Great American Novel Quest – The Second Batch

The Quest continues…


Great American Novel Quest

The first batch of ten contenders produced some fantastic reads, but so they should have since they were carefully chosen as some of the traditional front-runners in the race to be The Great American Novel. However, the list was also heavily weighted towards Dead White Men, with the addition of the occasional living one. All white and only one woman. This time round I’ve selected a rather more diverse group – 6 from the pens of female writers, three of whom are black, and a couple of recent books that haven’t been around long enough for us to know what their eventual status will be.

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There has been much interesting and thought-provoking chit-chat amongst my fellow readers as to the near impossibility of a book achieving that pesky fifth criteria which it needs to be declared The GAN…

For the elusive fifth flag, it must capture the entire ‘American experience’. That is to say, it must seek to include all the various very different aspects of culture that make up the American whole.

…though I would (and did) argue that American Pastoral does. I’ve found coming up with a revised fifth criterion that’s better than this one to be impossible also – to skew it so that favourite books can get in would certainly increase the number but would kind of take away the point, which is surely that The Great American Novel is one of the rarest of beasts, perhaps mythical. And entirely subjective.

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But, to be honest, the quest is more about finding Great American Novels in general than identifying one ‘winner’, so I’m quite content that several in this second batch are unlikely to be The GAN. I’m hopeful that some will be GANs and that more will be great novels. And if one of them happens to gain the elusive fifth flag, then that will be an added bonus.

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So… a drum roll, maestro, please… for…

The Second Batch

Beloved by Toni MorrisonStaring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement by Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale HurstonWhen Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before meeting the man of her dreams, who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds …”

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichiea story of love and race centered around a young man and woman from Nigeria who face difficult choices and challenges in the countries they come to call home. Fearless, gripping, at once darkly funny and tender, spanning three continents and numerous lives, Americanah is a richly told story set in today’s globalized world: Adichie’s most powerful and astonishing novel yet.


Moby Dick by Herman Melville In part, Moby-Dick is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopaedia of whaling lore and legend, the book can be seen as part of its author’s lifelong meditation on America.

Absalom! Absalom! by William FaulknerThe story of Thomas Sutpen, an enigmatic stranger who came to Jefferson in the early 1830s to wrest his mansion out of the muddy bottoms of the north Mississippi wilderness. He was a man, Faulkner said, ‘who wanted sons and the sons destroyed him.'”

Gone with the Wind by Margaret MitchellMany novels have been written about the Civil War and its aftermath. None take us into the burning fields and cities of the American South as Gone With the Wind does, creating haunting scenes and thrilling portraits of characters so vivid that we remember their words and feel their fear and hunger for the rest of our lives.”

The House of Mirth by Edith WhartonThe tragic love story reveals the destructive effects of wealth and social hypocrisy on Lily Bart, a ravishing beauty. More a tale of social exclusion than of failed love, The House of Mirth reveals Wharton’s compelling gifts as a storyteller and her clear-eyed observations of the savagery beneath the well-bred surface of high society.


Middlesex by Jeffrey EugenidesMiddlesex tells the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides, and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family, who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City and the race riots of 1967 before moving out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan.

Lolita by Vladimir NabokovHumbert Humbert – scholar, aesthete and romantic – has fallen completely and utterly in love with Lolita Haze, his landlady’s gum-snapping, silky skinned twelve-year-old daughter. Hilarious, flamboyant, heart-breaking and full of ingenious word play, Lolita is an immaculate, unforgettable masterpiece of obsession, delusion and lust.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher StoweStowe’s powerful abolitionist novel fueled the fire of the human rights debate in 1852. Denouncing the institution of slavery in dramatic terms, the incendiary novel quickly draws the reader into the world of slaves and their masters.”

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – (carried over from the first batch) an intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America’s heart. Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate).

(NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.)

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Many thanks to everyone who has joined in the discussions and/or suggested contenders. I have another 25 or so still to come after this, but am still looking for recommendations. I’d particularly like to add some more cultural diversity to the list (there are no black male authors on it, for example, and none from authors with Latin-American or, indeed, Native American heritage). Also, more women are needed to even things up a bit – there are very few female authors amongst the remaining 25, since I’ve included most of the ones on my list in this batch. And I’d love to mix some outstanding modern American fiction (1980 to 2010, say) in with the classics, whether they would be contenders for GAN status or not. For preference, though, they should shed some light on that great conundrum which is America.

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So… what do you think of the list? Are there ones that you would endorse… or dump? Any recommendations?

101 thoughts on “Great American Novel Quest – The Second Batch

  1. Wow – these sound… fun. I can recommend Clerks by Kevin Smith, but that is kind of a graphic novel. Very American, though. What can I say – it is Friday and wine o’clock is fast approaching, you won’t get any sense out of me today… 😉


    • Haha! Some sound fun, anyway! Looking at Clerks, I’m not sure it’s my kind of book, but it does indeed look as if it ‘says something’ about America. And the development of the graphic novel is probably quite an American thing in itself. Hmm… I shall consider it! Enjoy your wine! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What an interest! You know, I never pay too much attention to the authors. I just read them–when I do read, that is.

    Umm…I’ve heard Moby Dick is brutal! You’d probably really like Gone with the Wind, you know, you know. Rhett is like a wicked Darby. Uncle Tom’s Cabin… *does an okay sign* I remember it being interesting, though.

    I think I probably would write a novel like Snoopy!


