Category Archives: American literature

The Underground Railroad: Twice More

It took me two times to read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. On my first effort I made it about a hundred pages in and decided it wasn’t for me. I was distracted when reading, I guess, or missed what was certainly in front of me: a tremendously good novel of (historical) fiction.

Set in the 19th century we follow Cora on her escapes from a slave plantation in Georgia. If you know anything about this book you know that it features a literal underground railroad: think boxcars and steam engines moving along metal tracks. And Cora does take that physical railroad with many stops along the way. The function of the railroad as a mode of transportation is one also to transport us to different scenes of racial inequality, white supremacy, brutality and horror – demonstrating the ways racism manifests in physical chains and in refusals of opportunity. That is the novel unravels what is ‘structural’ about racism, even while making structured the metaphorical railroad of history.

The novel explores these scenes and the complicated ways white characters live, exercise and wield their privilege with nuance. The efforts of sympathetic abolitionists are complicated by their own fears for their lives or standing in the community; the abhorrent beliefs of slave catchers are revealed as explanatory by the circulating ideas and belief structures of their time. Individuals are culpable, though their actions are positioned in relation to, or explained through, the wider structures that surround them in ways that offer if not empathy or absolution, than a profound recognition of the ways in which the readers’ present beliefs and actions must similarly be filtered through imperfect and unjust structures that are both bigger than and constituted by individuals.

Cora herself is great because she comes in to the narrative as a woman relying on no one, willing and able to exert power in the limited ways she has available to her, and sensitive to the dependencies and needs of those around her without being defined by them.

So yes, if you haven’t read this one yet (you probably have!), go! make haste! And if the first 100 pages don’t grip you… keep on.

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Filed under American literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner

The Great Gatsby: I’m sorry, high school English teachers. I was so wrong.

I was Such. A. Shit. in high school. Not really. Like not throwing chairs through windows  or skipping class or smoking. I was still me, aka: super keen and over-achieving. I just mean that is it’s own kind of shit. Because I must have been *so irritating with my relentless opinions and ideas and dispositional contrarian-ness.

To whit: Grade 11 or 12 English, we read The Great Gatsby. I didn’t like it.  Rather than keep this view to myself, I wrote a missive to my teacher explaining that subjective truth meant that because I didn’t like it, the book couldn’t be a good book. And she was like ‘you’re ridiculous. this is an objectively a great book’ and I got more and more combative and more invested in proving my brilliance and proving that I was right and the book was terrible. And on I went until she was like “fine!”

And then, blush. Twenty odd years later, book club picks it as part of our ‘classics’ series and *spoiler* 16-year-old Erin was an idiot. This book is objectively great.

[Aside. A. just came in and he’s teaching the book to high school students right now, and I shared how irritating I was in high school, and then a random stranger burst in to tell us How Great the movie version is, and I was instinctively like ‘The movie is terrible because movie adaptations are always terrible. So… I’ve learned nothing.]

There’s nothing worth summarizing here about the novel that hasn’t been written about a hundred different ways, so I’ll just say that this time when reading it I couldn’t better/differently appreciate the nostalgia and longing in Gatsby for the past he can’t have again, the striving he feels to prove to himself and others his worthiness (and oh man, if we could just get high schoolers to see what a futile process this is it could spare them twenty years of therapy and sadness), the impossibility of self-determination when Plot (car accidents) and Character (Tom) will always intervene in our best laid plans. And the narration through Nick that lets us keep  one remove so we can say ‘that isn’t me’ while all the while realizing that yearning and sadness is in all  of us… just… ‘great’, indeed.

So, old sport, heart-felt apologies to the past. If Gatsby’s taught me anything, I can’t go back there anyway, so best not to feel too much guilt and regret. Forward. Ever onward.

 

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Filed under American literature, Fiction

Redeployment: I waited too long to write this and now I forget everything.

Gah. Once again I accidentally read a short story collection and it was terrific. I may have to (finally) admit there’s nothing inherently evil about the form.

This particular collection, written by Phil Klay, and much ballyhooed by the New York Times, is pretty great. Focusing on the American role in the Iraq war, each story offers a slightly different perspective on the experience of war, from a solider returning home to a chaplain on the front lines.

I read it over the holidays and so now don’t remember as much as I wish I did, but I remember enough to suggest you read it. Uhhh – what specific thing can I say? Sorry. Not much. Next time I won’t wait three weeks to write about it…

E

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Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Fiction, New York Times Notable

Circe: I was President of Latin Club.

It will come as a surprise to no one that I was President of my high school Latin club. It was the kind of club that included an annual inter-institutional, three-day Roman based extravaganza of geekhood: chariot races, tug-of-war, academic competitions, barely-concealed-drinking, dramatic readings and theatrical performances. It was a haven for the weird and quirky before Glee and Geekculture made such things popular, or at least tolerable. I don’t know what high school is like now, but I know that for me, high school was only made tolerable by S., J., J., and Latin club (and who are we kidding, the library). One year, at this ‘Classics Conference,’ we staged a fashion show in which we assembled period costumes (hand sewn, of course) for the characters from the Odyssey and then wore them on stage for an audience; we had never been as proud or as celebrated. I played the role of Circe, dressed in seductive red, and if I could find a photo I promise I would never show it to you.

This is all a long wind up to let you know that I was very excited when my copy of Circe arrived at the library. You’ll remember that I adored Madeline Miller’s first novel, Song of Achilles  and so the combination of enthusiasm for the myth, the character and the novel and I was… excited.

And get this: Circe lives up to even these expectations. It has at its core questions about mortality (and we all know how I love to think about mortality), morality and what makes for a good life. These questions are woven through with ideas of gender, sexuality, and how women becoming fully themselves. One danger the novel brushes against, and ultimately (I think) avoids, is in supposing that it is through the maternal experience that this self-assurance is (pardon the pun) born.

To say more: the novel follows our titular character through her formative experiences in her father’s home, through banishment to an island and the many and varied characters she encounters there, through to her ventures from the island – and the causes for these departures – to her final conclusion. Along the way she does have a child, and this experience is – accurately (I think) – transformative. But where the novel succeeds (again, in my view) is in allowing that this singular experience of becoming a mother is not, in its self, sufficient for total transformation. Rather it is the collective experiences of developing her witchcraft; discovering her sexuality; mastering her body and its limits; reconciling herself with regret, consequence and guilt; and in the climactic moments – revealing to herself her strength and depth of character. All of these moments unfold slowly and in ways that subtly but progressively deepen and change her character.

Lest you worry this is nothing but an exhaustive character study, there are moments of intrigue, of romance, of suspense, of magic. But above all, there is beautiful – really – writing. Some of seascapes and landscapes, sure, but really writing that gets you to think differently about humanity and its capacity. I can think of few better ways to begin 2019 then with this novel that asks readers what makes our mortal lives worth living.

 

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Filed under American literature, Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction