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2018 Travel: Books Set in America

My second stop on my 2018 travel list is America; I travelled to the Niagara Falls State Park in New York State whilst on holiday in Canada.  Here are seven of my favourite books set in various states around the US.

26571. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.  Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior – to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos. Now with over 18 million copies in print and translated into forty languages, this regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.

2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
First published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into haves and have-nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity.  A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes the very nature of equality and justice in America.
3. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (2001) 37435
Set in South Carolina in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily Owens, whose life has been shaped around the blurred memory of the afternoon her mother was killed. When Lily’s fierce-hearted black “stand-in mother,” Rosaleen, insults three of the deepest racists in town, Lily decides to spring them both free. They escape to Tiburon, South Carolina–a town that holds the secret to her mother’s past. Taken in by an eccentric trio of black beekeeping sisters, Lily is introduced to their mesmerizing world of bees and honey, and the Black Madonna. This is a remarkable novel about divine female power, a story women will share and pass on to their daughters for years to come.
4. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
The hero-narrator of The Catcher in the Rye is an ancient child of sixteen, a native New Yorker named Holden Caulfield. Through circumstances that tend to preclude adult, secondhand description, he leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for three days. The boy himself is at once too simple and too complex for us to make any final comment about him or his story. Perhaps the safest thing we can say about Holden is that he was born in the world not just strongly attracted to beauty but, almost, hopelessly impaled on it. There are many voices in this novel: children’s voices, adult voices, underground voices-but Holden’s voice is the most eloquent of all. Transcending his own vernacular, yet remaining marvelously faithful to it, he issues a perfectly articulated cry of mixed pain and pleasure. However, like most lovers and clowns and poets of the higher orders, he keeps most of the pain to, and for, himself. The pleasure he gives away, or sets aside, with all his heart. It is there for the reader who can handle it to keep.
63365615. The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (1945)
Abandoned by her husband, Amanda Wingfield comforts herself with recollections of her earlier, life in Blue Mountain when she was pursued by ‘gentleman callers’. Her son Tom, a poet with a job in a warehouse, longs for adventure and escape from his mother’s suffocating embrace, while Laura, her daughter, has her glass menagerie and her memories.
6. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
Sylvia Plath’s shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity.   Esther Greenwood is brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under—maybe for the last time. In her acclaimed and enduring masterwork, Sylvia Plath brilliantly draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, even rational—as accessible an experience as going to the movies. A deep penetration into the darkest and most harrowing corners of the human psyche, The Bell Jar is an extraordinary accomplishment and a haunting American classic.
7. One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson (2013; review here) 17612752
Britain’s favourite writer of narrative non-fiction Bill Bryson travels back in time to a forgotten summer when America came of age, took centre stage, and, in five eventful months, changed the world for ever.  In the summer of 1927, America had a booming stock market, a president who worked just four hours a day (and slept much of the rest of the time), a semi-crazed sculptor with a mad plan to carve four giant heads into an inaccessible mountain called Rushmore, a devastating flood of the Mississippi, a sensational murder trial, and a youthful aviator named Charles Lindbergh who started the summer wholly unknown and finished it as the most famous man on earth. (So famous that Minnesota considered renaming itself after him.)  It was the summer that saw the birth of talking pictures, the invention of television, the peak of Al Capone’s reign of terror, the horrifying bombing of a school in Michigan by a madman, the ill-conceived decision that led to the Great Depression, the thrillingly improbable return to greatness of a wheezing, over-the-hill baseball player named Babe Ruth, and an almost impossible amount more.  In this hugely entertaining book, Bill Bryson spins a story of brawling adventure, reckless optimism and delirious energy, with a cast of unforgettable and eccentric characters, with trademark brio, wit and authority.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which, if any, take your fancy?

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The Brilliance of Non-Fiction: Five New Releases

I am a self-confessed fan of non-fiction books, and often find myself gravitating towards them in bookshops.  I have spent several hours of late in Waterstone’s and London’s excellent Skoob, browsing the history shelves for something which will both captivate and educate me.  With that in mind, I thought I would share with you five non-fiction books which I am currently coveting.  For each, I have copied the official blurb to whet your appetite as well as my own.

1. The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson 
“Twenty years ago, Bill Bryson went on a trip around Britain to celebrate the green and kindly island that had become his adopted country. The hilarious book that resulted, Notes from a Small Island, was taken to the nation’s heart and became the bestselling travel book ever, and was also voted in a BBC poll the book that best represents Britain. Now, to mark the twentieth anniversary of that modern classic, Bryson makes a brand-new journey round Britain to see what has changed. Following (but not too closely) a route he dubs the Bryson Line, from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath, by way of places that many people never get to at all, Bryson sets out to rediscover the wondrously beautiful, magnificently eccentric, endearingly unique country that he thought he knew but doesn’t altogether recognize any more. Yet, despite Britain’s occasional failings and more or less eternal bewilderments, Bill Bryson is still pleased to call our rainy island home. And not just because of the cream teas, a noble history, and an extra day off at Christmas. Once again, with his matchless homing instinct for the funniest and quirkiest, his unerring eye for the idiotic, the endearing, the ridiculous and the scandalous, Bryson gives us an acute and perceptive insight into all that is best and worst about Britain today.”

2. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
“Ancient Rome matters. Its history of empire, conquest, cruelty and excess is something against which we still judge ourselves. Its myths and stories – from Romulus and Remus to the Rape of Lucretia – still strike a chord with us. And its debates about citizenship, security and the rights of the individual still influence our own debates on civil liberty today. SPQR is a new look at Roman history from one of the world’s foremost classicists. It explores not only how Rome grew from an insignificant village in central Italy to a power that controlled territory from Spain to Syria, but also how the Romans thought about themselves and their achievements, and why they are still important to us. Covering 1,000 years of history, and casting fresh light on the basics of Roman culture from slavery to running water, as well as exploring democracy, migration, religious controversy, social mobility and exploitation in the larger context of the empire, this is a definitive history of ancient Rome. SPQR is the Romans’ own abbreviation for their state: Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and People of Rome’.”

