Reading America

Moving to America is going to be an exciting experience for me in many ways. I have never lived anywhere other than England, and the thought of immersing myself in another country’s culture and customs for a year fills me with glee. I love to travel; being surrounded by other languages, unfamiliar sights and sounds, different architectural styles, alien flora and fauna and so on, absolutely delights me. I find it so thrilling to be washed up on a foreign shore and have to navigate myself around; the feel of crisp new currency in my hands; the disorientation of watching the hustle and bustle of locals going about their everyday business while I stand apart; the effort of my brain working overtime to try and decode a language I have only a faint knowledge of; the rush of triumph as I manage to communicate what I am looking for, in a mixture of pidgin English and crude sign language. What could be more fun?! And now I get to do this for a whole entire year, though the process will be helped hugely by the fact that the Americans speak my language…albeit with a few variations…must remember, a pavement is a sidewalk, a courgette is a zucchini, and my personal favourite – an aubergine is an eggplant. Why such an unattractive name? Aubergine is so much nicer. Also, we share many popular brand names, shops, etc, so it won’t be too difficult for me to work out where’s good to buy my clothes, food, and so on, which can be tricky when you’re in, say, Russia, and can’t even figure out whether you’re walking into a restaurant or a clothes shop!

However, two areas I am most certainly not familiar with when it comes to America is its history, and its literature. I have mentioned my woeful knowledge of American history before; I have a fairly good grasp of modern American history, but anything before WW2 is a mystery to me. I am attempting to remedy this before I go by reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of America; I’ve just ordered this and I am very excited to read it. I love reading social history books, and I can’t wait to have the gaping holes in my knowledge filled! My knowledge of American literature is certainly much better, and I have dabbled in a fair few authors. However, I haven’t read half as much literature originating in the United States as I would like, and the trouble is, I just don’t really know the extent of what’s out there for me to read. American literature isn’t widely taught in English schools and universities, and as such, I’ve never picked up the general knowledge of the classic canon of America’s literature as I have done of Britain’s. Who is America’s Jane Austen? Dickens? Eliot? Woolf? Brontes? Who are the best writers of the 20th century? What are the books that are an American’s rite of passage? What do American students have to read at school?

While I am in New York for a year, I want to do a reading project. I am going to spend my entire year reading solely American literature, and I want to try and gain an understanding of the spirit of America through the writings of its people. I am eager to experience its history, its politics, the lives of everyday citizens, the feel of the different regions, the sights and sounds and smells of American life across the ages, all while reading excellent literature. I know a year will be hardly long enough to do this, but I would like to make a good start. So, I am asking for recommendations. I am going to make a list of 50 books, and I would be enormously grateful if you could give me your suggestions of American novels that I simply can’t go without reading. Thank you in advance!

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76 comments

  1. Some recs off the top of my head: Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea), Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany’s).

    I also enjoy JD Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut, but they aren’t for everyone.

    Lastly, if you’re looking for a little historical fiction (and a really engaging read), The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare is a YA classic. It takes place in a New England puritan community (and yes, it involves the famous witch-hunting practices).

  2. Ah, how I envy your project, Rachel! It sounds a perfect means to assimilate yourself into American culture.

    Don’t forget your Virago Modern Classic authors: Edith Wharton, Eudora Welty, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Grace Paley, Willa Cather … (like you need an excuse to stock up on some green VMCs before you leave for the other side of the pond!)

    I’d say that Toni Morrison and TC Boyle are must-read authors although I’m not sure how you’ll find the latter. Of course there is also Vonnegut, Steinbeck, Updike, Roth, Yates…

    Michael Cunningham has a new novel out in September Stateside and I know that you love The Hours as much as I do :)

    I’d say that Gertrude Stein is the US Woolf and Henry James their Dickens; the literary greats Wharton, Dickinson, Whitman and Poe are all rich integrated into American culture too.

  3. Ooh, how exciting for you! I’m sorry I didn’t comment on your previous post announcing your plans – I was away and then didn’t comment on the blog posts that had gone up in my absence.

    Claire’s got a great list of suggestions, I definitely agree with including some VMCs, and you already love Willa Cather. There are some good Persephones too – The expendable man gets my vote.

    Maybe Sylvia Plath if you haven’t read any of her?