    • Nor do I, usually, which is why the first list was so heavily male. But a couple of people pointed out that women were missing, so I thought I should fix it this time. On the whole though, I don’t care – a book should stand or fall on its own merits, not on who the author is.

      I’m dreading Moby Dick – I hated Melville when he was forced on me at Uni! But maybe I’ll feel differently now… Gone with the Wind is the one I’m most looking forward to, I think, along with Lolita and The House of Mirth. Have you read any Faulkner? I’m dreading it too…

      Please do! I could include it in the third batch – if I survive the second one, that is! Snoopy is as American as… as… baseball caps!


      • Yes, the author is so often overlooked, I fear. It’s almost as if he/she didn’t write the book sometimes. A wonder, you know.

        *laughs* I bet Moby will make you hate reading forever! I’ll definitely be interested to see what you think of GwtW. Ashley is worse in the book, don’t you know. No, I’ve never read any Faulkner. I’m quite behind on all that, I suppose.

        Baseball caps are universal! Don’t you own one?


        • But I do my bit by publishing their pictures! Mocking them as we do is one way of acknowledging their existence… *wicked face*

          *laughs* I fear you may be right! But I should be an expert whale hunter by the end, so that’s a bonus! Oh that’s not possible – Aaaaaashley couldn’t possibly be worse! Thank goodness for Rhett! I may have to add him to my heroes actually – don’t know why I haven’t splattered pics of him all over the blog… From what the chaps say about Faulkner it sounds like you’ve had a lucky escape! *gloomy face*

          It would muss up my hair…


          • *laughs* Yes! When you decide to do it. But we don’t mock. We just…point out things.

            A whale hunter…that’d be an interest, I suppose. But you’d probably be rubbish at it. Me too. I can’t imagine how one would hunt a whale. Hunting snails is better. Rhett?! He’s a horrid scoundrel, though. But you would like that. I will say he’s better looking than both Rafa and Darby and George, so the pictures won’t be too bad.

            You don’t have one?!


            • Yes, it’s actually quite kind of us really – a public service!

              Funnily enough I seem to have been reading an awful lot of books where people kill whales recently. It’s something I’d be happy to be rubbish at, in truth. You won’t have time for hunting snails – you need to get on with hunting those moths! Oh you just like Rhett ‘cos he’s got a moustache!


        • I’ve just added Gone with the Wind to my list for sending up the chimney, hoping Santa might bring me it for Christmas! It’s one of the ones on the list I’m most looking forward to – love the film…

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  3. You have some fantastic choices here, FictionFan! I’m especially pleased that you included Beloved, Their Eyes… and GWTW. They capture life in America in some unforgettable ways. Have you read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? It may not quite count as a novel, since it is in many ways autobiographical. But I do believe it is American writing at its best.


    • I’m looking forward to all of those and a couple of the others – and kinda dreading a couple of them too! 😉 No I haven’t and I keep intending to – thanks for the reminder! I agree, probably doesn’t fit in to the novel category, but from everything I’ve heard, plus your endorsement, it’s definitely one that should be read.

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    • It is! I was actually intending to put it in this batch but with all the hoopla surrounding Go Set A Watchman this year I decided to put it back till things die down a bit. It’ll be a re-read, of course – a brilliant book! And brilliant film too…


    • The good thing about having read so little American fiction is that there’s so much of it to look forward to! Here’s hoping for many great novels out of this batch… 🙂


  4. Beloved is rough. The second half switches to a stream-of-consciousness/poetry thing and I’d be lying if I said I understood it at all. Morrison is unbelievably talented though. Ten years later, I can easily recall scenes and images.

    For a modern Native American voice, Sherman Alexie is great. He’s a wonderful speaker too–he gave a speech on passion that has stuck with me for a while. I’m also becoming a fan of Junot Diaz (especially after reading two of his books for my 20 Books challenge). He was born in the Dominican Republic, but his family moved to the US when he was a kid. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao follows a Dominican teen growing up in New Jersey and has a different perspective than the books on your list. It’s also very modern.


    • Oh dear, I’ll probably struggle with that – stream of consciousness doesn’t usually work for me. I listened to the beginning of it a couple of years ago on audio – was enjoying the book but found the narration, by Morrison herself, drove me mad. Almost monotone. So I’ve been meaning to read the paper copy ever since…

      Brilliant! They sound like great additions! Is there one of the Diaz books you would particularly recommend as ‘saying something’ about America? And so glad to have a recommendation for a Native American writer – I couldn’t think of a single one. I heard a fair bit about The Brief Wondrous… when it was first published but for some reason didn’t get around to it. I shall add it to the list – thank you! 😀


      • You’re welcome!
        I haven’t read Sherman Alexie since college, but he tempers his writing with a great sense of humor. In one of his speeches, he gave a fun anecdote about a time he spoke at a prestigious private school and a Russian Lit prof asked about his “obvious” reference to [some Russian writer]. It seems that Alexie’s story about a man who gets very drunk and burns his furniture on his lawn shares commonalities with an obscure piece of Russian Lit in which a similar event occurs.

        The prof kept pressing Alexie about whether he’d read [some Russian writer] and Alexie kept saying no until the professor finally asked where he’d gotten the idea if NOT from [some Russian guy]. Alexie shrugged and said (paraphrased), “Well, one time my dad got really drunk and dragged the furniture from the house and burned it in the front yard.” STILL not persuaded, the prof asked, “So, did your dad read [some Russian guy]?”

