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U.S.A. Reading List
History and society

James Baldwin, No Name On The Street, The Fire Next Time, Evidence Of Things Not Seen, and many others.
The most brilliant prose stylist of twentieth-century America. Stunningly incisive accounts of the black experience in the cities of the USA, although Baldwin was such a powerful polemicist that he was occasionally swept away by his own rhetoric.


John W Blassingame, Black New Orleans 1860-1880.
Comprehensive and impressively detailed history of urban blacks during Reconstruction.


Hugh Brogan, Penguin History of the USA.
Good, up-to-date and very complete history of the United States.


Dee Brown, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.
Twenty years on from its first publication, this remains the best narrative of the impact of white settlement and expansion on Native Americans across the continent.


Peter Carroll and David Noble, The Free and the Unfree: A New History of the USA.
A good interpretive history of American political development, focusing on the wide gap between those who hold power and those who are disadvantaged on grounds of race, sex or class.


Alston Chase, Playing God In Yellowstone.
Taking Yellowstone as his example, the iconoclastic Chase explores the truth behind the National Park Service's rhetoric.


Alistair Cooke, America Observed.
Incisive, illuminating comments on American life, by the broadcaster and chief American correspondent for the Manchester Guardian from 1946 to 1972.


Mike Davis, City of Quartz.
City politics, neighborhood gangs, unions, film noir and religion are drawn together in this award-winning, leftist, hyperbolic history of Los Angeles.


Joan Didion, The White Album, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Miami and others.
Essays on the American way of life, drawing heavily on the late Sixties. A respected social commentator, Didion spoils the act at times by dropping too many names.


Frederick Douglass et al, The Classic Slave Narratives.
Compilation of ex-slaves' autobiographies, ranging from Olaudah Equíano's kidnapping in Africa and global wanderings to Frederick Douglass' eloquent denunciation of slavery. Includes Harriet Jacobs' story of her escape from Edenton, North Carolina.


Michael Kioni Dudley, A Hawaiian Nation.
Immensely readable, if short, two-volume account of Hawaiian history and theology, which culminates in the well-argued Call For Hawaiian Sovereignty.


Brian Fagan, Ancient North America.
Archeological history of America's native peoples, from the first hunters to cross the Bering Strait up to European contact.


Frances Fitzgerald Cities on a Hill.
Intelligent, sympathetic exploration of four of the odder corners of American culture, including San Francisco's gay Castro district and the Rajneeshi community in eastern Oregon.


Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative.
Epic three-volume account containing anything you could possibly want to know about the War Between The States.


Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus.
Gould's best-known collection of essays weaves together natural history and contemporary Americana in a most readable form.


U S Grant, Personal Memoirs.
Encouraged by Mark Twain, the Union general and subsequent president wrote his autobiography just before his death, in a (successful) bid to recoup his horrendous debts. At first the book feels oddly downbeat, but the man's down-to-earth modesty grows on you.


James R Grossman, Land of Hope.
Scholarly yet moving account of the exodus of Southern blacks to northern cities, specifically Chicago, during the early twentieth century. Though it focuses on the broader social and economic issues, it also manages to bring to life the individual stories involved.


Frederick Hoxie (ed), Indians in American History.
Eye-opening collection of essays focusing on the role of Native Americans in US history, and presenting them as active and aware (if hopelessly out-gunned) players rather than passive victims. Filled with illustrations and extensive quotes from journals and contemporary accounts of Native Americans from across the US.


J B Jackson, American Space.
Engagingly written work which traces the transition of America from a rural to an urban and industrialized nation in the crucial decade immediately after the Civil War.


Charles Jencks, The New Moderns.
Occasionally impenetrable, always opinionated academic study of neo-modernist architecture as designed by Philip Johnson, Peter Eisenman and Richard Meier. Interviews and lots of glossy photographs lighten the tone.


Roger G Kennedy, Rediscovering America.
Collected essays by one of America's most readable historians, appointed by Clinton to run the National Park Service. Kennedy looks behind the gloss of conventional tellings to reveal something of the real story of how America came to be.


Jill Ker Conway (ed), Written by Herself.
Splendid anthology of womens' autobiographies from the mid-1800s to the present, including sections on African Americans, scientists, pioneer women and artists.


Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, The Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-1806.
Eight volumes of meticulous jottings by the Northwest's first inland explorers, scrupulously following President Jefferson's orders to record every detail of flora, fauna and native inhabitant.


Ed Marston (editor), Reopening The Western Frontier.
Assorted contributors to High Country News reflect on possible futures for what was once the Wild West.


James M McPherson, Battle Cry Of Freedom.
Extremely readable history of the Civil War which integrates and explains the complex social, economic, political and military factors into one concise volume. Highly recommended.


James Mooney, The Ghost Dance Religion and The Sioux Outbreak of 1890.
An extraordinary Bureau of Ethnology report, first published in 1890 but still available in paperback. Mooney persuaded his Washington superiors to allow him to roam the West in search of first-hand evidence, and even interviewed Wovoka, the Ghost Dance prophet, in person.


Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert.
Compendious but compulsive account of the environmental and political impact on the West of this century's mania for dam-building and large-scale irrigation projects.


Hunter S Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt and Songs of the Doomed.
Accessible and varied collections of the maverick Dr Gonzo's journalistic rantings on contemporary American life and politics. Spiced up by tales of his own anarchic love of good times, guns and gambling.


Mark Twain, Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi, and many others.
Mark Twain was by far the funniest and most vivid chronicler of nineteenth-century America. Roughing It, which covers his early wanderings across the continent, all the way to Hawaii, is absolutely compelling.


John Unruh, The Plains Across.
A history of the wagon trains, drawing heavily on pioneer journals.


Geoffrey C Ward, with Ric and Ken Burns, The Civil War.
Marvellous illustrated history of the Civil War, designed to accompany the TV series and using hundreds of the same photographs.


Juan Williams, Eyes On The Prize.
Informative and detailed accompaniment to the excellent TV series, covering the Civil Rights years from the early Fifties up to 1966, with lots of rare and some very familiar photos.


Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore.
Fascinating eight-hundred-page survey of the literature of the American Civil War, which in its own right serves as an immensely readable narrative of the conflict.


Biography and oral history

Maya Angelou, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.
First volume of an autobiographical sequence which provides an ultimately uplifting account of how a black girl transcended her traumatic childhood in 1930s Arkansas.


William F Cody, The Life Of Hon William F Cody, Known As Buffalo Bill.
Larger than life autobiography of one of the great characters of the Wild West. Particularly treasurable for the moment when he refers to himself more formally as "Bison William".


Ben Hamper, Rivethead.
With a great introduction by Michael Moore (director of Roger & Me), Rivethead tells you what it's like to work on the assembly lines of General Motors in Flint, Michigan, and provides an often hilarious tirade against the fat cats of GM.


Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer, Voices of Freedom.
Hugely impressive oral history of the Civil Rights movement, heavily drawn from the TV series.


Joyce Johnson, Minor Characters.
Johnson, Jack Kerouac's girlfriend and "muse", tells her own story and those of the other women in the 1950s East Village scene, revealing the stiflingly reactionary male elitism of the Beats.


Malcolm X, with Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Searingly honest and moving account of a progress from street hoodlum to political leadership. Written on the hoof over a period of years, it traces the development of Malcolm X's thought before, during and after his split from the Nation of Islam. The conclusion, when he talks about his impending assassination, is painful in the extreme.


Muhammad Ali, The Greatest.
Powerful and entertaining autobiography of the Louisville boy who grew up to become world heavyweight boxing champion. The most memorable parts deal with his fight against the Vietnam draft and the subsequent stripping away of his world championship status.


John Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks.
Oglala Sioux healer relates his life and times to the "Nebraskan poet laureate".


Tony Parker, A Place Called Bird.
Fascinating oral history based on interviews with the inhabitants of a tiny town in the very center of Kansas, the heartland of the Midwest.