    And perhaps you’ll want some children’s fiction – the babysitters club obviously, and a bit of Sweet Valley High and Nancy Drew?! But, seriously, I recommend Lois Lowry, not just her Anastasia Krupnik books, though they are very good, and Elizabeth Enright is an older author, well worth seeking out, especially The Saturdays.

  4. Well, you have received some excellent suggestions already — nothing above that I would disagree with!

    For women authors, I heartily recommend Wharton & Cather as representative of the “classics,” and Morrison for something more contemporary. I also love Jhumpa Lahiri who is of Indian descent but has lived in the US since the age of three and considers herself American.

    Steinbeck is excellent, and I also recommend two other classic male authors: Wallace Stegner (loved Angle of Repose), and James Agee (A Death in the Family).

    One other suggestion would be to use American literary prizes (Pulitzer, National Book Award, Newbery for children’s lit) as a source of inspiration. And whatever you do, don’t rely on the New York Times Bestseller List — unfortunately, the books that appeal to a “book snob” rarely make that list!!

  5. Lots of good ones already mentioned!

    You might add:

    F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby)
    At least one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series (for children, but great reads anyway)
    James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans)
    Mark Twain (Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn)
    William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury)
    Louisa May Alcott (Little Women)
    Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind)
    Kate Chopin (The Awakening)
    Flannery O’Connor (The Complete Stories, or maybe A Good Man is Hard to Find)

    Sorry I was too lazy to check in your archives to see if these are duplicates of books you’ve already read. :)

  6. Oh, lucky you! I studied American literature in college, still read it for fun, and know that there’s still so much I haven’t read.

    My favorites have always been:
    Edith Wharton (she’s such an interesting blend of popular – at the time – and literary writing)
    Mark Twain (not his books as much as his colorful life)
    Nathaniel Hawthorne
    Emerson, Thoreau (but you’re planning on the Transcendalists already, right?)

    The trouble for me is that a lot of 20th century writers (other than EW) fell, for me, into the should read rather than the want to read pile — Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dreiser, Faulkner — but that’s just me.

    Have fun!
    Audrey

  7. I would suggest you begin with Huckleberry Finn; all American literature before that novel is heavily influenced by the European style. In fact, I curated an exhibition at Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University titled: Mark Twain, Father of Modern American Literature. And as Hemingway wrote in The Green Hills of Africa: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn………There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” It continues to be a favorite target of those who try to ban books in this country and although some find it offensive I can tell you, as a man who grew up in the 1950s segregated south, it is honest.

  8. I don’t know how I could forgotten Eudora Welty (I met her briefly once, in college). And I just read Willa Cather for the first time. (She was another writer with an interesting life.)

    I’m just seconding the nods to them…

  9. What a great project Rachel! Am I the first american to reply? Such a lot to cover…of course there’s The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway and The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald. Booth Tarkington isn’t necessarily in the american canon, but he should be what with two pulitzer prize winning novels (which you could read) or start with my favorites Women or Claire Ambler. I happen to love Walden by Henry David Thoreau (though not quite a novel and more memoir) and also Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. Dorothy Parker is tremendous so pick up the penguin complete collection. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith is another young adult classic or The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. For the chicano american experience try Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, or Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros (or anything Sandra Cisneros, she also writes poetry). The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston or Eat a Bowl of Tea by Louis Chu are good for the chinese american experience in america. How to Make an American Quilt by Whitney Otto is just so very american. There’s too much and I feel I could go on and on and on and on. I reserve the right to repost more books later. ;)

    1. Heather, I think I was the first American to reply but like you I got VERY excited when I read this post! I love your selections which go well beyond the “dead white guy canon”.

  10. One book that I think is a wonderful slice of American life is the political thriller (and Pulitzer prize winner) All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. It’s one of my favourite novels, yet it seems to get very little attention… and yet it has everything you could want: romance, politics, murder, secrets… Sooo good!

    Also, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith are classics as well that are well worth your time.

    As for a contemporary American author, I think you’d be well served by reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, which is an amazingly accurate look into the American family in the 21st century.

  11. I would second Grapes of Wrath and would also add In Cold Blood as I think Capote is a genius and that is of course a book based on fact, well its non fiction – you know what I mean. The Help could be another one, as could To Kill A Mockingbird. Is Tartt american?

