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.
Because I don't know how to say no. But, while that might be a bad thing for some, I consider it, well, a ridiculous mental tax that I both love and hate at the same time. After all, what's life if you don't try and complete things, right? Do the most that you can do...? Challenge yourself with more books of course!
So, what reading challenges are we talking about? Too many to name. Just kidding. Let's start with the basic, can never actually finish yet still try every year, challenge. Goodreads! Book Club Bookstore & More but I'm also only committing to level 1a: read 1-3 books that are going to be adapted to film in 2019. If you want a list of upcoming film adaptations, click the link to the challenge above.
So, to anyone who wishes to join me, or has reading goals of their own, I say good luck, and let the good page guide you. Cheers and best my friends!
Former U.S. President Barrack Obama recently posted his favorite books of 2018 and I thought man, if I’m every lucky enough to have something I write windup on that list… Anyway, while I don’t have the clout that belongs to the most admired man in America, I suppose I should follow suit and get to posting the end of the year wrap-up. Oh, procrastination, why are you so fun?
2018 shared the same reading goal as 2017 before it, and 2016 before that: 24 books in one year. Did I make it? Well, like the years leading up to it, 2018’s reading challenge was met with not quite, please try again. The final tally came in at 20 books. Four short of the goal. I admire the people who take part in the #52bookchallenge, and if I was more disciplined with my free time—I would still try and focus on just 24.
Overall, I can’t complain with reading twenty books. I’m thankful I had the time and opportunity to escape into those worlds, several of which left lasting impressions. I specifically would like to mention: Ohio by Stephen Markley, Night Film by Marisha Pessl, and The 7 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton. These three rounded out my favorite books of 2018. They span several genres, so there is a little something for everyone if you’re looking to add more pages to that towering TBR pile on your nightstand. If you’re interested in what the other seventeen books were and how I rated them, head over to this link and feel free to browse. But, for those who want the date (because data is b-e-a-utiful) let’s get into it.
Female: 10 ~ 45.5%
Male: 12 ~ 54.5%
*Why does the math not equal twenty? Two of the books were anthologies, so for each of these I counted each collection once under female and once under male*
According to the numbers above I read slightly more male authors than female, though I’m pretty happy to see the percentages so close together. My current reads, which will not be done by the end of the year, include one male and two female so it would keep the numbers right about where they are. Hopefully next year I’ll subconsciously shift it to the other side. Side note – whether for better or worse, I pay next to zero attention to the writer’s gender. I want a story I want to read and that seems interesting to me, so based on that this really does make me happy that it’s pretty evenly split.
Pretty graph right? I told you data is beautiful. The genre list is, on average, the top two or three genres each book was categorized under. For example: Night Film – mystery; thriller; suspense. Could this skew the result somewhat? Maybe a few percentage points for those keeping score.
At the end of the day (or well the year actually) the top genre read was a tie at 14% given to both thriller and suspense. This makes sense since a lot of these books, again looking at Night Film as an example, or even my own book Jack Be Quick, are categorized as both. Second place though… Another two-way tie, this time at 13% and between Horror and Literary (for reference – I am using literary to represent contemporary as well). Interesting if you ask me. I should have taken better track, or if I really wanted to data mine I could go back and try and figure out at what time periods these were read and see if they cross over with any sort of life events etc.
I think to get any reliable data on that though I would have to read quite a bit more. I say this because if we look at the next chart—average read time—I don’t think there were enough books logged to really represent any external factors. It does look like mid-spring and end of summer were the two difficult reading periods for me, with massive spikes in how long it took me to read something. Consistency is my friend (and maybe why I didn’t finish the challenge). All interesting data none-the-less.
Whatever your goals happened to be, and whether you met them or not, I hope 2018 was a fruitful year for you and yours. With the next 365 days upon us, and plenty of reading to be done, I invite you to start off the new year with the 2018 Anna Burns novel, Milkman, winner of the Man Booker award. If you do, and you're in the area, I'll be leading a discussion about it at Book Club Bookstore and More, on Saturday, January 26th at 2:00pm. It's a remarkable read. One that weaves its narrative through prose that deserves awards, discussions, and a place in English courses and book clubs. I hope to see you there and hear about your experience with this timely, beautifully written book.
That about wraps this up, and with it 2018. Good year, bad year, you know I've had them all. But, I made it to the next one, and am grateful for the opportunities along the way. Cheers everyone, and happy New Year.