Ishbel Ross, Rebel Rose.
Evocative rebel-yelling biography of Rose Greenhow, glamorous Washington socialite and remarkably brave Confederate spy. Works equally well as an exciting tale of political espionage and an impeccably detailed historical document.


Quinta Scott and Susan Croce Kelly, Route 66.
Moving oral histories and monochrome photographs trace the life span of the now abandoned 2000-mile highway immortalized in film, novels and song.


Ralph Steadman, Scar Strangled Banner.
Warped, cynical and crazy underview of America, full of sketches and hacked-about photos, from sometime Hunter S Thompson collaborator and illustrator.


Joanna L Stratton, Pioneer Women.
Original memoirs by women - mothers, teachers, homesteaders and circuit riders - who ventured across the Plains from 1854 to 1890. Lively, superbly detailed accounts, with chapters on journeys, homebuilding, daily domestic life, the church, the cowtown, temperance and suffrage.


Studs Terkel, American Dreams Lost and Found.
Interviews with ordinary American citizens. As illuminating a guide to US life as you could hope for.


Frank Waters, Book Of The Hopi.
Extraordinary insight into the traditions and beliefs of the Hopi, prepared through years of interviews and approved by tribal elders.


Entertainment and culture

Kenneth Anger, Hollywood Babylon.
A vicious yet high-spirited romp through Tinseltown's greatest scandals, amply illustrated with gory and repulsive photographs, and always inclined to bend the facts for the sake of a good story. A shoddily researched second volume covers more recent times.


Thomas A Bass, The Newtonian Casino.
Daydreaming gamblers will love this account of the attempt by a bunch of Californian college dropouts, with computers hidden in their shoes, to beat the casinos in Las Vegas.


Thomas Boswell, How Life Imitates The World Series and Time Begins On Opening Day.
Boswell elevates baseball into something higher than a mere sport. Full of perceptive insights and amusing anecdotes.


Peter Guralnick, Lost Highways, Feel Like Going Home, and Sweet Soul Music.
Thoroughly researched personal histories of black popular music, packed with obsessive detail on all the great names.


Charlotte Greig, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?
Enthusiastic feminist appraisal of (predominantly American) girl groups from the Fifties (the Chantels and the Crystals) through to contemporary rap stars like Salt'n'Pepa. Lots of photos and personal recollections make it a great read.


Gerri Hershey, Nowhere To Run: The History of Soul Music.
Definitive rundown on the evolution of soul music from the gospel heyday of the Forties through the Memphis, Motown and Philly scenes to the sounds of the early Eighties. Strong on social commentary and political background and studded with anecdotes and interviews.


Bill Malone, Country Music, USA: A Fifty Year History.
An academic but thoroughly engrossing study of the roots and development of country music up to 1968.


Greil Marcus, Dead Elvis.
Vastly entertaining overview of the many Elvis myths, if a little hastily put together from previously published articles. Marcus' Mystery Train is an intelligent and absorbing overview of American popular music, from Robert Johnson to Elvis Presley and Randy Newman.


Robert Palmer, Deep Blues.
Readable history of the development and personalities of the Delta Blues.


Randall Reise, Nashville Babylon.
Thrashes the squeaky clean image of the country music scene. Cocaine, whiskey, infidelity, murder, rape, and other skeletons are dug up from the cupboards of some unlikely characters.


John Williams, Into The Badlands.
Williams' interviews with a batch of America's very best crime writers build a picture of the underbelly of US society from the Montana mountainsides of James Crumley to the mean streets of Elmore Leonard's Detroit. He lapses into sexism, however, when dealing with Chicago's Sara Paretsky, who "is learning as she goes along".


Travel writing

Edward Abbey, The Journey Home.
Hilarious accounts of whitewater rafting and desert hiking trips alternate with essays, by the man who inspired the radical environmentalist movement Earth First! All of Abbey's many books, especially Desert Solitaire, a journal of time spent as a ranger in Arches National Park, make great travelling companions.


James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
A deeply personal but also richly evocative journal of travels through the rural lands of the Depression-era Deep South, complemented by Evans' powerful photo-graphs.


