Best Books About America
Two titles short-listed for this year’s Dolman Travel Book Award deal in very different ways with the US: In American Smoke (Penguin) Iain Sinclair wanders from his London turf in search of the Beats; In O My America! (Vintage) Sara Wheeler celebrates six Englishwomen of the 19th century who made new lives in a New World.
Finally, a book that is not exactly new but deserves to be much better appreciated – and published – on this side of the pond: Faith of Cranes by Hank Lentfer (Mountaineers Books), a love song to the Alaskan rainforest and family life.
Wondering how the land of the free became the home of big government? America: Empire of Liberty by David Reynolds (Penguin) offers some answers, sweeping from Palaeo-Indian founders to President Obama in a single volume. Another summing-up of what John Steinbeck called "this monster land", his Travels with Charley (Penguin), written in 1960, has recently been shown to be more fiction than reportage. But it can still be read – a little more cautiously, maybe – with pleasure.
Ernest Hemingway reckoned that "all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn" (Penguin); to see where it has ended up, try Philip Roth's American Pastoral (Vintage), John Updike's Rabbit series (Penguin), Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections or Freedom (Fourth Estate), Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping (Faber), or Anne Tyler's Digging to America (Vintage).
Surveillance by Jonathan Raban (Picador), an Englishman long resident in Seattle, is a black comedy about how the US has been gripped by paranoia since 9/11.
The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria (Penguin), an Indian-born American, considers the place of the US in an era when "the rest rise and the West wanes". Obama's Wars by Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster, hardback) is a memo-by-memo account of the conflict in Afghanistan. "Notebook dump" or "inside scoop"? You decide.
In New York, read Sex and the City by Candace Bushnell (Abacus) – in print, if not on screen, a dark and acerbic slice of the Big Apple – or its polar opposite, Joe Gould's Secret (Vintage), Joseph Mitchell's profile of the definitive Greenwich Village bohemian; in San Francisco, read Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City series (Black Swan), which began as a newspaper serialisation; in Florida, the satire of Carl Hiaasen (try Sick Puppy, Pan), sharp as a 'gator's teeth; in New Orleans and Louisiana, James Lee Burke's Detective Dave Robicheaux stories (Orion); on the ranch holiday, Annie Proulx's Close Range: Wyoming Stories (Fourth Estate), including the novella Brokeback Mountain.