Today we read the Sinclair Lewis of “Main Street,” “Babbitt,” “Elmer Gantry” and “It Can’t Happen Here” not for literary value but the way Margaret Mead studied the Balinese character–for ethnographic insights. Lewis’s novels are a window into an America not nearly as dated as his reputation.
Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire,” published in January 1968, worthy of any top-100 list of the best books of the last hundred years and an essential read–and re-read-today, is a meditation, a polemic, a manifesto, a provocation, a valentine and an elegy to the red desert and to American wilderness.
Philip Roth’s “Nemesis” is the story of an unsuspecting Everyman who becomes a polio superspreader and turns on his fiancee, God and life. Written in 2010, the novel can be read in the age of the coronavirus as a study in grief and loss and the limits of personal, or divine, responsibility.
Bob Woodward’s and Robert Costa’s “Peril,” third in the trilogy of Woodward’s books on the Trump administration, isn’t history. It’s most revealing in what it does not say. It’s tragicomedy. It’s a chronicle of trash foretold. And it’s prediction. The worst is ahead.
Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, who now goes by the pronouns they/them, won the International Booker Prize for “The Discomfort of Evening,” an autobiographical novel about a 10-year-old girl who thinks she willed the death of her brother, and who watches her family and her bearings collapse after his death. The book caused a controversy due to themes of adolescent sexuality and animal torture.
George Packer’s “The Last best Hope,” published in June, attempts to explain how the United States devolved into the furies of Donald Trump’s last year–the pandemic, the BLM marches, the Jan. 6 insurrection–by diagnosing four separate Americas that no longer communicate. It’s a dour, guilt-ridden book by a liberal looking for penance in all the wrong places.
The young, argumentative and Irish Sally Rooney is among the rising lights of English-language literature. She’s giving the novel of ideas a boost. The impulse her works command reminds me of the old E.F. Hutton commercials: “When EF Hutton talks, people listen.” Her third novel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” is her most ambitious and least accomplished.
“Achieving Our Country” is an energizing manifesto, a reminder that we are not as good as we think we are, and, atrocious as we can be, not nearly as bad, either. We are merely unachieved. With a little less despair, a little more affection, even–heaven forbid–a bit of patriotism, however defined but equally respected we can achieve more.
Under the appealing but misguided credo of victims’ rights, prosecutors reach plea deals giving disproportionate weight to what the victim’s family wants. The defendant can end up either with a savior, as Joey Renn did this week in Flagler, or, more often, a gang of rage. A person’s fate should never depend on a dice throw between grace and vigilantism.
Reactionaries have effectively fabricated a crisis over critical race theory. But on its own terms, CRT can be problematic. It rests on a deterministic view of human beings that should make anyone who believes in individual freedom uncomfortable. Liberals have yet to grasp that reactionary anger has a point, though CRT can still show the way out.