        I think of this story whenever folks get too stuffy about an interpretation of literature. And if I’m going for a Master’s in English Lit, I’ll need to get used to stuffy people very soon! 😛


        • Ha! Great story! I fear I often think critics and academics see things that aren’t there. When I read Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus – one of the most hollow books of my experience – I had a little chortle at the thought of him avidly reading critiques in the hope of finding out what it was he meant to say.. It’s like the reams of stuff written about the deep meaning of Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ – when asked what it meant he always replied ‘It means I never have to work again!’


  5. I’m glad you included Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I think it’s a great novel that too often gets unfairly criticized and dismissed.

    Have you read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon? I thought that in Beloved she was laboring in the shadow of Faulkner but that in Song of Solomon she really found her own voice (even though Song of Solomon came first).


    • I read Uncle Tom as a kid but remember almost nothing about it – and anyway I suspect I was too young for it then. That shouldn’t be a problem this time round… 😉

      No, I haven’t read anything of hers, and selected Beloved purely because it seems to be the one that turns up on Great American Novel lists. But I’m interested in what you say about the shadow of Faulkner, whom I also haven’t read – I think I’ll make sure I read Absalom! Absalom! before Beloved. And look at her other books for additions to the normal TBR list… thanks for the recs!


  6. I concur that this is a great list. I’m glad Toni Morrison is on the list, though I’m partial to The Bluest Eye or Sula by her. And like Daedalus Lex mentioned Song of Solomon is more celebrated. I also love Zora Neale Hurston and Melville. Had to read Moby-Dick in high school.
    Um is The Scarlet Letter on that list?


    • I must say there are several that I’m really looking forward to – and one or two that I’m dreading a bit! I haven’t read any Toni Morrison and picked this one purely because it’s the one that tends to get mentioned on Great American Novel lists. But I’ll certainly look at adding one or two of her others to the ‘ordinary’ TBR. I have issues with Melville due to being forced to read Billy Budd at Uni, but I’m hoping I’ll get over it at last! Glad you rate the Hurston, ‘cos I wasn’t sure about it from the blurb.

      It is! Probably for the next batch. Another book I’ve been meaning to read for… well… decades really! Somehow I have to cut back on mediocre books to make more room for the good ones…


  7. Gosh! More good books … only read three this time, although started a couple and didn’t finish, Moby Dick was one of those. Hem. As for other suggestions, especially women, what about Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter or Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood (maybe??) although these women are at their with at short stories ( I think) and possibly too regional. Will keep thinking but looks to e as if you’re doing a great job of identifying the great ones all by yourself 😉


    • I had a few re-reads in the last batch but these are all new to me – except Uncle Tom, but I read it as a kid and remember pretty much nothing about it. I’m kinda dreading Moby Dick – not a Melville fan – but I couldn’t leave it off the list! Great suggestions – thank you! Both names I have heard, but haven’t read any of their books, so they will definitely be added. I only realised recently that Flannery O’Connor is female – I had just assumed the name was male. Ha! Most of the ones on the list come from recommendations when I started this whole thing way back at the dawn of time!


  8. Great list, FF! I especially loved Gone with the Wind. Moby Dick plain wore me out (I’m not a big fan of being in a boat anyway, ha!) Never read Gilead, but it sounds like one I might enjoy.

    I might suggest something by James Michener, perhaps Chesapeake or Texas. His descriptions are spectacular, and the sweeping sagas he pens have never failed to impress me.


    • I’m really looking forward to Gone with the Wind – one of the highlifhts of the list for me, since I adore the film. Dreading Moby Dick – but I’ll just have to bite the bullet… Gilead seems to divide people and I don’t think it’ll be an easy read, but I’m looking forward to it anyway.

      Oh good suggestion – thank you! A name I’ve been familiar with for years but have never actually read! I’ll check out the blurbs and add the one that appeals most to the list…

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  9. Whew! I’ve read five of these. Moby Dick, of course – the great chasm on which our reading tastes diverge),Absalom, GWTW, Lolita (if you haven’t already read this, handle with caution – attitudes to child abuse have changed so much since I read it that I doubt if I could get though it now – it made me uneasy xty years ago) and UTC, which I read many times as a child, but haven’t read as an adult. Lots of tissues will be required for all of these.


    • Five! Not bad! I shall try to approach Moby Dick with an open mind – I feel thirty years is probably long enough to hold a grudge. 😉 I’m not sure about Absalom or Uncle Tom, but am looking forward to GWTW a lot. I’ve seen a few reviews of Lolita recently, from relatively young people, all saying in tones of surprise that they expected to hate it because of the subject matter but were won over by the quality of the writing – so I’m hopeful…


      • Per the comments on Moby Dick, I found it tedious for large stretches despite the powerful substructure. I thought Billy Budd was Melville at his best — all the depth and character and symbolic power of Moby Dick but without the 100-page digressions on how sailors tie knots.


