Every June, we publish our annual summer reading issue of the e-newsletter, for which we invite friends and board members of Humanities Texas to recommend summer readings in the humanities. This year we also invited colleagues from our fellow state humanities councils to contribute recommendations for books related to the states they represent. The result is a wide-ranging list, encompassing fiction and nonfiction both new and old. Whether you're looking for an engrossing novel, a fascinating historical read, or something else entirely, we hope you'll discover a few new books to while away the summer days.

Summer Reading Recommendations

Explore our fellow councils' recommendations as organized by state below or browse the full 2013 summer reading article here.

William Merritt Chase, Idle Hours, ca. 1894. Amon Carter Museum of American Art.


Susy Buchanan, grants program director of the Alaska Humanities Forum

Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child

The Snow Child, Palmer, Alaska, resident Eowyn Ivey's first published work, was a 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist and garnered numerous other awards locally, nationally, and internationally.

The novel was also the 2013 selection for Anchorage Reads, an Anchorage Public Library program that promotes literacy and community building by encouraging people of different ages and backgrounds to engage in a shared reading experience and discussion of a single book. Anchorage Reads is funded in part by a 2013 Alaska Humanities Forum General Grant.

The Snow Child tells the story of Mabel and Jack, two childless homesteaders living a hard life in Alaska in the 1920s. According to a glowing National Public Radio review that aired earlier this year: "The kernel of its story begins in fairy tale and myth—in a book that homesteader Mabel read during her Massachusetts girlhood. The book, published in Russian in 1857, belonged originally to her father and tells the story of 'Snegurochka,' or 'the Snow Maiden,' a girl, half human and half ice and snow, who comes into the life of a childless old couple. Mabel has half remembered this volume and asks her sister back East to send it to her. Why? She and Jack have, in the middle of a winter, fashioned a snow child of their own in front of their cabin—only to imagine, at first, that it has come to life in the person of a blond-haired feral girl with a red fox as a mascot."

Lynn Schooler, The Blue Bear: A True Story of Friendship, Tragedy, and Survival in the Alaskan Wilderness

This poignant memoir chronicles author Lynn Schooler's friendship with Japanese wildlife photographer Michio Hoshino and their quest to find and photograph the elusive glacier bear.

In the book, Schooler, scarred by childhood scoliosis that confined him to a back brace and subjected him to ridicule from his peers for much of his formative years, is trying to come to terms with a friend's murder at the hands of a serial killer when he and Hoshino meet. Schooler is hired to guide the renowned photographer. The Blue Bear traces the friendship they developed while exploring some of Alaska's wildest places on their search.

Published in 2002, The Blue Bear has been highly acclaimed. The Oregonian raved about the "awe-inspiring beauty of Alaska's Glacier Coast" described in its pages. Publishers Weekly called the memoir "beautifully crafted" and spoke of the "overpowering Alaska landscape." The Seattle Times labeled Schooler's prose "cinematography," while the New York Times Book Review praised it as "sublime."

A 2010 grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum helped adapt the memoir to the stage as a successful play performed at sold-out venues in Anchorage and Juneau.

Alaska Humanities Forum

Susy Buchanan.


Ralph Lewin, president and CEO of Cal Humanities

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

What could be more Californian than this quintessential coming-to-California story? Your name could be Nguyen, Gonzalez, or Barkhausen, and you'd see your—or your predecessor's—family story in this great read. It is as relevant as ever in today's tough economic times and as the immigration debate continues in our nation.

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, Farewell to Manzanar

At times funny and at times sad, this is a true story about the extraordinary experiences of a California girl and her family, the fragility of democracy, and how we understand what it means to be an American. 

Cal Humanities

Ralph Lewin.


Janine Farver, executive director of the Florida Humanities Council

Gary Mormino, Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida

This social history of modern Florida captures the hopes and dreams of the Sunshine State during its meteoric rise from the smallest state in the South before WWII to the fourth (soon to be the third) largest state in the country. Historian Mormino is a spellbinding storyteller with a tantalizing topic.

