Critical Mass, The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle

31 Books in 30 Days: Lori Feathers on Anna Burns’ ‘Milkman’

by Lori Feathers | Feb-22-2019

In this 31 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 14, 2019, announcement of the 2018 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty-one finalists. Today, NBCC board member Lori Feathers offers her appreciation of fiction finalist Anna Burns’ Milkman (Graywolf Press).

Reading Anna Burns’ Milkman is a singular experience. The novel is a statement work: as original in its presentation as it is profound in its exposition of the familiar and not so familiar terrors that daily assail its young hero, a woman who faces persistent, insidious predation, both sexual and politically motivated.

The unnamed narrator, a resident and native of Belfast, is coming of age in the early 1970s during “the Troubles,” that long period of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland that pit nationalists against loyalists and Catholics against Protestants, with each side inflicting an ever-growing number of civilian deaths upon the other. These hostilities distort everyday existence and human interactions. Here ordinary objects become signifiers of personal allegiance, being surveilled is commonplace, and innocent comments are weighted with hidden meaning.

The narrator evades assimilating this coded and dangerous world by immersing herself in nineteenth-century novels as she ambles among the bombed-out buildings, shadowy parks, and colorless streets of her district. This steady routine of “reading-while-walking,” she maintains, is her way of being vigilantly non-vigilant about her surroundings. The community considers her behavior strange, “beyond-the-pale,” and, in short, unacceptable.

One of the few who refuse to judge the narrator for reading-while-walking is “maybe-boyfriend,” a sensitive, local car mechanic with whom she is romantically involved. The shared reluctance to put their “maybe” relationship on solid footing is a symptom of the unrelenting volatility of the times. Their relationship is further strained by the narrator’s desire to keep maybe-boyfriend a secret from her mother, who is excessively impatient to marry off her eighteen-year-old daughter.

While the threat of political violence permeates Burns' narrative, it is the menacing, inchoate sexual aggression against the narrator and her helplessness in the face of it that is the most compelling thread of the novel. The narrator is stalked by the so-called Milkman, a married forty-year-old who is a powerful and feared vigilante. Confronted with the Milkman’s invasion of her personal space, misogynistic insinuations, and veiled threats to harm maybe-boyfriend, the narrator is left inert, believing that without witnesses or physical manifestations of the Milkman’s malicious intentions the threat that he poses to her is less real, somehow almost excusable. The narrator’s observations about her silent victim-hood and her felt lack of agency as regards the Milkman’s predatory behavior are described in a way that is true and timeless.    

Yet for all of its weighty themes there is a lightness to Milkman that defies the gravity of its subject and setting. The novel is funny and full of warmth. Burns’ characters are engaging and wonderfully original in their idiosyncrasies; their quirky habits and turns-of-phrase demonstrate the author’s extraordinary imagination. Burns’ writing is rich, full and constantly surprises and delights. In this big, sprawling and brilliant novel Anna Burns brings us into a world hostage to misunderstanding and fear but where the human spirit and one young woman’s resilience, shine through.

Lori Feathers is a freelance book critic who lives in Dallas, Texas. She authors the essay series “In Context” for Literary Hub as well as the Words Without Borders‘ regular feature, “Best of the B-Sides.” Her work appears in various online and print publications. She co-owns Interabang Books in Dallas, where she works as the store’s book buyer.

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31 Books in 30 Days: Mary Ann Gwinn on Mark Lamster’s ‘The Man in the Glass House’

by Mark Lamster | Feb-21-2019

In the 31 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 14, 2019, announcement of the 2018 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty-one finalists. Today, NBCC board member Mary Ann Gwinn offers her appreciation of biography finalist Mark Lamster’s The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century (Little, Brown).

Philip Johnson used his inherited fortune to pursue his passions – fine food, high society, art, architecture, and for a time, radical right wing politics.  A colleague and contemporary of the Rockefeller family, founding curator of the Museum of Modern Art’s architecture department,  Johnson was also a Nazi sympathizer in the runup to World War II, advocating for Third Reich principles in the U.S. and meeting up with Nazi officials on his European tours. A consummate socialite and Harvard graduate, he supported populist Louisiana governor Huey Long and anti-Semitic radio commentator Father Charles Coughlin.

Just as his political beliefs shifted (he would spend the rest of his life downplaying his right-wing sympathies), so did his professional career. Though he was considered a pioneer of 20th century modernist architecture, his styles and influences shifted and morphed. “Johnson was a historicist who championed the new, an elitist who was a populist, a genius without originality, a gossip who was an intellectual, an opportunist who was a utopian, a man of endless generosity who could be casually, crushingly cruel,”  writes architecture critic Mark Lamster in his new book The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century (Little, Brown). By the end of his long life, Johnson was still, in many ways, unknowable.

Lamster captures a brilliant, restless, conniving, ambitious man. Improbably gifted, richly supported by family money, Johnson mounted landmark architecture and design exhibits at MOMA and donated thousands of artworks to the museum. He mentored young architects and created his own architecture firm.  By the second half of the 20th century his influence had turned him into  “the godfather of American architecture,” wrote architecture critic Paul Goldberger in a New York Times review of Lamster’s book.  He designed some landmark buildings, including his own residence, the “glass house” in New Canaan, Connecticut, Pennzoil Place in Houston, the original Four Seasons Restaurant in New York and Manhattan’s AT&T tower.

But many other Johnson designs were pedestrian, jarring or forgettable. His architectural allegiances shifted over time; originally a Mies van der Rohe acolyte, Johnson embraced postmodernism, and by the end of his career, many of his buildings, built for corporations in the boom years of the Reagan era, were mashups of clashing influences and his clients’ practical demands. “I do not believe in principles, in case you haven’t noticed,” Johnson once told fellow architect César Pelli. 

It is this shapeshifting quality that makes Johnson hard to grasp, and he was never much for self-disclosure. How could a man who supported the Nazis, who watched Polish villages burn from the sideline as the Nazis invaded them, later design synogogues and an Israeli nuclear research reactor? How could a tastemaker who followed and preached modernism become a convert to the baubles and trimmings of post modernism? Lamster does not try to fully explain, extoll or damn Johnson; he presents him in all his contradictions, and views the inner workings of American architecture with an unblinking gaze.  His book is an acute profile of both a man and his profession: in The Nation, Kate Wagner wrote that The Man in the Glass House “reveals in great detail how Johnson, in collaboration with a small number of powerful cultural institutions (and the billionaires that funded them), determined who would become the next generation’s architectural stars. Little by little in Lamster’s book, the hoary narrative—still bafflingly predominant in today’s architecture world—of the scrappy young draftsman pulling himself up by his bootstraps to become a great architect through hard work and talent is relentlessly dismantled.”

Mary Ann Gwinn writes about books and authors for the Seattle Times, Newsday and other publications. She won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for coverage of the Exxon Valdez disaster, and has chaired both the nonfiction and biography committees for the NBCC. She’s on Twitter at @gwinnma.

 

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From the Critical Mass blog

31 Books in 30 Days: Lori Feathers on Anna Burns’ ‘Milkman’

In this 31 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 14, 2019, announcement of the 2018 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board

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