  12. Do read some Edith Wharton, and I recommend Faulkner’s A Light In August. I haven’t touched it since high school, but remember that it made an impression. I also recommend Gone with the Wind – far better than the movie. If you’re interested in a bit of Appalachian culture, which is heavily influenced by their Scottish roots, I recommend the book Christy. It’s a bit fluffy, but is a good glimpse into Appalachia pre Tenessee Valley Authority projects. Also Willa Cather, and I really enjoyed Main Street by Upton Sinclair – he was very important.

    If you like turn of the last century architecture, I recommend reading something on Stanford White, who was quite the interesting person. I recently read American Eve, about his most famous mistress, Evelyn Nesbit, and enjoyed the book thoroughly.

  13. Now, Rachel, you have opened a can of worms with your query, and all the literature of America is about to pop out. When I was in high school and planning on going to college, along with American literature, it was required to take a course in English literature, both of which I loved beyond reason. I might not have known about Shakespeare and Dickens and Eyre and the Brontes and Austen at such a young age if not for that course and a remarkable teacher.

    Read Edith Wharton then visit her home in the Hudson Valley, not too far from where you will be living.

    Someone else mentioned Laura Ingalls Wilder and I concur. The Little House books are for children, but, I have read and reread and reread them and they will give you a sense of the pioneer spirit and what men and women endured to move westward. Start with Little House in the Big Woods and then move to the rest. They won’t take you long.

    Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
    A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
    Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter or The House of the Seven Gables
    Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (save it for Halloween)
    You have read Alcott, but, visit awhile with her friends Thoreau and Emerson’s essays.
    Penny from Heaven is a children’s book and a Newberry winner and is all about growing up in the 50′s, family and the culture of the time and a bit about the internment of Italians in American during WWII.
    You know Willa Cather – read O! Pioneer
    James Michener is great and his book Hawaii, while long, gives a panoramic view of the colonization of our state of Hawaii. Bear with it the first 100 pages or so and the birds drop their seeds and the lava flows – it is worth it.
    Hemmingway
    Steinbeck
    Stegner
    Welty
    Capote

    Jodi Piccoult is a modern writer, quite prolific, and any of her books with give you a taste of modern Americans as she addresses issues somewhat uncomfortable to read but thought provoking (novels about Amish justice vs. US judicial system, bearing a child for sibling donor use – read her, she’ll reel you in and make you think).

    Lois Lenski (children’s) writes of rural and regional Americans for kids, though her books are getting a little harder to find.

    Robert Frost is my favorite American poet, but Walt Whitman, Maya Angelou, and of course Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and then plan a stay at the Wayside Inn in MA after you read his epic poem, Tales of a Wayside Inn.

    Anything by David McCoullough is great. A historian, his works read like novels. 1776 will tell you about the first year of the Revolutionary War and John Adams is my favorite about our second president and his wife and will give you a feel for that time. He also has a book of essays, whose name escapes me now, that really give bits and pieces of what became or will become some of his later books about Roosevelt and Truman and others.

    Read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Wait Til Next Year. She’s another historian who is easy to digest but this book is a memoir about the 1950′s and her family’s love of baseball that captures a moment of time in America that most of us can identity with.

    Oh, someone mentioned The Saturdays by Enright and you truly must read them and find about the children’s Saturday adventures in New York.

    Our Town – a play to read and try to see while you are here. Try to find it at a community theater or even a high school presentation.

    So many more – these are just off of the top of my head, not necessarily a good thing. tee hee

    1. Read Edith Wharton then visit her home in the Hudson Valley, not too far from where you will be living.
      Oh, yes: The Mount. It’s a fabulous place to visit, especially once you’ve read a little bit of Wharton.

      Excellent history suggestions too. And when you’re not reading, watch the Ken Burns Civil War documentary.

      1. I have to claim the Mount for Massachusetts…it’s in the Berkshires, in Lenox. But I first read Edith Wharton in a college class on the literature of New York. I don’t remember who sponsored it, and I think it was a one-time thing, but I remember reading about a recent walking tour of Edith Wharton’s New York…I would have loved to join that walk!

  14. A few contemporary fiction recommendations:

    Marilynne Robinson – Home was my 2009 book of the year
    Ann Patchett – Bel Canto is another favourite of mine
    Valerie Martin – Property is another more gritty take on slavery in the south. Compare and contrast with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind .

  15. I recommend:
    Alison, Dorothy. Bastard out of carolina
    Gibbons, Kay. Ellen Foster
    Kingsolver, Barbara. Prodigal summer
    Robbins, Tom. Even cowgirls get the blues
    Fitch, Janet. White oleander
    Dubus, Andre. House of sand & fog
    Tartt, Donna. The secret history
    Gilbert, Elizabeth. The last American man
    Moore, Susanna. In the cut
    Ozeki, Ruth. My year of meats
    Dunn, Katherine. Geek love
    McCarthy, Cormac. No Country For Old Men
    Eugenides, Jeffery. Virgin Suicides
    Proulx, Annie. Close Range: Wyoming Stories
    Kimmel, Haven. The Used World
    Hoffman, Alice. Blackbird House

    nonfiction:
    Bryson, Bill. A walk in the woods
    Lamott, Anne. Operating instructions
    Ehrenreich, Barbara. Fear of falling: the inner life of the
    Krakuer, Jon. Into the wildmiddle class
    Vowell, Sarah. Take the Cannoli: Stories from the new world
    Almond, Steve. Candyfreak: A journey through the chocolate underbelly of America
    Karr, Mary. Liar’s Club
    Walls, Jeannette. The glass castle: A memoir
    Moses, Kate. Cakewalk

    Read Joan Didion’s essays.

  16. Rachel, if you have any time left after reading all that fiction, maybe you’d like to read ‘New York’ by Edward Rutherford. I’ve just started it. Apparently it’s a ‘sweeping saga of the most exciting city on earth’ from its ‘birth over three hundred years ago’.

  17. I think Gone with the Wind is a must. Also To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple and Beloved. What a fantastic reading project. Good luck!

  18. Peyton Place gets a vote from me too, as does John O’Hara’s ‘Butterfield 8′ which is an amazing new york novel, and John Cheever’s ‘Whapshot Chronicle’, Shirley Jackson; if you haven’t read ‘we have always lived in the castle’ it’s very good… Huckleberry Finn should get on any list as should Raymond Chandler for some classic noir thrills. Can’t wait to read your progress.

  19. Hi Rachel,

    Good luck on moving to the States. I hope you have a wonderful experience in New York City.

    Concerning Zinn’s book, I had to read it for my Advanced Placement American history class in high school as it was seen to be the liberal equivalent to my conservative American history textbook that had a rant against 1960s hippies. Zinn’s book is very good, but I just want to give you the head’s up that it does come from a liberal perspective. Consequently, it might be good to get other perspectives as well. I didn’t take any American history in university, so I don’t have any other suggestions along that line.

    Regarding literature, in school, I had to read a variety of different books but mostly American. If you got mostly British lit. in school, I got mostly American. Some American lit. that I would recommend would be The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, The Poisonwood Bible and/or The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, and The Chosen by Chaim Potok. I found reading Portrait of a Lady by Henry James very interesting, showing the culture clash between America and Europe, so it might be a good one for you to check out.

    Really, there is SO much out there, so you may want to get a sampling of different novels from different periods and areas of the country or focus on a certain area. Different areas of the States can be widely different from each other in culture and history, so that might be something to also keep in mind.

    Good luck and happy reading!

    Virginia

  20. Also, a book I loved when I was an adolescent was Christy by Catherine Marshall which is about a young Christian woman who travels to Appalachia to teach. That book would give you a feel for that area of the country. And, like others, I think Gone with the Wind is a must.

  21. So, so many great suggestions already. Most of the authors who sprang to my mind have already been mentioned, so I only have a few additions:

    James Baldwin: The only book of his I’ve read is Go Tell It on the Mountain, which I liked quite a lot, and I hear the rest of his books are equally good.

    Clyde Edgerton: Edgerton is just about the only contemporary author of southern fiction I find bearable. His depiction of life in the region of the south where I grew up is spot-on but quite different from the usual mint julep infused south that’s popular these days. Raney and Walking Across Egypt are my favorites.

    Jonathan Safron Foer: I loved Extremely Loud and Dangerously Close, but others prefer Everything Is Illuminated. Either way, he’s worth checking out.

    Tennessee Williams: Perhaps my favorite American playwright. A Streetcar Named Desire is my favorite of his plays, but Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Glass Menagerie are also highly regarded–and for good reason.

  22. Some classics:
    Henry James – Washington Square
    John Steinbeck – East of Eden
    John Updike- The Rabbit series

    More recently, I’ve really enjoyed Laurie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy and Cormac McCarthy.

