BOOK REVIEW: Milkman by Anna Burns

MilkmanMilkman by Anna Burns
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This quirky novel is about a girl struggling to stay out of the limelight in a place where a socio-cultural schism leads to the most mundane happenings becoming a source of intrigue and speculation. The reader is never told that the aforementioned location is Belfast, Northern Ireland. However, between reading the author’s bio-blurb and having been around for the news stories from that city a few decades ago, it’s easy enough to draw that conclusion.

There’s a lot readers aren’t told in this novel. For example, we don’t learn anyone’s proper name. The characters are defined by their relationship to the protagonist (e.g. “ma,” “may-be boyfriend,” or “wee sisters”), his or her profession (e.g. “real milkman” the qualifier distinguishing said individual from the titular character [who is not nor never was – to anyone’s knowledge – an actual milkman],) or a peculiarity of said character (e.g. “tablets girl” or “nuclear boy.”) There is actually a character named “Somebody McSomebody.” One can only speculate about the author’s choice to not name the characters. My guess is that it reflects an attempt to emphasize a craving for anonymity and an avoidance of being free with detail.

The titular Milkman is a mysterious militant who takes an interest in the lead character. While the narrating lead tells us that she is definitely not interested in the Milkman, the community soon concludes that she is in a covert relationship with him. While the lead wants to keep her business to herself, there are a couple of factors working against her. First, one of her idiosyncratic behaviors – which one gets the impression she engages in to get a break from people – is walking home while reading, rather than taking the bus. This draws unwanted attention, perhaps ironically as one presumes she does this thinking that she’s slipping out of the public awareness. A second factor is that, while we are never told as much, one gets the impression that the lead is a beautiful young woman. Of course, the biggest factor is that everybody is watching everybody else like a hawk, attempting to find faults in what I call tribe signaling behavior (those actions – e.g. FaceBook posts – that serve to tell people who one is part of some group A and definitely not part of that vile group B.) For example, may-be boyfriend wins a Bentley turbo-charger and there is furor over the fact that said product usually has a little British flag on them, putting may-be boyfriend in a traitorous camp.

In one sense, this is a book about life in a place that has a specific socio-cultural fault line, specifically Northern Ireland. However, there is a lot in the story that is relevant to readers today, as we see sharp politico-cultural divides forming in many places in the world – certainly, for example, in the US. The book will make one sympathetic to the woes of those trying to opt out of tribe-signaling in a community in which to be unaffiliated is to be relegated to the lowest status imaginable.

I would highly recommend this book for all readers. Its humorous, albeit with the dark undertone of conflict ever-present. It’s readable and the reader will find themselves carrying about the plight of the lead.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: William Blake ed. by J. Bronowski

William Blake: A Selection of Poems and Letters (The Penguin Poets)William Blake: A Selection of Poems and Letters by Jacob Bronowski
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This is a selection of poems and letters by William Blake. The poetry includes several of Blake’s collections in their entirety, including: “Songs of Innocence,” “Songs of Experience,” “The Everlasting Gospel,” “The Book of Thel,” “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” “America,” and “The Song of Los.” Additionally, it includes selections from Blake’s “Poetical Sketches 1783,” “MSS c. 1793,” “MSS c. 1803,” “MSS c. 1810,” “The Four Zoas,” “Milton,” “Jerusalem,” and “The Gates of Paradise.”

This selection gives the reader all of Blake’s most well-known and beloved works in the form of “The Songs of Innocence and Experience” and “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” The former presenting the short and lyrical poems such as: “The Lamb,” “The Little Black Boy,” “The Tyger,” and “A Little Boy Lost.” The latter best voicing Blake’s philosophy, which was spiritual but yet ran afoul of the zeitgeist by rejecting the morality of the day – particularly as regards sexuality and relationships. In truth, Blake was considered a madman by many of his contemporaries. At this point, it’s hard to know the degree to which he was truly insane versus just in conflict with the prevailing mode of thought. I’ve read that Blake’s biographies (particularly Chesterton) heavily overplays the insanity angle. It should be noted that Blake was also a painter, and his images – which are in some cases nightmare fodder – probably helped establish his lunatic status. Still, his poetry reads much less objectionably to the modern ear [possibly why Blake was one of those poets who was not well-known or well-read during his lifetime, but rather gained a major following after he was deceased.]

