The best books about American culture that will surprise you

Claudia Keenan Author Of Waking Dreamers, Unexpected American Lives: 1880-1980
By Claudia Keenan

The Books I Picked & Why

Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate

By Ginger Strand

Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate

Why this book?

This unlikely thriller of a book explores a seemingly bland subject: the network of interstate highways built by the Federal Government after World War II. In fact, these highways transformed American culture, not only spelling the demise of many country roads and small towns but replacing the friendly hitchhiker with the terrifying “killer on the road.” Further, the highways led to the creation of rest stops and shadowy neighborhoods that came to harbor predators, while the interstates aided the criminals’ flight. Killer on the Road keeps you on the edge of your seat, unfolding into horror, mystery, and victimization.


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Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion

By Edward J. Larson

Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion

Why this book?

Nearly a century ago, in the small town of Dayton, Tenn., one of the most heated trials in U.S. history occurred. Few Americans could ignore the small, crowded, overheated courtroom where an illustrious criminal lawyer squared off against a renowned politician over the teaching of the theory of human evolution. The case, which pitted religion (William Jennings Bryan) against science (Clarence J. Darrow), highlighted the rift between urban and rural values, and demonstrated the rising authority of modern educators and experts. Perhaps most exciting, this book chronicles the untamed expansion of American popular culture during the 1920s. 


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The Devil and Sonny Liston

By Nick Tosches

The Devil and Sonny Liston

Why this book?

“A ghost story, a haunting unto itself”—thus, music journalist Nick Tosches opens his tough tale of the boxer Sonny Liston, two-time heavyweight champion of the world. Born in 1932 into a family of tenant farmers that lived on the border of Arkansas and Mississippi, Liston grew up with violence, reinforced by an early stint in prison. Deftly, Tosches conjures the grim, ruthless culture of professional boxing during the 1950s and 60s. Most poignantly, he shows that Liston never possessed his own life—not in the fields from which he fled as a youth and not as a winner in the ring. He was always owned by white men who operated a fundamentally racist business. For readers interested in Black cultural history, this is a timely book. 


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A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York

By Timothy J. Guilfoyle

A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York

Why this book?

Once upon a time in the nineteenth century, George Appo was one of the most famous criminals in New York City. The son of immigrants—a Chinese father and Irish mother—he grew up in the dirty, rotten Five Points neighborhood, where he learned to con, steal, fight, and outrun the police. In and out of prison, teaming up with gangs, and frequenting the opium dens where Bohemianism flourished, Appo knew every swindle and dodge on the street. But, as he once told a judge, he did not consider himself a “bad character.” Indeed, this intricately researched, beautifully written book demonstrates that Appo inhabited a multicultural subculture with its own honor code. 


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Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States

By Andrew Coe

Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States

Why this book?

Chop Suey is the scholarly, entertaining story of how Chinese food found a home in America. It opens in 1784, as the Empress of China sets sail from New York to initiate U.S.-China trade. But not until the California Gold Rush, which drew waves of Chinese immigrants to San Francisco and eventually Chicago and New York, did Chinese vegetables and delicacies like birds’ nests and dried oysters arrive in this country. Soon, Chinese restaurants proliferated. Among the topics in this fascinating book are the Americanization of Chinese cuisine, its expansion into the suburbs and exurbs, and restaurant décor—juxtaposed with the violence and prejudice encountered by Chinese immigrants.


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