Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, 2016)
This is not quite a biography of Benedict Arnold, but not quite a history of the American Revolution either. The book ends abruptly when John Andre is hanged for his part in Benedict’s Arnold’s treason; it fails to tell us what Arnold did with the rest of his life and when and where he died. It seems a bit rude to not tell us what happened, unless Philbrick is planning a sequel. The book is quite interesting and well-written, and obviously based on copious primary sources which Philbrick quotes extensively. If you’re at all interested in American history you will certainly enjoy and learn a lot from this book. I particularly enjoyed the battlefield maps since as a resident of the northeastern United States I have driven through most of the locations on them.
Glory Over Everything: Beyond The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom (Simon & Schuster, 2016)
This work of historical fiction reminds readers of the horrors of American slavery while telling a moderately suspenseful tale. It is the sequel to her novel The Kitchen House which I have not read, but that didn’t matter. I found the writing style stilted and self-conscious, but other readers may not be bothered by this. It was disturbing to learn that being free, and even being white, did not protect anyone from being seized and sold into slavery in the America of two hundred years ago. The value placed on people’s lives seemed to be very low, which might be partly due to how common death was for all ages. At least half the main characters in this book die, so don’t get too attached. Sadly, children in that time apparently behaved just as thoughtlessly as they always have, even though disobeying their parents could lead to much more serious consequences.
Americanah: a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).
This is actually Adichie’s fourth novel; she sounds so young I assumed it was her first. I think her fresh voice will resonate with the college students who are supposed to be reading it for their freshman seminar at my university. I hope they don’t assume it’s like most of the English literature they are required to read, which is usually very hard for students to relate to, and don’t bother to open it. If so they will miss out on the story of two intelligent young Nigerians in their twenties seeking fame, fortune and love – the woman in America (mainly in the Philadelphia area) and the man briefly in England and then back home in Lagos, Nigeria. The social commentary about the United States is spot on, so I expect that Adichie’s commentary about life in Nigeria is equally accurate. There is a whole secondary theme about “identity through hair”, as a co-worker of mine called it, particularly as it relates to women of African descent. Most Americans (college students or not) know very little about life in modern African countries (unless they are fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s books set in Botswana) and will find this novel fascinating and eye-opening.
The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, 2015)
Bill Bryson is a very entertaining writer of non-fiction, a genre not generally known for its humor. Although I have only read A Short History of Nearly Everything, he has authored many other popular books. In this one he travels across the United Kingdom from the southern to northernmost points, describing the various cities and villages that he visits on foot, by bus, by train or by car. It is not meant to be a guide to specific places to stay, but more of a verbal tour and commentary – like a television travel program. I really enjoyed the way he brought the country to life for me.
Bryson’s background is in journalism, but he writes about the places he visits in a casual and humorous voice that he probably couldn’t get away with in everyday print journalism (at least not the parts where he reveals his liberal political views). I was surprised to learn that Bryson has British citizenship and has lived in England for forty years, but still thinks of himself as an American. I highly recommend this book if you’ve never been to the UK and want to know what it’s like, although since I haven’t been there myself I can’t vouch for how accurate it is.