        • I suspect I shall struggle most with the whaling stuff – not because of the hunting, but because I will find it tedious. My dislike of Billy Budd was more to do with how it was taught than the book itself – unfortunately my Uni seemed to have perfected the art of sucking all the joy out of literature. They even managed to make me dislike Great Expectations, for which I’ve still not forgiven them. But I feel enough time has passed now for me to attempt to move on… 😉

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          • I remember that in my class in Humanities in college, the professor wanted to be nice, and so passed out a list of the whaling chapters, and told us that we could skip those and just read the direct narrative chapters. But I, being daring and prideful, decided to read them all! Actually, I just figured that if Melville wrote them, they were worth reading. I would say that among the other great things about this book, Melville makes of whaling somewhat of a metaphor for existence. Certainly the sea is a powerful metaphysical symbol as well. So even amid the detail as to whaling, there is something haunting about it. There is one chapter in there where Melville tells a story about another ship, not the Pequod, and it is a strange story, and it possibly has great import to the rest of the story, or maybe it is just a story. I actually think that everything matters in this book; not necessarily because Melville deliberately meant it all to, but because he was such a great writer that metaphorical and symbolic aspects were never far away.

            Now I am worried that you will not like this book! But it’s too good for you not to, I think. At the very, very least, you will appreciate the beautiful writing, perhaps unparalleled.


            • Oh, I’d definitely want to read it all – or not at all! I’ve never really seen the point of abridgements (though secretly I felt The Grapes of Wrath might have been improved by it!) – I feel books, certainly ‘literary’ ones anyway, should be read as the author intended. I’m guessing most authors bung in all the stuff they do ‘cos they feel it adds something to the overall ‘message’. I might not always agree that it does, but how could I judge if I just skipped the boring bits? No, I shall struggle through it – it might surprise me! After all, I would never have thought Hemingway could make me enjoy the stuff about bull-fighting…


    • Seven!! Wow, that’s impressive! Which ones did you enjoy most? I’m hoping somebody can persuade me to start looking forward to Faulkner and Melville… 😉


      • I think Lolita is one of the greatest books ever written. Absolutely horrifying but brilliant. Middlesex was fun because it was something that was different from a lot of things I’ve read. Marilynne Robinson is maybe sparse on plot, but I love to read her anyway. There is something captivating to me about the world of Gilead and the pictures she paints of grace in her books. Toni Morrison and Zora Neal Hurston are a treat; I can’t wait to hear what you think. I couldn’t stand Scarlet O’Hara, but Gone with the Wind was really cool to me because I live and grew up in the South.

        Moby Dick is quite an undertaking, but I find Melville to be hilarious in little pieces all over his work. Every time Ahab appears in the story, just envision him hopping around on that wooden leg and then sticking it in a hole on the ship so that he can stand in one place and rotate on it (I couldn’t make this up). If you need a warm up for that one, Melville also has a short story called “Bartleby the Scrivener” that for whatever reason I have always loved because I find it funny.

        As for Faulkner, I’ve never quite figured out the appeal. I wish I could be more excited about him for you. 🙂


        • Ah! Now was it your review of Lolita I read fairly recently? I remember reading one and being struck by a) what a great review it was and b) how it made me feel that I would probably enjoy it despite the subject matter. I’m so glad you liked most of these – that gives me a lot of encouragement. I’ve always liked the look of Robinson’s books and the reviews that I’ve read have always made me think I’ll probably like her style, though I’m a bit concerned about the lack of plot – I do get peeved if books don’t seem to be going anywhere. But the only way to find out for sure is to read it! I wonder how I’ll feel about Scarlett – I love her so much in the film, but that’s mainly down to Leigh’s performance. I suspect I also might find her less than loveable in the book. But there’s always Rhett… and Aaaaaaaaashley!

          Haha! That image will help me through, I’m sure! In fact, suddenly I actually want to read it! My aversion to Melville is so ancient now that I really think it’s time I got over it anyway. And maybe Faulkner will surprise me…

          Brilliant, thanks! You must have some recommendations of other greats, I’m sure…? You’re clearly well immersed in American literature.


          • I’d like to claim that review of Lolita, but I’m afraid it wasn’t mine. I have never watched Gone with the Wind, but I wonder if that would change my perspective.

            I haven’t thought about it in the context of your GAN quest, but I’d recommend All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. The first 40 pages are hard to get through, but after that you sail. It’s such a good novel. Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is another of my favorites.

            My favorite college professor specialized in Southern literature, so I have her to thank for introducing me to a lot of these.


            • Oh, pity! I should have taken a note of where I saw it. Oh, you should watch the film if you ever get a chance – Rhett Butler is one of the few men who could give my Darcy some serious competition… 😉

              Looking them up, they both sound like excellent choices, so added to the list – thank you! It always suprises me how few reviews these books attract on Amazon UK – I think we Brits must still be terribly insular in what we read. Maybe including US writers in the Booker is a better idea than I originally thought – might shake us out of our complacency…

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  10. What a great topic to share and discuss! Here are some of my thoughts; and I will try to avoid making them so lengthy as to almost approach a novel! And of course these are just my opinions, and I know that some here might be offended by a couple of them.

    First, I am very partial to Moby-Dick, and kudos to your big sister for liking it so much! Now, I will admit that I first read it as a teenager; and I loved sea stories; and I loved the strange and almost maniacal but profoundly Romantic (in a classical sense) quest of Ahab. I read it again for college and loved it. I read it again for a book group, and we had a big argument, with one person basically saying it may have been great once, but is an artifact of its time. Of course he did not have a literary background, but he certainly was entitled to his opinion. Reading it the third time, it was not as inspiring as the first two, but maybe only because I had read all the whale data twice already. The book at one time was considered a great source on whales and whaling, apart from anything else. I think that whaling was a very bad thing to do, as whales are wondrous creatures, and that colors it a bit; but of course whaling was a major revenue source in the 19th century. Ahab is far less a whaler than a tormented Romantic who seeks the answers to the most intense metaphysical questions, and even questions the existence and nature of God. That was incredibly daring for a writer in the 19th century, and the book went over most people’s heads; they wanted Melvile to write more “Typees” and “Omoos,” which were his stories about the South Sea islands. In sum, I think that the book has to be read by anyone interested in American literature; and it is a one-of-a-kind novel.

