Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Alternatives to Gatsby

I don’t think there is such a thing as “The Great American Novel.” No country or culture is expressible in its entirety in a single work of any kind. The character of a nation can only be expressed cumulatively, through the efforts of many writers and readers all seeking their own idiosyncratic answers to the questions of life. That said, who doesn’t love book lists? So, with all the attention The Great Gatsby has gotten recently, I’ve put together a list of books that could also be “The Great American Novel,” books you might not have read or heard of or thought about in this context, that do everything The Great Gatsby does that makes it considered “The Great American Novel.” I’m also not going to include a few of the works often talked about with Gatsby; Moby-Dick, Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Sound and the Fury.

Beloved by Toni Morrison. America was built on slavery and few books communicate the emotional experience of the trauma of slavery as well as Beloved. In a sense, as a nation we are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from a couple centuries of crimes against humanity. We are still haunted by the ghosts of slavery, even if some of us mistake the haunting for a redemptive second chance. Of course, Beloved is about more than just slavery. Love. Identity. Sex. Community. Whatever other adjectives you attach to it, Beloved is a great novel.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Though it’s known for being a foundational work of detective fiction, there is a lot more going on in The Maltese Falcon than in your typical whodunit. Sam Spade is an American original, a complex character who uses an unflappable code of honor to guide him through Guttman’s murky world of deceit and betrayal. Once you take the time to really look at the prose, you’ll find the depth of metaphor, symbolism, imagery and craftsmanship usually associated with those books more commonly considered “The Great American Novel.” And the “Flitcraft Parable,” a moment where the entire plot stops for Spade to tell a totally unrelated story is one of the most fascinating and inexplicable moments in American literature.

Lord of the Barnyard by Tristan Egolf. John Kaltenbrunner, the hero of Lord of the Barnyard will someday enter the cultural consciousness and hang out with the likes of Huckleberry Finn and Captain Ahab as great American characters. John Kaltenbrunner is an autodidact when it comes to farming. By eight years old he can manage the family farm to the point where he is able to keep a flock of pedigree chickens. He is the ideal self-made man, who is so good at carving his existence out of the land that he has no need for society. Of course, society and its hierarchies won’t stand for that and forces beyond his control crush every aspect of his being. Not a lot of literature confronts the classism and racism that still plague American society and even less literature explores the agricultural side of American culture. Add in its exuberant prose and great sense of humor and its clear LOTBY belongs in every discussion of great American novels.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. America is a big complicated country. As much as we like to think “America” can be reduced to a perfect image or a perfect book, odds are there is just too much going on for that reduction to be possible. But, (to try my hand at that exact kind of reduction) we have always been ambitious. Everyone dreams, but I’m not sure any culture dreams quite as big as American culture. Infinite Jest is big, complicated, and ambitious. It’s about sports and drugs, entertainment and love, addiction and recovery. Infinite Jest might not capture the pioneer spirit that defined so much of early American culture (though it might) but it certainly captures the all-consuming juggernaut we’ve become.

I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. “Chinatown,” might be one of America’s most unique cultural creations. People escape hardship and oppression in their own country to find opportunity and freedom in America, but still seek the comfort of their home cultures, so they create as much of it as they can here. But the borders between “Chinatown” and “America” are porous meaning something completely unique is created. In some American cities, you can practically tour half the world. Any story that leaves out “Chinatown” leaves out a vital aspect of America. I Hotel, tells ten stories set in and around the International Hotel in San Francisco’s Chinatown, beginning in 1968. Politics, family, culture, and social upheaval are just a few of the many themes tackled by this daring and dynamic novel.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. I know, not only is Cervantes not American, there really wasn’t an “America” when Don Quixote was written, but the Man from La Mancha is the ideal self-made man, imposing his vision of the world on the world. However you value the Don’s delusions, I don’t know if there is a book that better captures the contradictions of Manifest Destiny, America’s late 19th century enthusiasm for imperialism, and our absolute “Us vs. Them” worldview of the Cold War. Furthermore, Don Quixote goes mad from reading too many works of chivalry. How much of America’s current cultural problems come from reading old stories about ourselves, from “conquering the Wild West,” to “winning WWII,” to “two cars and a fenced-in yard?” And, as I’ve noted above, America is a nation of immigrants. Our people are all imported, why shouldn’t The Great American Novel be as well.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Summer Reading Lists 2013

Ah, summer. Long days. The beach. Sunburns. Ice cream. And, most importantly, reading whatever you want to read. To help you fill out the satchel, suitcase, or device, here is a list of great books for young readers, categorized by age and genre.



