Book Review – The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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Title: The Underground Railroad
Author: Colson Whitehead
Publisher: Doubleday
Genre: Historical fiction, Alternate history, #OwnVoices

Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, The Underground Railroad, is, I dare to say it, a masterpiece. Despite the detached tone that turns off a few readers, the author gets to the heart of the horrible truths surrounding American chattel slavery in a way that most historical works have not. In addition to Alex Haley’s Roots, which comes with its fair share of controversy, Underground Railroad is one of the most powerful novels about slavery that I have ever read.

In Underground Railroad, we begin with a fairly straightforward story on a slave plantation. Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia; she is also a stray and outcast amongst her fellow people. When Caesar, a slave relatively new to the Randall plantation, convinces her to run with him, she eventually agrees, and they both make their escape.

It is here, on page 66, that the story takes a turn into the realm of alternative history. For the Underground Railroad is not the version we find in our history books, but a real train line, built by slaves, buried deep underground.

The stairwell was lined with stones and a sour smell emanated from below. It did not open into a cellar but continued down. Cora appreciated the labor that had gone into its construction. The steps were steep, but the stones aligned in even planes and provided an easy descent. Then they reached the tunnel, and appreciation became too mealy a word to contain what lay before her.

The stairs led onto a small platform. The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light-colored stones in an alternating pattern. The sheer industry that had made such a project possible. Cora and Caesar noticed the rails. Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel, pinned into the dirt by wooden crossties. The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus. Someone had been thoughtful enough to arrange a small bench on the platform. Cora felt dizzy and sat down.

Caesar could scarcely speak. “How far does the tunnel extend?”

Lumbly shrugged. “Far enough for you.”

“It must have taken years.”

“More than you know. Solving the problem of ventilation, that took a bit of time.”

“Who built it?”

“Who builds anything in this country?”

Throughout the novel, Colson borrows from history to reveal the true heart of darkness: slavery and the ongoing systemic racism in America. As Cora moves through each state: Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Colson begins to tell a broader story. South Carolina is completely reinvented – I won’t go into too much detail to avoid spoilers – but it is definitely jarring, and brings together the pseudosciences of eugenics, forced sterilization, and the Tuskegee Syphilis Project. All is not as it appears, and what looks shiny and promising on the outside often hides a darker, menacing aspect within.

Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood. With the surgeries that Dr. Stevens described, Cora thought, the whites had begun stealing futures in earnest. Cut you open and rip them out, dripping. Because that’s what you do when you take away someone’s babies – steal their future. Torture them as much as you can when they are on this earth, then take away the hope that one day their people will have it better.

I definitely see why this novel won the National Book Award. Colson Whitehead not only shows the struggles African-Americans have experienced during chattel slavery and beyond; he also touches on the way that white folks, and not just antebellum Southerners, justified their mistaken belief in racial superiority.

Interspersed throughout the story are chapters featuring a few of the minor characters: Caesar, Ridgeway, Dr. Stevens, Ethel. Some peopel take issue with these chapters as unnecessary, but I really appreciated them, particularly the chapters about Ridgeway and Caesar.

Whitehead writes in a detached way, and I know that is a turn-off for some people. I really enjoyed his writing style, and definitely recommend you give it a chance! In my opinon, it deserves all the accolades it has received.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Book Review – Dawn by Elie Wiesel

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Book: Dawn
Author: Elie Wiesel
Genre: Historical fiction, Nobel Prize Winner

I hate to give this novella anything but a five-star rating. Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night, is an amazing read; he is an incredible person. I admire him tremendously for having the courage to write a raw account of his experiences during the Holocaust; for spearheading the building of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and for his advocacy in speaking out against intolerance, racism, and hatred. His writing has become a voice for the millions who have been silenced, and those who are still suffering.

I have long admired Elie Wiesel for reaching out beyond his religious and cultural community to work towards equality for all. No, he is not without some controversy: I don’t agree with his admiration and support for Netanyahu, and some of his remarks in regards to Palestinians are definitely questionable. He’s not perfect. No one is (nope, not even President Obama). But I wholeheartedly admire the man and what he has accomplished as a whole.