    As to Faulkner, I would have recommended “The Sound and the Fury,” though “Absalom, Absalom,” is superb, too. “Abasalom” is very hard to follow because of the jumps in time; Faulkner even put in a chronology to help the readers! But for someone as intelligent as you, I think it is followable without the chronology. “Absalom” and “Sound” are the two greatest Faulkner novels. I do think that “Sound” is superior; it gives one an indelible portratt of the post-bellum South, and is also an unforgettable evocation of a family. And the writing style there has never been equaled in the combination of a unique style which even enhances the powerful emotional content. I think you will like either or both of these. Faulkner has to be ranked as a literary genius.

    It might be fun for you to compare either (or both!) of these with GWTW. I have never read that, mostly because I had read and heard that it is not at all great writing. But it is certainly amazingly popular, and thus certainly must have merit.

    As to Morrison and “Beloved”…well…I started to read this as part of a different book group. It was all the rage then. I read about fifty pages and just stopped. The hatred of White people was almost suffocating. Morrison was going to tell us how slaves were treated (at least by some owners) and then, at least in my mind, indict all Caucasians with that. And I didn’t think her writing style was all that great, either. But I know that some rank this book as a top five American novel, so I guess one should read it, though I will not. I read James Baldwin, and he was angry, as he had a right to be, but the book was literary and written with gracefulness amid the heat. I thought that Morrison’s book was an angry diatribe which did not have the redeeming grace of being a stimulating or thought-provoking read. But then of course I only read the 50 or so pages. Usually I finish a book, and certainly that was the only book in two book groups where I just stopped so abruptly. So you read it, and then I will be very interested to see your thoughts. I do know that the novel is widely praised. I will admit that I wonder how much of that is literary, and how much is what is sometimes called “political correctness.” But I am certainly in the minority here, I know, as to this book. Oh, and if it matters at all, I am a moderate-to-liberal Democrat, and I write blog essays strongly supporting Hillary Clinton for President. So I am certainly not a political conservative.

    If you are going to read Wharton, you might well want to read Henry James. I have not read a lot of his work, bu I did think that “The American” was very good indeed.

    Maybe you might want to read a mystery; perhaps something by Ross MacDonald? 🙂 Okay, it is hard to put a mystery in as the GAN, but I would say that his novels are something special; they are mysteries, but they are also evocations of a time and place, although distinctly Californian. Read something like “The Zebra-Striped Hearse,” and you get a wonderful picture of ’60’s California, and the various troubled people who helped make up its landscape. Most of his later novels also do this well. “Sleeping Beauty” takes as its subject the awful oil spill off Santa Barbara forty or so years ago.

    Or maybe “The Long Goodbye” by Raymond Chandler? Or even the greatly underrated “The Dain Curse” by Dashiell Hammett? Distinctly American, and very well written.

    You’ve probably got more suggestions than you will ever need! But…I know that “The Scarlet Letter” was long a staple of curricula in high school or college. It is the book that most young adults, including me at the time, think they will hate, and always end up liking! It is very well written, and has a sometimes gothic-like style. And of course the characters–Hester Prynne, Reverend Dimmesdale, Roger Chillingworth–are vivid and now almost archtypal.

    I very much liked Saul Bellow’s “Seize the Day,” but it is a novella, not a novel, so maybe you can skip that without guilt! I also liked “Henderson the Rain King” by him; it was on the curriculum list of a professor who sort of wrote novels in the Bellow vein. I did not think I would like it, but I and my father, to whom I recommended it, very much did.

    As to “Lolita,” there is nothing like it. I must differ with Big Sister here. It is interesting that when the book came out in the early ’60’s, I do not believe that there was nearly as much distress or outrage about it than in more recent times. Kubrick made it into a great movie, and no one complained; thirty years later Adrian Lyne did it, and people tried to have it banned in the U.S. It is a comedy, a tragedy, a romantic fable, a brilliant wordplay, all at once. And yes, there is the touchy subject; but it is Nabokov’s genius to invent a wholly fictional character who is both appalling and sympathetic.

    I have four volumes of collected “Peanuts” comic strips! If one buys one of those; say, any two-year set from around 1959-1966, one can see how the mini-stories which Schulz would sometimes continue for ten or so consecutive strips, are even better than the individual strips which we are used to seeing here and there. Just incredibly brilliant; charming, touching, funny and poignant.


    • Per William’s Beloved comments (and my plug for Song of Solomon), I found Song of Solomon more nuanced on this racial issue. I don’t recall any significant white characters in Song of Solomon, but the black characters have very diverse opinions about whether hatred of white people and white culture is appropriate or whether that hatred itself is one of the things holding black people down. I think of it as more of a classical Greek quest narrative (Classics was an academic field of Morrison’s) worked out through the conditions of current African-American culture.


      • Interesting! It will depend for me if the hatred seems to come from the characters, which I could cope with, or from the author, which I might find more difficult. Not that hatred would be an entirely unnatural reaction, I feel, but it doesn’t often make for good literature. I think I’m going to stick with Beloved, but I’ve added Song of Solomon to the list, and will bear your comments in mind that it’s the better of the two if I have problems with Beloved.

