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.
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.
I can't believe it's already Labor Day. No, scratch that. I can't believe it's already past Labor Day. When we were kids and everyone told us time flies when you're older, well they weren't lying that's for sure. But, before I digress into the irony of weekday wishing for the weekend and inadvertently wishing your life away, this post is the Big Book Summer Challenge Wrap up. Back, right after Memorial Day (distant times, years long gone) I posted about the 2018 Big Book Summer Challenge and tasked myself with reading four big books. To qualify as a big book, the length has to surpass 400 pages. My list included:
So how'd I do?
About that well. I managed to finish Leviathan Wakes, and I honestly, truly enjoyed it. I'll definitely be continuing the series when I work through the rest of my backlog/never ending TBR pile. I didn't, however, get through the remainder of my goal.
I started two books that qualified as big books but were not on my list above. Unfortunately, I got about 68% through both and finally put them in the did-not-finish category. I know. . . I know. If I got that far, why didn't I just finish them? To be honest? I just wasn't enjoying them. Neither were bad books per say, one is even very well known and raved about, I just couldn't bring myself to keep trying to read them. It got to the point where I was slowly turning pages just to try and mark them down as done. So I stopped.
The bad news? I only read one big book this summer. The good news? I just started Dune and it really seems like what I need at the moment.
I stumbled upon the Big Book Summer Challenge via friends over at WildmooBooks, and because I'm a sucker for lists and tracking any sort of anything I promptly said - you need to do this. The basic premise of the challenge is to read at least one book over 400 pages between Memorial Day and Labor Day. I'm a little behind seeing as I missed the starting gun and have several books that I'm currently working through. So my plan is to jump into the challenge as soon as I'm done with these current reads. I have a decent stretch of time off in July so I'm hoping that will make up for the time lost in June.
My goal for the 2018 Big Book Challenge is 4, evenly split between fiction and non-fiction.
In no particular order (though I do think I'm going to start with Leviathan Wakes because I've been wanted to read it for quite awhile now) the books I'm going to attempt to read for this challenge are:
So, can I get them done? Who knows. But it's going to be fun to try!