Happy Independence Day to all our American friends! To follow-up our list of 10 Great Canadian Books for Canada Day, here’s our list of 10 American books for our neighbours to the south — a couple of which are available as Bookclub-in-a-Box discussion guides, too. In hindsight, we realize a number of these books are fairly daunting (and occasionally post-apocalyptic, or at least dystopian), but they will surely leave you feeling grateful for the freedoms we enjoy today.
1. The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth. In this novel, the year is 1940 and Franklin D. Roosevelt loses the election to aviation hero and alleged anti-semite Charles Lindbergh. Told through his own eyes as a seven year old, Roth uses himself, his family, and his community to discuss the ripple effects of such a grand unsettling event, and explores whether ethnic hatred and murder could have come to the great United States of America in the same way as it did in Europe at that time. (Buy the Bookclub-in-a-Box discussion guide here.)
2. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid. This one is more than the usual immigrant book of struggle and identity. Mohsin Hamid has written a gripping tale about Changez, a young, Harvard-educated Pakistani businessman who comes to America just prior to 9/11, after which everything changes. Told through Changez’s voice as he speaks to a nameless American tourist, the story spans only a single evening, yet still swings the reader on a pendulum of conflicting emotions. (Buy the Bookclub-in-a-Box discussion guide here.)
3. Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. Though a little bit daunting at more than 1,000 pages, this Civil War–era novel is a classic American tale. There’s nothing more patriotic than Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara’s love of country, and her determination to survive against all odds is inspirational.
4. State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. This non-fiction book features a different writer for each of the 50 states, including such literati as Susan Orlean, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Jonathan Franzen. According to Publisher’s Weekly, “Franzen’s imaginary interview with the state of New York is perhaps the high point among this collection of beguiling summations of something all the writers share: a love-hate relationship with how their chosen state has changed and evolved during the course of their lives.”
5. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Another classic novel set in the American South, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel deals with important issues of rape and racial inequality during the Great Depression. If you haven’t already, pick up this book and be inspired by Atticus Finch, everyone’s favourite literary father figure and a moral role model for lawyers everywhere.
6. Beloved, by Toni Morrison. Considered by some to be the best work of American fiction in recent history, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is based on the true story of an African-American slave in the 1850s who was driven to kill her two-year-old daughter rather than let her be taken back to Kentucky as a slave. Another Pulitzer Prize–winner, this book was also made into a film starring Oprah Winfrey in 1998.
7. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. This absolutely gripping, gut-wrenching story about a boy and his father struggling to survive in post-apocalyptic America will remind you to appreciate life’s small luxuries — enjoy them while you still can.
8. On the Road, by Jack Kerouac. A very different kind of road. The ultimate American road trip novel, On the Road is based on the travels of Kerouac and his friend Neal Cassady (renamed Dean Moriarty in the book) in the 1940s, visiting everywhere from California to New York and many places in between. With a love of women, jazz, poetry, and drugs, this book with its stream-of-consciousness style has been an inspiration to generations of ambling artists.
9. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers. Though some parts have been either compressed or dramatized for literary effect, Eggers’ memoir recounts his life as a 20-something young man, suddenly thrust into adulthood when both of his parents died of cancer and he found himself responsible for raising his eight-year-old brother, Toph, in San Francisco. Eggers is as experimental in his writing style as he is with his parenting techniques, and the book is worth the trip it takes you on.
10. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. This novel, set in a future where calendar years are named after the highest-paying advertiser (“the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment”), describes a society where American addictions to entertainment, drugs, sex, and fame have reached a new height — one particular video, in fact, is so addictively enjoyable that watchers find it literally impossible to turn away. Full of footnotes upon footnotes, a huge cast of characters, sadness, and humour, Infinite Jest is a challenge that’s well worth the effort.