I haven’t really be passionate by a book for months, and it kind of makes me really sad. I love books, I love reading, I want to read something “good”. I ask to a friend who truly likes books as well; she recently graduated in English: she should be perfect to help me! I asked her a few recommendations: I was looking for great American novels, classics, so I could understand the “American Spirit”. A few hours after our chat, she sent me a huge list: she did it pretty seriously! I thought I could share her list here, it’s a nice review, and I like her way of sorting the books. I’m leaving on vacation at the end of the week and now I just have to pick up some of them… I have 2 weeks of vacation… and, let’s be honest, at least a few months to read all of these.
Coming-of-age stories – Stories of young people growing up in America
- To kill a mockingbird by Harper Lee – One of her all-time favorite books, it tells the story of tomboy Scout growing up in the American south during the Great Depression. Also was made into a great American film.
- The catcher in the rye by J.D. Salinger – Troubled youth Holden Caulfield grapples with his looming adulthood in Cold War era New York.
- A tree grows in brooklyn by Betty Smith – The story a young girl, the daughter of Irish immigrants, growing up at the beginning of the 20th century in New York.
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain – Sometimes a contender as “the great American novel,” this story follows Huck Finn on his journey down the Mississippi with an escaped slave in the 1830s or 40s.
- Portnoy’s complaint by Philip Roth – The young adult Alexander Portnoy grapples with his Jewish religion, sense of morality, and escalating sexual frustration in this novel, set and written during the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
- The bell jar by Sylvia Plath – Maybe the most intense coming-of-age story ever, this semi-autobiographical novel describes Esther Greenwood, a college-age girl who begins to have a mental breakdown during her summer internship in New York in the 1960’s.
I already read these, and really loved Salinger’s. And when I was a child there was a cartoon with Huck Finn, I still know the lyrics by hearth.
Ex-patriot stories – Sometimes the stories where you learn the most about America and Americans take place abroad…
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Also sometimes called “the great American novel,” this is definitely the best. Tortured love triangles and complicated class issues feature prominently in this post-WWII novel.
- The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway – This is my favorite Hemingway novel, but his others are also excellent, and his short stories are wonderful as well. His language is crisp and controlled, and his descriptions are simply beautiful.
- The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith – A gripping crime thriller novel featuring Americans living in Cold-War era Italy.
- Fear of Flying by Erica Jong – Jong is celebrated for her raunchy, frank novels. This one follows the protagonist Isadora on her vacation in Vienna in the 1970’s.
Urban stories – Stories set in American cities… okay, so they’re almost all set in New York…
- Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote – A really lovely novel that centers around a young socialite in 1940’s NYC. Also a fantastic film with Audrey Hepburn.
- The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton – Deals with romantic relationships between upper-class New Yorkers in the 1870s and how American society changes from generation to generation.
- Another Country by James Baldwin – Baldwin is one of America’s greatest black writers, and this big novel deals with race, gender, and sexuality in the 1950s.
- The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett – A classic American detective story, this one set in 1930’s San Francisco, where private investigator Sam Spade has to solve the mystery, survive a relationship with a femme fatale, and outwit the criminals
Rural stories – About people in less populated areas of America
- Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston – An amazing African-American novel with a wonderful female protagonist, set in Florida in the early 20th century.
- Cannery Row by John Steinbeck – I said I liked Steinbeck, so she recommend me this really short and really likeable little novella set in a California town. Not much plot, but a wonderful cast of characters, and a lot of American color.
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac – One of her favorite authors of all time, Kerouac is known as the “voice of the Beat generation,” which was the group of young people who rejected the ideals of consumerism and suburbia of the American 1950s and took to poetry, alcohol, and fast cars as a way to express themselves. On the Road is his most famous novel, but The Dharma Bums is also a wonderful introduction to the Beat generation. The language is poetic, disorganized, and often frantic, but always beautiful.
- Walden by Henry David Thoreau – Sometimes a bit dense, but has some really beautiful passages. She recommend me to skip the first chapter, which is just all about how he budgeted for food and stuff. A great read for someone living in Massachusetts! (and I’ve been to Walden Pond)
- The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie – A series of short stories about life on a Native American reservation – definitely an important part of American culture.
I had my John Steinbeck period when I was younger, it was great #ConstructiveReview
Fantasy/Epic/Dystopia – Novels written by Americans about the future and other non-existent places
- Princess Bride by William Goldman – A hilarious book that inspired the film. It has some great tidbits that you don’t get in the movie, and a wonderful sense of humor.
- Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut is a great favorite among people our age. His books are cynical, perceptive, and ridiculous, with lots of social commentary.
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – One of the best dystopia novels ever written. Bradbury imagines a future where books are destined to be burned, and creates a terrifying and exciting storyline to go with it.
- Moby Dick by Herman Melville – One of the longest books she has ever read, and only worth attempting if you really want to go for a really epic time commitment. It’s often called “the great American novel,” though, so she felt she had to include it here. Melville has shorter works if you want a taste of his style without committing to so many pages, including the short story Bartleby which is a good one.
Moby Dick is probably one of the book I try the most to read. Never reach more than 100 pages. I don’t think I should give it a try in English…
Children’s – Some books written for younger readers that I still love to read (great if I want something with an easier vocabulary!)
- Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder – A great series, beginning with Little House in the Big Woods that tells the autobiographical story of growing up with a pioneer family in the 1800s, moving across the country every few years in search of more opportunity.
- Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene – These were her favorite books ever when she was a kid. Nancy Drew is a girl detective who solves all sorts of exciting mysteries with tact and courage. The series began in the 1930s and is still popular with girls today!
- The Call of the Wild by Jack London – If all American girls read Nancy Drew, all American boys read Jack London. He wrote great adventure stories, prominently featuring dogs and wolves. This one’s a classic.
- The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton – A serious look at class difference among teens in 1965 Oklahoma, written for teenagers to read.
I used to watch and love this TV show
Thanks a lot to Hannah for her fantastic list! And you, what do you like in American literature? What would be your recommendations?