The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The capacity to suffer. Elwood – all the Nickel boys – existed in the capacity. Breathed in it, ate in it, dreamed in it. That was their lives now. Otherwise they would have perished. The beatings, the rapes, the unrelenting winnowing of themselves. They endured. But to love those who would have destroyed them? To make that leap? We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. 

Elwood shook his head. What a thing to ask. What an impossible thing.

71yP-dPa0mLIf a 225-page book takes me nine days to read, either I don’t like it or it’s really sad. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is decidedly sad. I didn’t cry, and I didn’t feel burdened by gratuitous descriptions of violence. Whitehead, mercifully,  writes sparingly but efficiently of the punishments given out by the mean-spirited men in charge of the fictional Nickel Academy. I just felt sad, heavy with the knowledge that these injustices happened to real boys in the 20th century at Florida’s Dozier School for Boys, the inspiration for Nickel. Heavy with the weight of our continued struggle with racism in the U.S. At the same time, I relished Whitehead’s characterization of the two young heroes in this story, Elwood and Turner. He is a phenomenal writer – not an emotional one, but one who nonetheless has the capacity to move me greatly.

It’s the early 1960’s and Elwood and Turner, the book’s main characters, stand in for hundreds of boys, black and white, who endured horrible conditions at the real life Dozier School. (You can read more about it here.) The boys at Nickel were either wards of the state that no one was sure what to do with or they were there as punishment for a “crime.” Elwood, an enterprising, bookish young man, inspired by recordings his grandma bought him of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., starts the book as the least likely boy to end up at a place like Nickel. But he’s soon caught up in a tragic mishap that lands him in the nightmarish facility, where he meets Turner, a low-key, cynical, but streetwise teen who has no family and is on his second stint at the school. Turner takes Elwood under his wing after Elwood makes the mistake of letting his ideals guide him in the murky social structure at Nickel.

I absolutely fell in love with these two characters, especially Elwood. The way he continues to struggle throughout the novel to reconcile his ideals, the ideals Dr. King showed him, and the reality of his situation, all the adults and kids who weren’t playing by the rules of love and justice and a higher purpose, this is the heart of the book for me. I have read some reviews of Whitehead’s works that fault him for being detached or unemotional. I agree with that characterization but for me it’s a good thing. The things he writes about, especially his last two books, have been about so much sadness and violence that I want a level of detachment from the author – it helps me, a sensitive person, not get overwhelmed by the subject matter. I can focus on the beauty, strength,  and economy of the writing and, here, delight in the characters.

The Nickel Boys is an achievement, a testament to the hell that real life boys endured for most of the 20th century. I think Colson Whitehead is a genius who can write just about any kind of book he wants to and I love the range of his work. I know this kind of book isn’t an easy sell, especially for sensitive readers. But I highly recommend it – if I, known shunner of heavy books, can handle it, you most likely can too! ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

 

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Two Big Books of Summer

Recently I read two of the biggest books of the summer: Kate Atkinson’s Big Sky and Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls. I LOVED one of them and liked the other. Let’s get to it.

img_4237I pre-ordered Big Sky a few months ago, something I rarely ever do – hello, library five days a week – but Atkinson is one of two authors I automatically make an exception for (the other is Jess Walter.) This is the fifth installment in her Jackson Brodie series, and I’ve loved every one of them so far. I didn’t know if she’d ever return to this beloved character. It’s been nine years since the previous one, Started Early, Took My Dog. I’m happy to report that this one satisfied my expectations and then some.

If you’ve never read one of these books, well, they’re hard to categorize. They’re not shelved in the mystery section of my library, even though they involve a private detective/ ex-policeman, Jackson Brodie. They’re multi-layered stories with lots of characters and threads that end up coming together eventually in unexpected ways. Atkinson has a talent for writing stories about very heavy and/or sad things but somehow letting the reader breathe a bit with dark humor, razor-sharp wit, and characters to root for.

It’s been so long since I’d read one that I’d kind of forgotten where we’d left off with Jackson. But Atkinson does a nice job giving us enough back story to catch us up.

