In about a month, there will be amber ales and heavy stouts (probably even some IPAs) infused with pumpkin flavor on every shelf of every package store in New England. I can't honestly say if this trend exists outside the charter colonies, though I think it's safe to guess that it does. Hey, if Starbucks can do it, why can't Southern Tier Brewing Company?
Regardless of your taste in beer or coffee, the fact remains that summer is coming to a close. Soon, students will be making their annual pilgrimage to institutions they say they hate but in fact they seek shelter in, and bathing suits will be traded for yoga pants and North Faces. I for one, am looking forward to it. Fall's my favorite time of year and then right behind that is winter and that sweet white powder that falls from the sky. My snowboard has already started to hum from its storage spot in the basement, vibrating the hardwood floors like a young girl's ghost. But, before we close the chapter that is humidity and unintended sweat, let's give summer its due: it was nice to sit on the deck and read, and because of that I was able to catch up on the books sitting in my too be read pile.
Starting out this year, I set my usual goal of 24, and then upped it to 52 when I discovered the #52book challenge which involved reading one book for each week of the year. Then I subsequently realized how bad of an idea that was and returned the number to a happy medium: 36. And, according to Goodreads I am currently on track with reaching that goal.
While I've had the good fortune of reading quite a few good books this year (Bad Blood is the glorious account of a millennial train-wreck brought on by greed and the new American Dream, and I can't wait to watch her trial next year - let's by the popcorn now, shall we?) I want to highlight the last two novels I finished reading: Saltwater by Jessica Andrews, and Sally Rooney's Normal People.
Whenever I travel I try to pick up a collection of short stories by local writers or a local press. If I can't find an anthology, I'll try to find something by a local writer or that takes place in the area I'm visiting. Bonus points if it meets both these categories. Saltwater, thanks to two helpful book clerks at The Riverside Bookshop in London, met both of those requirements.
While I had never heard of Saltwater before my trip to London, I had heard of Normal People, seen it quite a lot actually. Normal People is Irish author Sally Rooney's second novel, and the 28-year old is being hailed as the First Great Millennial Author. And I'll be damned... Her novel was as great as everyone says. I currently have her first, Conversations with Friends on hold at the library (every time I get a text I cross my fingers it's the circulation desk).
Both of these novels are categorized as coming-of-age. And what I love about the way literature reflects the real world is that these narratives, and not just these two but a lot of recent COA books, is that they involve twenty-somethings, and in the rare case (because I would argue that Ohio by Stephen Markley is coming of age or at least coming to reality) near thirty year olds.
Not only do I enjoy this trend because I just hit 30 myself, and anything to tie me to confused angsty youth is fine by me, but like I said before, it reflects a reality. Kids aren't moving out of their parent's houses at 18 anymore; the average is closer to 25. College graduates are moving back home from a combination of crippling debt and poor job prospects. And, as we set the new canon of contemporary fiction, it's import that literature reflects the truth. Both Saltwater and Normal People are so truthful it burns.
Both novels focus heavily on relationships and vulnerability, though they differ in notable ways. Saltwater follows the story of a main character returning to the Irish countryside following the death of her grandfather. Her mother returns with her, but something is fractured in their relationship. As the novel progresses, you learn that it's not just the mother-daughter relationship that's experienced trouble. The narrator reflects on growing up in a household with a deaf brother and an alcoholic father, both factors in the familial turmoil she experiences as she tries to find her own identity. One thing I particularly loved about Saltwater is that it's told in near microscopic chapters, each one barely more than a few paragraphs. This, to me, intensified the fractured feeling not only surrounding the narrator and her home life, but the state of the world for people her age in general. Split between social media lives, real lives, working lives, family lives, and just-trying-to-be-us lives, the style of writing reflects those unavoidably split personalities.
Where Saltwater examines family relationships while grazing ever so slightly over personal ones, Sally Rooney's Normal People does the opposite. Following two high school students in rural Ireland, it examines their relationship (and periodic lack-there-of) through school, the death of a mutual friend, and university in Dublin.
Normal People draws on the idea of social structure, and how that can change from year-to-year, sometimes in the most shocking ways. I didn't believe the hype around the novel despite hearing of Sally Rooney in podcasts and news articles. But halfway through the novel I remember putting it down and thinking God damn it. It was as good as everyone said. Since finishing the book I've read some of her short fiction and an interview with her in The New Yorker. I strongly suggest you do the same.
The thing about relationships, whether those in the family or those outside of it, is that they are ever changing. Whether we as a society want to adapt to the changing landscape that is the world, whether we want to admit it or not, the way we interact with it and subsequently others living in it, does change. Both of these novels are raw, impressive examinations of the way those relationships exist for the millennial age. I felt, on more than one occasion, that both of these novels spoke to something I had either gone through or felt tied to in some way.
So I say to both Sally Rooney and Jessica Andrews: thank you. And to the rest of you spending your time reading this: pick up a copy of these two novels. You won't be disappointed.
"I was thirty years old, an age at which people either choose to grow up or remain stuck in the exploratory and idle phase of late-late youth."
Hansen, after the September 11th terrorist attack and the subsequent invasion of Iraq, moved to Istanbul in an effort to understand the Middle East, and complete research in Turkey. While living there, Hansen traveled through Greece, Egypt, Iran, and other countries in order to better understand the world that the rest of us were watching through alarming news casts, and those among us courageous enough to serve, were doing just that.
Notes on a Foreign Country is an eye-opening book about Turkey's history, the role America played in shaping the country today, and a fundamental misunderstanding in regards to how far the US really reaches. She balances political and historical research with personal experiences from her time abroad, her time at home, and the juxtaposition between the two. In part, the book reads like an incredible investigative journey into a misunderstood section of the world, while in other sections it has a flowing autobiographical feel. Hansen balances these two points-of-view and never leaves the reader with a stale taste in their mouth.
"We cannot go abroad as Americans in the twenty-first century and not realize that the main thing that has been terrorizing us for the last sixteen years is our own ignorance--our blindness and subsequent discovery of all the people on whom the empire-that-was-not-an-empire had been constructed without our attention or concern."
As an American, there were parts of Hansen's book that were hard to swallow, both retrospectively at events that have occurred that in turn shaped the current global landscape, and introspectively at any potential part I could have played or continue to play when I myself go abroad. While Notes focuses on the Middle East, an area of the world that has been plagued with turmoil both self-inflicted, and imposed upon, the lessons within can be transferred with ease.
When you travel, be respectful. When you travel, be curious. When you travel, be kind and know that your way of life doesn't apply to everyone else. Above all else, when you travel, have fun. Enjoy the world.
It's been raining almost every day in my corner of New England, and leaving work tonight, the parking lot slick with drizzle, street lights creating a reflective shine, I was reminded how much I love when it rains. The sound of it against the leaves. The smell of wet dirt. It's calming, and in some weird way, makes the world a little quieter. So, keep it coming Mother Nature, because we could all use a little more quiet.
Speaking of, it's been almost two months (or maybe it has been two months, I don't even know anymore) since I've been on social media, and while I appreciate the platforms for what good they can do, it's been beyond restful to be out of the shouting match. Though, now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure this post is still setup to auto-feed to Twitter or Facebook or both, I don't know. I haven't disabled my accounts, I'm sure I'll be back at some point, but for now I'm enjoying the time spent not getting enraged by hyper political posts, or sucked into endless voids of whatever.
And the result? New fiction!
Fortunately, I've had some decent picks thus far, several of which are vying for the coveted number-one-best-read-of-the-year spot. And, while I've enjoyed most every book I've read this year, there are three that happen to be light years ahead of the rest. Before I kill the suspense, I was talking with a friend of mine, a bookstore owner, about what it takes for me to really, really love a book, and here's the secret:
I judge books on two major criteria: how good the book is while I'm reading it (plot, character, dialogue, etc.), and then how long it stays with me after I've finished it. In my opinion, both are essential to the overall impact of a novel, and while I've had books this year that have mastered one or the other, blown me away with lyrical language, or buried itself inside my brain and refused to let go, I have yet to read one this year that has pointed both guns and fired.
So where do the readings stand so far?
Milkman had both startling, unrelentingly beautiful prose, and a semi-lasting impact. It truly was a great novel and one that I've talked about over and over this year. Karen Thompson Walker's The Dreamers was one of the most beautifully written novels I have ever read. Ever. A subtle toe into the water of speculative fiction, I can't think of any reader who wouldn't enjoy this novel. And that leaves Kazuo Ishiguro's "Best book of the decade - Time"... Never Let Me Go.
While the previous two offerings were both new within the last two years, I'm over fourteen years behind the eight ball with Never Let Me Go. And after reading it, I couldn't care less. While I have a little qualm with the first 40 or so pages, and the novel's starting pace (it is just a little slow), I haven't had a book stay with me the way this one has since I read The Amber Spyglass over a decade ago. Never Let Me Go isn't a novel, it's a knife, and it will gut you.
But, once you've picked yourself up off the floor, I'm sure there are other books out there that will leave a lasting impression, that will give new spins on life, love, and loss. And I intend to find them. Until next time fellow readers.
Cheers and all the best.
When I finished Anna Burns’ Milkman in January, my first book of 2019, I was honestly nervous that nothing else I read this year would be as good. Slight relief has come (and so soon), in the way of Karen Thompson Walker's The Dreamers. While it has not dethroned, Milkman as my favorite book the this still very short year, The Dreamers was, in its own right, nothing short of amazing. Emily St. John Mandel, the genius writer behind Station Eleven said of The Dreamers, “This book is stunning.”
And she is right. A thousand times over.
The Dreamers takes place in a California college town as a disturbing sickness, one that causes sufferers to fall into deep, undisturbable sleep. It starts in a freshman dorm, and then, like the germs we don't think about, it spreads. Quietly at first, as no one really sees or understands what's going on. But, as the days pass, and the number of infected people fall asleep and fail to wake, the town, and then the country, sound the alarm.
Walker tells the story, or rather the story tells itself, because that's how real this novel feels. Every word seemed so carefully chosen that I lost count of the amount of times that I stopped reading and simply marveled at the language on the page. Lyrical. Stunning. Hauntingly beautiful. I could go on, but I think the point has been made: the prose in this book is almost unreal.
As she points out in her acknowledgements, and in post-published interviews, Walker said she did a good amount of research regarding sleep, viruses, and dreams. It shows. The progression of the contagion as it spreads through the town is not only believable in the sense that fiction suspends disbelief, but believable in the sense that it felt real. Authentic. Like I was standing there watching ambulances scream by or Humvees drive down neighborhood streets following the establishment of a quarantine.
“Maybe they dream of the lost and the departed, the once known and the dead. They dream of lovers, certainly, the real and the imagined, that girl at the bar, that boy they used to know.”
I would be hard pressed to find something about The Dreamers that I didn't like. The pacing moved at a consistent rate, one that kept the pages turning and the desire to read still burning. The perspectives, each one different and individualized, were believable and enjoyable to read. And, one other impressive feat: the subtlety behind some of the more unfortunate parts of the story. Walker left a lot of the gruesomeness and awkwardness to our imagination, giving just enough detail for the reader to understand the situation, and imagine how bad it could be on their own. Well done.
I'll be honest, the first thing that caught me about The Dreamers was the cover. We're all told to not judge books by their covers, but let's face it, we do. And this instance of doing so proved positive, so there's always that. Now, onto the next one!