Awards for excellence in writing are distributed around the globe. The Booker, The Women’s Prize, The Stella, The Pulitzer, The Pushcart, The Pen Award and National Book Award are among the most prestigious. I have read selectively through long and shortlists to see which works get the award and prizes. It’s been an interesting experience in variety of theme and structure as younger authors step forward and mature authors deepen their bloom. Enjoy!
Booker Winner: Milkman by Anna Burns
Belfast, Ireland, 1971. Government renouncers have violently divided the country using hand-to-hand shelling, economic oppression and deeply embedded surveillance.
A small geographic area crowded with political opinion and dissent is where one unnamed young woman comes of age. Her biggest problem: walking and reading in public which raises suspicion and emboldens a politically significant predator, the Milkman, in seeking her attention.
A common frustration in this narrative is the omission of proper nouns and pronouns used to identify and organize people, place, time and conflict. This is intentional and Burns uses this technique from beginning to meandering end.
Challenged topics within this dense work are: family secrets, sexual misconduct within the church, convenient marriages, traditionalism in gender roles, regional tribalism, emergence of feminism, sibling and birth order rivalry, finding true love and coming of age.
The title, “Milkman,” refers to a couple of people as well as the duality afforded by names. There’s the good milkman who delivers sustenance and can help make a large difference by doing odd jobs. Alternately, there’s the bad milkman who drives a milk truck inside of which a variety of violations take place including kidnapping, smuggling, extorting and assault.
Author Anna Burns has the unique talent for demonstrating to her readers the absence of language psychology in environments plagued with civil unrest for indeterminate amounts of time. Burns extracts the details one can witnesses and demonstrates how people function in an environment teeming with fear, and desperation for unifying authority when scarcity for this looms large.
It’s a bit long and meandering but once you get comfy in the rabbit hole it will lead you to a green pasture.
The Mars Room / Booker & National Book Award finalist
Insightfully researched this feminist dystopia of sorts features women in worst case scenarios–poverty, incarceration, stripping and struggling to sustain low level existences.
Kushner has done her work peeling back the small and large issues women coping within these circumstances are faced with on personal, political, and social levels.
Using first-person narrator, Romy Hall, Kushner takes readers back to San Francisco during the 1970s (when it was the armpit of California) plagued by the aftermath of overdosed free-love seeking hippies who turned to harder drugs to keep the party going.
Romy a mother, daughter, and stripper is trying to care for her young son Jackson while being stalked by an obsessed patron of The Mars Room where she stripped for onlookers.
Romy’s self defense lands her in jail. This is when readers learn the failures that keep the legal and prison systems dys-functioning.
Readers learn how legal representation is not equitable and treatment of prisoners is abusive. Readers also learn how prisoners build community, fashion new lives so they can continue feeling some semblance of human. Included here are trade and barter systems inmate designed just to make food taste better or feel more holiday like when the season rears.
The Mars Room is structured using a parallel narrative. Kushner introduces Gordon a grad student studying Unabomber, Ted Kacynzki, and supplementing his income by being a prison GED Instructor.
Gordon shows kindness to the inmates who attend his classes by obtaining books and materials for them to enrich themselves or pass time more productively while serving life sentences.
The stories alternate and come together with a loose resolution that is heartbreaking. The narrative shifts are jarring and often leave the reader pre contemplation which while frustrating is an immersive portrait of how time and life flow in the dysfunctional and highly regulated prison life.
Oddly Kushner offers humor, kitsch and geographic nostalgia that captures a time and place that has captured people while others slipped into quieter futures.
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
Women’s Prize Finalist
A frustrated bus driving patriarch drags his wife and daughter to the woods in order to convene with British Iron Age ancestry as they prior lived. He seeks to claim cultural purity due to his frustration with changing cultural modernity.
This family works with a professor and credit seeking students to reenact survivalism in situ. During this intersection women regress and emerge and traditionalism is challenged.
Sylvie, teenage daughter suffers her father’s abuse while academia overlooks and students encourage fighting back.
Family and gender tension takes place among glorious descriptions of natural wonder. Sensory detail abounds as earth, water and sky envelope the characters whose final task is to build a ghost wall to defend against predators or enemies. Sylvie and her female counterpart know the only enemies are within.
A few strings left untied remind readers that endings often unreal diminish experience and that conclusion is an ongoing process.
Educated by Tara Westover
PEN America & National Book Critic Circle Finalists
A remarkable memoir of a Mormon extremist escapee who taught herself to read, write and compute making her way to prestigious institutions of higher learning. Westover was educated at Oxford and Harvard and is one of the most passionate self starters I’ve witnessed.
Westover retraces her past where she lived mountain and junkyard side with her large family with father and brother suffering from bipolar depression. There is no shortage of abuse within this family and no member escapes it.
The only escaping is really done by Tara who self-teaches herself through high school as well as preps herself for college admission.
Many kind people populate Tara’s life as she matriculates from one fine institution to the next. As she grow so too does her family amassing a fortune in the essential oil industry used for aromatherapy and homeopathy today.
Westover is conscientious when trying to tell a true story. She revisits hearth and home and though her family denies her truth she overturns every rock and pebble to verify her impression. She keeps returning while readers internally beg her not to.
It’s a heart wrenching and inspiring read that cannot help but give a reader strength to carry out a task of any size.