3. The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of Our National Imagination by Dominic Sandbrook 
“Britain’s empire has gone. Our manufacturing base is a shadow of its former self; the Royal Navy has been reduced to a skeleton. In military, diplomatic and economic terms, we no longer matter as we once did. And yet there is still one area in which we can legitimately claim superpower status: our popular culture. It is extraordinary to think that one British writer, J K Rowling, has sold more than 400 million books; that Doctor Who is watched in almost every developed country in the world; that James Bond has been the central character in the longest-running film series in history; that The Lord of the Rings is the second best-selling novel ever written (behind only A Tale of Two Cities); that the Beatles are still the best-selling musical group of all time; and that only Shakespeare and the Bible have sold more books than Agatha Christie. To put it simply, no country on earth, relative to its size, has contributed more to the modern imagination. This is a book about the success and the meaning of Britain’s modern popular culture, from Bond and the Beatles to heavy metal and Coronation Street, from the Angry Young Men to Harry Potter, from Damien Hirst toThe X Factor.”

4. The House by the Lake by Thomas Harding
“In the spring of 1993, Thomas Harding travelled to Berlin with his grandmother to visit a small house by a lake. It was her ‘soul place’, she said – a sanctuary she had been forced to leave when the Nazis swept to power. The trip was a chance to see the house one last time, to remember it as it was. But the house had changed. Twenty years later Thomas returned to Berlin. The house now stood empty, derelict, soon to be demolished. A concrete footpath cut through the garden, marking where the Berlin Wall had stood for nearly three decades. Elsewhere were signs of what the house had once been – blue tiles showing behind wallpaper, photographs fallen between floorboards, flagstones covered in dirt. Evidence of five families who had made the house their home over a tumultuous century. The House by the Lake is a ground breaking work of history, revealing the story of Germany through the inhabitants of one small wooden building: a nobleman farmer, a prosperous Jewish family, a renowned Nazi composer, a widow and her children, a Stasi informant. Moving from the late nineteenth century to the present day, from the devastation of two world wars to the dividing and reuniting of a nation, it is a story of domestic joy and contentment, of terrible grief and tragedy, and of a hatred handed down through the generations. It is the long-awaited new work from the best-selling author of Hanns and Rudolf.”

5. The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin by Steven Lee Myers 
“An epic tale of Vladimir Putin’s path to power, as he emerged from obscurity to become one of the world’s most conflicted and important leaders. Former New York Times Moscow Bureau Chief Steven Lee Myers has followed Putin since well before the recent events in the Ukraine, and gives us the fullest and most engaging account available of his rise to power. A gripping, page-turning narrative about Russian power and prestige, the book depicts a cool and calculating leader with enormous ambition and few scruples. As the world struggles to confront a newly assertive Russia, the importance of understanding Putin has never been greater. Vladimir Putin rose out of Soviet deprivation to the pinnacle of influence in the new Russian nation. He came to office in 2000 as a reformer, cutting taxes and expanding property rights, bringing a measure of order and eventually prosperity to millions whose only experience of democracy in the early years following the Soviet collapse was instability, poverty and criminality. But soon Putin orchestrated the preservation of a new kind of authoritarianism, consolidating power, reasserting his country’s might, brutally crushing revolts and swiftly dispatching dissenters, even as he retained the support of many.”

Which are your favourite non-fiction books, and which newer releases do you hope to read soon?

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‘One Summer: America 1927’ by Bill Bryson ****

One Summer: America 1927 is historian Bill Bryson’s newest number one bestseller.  In this fascinating book, he writes of the summer in which ‘America came of age and changed the world for ever’.  The book’s blurb states that he masterfully ‘spins a tale of brawling adventure, reckless optimism and delirious energy’.  The Observer believes it to be ‘surely the most sublime distraction published this year’, and upon reading it, one cannot help but to agree.

‘One Summer: America 1927’ (Black Swan)

As the book’s blurb states, an incredible amount of events occured from the May to September of 1927 in the United States, many of which were wonderful advances for the age, and the majority of which we still use and rely upon today: ‘It was the summer that saw the birth of talking pictures, the invention of television, the peak of Al Calpone’s reign of terror… and an almost impossible amount more.’  It is an incredibly interesting year to focus such a work of non-fiction upon, and it is nigh on impossible to be bored at any point whilst reading it.

As with all of Bryson’s books, One Summer: America 1927 grips from the very beginning: ‘On a warm spring evening just before Easter 1927, people who lived in tall buildings in New York were given pause when wooden scaffolding around the brand-new Sherry-Netherland Apartment Hotel caught fire and it became evident that the city’s firemen lacked any means to get water to such a height’.  He goes on to encompass Charles Lindbergh, the murder of art editor Albert Snyder in his own home, reading in America, the rise of the tabloid newspaper, the problems the presidency faced, how American baseball legend Babe Ruth was spotted, and how Henry Ford built up his empire, amongst many other interesting elements.

Bryson has written an extensive prologue and epilogue in One Summer: America 1927, and has also included a vast bibliography and well-considered list for further reading suggestions.  Such a lot has been taken into account throughout.  One event is linked to the next so well, and the whole is really a joy to read.  Bryson presents history as it should be; accessible, and incredibly gripping.  One Summer: America 1927 is sure to delight history nerds everywhere.

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