Brodie Investigations was the latest incarnation of Jackson’s erstwhile private detective agency, although he tried not to use the term “private detective” – it had too many glamorous connotations (or sleazy, depending on how you looked at it.) Too Chandler-esque. It raised people’s expectations.

This one involves some very unsavory characters involved in sex trafficking – Jackson gets involved sort of obliquely because he saves a desperate man from throwing himself over a cliff. I hate to write too much about the plot because part of the joy of these books is piecing together how all these characters know one another and fit together. Suffice to say there is an underground of disgusting men taking advantage of young women and Jackson and an old friend, Reggie, who is now a policewoman, are investigating. What I loved about the book besides the puzzle was the characterization and the humor. Jackson is just a terrific character – he’s cynical and pessimistic but still got a good heart, loves his kids and his dog, and wants to help the vulnerable. In one of my favorite scenes he’s trying to counsel the chap he just saved from the cliff, and not doing a very good job:

“Sometimes you’re the windshield, Vince,” Jackson said, “sometimes you’re the bug.” That was what Mary Chapin Carpenter sang anyway, pace Dire Straights.

“I suppose,” Vince agreed, nodding slowly as he chewed on the last bit of toast. A good sign in Jackson’s book. People who were eating weren’t usually about to top themselves.

“And there’s no point in clinging on to things if they’re over,” Jackson continued. (Julia was right, perhaps counseling really wasn’t his forte.) “You know what they say” (or what Kenny Rogers would say), ” ‘you’ve got to know when to hold them and know when to fold them.’ ” This was better, Jackson thought, all he had to do was utilize the lyrics from country songs, they contained better advice than anything he could conjure up himself.

I loved it, and I am hopeful that there will be at least one more installment in this series.

Gilbert’s City of Girls is a big, exuberant historical fiction novel about a young woman named Vivian. Well, at the beginning she’s an old woman reflecting on her life at the prompting of the daughter of her great love, who has written Vivian to try and find out just what exactly she was to her late father. So the story is essentially Vivian’s long, winding, roundabout answer. Most of the action takes place in New York City in 1940-41. Vivian has flunked out of Vassar and been sent to live in the care of her colorful aunt Peg, who owns and lives above a struggling theater called The Lily Playhouse.

This is a very detailed portrayal of a time and place, a love letter to that specific New York City, and Gilbert does a great job of putting the reader right there in the setting. It felt real and made me jealous of Vivian, who got to experience that New York before the post-war modernization boom and subsequent grimy decay of the 60’s and 70’s. Also there is a lot of fashion in this novel – Vivian has a natural gift for sewing and crafting outfits from scraps of fabric, which makes her very popular with the showgirls at the theater. I liked Vivian, but the first 140 pages or so didn’t convince me of the necessity of the story. It was nice, kind of fun, but didn’t feel essential – until Aunt Peg’s erstwhile husband Billy shows up from Hollywood with a surefire hit of an idea to reinvigorate the theater and make everyone some money. Then things started to happen and I became more invested. As we get towards the end of the novel and the man who becomes Vivian’s great love comes into the story, I could hardly read fast enough. This part moved me greatly and I ended the novel in tears. I love how Gilbert’s books are all so different from one another, but one thing she consistently does well is make the reader feel the complexities of romantic relationships. Not everyone gets a fairy-tale ending, but that doesn’t mean that the love wasn’t real or valid. I also appreciated how Vivian came to own her sexuality over the course of the book. She became a woman who didn’t apologize for having a sex drive and that was refreshing, especially considering the time period.

…at some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time.

After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.

This was good. A bit uneven for me, but it gained steam as it went along and I’m glad I read it.

Have you read these? What books published this year have you loved?

 

 

 

Reading Ireland Month: How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston

ri18Irish writer Jennifer Johnston is a new author to me, despite having written something like 19 novels. I learned of her from Cathy at 746 Books a couple of years ago, and put her on my list for a future Reading Ireland Month. Her 1974 novella How Many Miles to Babylon? appealed to me because I have been wanting to read more novels set in and around World War I (I think I have literary WWII fatigue) and also because it is short! Only 156 pages in my library edition. I didn’t quite know what to expect but I found a tremendously moving, beautifully written story.

