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4th of July Reads

Sketch of the American Flag

Happy Independence Day to my friends and readers in the US! To tie into the spirit of the day, I thought I’d share some of my favourite American books, both by Americans and about America.

Notes from a Big Country by Bill Bryson

I love a bit of Bill Bryson. His corresponding book Notes from a Small Island had me in stitches as the community he was writing about in the main was close to where I grew up. It was so refreshing to read about quirks and behaviours I recognised in myself and my community from the perspective of a sympathetic American. I read Notes from a Big Country for the first time after a short trip to San Francisco and found that it helped me understand this fascinating, bewildering and diverse country a little more than I did before.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I probably don’t need to say too much about this after my recent rave reviews. I love this book.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

I read this book several years ago and am considering rereading it before I get Curtis Sittenfeld’s most recent release. I thought this was an elegant and absorbing tale about a fictional first lady’s journey to the White House. Controversially, it is thought that Alice Blackwell in the novel is a thinly veiled Laura Bush. As someone who finds the Republican party’s views baffling at best most of the time, I was prepared to find this book angered me, but quite the opposite. I found it thought-provoking and very well-written. I’m looking forward to reading more of Sittenfeld’s work.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I chose to write about this for my Master’s dissertation I loved it so much. A classic.

Eat Love Pray by Elizabeth Gilbert

I discovered Elizabeth Gilbert through her famous TED talk and I knew I had to read her books.

Eat Love Pray was the first and I found it so much more than I ever thought a ‘finding yourself’ book could ever be (my Yorkshire common sense showing through!). It was well written, thoughtful and funny. I do still think running off around the world to escape your problems is a little self-indulgent to be honest, although if you have the money and time why not I suppose, but Gilbert is a writer I warmed to and I found this book wise. I read her Committed just before I got married and I found that was also really interesting. It helped frame and order my own thoughts about marriage before I jumped in at the tender age of 25!

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

I have a feeling this book may be a future classic. It so perfectly captures a time, attitude and place that when I think about the 80’s, this book is irrevocably linked in my mind. I think it is a funny, clear-eyed and honest look at greed, arrogance and excess in late 80’s New York.

And two plays… I like reading plays. I like seeing them more, but I do like reading them as well and these two are masterpieces in my opinion.

The Crucible by Arthur Miller

A wonderful double. On the surface a play exploring the Salem Witch trails in New England and the hysteria that ensued. Below, a commentary on the Communist Witch Hunts of the McCarthy era.

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

I think Tennessee Williams is my favourite playwright after Shakespeare. His explorations of disappointment, faded dreams and hope are heart-breaking. I could have chosen any of his plays but went for A Streetcar Named Desire because I walked out of a theatre about four years ago after seeing this play and the world looked a little different. One of the most powerful, moving stories in the world in my opinion, but perhaps not one for happy days!

Do you have favourite Independence Day reads?


Top Eight Books for Summer

I mentioned recently that I have books I definitely consider to be ‘summer’ books, to be read on holiday and when the weather is balmy. I thought I’d make a list of the top eight (I tried to do five, but just couldn’t narrow it down!) in my opinion and see if you agreed or disagreed with me!

1. Atonement by Ian McEwan

One of my favourite ever books. The description of a summer of privilege at a country house before disaster strikes is beautiful.

2. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Scarlett O’Hara just demands to be read in summer so we can imagine the sultry southern heat at Tara.

3. The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

I first read Harry Potter on holiday in Italy in 2000 so it is forever associated with summer for me.

4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Escaping the heat of New York, Nick Caraway is sucked into the ill-fated love affair of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan one summer.

5. The Stand by Stephen King

My favourite Stephen King is between this and The Shining, but this shouts summer to me I think. It is an epic battle of good and evil in the Nevada desert.

6. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I blogged about this recently, but a wonderful summer read.

7. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

It marked the summers of my school years when we read it often, with the smell of freshly mown grass in the air.  What an incredible story!

8. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

That image of the children playing in the rye is haunting and all about summer.

Will you be reading any of these this summer?


The Great Gatsby

On Friday night, I went to see The Great Gatsby at the cinema and it brought back all my memories of how much I loved the book. The film itself was a visual feast. The acting, costumes and soundtrack were all amazing. Before seeing the film, I couldn’t quite imagine Carey Mulligan as Daisy; I had always imagined Daisy as slightly harder that Mulligan’s innocent features could convey. However, she did a good job, even if she perhaps wouldn’t have been my choice, and certainly had a ‘voice full of money’ just as the book describes. Tobey Maguire is a perfect Nick Carraway and Leonardo DiCaprio was also impressive as Gatsby. They had added a slightly strange new addition where Nick writes Gatsby’s story from a sanatorium several years after the events described. I don’t think this really worked or was necessary, but I’ll be interested in what other people think.

The overall feeling the film left me with was wonder at the parties and sumptuousness of it, but certainly not in the haunted, teary state that Jay Gatsby’s fate left me in the book. Perhaps in some ways, The Great Gatsby is too delicate a book to be filmed completely successfully and despite a really enjoyable evening, I did have some reservations. Was there a little too much style over substance here? Yes, I think so. I think the truth, uncertainty and beauty of the book is perhaps too evasive for film, yes. I do also think the terrible reviews of the film have been a little harsh though – I thought the modern music worked really well for example. The New Yorker did a really good review of the film which I felt was closer to the mark than any of the UK press if you’d like to read it.

So, bearing all that it mind, I would definitely advise reading the book before seeing this new film. I loved the book and it was certainly one of my favourites. Nick Carraway is an almost perfect unreliable narrator, a device I have an irrational fondness for because it makes me think and question. Gatsby is a romantic, hopeful illusion and Daisy and Tom are odious. The tension, the social mores and the dream of the book are all so finely drawn that they wash over you and it is only at the end that you realise what a finely crafted, understated statement about the American dream it is. I think this is one of the great American books.

I’ve also read a few of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories. Short stories are not normally a genre I am particularly interested in to be honest but The Cut-Glass Bowl by Fitzgerald was outstanding and I need to read more of them. So, as I trot off to add more Fitzgerald to my ‘to read’ list, I’ll leave it at highly recommending a read of The Great Gatsby if you have not already.