Book recommendation: Some very fine American fiction

I generally read to feel good and escape. I usually opt for fiction, though do stroll through the self help aisle every now and then. I love well-curated biographies of interesting people as well. But yes, mostly I do read to escape.

The past few weeks have been hard in many ways. Whichever paper you open, the front page inevitably offers a gory readout of a mass murder/crazy psychopath on a rampage/manmade suffering of some sort. Therefore any literary distraction has been more than welcome (I still consider my rosée habit to be a damn fine distraction as well).

The two suggestions I have are not exactly your feel-good material. No Gilmore Girls -giddiness here. But I think they fit the current debate (if there ever was one…) about guns and violence spot on. Written by America’s best, these books are a joy to read, despite their extremely dark and politically explosive subject matter. That’s kind of the allure to me – to read these giants of books and letting the story flow, all the while slowly allowing myself to form an opinion, or even just an understanding, without being constantly interrupted by the shouting on twitter, or the clickbait headlines shouting truths about gun control and how we should feel about it. Without anyone trying to convince me of anything, just me reading a story.

I read both of these books well before Las Vegas happened. I am a huge fan of Joyce Carol Oates and read everything by her anyway, and the “Book of American Martyrs” was out earlier this summer. The other book “My Absolute Darling” is the first novel by Gabriel Tallent and came out a few months ago. The books are about different topics, but have a lot in common. Guns in America, for one. Girls’ troubled childhoods, another example. 

Joyce Carol Oates is the master of writing about difficult issues. Book of American Martyrs is about abortion, guns, capital punishment, religion, fanatism, conservatism, liberalism, education and not having an education. Kind of the two faces of America. The books is over 700 pages long (Oates’ books often are long, which I love. Her storytelling is incredibly meticulous) and runs the stories of two families whose destinies are intertwined by tragic events (the father of the one family kills the father of the other family). It’s dark, but not just in a violent way. The stories concentrate on the two daughters of these families and follow their growing up after the event in their childhoods: one’s father killing the other, the girls forever having to live with this.  American Martyrs is a beautiful coming of age description as well, a peek behind the door to American realities we Europeans very rarely see. It is very poignant in the aftermath of Trump having started his presidency. It forces you to think. It is a quiet masterful manifesto for pro-choice, as well as a heartbreaking description of an abusive relationship. 

My Absolute Darling is another meticulously constructed masterpiece with absolutely no compromises.  I could literally smell the gunpowder on the pages, so detailed is the story. It is painful, ugly, at times disgusting, made me sick at times, scared even, but I was absolutely compelled to go on. It is a story of an extremely twisted relationship between a father and a daughter, involving guns, incest and lots of violence. Again there are no cookie-cutter solutions being served in the end – the only thing offered is hope. 

For a European liberal these two books give valuable insights into the America that exists outside New York and California. The American obsession with guns is difficult to understand, and these books make an excellent attempt in explaining it. I had to recommend these now, as the timing could not be better. Sad, big, beautiful heartbreaking books you just have to read.

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