July reading list in red, white and blue

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Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” reveals all anyone can bear to know about slavery. “Angle of Repose” is set against the story of the exploration and settling of the west. “The Grapes of Wrath” brings us to the Dust Bowl of the ’30s, the desolation and loss of the Great Depression and the great migration westward. John Steinbeck, the quintessential American writer, also gave us “The Red Pony,” “East of Eden” and “Of Mice and Men.” Read all his novels and there isn’t much you wouldn’t know about American life in the West between the 1850s and 1930s.

Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” gives us another extraordinary coming-of-age story, and yet another discussion of racism in the deep South, set in counterpoint to the American ideals of fairness, equal treatment under the law and tolerance.

Many of our greatest novels, from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to Louise Erdrich’s “Love Medicine,” “The Beet Queen” and, recently, “The Roundhouse,” speak to the tragic isolation and suffering endured by minorities in America. Read Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and know what it’s like to be a Dominican émigré in a big American city.

Other books illuminate other dark corners in the American story. Read Nathanial Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” and Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and E.L. Doctorow’s “Billy Bathgate.” We must not avert our eyes from “Deliverance” or “A Confederacy of Dunces” or the brutality of “The Godfather.” The story of America is written in blood and speaks of violence and sorrow as much as it evokes inspiration and love.

As much as “Moby-Dick” gives us the world of whaling in 19th-century America, “American Pastoral,” by Philip Roth, gives us the ’60s, and “Let the Great World Spin” processes and reflects back to us the momentous change and loss wrought by 9/11.

To read a novel like “Salvage the Bones,” by Jesmyn Ward, is to hunker down with her characters in the backwoods of Mississippi as the roiling waves and terrifying winds of Hurricane Katrina tear apart their lives. When you read this book, you live and breathe the approaching storm, you suffer its fury in a visceral way.
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