I did not, however, love Dawn. Dawn is the fictional story of a young Holocaust survivor, Elisha, who is recruited by the Movement – what I believe to be based upon the real-life Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary organization that operated between 1931 and 1948 – to become a freedom fighter in British-controlled Palestine. The entire novella takes place over the span of one night. Elisha is tasked with assassinating a British officer who has been kidnapped, as retribution for the capture and hanging of a fellow freedom fighter. Over the course of the night, Elisha wrestles with his conscience, God, and the ghosts of his family, over what he is tasked to do.

“You are the sum total of all that we have been,” said the youngster who looked like my former self. “In a way we are the ones to execute John Dawson. Because you can’t do it without us. Now, do you see?”

I was beginning to understand. An act so absolute as that of killing involves not only the killer, but, as well, those who have formed him. In murdering a man I was making them murderers.

The writing in Dawn is just as beautiful as in Night. And the story brings up some important ethical and philosophical questions that Wiesel brings up in the preface: “How are we ever to disarm evil and abolish death as a means to an end? How are we ever to break the cycle of violence and rage? Can terror coexist with justice? Does murder call for murder, despair for revenge? Can hate engender anything but hate?”

My problem is that these questions are not appropriately addressed in such a small book. What is left is the feeling of justifying a person’s acts of terror by blaming the enemy. An idea in which I vehemently disagree. Wiesel may very well be making this very point in this novel: that treating an innocent person (John Dawson) the same way you (Elisha) were treated when you were powerless, is just as hideous an act as the acts of terror committed against you. But the impression the story gives leans towards the opposite.

“On the day when the English understand that their occupation will cost them blood they won’t want to stay,” Gad told us. It’s cruel – inhuman if you like. But we have no other choice. For generations we’ve wanted to be better, more pure in heart than those who persecuted us. You’ve all seen the result: Hitler and the extermination camps in Germany. We’ve had enough of trying to be more just than those who claim to speak in the name of justice. When the Nazis killed a third of our people just men found nothing to say. If ever it’s a question of killing off Jews, everyone is silent; there are twenty centuries of history to prove it. We can rely only on ourselves. If we must become more unjust and inhuman than those who have been unjust and inhuman to us, then we shall do so. We don’t like to be bearers of death; heretofore we’ve chosen to be victims rather than executioners. The commandment Thou shalt not kill was given from the summit of one of the mountains here in Palestine, and we were the only ones to obey it. But that’s all over; we must be like everybody else. Murder will not be our profession but our duty. In the days and weeks and months to come you will have only one purpose; to kill those who have made us killers. We shall kill in order that once more we may be men…”

The philosophical underpinnings of Dawn deserve a longer book, but somehow, plotwise, Dawn has too much padding. Yes, I know that sounds like I am completely contradicting myself! I feel that this is a small little book that doesn’t know quite what it wants to be, and is one of the weaker works out of all that Elie Wiesel has written.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Book Review – Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Asheville is one of my favorites cities in the American South. It kind of defies the odds, and is unlike anywhere else here in the South. Its mix of worldliness and mountain charm renders it quaint, hippy, metropolitan, and rustic…all rolled into one. It’s truly incredible, really, how Asheville pulls it off.

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The Biltmore Estate is one of the most well-known destinations in Asheville, a place we have visited in the past, and when Disney-Hyperion first released the book trailer for Serafina and the Black Cloak, it spread like lightning across Charlotte and the rest of North Carolina (well, across the whole country, to be honest!). Like many others, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the book.

Then it was published, and I asked M, 7 years old at the time, if she wanted to read it. NOPE! No interest whatsoever. This kid is not swayed by marketing efforts at all…a trait I admire, until it conflicts with my own opinion. Ha!

So, I held off. Until last week, when M asked the children’s librarian at our public library for a book recommendation. She was in a reading rut, and was looking for a new mystery or fantasy book, something that would appeal to a kid who loves stories like Chris Colfer’s Land of Stories series. A book with a strong female lead, and not too scary. The librarian led her too…Serafina and the Black Cloak. And her eyes lit up at the cover! Hooray!!

This is why I stopped suggesting books to her. Coming from mom, it never works.