Essentially you have the story of a friendship that blossoms between an upper class, landed young Irishman, Alexander, and a peasant boy, Jerry, who lives nearby and later works in the stables on the estate. This unlikely friendship is much to the chagrin of Alexander’s disapproving parents, who are locked in a deeply unhappy relationship of their own. But then World War I begins, and both young men enlist – Alexander, half pushed into it by his mother and half escaping his unhappy home; Jerry, to learn how to fight in the Irish Nationalist movement to come.

11917193Just about half of the book takes place before the war and half during. The writing is just lovely and evocative, and Alexander’s and Jerry’s burgeoning friendship centers mainly on forbidden (because of Alexander’s supposedly delicate health) swims in the lake.

I remember, now that my mind has returned to it, the racing clouds in the pale sky above, and, below, the same clouds racing in the water, and it seemed as if we floated between them not connected in any way to the earth. It was my first and best experience of alcohol. Before going home we went down and swam among the clouds in the lake, and sucked in great mouthfuls of them, and sprayed them out all over each other. The sun’s golden track across the water made it look, we both agreed, as if walking on the water would be child’s play. 

Once the narrative moves to the Front, Alexander is made an officer and Jerry is a Private. Here, too, their friendship is frowned upon, on the grounds of discipline and also class. Johnston writes about the horrors of war with a deliberate, clear eye but also lets the two friends enjoy moments of fun ( a few moments on horseback to chase a fox) and tender connection. In fact, there is a question of whether or not the friendship is homoerotic or perhaps would have been more in different times and circumstances. Clearly the two have a special bond.

It was the only thing that was a positive pleasure, the feel of the alcohol creeping like a slow flame down your throat. He knelt down in front of me and began to ease off my right boot. The illness in his eyes as he smiled at me was a reflection of my own. He didn’t speak. The operation took some time. It was painful and I honestly didn’t know if I would ever get them back on again, my feet were so swollen.

‘It’s like taking a cork out of a bottle.’

He then began on the second boot. He carefully peeled off my socks. Without a word he took up the flask and poured some of the rum into the hollow of his palm and then began to massage my feet.

‘Hey!’

He only grinned.

‘You’ll be a new man in the morning.’

819524The ending is a bit of a shock. The reader knows from the beginning that something bad has happened because Alexander is writing from a military prison cell and then goes into reflection on the whole backstory. I’ll say that I cried, a lot. It’s a heart-breaker for sure. But it is incredibly beautiful as well. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so invested in a novella before. I loved the quality of the writing, I loved the details about the trenches and the waiting time between going back out to the trenches. I loved the descriptions of the lake in Ireland and the swans that swim there, the stolen moments the boys had before the war. I haven’t even talked about Alexander’s mother and father, how wretchedly unhappy they are, how quietly cruel the mother is. She’ll give you the shivers for sure. This was a terrific read and I’ll definitely be reading more of Jennifer Johnston in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

Catching Up

I’ve done a dangerous thing:  I’ve started a free trial of Amazon Prime. Actually, I can blame my husband – he’s the one who signed up for it, thinking it would make his item come faster (it didn’t.) Well, I thought, since I’ve got this for 30 days, what can I watch? Ah, yes, Bosch!  I’ve always wanted to see how they developed Michael Connelly’s beloved police procedurals for the small screen!

MV5BNjZjNjMyNDctZDNhOC00ODFlLTlmYzYtYjc2ZWMxNjNmYmE2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjI4OTg2Njg@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Uh-oh, my friends. It’s AMAZING. Here I am, eight episodes in, and I can feel my desire to read just ebbing away like sands through the hourglass. Titus Welliver is mesmerizing as LAPD detective Harry Bosch, and the show is just as addictive as the novels. The political intrigue in the police department is just as as compelling as the cases Bosch works. I don’t plan on continuing the subscription after 30 days so I fear that my reading will take a bit of a backseat for the next couple of weeks until I get through the three seasons currently available. Good thing I’ve been on such a hot streak in 2018. I’ve read five books! And two of them are books I own, which means a great start to my small goal of reading at least 12 of my own books.

