Uncommonly Good Books By Great American Writers

It’s not exactly writer’s block. But I have chronic difficulty writing about exceptional  books and great American authors.

How long has it been since I promised to finish my review of J.K. Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy?”  Is it a novel about small-town life, or hypocrisy, or intolerance, or poverty? Local politics gone crazy, or class warfare? Darned if I know. I’d have to read the whole thing again to sort it all out. (Rowling is British, but her story resounds in American culture.)

As I read the final page of “The Casual Vacancy,” I was struck speechless. Partly it’s a sense of grief that the book is over. Partly it’s awe at the author’s virtuoso performance. What can I say but, “Bravo!”?



Among contemporary authors, Ann Patchett amazes me the most. I never wrote a word about Patchett’s “State of Wonder.” What could I say? What kind of story is it, science fiction? Corporate treachery vs. scientific deception? Human hubris? The premise is a discovery so unlikely that you find yourself believing it, combined with an adventure so implausible that it has to be real. Yet it’s all nothing more than a figment — an elaborate figment — of Patchett’s hyperactive imagination! (Patchett and the following authors are all American originals.)

Maybe I’m so overwhelmed by a story or a message that I don’t know where to begin. How can I possibly describe the experience of inhaling a great book? How can a mere human possess such genius?

Patchett’s “Bel Canto” left me similarly gasping. So many perfectly drawn characters. The first sentence rivets your attention until the violent conclusion wrings you out. In between, don’t tell me . . . it’s a story about opera? I don’t even like opera! No wait, it’s also about the gulf between rich and poor in a Latin American backwater. And about hostages and hospitality. In the end, the powerful destroy the peasants.

Where does Patchett get this stuff?



It goes beyond mastery of the English language. Far beyond. It’s the invention of story. The marshaling of knowledge. The insight into the human soul. The explanation of the inexplicable. It’s the truth.

What could I possibly say to do justice to the adventure and romance and history in Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain?”

How could I write about Anne Tyler’s “Ladder of Years?” There’s so much more here than meets the eye. I didn’t realize that the most important theme is grief until the third time I read the book. Many of Tyler’s novels are similarly multilayered with psychological insight.

Cover of "The Great Gatsby"

Cover of The Great Gatsby

How many others, starting long before I was born? John Steinbeck‘s “Grapes of Wrath” in 1939; F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s “The Great Gatsby in 1925.

“The Good Earth,” by Pearl S. Buck in 1931. Here’s a story so vast yet human, from a time and place and culture so far from my own world. It’s not a difficult read; it’s a fascinating story. But I’d need to study the book for a month before I could dare to write about it.

“To Kill A Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee in 1960. Now there’s a story that knocks the wind out of you. It’s fiction, but it’s rooted in reality. How many times have I read this masterpiece? The basic story is etched in my mind. It’s not the kind of thing you forget. But many details are swirling in fog. Rarely are the characters of children so well-developed. The black woman who cooks the meals and mothers the children is a central character. You don’t often find a scene so beautifully told as her visit with two small white children to an African-American church in the deep South. The steely determination of the heroic, white attorney is juxtaposed against the dignity and humility of the unjustly accused black man.

Cover of "The Edge of Sadness"

Cover of The Edge of Sadness

I have to add a personal favorite. “The Last Hurrah,” by Edwin O’Connor, in 1956. I read it in high school, and maybe it kindled my fascination with politics. It’s a deceptively straight-forward story about a deceptively complex character. O’Connor skillfully creates an ambiguous picture of Mayor Frank Skeffington. Is he a corrupt scoundrel, or a heroic populist leader?  Could he possibly be both?

O’Connor wrote other excellent but less well-known novels, such as “I Was Dancing” and The Edge of Sadness.” Those novels deserve a little recognition. “The Edge of Sadness” is possibly O’Connor’s best book. Like “The Last Hurrah,” it captures a vivid snapshot Irish-Catholic life in America at one passing moment. “Hurrah” is about politicians; “Sadness” is about priests.

Cover of "Team of Rivals: The Political G...

Cover via Amazon

There’s one other reason I fail to write the reviews I want to write. My fickle attention moves on. So many other books to read!

This week I plunged into Team of Rivals,” by the great contemporary historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. It’s an overly ambitious biography, not only of Abraham Lincoln, but also several of his great rivals, including William Henry Seward.

“Team of Rivals” is one damned thick book, 916 pages including index and footnotes. How does an author research and organize such a project? Goodwin does it repeatedly. “Rivals” is her fourth remarkable (and long) biography. All of them are about American political giants. After the first 148 pages, my impression is that “Rivals” may be her masterwork.

That’s my Christmas gift to you, friends and readers. If you’re looking for a good story, I recommend any of the books or authors on this list.

— John Hayden

6 thoughts on “Uncommonly Good Books By Great American Writers

  1. Wow- you’ve got some outstanding writers listed. I’m familiar with them, but have not yet read the books you listed. More to add to the list…I think one of the amazing things is how prolific these writers are, yet still able to turn out great work.
    I love Anne Tyler for her ability to pack such a punch in relatively short novels. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is my absolute favorite for the fact that she picked a child for her POV on such an incredibly intense story.
    Great post, except for the fact you just made my reading list even longer!


    • I’ve always been impressed at how the characters of the children stand out in “To Kill A Mockingbird,” a story that’s focused on the adults. But I’d forgotten that the story is told from Scout’s point of view. Thanks for reminding me.


  2. Hi John,
    Thanks for mentioning my blog in your post! I’ve recently been intrigued by Patchett, as well, and am looking forward to exploring her work in more depth next year. If you haven’t yet read her short memoir on writing — The Get-Away Car — I highly recommend it. It will make you appreciate her even more.

    You an I read a few of the same books this year — I just finished Gatsby and watching Ken Burns’s The Dust Bowl is moving me towards Grapes of Wrath. And To Kill A Mockingbird…..best ever.

    Happy reading in the coming year! Cheers!


    • “The Get-Away Car” is waiting on my Kindle. Speaking of memoirs, Patchett is a novelist, but her other memoir, “Truth And Beauty” might be her most powerful book. I can’t really recommend it, because some find “Truth And Beauty” too depressing.

      Doris Kearns Goodwin also has a short memoir of her growing-up years. It’s “Wait ‘Til Next Year.” It’s as much about the Brooklyn Dodgers and baseball as it is about growing up. Every baseball fan will love it.


  3. Great reviews on some books I have not yet read but would be interested in exploring!!!
    If I don’t see you before I wish you and your family a very Merriest of Christmas and a most wonderful New Year!!


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