        Liked by 1 person

    • My aversion to Melville is really more to do with University than the man himself, but I think I’ve probably told you that before. Somehow the way they taught literature had the unfortunate effect of sucking all the joy out of the experience. But I shall approach Moby Dick with an open mind – I suspect the whaling stuff might annoy me – not because of the hunting. That was just the way it was, then, and I do try hard not to let my modern sensibilities get in the way, with more success sometimes than others. But I suspect I might find those passages dull – but we shall see!

      The Faulkner choice was a toss-up between the two, and The Sound and the Fury is also on the list for a later batch – unless Absalom puts me off totally, of course! I can’t say the reviews I’ve read have convinced me I’m going to enjoy Faulkner, but again… open mind, if I can… and we’ll see! Yes, I’ve always believed GWTW wasn’t supposed to be terribly well written either, but there’s been a readalong going on around the blogosphere and a few people whose opinions I respect seem to rate it pretty highly. And I was surprised to learn it had won the Pulitzer! Not always a guarantee, of course, but it makes me hopeful. And if all else fails, I’ll just imagine Clark as Rhett and I’m sure that will get me through… 😉

      Interesting about Beloved. I will be able to cope, I think, if the hatred comes from the characters, but not if it’s from the author. Of course, racism does work both ways, although obviously unequally. The bit that I listened to before I abandoned it made me think I’d probably enjoy the writing style, but the unremitting misery might make me struggle. But a lot of that misery came from Morrison’s narration rather than the text I think. Funnily enough, the fact that there are differing opinions on the book makes me more eager to read it! And thanks for the James Baldwin tip – he’ll definitely go on the list. Any recommendations for a particular book?

      Hmm… The American looks like it might have the same effect on me as The Innocents Abroad – wonderful superior American looking down on the near-savage, uncivilised and probably unwashed European! I’d have to give that some thought. I might look for a more attractive one of his instead.

      Haha! I WILL read something by Ross MacDonald!!! And I did read The Maltese Falcon as part of this – some books don’t end up on the GAN list but I’ve read a few more great American books as a result of subsidiary recommendations. I actually have a set of Chandler that I must get to at some point – so far I’ve only read The Big Sleep.

      Saul Bellow’s on, but I’ve decide to go with Humboldt’s Gift since it’s the one that get mentioned as a GAN most.

      It’ll depend on the writing whether I can handle the subject matter in Lolita, but I have quite high hopes of it. And I do love Peanuts, but I love Calvin and Hobbes more! 😉

      Thanks for all the recs – and the opinions! Glad you’re enjoying the quest!


      • You might consider Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” In my opinion it typifies Faulkner’s strengths and style but the rewards more clearly compensate for the difficulty of the reading. The longer novels can become excruciating.


        • Oh dear! ‘Excruciating’ doesn’t sound good! But I’m tough – I can take it. Maybe. However, should I throw Absalom at the wall after 50 pages, I shall give him another chance with this one… 😉


            • Haha! Well, I freely admit to getting as much satisfaction from writing a 1 star rip as a 5 star review… so I suppose that counts as enjoyment!


          • I seem to recall someone comparing reading “The Sound and the Fury” to participating in what is nowadays called “extreme sports.” I think that’s probably right — it’s the closest a bookworm will get to an “extreme sport.”


            • HahaHA! Well, I’ve always wanted to do extreme sports – except I’m lazy and a coward, so this may be the solution! I wonder if we could persuade them to make reading Faulkner an Olympic event…

              Oddly, you’ve made me really want to read it now – got to see if it can possibly be that awful… 😉


            • I wouldn’t say awful — I might even say “great” — but in the “extreme sports of reading” manner of Joyce’s Ulysses. If you ascribe to the “no pain, no gain” theory of reading, you’ll enjoy Faulkner as much as Joyce.


      • Madness! Gone with the Wind isn’t poorly written. Quite the opposite, I think! Mitchell said that she often wrote, and then pulled out everything that might make the scene incomprehensible or the writing a distraction, leaving only the story. She felt that plot could carry a story, and that writing should serve the story, not take it over. Seems mighty smart to me. 🙂


        • Glad to hear it! I must say I agree with her – no matter how well written a book is, it rarely works for me unless there’s a strong story, and from the film I know the story in GwtW is great. Nice to get such a strong endorsement for the book! 😀

          Liked by 1 person

  11. I see someone mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird, which I was going to throw out there. I applaud your restraint, due to Go Set a Watchman hoopla. The latter is reading more like a first draft — a case study in the making of a classic. That is how I’ve approached it, which I believe is the only way to separate the two. Great list so far, FF!


    • I really haven’t got into the audiobook version of Go Set – I wish I’d just gone for the paper copy now. In fact, I suspect I’ll switch over soon. It’s not grabbing me but I can’t decide if that’s the writing or the narration. But I feel that it would be hard to re-read Mockingbird at the moment without making comparisons – and I suspect that would remove some of the joy from the original…

      Yes, I’m looking forward to most of these! I do enjoy the GAN quest… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Looks like some fun ones there… best of luck with both ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘GWTW’, neither of which I was able to complete when I made the attempt about a decade ago, lol.

