Review: The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad was one of the most discussed books of 2016, so if you haven’t read it, chances are you know something about it. In any case, it is the story of runaway slave Cora who is making her way north from a Georgia plantation using the Underground Railroad, which in Colson’s novel is not a metaphorical name for the network sympathizers, abolitionists, former slaves, and others who helped escaping slaves on their way to freedom but an actual technological marvel—a railroad, under the ground. The book has been compared to Gulliver’s Travels, which earns a mention in the reading of Cora’s friend and fellow escapee, Caesar. At each station or stop in Cora’s journey, she is confronted with a different sort of evil that Americans have perpetrated against their fellow Americans, from bringing them to America in chains, to lynching, to terrorism, to more subtle means of subjugation and deception, such as medical experimentation.

My book club selected this to read, and I knew our meeting was coming up, but I wasn’t sure when until one of my friends reminded me. It’s this coming week! I wasn’t sure I could finish the book in time for our meeting, but I decided I had best pick it up and read at least some of it, especially because I was one of the members who suggested we read it.

I actually couldn’t put it down, and I read it in two big gulps over yesterday and today. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Whitehead plays with documented historical fact, entwining it with speculative fiction, imagining an antebellum America where South Carolina had skyscrapers and an actual railroad leading slaves north ran underground. These fantastic aspects of the novel allow Whitehead to explore the broader history of the African-American experience through the eyes of a single character. The only other way I think he could have done it would have been a sort of immense Roots-like multigenerational epic rather than this tight narrative that allows us into the life of one character. It also allows Whitehead to show the scope of the atrocity of slavery and racism in all its depth and breadth. It’s hard to put down—I wanted to see Cora to safety in the North so badly, that I sat and read for two days! I can’t give the ending away, but I will admit I needed more satisfaction after following Cora on her odyssey all that way. And as much as anything else, the ending has to be that way because it is the truth about the African-American experience.

This novel hit me like Beloved. I credit Beloved with finally helping me get it, as a white woman. After reading Beloved, I felt like for the first time, I had a small understanding of what the lingering and devastating effects of slavery on our country. Of course I can’t ever really understand what I haven’t experienced, but through books like Beloved and The Underground Railroad, I can gain empathy I didn’t have before I read them. This book is Beloved for the next generation. It’s a critical book for our times, just as Between the World and Me is critical. In fact, I recommend they be read back-to-back if you haven’t read either book yet. It’s a wonderful book, and it might be the best one I read all year. It’s certainly in the top five.

Ron Charles (as usual) has a great review in the WaPo. Michiko Kakutani liked it, too, and she is tough. Definitely read both reviews, which capture the power of this novel better than I have been able to do here. As Kakutani so astutely notes in her review, quoting Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In the case of this book, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book ostensibly about slavery that also so accurately describes our own moment in history.

Rating: ★★★★★

Set in the antebellum South as Cora travels from Georgia to Indiana and that vague fantasyland known as “North,” though with some elements of speculative fiction, this book works for the Historical Fiction Challenge.

 

Sunday Post #33: Reading the Midwest

Iowa photo
I seem to be spending more reading time than usual in the Midwest this year. I finished re-reading Jane Smiley’s book A Thousand Acres. My AP students are also reading it right now. I won’t review it, as I reviewed it for this blog already.

In addition to A Thousand Acres, I read following books set in the Midwest this year:

Five books might not seem like a lot, but it’s more than usual. I’m not sure why, but I tend to read along the East Coast, and my reading map for this year certainly reflects that habit as well, though it does seem to have a bit more diversity of setting than usual. I can’t help but notice I’ve read only three books set west of the Mississippi this year.

In some ways, I do feel drawn to the Midwest, though I have never lived there myself for any substantial period of time. I lived in St. Louis for about three months, but other than that, I’ve only visited. I was really struck by my visit to Kenyon College in Ohio this summer, especially as I noticed we drove through Licking County on our way from the airport in Columbus to Kenyon in Gambier. My family farmed in Licking County in the 1800’s before they migrated west to Iowa, settling in Story County. Farmers haven’t existed in my direct family line for several generations now, but I suppose most of us descend from farmers, don’t we?

In other news, we are now in the midst of October, my favorite month. We have fresh apples we picked from a local farm in the kitchen. The weather is finally exactly the way I like it (do I ever loathe summer weather). I’m enjoying my current R. I. P. reads, Things Half in Shadow by Alan Finn and Fiercombe Manor by Kate Riordan. It took a little longer than usual for fall to reach us this year, but I’m glad it’s here at last.