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Perhaps no American scholar has recorded and preserved the culture and character of her hometown as thoroughly and vividly as Hurston. This novel, which draws heavily on her childhood in Eatonville, Florida, the oldest incorporated black municipality in the United States, is the story of Janie Crawford, a young black woman in the rural South on her quest for identity and independence. Hurston captures the folklore, the landscape, the vernacular, and the character of this once-bustling small town, which now lies in the shadow of Disney World.

Florida Humanities Council

Janine Farver.


Jamil S. Zainaldin, president of the Georgia Humanities Council

Flannery O'Connor, introduction by Robert Giroux, The Complete Stories

Flannery O'Connor is one of the great short-story writers of the twentieth century, often adopting bizarre, outsized figures in her stories that tell us the truth we often do not want to hear. A southerner by birth and a Catholic by practice, she is noteworthy as a voice that seeks to find a place for faith and belief in a changing, and she would say also, crazy world.

Mark Auslander, The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding an American Family

Mark Auslander has written an important book that sheds light on a personal story of a slave and her owner and the implications of that story for the coming Civil War.

Byron Herbert Reece and Jim Clark, Fable in the Blood: The Selected Poems of Byron Herbert Reece

Byron Herbert Reece is a forgotten poet from the mountains of Appalachia. This book should restore Reece to a place in southern literature that he much deserves.

Taylor Branch, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement

Taylor Branch is the author of a multi-volume biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. In this concise history, he pulls from King's and the movement's history those particular events and episodes that most deserve to be remembered.

Georgia Humanities Council

Jamil Zainaldin.


Julie Mulvihill, executive director of the Kansas Humanities Council

Gordon Parks, The Learning Tree

I would like to suggest The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks.  2013 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of this bestselling novel. The Learning Tree is autobiographical and describes his years growing up in Fort Scott, Kansas. Set during the 1920s, the book follows the main character, Newt Winger, as he comes of age in a community struggling with racial divide. Newt and his family encounter situations considered universal in the African American experience in the Midwest during the days before the civil rights movement: segregated theaters and restaurants, separate schools, daily indignities and injustices. As our nation reflects on the civil rights movement of 1963, this book could provide another rich opportunity for perspective and reflection.

Kansas Humanities Council

Julie Mulvihill.


Michael Sartisky, president/executive director of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities

Lawrence Powell, The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans

I would strongly recommend Tulane Professor Lawrence Powell's award-winning The Accidental City. It won both the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and the Louisiana Historical Association's book of the year awards. It is a delightful, unvarnished romp through the founding of New Orleans.

Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities

Michael Sartisky.


Andrea Lewis, director of the Maryland Center for the Book at the Maryland Humanities Council

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Every decade or so I believe we find ourselves with a book in front of us that is so impactful, we ignore it at our own peril (think Rachel Carson's Silent Spring). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is such a story.  You might at first think it fiction, but it is the compelling true story of a young mother whose once-anonymous contribution to the scientific world is nearly immeasurable. Henrietta's story, and that of her family, would be described by some as one of the most egregious breaches of medical ethics on record. Diagnosed with cervical cancer at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s, Henrietta's cells have become an invaluable tool in medicine—the first "immortal" cells grown in culture better known as HeLa. These cells have been used in the development of the polio vaccine and have helped advance in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping. Her cells were harvested without permission, yet they have made billions for the companies that grow and sell them for medical research and development. There are some who believe even the checks and balances in place today, decades later, are not certain to prevent a similar scenario from happening again. This is an endlessly fascinating read that won't bog you down in medical jargon and is enjoyed by high school students, retirees, and all ages in between.

Maryland Humanities Council

Andrea Lewis.