Most of the works that are merely sampled from are collectively called “Blake’s prophetic works” – e.g. “The Four Zoas,” “Milton,” and “Jerusalem.” These are epic poems expressing a mythology developed by Blake. For most readers, sampling these works will prove sufficient. The prophetic works involve many characters and an unfamiliar mythological base (i.e. as opposed to reading Norse or Greek mythology for which the educated reader likely has some helpful background.) In their day, the prophetic works were considered nonsensical, but more recent scholars and reviewers tend to look upon these poems in a kindlier fashion. At any rate, the select chapters aren’t enough to give the reader a flow of the story, but rather merely a taste of the language and tone of the works.

The letters number fewer than twenty, and include thank you notes and explanations of the drama going on in Blake’s life at the time. Ordinarily, I would consider the inclusion of these documents mere padding, but I’m more fascinated by Blake as a person than I am many other poets and so the letters do shed a little light on Blake as a man. Still, because one is only getting snippets of information and all from Blake’s side, the insight offered by the letters is quite limited. In my opinion, the editor should have either left the letters out or heavily footnoted them to provide background context to make sense out of them.

I’d recommend this book. I think the editor’s selection strikes the right balance in excerpting the prophetic works. I think most readers can skip the letters, unless one has a major fascination with Blake.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali ed. by B.K.S. Iyengar

Light on the Yoga Sūtras of PatañjaliLight on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali by B.K.S. Iyengar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The “Yoga Sutras” are 196 aphorisms about yoga that were penned by a sage named Patanjali around 400 CE (i.e. AD.) Unless you’re a Sanskrit scholar with expertise in the history of yoga and the region that birthed it, it’s hard to gain anything from reading the Sutras directly. The Sutras are written in a terse style in a sparse language, and so most readers aren’t equipped to interpret them – which takes not only knowing the language but have some understanding of the context in which they were written. This means the Sutras are most commonly packaged into a book-length manuscript that includes not only the translation but also analysis and commentary.

There are many such books available, but the challenge is to find one that: a.) comes as close to the original meaning as possible without either misunderstanding or tainting the meaning with the translator’s and / or commentator’s worldview / ideas / ego; b.) is approachable to a modern reader. With respect to the latter, it’s easy to find free translations on the web, but often these were produced over a century ago, and can make for challenging reading for today’s readers. While it may seem like it would be closer to the source material, it can also be thought of as injecting another layer of culture in between the original and the present-day reader.

The Sutras are organized into four sections. The first section introduces the reader to yoga and explains the state of mind called Samadhi. The second section outlines the eight-fold practice of yoga called Ashtanga Yoga. The eight limbs include the two aspects of yogic ethics, yama and niyama, as well as postural yoga (asana,) breath exercises (pranayama,) sensory withdrawal (pratyahara,) concentration (dharana,) meditation (dhyana,) and the aforementioned Samadhi. The third section focuses on the super-normal abilities yogis are said to achieve, along with a warning that the pursuit of these abilities can become a fatal attraction with respect to one’s growth. The final section discusses the liberation, that is the ultimate objective of the practice of yoga.

The organization of this volume makes it suitable for readers of a wide range of levels of experience and scholarly understanding, and allows a reader to benefit from a shallow or deep approach to reading / research of the Sutras. It includes the original Sanskrit, then a Romanized alphabet phonetic write up of the original Sanskrit Sutra, and then a listing of the various meanings for each of the Sanskrit word. Then it has the English translation of the Sutra as literal as possible. Finally, there is B.K.S. Iyengar’s commentary and analysis. Sometimes these elaborations are just a few lines and sometimes they’re a few pages, but most commonly each is about one page. I like the approach of providing the original as well as information that facilitates the reader systematically piecing together his or her own understanding of each Sutra. I think it shows both humility and eagerness to support students on the part of the editor.

There are various appendices, indexes, and a glossary to make the book more useful.
This isn’t the first book of translation and commentary of the Sutras that I’ve read. However, it is the most readable, approachable, and useful that I’ve read. I would highly recommend this book for all practitioners of yoga.

View all my reviews

POEM: Budapest

I know you best by the gray of your winters

when road salt coats the sidewalks

and a witch of wind rides down the Danube

whistling around pedestrians on your broad bridges

      — except there are no pedestrians

                  — save for me —

river crossers huddle in yellow trams

or pack into the Metro that rolls under the river

I know your beauty can be unsullied

I’ve seen a Budapest in bloom,

under blue skies and cotton clouds

But your gray days lend a distinguished air

a melancholic miracle is birthed from gloom

a sweep of story,

 a piece of poetry,

that would move a stoic to tears

And escape is always close at hand

for Kürtőskalács fires sunshine in my mind