory was a Danish colony before 1917, and many of its historical documents are held in Copenhagen. This academic but accessible book offers a fascinating look at the politics of storytelling in a land of colonialism. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
All the Tony Horwitz books: American history, in all its complexity, was one of the late author’s primary muses. Horwitz was a master at combining deep research with romping-fun travelogue, and connecting past to present in ways both intriguing and, at times, unsettling. It’s hard to pick a favorite of his USA- focused books; really, you should just read them all.
- Confederates in the Attic, about the Civil War and the ways the Lost Cause persists today.
- A Voyage Long and Strange, about the Europeans who settled in the USA before the Pilgrims.
- The Devil May Care, featuring profiles of fifty lesser-known American adventurers.
- Midnight Rising, a deep dive into the history of John Brown’s Raid.
- Spying on the South, Horwitz’s brand-new travelogue, about Frederick Law Olmstead’s tour of the American South in the 1850s.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This story about a young woman who leaves Nigeria for the United States — and then decides to go home again after many years in the U.S. — is full of insight about what it means to be American, both from the idealized point of view of an outsider and from the changing perspective of an immigrant who becomes an insider. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
Great American Outpost by Maya Rao. What would it look like if the Gold Rush happened today—the crazed race for wealth, the environmental destruction, the utter disregard for law and order—but most of the country didn’t even notice? It would look exactly like the Bakken oilfields of western North Dakota (see the mysterious patch of light in the map above). Rao immerses herself in the culture and characters of the Bakken at the peak of the oil boom, in a piece of nonfiction that reads like a gripping Western. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience by Anuradha Bhagwati. The daughter of Indian immigrants (and academics), Bhagwati chooses to not to follow in her family’s footsteps and joins the Marines. A driven, ambitious recruit, she becomes a leader in a culture that—spoiler alert—is rife with toxic misogyny. As if it’s not badass enough of her to navigate the system and excel, she becomes a whistle blower and activist, working to change the entrenched values of the U.S. Military. What’s it mean to “support the troops”? Bhagwati has some thoughts. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
The Ramen King and I by Andy Raskin. Those squiggly blocks of noodles their associated packets are an essential and underappreciated companion to broke college students and car campers alike. In “The Ramen King and I,” Andy Raskin becomes obsessed with Momofuku Ando, the inventor of Top Ramen and Cup Noodles. Along the way the Japanese businessman — who spent a year in his shed developing the iconic product — becomes both a distraction from and a solution to Raskin’s relationship problems. If you think that’s a weird idea for a book, you’d be correct. It would be easy to write Raskin off as a messed up tech bro, but he’s an increasingly sympathetic narrator as he reveals his struggles. Plus, I learned a lot of odd and tragic things about noodles and the US occupation of post WWII Japan. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
How to Be a Muslim, An American Story by Haroon Moghul. In the wake of 9/11 (moment of silence for everything we’ve lost) Moghul became an unlikely activist for Muslim-Americans and ended up Kind of a Big Deal. Growing up in New England, Moghul liked Green Day and was confused by dating and went on adventures that his parents wouldn’t have approved of and acted like any other American teenager. As an adult, he navigated depression and career angst and the challenges of marriage. Like Americans of any faith, he grappled with how—or if—to fit religion into his life. It should not feel revolutionary to read a book from a Muslim point of view that expresses this universal story of a young American coming of age and reaching peace with his faith, and yet. And yet. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
Zora & Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal by Yuval Taylor. In 1927, Langston Hughes bumped into Zora Neale Hurston in Mobile, Alabama. The two friends, both literary luminaries of the day, decided to set out together on a road trip through the South in Zora’s two-seater Nash coupe, nicknamed “Sassy Susie,” in search of folks songs, stories and “big old lies,” as Langston put it. The book covers much more ground than a summer road trip through the South, charting the long course of Zora and Langston’s doomed friendship, but Taylor skillfully anchors the story in time and place throughout, from the palatial Fifth Avenue Restaurant where the two first met to a visit with a backwoods “conjur-man,” all bolstered by Langston’s journals and correspondence between the two in the happier days when Zora would call Langston “the nearest person to me on earth.” Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. There’s no shortage of smart writing about this story of a young black man trying to find his place in the 1940s, first at a black college, then in New York City as part of “The Brotherhood.” But Ellison wrote his book five years before Jack Kerouac wrote “On the Road,” and the musicality of the language, the dialog, even the psychedelic ramblings are far superior to Kerouac’s. It feels a glaring oversight not to have read “Invisible Man” much, much sooner, though it is just as valuable a read in today’s America. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
The Red Truck Bakery Cookbook by Brian Noyes and Nevin Martell. It’s impossible not to mention one particular fan of this rural Virginia bakery, some 50 miles west of the nation’s capital, who said: “I like pie. That’s not a state secret…I can confirm that Red Truck Bakery makes darn good pies.” (Now read that again in President Obama’s voice.) His favorite is said to be the sweet potato pecan, but I immediately bookmarked the pink-hued watermelon pie to come back to when summer melons arrive, and jumped on the pumpkin pie with the clever addition of homemade caramel mixed into the pumpkin custard. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore or Red Truck Bakery’s Shop
America for Beginners by Leah Franqui. After her husband dies, Pival Sengupta books herself on a tour of the United States with the First Class India USA Destination Vacation Tour Company. The trip is a cover Mrs. Sengupta’s search for her estranged son. Satya, her guide, and Rebecca, her companion, are both uniquely unqualified for the roles they’re called upon to fill, their itinerary is inscrutable — the Corning Museum of Glass? — and they eat in countless Indian restaurants. The trip seems such a weird way to see America, but the travel itself isn’t the point. I was charmed by this bittersweet and delightful book — plus, it would make a great movie. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
This Immeasurable Place: Food and Farming from the Edge of Wilderness by Blake Spalding, Jennifer Castle and Lavinia Spalding. Reading “The Cabin” (from Longreads linked above), brought to mind this book, one of the more remarkable cookbooks in recent years. Yes, there are recipes — delightful ones from The Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm, the three-time James Beard Award semifinalist in remote Boulder, Utah — but this is a cookbook you’ll want to sit down and read for its cast of characters, handmade wisdom and deep love of the wild landscapes of southern Utah. Order Now from the Hell’s Backbone Shop
Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis by Sam Anderson. You might think a subtitle that long would cover the scope of the book. You might also think a book on Oklahoma City could be dry as plain white toast. Wrong on both accounts.
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“I have come to believe, after my time there, that Oklahoma City is one of the great weirdo cities of the world — as strange, in its way, as Venice or Dubai or Versailles or Pyongyang. It is worth paying attention to, on its own terms, independent of any news cycle, strictly for the improbability of what exists there, all the time, ever day.” — Sam Anderson, Boom Town
A Girl’s Guide to Missiles: Growing Up in America’s Secret Desert by Karen Lynnea Piper.
Sure, you could shelve this with the “coming of age” memoirs, but it takes place on a secure missile base where Piper’s parents both worked on weapons development (her mom was something of a math genius). The weirdness of an American era that gave us Charles Manson, the Lemurians, and the Sidewinder missile — everything comes to life. You can practically see yourself there. What great read. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
The Food Explorer by Daniel Stone.
Much of the American diet originated elsewhere in the world. Meet David Fairchild, the adventurous botanist who changed what’s on the stateside plate. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America by James & Deborah Fallows.
If it seems like all you ever hear about small-town America are tales of hardship and lost glory, this is a refreshing read. Change is afoot across the country – and you might want to pay attention to what’s going on in local libraries. Order Now Through Your Local Bookstore
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