Washington, DC by Gore Vidal
Any book that’s supposed to represent America’s capitol city is going to have to take on politics, and Vidal’s 1967 novel delivers. Part of the author’s Narratives of Empire series, which examines our country’s history through the eyes of two fictional families, Washington, DC focuses on political corruption and intrigue during the New Deal.
Black Hole by Charles Burns
It’s Seattle in the ’70s and the kids are getting it on, free love-style, in Burns’ graphic novel. But instead of herpes or the clap, they’re passing around an eerie STD referred to simply as “the bug,” which causes them to mutate in odd and grotesque ways. The mortification of early sexual experiences, the foreshadowing of AIDS — it’s all there in this dark, stylish tome by a cartoonist whose career is also inextricably connected to Seattle’s most iconic indie record label, Sub Pop.
The Night of the Gun by David Carr
As a veteran journalist, New York Times writer David Carr had done his share of investigative reporting. But in his memoir The Night of the Gun, Carr delves into his own past as a drug addicted new father in Minneapolis, uncovering truths he couldn’t remember about a dark and disturbing time in his life and trying to come to terms with the person he was before getting clean.
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Sure, there are other books about Atlanta. But none captures the city’s history — and that of the South as a whole — like Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War love story.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon
We’ve all been there: It’s the summer after college graduation, and Art Bechstein is hanging around Pittsburgh trying to figure out who the hell he is and what the fuck he wants out of life. From its university libraries to its mysterious “Cloud Factory” to its mafia-like crime families, the city is the backdrop for all of Art’s discoveries — exhilarating, terrifying, sexual, and otherwise.
6. San Francisco
Valencia by Michelle Tea
Just as DC is all about politics, SF is home to America’s most vibrant queer community, and that’s at the center of Michelle Tea’s memoir of her time as 20-something lesbian in the Mission. Get ready for strange, punk-rock characters, rich, surprising descriptions, and unabashed tales of youthful indiscretions in this ode to the city where being weird is pretty much a requirement for citizenship.
7. St. Paul
Until They Bring the Streetcars Back by Stanley Gordon West
Yes, yes — much of Jonathan Franzen’s Earth-shaking new book Freedom is set in St. Paul. But to really get a feel for the city, we suggest Stanley Gordon West’s novel, which takes place in the city, just after World War II. In this wrenching story, quaint, mid-century optimism gives way to a morass of violence and incest, as Cal Grant risks everything to save a girl from her horrifying life.
I Get on the Bus by Reginald McKnight
Reginald McKnight’s first novel may take place in Senegal, but its protagonist, Evan Norris, is certainly a product of his Denver upbringing. Overseas with the Peace Corps, Norris has the chance to examine his middle-class youth and wrestle with questions of African-American identity.
9. Portland, OR
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
A quirky novel for a quirky city, Geek Love follows Olympia Binewski and her family — a troupe of oddballs genetically bred for carnival freakdom by their sideshow-proprietor parents. This Portland novel examines humanity at its most extreme and bizarre, and as a result has become one of the late 20th century’s greatest cult classics.
10. St. Louis
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
If Gone with the Wind is the essential tale of the South in the 19th century, The Glass Menagerie is one of its most poignant 20th-century stories. Williams’ play spotlights the bitter romantic disappointments of the Wingfield women of St. Louis. While fading Southern Belle Amanda has struggled for years since her husband left the family, her daughter Laura faces heartbreak at the hands of her high-school sweetheart.