Stephen Brook, New York Days, New York Nights.
An Englishman's drily witty impressions of the Big Apple, with chapters on every aspect of the place from flotation chambers to Jewish restaurants. Brook's Honky Tonk Gelato (also in Picador) treats Texas in a similar, if sometimes patronizing, vein.


Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent.
Using his boyhood home of Des Moines in Iowa as a benchmark, the author travels the length and breadth of America to find the perfect small town. At times hilarious but marred by some very smug, self-indulgent comments.


J Hector St-John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America.
First published in 1782, a remarkable account of the complexities of Revolutionary America.


Ian Frazier, Great Plains.
An immaculately researched and well-written travelogue containing a wealth of information on the people of the American prairielands from Native Americans to the soldiers who staff the region's many nuclear installations.


Bill Kaysing, Great Hot Springs of the West.
If you like the idea of soaking your bones in pools of naturally hot water in some of America's most beautiful locales, this fact-packed guidebook will point you in the right direction.


Jack Kerouac, On The Road.
Definitive account of transcontinental Beatnik wanderings which now reads as a curiously dated period piece. Not as incoherent as you might expect.


James A MacMahon (ed), Audobon Society Nature Guides.
Attractively produced, fully illustrated and easy to use guides to the flora and fauna of seven different US regional ecosystems, covering the entire country from coast to coast and from grasslands to glaciers.


Virginia and Lee McAlester, A Field Guide to American Houses.
Well-illustrated and engagingly readable guide to America's rich variety of domestic architecture, from pre-colonial to post-modern.


John McPhee, Encounters with the Arch Druid.
In three interlinked narratives, environmental activist and Friends of the Earth founder David Brower confronts developers, miners and dam builders, while trying to protect three different American wilderness areas - the Atlantic shoreline, the Grand Canyon, and the Cascades of the Pacific Northwest.


William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways.
Account of a mammoth loop tour of the US by backroads, in which the author interviews ordinary people in ordinary places. A good overview of rural America, with lots of interesting details on Native Americans. His next book, Prairyerth, opted for the microcosmic approach, taking six hundred loving pages over the story of Chase County, Kansas.


Jonathan Raban, Old Glory.
A somewhat pompous though always interesting account of Raban's journey on a small craft down the Mississippi River from the headwaters in Minnesota to the bayous of Louisiana.
Bad Land: An American Romance. A hard-scrabble journey through rural life in the American West, from a Brit "trying to find my own place in the landscape and history."


Bernard A Weisberger (ed), The WPA Guide to America.
Prepared during the New Deal as part of a make-work programme for writers, these guides paint a fairly comprehensive portrait of 1930s and earlier America. Also available are state by state guides, most of them out of print but easily found in US libraries and secondhand bookshops.


Edmund White, States of Desire: Travels in Gay America.
A revealing account of life in gay communities across the country, focusing heavily on San Francisco and New York.



Nelson Algren, A Walk on the Wild Side.
Bleak novel charting the decline of a youth who flees his Tex-Mex border town after raping a girl and embarks upon a hobo life, ending up in the sleazy red-light district of New Orleans.


Paul Auster, New York Trilogy.
Three Borgesian investigations into the mystery and madness of contemporary New York. Using the conventions of the detective novel, Auster unfolds a disturbed and disturbing picture of the city.


Tom Bodett, The End Of The Road.
First novel by broadcaster from Homer, Alaska, who shot to fame as the voice on Motel 6 radio commercials. Funny, witty and certainly better than his often shallow collections of essays (viz. As Far As You Can Go Without A Passport), but for the best value invest in some of his taped books.


James Lee Burke, Black Cherry Blues.
Cajun cop Dave Robicheaux sets out to expose alliances between government and organized crime in the beautiful environs of Louisiana and Montana. A detective book that has it all.


George Washington Cable, The Grandissimes.
Romantic saga of Creole family feuds, written at the turn of the century but set during the Louisiana Purchase. Superb evocation of steamy Louisiana, elite Creole lifestyle and the resistance of New Orleans to its Americanization. Apparently shocking at the time for its sympathetic portrayal of blacks.


