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A history of violence

A history of violence

What to read: from an exploration of violence in Central America to Graham Swift’s latest novel

What to read: from an exploration of violence in Central America to Graham Swift’s latest novel

April/May 2016

A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America by Óscar Martínez (translated by John Washington and Daniela Maria Ugaz)
Óscar Martínez’s shocking first book, “The Beast”, told of the horrors faced by migrants heading from Central America to the United States. The Salvadorean journalist’s second, equally powerful work explains why so many people from the region choose to leave home by exploring life in crime-riddled Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. Martínez tells his story in 14 parts, which include the fight to take down a Salvadorean gangster and the horrendous working conditions of El Salvador’s only forensic investigator. He talks to hitmen, drug traffickers, human traffickers and informants, not to mention the ordinary people whose lives they ruin. This is a gruesomely fascinating yet dispiriting book, and the reader can only marvel at Martínez’s bravery in researching it. ~ adam barnes

 

All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister
Simone de Beauvoir once lamented that all women were either “married, or have been, or plan to be, or suffer from not being.” Husbands had long promised women their only ticket to adulthood, leaving the unchosen few to wither away as spinsters. My, how things have changed! Once pitied and suspect, single women now outnumber married ones in America, Britain and other developed countries, and their numbers are growing. The past few decades have seen a “wholesale revision of what female life might entail”, writes Rebecca Traister in this insightful account of the rise of the single woman in the 21st century. On the eve of America’s presidential contest, when single-women voters will make up nearly a quarter of the electorate, Traister delivers a thoughtful meditation on the causes and consequences of “the invention of independent female adulthood”. Not everyone is celebrating: plenty of women are poor and struggling, single by default rather than by choice. Many others are grappling with the conflicting needs of their careers and their ovaries. (Spending on fertility treatments has risen to around $5 billion a year in America; births to women after the age of 35 rose by 64% between 1990 and 2008.) Conservative pundits see in these trends a kind of cultural crisis. But Traister is convincing on her central point: it is a sign of progress that marriage is now a choice. Women no longer need a man for their real lives to start. Instead, as Gloria Steinem has declared: “We are becoming the men we wanted to marry.” ~ emily bobrow

 

One Child by Mei Fong
A decade from now, the number of Chinese bachelors will outstrip the entire population of Saudi Arabia, and there will be more Chinese retirees than Europeans. As China begins to phase out its one-child policy, Mei Fong, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who first started reporting on China for the Wall Street Journal in 2003, looks at a rule which has, for 35 years, dictated the way one in six people in the world are born, live and die. She combines tough, broad economic analysis with individual stories. The Chinese have so thoroughly internalised the mindset that a one-child policy is ideal, she believes, that it won’t be easy “to flip the baby switch” back on. ~ maggie fergusson

 

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
There is something particularly satisfying about novels (“Mrs Dalloway”, “Ulysses”) that take place chiefly over the course of a day – even when, as here, the drama unfolds around an unsolved mystery. It is Mothering Sunday, 1924. Families are still mourning the “great gust of devastation” that has stolen so many of their sons, but they cannot ignore the fact that this is the first day of spring: “church bells throbbing between birdsong”, warm air wafting through open windows. Up and down the country, maids, cooks and nannies are “freed” for the day to visit their mothers, but servant-girl Jane Fairchild, being motherless, sets out instead to meet her secret lover. By the time the clock strikes two, he is dead. Suicide? An accident? Graham Swift winds together the strands of his story like an expert basket-maker, in prose that makes you stop in your tracks. ~ mf

 

Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker
Digital watch, handbag, drone, cloud, bed – these are just five of the 45 objects whose voices narrate the harrowing but ultimately upbeat tale of Captain Tom Barnes. While serving in Afghanistan (never named but clearly implied), Barnes steps on an IED and has a leg blown to bits. He loses the other after it becomes infected. Descriptions of his last few days as an able-bodied soldier, and the nail-biting countdown to the fateful explosion, are intercut with his slow adjustment to life with prosthetic limbs back at home. Because the narrators are all dispassionate, there’s not a bat-squeak of sentimentality – they allow us to spy and eavesdrop, but we do the feeling for ourselves. At the same time their accounts can be gruelling. One grisly chapter is narrated by an oscillating saw as it amputates Barnes’s leg. Ultimately, though, the sombre gives way to the sunny. This exceptional, largely autobiographical debut – the author is an ex-soldier who lost both legs as a result of serving in Afghanistan – ends on a note of hope, even joy. ~ mf

 

Readers' comment

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Thorsten Christiansson - May 23rd 2016

I was very disappointed by 'All the Single Women'. It comes across as an omphaloskeptic collection of anecdotes and pop-culture references from upper-middle-class New York, without any recourse to data or insights from the wider world. Many of these trends have gone much further in other places, which could be seen as a blueprint of what is to come in the US, but Traister doesn't raise her gaze. There are other books that treat related subjects in a more disinterested fashion, such as Hanna Rosin's 'The End of Men: And the Rise of Women' or Eric Klinenberg's 'Going Solo', both of which base their reasoning on something more substantial than reruns of Sex in the City.