    You have some excellent recommendations above though, enough to keep you reading for ages. Rebecca’s list looks particularly good to me, from what I hadve read of it.

  23. Dear Rachel,

    Belated congratulations on your internship! (Never had any doubt of your being accepted!) NYC will be huge fun, and a year is a really good amount of time to ‘understand’ and immerse yourself in a city…

    My favourite US novels are Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and the prelude Tortilla Flat and the sequel, Sweet Thursday.

    A close runner up would be Great Gatsby.

    I also adore Hemingway’s taut writing and his impact on modern literature is so important. My favourites of his writing are The Sun Also Rises and A Movable Feast, however they are not set in USA. (A Moveable Feast also gives VERY interesting personal background into the complicated life of Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway’s complicated friendship with him, as well as brilliant insight into Paris in the 20′s. )

    All the above mentioned novels are great ‘tales’, but above all the writing and language is exquisite.

    The quiet private suffering in Edith Wharton’s novels is too excrutiating for me to recommend her!

  24. Everything I had picked out has been taken, except Another Country by James Baldwin. And for some witty non-fiction about why the colonists were the way they were and why we Yanks are pretty much the same, The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell.

  25. School books: It seems like everyone has to read To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter, and Catcher in the Rye. Also maybe A Separate Peace?

    Poetry: We always read loads of Walt Whitman in school (though personally I can’t stand him) and Emily Dickinson (hearts) and Robert Frost (more hearts, but not always). Edna St. Vincent Millay has some gorgeous lines but I do not find her reliable. Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, E.E. Cummings. Langston Hughes for sure. June Jordan is a recent discovery of mine and I love her to shreds.

    Plays: Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. I lost track of how many times I read those in school. And may I recommend Tony Kushner’s Angels in America? It’s massive and incredible and encompasses everything. HBO did a miniseries of it with Meryl Streep and Al Pacino and Mary Louise Parker, and it’s superb. (Also, Tony Kushner is from my home state.)

    Novels:

    I totally agree with the Laura Ingalls Wilder recommendation. They’re all frontiery. I haven’t read them in years but I loved them as a kid.

    Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

    Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, if you can manage the dialect.

    If you can manage the dialect, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life (like, in my top five). It encompasses everything as much as Angels in America. Actually more.

    Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, because it’s funny.

    Lolita, because I am determined to count it as American literature. It’s not Russian! It’s American! I claim it!

    The Poisonwood Bible, because it is good, and uses multiple points of view, and moreover addresses America’s nasty colonizing elected-official-assassinating ways.

    Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, because John Berendt is like a mynah bird and has a perfectly uncanny gift for capturing dialogue and speech patterns. I feel like I’m in Savannah every time I read that book.

    Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. Oh my God it’s so good, and I cry every time.

    I should stop now. These are a bunch of the America-y-est books I can think of, though to be honest I am not the hugest American literature person.

  26. Oooh! Read Zinn! Then DON’T TELL ANYBODY or they will label you a communist sympathizer forever and you won’t be invited to parties except as houses owned by communes. ;)

    Some suggestions:

    -Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn by Mark Twain (or Puddinhead Wilson or Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court…)
    -Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
    -Little House on the Prairie (series), Laura Ingalls Wilder
    -The Scarlett Letter or the House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
    -The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    And the greatest American novel, of all time, IMO: Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis. It really gives a perfect idea of what middle America was like in the early 20th century, and what it’s still like today.

  27. Oh, so many to choose from! I know I’m repeating but I completely agree with the above comments. The title I thought of immediately was To Kill a Mockingbird. My other favorites:

    Willa Cather — she really captures the essence of the Midwest and the prairies. My Antonia is my favorite.
    Edith Wharton — always heartbreaking but beautiful. Ethan Frome and House of Mirth my top two.
    Gone with the Wind — not very PC but an American classic, and a fast read.
    John Steinbeck — Grapes of Wrath intimidated me but I couldn’t put it down. Travels with Charley is great American travelogue and Cannery Row is often hilarious.
    Truman Capote — In Cold Blood. Nonfiction that reads like fiction!
    Zora Neale Hurston — Their Eyes Were Watching God — don’t be put off by the dialogue. I got used to it very quickly and this is a universal story.
    The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain — hilarious. I know Huck Finn is considered his best, but I’ll always love Tom.