So we checked it out, and both of us read it independently of the other.

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Title: Serafina and the Black Cloak

Author: Robert Beatty

Genre: Middle-grade, fantasy, mystery, historical fiction

Serafina secretly lives in the basement of the Biltmore Estate with her Pa, a maintenance worker for the Vanderbilt family. She roams at night, although she always listens to her Pa’s warning to never venture into the forest that surrounds the estate, and to never be seen by the other staff or the Vanderbilt family and their guests.

Then one night, children start disappearing, and Serafina is the only one who has seen the culprit, a man in a black cloak. She sets out to uncover the identity of the Man in the Black Cloak, with the help of a few friends along the way.

In the beginning, I was quite annoyed with Serafina’s Pa, and couldn’t understand why he treated her the way he did. His perspective and outlook on things starts to make more sense when you learn the back story of their family and why they live in the basement. I also had to put aside a pretty large dose of skepticism at the idea that Serafina could live for years in the basement of the estate and not once, even as a baby and toddler, ever be seen by other workers.

Serafina and Braeden’s relationship forms a large part of the story, and Braeden is interesting in his own right, but it is Serafina that truly makes this story sing. She is curious and solitary, charming and awkward, eccentric for a child so young. Both her and Braeden are unique in their own way, and I am happy to see an author of children’s literature explore and honor the uniqueness of children, and how that uniqueness is what makes a person special.

It’s a fast read, even for kids (or at least for my kid). Serafina and the Black Cloak is aimed towards 8-12 year olds, but I definitely enjoyed it as much as my 8-year-old did. M and I both loved Serafina, and I’ll leave you to guess which one of us figured out her secret first. It would make an excellent selection for a mother/daughter or parent/child book club. Having been to the Biltmore, and frequently hike in the mountains and forests surrounding Asheville, I may never look at those hiking trips the same way again.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

 

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Books I Read Because of Someone Else

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Happy Tuesday!  Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week we’re talking about books you have read that were recommended to you by someone else. My list is made up of books recommended to me mostly by other people in my book club, and blogs.

I decided to go with books that I have read in the last two years that were first recommended to me by someone else. You will notice this isn’t exactly a top ten list, but a mixed bag. I think it’s fun to sometimes talk about books that didn’t “wow” me. 

Guests on Earth by Lee Smith

It’s 1936 when orphaned thirteen-year-old Evalina Toussaint is admitted to Highland Hospital, a mental institution in Asheville, North Carolina, known for its innovative treatments for nervous disorders and addictions. Taken under the wing of the hospital’s most notable patient, Zelda Fitzgerald, Evalina witnesses cascading events that lead up to the tragic fire of 1948 that killed nine women in a locked ward, Zelda among them. Author Lee Smith has created, through a seamless blending of fiction and fact, a mesmerizing novel about a world apart–in which art and madness are luminously intertwined.

Recommended by: A friend of mine who works at Davidson College. We later went to hear the author speak on campus.

My rating: 3.5/5 stars. I would definitely read more by this North Carolinian author.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Set in seventeenth century Amsterdam—a city ruled by glittering wealth and oppressive religion—a masterful debut steeped in atmosphere and shimmering with mystery, in the tradition of Emma Donoghue, Sarah Waters, and Sarah Dunant.

Recommended by: My neighborhood book club.

My rating: 4/5 stars. I really enjoyed this one, even though quite a few of my fellow book club members didn’t.

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

Kell is one of the last Antari, a rare magician who can travel between parallel worlds: hopping from Grey London — dirty, boring, lacking magic, and ruled by mad King George — to Red London — where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire — to White London — ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne, where people fight to control magic, and the magic fights back — and back, but never Black London, because traveling to Black London is forbidden and no one speaks of it now.

First of all, I just have to say, holy batman run-on sentence! I just noticed that now. It’s a good thing the book was much better written than the blurb!

Recommended by: Many bloggers, but I first saw it reviewed by Cait at Paper Fury (via Goodreads) and Carina at Carina’s Books.

My rating: 4/5 stars. My review is here.

Isle of Palms by Dorothea Benton Frank

Anna Lutz Abbot considers herself independent and happy, until one steamy summer when she must find a way to deal with the secrets of her unpredictable family-and her past.