Let me tell you a little bit about what I’ve read so far this year. The longer I go between finishing a book and writing about it, the less I want to write a review. Here are some highlights of my January so far.

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. I love starting out the year with a five-star read!  This was just as lovely and moving as My Name is Lucy Barton. It’s set in the 51mPEE0qUtL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_same universe (Lucy even appears in one story, about her and her siblings.) I don’t know how Strout does it, but she takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. She also seems to know how to manipulate my tear-ducts, as I cried on more than one occasion while reading these linked short stories. My two favorite stories in the novel were “Windmills” and “Mississippi Mary.” The latter is about the special bond between a youngest (and favorite) daughter and her mother. Mary (the mom) has moved to Italy, finally living her life for herself and experiencing true love with a younger Italian man. Angelina (the daughter) is middle-aged, having marital troubles, and has never gotten over her parents’ divorce or the fact that Mary has moved across an ocean.  It’s a story about shifting roles as parents age and whether or not a child can ever fully see a parent as a person in her own right. It’s just a knock-out. If you can get a copy of this and only have time for one story, read this one.

51ZCLMRv8nL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_I listened to The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and what an uplifting audio book! Cowritten and narrated by Douglas Abrams, (two excellent voice actors narrate the parts of the Dalai Lama and Tutu) this book is the fruit of a week’s visit between the two spiritual leaders and friends in Dharamsala, India to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. Abrams asks the men to share their wisdom in conversations about cultivating joy in the midst of worldly troubles. I loved hearing how close the two men are, how they laugh with and tease one another. I laughed out loud quite a few times, and when it was time for them to say goodbye to one another at the end of the week, I cried. This is a five-star audio book, and I wholeheartedly recommend it for everyone, especially if you could use an emotional lift. I may end up buying a physical copy to refer to again.

My book group pick for January was Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg. Historical fiction, set in New York City in the 1920’s and ’30’s. This was a page-turner for me as I finished it in two days. Mazie, loosely based on a real-life woman, is a bold, unconventional young23245422 woman for the time, and I found myself empathizing with her even as she made some choices that I didn’t care for. There were some surprisingly sexy scenes in this book too! Our book group had a lively discussion about how successful the diary/interview format of the book was, and whether or not Mazie felt authentic to the time period. Personally I found her a big-hearted, vulnerable character who tried her best to make lemonade from the lemons that life threw her way. This was a solid four-star read, sad, but worth it.

Finally, I finished the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante with the final installment, The Story of the Lost Child. I had finished the third novel back in February of 2016 (!) and for some reason had put off reading the fourth. I do get easily bored reading too much of the 81V-4jCgCiLsame kind of thing in succession, and I probably just got distracted by other books. In any case, I was disappointed by Lost Child. I found it tedious and too long. What I loved about the other three novels, the complicated “frenemy” relationship between the two main characters, Elena and Lila, took a back seat to Elena’s love life. Boring! Her relationship with Nino was just painful; he was such a cad and Elena just dithered and dawdled about her decisions. Oh well. At least I’m done with the series, and it was a book I own too, so that’s a plus.

Right now I’ve just started reading Nella Larsen’s Passing, and Sherman Alexie’s short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Both are very good so far. And they’re both books I own!  I’m on a roll in that department. Right now Bosch may have stolen my attention, but I won’t let these gems linger for too long. Happy reading and have a great weekend, everyone!  Tell me, what books and television shows have caught your fancy this week?

 

 

Mini Reviews: The Late Show by Michael Connelly and Revolutionary by Alex Myers

She believed her was her man, and there was nothing quite like that moment of knowing.  It was the Holy Grail of detective work.  It had nothing to do with evidence or legal procedure or probable cause.  It was just knowing it in your gut.  Nothing in her life beat it.  It had been a long time coming to her on the late show but now she felt it and she knew deep down it was the reason she would never quit, no matter where they put her or what they said about her.