    I also recommend Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, which is more contemporary, a brilliant portrait of the American West.

    I agree with the above comments about children’s lit as well. The Little House series is wonderful. I also recommend the Wizard of Oz series by L. Frank Baum. Dorothy is such a spunky little girl, quintessentially American.

    Please keep us posted on your reading project and your year in America. I look forward to reading about it.

  28. I second (or third) Howard Zinn’s A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES for a great overview of the country.

    Also, I’d recommend you read Margaret Mitchell’s GONE WITH THE WIND (forget the movie, which is another thing altogether) because it really does help explain some of the racial (and other) craziness that has plagued (and continues to plague) our country, both north and south, since the Civil War…and if you think the book is an anachronism, just listen to American Talk Radio for five minutes and see how long it takes for someone to mention “States’ Rights.”

    As for the “common language” reference you made: Don’t forget George Bernard Shaw’s comment that America and England are “divided by a common language.”

  29. I forgot to mention Elizabeth Berg. Anything by her, really.

    And ‘The Persian Pickle Club’ by Sandra Dallas – about a farm community, patchwork and an unsolved mystery…

  30. goodness! I couldn’t read through all those suggestions, so please forgive the repeats:

    Okay, I went back and read some, please omit Lolita. It’s the horrific account of a year or so of molesting a child that pretends to be metaphor about a falling in love with a young country. Repulsive. I’d give my left eye to get it out of my brain.

    Based on your personal taste in books Henry James and Edith Wharton CANNOT BE MISSED. Do you hear me? Do not leave them off of your list!

    and please do read And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer.

    For a fun modern US book try Marley and Me. I really liked it and thought it was a charming, fun take on the American family.

    You need to add a collection of O. Henry’s short stories as well.

    Then branch out and read Garrison Keillor’s We are Still Married and Leaving Home. Perfect middle America comedy.

    Kingslover is a must (I prefer Prodical Summer)

    Anne Lamott was mentioned and I loved Travelling Mercies

    PLEASE read Amy Tan to get a great taste of being an Asian American.

    Do you have 50 yet or more like 500?!

    Jenny’s list is spot on on everything but Lolita. ; P Definitely use her list!

    Did someone else already do the comparisons?

    Jane Austen? Louis May Alcott
    Dickens? Nathaniel Hawthorne, (though really there is no one else in the world quite like Dickens!)
    Eliot? Edith Wharton, maybe
    Woolf? Gertrude Stein
    Brontes? Hmmm…

    I’ve never read Eudora Welty or Willa Cather so maybe they fit in with the Brontes. : )

    Good Luck! I look forward to hearing your picks and what you think of them.

    blisses,

    Traci

  31. You’ve been given loads of fabulous fiction ideas but what about a non-fiction subject. Reading about America’s Royal family, The Kennedy’s, is a must I should think.

  32. Don’t neglect the Twain of the short stories and the travel books. Also, no one, I think has mentioned Thurber. There is much wonderful poetry – Longfellow (terribly out of fashion but really rather good if you read him with an open mind), Frost, Roethke, Collins, Merwin, early Levertov, early Bly, Ashbery, so many many others. I don’t think any one as mentioned Agee; one shd really read A Death in the Family. Also, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. Find a used or remaindered copy of the complete New Yorker cartoons – very different from Punch, but very reflective of our cultural preoccupations.

  33. Betty Smith—-”A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”
    Walter Van Tilberg Clark—–”City of Trembling Leaves”
    Harper Lee—”To Kill a Mockingbird”
    Jack Karouac—-”On the Road”
    Willa Cather—-”My Antonia”

  34. Enjoy your year in America!

    Suggestions for reading:

    May Sarton
    Alison Lurie
    Mary Gordon
    Ellen Schwamm (Adjacent lives)

  35. It looks like you’ve already got quite a list going of authors that should easily see you through the year! I will add a few more in case they haven’t already been mentioned: Joyce Carol Oates, Edgar Allen Poe, Washington Irving, Edna St Vincent Millay for poetry (ditto on Robert Frost–he’s my favorite), Anzia Yezierska (who wrote about the immigrant experience in NYC in the 1920s), Dawn Powell, Dorothy Parker, John Cheever and Raymond Carver for short stories. Oh and I ditto Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin and Willa Cather. Have fun perusing authors and books! You’ll have to share your list with us!

