With the tumult of the election and current events, relaxing will be a priority for many Americans over the holiday. Here are some books to whisk you far, far away
After living in the United States for over 10 years, here is what I have learned about the Fourth of July: it is more of a barbecuing holiday than anything else. The main idea is to get yourself to a lake and lay about drinking weak American beer, preferably from aluminum cans.
This lifestyle is, however, conducive to reading. This is a particularly excellent year to read a physical paper book, come to think of it, as it will keep you away from your phone and consequently the horrorshow that is current global events. It is my job to follow current literary trends and releases, so here are my recommendations for you.
For the history-and-biography-minded
Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is already on the American bestseller lists so it hardly requires my recommendation. The book was first published in 2005, but it has been resurrected from the remainder pile by a certain musical you have perhaps heard of. Now that knowing something about the founding fathers has become a trendy thing, I sense a national craze for doorstop-sized accounts of American statesmanhood coming on. Somewhere Doris Kearns Goodwin is salivating for an R&B rendition of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
Still, if reading serious American history is your bag, I’d recommend leavening the celebrations with Annette Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Gordon-Reed’s book was among the first to properly substantiate and argue for the long-rumoured connection between Jefferson and his slave. She’s also expanded some of her research into the more recent The Hemingses of Monticello, if you simply want a heftier-looking book.
For the thriller-and-mystery-minded
Mass market paperback thrillers are a dime a dozen. The trick is to find something that actually sticks to the ribs. This fall will bring a new release from one of the best crime writers working today, Tana French. But that book, The Trespasser, is actually her sixth. She has five novels you can buy right now, though you should read them in the order in which they were published, starting with In the Woods. I can do you no greater favour in life than recommending that you read her books.
French is not very American, of course. (She lives in Dublin.) Among American writers of the moment, my favourite mystery writer is probably Laura Lippman, whose Wilde Lake was released in April. Her protagonist, Lu Brant, comes to discover that a crime buried in her past was more complicated than it looked. Haunting and atmospheric, it lingers with you after you’ve read it – which I did in a single night some months ago.
For the romance-minded
I read almost no romantic fiction, in part because I barely believe in romance in the age of Tinder. So in my mind, if you like love stories, this Fourth of July is as good a time as any to read Elena Ferrante’s novels. It’s a particularly good idea to start with The Days of Abandonment. The protagonist is at the end of her marriage and at the end of her psychological rope, too. If you like to feel abject despair, this book will work wonders for you.
In this category I would also recommend, with qualifications, Emma Cline’s The Girls. The metaphors are laid on with a trowel but the central spine of the book, the story of a girl who slowly becomes enamoured with a cult leader not unlike Charles Manson, rings true. Love takes many forms, and sometimes it takes a form that leads you to a murderous religious cult whose evils end up marking you for life. Am I right?
For the ‘literary’ reader
Summer is always a tricky time to recommend new literary fiction. The big releases do not hit until fall. But Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others won an informal poll of friends as to the year’s best literary novel so far. Two friends, only somewhat alike in temperament, compete as film-makers and for the affections of the mysterious Jelly, a kind of romantic anonymous caller. Like all of Spiotta’s books, it’s a bit hard to describe so briefly, but it’s really a kind of intellectual page-turner: her searing intelligence carries you swiftly through to the end.
The other book that people have been lavishly praising this year is CE Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. Morgan, a somewhat reclusive writer, only produced one novel before this, a much slimmer, elegant volume called All the Living. The Sport of Kings, which is about race the world of horse racing, is a more substantial beast. In the New Yorker, recently, Kathryn Schulz deemed it “enormously flawed, ceaselessly interesting, and strangely tremendous, its moral imagination so capacious that it overshadows its many missteps”. In a year not much marked by moral imagination on the part of leaders, at least you can spend the holiday finding it in a novelist.