TheLateShowUSAI had to turn in my copy of Michael Connelly’s The Late Show before I could begin this review because it had holds on it and was OVERDUE – yes, sometimes when you’re waiting on a book from the library it’s your friendly librarian who is stopping up the works!  (I only let it go a few days past due, in my defense.  🙂 )  Anyway, it was terrific, as most of Connelly’s books are.  There’s something about his books that just soothe my itch for crime thrillers, and every time he comes out with a new one I am SO THERE.

This one is the start of a new series, apparently, introducing a new detective, Renée Ballard.  She’s an LAPD detective on “the late show,” which is what they call the overnight shift, just there to take reports and interview witnesses. Because of that, she has to turn over investigations to the day shift, and never gets to follow a case through to completion.  It’s a demotion in her eyes – she was a regular day time detective before she brought allegations of sexual harassment against her supervisor.  (This part did feel a little under explained to me – it was a “he said/she said” case with no corroboration from anyone else, but I wondered why she wasn’t just moved to another division elsewhere.  But I digress.)  You can feel her frustration from the first scenes.  There are two cases that happen the same night that are unrelated but Renée can’t seem to let go of.  One involves a brutal, near-deadly beating of a transgendered prostitute names Ramona; the other, a shooting at a night-club that killed five people, two of whom seem to be innocent bystanders.  As Ballard gets deeper into her (mostly unsanctioned) investigations, she gets closer and closer to what she calls “Big Evil” in the first case, and indications in the second that seem to point to one of LAPD’s own as the murderer.

I liked Ballard a lot.  Her back story was interesting (Hawaiian heritage, absentee mother, father who died in a surfing accident while she watched helplessly.)  She has a dog named Lola which she rescued from a homeless person and who is fiercely protective of her.  She paddle boards when she needs to relax or think over the direction of her case, and she will camp out on the beach when she needs sleep.  One thing I kept pondering again and again was, “When does this woman sleep?”  Another was, “Does she have a house?”  It wasn’t until later in the book that we’re told that her permanent address with the Force is her grandmother’s house, but she only stays there every couple of weeks to do laundry, eat a home cooked meal, and visit.   So she’s a strong, independent character, but there are definitely cracks beneath the surface.  I’ll be interested to see how she develops in future installments!  4 stars.

 

Deborah wrapped herself in her blanket.  Her breeches had dried, and her waistcoat too.  Only her shirt and the binding beneath remained damp.  She lay down and closed her eyes, feeking the constriction around her chest like a snake coiled about her.  I am Robert Shurtliff, she told herself.  She wanted to measure up to these men, to find her place among them.  Lord God, she prayed silently.  Deliver me through this trial.  Grant me faith and strength.  

81yA-ssxkULRevolutionary was a book I probably wouldn’t have read on my own.  I like historical fiction when I read it but it’s not an automatic go-to genre for me. It was our book group pick last month, and I’m glad that it was chosen.  Based on Deborah Sampson, a real life woman who dressed as a man and fought in the Revolutionary War, it’s a moving and detailed work of historical fiction with a.

In the final years of the Revolutionary War, Samson (as Myers, a female-to-male transgendered author chooses to call her – turns out he is a distant relative of the real-life heroine) is an unmarried young woman who has fairly recently become free of her indentured servitude.  (Her family life was troubled and they couldn’t afford to take care of her, so she was given away to work as an indentured servant.)  Her community sees her single status as a threat; her only friend is a fellow servant named Jennie.  Having been once discovered trying to pass as a man when she went to go register to serve in the war, a violent attack by a local man has her fleeing the life that she knows in search of freedom and a new identity.  Jennie cuts her hair for her and steals some clothing from her master, and Deborah binds her breasts and leaves in the night, without a real plan but convinced that she’ll be put in jail for what she’s done to her attacker in retaliation.

What follows is an interesting, immersive account of regimental life as Deborah fits in with the rest of the young men (and by this point in the war, some of them are very young, which benefits the whisker-less Deborah.)  How she manages to keep her identity secret is interesting and occasionally requires a lucky break.  But she is stronger mentally and physically then she ever knew, and relishes her newfound freedom to move and live as she pleases even within the restrictions of military life.