  36. Me, again. I just got a notice of a new book out by a phenomenal author and need to recommend her to you. She has a new book coming out, but, you need to read her first book, which is Sea Biscuit. Laura Hillenbrand. Sea Biscuit is true, set in the Great Depression and is about a horse breeder, a cowboy, a jockey, and a horse, all down on their luck and the epitome of the American spirit as each help the other get back on their feet and create one of the greatest come back stories ever.

    Hillenbrand, herself, is a story as she wrote the book almost entirely while housebound, even bedridden, researching from her computer, rarely leaving her home. Read it, Rachel. It is a great American story.

  37. Well, lots of excellent suggestions above. Enough to keep you very busy indeed.

    Off the top of my head

    Edith Wharton The House of Mirth and also
    Ethan Frome
    Henry James The Portrait of a Lady
    Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse 5
    Kaye Gibbons –any
    Paul Auster The Invention of Solitude
    Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter
    Alison Lurie The War Between the Tates
    Scott Fitzgerald Gatsby but the other books too
    Truman Capote In Cold Blood but other stuff too
    Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird (she was childhood friend with Capote!)

    As suggested above, there is lots of excellent American poetry. I’m rather fond of Roethke and Sandburg

    Gosh, lots and lots to read! I’m envious since though I can reread things the first fine flush of excitement will have vanished.

  38. I agree with many of the above suggestions.
    Has anyone mentioned Alice Hoffman or Anita Shreve? There’s a lovely 5-minute read – an illustrated children’s book The Gardener by Sarah Stewart & David Small.
    Non fiction – Susan Hill’s Long Barn Books published The Road to Harmony by John Ballam – a memoir of a childhood in the Appalachians.

  39. PS Not sure if the author is American or Canadian, but another lovely young child’s picture book is Selina & the Bear Paw Quilt by Barbara Smucker

  40. Edith Wharton The House of Mirth
    Henry James The Golden Bowl
    F Scott Fitzgerald Tender is the Night
    Ernest Hemingway Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises + The First Forty-Nine Stories
    Philip Roth The Ghost Writer
    Saul Bellow Humboldt’s Gift
    John Updike Rabbit, Run
    Tobias Wolff Old School
    J D Salinger To Esme with Love and Squalor
    Bharati Mukherjee Jasmine
    Jhumpa Lahiri The Interpreter of Maladies
    Toni Morrison The Bluest Eye
    Claire Messud The Emperor’s Children
    Colum McCann (although Irish) Let the Great World Spin

    The Granta Book of the American Short Story

  41. It will be great to have you here in the States! Hope you have an exciting time and get to see some of the country. These are older books I would recommend to see how we got to where we are.

    Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel for beauty
    Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove for the American spirit
    William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses and Intruder in the Dust for the South
    Willa Cather’s My Antonia for the prairie
    Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for the city and immigrants
    Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep for the city and immigrants
    East of Eden and Cannery Row by John Steinbeck for California
    Willa Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop for beauty and the Southwest

    I am really looking forward to hearing about your impressions of American books and living here!

  42. You have a lot of great suggestions already, more than you can use, but I can’t resist adding some I think were not mentioned.

    I do second the recommendations of Agee (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A Death in the Family) and Robert Penn Warren’s magnificent All the King’s Men.

    I can’t believe no one mentioned Melville; maybe I missed it. If you can’t face all of Moby Dick you could read just the first part up to the point Ishmael ships out. Or one of the short works like Bartleby or Billy Budd.

    There’s also Don DeLillo’s Underworld; it’s a huge book but the introductory section can stand alone and has even been published as a separate volume, I think.

    Here are some favorites of mine:

    Larry Watson — Montana, 1948
    William Maxwell — So Long, See You Tomorrow
    Charles Frazier — Cold Mountain (US Civil War)
    Russell Banks — Continental Drift
    Norman Maclean — A River Runs Through It
    Richard Ford — The Sportswriter
    Walker Percy — The Moviegoer

    And I’ll just mention W. P. Kinsella’s The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, even though I think Kinsella is Canadian.

    I see that all these are male writers, but others have recommended my favorite female writers, so I’ve left them out. On second thought, I have to recommend Marilynne Robinson’s books: Housekeeping, Gilead and Home.

    Happy reading! I don’t know how you’ll pick out only 50.