George and Martha books, James Marshall
George and Martha are best friends who have adventures every day. They do everything together - eat, play, share, even fight and make up. Their stories illustrate the wonderful qualities of friendship. MS

Imogene’s Antlers, David Small
Antlers can come in very handy as Imogene discovers when she grows a pair…doughnut holder, clothes drying rack, candelabra. Her mother is not convinced. EJ

When Stella was Very Very Small, Marie-Louis Gay
As a littler girl, Stella enjoys the wonders of creative play. Then she gets bigger, but that’s ok…now she can teach her little brother how to be a snake! EJ

Apt. 3, Ezra Jack Keats
Two brothers investigate the sounds of music coming from somewhere in their apartment building. A simple tale, it starts out dark and scary and ends on a lighter, happy note. SM

Gregory, the Terrible Eater, Mitchell Sharmat
No tin cans and old shoes for Gregory, he prefers his fruits and vegetables! RHS

A Visitor for Bear, Bonny Becker
Oh Mouse, won’t you please just go away! Can’t you see the sign? - NO VISTORS ALLOWED! - Fine, stay for tea. CH


Owl at Home, Arnold Lobel
An adorable collection of 5 stories perfect for beginning readers and parents to share at bedtime! MC

Greek Myths, Deborah Lock
This is a great choice for new readers ready for a more advanced topic, sure to catch kids’ interest. MC

Fox on the Job, James Marshall
Read how Fox outfoxes his way to land the perfect job! This is a clever tale, with hilarious illustrations by Marshall. JJ

Young Cam Jansen and The Lion's Lunch Mystery, David Adler
A great whodunit series that will keep readers guessing until super-sleuth Cam and her friend Danny finally solve the case. CH

Silly Street, Jeff Foxworthy
This fun collection of poems and rhymes for little kids to make them smile and smile. MC


Castle, How It Works, David Macaulay
Moats, drawbridges, huge stone walls -- castles were built for fighting. Read about attackers, defenders, and the people who lived inside. SR

Jet Planes, How It Works, David Macaulay
It weighs as much as 100 elephants and flys. How? RHS

Mummies, National Geographic Kids
Fascinating, informative and fun, National Geographic makes learning enjoyable. New concepts, new words and a little horror thrown in for good measure! JJ

Ants, National Geographic Kids
Ever wondered what ants were good for? National Geographic Ants takes you through the society and the workings of ants. Enjoy! JJ

Why do Dogs Bark?, Joan Holub
Everything you ever wanted to know about dogs and more! Including fun facts, cute pictures, and even a little section on training. JJ

Why do Cats Meow?, Joan Holub
Fun facts about your cat, including why it meows! RHS

Grades 3-6


Dirty Bertie Worms, Alan McDonald
Dirty Bertie is a boy just trying to be a boy, a dirty boy. This is a great book for anyone who likes worms, flies, garbage, and other grossness. MS

Aggie and Ben, Lori Reis
Three stories about Ben, his new puppy Aggie, and the beginning of a life long friendship. RHS

The Birthday Ball, Lois Lowry & Jules Feiffer (illustrations)
Bored Princess Patricia Priscilla pretends to be a peasant so she can go to school with the local children. But a birthday ball is planned. A suitor must be chosen. And the princess has to figure out how to thwart her parents' plans for her future. SM

The Cat Who Wanted to Go Home, Jill Tomlinson
Suzy is the beloved cat of a French family. After falling asleep in a “big basket” she finds herself flying to England in a hot air balloon. MS

Houndsley & Catina, The Birthday Surprise, James Howe
Catina may not be the best writer and Houndsley may not be the best under pressure, but they are best at being friends. CH


Moon Over Manifest, Clare Vanderpool
This is a lovely, quiet story of the long-held secrets of the town of Manifest. RHS

