For a long time, and until not so long ago, it used to be that what counted was how much you were worth on the marriage market.
Then, briefly, it was about how much you were worth on the job market.
But now, now it’s just about how much you’re worth on the meat market.
Two years ago I wrote about one war, in Sudan, where ICC prosecutors found that rape was being massively used as a weapon by government troops against insurgents. This week, the Economist brings us a war-rapes-in-review piece that in itself is worth the yearly subscription. A few snippets from the story, which I suggest you read in full:
- In the Rwandan genocide rape was “the rule and its absence the exception”, in the words of the UN. […] Out of Rwanda’s horror came the first legal verdict that acknowledged rape as part of a genocidal campaign.
- […] with the Bosnian war of the 1990s came the widespread recognition that rape has been used systematically as a weapon of war and that it must be punished as an egregious crime […] Rape was first properly recognised as a weapon of war after the conflict in Bosnia. […] the Balkan war-crimes court broke new ground by issuing verdicts treating rape as a crime against humanity.
I have been asked to make a list of five books I recommend for a full immersion into the best of American writing from the ’80s to today.
It is not, of course, an easy task.
To cram more books into the list, I have picked five, but also provided notes on what else you might like if you liked that book (and no, there is no collaborative filtering algorithm here – I just went through the titles I had tagged with “American fiction” on LibraryThing, and made some hard and very personal choices). So, here’s my take. What’s yours?
- Philip Roth, American Pastoral. Swede Levov and his troubled daughter are among the most unforgettable characters of our time.
If you like this, you may also like: Philip Roth, Sabbath’s Theater; Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk about Kevin (see also here and here); Jonathan Franzen, Freedom; Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex. I don’t know what all these books have in common, except a sense of the family as the place where mistakes are made and people’s lives go wrong.
- Joyce Carol Oates, What I Lived For. This is not Oates’s best-known book, but her portrait of Corky Corcoran struck me – when I read the book, years ago – with her ability to get inside a man’s head (hey, I’m a woman, so I know I might well be wrong).
What I Lived For takes place in the kind of upstate New York town that is past its prime and not yet willing to admit it. If you like this, you may also like two novels about even more downtrodden places: Empire Falls, by Richard Russo (a small town in Maine); American Rust, by Philipp Meyer (rural Pennsylvania).
- Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I loved this novel for its inventiveness, scope and ease at tying all sorts of things together from the Prague Rabbi’s Golem to comic-book superheroes.
If you like this, you may also like other sprawling novels of unforeseen outcomes, such as John Irving’s deservedly popular The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Or, if you’d like to go for more of an intellectual stretch, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the definitive novel about addiction in America.
- Paul Auster, Leviathan. I’ve picked one of his early novels, but I could equally have picked The Music of Chance, In the Country of Last Things, or Moon Palace. And if you like them, you will also like The Red Notebook. Auster is, in a way, his own planet – love him or hate him.
- David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Yes, this last item is the non-fiction corner, and in the last 25 years nobody packed more brilliance into American non-fiction than DFW. See also here, here and here (DFW could employ rhetorical devices of the highest order and at the same time leave you thinking he was speaking from an inner source of simple truth).
If you like this, you will also like Consider the Lobster, another set of collected essays by David Foster Wallace; Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis, an iconic look at Wall Street in the ’80s; and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, which reads like a horror story, except that it happened.
What are your five books? Remember, it’s just a list. You can pick anything by Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, or Jeffery Deaver and I won’t think less of you. In fact, genre fiction has its own rewards – but that’s a topic for another post.
Everything is interconnected, or so it seems, reflecting on recently published fiction I’ve read over this past few weeks; some topics capture the Zeitgeist more than others.
Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall and Paul Auster’s Sunset Park both feature protagonists haunted by their brother’s premature death. The Great Gatsby is quoted in By Nightfall, and is a plot device in Sunset Park. In their own way, Sunset Park, Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered and Philip Roth’s Nemesis all feature a deliberately underachieving male character: Miles in Sunset Park, Hector in The Surrendered, Bucky – after his disease – in Nemesis.
And disease is a protagonist in Nemesis, as polio; in The Surrendered and in So Much for That, by the excellent Lionel Shriver, as variations on the theme of abdominal cancer, plus a rare genetic condition in So Much for That; and as cervical cancer in Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, my only non-fiction selection of the season.
Asbestos plays a major role in So Much for That, but also makes an appearance in Henrietta Lacks. Both Glynis in So Much for That and Patty in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, at one point, start working jobs below their abilities in order to spite their husbands. And both So Much for That and Freedom feature a major character’s irresponsibly underachieving artsy sister, a documentary filmmaker named Beryl for Glynis’s husband Shep and an avant-garde theater actress named Abigail for Patty.
Everything talks to everything else, I think sometimes.