David Tebaldi, executive director of Mass Humanities

Dennis Lehane, The Given Day

I am a big fan of Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone), a proud son of Boston. His working-class characters are brilliantly rendered, full of humanity, and unforgettable. His 2009 historical novel, The Given Day, is a page-turning epic of family conflict, racial strife, social turmoil, and political high jinx set against the backdrop of the 1919 Boston Police Strike. Arguably, there was probably more important stuff happening in 1919 than in any other single year in American history, and Lehane touches upon all of it. It's a great summer read. The strike catapulted then-Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge to national prominence, the 1920 Republican nomination for Vice President, and so the Presidency of the United States.

Sarah Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates

One of my favorite non-fiction books about Massachusetts is Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates. It's a highly entertaining, tongue-in-cheek retelling of the story of the Puritans' journey to the New World and the settlement of Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Vowell (BA in modern languages and literatures and MA in art history) is probably best known for her stint as contributing editor for This American Life (1996–2008), but she has written six non-fiction books on American history and culture. In vintage Vowell fashion, Wordy Shipmates debunks many of the most common (mis)conceptions about the beginnings of our nation.  Who knew the Puritans had so much fun?

Mass Humanities

David Tebaldi.


Carla M. Ingrando, program officer at the Michigan Humanities Council

Steve Luxenberg, Annie's Ghosts

Annie's Ghosts is part memoir, part detective story, and part history. Employing his skills as a journalist while struggling to maintain his empathy as a son, author Steve Luxenberg pieces together the story of his mother's motivations, his aunt's unknown life, and the times in which they lived. His search takes him to imperial Russia and Depression-era Detroit, through the Holocaust in Ukraine and the Philippine war zone, and back to the hospitals where Annie and many others languished in anonymity. Annie's Ghosts is one of The Washington Post's Best Books of 2009, a Michigan Notable Book for 2010, and the 2013–14 Great Michigan Read Selection of the Michigan Humanities Council.

Michigan Humanities Council

Carla M. Ingrando.


Ken Egan, executive director of Humanities Montana

James Welch, Winter in the Blood

My selection for Montana is James Welch's 1974 novel, Winter in the Blood. This harrowing, beautiful short novel tells of the misadventures and coldness in the soul of a young Indian man living on the state's Hi-Line. The prose is spare, lyrical, and haunting; the story's resolution moving. Besides, it is one of the funniest novels you'll ever read. You may wonder how Welch combined such tough subject matter as loss of a father with that sense of humor—you'll need to read to find out! The novel has just been translated into film—look for the cinematic version this summer. Happy reading—and viewing.

Humanities Montana

Ken Egan.


Christopher Sommerich, executive director of Humanities Nebraska

Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, eds., The Selected Letters of Willa Cather

Nebraska would like to recommend the newly released The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, co-edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout (published by Knopf, Cather's original publisher). This book has received a lot of national attention, as it is the first time that it has been legally allowed for her letters to be published. The more than five hundred letters included in the book cover most of her lifespan and are beautifully written, giving fresh insight into her character, her wit, and her personal life, which she carefully guarded. Cather's formative years were spent in tiny Red Cloud, Nebraska, leading to such masterpieces as My Antonia, One of Ours, and O Pioneers! Readers of The Selected Letters will come away with an entirely new appreciation for Cather as one of the literary giants of the twentieth century.
For more on The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, read the New York Times cover story or the National Public Radio story.

Humanities Nebraska

Christopher Sommerich.


Sara Ogger, executive director of the New York Council for the Humanities

Teresa Carpenter, New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009

Teresa Carpenter, New York Diariesfantastic, quintessential. For each date, one or more historic diaries from across New York's four hundred years are excerpted, for a full year.

Marguerite Holloway, The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor

A new book by Marguerite Holloway called The Measure of Manhattan is a scholarly, journalistic hybrid that profiles the life and amazing work of John Randel Jr., an early surveyor and inscriber of "the grid" Manhattan did indeed grow along. 

Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies

The Civil War of 1812 by Alan Taylor focuses on New York State as the battleground of that war—terse at times, not to say grouchy when it comes to analyzing a war done on the cheap, with a compelling thesis about the loyalties across the border. 