Raymond Carver Will You Please Be Quiet Please? Stories of the American working class, written in a distinctive sparse, almost deadpan style that perhaps owes something to Hemingway and certainly influenced untold numbers of contemporary American writers. The stories served as the basis for Robert Altman's film Short Cuts.


Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop.
Melodramatic title for a sober but very emotive fictionalized biography of the first archbishop of Santa Fe. The Professor's House has a similar feel for the history of the Southwest, reaching back to the Anasazi, while her Nebraska novels, such as the stunning My Antonia, provide a great sense of pioneer hardships on the Plains.


Nick Cave, And The Ass Saw The Angel.
Rock singer Cave creates the ultimate outsider and subjects him to more misery, abuse and hardship than you'll find in the collected works of Faulkner and McCullers. An intense, well-executed jibe at moral excesses in the Deep South and a superb pastiche of the heavyweight southern novel.


Michael Chabon, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.
A just-graduated gangster's son learns about life during a sweltering Pittsburgh summer.


Kate Chopin, The Awakening.
Subversive story of a bourgeois married woman whose fight for independence ends in tragedy. Swampy turn-of-the-century Louisiana is portrayed as both a sensual hotbed for her sexual awakening and as her eventual nemesis.


James Crumley, The Wrong Case.
The lack of an intricate plot is more than compensated for by accounts of Montana scenery and the hapless detective Milo Milodragonovic, a man with a drink problem and a knack for doing things the hard way. An enjoyable, easy read.


Don DeLillo White Noise and Underworld. The former is his best, a funny and penetrating pop culture exploration, while the latter is one of those typically flawed attempts to pack the twentieth-century American experience into a great big novel. Worthwhile, though.


John Dos Passos, USA.
Hugely ambitious novel (originally a trilogy) which grapples with the US in the early decades of this century from every possible angle. Gripping human stories with a strong political and historical perspective.


Dennis Johnson Jesus' Son. Junkies and thieves and all the usual trappings of a beat-era collection of stories, but from 1990s urban America.


Louise Erdrich, The Beet Queen.
Slightly offbeat tale of passion and obsession amongst poor white North Dakota folk - particularly women - set against the backdrop of an economy and culture changing with the introduction of sugar beet as a crop in the 1940s. Erdrich's Love Medicine describes two Native American families on a North Dakota reservation, the strong women who hold them together, and the tensions between tradition and "progress".


William Faulkner, The Reivers.
The last and most humorous work of this celebrated southern author. The Sound and the Fury, a fascinating study of prejudice, set like most of his books in the fictional Yoknatapawpha County in Mississippi, is a much more difficult read.


A B Guthrie Jr, Big Sky.
When first published in the Thirties it shattered the credibility of the mythical west peddled by Hollywood. Realistic historical fiction at its very best, following desperate mountain man and fugitive Boone Caudill whose idyllic life in Montana was ended by the arrival of white settlers.


Carl Hiaasen, Double Whammy.
Hiaasen is the most humorous crime writer on the scene. This one sees rednecks/bass fishermen and religious sects caught up in a fast-moving and hilarious plot.


George V Higgins, Penance for Jerry Kennedy.
Crime thriller written almost entirely in the dialogue of Boston lowlifes and crooked lawmen.


Tony Hillerman, The Dark Wind and many others.
The adventures of Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police on the reservations of northern Arizona, forever dabbling in dark and mysterious forces churned up from the Anasazi past.


Chester Himes, Cotton Comes to Harlem, Blind Man with a Pistol, and many others.
Action-packed and uproariously violent novels set in New York's Harlem, starring the much-feared detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones.


Zora Neale Hurston, Spunk.
Short stories celebrating black culture and experience from around the country, by a writer from Florida who became one of the bright stars of the Harlem cultural renaissance in the 1920s.


Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days.
Wry, witty tales about a mythical Minnesota small town. Pokes fun at the rural Midwest with an affectionate finger.


William Kennedy Ironweed. Terse, affecting tale of a couple of down-on-their-luck drunks haunted by ghosts from a checkered past; excellent evocation of 1930s America, specifically working-class Albany, New York.


Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird.
Classic tale of racial conflict and society's view of an outsider, Boo Radley, as seen through the eyes of children.


Elmore Leonard, Freaky Deaky.
One of the funniest of Leonard's tough, brutal thrillers. Set in Detroit, it follows two former Sixties radicals who turn to crime.


Jack London, The Call of the Wild and Other Stories.
London's classic tale, of a family pet discovering the ways of the wilderness while forced to pull sleds across Alaska's gold rush trails, is still essential reading before a trip to the far north.


Norman MacLean, A River Runs Through It.
Unputdownable - the best ever novel about fly-fishing, set in beautiful Montana lake country.


Armistead Maupin, Tales Of The City.
Long-running saga comprised of sympathetic and entertaining human tales of life in San Francisco, that also work surprisingly well as suspenseful stand-alone novels. The fact that many of its key characters are gay meant that over the years the series became a chronicle of the impact of AIDS on the city.


Carson McCullers, Member of the Wedding.
McCullers is unrivalled in her sensitive treatment of misfits, in this case the attitude of a small southern community to a deaf mute.


Herman Melville, Moby Dick.
Compendious and compelling account of nineteenth-century whaling, packed with details on American life from New England to the Pacific.


Margaret Mitchell, Gone With The Wind.
Worth a read even if you know the lines of Scarlett and Rhett off by heart.


Toni Morrison, Beloved.
Exquisitely written ghost story by the Nobel-Prize-winning novelist, which traces the painful lives of a group of freed slaves after Reconstruction, and the obsession a mother develops after murdering her baby daughter to spare her a life of slavery.


Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find.
Short stories, featuring strong, obsessive characters, that explore religious tensions and racial conflicts in the Deep South.


Grace Paley, The Little Disturbances of Man.
Shrewd love-hate stories set in the immigrant Jewish communities of New York.


E. Annie Proulx Accordion Crimes.

Proulx's masterly book comes as close to being the fabled "Great American Novel" as anyone could reasonably ask, tracing a fascinating history of immigrants in all parts of North America through the fortunes of a battered old Sicilian accordion.


Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire.
One of a series of sensual, chilling vampire novels set in Louisiana.


J D Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye.
Classic novel of adolescence, tracing Holden Caulfield's sardonic journey through the streets of New York.


Mari Sandoz, Old Jules.
Written in 1935, this fictionalized biography gives a wonderful insight to the life of the author's pioneer Swiss father on the Nebraskan plains. Sandoz's other major work Crazy Horse contains great historical overviews but is spoilt somewhat by her insistence on narrating it through Sioux eyes.


John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath.
The classic account of a migrant family forsaking the Midwest for the Promised Land. Steinbeck's lighthearted but crisply observed novella Cannery Row captures daily life on the prewar Monterey waterfront, and the epic East of Eden (Pan) updates and re-sets the Bible in the Salinas Valley and details three generations of familial feuding.


Peter Taylor, Summons To Memphis.
Warm tale of a wealthy Tennessee family who make a downmarket move from Nashville to Memphis during the Thirties.


John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces.
Anarchic black tragicomedy in which the pompous and repulsive antihero Ignatius O Reilly wreaks havoc through an insalubrious and surreal New Orleans.


Alice Walker, In Love and Trouble.
Moving and powerful stories of black women in the South, from the author of the much-acclaimed The Color Purple.


Eudora Welty, The Ponder Heart.
Quirky, humorous evocation of life in a backwater Mississippi town. Her most critically acclaimed work, The Optimist's Daughter, explores the tensions between a judge's daughter and her stepmother.


Richard Wright, Native Son.
A harrowing story about Bigger Thomas, a black chauffeur who accidently kills his employer's daughter. The story develops his relationship with his lawyer, the closest he has ever come to being on an equal footing with a white.