A little change of pace in the blog this week. Stepping away from the book reviews that make up the staple of this blog, I’ve gone all out and named my top 5 books in American Literature.
What do you think? Any absolute howlers on here? Any sure-fire solid-gold classics that haven’t made the list? Let me know!
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Probably one of my favourite books of all time – one of the few I’ve read more than once anyway. Set in New York during the golden age of comics, it is the Great American Novel.
Sammy Clay (secretly gay in an era of ignorance) and Josef Kavalier (just escaped from Prague as the Nazis roll in) create a comic book super hero: the Escapist, a Houdini-like Hitler-fighting bonafide super hero. Escape is Chabon’s overarching theme – whilst Sammy is trying to escape the oppression of a world that won’t accept homosexuality, Josef is trying to free his family from the Nazis in Prague.
There’s a whole bunch more to it than this, though: Love, Friendship, the American Dream are all covered in a style that is sometimes workman-like and often sings (frequently both). Like when one of our heroes is described as looking like, “he had not dressed for work that morning so much as gotten into some kind of altercation with his suit, shirt, and tie.”
Oh man, just thinking about it makes me want to read it again.
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
This one is a real humdinger. I remember reading it when I was a kid, and realising for the first time that non fiction could be fun – more than that, it could be electrifying.
Wolfe peels back the layers of Test Pilots and Astronauts to understand why they do it: why they choose to work in a job which places them in mortal danger almost every single day.
Delving into the lives of Test Pilots in the 40s and 50s he gets to the bones of what makes people like this tick – men like Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 (with a broken rib after he fell off his horse the night before).
From here, he takes us into the lives of the Mercury 7, America’s first astronauts, painted in the press as All-American heroes, but who in reality are all too human.
At once hilarious and awe inspiring, I guarantee you’ll love it. If nothing else you’ll find out that Astronaut Pete Conrad once tied a poo in a little ribbon and bow for a medical test.
American Pastoral by Philip Roth
I can’t believe I’ve only just discovered Philip Roth. This guy writes with a sharpness and humour that is jaw-dropping at times. American Pastoral it’s an intense look at the American Dream through the story the Swede – an all American hero whose daughter bombs a post office.
As Swede’s life unravels before us, he learns that everyone has some kind of secret, whether it is the tawdry affair his wife is having with a neighbour, to the Swede’s own hidden meetings with his daughter when she is on the run. Secrets abound in American Pastoral, but so do the public faces protagonists use to keep them private. For a straight-forward man like the Swede, it makes it hard to trust anyone. As Roth says, “He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach-that it makes no sense.”
See what I mean when I say jaw-dropping?
To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee
You should almost certainly buy a copy of this for your bookshelf if you don’t already have it (you likely already do: it sold it’s first copy in 1960, and has sold another 40 million since. At least 15 of those copies are down to me – I used to keep copies under my bed that I gave out whenever someone told me they hadn’t read it).
Scout Finch is a firecracker of a girl, growing up in the fictional town of Maycomb County, Alabama during the depression. Her father, Atticus, is a local lawyer who takes on the case of black man falsely accused of rape. As her father fights the case, the whole town comes under the glare of Scout’s microscope – from Boo Radley (a reclusive neighbour), to the cantankerous Mrs. Henry Lafeyette Dubose (“plain hell” as Scout describes her). Both Radley and Mrs. Dubose contribute to the education of 5 year old scout – in fact, all of Maycomb County contributes in some way as Scout grows up.
This setting lets Lee explore racism, the loss of innocence, class, courage and compassion amongst other things, all with a style that is dramatic, funny, and incredibly moving. I’m almost certain you’ll fall in love with it. All of the characters have stuck with me even though I first read it over twenty years ago.
Maus by Art Spiegelman
A bit different from the other books on this list, but one that is worth giving a chance. It’s probably the most original book on this list: a graphic novel about the writer’s father’s experiences as a Polish Jew and holocaust survivor.
It’s not something I would ever think could possibly work – the subject is too dark, and comics are too light, unable to treat the holocaust with the gravitas that it deserves. But Spiegelman has a trick up his sleeve, by drawing Jews as mice, Nazis as cats, Poles as pigs, and Americans as dogs.
A weird description I know, but trust me it’s astounding, making the characters animals makes it both easier and harder to stomach, both easier and harder to read. It will stick with you forever (in a good way). It even won a Pulitzer in 1992.
So what do you think? Agree or disagree? Absolute tosh, or about right? Who would be in your top 5 best American?
Let me know in the comments!