Great American fiction for summer reading

1. “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” by Michael Chabon

Imagine that Israel was erased in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and that many of the Jewish survivors fled to Alaska. That’s what Chabon imagines in his beautiful, haunting, virtually surrealist detective story “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.” The novel is nominally written in prose but Chabon’s writing more often equals poetry. His writing also includes untranslated Yiddish. Fortunately, there’s a glossary in the back. All in all, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is a wild ride that will teach readers about Ashkenazim, Hasidism and Jewish food as much as become their favorite contemporary novel. Grade: B

2. “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville

Often labeled “The Great American Novel,” “Moby Dick” is as American as it gets. It’s fitting, then, that it’s as polarizing as our politics: Readers either worship it or demonize it. Love it or hate it, however, one cannot deny the novel’s astounding depth and symbolism, the breadth of its vocabulary, the intangible depth of its strange beauty. As it follows Ahab, the deranged captain of the boat Pequod, on his hunt for the white whale, the sheer scope of the plot – encompassing everything from myth and magic to quasi-essays on the extraction of oil from sperm whales – boggles the mind. Yes, “Moby Dick” is quite difficult and extremely tedious. If you long to be lost in olden days and adventure, however, this novel is for you. Grade: B+

3. “Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut

No other book elucidates post-World War II, postmodern nihilism and post-atomic bomb distrust of science as pristinely as “Cat’s Cradle.” Science gone rotten, two hilarious, nigh-blasphemous retellings of the creation story and a strange, ironic language created by Vonnegut himself — it’s all in there. While reading “Cat’s Cradle,” prepare for equal parts howling laughter and befuddled head-scratching. Grade: A-

4. “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison

“I am an invisible man.” So begins one of the greatest American novels of all time: “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. Winner of the 1953 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction, it will also undoubtedly win the heart of every sensitive reader. The book follows the adventures of an unnamed narrator as he leaves the American South and heads to New York. Everywhere he goes, he encounters racism, characterization or manipulation. As he struggles to find an identity that is his, but also visible, the plot – laden with symbolism – approaches an almost mythical or magical status. In the end, no one sees him for who he is: a young black man seeking life and love. Written by an African-American writer before African-American’s had civil rights, “Invisible Man” provides a vivid, edgy, excruciating illustration of being black in a blind or hostile world without descending into vituperation, surrender or incitation to violence. Grade: A

5. “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller

A chronological but inexorably driven, profoundly ironic but brutally honest, side-splittingly hilarious and vomit-inducingly horrific, “Catch-22” segues back and forth between opposites, forcibly placing its grotesque comedy and terrifying violence into vivid and deep relief. Together they cast what is quite simply the one anguished shadow of death. This graphic juxtaposition of laughter and sorrow highlights the violence of war and makes “Catch-22” arguably the most effective, greatest antiwar novel of all time. As if that weren’t enough, author Joseph Heller also manages to make “Catch-22” a critique of bureaucracy and power, a condemnation of the United States’ treatment of Native Americans and a manifesto to individuality. All in all, “Catch-22” will have you laughing, weeping and pondering for weeks after you finish reading. Grade: A+

6. “The Sound and the Fury” by William Faulkner

In four parts, “The Sound and the Fury” relates the darkly tragi-comical downfall of the Southern aristocratic Compson family. A different character narrates each part in a voice congruent with their personality: the mentally handicapped Benjy narrates part one in a stream of consciousness interior monologue; the psychotic Quentin, part two in a depressed, disjointed tone; the cynical Jason, part three in one long misogynistic, hateful slur; and Dilsey, part four in a sardonic yet longsuffering, faithful and religious voice that captures the strength and hope of blacks and women even amidst their respective slavery and suppression. With so many voices, so much humor and sorrow, “The Sound and the Fury” has the ability to profoundly move every reader. But beware, this novel is almost unparalleled in difficulty by any other book of the American canon. Grade: A+