Ah, the Fourth of July. The much needed mid-summer holiday filled with hot dogs and fireworks in a celebration of all things American. And after you've roasted in the sun for a few hours, what better way to celebrate than with a few good books that focus on America from all different angles?
You know the saying: What's more American than baseball? I'll narrow that one a bit and ask, what's more American than Pete Rose? The rags to riches story, the incredible talent and the fall from grace; it's the stuff of American legend. In Pete Rose: An American Dilemma, Kostya Kennedy eloquently unspools the tale of one of baseball's greatest and the disasterous path that led to his expulsion from baseball. As our reviewer says, it's "stuff worthy of Shakespeare."
Alex George's debut novel, A Good American, tells the story of the Meisenheimer family, with threads of music generously woven in. The book spans a century of Meisenheimer history, following the family from the grandparents' arrival in America without any knowledge of the culture or language, to their grandson's search for his identity, both as a man and as an American. The book is filled with triumph, heartbreak and a beautifully, sometimes hilariously, rendered cast of characters.
You can't get more iconically American than the Statue of Liberty. But I was shocked by how little I knew about Lady Liberty and her origins. (Hint: She was not a gift from the French.) It was almost entirely one man's drive and passion that led to the creation of one of the most recognizable pieces of art in the world. Elizabeth Mitchell follows the Statue of Liberty from brainchild to hugely impressive reality in Liberty's Torch.
Dean Fearing, the "Pioneer of American Cuisine," has collected his favorite Texas-inspired recipes in The Texas Food Bible. The recipes within are a perfect balance between high-class dining and down-home cooking, and the Fourth of July is the perfect time to whip up these impressive and delicious dishes. Because what's Independence Day without smoked brisket, barbecue chicken and some Texas caviar?
The True American by Anand Giridharadas raises questions about patriotism, prejudice, the American dream and the nature of forgiveness. An immigrant to America from Bangladesh, Rais Bhuiyan was a hard-working man, excited about the prospect of starting a life with his fiancée. Then, shortly after 9/11, Mark Stroman walked into the shop where Bhuiyan worked and shot Bhuiyan and two other South Asian men. Bhuiyan was the only survivor, and The True American follows the two men as Bhuiyan walks a path towards forgiveness, eventually becoming a human rights activist, while Stroman attempts to understand the hatred inside him which led to his heinous actions. Giridharadas reexamines the American identity in the context of the ever-evolving culture in which we live.
The road trip across America: It's the classic dream of many a teenager hoping to find themselves on the back roads. Except Brian Benson actually packed his bags and did it. Bicycling across American isn't exactly the fun-filled, romantic romp he'd dreamt of, but he does find a sense of his life's direction in Going Somewhere, his humorous and candid memoir.
The Bill of the Century dives into the process of passing not only one of the most important bills of the century, as the title suggests, but one of the most important bills in American history: The Civil Rights Act. Moving beyond the filibuster floor, Clay Risen notes the importance of grassroots activism, the personalities on both sides of the bill and the deals made behind closed doors. July 2 marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of the bill; a true watershed moment in American history.
Philipp Meyer's The Son spans 200 years of one Texas family's history as the world as they know it morphs, seemingly intent on driving them to ruin. A happy family tale, it is not. The book is big, brutal and filled with bad blood. With a variety of complex, fully realized narrators, The Son offers convincing and unsentimental glimpses into the ruthlesness of life on the Southwest frontier, detailing one family's bitterness that seeps through generations.
American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution is an appropriate Fourth of July read, considering it details the first six months of the war that would lead to America's independence. So far removed from the Revolutionary War, it's hard to imagine how truly terrifying and even a little insane the prospect of all out war with Britain was. Using first-hand accounts, letters and documents, Walter R. Borneman paints a vivid picture of the uncertain reality of those first few months and how easily America's future could have unfolded in a very different way.
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez shines a light on the world of the Toro family as they struggle with the realities of immigration and the day-to-day drama of family and love. This novel illuminates the lives of immigrants in America, moving beyond the politics and highlighting individuals and their attempt to find a better, more beautiful life for themselves and their families.
What will you be reading over the long weekend?
Short stories make for perfect reading in the summer. Since each one is a self-contained dose of literature, you barely even need a bookmark—plus, there's no worrying about whether you'll remember what you read on the flight over when you reopen the book on the way back. If you're looking for a bite-sized dose of summer reading, explore our guide to 2014's spring and summer collections.
Readers looking for a voice from a very different world should pick up Hassan Blasim's The Corpse Exhibition (Penguin). Compared to Roberto Bolaño and Borges, this Arabic author sets the stories in his debut collection during the Iraq War—and they're told from the Iraqi perspective. If you want a collection that will test your beliefs and haunt your dreams, this might be your pick.
Another collection that features a distinctive cross-cultural voice is Snow in May (Holt), the first book from author Kseniya Melnik. Melnik was born in Russia and emigrated to Alaska as a teen, and the stories featured here are connected through her hometown of Madagan, a port city in the Far East of Russia that was a stopover on the way to Stalin's gulags. Spanning the later half of the 20th century and geographical locations from Madagan to Fargo, these stories plumb the weight of history and the struggle to reconcile where you come from with where you are now.
Those interested in coming-of-age stories and tricky relationship dynamics will enjoy the linked stories in Polly Dugan's debut collection, So Much a Part of You (Little, Brown). Featuring characters that reappear across decades, the book explores the way that relationships—romantic and otherwise—change over time. When Anne inadvertently dates her best friend's high school boyfriend, the same mistake destroys both relationships. A student's one-night stand changes her college life. And a deathbed revelation spurs forgiveness. Utterly real and insightful.
Inappropriate Behavior by Murray Farish (Milkweed Editions) is a much wider-randing collection, spanning decades and countries in stories linked only by the strange twists each one takes. The delusional narrator of one story is addicted to making lists, stalking a girl called Allison and writing love songs to Jodie Foster. In the title story, parents struggle with the dual burdens of unemployment and a child with behavior issues. Occasionally experimental, always imaginative.
Another edgy collection comes from Scottish author James Kelman, whose novel How Late It Was, How Late won the Booker Prize in 1994. The stories in If it Is Your Life (Other Press) are mostly written with the stream-of-consciousness style and dark humor that Kelman is known for, and they're a bit more outré than his novels. But readers who like to read about lives lived on the edge will be excited for this new collection.
Take a nostalgic trip back to your childhood (at least, if you're a child of the late 80s like me!) with a newly published collection of Lois Duncan's short stories, Written in the Stars (Lizzie Skurnick Books). The author of teen classics like I Know What You Did Last Summer, Duncan has collected 13 tales from her very early career—including a story she published when she was only 13 years old—and includes a brief contemporary commentary on each one. As you might expect of stories that originally appeared in places like Seventeen or American Girl, these are mostly focused on the concerns of youth, but the glimpse they provide into the shaping of a young writer are fascinating.
Another familiar name with a new collection is David Guterson. The author of Snow Falling on Cedars returns with the playfully titled Problems with People (Knopf), which branches out from the author's typical Pacific Northwest territory to encompass most of the U.S. as well as Nepal and Africa. Though diverse in locale, these 10 tales are united by Guterson's strong storytelling voice and will be a welcome addition to the bookshelves of his fans.
And we'll end with another collection from a beloved voice: Elizabeth McCracken's Thunderstruck (Dial). Though most of these nine stories have been previously published in some of the best short fiction venues—Granta, The New Yorker—taken together, they demonstrate McCracken's remarkable range as well as her ability to truly understand the her characters and her quirky sense of humor (the title story opens with a 12-year-old girl being brought home by the police from a nitrous oxide party).