Tag 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.

Leave a comment

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

My Absolute Darling: Why Reading is Tougher (and better) Than Watching a Movie

Gabriel Tallent might be a sadist. For the pain inflicted on the characters in My Absolute Darling and the attendant pain for the reader. Geeze but it is an intense read. Our protagonist, Turtle, is physically and sexually abused by her father: a survivalist/prepper who has isolated the two of them in the coastal forest of California.

For all the pain the novel describes, it does so with exquisite beauty. Like this reader felt uncomfortable for how frequently I stopped to admire the writing in scenes that are violent and disturbing.

I’d say the book is as much a character study as anything. Turtle is one of the most evocative and fully realized characters I’ve read in ages. It took me some time to adjust to the pain and disturbance of her inner world, but the third person limited narration was pitch perfect. It allowed for the reader to experience with Turtle the subtle and significant moments of character change, all while holding a necessary distance that (for me anyway) made the reading possible.

It’s also a book obsessed with setting. There aren’t many books that manage to make setting exciting. Sure lots of books make setting vivid, or integral to the plot, or thematically appropriate, but here the setting contributes to the violence: in its oceanic power, in its isolation, in the threat of (coming) fecundity.

Every so often I had to remind myself that Tallent imagined this story (I hope). Sat somewhere and thought okay, now Turtle is driving the truck and [this] happens. I had to remind myself because there are so many scenes that combine surprise and inevitability (what is the word for something that is both a surprise and inevitable?), so many moments of creative juxtaposition.

It was also a novel that reminded me how painful reading can be (especially compared to watching a film). In many of the scenes I wanted to close my eyes, but of course the only way to get through the scene was to read it and so to experience it. Sometimes I’d skip ahead, or skim, but felt I was cheating Turtle and so would go back and read properly, if with intense discomfort.

So while it’s an extraordinarily well written novel, I’d be remiss if I didn’t underscore (again) how difficult it was to read. And how it’s okay if you’d rather watch the news. Because that’s less distressing. Oh wait.

1 Comment

Filed under American literature, Fiction

Everybody’s Son: Half Novel, Half Explainer

I’m undecided about Thirty Umbrigar’s Everybody’s Son. On the one hand it tells the compelling story of the theft/adoption of an African-American boy by a uber-privileged white family; and in telling the story explores – pretty directly (okay, sometimes too directly) privilege. So yeah, that’s the other hand: the novel seems entirely unsure whether the reader will ‘get it’ and so spends altogether too much time telling the reader exactly what it’s about. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under American literature, Fiction

Little Fires Everywhere: #terrific.

This weekend we took a family trip to get cat food (because we are a family that goes together to get cat food?) and across from the pet store was a Chapters. So off we went to get pumpkin spice lattes and browse (because we are also a white, middle class family on a trip to the suburbs). The Starbucks line was too long, but there were plenty of books amid the sweaters and candles and stuffed animals. One of the tables was the “New Hot Fiction of Fall” and prominently displayed was Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. In fact there were only two copies left on that table, no doubt because everyone else already knows what I just discovered: this book is great. (Or more probably the publishers are doing a fine job promoting the novel. In fact I got this one as a review copy…).

Like it’s predecesor, Everything I Never Told You, this novel is a character driven family drama. Set in the 1990s (there are some wonderful references to the music of my youth), we follow starving-artist, Mia, and her daughter, Pearl, as they arrive in the planned community of Shaker Heights. Their arrival causes some upheaval for the Richardson family as Mia and Pearl differently insert themselves into the family’s life. Just like Everything I Never Told You, Ng’s second novel opens with the climax – in this case that the Richardsons’ youngest daughter, Izzy, has burned down the family house. The novel then moves back in time to explore why she has set this ‘little fire,’ and how the rest of the family might be implicated.

Wonderfully rich in character detail and relationship, through juxtaposing the two mothers, Mia and Mrs. Richardson, the book explores the tension between a life led following the unspoken and prescribed societal rules and a life led following passion and interest. In both cases the novel explores how the choice to follow or abandon a planned life causes pain for others, suggesting that our human characteristic of (in)advertenly hurting others is inescapable, what might be more important is how we respond when we realize we have caused harm.

In the children the novel is slightly more uneven in the development of characters. While Izzy both opens and closes the novel, she – unlike all the other children – doesn’t see a third person limited narration. Okay, that’s not true, Trip also gets a more surface rendering, though we do get a better sense of him through his relationship with Pearl. I suppose it’s a complaint of focus – if we are meant to understand Izzy’s actions both in burning down the house and in what follows, I wanted to see her in stronger focus. Except as I write this I’m questioning my initial reaction – perhaps this oblique and proximal development allows us to see Izzy as everyone else in Shaker Heights does: we misunderstand her, we misattribute her motivations, if we want to know her at all, we can only do so through her actions because she keeps others (and readers) at such distance. Fine, fine. I’ll accept.

This minor complaint aside, the novel is wonderfully engaging. The flashback to Mia’s 20s is one of the stronger sections in this regard, as we are both intensely interested in her past at the point at which the flashback occurs and because she is so fully realized. Likewise the adoption subplot presents a fascinating moral question that will (I’m sure) leave plenty a bookclub and reader in discussion.

Ultimately a novel celebrating the magic of art in allowing us to see and be seen, this one deserves its prominent place on the ‘New and Hot’ table and you’d do well to put your name on the list at the library as soon as possible. Or you can borrow my copy. Or perhaps you’ll end up at a super complex with pet food, diapers, bulk celery, a pumpkin spice latte and… this book.

Leave a comment

Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Fiction