Sleuth or Dare, Kim Harrington
Two best friends, their loyal dog, and a detective agency. It doesn't get sleuthier than this. RW

My Epic Fairy Tale Fail!, Anna Staniszewski
Ogres, fairies, princesses – Oh My! Enjoy the adventures of Adventurer, Jenny, as she works to save the Magic of the Land of Tales and find her missing parents. JJ

Maggie & Oliver or A Bone of One’s Own, Valerie Hobbs
This is a Dickensian tale of luck lost and found on the harsh streets of historic Boston. A illuminating, and charming read. JJ

Brixton Brothers #1, Mac Barnett
Great fun. Great illustrations. Begin the Brixton Brothers mystery series for great summer reading. RHS


Knucklehead, Jon Scieszka
If you had five brothers, would you make as much trouble as the Scieszka boys did growing up? SR

Cars on Mars, Alexander Siy
Spirit and Opportunity spent more than four years driving around Mars, making scientific discoveries and becoming Earth's favorite robots. SR

What It’s Like, Jeff Belanger
Real stories about real people having extraordinary experiences - from riding in a rocket to running 50 marathons. Bet you can’t read just one!! CS


The Doodles of Sam Dibble, J. Press
Fun and just plan silly, this is what a summer read is all about. RHS

Olympians Series, George O'Connor
The great ancient Greek Myths, as exciting as ever in graphic novel form. GC

Timmy Failure, Stephan Pastis
Timmy and his bumbling polar bear partner, Total, are on the case. And they haven’t got a clue. Superbly funny. CH

Grades 6-8


Savvy, Lingris Law
Beaumont’s dad is in a coma and it’s up to her savvy – a special power she gets on her thirteenth birthday – to save him. CH

Breadcrumbs, Anne Ursu
Jack and Hazel are best friends, but when the Snow Queen arrives Jack begins to drift away. Can Hazel save him? CH

Cold Cereal, Adam Rex
Turns out breakfast cereal characters are real . . . and they’ve escaped. Funny with a healthy dose of nuts. CH

Okay for Now, Gary Schmidt
Doug wants so badly for things to be better. Full of heart, hope, and humor, Doug’s story inspires and lingers. CH

Stranded, Jeff Probst
Four kids, 9 to 13, are stranded on an uninhabited Pacific Island. This story is exciting and realistic as they deal with the challenge of survival and each other's personalities. JM


The Sky is Everywhere, Jandy Nelson
A simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking story, you will fall in love with Lennie and her story. RW

Out of My Mind, Sharon Draper
Diagnosed with cerebral palsy, Melody Brooks at age eleven speaks her first words with the help of technology. Now not everybody wants to hear what she has to say. RHS

Private Peaceful, Michael Morpur
This is a heartbreaking story of two brothers fighting in World War I. They find the horrors of war are magnified by the injustices of the military. CS

What Happened to Goodbye, Sarah Dessen
Smart, witty, romantic. Dessen’s characters are awesome, as is her writing. Just like John Green, she gets it. JJ

The False Prince, Jennifer Nielsen
Pretending to be Prince isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be; one wrong move and it’s – gulp – death. CH


Notorious Benedict Arnold, Steve Sheinken
One bad decision is all that separates Arnold from greatest American hero to greatest American traitor. An absolute thrilling read. CH

The Ominvore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan
Did you ever wonder where your hamburger and fries came from? Michael Pollan explains it all. NH

Almost Astronauts, Tanya Lee Stone
Before the first man went into space, NASA trained 13 women to be astronauts -- but none of them ever got to fly a spaceship. SR

Within Reach: Mt Everest Story, Mark Pfetzer
A 16-year-old from Rhode Island climbs Mount Everest during one of the most dangerous seasons on the mountain. SR


The Odyssey, A Graphic Novel by Gareth Hinds
Dive deeply into the wonderful illustrations and follow the harrowing adventures of Odysseus as he struggles against Poseidon to get home to his wife and family. Gripping and enthralling! JJ

Calamity Jack, Shannon Hale
Jack and the Beanstalk gets a western twist in this rollicking adventure. RW

Drama, Raina Telgemeier
Everybody’s got a little drama in their lives…but really do you need this much? JC

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