I enjoyed this so much more than I anticipated, and was deeply moved by an unexpected turn of the plot 2/3 of the way through.  About 100 pages in Deborah begins to be called Robert in the narrative, the name she has adopted for her new life.  And then again towards the end, it shifts back to Deborah, but this feels entirely seamless and organic with the story.  She continues to correspond as Robert with Jennie back home, a nice narrative strategy.  The reader is made aware of how stifling and hopeless the conditions of an unmarried woman back in the late 18th century were, relegated to a life of drudgery, constantly open to innuendo and the possibility physical and sexual abuse.  I also learned a lot about the late stages of the war and daily life of a soldier.  I thought there were a few instances where the emotional impact of events wasn’t fully explored – for instance, the rape at the beginning didn’t seem to be fully dealt with and I wondered if there was another way Myers could have sent the story in motion.  But overall, this was a good read that explored gender identity in a time period in which people perhaps lacked the vocabulary to acknowledge such things.  4 stars.

Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders

Sometimes it’s nice to not have the weight of expectations behind an author’s newest work.  I’ve only read one book by George Saunders, his breakout short story collection Tenth of December.  (I loved that, by the way.)  So coming into his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, I didn’t have all the expectations that someone who’d read and loved his other three short story collections and novella might.  I just knew from reading December that he had the capability to make me cry and make me laugh and terrify me in the span of 300 pages.  I knew that he has one of the most inventive voices in modern fiction, as well as one of the most humane.97808129953431

I was only slightly aware of Bardo’s premise: President Abraham Lincoln, a year or so into the Civil War, distraught over the death of his beloved young son Willie, ventures to the crypt where he is laid to rest to visit his son’s body.  Various spirits, including Willie’s, talk and swirl around Lincoln. “Bardo” is a Buddhist term for the spiritual state between death and rebirth.  That’s all I knew going in.  When I type that it seems kind of weird and morbid and, frankly, kind of boring.  But knowing what a master Saunders is, I knew I wanted to give it a try.

I’m so glad I did.

It’s a difficult novel to describe.  The structure took a little while for me to settle into.  I wasn’t exactly sure who was speaking in the first chapter (turns out it’s two spirits in the graveyard,) and then the next few chapters chronicle a White House state dinner that President Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln are having, while the country is at war and while Willie and his brother Todd are both lying in bed very ill.  These chapters are comprised of snippets of facts and first-hand accounts from people who were there or who wrote of the dinner.  Saunders uses this technique to give a framework to the novel and inform the casual student of history of what was happening in the country at the time.  It was disorienting at first but I grew to appreciate it as a way to ground the more fantastical, imaginative elements of the novel.

We meet many, many spirits while we are in the cemetery, including a drug-addicted, foul-mouthed couple who bemoan the fact that their children never visit them, a prodigious hunter who has had a change of heart and is atoning for his kills, and an anxious mother who is convinced that her husband can’t be trusted to raise her children. All of the spirits here are tethered to the world for some reason, and they don’t seem to understand that they are dead. Young people who linger are particularly in danger, for if they don’t move on to the next realm quickly, they become ghastly, gruesome vessels of anguish, chained to the cemetery forever.  Three spirits emerge as main characters:  Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins, and the Reverend Everly Thomas.  We get to know each of these spirits very well over the course of the book, and they valiantly work together to try and shepherd young Willie Lincoln to the next spiritual level before it’s too late.  In trying to help him they are also figuring out things about their own spiritual predicaments.