Oh, my beloved Lowcountry, which has taken quite a beating from Hurricane Matthew. I read this book on the beach this past summer at Hilton Head Island visiting my parents. They have been staying at our house in Charlotte since they had to evacuate last week, and haven’t been allowed back on the island yet. We don’t know how severely their home has been damaged.

Recommended by: My mom.

My rating: 3/5 stars.

The House Girl by Tara Conklin

Virginia, 1852. Seventeen-year-old Josephine Bell decides to run from the failing tobacco farm where she is a slave and nurse to her ailing mistress, the aspiring artist Lu Anne Bell. New York City, 2004. Lina Sparrow, an ambitious first-year associate in an elite law firm, is given a difficult, highly sensitive assignment that could make her career: she must find the “perfect plaintiff” to lead a historic class-action lawsuit worth trillions of dollars in reparations for descendants of American slaves.

Recommended by: Book club.

My rating: 3/5 stars. Probably on the lower end of 3 stars. It was okay.

Cataloochee by Wayne Caldwell

Against the breathtaking backdrop of Appalachia comes a rich, multilayered post—Civil War saga of three generations of families–their dreams, their downfalls, and their faith. Cataloochee is a slice of southern Americana told in the classic tradition of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner.

Recommended by: A friend.

My Rating: 4/5 stars. This was a surprise gem! I read it while we were vacationing in a cabin in the Smoky Mountains last summer, which made it even better to be immersed in the setting.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Every story has two sides. Every relationship has two perspectives. And sometimes, it turns out, the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets. At the core of this rich, expansive, layered novel, Lauren Groff presents the story of one such marriage over the course of twenty-four years.

Recommended by: Book Club.

My Rating: 3/5 stars. I was a bit disappointed in this book, I was expecting to like it more than I did.

Euphoria by Lily King

Inspired by events in the life of revolutionary anthropologist Margaret Mead, Euphoria is the story of three young, gifted anthropologists of the 1930s caught in a passionate love triangle that threatens their bonds, their careers, and, ultimately, their lives.

Recommended by: A friend who knew I studied cultural anthropology in college.

My Rating: 3/5 stars. It was okay. Another one low on the 3-star spectrum.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Big Little Lies is a brilliant take on ex-husbands and second wives, mothers and daughters, schoolyard scandal, and the dangerous little lies we tell ourselves just to survive.

Recommended by: Book Club.

My Rating: 3/5 stars. I really enjoyed the second half. Liane Moriarty books are usually a delight to read!

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Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

A powerful true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to fix our broken system of justice—from one of the most brilliant and influential lawyers of our time. 

Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Stevenson into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.

Recommended by: A friend from the local social justice advocacy group that I belong to.

My Rating: 5/5 stars. Excellent. I learned a lot of new things about the capital punishment system in America, particularly how it has been applied over the last few decades in the South.

WWW Wednesday – 28 September 2016

 

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Welcome to this week’s WWW Wednesday post, a meme hosted by Sam over at Taking on a World of Words. Don’t forget to go take a look at what everyone else is reading! You can post your own WWW in the comment thread here.

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

Currently Reading:

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A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab – I sped through ADSoM, but the beginning of AGoS has slowed me down somewhat. I love tough, badass Lila, but the story of how she spent the four months since the end of ADoM has not been holding my attention as her solo parts in the last book. The coup on the pirate ship was fantastic, but now the storytelling is dragging just a bit. And Rhy at the beginning of this book is incredibly annoying. What has gotten in to him? I hope there is an explanation for his weird behavior later in the book.

Just Finished:

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A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab – I am working on writing the review today, and will be posting it tomorrow!

Up Next:

Wherever There is Light by Peter Golden – I may have to put AGoS on hold to read this one in time for my book club next week.

Little Girls Can Be Mean by Michelle Anthony – Yes, little girls can be mean. My daughter stands out a bit in the Bible Belt for not being Christian, and she has already had a few kids say some not so nice things to her about that. We are working with her on formulating the a way to respond to mean behavior in general (not necessarily just bullying) in the elementary years, and I am hoping this book has some helpful advice.