    If you are looking for some lighter fare, you may try some novels geared for younger readers – ‘Little Women’ comes to mind, as well as the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder – although autobiographical, Wilder writes in the third person. Although the first couple of books are very much for younger readers, they stories mature as Laura’s character does, and as a whole, I think the series does an excellent job capturing a period of American history.

    On that note, you may also try something (anything, really) by Eleanor Estes. She is most famous for ‘Ginger Pye’, although I am personally quite found of ‘The Moffats.’ ‘The Hundred Dresses’ is a very short read that you should definitely try, as I believe everyone should read it. Truly brilliant writing, the type of simple, spare writing that manages to cut to the soul of an idea – deep and thought-provoking, yet in terms that any 10-year-old could understand. I personally think that that 80 or so pages is her best work.

    I rather felt that way about ‘The View from Saturday’ by E.L. Konigsburg (who also wrote the absolutely delightful ‘Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler’), although I don’t think I would classify either of those as portraying a specific picture of American time, fun as they are.

    Children’s books aren’t for everyone, but I mix them in my reading quite regularly. Every truly great concept should be able to be laid out in terms that a child can understand, I think, and I love to see it done well.

    Best of luck with your list, and I look forward to the reviews!!!


    • I hadn’t really considered children’s literature – it’s not something I read much, to be honest. Just the occasional re-read of an old favourite. However, I do have Little Women on the list – I used to love it, but it’s been many years since I last read it. I’ve never read the Little House on the Prairie books but I enjoyed the TV series when I was young. Though it got a bit dark, didn’t it? Didn’t one of them go blind or something? Or maybe I’m thinking of the Waltons…

      Never heard of Eleanor Estes, but ’80 pages’ sounds attractive – I shall investigate further! I still have Johnny Tremain on the TBR for a re-read since you reviewed it. Must get around to that one too.

      Thanks for the recs – an intriguing take on the quest! 😀


      • haha maybe it’s because I feel like everything I “know” (???) about British culture comes from reading Agatha Christie, James Herriot, and random children’s lit! I grew up on “The Secret Garden,” “A Little Princess,” E. Nesbit, etc.

        I really do highly recommend the Little House books. Make sure your edition has the original illustrations by Garth Williams. They’re pretty easy reads – such a fun and engaging way to learn history! But yes, they do get rather serious, and Laura’s sister did go blind – I believe it was scarlet fever, or some such disease that was so prevalent at the time. Actually, there is a gap in the books of a couple of years where basically things were so hard for their family that Wilder didn’t feel like it would be appropriate for children’s stories… I believe they also lost a baby brother to that same epidemic that left her sister blind, and several other tragedies.

        Anyway, Estes is also a delight. Her stories are very much a product of their time, small town tales where the children all ramble about and play together with minimal adult supervision, yet no one seems to get snatched up or horrendously bullied. I personally think that “The Hundred Dresses” should be required school reading. It is that kind of sparse, perfect writing – every word is exactly perfect – no need for the superfluity of a couple hundred pages when the message is expressed so wonderfully in a briefer form.

        Anyway, not only is children’s lit great fun and super relaxing – it goes really fast! Brilliant way to knock titles off the TBR with efficiency! 😀


        • Haha! There’s a flaw in your logic though – they have to be ADDED to the TBR before they can be knocked off! 😉

          However, thank you – I shall do my best to fit one or two in! Given the trend for crime books to be all about killing and torturing children these days, I could do with a respite…

          Liked by 1 person

  13. Just love the Snoopys. Great ongoing list – happy to see “Middlesex” indeed there and very intrigued to see that ZNH is on your list, will wait to read all about it from you in due course. Loved “Americanah” and THOM, although not as much as “The Age of Innocence” – Gillian Anderson simply brilliant as Lily though, if you fancy seeing as well as reading this tale. x


    • Hehe! They’re great, aren’t they? Yes, I was glad to have at least a couple of modern novels to break up the old classics – I do love the old writers, but not all the time. I toyed with having The Age of Innocence rather than THOM – not sure what swayed me in the end really. But I loved Wharton’s writing so much in Ethan Frome that I suspect I shall gradually work through more of her stuff, quest-related or not. Ooh, I must look out for that! Gillian Anderson is such a great actress – I loved her performance in the TV version of Bleak House. Glad to hear you rate ‘Americanah’ highly – somehow the blurb doesn’t make it sound irresistible, but she’s such an intelligent and well-informed speaker that I hoped that would come through in her writing too. And this was a good way to finally get it to move up the TBR…

      Liked by 1 person

  14. My middle daughter and I were discussing American novels yesterday, and we both came to the conclusion that we Yanks are much better at great short stories. Case in point: Moby Dick. On the other hand, his short stories are great – like Bartleby, the Scrivener.


  15. What great discussions this is generating! I’m glad William mentioned James Baldwin (re you saying you don’t have a black male writer in the list. I’d push Baldwin too – not THE Gan, but you realise that’s as aspiration possibly more than a reality anyway.

    You’re doing marvellously well at this, stacking up the hefty tomes. Well done!


    • I know! These Americans don’t half like to talk about books, eh? 😉 I shall certainly add Baldwin – do you have a specific book you’d recommend? No, having declared American Pastoral THE GAN, the pressure’s off and I’m more interested now in simple great novels with an American slant. (Have I mentioned that you really should read American Pastoral, by the way?)

