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October 25, 2007

Francesca recommends books: Americana, part 2

Filed under: Uncategorized — Francesca @ 3:13 pm

We continue our dabbling into books that touch on topics in American history and society. Part one is here.

Edith Wharton is best known for writing The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and Ethan Frome, but Francesca would first recommend one of her lesser-known novels, The Custom of the Country, for its readability and deliciously entertaining drama. It is the story of Undine Spragg, who rises to ever higher socioeconomic levels by marrying successively more socioeconomically desirable husbands. Francesca wrote a long thesis paper on this book in college and can tell you some interesting trivia which deepens the book. In 1913, when The Custom of the Country was written, the divorce rate in America had recently doubled, from 2 percent to 4 percent (yes, I know, I know) and there was much concern for the state of American marriage. This, combined with Wharton’s interest in women’s inability to change their life circumstances except through their husbands, led her to ask: What if we take both of these situations together to their logical conclusion? The result is a main character you will love to hate. And, also, a window into just-post-Edwardian New York, which Francesca always loves. New York in 1913 had a lot going on, indeed. And fantastic clothes.

This week, Francesca recommends two books by one of Francesca’s favorite authors, Mr. John Steinbeck. Sure, his writing is wordy. It is also relatable. Reading a Steinbeck story is like having a grandpa telling Francesca stories by the fire. Sometimes they comforting. Sometimes they are scary. Always there is something familiar about them. They speak of, and to, the American soul!

East of Eden is an epic novel of  . . . well, epic, nay Biblical, proportions. Indeed, the many, many Biblical allusions (and even outright references) will amuse and gratify anyone familiar with the Book of Genesis. The story follows several generations of two families in California’s Salinas valley at the start of the 20th century. It’s got patricide. It’s got prostitution. It’s got sibling rivalry. It’s also got nobility, and dignity, and wisdom. Steinbeck considered it his greatest work, and Francesca agrees.

Francesca studied The Grapes of Wrath  in 11th grade, and it is only because she had a wonderful, wonderful teacher that she escaped the great tragedy which is other people thinking the book is boring. As Francesca often says, “the best way to kill a book is to teach it in high school.” This book is wonderful. It follows a family who is driven out of the Oklahoma farm by the dust bowl of the 1930’s and the Great Depression, and make their way to California. The injustices they suffer along the way at the hands of other Americans are very angering, and gain an extra level of poignancy when read now, after, say, the Katrina debacle. The chapter in which we find out why the book is called The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most lyrical, beautiful, goose-bump inducing pieces of writing ever.

Francesca wishes everyone happy reading! xoxo!


  1. Fracesca speaks the truth. East of Eden is my favorite American novel. If you haven’t seen the James Dean version, you MUST go out and rent it. It only captures a sliver of the sweeping epic so won’t ruin the book for you.

    Comment by Plumcake — October 25, 2007 @ 3:43 pm

  2. Ah…the Grapes of Wrath. While I did have to read it for a class in high school, that class was taught by a wonderful – WONDERFUL – teacher that managed to make the book come alive and make it relevant to our lives. I love that book on so many levels. It’s sitting on my shelf, waiting patiently to be re-read a number of times when I finally get a chance. Again, Francesca, you remind me of books I should revisits and propose a number of books to be added to The List (e.g., East of Eden). Thank you!

    Comment by Neller — October 25, 2007 @ 4:16 pm

  3. John Steinbeck’s writing makes me very happy.

    I am lately in love with the very American writing of Theodore Dreiser, whose Sister Carrie is available in its entirety here. (Entirely legal; it’s out from under copyright.) And I think An American Tragedy is an even finer book.

    Comment by bristlesage — October 25, 2007 @ 4:26 pm

  4. More with the Steinbeck love – his Travels with Charley is (along with Henry Miller’s quite … different Colossus of Maroussi) my favourite travelogue. It’s given me great ideas for my US jaunt next year. (Now, I also want to go to a Saks).

    Comment by Margo — October 25, 2007 @ 4:54 pm

  5. _The Custom of the Country_ is one of the great novels undiscovered by people who would love it, and the Francesca deserved much credit for calling it to people’s attention. Wharton was herself a person who divorced, and she is complex on the issue. She’s also just a brilliant anthropologist of her social world.

    Comment by marybennet — October 25, 2007 @ 5:24 pm

  6. Fans of Edith Wharton’s books should look for a copy of her novella ‘Roman Fever’. (You can find the text online.) It boasts all the quiet, elegant backstabbing of her other novels, but there’s a gleefully bent ending.

    Comment by Julia — October 28, 2007 @ 3:02 pm

  7. This Canadian import appreciates the list of Americana to read. Though we did read American novels in school, we focussed mostly on British and Canadian authors. Perhaps one day Francesca might consider a truly wonderful list of Canadian fiction? Your neighbours to the North are much more than ice and igloos.

    Comment by Lucy — October 29, 2007 @ 8:07 am

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