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!
I read for escapism. I also play video games, board games, and watch movies for the same thing but seeing as I’m a writer and this is a writing site. . . .
A few close people who are involved in mental health work or studying psychology tell me it’s probably not the best thing, and then I smile, nod, say probably not, and go right back to doing it. Escapism is defined as: the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy. Two points I want to make up front – first, I’d like to remove the word unpleasant from that definition. Life is good. There are bad days and there are good days. Great times and awful times. But overall I am fortunate enough to say that life is good. That doesn’t mean I don’t need a break every once and awhile.
The second thing is how I personally measure the escapism effectiveness of a book. It’s not by how engrossed or obsessed I am while reading it; it’s how difficult it is to let the world go once I’m done and the journey is over (there are television series I have procrastinated finishing because I can’t bear to say goodbye to them, but that’s for another therapist session). If my brain continually returns to the novel and the people and places that exist within its pages days, weeks, or even months in rare occasions, then it aces the Escapism Effectiveness test.
So, the spectrum. Keep in mind that this isn’t a whole look at the quality of a book or short story that I’ve read. It is only one factor adding to how I felt about a piece. A novel could be on the bottom end of escapism spectrum but still be an amazing book that I thoroughly enjoyed.
2. Bare-minimum escapism achieved. No afterthought once the piece was finished.
3. The world was absorbent. The few hours after finishing it, I still thought about a character or two, a particular setting, or something that happened.
5. Following the final page turn comes a momentary reflection. The empty wall stare while everything falls into place and your brain continues to process. Characters exist for a few days after and, if it’s a standalone piece, there exists a desire to return despite not being able to.
7. Questions linger. For days, weeks, or even longer. The world punctured your skull and seeped into the crevices deep inside your brain. The desire to know more, become more embedded in the story burns. Character’s still exist long after the book is finished. The final setting is engraved in your psyche and you wish more than anything you were still there for just a little longer. You miss your friends. Escapism achieved.
It’s been several days, and I still feel the mystery behind famed director Stanislas Cordova—who he is, the truth behind his films, and what was the real cause behind the death of his daughter Ashley.
These are fictional characters that exist inside the world of Night Film, a novel by Marisha Pessl. Escapism achieved. I was recommended the book almost a year ago. Actually, it might be a little over a year at his point. And I finally picked it up and read it. The recommendation was well justified.
Night Film follows Scott McGrath, a disgraced reporter who, after learning of Ashley Cordova’s death, is drawn back into the world of her father. A mysterious director whose films have a cult following that would make Tyler Durden envious. Using mock webpages and news articles strategically inserted into parts of the book, Pessl brings each reader that much further into the investigation, and that much further into the Cordova obsession. God I wish I was still with McGrath. Existing in that world with those characters and the mystery they are attempting to solve.
Night Film, congratulations. You’re a 7 on the Escapism Spectrum. Thank you for one hell of a ride.