New York Council for the Humanities

Sara Ogger.


Ann Thompson, executive director of the Oklahoma Humanities Council

Rilla Askew, Fire in Beulah

My pick for the summer reading list is Fire in Beulah by Rilla Askew. This is a work of fiction, published in 2001 by Penguin Books. The author uses the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 as a backdrop for a compelling family story. As we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of America's civil rights era, it is appropriate to learn of this little-known event that has been described as America's worst race riot.

Oklahoma Humanities Council

Ann Thompson.


Kathleen Holt, communications director and editor of Oregon Humanities magazine

Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis, Wildwood, book one of the Wildwood Chronicles

Is there a recently published book that captures the wonderful quirkiness of Portland, as well as the city's deep affinity for nature, better than Wildwood, a joint effort by husband-wife team Colin Meloy (of indie-band The Decemberists) and illustrator Carson Ellis? Short answer: No.

Billed as the first of a series of middle-grade children's books, the novel is a rich, vivid adventure that takes protagonist Prue McKeel deep into the Impassable Wilderness (known to Portlanders as Forest Park) in search of her infant brother after he is kidnapped and taken there by a murder of crows. Deep in those woods, Prue and her friend Curtis find a secret world in the midst of a civil war among creatures, mystics, revolutionaries, and rulers that is at once fantastical yet utterly believable.

A children's book? In our household, my husband and I alternate nights reading longer books to our eight-year-old daughter at bedtime. With this system, we each read half of most books, which is generally sufficient. But we vied over Wildwood, offering to read on each other's nights, until one parent simply took matters into her own hands by staying up late a few nights and reading ahead. (I know from talking to other parents that I was not alone in this practice, though we faced the wrath of our children, who were indignant that we knew before they what was coming.)

But the best thing about Wildwood was the way it made us look at our hometown with new eyes. A few weeks ago, we drove the highway along Forest Park en route to a park in the northern part of the city. All three of us gazed at the mass of verdant green to the west and squinted, hoping to catch a glimpse into the magical world of Prue, Curtis, and the Impassable Wilderness.

Oregon Humanities

Kathleen Holt.


Sherry DeBoer, executive director of the South Dakota Humanities Council

Dan O'Brien, Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch

The memoir Buffalo for the Broken Heart by Dan O'Brien reveals central meanings about life, the land, and making a living in South Dakota.  O'Brien recounts his journey of abandoning cattle for buffalo at his ranch, the Broken Heart, located near Whitewood, South Dakota. Chosen for the One Book South Dakota program in 2009, the study guide notes: "Buffalo for the Broken Heart is at once a tender account of the buffaloes' first seasons on the ranch and an engaging lesson in wildlife ecology." O'Brien combines his novelist's eye for detail and his work as an endangered-species biologist, creating an enriching narrative based on the symbiotic relationship of buffalo with the land. It also gives the reader a glimpse into the neighbor's occasional doubt and suspicion about O'Brien and his intentions and new ranching approaches.

South Dakota Humanities Council

Sherry DeBoer and Big Read Egyptian exchange students toured a buffalo ranch in eastern South Dakota. Students were given the book Buffalo for the Broken Heart to gain a glimpse into Northern Plains culture. The students were also in conversation with author Dan O'Brien in Sioux Falls during the South Dakota Festival of Books.


Michael McLane, director of the Utah Center for the Book and literature program officer at the Utah Humanities Council

Josh Hanagarne, The World's Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family

What do Tourette Syndrome, weightlifting, Mormonism, and a library reference desk have in common? They are all key components in the life of Josh Hanagarne (a.k.a. the World's Strongest Librarian). Hanagarne's memoir is a heartbreaking and hilarious look at a scrawny adolescent who loves books and has painfully obvious tics. As he gets older, his tics get stronger and more self-destructive. To make matters worse, he's grown to 6'7" and he can do nothing but stand out from his peers. As a result of a serendipitous meeting with a strongman who can relate to Hanagarne's plight, he learns how to focus and control his body through weightlifting and other feats of strength, but it is through family, libraries, and those who share his condition that he learns far more important lessons.