This book may hold the record for The Most Times Laila Cried While Reading.  I picked it up and put it down dozens of times in the first half just because I didn’t want to sob in the break room at work during lunch.  So it took me a week to read it.  But once I got into the second half of the book, it flew.  I couldn’t put it down.  I still sobbed, but I knew I could handle it, because it was going somewhere that felt… satisfying and authentic.  This is a book about a father learning to let go of his beloved child and simultaneously coming to a deeper understand of all the other parents losing beloved sons to the horrors of the Civil War.  It’s about how human beings contrive all sorts of ways to forget that all the people we hold most dear will one day die, and that one day we will too.  It’s about loving and letting go, and helping others along that difficult path.  It was bawdy, quirky, heartbreaking, and utterly astonishing in its agility and scope.  It’s one of those kinds of books that I like to say are “about everything.”  For me, it’s about life itself.   It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read.  George Saunders is full of compassion for his characters and for his readers, even though he may put us through the emotional wringer.  Don’t let my emotional state put you off reading this.  I’m a huge cry-baby!  I fully admit it!  I have a Goodreads shelf called “Sad But Worth It,” and Lincoln in the Bardo is definitely on that shelf.  Although it’s only March, I’m confident than this will be on my year-end Best Of list.

 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

If I’d not already written my Best Of 2016 list, I would have included Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad near the top.  I started reading it December 27 and deliberately held off on finishing it until it was January 1 so that it would be the first book I finish this year.  It will undoubtedly be in my top ten for 2017.28250841

You’ve heard a lot about this book, probably.  Oprah picked it for her book club, even moving the publication date up to do so.  It won the 2016 National Book Award.  It was Amazon’s editors’ pick for #1 book of the year.  You’ve seen it on just about every critical book list.  And sometimes all that acclaim can make a person weary of a book before they’ve even picked it up.  Too much hype.  I know, I have done this myself, avoided a book because too many people love it.  I’ve also avoided books that I feared might be too difficult for me to handle emotionally, which is what I suspected about this one.  Well, I’m here to say that I was wrong.

Is this book sad?  Yes, of course; it’s about slavery, one of the worst, most degrading and cruel periods of human history.  But is it an unrelenting misery-fest?  No.  It’s one of the most suspenseful works of literary fiction I’ve ever read.  I started it late at night; before I knew it I was fifty pages in, and I had to make myself put it down and go to sleep.

I was immediately taken with Cora, the young slave at the center of the book.  She is a marvelous character, an eleven year-old orphan on the Randall plantation in Georgia when her mother, Mabel, runs away.  She is sent to the slave shack with the women who are “not right” in some way, either through accidents of birth or traumatic injury.  She keeps her grandmother Ajarry’s small garden plot at all costs, as it represents the only sense of agency and freedom she has in the little time she has to herself.  She hates her mother for leaving her in the night without saying goodbye.  A violent incident one night at a plantation slave gathering, in front of the plantation’s cruel new owner, leads Cora to accept an offer made to her by another slave, Caesar, to run away with him. Throughout the course of the novel she exhibits an indomitable will to survive, and through her eyes we see some of the worst ways humans mistreated one another in the past 175 years.  All the while she is being pursued by the relentless slave catcher, Ridgeway.

The mosquitoes and blackflies persecuted them.  In the daylight they were a mess, splashed up to their necks in mud, covered in burrs and tendrils.  It did not bother Cora.  This was the farthest she’d ever been from home.  Even if she were dragged away at this moment and put in chains, she would still have these miles.

You’ve no doubt heard that the Underground Railroad in the book is not just a metaphor for the network of people and structures that sheltered and shepherded runaway slaves, but an actual railway system built underneath the land of the southern states.  Whitehead has created a dazzingly original work, playing not only with historical fact but also speeding up and slowing down time in the places that Cora eventually ends up.  It’s difficult to talk about the plot very much without giving away page-turning twists and turns that reference some of the 20th century’s great injustices to African Americans as well.  I’ll just say that where this book went surprised me.

I’m profoundly glad to have read this, and want to encourage others who may be reluctant to pick it up.  It’s simultaneously a masterful work of imagination and a harrowing portrait of the real horrors of slavery.  But it’s also just a really good story, engaging and captivating, with a fierce, very human heroine at its center.  I rooted for Cora, I hurt for Cora, I didn’t want to leave Cora.  What a marvelous way to begin my 2017 reading.

Have you read this?  Do you plan to?  I’d love to know your thoughts.