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

Photo by TumblingRun

Sunday Post #28: One Month of Reading

Sunday Post

It has been exactly four weeks since I have written a Sunday Post. I have had a pretty busy summer, but I didn’t realize I hadn’t updated in that long. I have made some excellent progress on reading goals, mainly because I’m teaching a new course this year, and I needed to read some of the books to prepare. I’m in the process of re-reading some others in order to have them fresher in my mind as I teach them.

Since I last wrote a Sunday Post, I have finished reading Gilead by Marilynne RobinsonThe Song of Solomon by Toni MorrisonThe Piano Lesson by August Wilson, and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I have also been re-reading the Harry Potter series on my Kindle, which I find an easy way to get through those fat monsters at a faster clip. I am about a third of the way through my re-read of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I also read The Complete Maus, but I didn’t review it because I think I have already reviewed it before.

I have completed the level of the Historical Fiction Challenge to which I had committed. I should go up another level. I’m nearly there for the next level, and there is still plenty of time. I’m just never sure how much time I’ll be able to commit to a challenge. I hate to say I’ve abandoned a challenge this early, but I have pretty much given up on the Literary Movement Challenge. I didn’t have time to get to the literary movement for May, and I just never moved forward from there. It’s okay. I had plenty of reading I needed to do for school. I’m doing okay with the other challenges, and I’m ahead on my total reading goal of reading 52 books, which is a good position in which to be, given I will most likely get pretty busy as school starts and will need some cushion time.

I have not added a lot of books to my TBR pile, which is a good thing, as it’s already too big.

 

Right now, I’m re-reading both King Lear and A Thousand Acres for my new course. I am really enjoying reading these books concurrently, and I am especially enjoying listening to the Naxos Audio production of King Lear featuring Paul Schofield as Lear, Toby Stephens as Edmund, and Kenneth Branagh as the Fool (and a host of other superb actors). I highly recommend it.

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

Review: Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison

I read Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon in order to prepare to teach it this coming school year. Song of Solomon is the story of Macon Dead III, also known as “Milkman.” Milkman feels lost and disconnected, but he goes in search of his family’s history and in the process discovers himself.

I hardly know what to say about this book. It’s incredible in way few things I have ever read are. I loved the magical realism. I think a lot people find magical realism confusing perhaps because it doesn’t fully conform to fantasy, so you can’t really suspend your disbelief and just go with it, but it also doesn’t conform to realism, and sometimes events can happen that are hard to make sense of. This story is so perfectly layered and carefully written. It’s a masterwork in the art of writing. It’s not only one of the most beautifully poetic books I’ve ever read, but it’s also spiritually fulfilling and a captivating story as well.

One suggestion I have for anyone who reads this novel is not to miss Toni Morrison’s forward. When she reveals the care and thought that went behind just the first sentence, you will understand just how tightly written a work of genius this novel is. I appreciated the way that no thread was left abandoned. Every idea that was introduced was brought back. There was nothing “extra”; no details were just thrown away. As such, it requires quite a close read. Be careful though. I found errors in the online help sites SparkNotes and Shmoop that might cause a reader to be confused, especially if he/she makes the egregious mistake of reading the help sites alone instead of the novel.

I am so glad I read this book. I think I loved it even more than Beloved. This novel deals with some of the same themes as Beloved—the legacy of slavery that resulted in cycle of abandonment by black men and single parenthood and grief for black women. In another writer’s hands, exploration of these theme could go badly wrong. Morrison is an essential writer for our times. She could teach us so much about the ways in which the past still impacts us today and will impact us in the future.

Man. What an excellent book.

Rating: ★★★★★

This book is a bit contemporary for historical fiction, but I’m still counting it because the ending occurs at least ten years before it was published, and many of the events concern the past. Not everyone may agree with this categorization, but given the importance of the past in this book, I think it’s fair.

