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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?

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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After a lost weekend with my nose to my dissertation grindstone, I thought I would write about one of the books I have been spending a lot of time with recently – The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Before deciding to dip my toe into American literature for my Open University Masters, I knew very little about The Scarlet Letter, besides the odd bits I had seen of the dire Demi Moore film at my teenage sleep-overs. However, the blurb had a wonderful quote on it which made me think The Scarlet Letter was going to be right up my street: ‘The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread’. Brilliant!

I will admit that it took me a little while to get into this book. It is not immediately easy, partly because the Puritans themselves seem as dry as my guinea pig’s sawdust – I think that infects some of the prose – but also because the story did not start with our heroine, Hester Prynne, as I had expected, but with a section called ‘The Custom House’. This section serves as a first person introduction by Hawthorne himself to The Scarlet Letter. It has some interesting bits, like his description of his ancestors, his description of romance and his account of how he supposedly found out about Hester Prynne. However, a lot of it is rather tedious descriptions of his work and his colleagues at ‘The Custom House’. I am sure these are rather valuable, historically speaking, but they were a unnecessary distraction for me to be honest.

After I’d hurdled over ‘The Custom House’ though, things improved a lot. Hester Prynne is beautifully described in the first few chapters; the beautiful women with the mysterious child, strongly associated with wild roses, brave and defiant, but also stigmatised. The rest of the story is not only a wonderfully realised recreation of 1640s Boston, but also a sophisticated and though-provoking read. Why does Hester protect the identity of the father of her child? Why does her husband hide his identity? Why does she return to Boston in the end? My mind was a-whirl with questions as I was reading The Scarlet Letter and some of those questions were never answered. The Scarlet Letter is a highly ambiguous book with no easy answers which I respect, like and find frustrating in equal measure! For every fault with this book, like the symbolism which is as subtle as a hammer blow to the head(!), there are many more delights.

Overall, I think this is a book I have come to appreciate the more I have dug beneath the surface and ‘studied’ it. I do find this with some books though, do you? I also think it is a very important book to read for anyone interested in American literature, as it is one of the first ‘American novels’ in my opinion.

Beautiful Books

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E-Readers are becoming more and more popular and soon most commercial novels will be available only in e-ink. Whether or not this is a good thing I am undecided, but I do think this means that there is again a place in the world for really beautiful books. As physical books get rarer, people will only purchase their absolute favourites in hard copy and so the bindings and covers will be ever more important. That is my hunch anyway. I have a few beautiful hardbacks thanks to my grandparents: a collection of Thomas Hardy novels, a set of Antony Trollopes and a set of leather-bound Dickens, all of which I treasure. The other day whilst in Foyles, I bought a beautiful book myself. I saw this Barnes & Noble edition of The Scarlet Letter and felt compelled to purchase it (maybe for sentimental reasons with it being one of my MA dissertation books!). It is clearly too beautiful to go on my crowded books shelves in our box room (which I fondly call my ‘library!’) so I will have to find a home for it in the living room I think!

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Barnes & Noble edition

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Barnes & Noble edition