  43. A small addendum to my post above: Perhaps it’s read more here in the midwest than elsewhere, but Giants in the Earth by O. E. Rolvaag [also spelled Rölvaag and Rølvaag] ranks near Cather’s My Ántonia as an exploration of the European immigrant experience.

  44. You’ve got so many terrific recommendations, that I hesitate to burden the list, but there are lots of classics and lots of novels with contemporary urban settings. Two others which, I think, would offer very distinctly different, but still undeniably American, voices are: Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound and Linda Hogan’s Power.

    Hillary Jordan’s novel is set in the 1940s in the Mississippi Delta, but the issues it considers are startlingly relevant and the multiple voices therein are unforgettable.

    Linda Hogan’s 1998 novel oozes atmosphere and I would guess that Florida is about as far away from what will be your American reality living in NYC as you could get, although the story is as much about identity and character as it is about setting.

    I’d also recommend these two in particular because I think they would be easier for you to find when you’re living in the U.S. as I’m not sure that either author commands the kind of media attention that ensures their work is as readily available across the pond.

    May you have many wonderful adventures, literarily and otherwise!

  45. Most of these suggestions are great. I especia;;y recommend Cather, Wharton, Twain, Welty, Fitzgerald, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Maxwell and Steinbeck. As discussed previously, email me when you have a moment so I can give you my contact info for the bookstore. We carry all the books suggested above and I would love to assist in any way I can.

    I personally would avoid YA and children’s books unless you have a lifetime to catch up on the entire American canon.

    The best American book, and it is very American, that I have read recently is The Lacuna by Kingsolver.

    Welcome to America!

  46. I’m so late to this post, and I didn’t read all the comments, but want to suggest a shortish book called The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett. Very good representation of earlier New England. Many think her reminiscent/even the equal of Thoreau. Also, Susan Cheever’s nonfiction American Bloomsbury will give you a very, very good overview of the Concord, Massachusetts set – Emerson, Alcott, etc. (I think I’ve already mentioned this???). Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy/Tacy/Tib books for children give a very good view of early America. Also, Beverly Cleary’s Henry Huggins books and Ramona books offer mid-20th century America. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – probably the best novel written by an American although Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is excellent and covers a period you are interested in and is fantastic. Faulkner will tell you all you need to know about the old South, as will a more modern writer, Rick Bragg. This is so daunting – there are so, so many I’d like to suggest. The Algonquin circle folks which will be fun for you being in NYC; and E.B. White. Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi Small mysteries taught me so much about Jewish life, as did Allegra Goodman’s Kaaterskill Falls. America is just so big. Wyoming lit is different from South Carolina lit is different from New England lit. Just as New York City is just one place in the country. I always get so upset when we are described in one way. There are as many different stories, ways of thinking, ways of living as there are people over here which I know that you know. :<) I'm really excited for this big adventure!!

    1. Nan, I just bought The Country of the Pointed Firs at the weekend! I found it in a charity shop and couldn’t resist!

      I know what you mean about America being lumped together which is why I am anxious to read books from as many regions as I can!

      Thank you for your suggestions!

  47. Rachel, I came back here at a rate of knots to ensure that somebody mentioned Shirley Jackson but am relieved that Hayley was wise enough to do so. We Have Always Lived in the Castle must be on your list and also Carson McCullers (I have only read The Ballad of the Sad Cafe so far but have others of hers on my TBR). Flannery O’Connor short stories too!

  48. I’ve just stumbled onto your blog and am late to this post. However, I am in publishing and was an English Lit major. I assume people have mentioned a number of nice titles, but I quickly glanced over the titles mentioned and I saw very few by black authors about the black experience in America. If you want to get to know this country, skipping that part of our literature would mean skipping out on a huge part of our history and our population. I would try to add a work from each of the following authors to your list:

    -Slave narratives by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs (these are very different experiences due to the different age and gender of the writers)

    -Alice Walker (The Color Purple), Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God), Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye), and Richard Wright (Native Son) for the black experience in America after the Civil War

    1. Thanks for this comment and all of your wonderful suggestions, Erin! The reason I haven’t got any works by blakc authors is that I’ve already read a lot of slave narratives and black women’s literature due to a university course I took on the topic, so I’ve read most of the texts that are considered important. So don’t worry – I haven’t skipped them completely, I just don’t have time to revisit books when I have so many new ones to discover!

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