Utah Humanities Council

Michael McLane.


Peter A. Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council

Robert Frost, The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged

My first recommendation would be The Poetry of Robert Frost (New York: Henry Holt and Co, 1969), which is not about the contemporary Vermont (and New Hampshire) but the eternal. Frost's poetry can be read and reread, by everyone from young readers to post-grad scholars; it clearly ranks among America's finest.

Howard Frank Mosher, collected works

For a look at Vermont through fiction, I would recommend the work of Howard Frank Mosher (1942–     ), starting perhaps with Northern Borders (a coming-of-age story set in very northern, rural Vermont) and Where the Rivers Flow North, a collection of six stories, including the title novella, which the Wall Street Journal calls "brilliantly done," "superior work, rich in texture and character."

Vermont Humanities Council

Peter A. Gilbert.


Robert C. Vaughan III, president of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities

Maurie D. McInnis, Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade

Both Slaves Waiting for Sale and Master of the Mountain [below] were written by Fellows in Residence at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities; both are set in Virginia but tell a national and international story; both are timely, given the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation; and both are beautifully written, provocative, and readable. Maurie McInnis was awarded the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Charles C. Eldredge Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in American Art. Slaves Waiting for Sale, which "traces the American slave trade through the visual and written records of Eyre Crowe, a British artist who visited a slave auction in Richmond in 1853, was recognized for its integration of art and cultural studies." Bernard Herman writes that it "cuts across the antebellum South and transatlantic debates over the human cost and deeply contested ideologies of slavery," while Edward Ayers praises McInnis's "ingenious research and imaginative writing…. No one will be able to see the slave trade—or nineteenth-century America and England, for that matter—in the same way after reading this powerful book."

Henry Wiencek, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves

Henry Wiencek's Master of the Mountain was featured on the October 2012 cover of Smithsonian, which also included an extensive excerpt from the book. Jonathan Yardley described this controversial and widely reviewed book as a "brilliant examination of the dark side of the man who gave the world the most ringing declarations about human liberty." Laura Miller concluded that "no founding father wrote more eloquently on behalf of liberty and human rights than Thomas Jefferson, and none has a more troubling record when it comes to the 'peculiar institution' of slavery." In Bruce Levine’s assessment, "eloquent and carefully researched, this invaluable book takes us behind the curtain of Jefferson's familiar public words and shows us Jefferson the Virginia planter, committed to slavery."

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities

Robert C. Vaughn III


Dena Wortzel, executive director of the Wisconsin Humanities Council

Ayad Akhtar, American Dervish

I would recommend Ayad Akhtar's American Dervish.  He's a Milwaukee-born Pakistani American author, and the story is about a boy growing up Muslim in the Midwest. 

Read more on this book on the National Public Radio website

Wisconsin Humanities Council

Dena Wortzel.


Jason Burge, programs/communications coordinator of the Wyoming Humanities Council

Joy Williams, 99 Stories of God

Grande dame of American letters and University of Wyoming Eminent Writer in Residence Joy Williams packs much humor and empathy into 99 Stories of God—tales of a detached God wandering a world as puzzling to its creator as it is to its inhabitants. Stories such as "Fathers and Sons," where wolves point out the futility of God's plan to change their nature and save them from mankind by referencing a bumper sticker that says, "Did a wolf get your elk?" take on modern western issues with subtlety and patience. Touching and at times hopelessly funny, this collection presents the former National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist in top form. Excerpts can be read on Byliner.

Craig Johnson, Walt Longmire mystery series

For good page-turning vacation reading, we suggest Craig Johnson's much-lauded Walt Longmire mystery series, beginning with The Cold Dish, set in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. Longmire, a television series based on the novels, debuted in 2012 on A&E.

Wyoming Humanities Council

Jason Burge.