It’s time once again for our nation’s birthday, and if there’s one thing America does well, it’s coming up with moving and entertaining stories. This Fourth of July, we’re digging into the book club vault and coming out with classic American novels getting the anniversary reprint or special edition treatment. Scroll on for books that will have you reveling in Americana vibes!
1. Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann ($18): “New York was steaming — an angry concrete animal caught unawares in an unseasonable hot spell. But she didn’t mind the heat… She thought New York was the most exciting city in the world.” It’s hard to believe, but the mother of all juicy pop-culture novels, Valley of the Dolls, came out fifty years ago. Jacqueline Susann’s gossipy masterpiece chronicles the lives of three best friends, women who struggle to the peak of the entertainment industry, only to find the valley on the other side.
“Fame, money, power and prescription pill addictions: The themes in Valley are just so now,” writes Simon Doonan in the reissue’s introduction. The novel was ahead of its time: Forget Sex and the City, Susann truly started the real-talk revolution in the way women read and spoke about sexuality and ambition. This led critics to call it “tawdry” or “trashy,” without thinking that could be part of its appeal — or power. Susann herself published an article entitled “My Book Is Not Dirty!” (included in the reissue), insisting that the content might be shocking, but it wasn’t wrong. Susann’s characters are genuine and psychologically complex; she links ideas of emotional need to otherwise addictive personalities, heralding the popularity of the “pill cure” for everything. The book even features a rare (for 1966) positively treated gay character.
“Susann predicted the celebrity culture we live in now,” says Ms. Magazine founding editor Letty Cottin Pogrebin. “Actually, she invented it: Fame is as fame does.” Everybody knew her name. When it came out, the novel was an instant smash hit, the year’s best seller. Brush up on your history and have a blast doing it, because unlike its starlets, the book hasn’t aged a day. As The Guardian’s Julie Burchill says, “Valley of the Dolls remains a brave, bold, angry and, yes, definitely a feminist book. All that, and still about the most fun you can have without a prescription.”
2. Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic ($18): Perhaps nothing is more appropriate for the Fourth of July than a re-examination of Ron Kovic’s searing autobiography. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of the book, which was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film in 1989 (starring Tom Cruise as Kovic in the days before Tom went off the rails). Kovic was, in fact, born on that auspiciously American day, and grew up thinking patriotism meant spoiling for war before doing two tours in Vietnam, getting shot and becoming paralyzed, then discovering the patriotism in campaigning for peace.
“I wanted people to understand… I wanted them to know what it really meant to be in a war… not the myth we had grown up believing,” Kovic says. The new edition features an introduction from Bruce Springsteen, whose song Born in the USA is a similarly patriotically named tale of disillusionment. In the great, never-ending experiment that is a country, it has always been important to ask these hard questions to provoke growth and change. “It remains to Kovic to remind us that history matters,” writes Robert Scheer.
3. Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary ($5): Now here’s a classic for the kid in all of us. Beverly Cleary has helped generations of kids get through growing up, through laughter, tears and a healthy dose of wild and crazy schemes. The great lady of kidlit turned 100 years old this year, and is still young at heart, giving interviews (included in these reissues) and witnessing the rerelease of her greatest hits, newly illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers and with forewords by some fellow awesome ladies like Judy Blume and Kate DiCamillo. “I was a well-behaved little girl, not that I wanted to be,” Cleary says. Heaven forbid — well-behaved women rarely make history, and Cleary, with a National Medal of Arts under her belt, certainly has.
Ramona Quimby, Age 8 is also having an anniversary. Hard to believe (we know), but the sixth book in the iconic series was published thirty-five years ago, in 1981. “Ramona Quimby hoped her parents would forget to give her a little talking-to. She did not want anything to spoil this exciting day.” In the Newbery Award-winning novel, Cleary’s best-known character Ramona has changed schools and faces a lot more responsibilities as a third-grader, and is now one of the oldest kids in the building (though her annoying sister Beezus is still older). She’s worried, though, that her new teacher thinks she’s a show-off, and there’s this boy (who she calls the “Yard Ape”) who keeps stealing her eraser…
This adorable reissue features a foreword by long-time fan and comedy dynamo Amy Poehler, who’s as delighted with it as we are. Quimby’s (and Cleary’s) wit, verve and resourcefulness continue to make this book a joy, thirty-five years later. Rediscover it or give it to the best kid you know.
What books move your nation? Tag us in your next patriotic read @BritandCo.
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