      I’m looking forward to most of them, but Moby Dick will be a hurdle, and I fear, oh how I fear, that Faulkner may be a brick wall! Still toying with the idea of a Great British Novel Quest sometime…


      • Do not fear! Moby-Dick is a great novel Not to influence the way you read or interpret the book, but do note that the early 19th century novelists such as Hawthorne and Melville often used symbolism. Whaling in Moby-Dick is not just whaling; it is in some sense a metaphor. It is certainly not a modern novel, and I am sure that you will read it as of its time in American and literary history. But it is a powerful work of drama and philosophy.

        I am pretty sure that you will like Faulkner, though I think you might have preferred “The Sound and the Fury.” But “Absalom, Absalom” is a brilliant work; and I think that everyone in my book group liked it. Faulkner strives for an encompassing scope in these great works, and I think that he achieves it. And reading either of rhese is a challenge, but ultimately a very rewarding one, at least in my opinion. I don’t know if you like difficult puzzles; but you do love mysteries; and reading either of these two great Faulkner works is like solving a complex mystery; but it also has an emotional impact to enhance it.


        • Ultimately it will come down to whether I like the writing style and/or think the author is saying something worth saying. What I condemn in one book I can accept in another depending on how it’s presented. For example, Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus is full of symbolism but completely hollow – therefore the fact that’s it’s well written doesn’t save it. On the other hand, while I can’t say that I enjoyed reading The Grapes of Wrath, I recognise the importance of what he’s saying, so rate it highly (but will probably never read it again). A truly great book is one where it both says something worth saying and is beautifully or powerfully written – hence Gatsby, Rev Road, AP etc. I must admit my reviews are never really about the intrinsic ‘worth’ of a book, merely my reaction to them – because I originally started reviewing on Amazon I’ve always used their star-rating system – I love it, I like it, It’s OK, I don’t like it, I hate it. Simplistic, but also simple! And of course, entirely subjective. So we shall see… 😉


  16. I’ve only read about half of each of your lists, but find it hard to judge what makes a great novel of any country or culture, because I get too caught up on whether the book leaves me feeling happy or sad – obviously happy wins! My criteria is so simple that a Mills and Boon could win the quest. I have to agree with William re GWTW, not great writing but a great story.


  17. I recommend Barbara Kingsolver’s early novels. She wrote a trilogy of books starting with The Bean Trees, followed by Pigs in Heaven and Animal Dreams that deal with relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, in the context of truly wonderful stories. If you only had time to read one, I’d recommend Pigs in Heaven.

    You might also consider Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding — she’s another writer, like Flannery O’Connor, who gets mistaken for a man!


    • Oh, I must say ‘Pigs in Heaven’ sounds great and I’ve been meaning to try something by Barbara Kingsolver for ages! Good choice – added to list. Thank you!

      Haha! You’re so right! I automatically assumed she was a man – there ought to be some kind of law about these androgynous names! Lionel Shriver’s another one who is frankly misleading… 😉 McCullers has just snuck on with ‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter’ so I’ll keep ‘The Member of the Wedding’ for backup…


    • I’ve been meaning to read both these books for ages so this seemed like a good way of bumping them up the priority list. And I really wanted to add both women and people with different ethnic backgrounds this time – so they serve double-duty!


  18. Fantastic selection! Lots from my own TBR so excited to see how you get on. Don’t envy you Moby Dick though… 🙂


    • Haha! I’m kinda dreading it, especially since I feel there’s a good possibility I’ll be lynched if I’m disrespectful to it… 😉 But seriously, I’m looking forward to reading them!


    • I’ve been thinking about it on and off for a while – but we don’t have the same tradition of sweeping epics as the Americans, I think, so I’d have to think about what criteria I could use. But good to know there would be interest in it! I shall mull a bit more…


  19. Adding my two cents or so a bit late, but here goes. I’m with That’s What She Read: Sherman Alexie is great. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian is my favorite. Beloved, and actually any stream-of-consciousness is not my thing. I somehow managed to finish and English degree without ever reading more than a short story of Faulkner. I did enjoy Zora Neale Hurston a lot, and I hope that means it was good and not just good-in-comparison to the other stuff I was reading for class at the time. Moby Dick is a rough go. Middlesex is one of my favorites, and not just because I used to live in Metro Detroit. And I adored House of Mirth. There are lots of great Wharton books and movies out there. I guess I’m saying you have lots of great options on the list and the comments. Enjoy!


    • Never too late – I think the GAN Quest will be on-going for the rest of my life! 😉 Ah good! I had tentatively added Reservation Blues for Alexie, but will swap it for True Diary – thanks!

      I hadn’t actually realised Beloved went down the stream-of-consciousness route when I added it – it’s not something I’m fond of myself. However, I’ll see how I get on with it. Ha! From what I’ve heard of Faulkner (whispers in case his fans hear me) I think you were probably very lucky! I think it was your recommendation at the last batch that put Hurston on the list – but I do think it sounds good, and I really need some diversity in the list. Looking forward to both The House of Mirth and Middlesex – Moby, not so much, especially since I fear I may be lynched if I’m forced to slate it! 😉

      Thanks – I will!


  20. I could never face “Beloved” but I loved Middlesex and Americanah is brilliant, although I’m not sure whether it’s a Great American Novel … It’ll be interesting to see what you think of these!


    • I’ve decided to extend it out a bit in this second batch – more Great Novels that are American than Great American Novels. And I really just wanted an excuse to get Americanah up the priority list! I heard her being interviewed a few months back and if her writing is half as intelligent as her speech I reckon it’ll be a real treat…


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