Leaving the cul de sac of maleness, whiteness, Americanness in reading

John Purcell discusses his journey from ‘literary snob’ (I still don’t really know what that means) to a writer of erotic fiction:

”A lot of guys I know will stay in the men’s section. They’ll read their Cormac McCarthy and their Martin Amis and they will return again and again to this cul-de-sac of maledom. But once I crossed over to reading women authors, I never crossed back. The greatest propagandist for moral behaviour** is Jane Austen. I fell in love with Fanny Burney, Elizabeth Gaskell and the Brontes, then I found George Eliot – the list goes on.

I think he’s right about becoming more interesting if you can manage your intellectual development in such a way that you learn to read without reading having to be a mirror, reassuring you of your identity and the importance of that identity.  My friends say to me that I will read anything by anybody; and yeah, I will at least give it a chance.   Books are adventures, and reading something written by a Greek 2000  years ago or a contemporary Laotian increases that adventure.  With reading, you can travel without making yourself a pest to indigenous persons.  What’s not to love?

Following his lead, Booktopia.com has 8 Australian writers who list their favorite books written by women. The result is a feast of book recommendations, though I liked Gone, Girl a little less well than others did.  You’re crazy if you aren’t reading Hilary Mantel’s books  ‘because she’s a girl’ or because you prefer to read the ‘real true history’ constructed by a historian.  Read both.

In the interests of expanding the book list, it’s also good to read internationally and across ethnicity, so in addition to northern European murder/revenge mysteries, here are some of my favorites. I apologize for the lack of novels from South and Central America and Mexico, but I am ignorant there and terribly behind in reading. The ones I love from those regions are the ones everybody already knows. I don’t read in Spanish particularly well, and I often find that I am not crazy about translations of Spanish.  Please tell us some good ones in the comments if you have a minute and a book to recommend:

1. Peter Hoeg: Borderliners. Children subjected to an experiment because of who they are fight the experimenters.

2. Banana Yoshimoto, NP.  Actually, I really like Banana Yoshimoto in general. Just read. This one is about a family dealing with suicide and the leavings of artistic production.

3.  The Kingdom of this World by Alejo Carpenter.  Haiti in early 1800s. A world built in the novel.

4. Sofia Petrovna by Lydia Chukovskaya A mother watching her son get mired into the deadly politics of the Soviet purges.

5. Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada.  Based on a real set of events: a devoted couple send postcards opposing the Nazis. The novel is a brilliant antidote to the hero’s journey of men-with-guns fighting stories; it’s instead horribly real in the way it demonstrates how and why ordinary people collaborate with evil in ways both large and small.

6. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.  One of my favorites.

7.  Funny Boy by Shyam Shelvadurai A boy grappling with his body and his identity in a world where neither is acceptable to those around him.

8. Speaking of bildungsroman, Nervous Condition by Tsitsi Dangarembga.  A young women in 1960s Rhodesia gets a chance to get out, and does, and then comes to see the grace and dignity of the women of the women who did not.

9. July’s People by Nadine Gordimer. Nice white people confront the world as politics around them change.  Read.

10. Nectar in the Sieve by Kamala Markandaya. One of the biggest mistakes people make about ‘women’s novels’ is that notion that domesticity is dull.  Privileged domesticity might be, but domesticity fought for tooth and nail–hardly.

11. Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata.  A meditation on gender, love, work and sex, and one of the best novels I’ve read in years.

12. The Oresteia by Aeschylus. A trilogy of plays on the fall of the house of Atreus. Don’t go sacrificing your own daughter.  It annoys people.

** Purcell is wrong about the moral propaganda part; Austen’s books are relentlessly pragmatic, not in the moral sense,  at the same time they are social criticism. But I don’t care. Just read.