Sunday Post #15: Wuthering, Wuthering Heights

Sunday PostWhat has been happening this week? It’s been crazy busy. I haven’t had a ton of time to read, so I sat down and read most of today (with the exception of doing a little bit of work and washing the dishes). I have been spending most of the day wandering the moors, reading The Annotated Wuthering Heights. What a great addition to my library. I am truly enjoying it. Each time I read Wuthering Heights, I notice something I didn’t pick up on last time, and this time, it’s how horrible Nelly Dean is. I mean, I have often thought of her as mostly a reliable narrator, and because of her, I have really disliked Catherine. Heathcliff is just plain hard to like, no matter what. As soon as you start feeling sympathy for him, he goes off and kills lapwings for no reason or hangs a dog. Perhaps because I’m reading an annotated version, I am noticing so many more things than I ever have before. All the birds, for one thing; I’m sure I noticed that before, but even though the annotations don’t discuss the birds in a great amount of detail, I think my antennae are up, so to speak, and I’m noticing the symbolism more than I usually do. And there are birds just everywhere in this book. Another thing I am seeing are the close connections to the Romantic poets. The annotations help there, and I am really pleased I chose to read this one for the Literary Movement Reading Challenge. Hope I can finish it in time! Even if I don’t, I definitely want to finish reading this lovely annotated version. I realize a lot of people hate this book, but I think if you peel it apart and and see what makes it work, it is genius. I am especially enjoying the nuances I am noticing in Nelly’s character this time around.

I finished reading Pleasantville by Attica Locke and wrote a review for the TLC Book Tour this week as well. A good read. I am also still working away on Katherine Howe’s Conversion on audio. The reader for that one is really good. I recommended it to a bunch of my students this week when I saw it was one of their choices for a summer read.

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic was top ten favorite authors of all time. You know, I am actually liking the idea of saving these for my Sunday Post instead of doing them on Tuesday. I just have less time to write during the work week. To qualify as a favorite author, I decided that I needed to love multiple books by the same author. So I didn’t count authors who have only written one novel. I also didn’t count authors if I had read only one of their works (even if I loved it). So here is my list:

  1. William Shakespeare
  2. Jane Austen
  3. J. K. Rowling
  4. J. R. R. Tolkien
  5. Diana Gabaldon
  6. Ernest Hemingway
  7. Sharyn McCrumb
  8. Jasper Fforde
  9. Neil Gaiman
  10. Judy Blume

Who would be on your list?

Authors whose work I love, but whom I didn’t count because of my self-imposed rules are Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, and Emily Brontë.

Some links I enjoyed this week:

Here’s a bonus for you:

For the record, I have always believed it really was Catherine’s ghost who disturbed Lockwood early in the novel.

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

Summer Reading

Photo by Vassil Tsvetanov Ah, summer. That glorious time of year when it seems like all the time in the world to read is within our grasp. It seems like my TBR pile is getting larger and larger. The good news is that I have managed to find myself a book club, which I’ve been trying to do for some time. The book club is reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I have been wanting to read Adichie for some time, and without the impetus of the book club, I’m not sure when I would have gotten around to it.

I’m finally reading The Age of Innocence. I’ve seen the movie with Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder many times, but I haven’t actually read the book, and it’s long overdue. I’m enjoying it a great deal so far. Beyond these two books, I’m still trying to figure out what I want to read. I signed up for a course in Greek and Roman Mythology through Coursera, and it has some required reading. Luckily, we start with The Odyssey, and I read it so recently (plus I’ve taught it a bunch of times), that I don’t feel tasked to re-read it for the class. I’m trying to figure out what’s been on my list for a long time that I really want to try to read.

However, it’s shaping up to be the summer of catching up on things I’ve meant to read for a long time. Case in point? I really would like to get to Toni Morrison’s [amazon_link id=”140003342X” target=”_blank” ]Song of Solomon[/amazon_link] and Ernest Hemingway’s [amazon_link id=”0684803356″ target=”_blank” ]For Whom the Bell Tolls[/amazon_link], both of which I’ve been meaning to read for some time. I keep picking up [amazon_link id=”045123281X” target=”_blank” ]The Pillars of the Earth[/amazon_link] and putting it back down again. I didn’t used to be so squeamish about really long books with tiny print, but in the last few years or so, I don’t know… I really have to want to read it if it’s that long. I’m not as bothered by listening to them as audiobooks, curiously. Perhaps it’s that my eyes are starting to bother me now when I try to read really tiny print. As I said, I wasn’t bothered by big books with tiny print so much in the past.

I have a lot of books on my Kindle that I want to get to, as well: [amazon_link id=”1250012570″ target=”_blank” ]Eleanor & Park[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0345806972″ target=”_blank” ]Longbourn[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0307948196″ target=”_blank” ]The Dressmaker[/amazon_link], and many others besides.

I also need to read [amazon_link id=”0763662585″ target=”_blank” ]More Than This[/amazon_link] by Patrick Ness, as it’s my school’s Upper School summer read. What are you reading this summer?

Photo by Vassil Tsvetanov