Top Ten Tuesday: American Classics

The Broke and the Bookish are taking a break from Top Ten Tuesday, but there’s no reason why I have to do the same. Dwell in Possibility had the idea of doing the Top Ten American Classics in honor of the 4th of July, and I liked the idea.

  1. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith– I related to Francie, the heroine of this coming of age story the first time I read it, and it’s definitely stayed with me over the years. It’s easy to say that it’s a sentimental novel about the days of youth, but those days we often remember as being “carefree” were really anything but. Smith doesn’t diminish the dramas of the schoolyard or the family crises with which Francie copes. 51fm3ylbgvl-_ac_us218_
  2. The Awakening by Kate Chopin- This is easy to see as an early feminist novel, in which the heroine struggles against the expectations of her family and New Orleans society. But you could also look at Edna as a narcissist who destroys her own life and that of those around her. I remember getting into an argument about this in my high school English class.51mlrlxawfl-_ac_us218_
  3. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell– Yes this book is racist. The characters are racist. I don’t excuse that, but I feel like there is a lot to enjoy in spite of it. Scarlett O’Hara is an interesting character precisely because she isn’t likable. She’s selfish, spoiled, entitled, and stubborn. In another book she might be a villain. But here, we find ourselves rooting for her, in spite of her actions.51vxh2jgv8l-_ac_us218_
  4. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison– On one level, this is the coming of age story of Milkman Dead. On another level it’s about Milkman’s family, and a century’s worth of secrets, ghosts, and angst. On still another level, it’s about the universal search for lost identity.413unpgvwyl-_ac_us218_
  5. East of Eden by John Steinbeck– This novel, described by the author as his magnum opus, tells the stories of two families. It’s about the relationships between fathers and sons and siblings (the biblical story of Genesis- particularly Cain and Abel is a recurring allusion). It’s also about choice and humanity. It’s on my list of books to reread at some point because I suspect that by reading it at different points in my life I’ll get more out of it.51yjn5lr6l-_ac_us218_
  6. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner– The title of this novel is taken from Macbeth’s soliloquy: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more: it is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing.” So right away Faulkner tells us that we are reading “a tale told by an idiot”. At first it seems like that’s a reference to Benjamin (Benjy) Compson, the intellectually disabled son of the Compson family, who narrates the first section of this novel. But it could also refer to the points of view of Quinton and Jason Compson, who narrate the second and third sections of the novel. Both display their own kinds of idiocy.  But the significant reference might lie in an earlier part of the soliloquy that the title alludes to: “all our yesterdays have lighted fools/ The way to dusty death.” As a whole this novel is really about the “way to dusty death” of the Compson family.51uoptbnrgl-_ac_us218_
  7. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey– From the time we’re children we’re taught to follow directions and stay in the lines. The people who don’t do that are often segregated from society. Randale McMurphy enters a ward of such people at a mental hospital, where he defies the stern hand of Nurse Ratched, the dictator-like nurse who runs the ward. It’s easy to sympathize with the fun loving McMurphy at the expense of Nurse Ratched, but when we remember that we’re getting the story from a very unreliable narrator (a schizophrenic in a mental ward) it takes on different (and perhaps darker) tones.51bcb3mckel-_ac_us218_
  8.  The Turn of the Screw by Henry James– this gothic, ghost story is notable because it’s hard to determine the exact nature of the evil the story hints at. An unnamed narrator is hired to be a governess to two orphaned children. One of the children, has recently been expelled from school for unknown reasons. The narrator fears that it might have something to do with the two figures that she sees around the state, or her predecessor, Miss Jessel. Through subtle hints, James makes us question our narrator’s sanity. Are the ghostly figures that she sees just her imagination? It’s arguably more frightening if the narrator is losing her mind than if the ghosts were real.  51zs71vreul-_ac_us218_
  9. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson– I love Shirley Jackson. A lot of people only read “The Lottery” in school, but this short novel of Merricat Blackwood and her sister Constance, expands on some themes that the story touches on, and is chilling in its own way. After most of the Blackwood family dies after being poisoned, Merricat, Constance, and their uncle, Julian live in the family home. Constance was acquitted for the murder of her family but the court of public opinion holds her very much guilty. We do learn what eventually happened to the Blackwood family, and the revelation is both macabre and darkly humorous. 5180ubrqqzl-_ac_us218_
  10. Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates– this is a fictionalized novel that imagines the inner life of Marilyn Monroe. But throughout the book Marilyn Monroe’s identity is constructed by external forces. I think that this book is largely about the American obsession with fame. It’s about the destruction that an identity can undergo when it’s defined from the outside. We may not consider it a classic now, but I suspect we will someday. And since Monroe is a classic American icon, I think this belongs on this list. 51qypwi7ffl-_ac_us218_

5 thoughts on “Top Ten Tuesday: American Classics

  1. There are so many great books on this list, and so many that I still need to read! I have to read The Turn of the Screw for one of my courses in the fall– I’m glad to hear it’s one of your favorites! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great list Fran! Francie Nolan really is the best- I am way overdue on a reread! I agree that GWTW is a problematic but enjoyable read, and that it’s important that we recognize its racism and don’t excuse it. The Awakening is a great addition and I almost included The Turn of the Screw in my TTT too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Top Ten Tuesday: Teenage Throwback | Fran Laniado- Author

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