What are you reading this week?

Book Review: Roots by Alex Haley

Over the past few days, I have had to take a few days off from blogging, and here’s why: I live in Charlotte, North Carolina. If you have been watching the news, you have probably seen my city at one of its most tumultuous moments in recent history. I have lived in Charlotte for only 5 years, but it is the longest that I have lived anywhere since I graduated from high school almost 20 years ago, and I consider it my home.

It is difficult to watch your city break down into violence on the streets that you have walked over and over again. It is difficult to watch the turmoil on the news, knowing you have friends at the protests; knowing the few dozen who broke off from the main protest and turned to violence do not speak for everyone. It is difficult to witness the arrival of the National Guard, the imposition of a mandatory curfew, and the declaration of a state of emergency.

Yesterday, I attended the peaceful afternoon protest, along with thousands of others. We marched the streets of Charlotte in unity for a better tomorrow. I participated because racial discrimination happens every day in Charlotte to a countless number of people, and something needs to change. In the crowd were public school teachers, lawyers, public defenders, social workers, clergy and faith leaders, and many of the youth of this city. The protests are not spreading hate against police officers, in fact, I witnessed many protestors handing out water to the National Guard and Charlotte police officers, and chatting with them on the sidelines. No, it’s not about hate…it’s a desperate plea for equality in a country that has some very serious systemic problems that need to talked about out of the shadows.

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I have a diverse group of friends, and a long time ago I realized I owe it to them to understand the complexity that is race relations, white privilege, and social justice in the United States. Sometimes the best way to understand is by talking to people. Other times, it can include picking up and reading a book, such as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, or The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

It is in that frame of reference I move on to my review of Roots by Alex Haley.

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Title: Roots: The Saga of an American Family

Author: Alex Haley

Genre: Historical fiction

Roots tells the story of Kunta Kinte, an 18th century Mandinka man who was captured near his village in The Gambia and sent into slavery in the United States. The story is a sprawling family epic that follows the life of Kunta Kinte, as well as the lives of his descendants, continuing all the way to the author himself.

Setting aside the controversy surrounding this novel – Haley has been accused of plagiarizing parts of the novel from author Margaret Walker – doesn’t diminish the impact the book has had in helping modern-day readers understand the deplorable institution of the slave trade, and how it was carried out.

This is no Gone With the Wind. It is a gritty, raw look at the slave trade. It is not sugar-coated or glossed over. My timing in reading Roots, as well as The New Jim Crow last month, couldn’t be more powerful. It is challenging to read about American history’s darkest moments at a time when protests over the current mistreatment of people of color rock the streets of America.

As much as I enjoyed reading this novel, and especially the first few hundred pages detailing Kunta Kinte’s childhood, his kidnapping, and adjustment to life as a slave on a Southern plantation, the last part of the novel felt rushed. The reader is with Kunta for almost 550 pages or so. From Kizzy (Kunta’s daughter) and Chicken George (one of Kunta’s grandchildren) onwards, it became hard for me to get to know any of the characters. In fact, the last 100 pages, I had a hard time following all of the names and how they are interconnected, with events flying by so quickly. The reverse lineage that is described once Haley brings himself into the novel towards the end helped to an extent.

It’s an important book that should be required reading. Some say slavery was long ago, and we need to forget about it, but let’s face it: the system of slavery helped shape America into what it is today. To forget that it happened, or to brush it aside, does nothing to help us look at where we were, where we are now, and where we still need to be.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

 

 

WWW Wednesday – 21 September 2016

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I was finishing up my current read, Roots by Alex Haley, as my city of Charlotte started reeling from another officer-involved shooting yesterday. Forgive me if my thoughts are quite brief and distracted. There is a lot of pain and anger in my local community today. On this International Day of Peace, I stand in solidarity with those who want to be the change in our community, and those who peacefully protest the systems of inequality that ravage America.

Okay, now that I have that off my chest, onwards to WWW, a weekly meme hosted by Same at Taking on a World of Words. You can join by commenting on Sam’s post, and answering three questions.

Currently Reading: 

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Just Finished: 

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What’s Next: