"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!
In 2018 Anna Burns became the first Northern Irish writer to win the Man Booker Prize. For those unfamiliar, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction is a yearly literary award for the best original novel written in the English. It’s a big deal. Up until 2014 only novels written by Commonwealth, Irish, and South African citizens were eligible. Then, after a divisive decision, the award opened up to any English-language novel. To be long-listed is a huge deal; to be short-listed is an even bigger one. Winning, and being the first person in your respected country to do so is something that deserves a nod of respect from everyone both inside and outside of the literary world.
Milkman, Burns’s award winning novel, takes place in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. The story follows middle-sister, a young woman trying to navigate her turbulent surroundings while remaining under the radar, playing down her relationship with maybe-boyfriend, and though it’s considered odd behavior, reading-while-walking.
“Often I would walk along reading books. I didn’t see anything wrong with this but it became something else to be added as further proof against me. ‘Reading-while-walking’ was definitely on the list.”
When a paramilitary individual referred to as milkman takes an interest in middle-sister, gossip and hearsay combat silence and reservation, and middle-sister finds herself in an unwanted spot. As he stalks and talks his way into her world, makes her believe he’ll murder maybe-boyfriend, middle-sister’s world starts to crack.
The novel is told through middle-sister’s perspective that often times borders stream of consciousness. Burns’s use of language and prose is remarkable. While I’ll confess, Milkman isn’t the easiest read, it is beyond rewarding.
“At first the explosion had puzzled everybody. What was the point? There was no point. Why plant a bomb, said all the parties, in a dead, creepy, grey place that everybody knew was a dead, creepy, grey place and about which nobody would care anyway if one day it was blown to kingdom come? The media suggested an accidental bomb, a premature bomb, perhaps a renouncer-of-the-state bomb in transit for the nearby police barracks; or maybe a defender-of-the-state bomb, intended for one of the opposite religion’s segregated drinking establishments situated not far from the barracks but going the other way.”
As in the example above, her narrative often uses repeated words or sections of sentences in close proximity to one another. However, surprisingly, this never detracted from the flow of the story. If anything it added to it. Take the passage above: the repetition of “… a dead, creepy, grey place that everybody knew was a dead, creepy, grey place…” hammers in the setting and location in a way that shows how oppressively awful the atmosphere around middle-sister really is.
While the pacing was executed well, and I had no trouble staying engaged with the novel, there were a few points, specifically surrounding middle-sister’s relationship with her mother, which I thought could have moved slightly faster. While a criticism, not one that takes away from the story in a large enough way for it to affect my rating of it.
Something else I’d like to mention is the timeliness of this novel. I understand that it’s a slightly historical novel. While it never comes right out and says it, the general understanding is that it takes place in Northern Ireland in the early nineteen-seventies. So figure almost fifty years ago. That’s nearing half of a century.
“…If I’d said, ‘He offered me a lift as I was walking along the interface road reading Ivanhoe,’ [response from friends or family] it would have been, ‘Why were you walking along that dangerous interface road and why were you reading Ivanhoe?’ If I’d said, ‘I was running in the parks & reservoirs and he appeared also running in the parks & reservoirs,’ it would have been, ‘What were you doing, running in such a dangerous, questionable place and were you doing choosing to run?’
Sound familiar? Ask anyone who’s ever been stalked or a victim of sexual harassment or assault.
“Males and mental hospitals went together far less than females and mental hospitals went together. In a man’s case, this equaled a gender falling-down in pursuance of his duties, totaling a failure above all to keep face.”
Little bit of stigma perhaps?
I highlight these two quotes (and there are many more throughout the novel that would fit) in order to raise a point: both of these negative things—victim blaming/mental health stigma—still exist and are prevalent in society, more so since the spark of the #MeToo movement. But will things get better? Have they gotten better? Or, as a collective human race do we really not grow and develop as much as we’d like to think?
Anyone can look at any news outlet and see alarming stories about white-nationalism, far-right politicians, and horrendous behavior across the globe when it comes to treatment of marginalized communities. As an American, I was taught in high school that a collected number of countries fought, destroyed, and eradicated Nazism. Well, fuck me if I don’t turn on the news and see rallies and speeches, promoting this behavior. Here’s a hint: just because you put the word ‘neo’ in front of it, doesn’t make you any less of a piece of garbage.
But I digress. A train of thought sparked by a piece of literature—seems like Milkman has done its job on all fronts. As a reader it was beyond enjoyable. As a person, it impacted me, as good books are meant to do. It raised the question as to whether timeliness in novels means they (the work themselves) are fitting into our narrative, or has our narrative not really changed? Don’t get me wrong, there have been remarkable advances in social justice and other fronts, but we still have a long way to go. But novels like Milkman, not only provide a tense, suspenseful narrative, but highlight the conflicts in our society and in ourselves.
Bravo Anna Burns. You deserve every reward this book gets.