Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Occasionally a novel appears and turns what we know topsy-turvy to shock us into seeing history through new lenses. The Underground Railroad is such a novel. It’s entirely original and is fantastic in the true sense of the word as it’s a fantasy of ultimate proportions complete with a literal underground railroad with stations, stops, and spurs where white tile walls and station agents can be touched and where an escaped slave can begin a journey north toward freedom. Colson Whitehead creates a realm in which Cora, a young teen-aged slave on a Georgia plantation, carefully plots her escape, but her plans go awry when she kills a young white boy who tries to capture her and she needs to quickly find a station on the Underground Railroad that lies beneath the cotton-filled land in the years just before the Civil War.

As the novel lulls you into its rhythm, you’re soon flying through the pages to see what Cora will next encounter. You find yourself in another world, one in which tall buildings materialize in early nineteenth century South Carolina, a place where blacks can go to school and find employment yet a menacing threat lurks below the surface. Later you journey to North Carolina where it’s a given that black people are being annihilated and Cora wonders, “Was she out of bondage, or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had.”

When Ridgeway, the slave catcher, captures Cora and drags her to Tennessee, they enter a land being destroyed by fire. She’d been told that each state was a state of possibility, with its own customs so the smoke and fire of Tennessee didn’t portend well and “Tennessee proceeded in a series of blights.” Cora is first certain that Tennessee is cursed then she wonders if the fires weren’t “Just a spark that got away.” “No chains fastened Cora’s misfortunes to her character or actions. Her skin was black and this was how the world treated black people. No more, no less. . . . If Tennessee had a temperament, it took after the dark personality of the world, with a taste for arbitrary punishment. No one was spared, regardless of the shape of their dreams of the color of their skin.”

Whitehead offers beauty even as Cora ruminates on lists: lists preserving “the names of workers in rows of tight cursive. Every name an asset, breathing capital, profit made flesh. The peculiar institution made Cora into a maker of lists as well. In her inventory of loss people were not reduced to sums but multiplied by their kindnesses. People she had loved, people who had helped her.”

Whitehead’s careful words always share Cora’s story and the greater story of the sins of slavery. Even a stop along the trail allows time for Cora to “make a thick braid of her misfortunes.” The stops also allow the reader to shift from the narrative into ruminations over what Whitehead is showing us about our shared history.  “And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

Colson Whitehead has created an imagined world in which Cora becomes a Gulliver traveling down the rabbit hole and emerging in an alternate universe. However, that created universe, despite how different it might be from the pre-Civil War south of our history books, is still a land where the peculiar institution of slavery rules – and where embedding ourselves in that world helps us see how the cruel enterprise of slavery still shapes our world today. When you read the last page of The Underground Railroad, it’s just the beginning of your journey with the novel. This book will shape how you see everything. It makes it impossible to ignore.

Summing It Up:The Underground Railroad is a masterpiece of invention that takes the reader into another world where slavery is made real in all its wrenching, horrific power. It's a tour de force that every American must read to understand history. Thankfully, it's gorgeously written and the characters, setting, and narrative together offer the reader an engaging story while enlightening and enlivening our shared world. Reading The Underground Railroad should be required of all over the age of sixteen.

Note: The Underground Railroad is one of ten novels longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award.
Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: September 6, 2016
What Others are Saying:

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard

Winston Churchill fascinates us. The statesman who said, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it,” wrote volumes about his own life as did many others. Most of us think of him as the Prime Minister who rallied the British during World War II and refused to surrender to Nazi Germany. We may recall how he modernized the British Navy and warned of the threat of the Iron Curtain, but Candice Millard tells a new story – one of Churchill in South Africa in the Boer War in 1899. Then 24 years old, Churchill had just lost his first campaign for parliament. His father, who died at the age of 45, had many accomplishments and the young Churchill didn’t want to lose time making himself known. He wanted to fight in a war and to be noticed while fighting. He’d served as an officer in India and Sudan and as a journalist in Cuba, but none of those exploits had gained him glory. 

Millard notes that in 1899 the British Empire covered more than a fifth of the world’s land surface and ruled about a quarter of the human race – “more than 450 million people on every continent and on the islands of every ocean.” It was the largest empire ever known. “The greatest threat was from the burden of ruling its own colonies.” After a century of conflict with the Boers (Dutch settlers) and new concerns about control of gold mines, the war began when the British rejected an ultimatum to withdraw troops from the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Churchill set off as a journalist with his valet and crates of vintage wine to cover the brutal war, but just two weeks after his arrival, he was taken prisoner along with the soldiers he was following and aiding. He later managed a harrowing escape only to find himself alone in enemy territory with almost no resources to aid in traveling the hundreds of miles to safety. Telling of his capture, escape, and journey to freedom would make quite a story, but that’s just the beginning as Churchill returned to London, enlisted, and set off again for South Africa to liberate the men with whom he’d been captured and who were still imprisoned.

Millard shows Churchill just as he was, an aristocrat of the times, in an era when he said of South Africa: “The temperate sun warms the life within the soil. The cooling breeze refreshes the inhabitant. The delicious climate stimulates the vigour of the European. . . All Nature smiles, and here at last is a land where white men may rule and prosper.”

This is a stirring adventure story filled with remarkable characters including Rudyard Kipling, Gandhi, Botha, and Paul Kruger, but it also affords a view of the experiences that molded Churchill into the man who was one of the twentieth century's most influential persons. Candice Millard offers a swashbuckling tale of young Churchill that should appeal to those who rarely read history. 

Summing it Up: Read The Hero of the Empire for a rip-roaring exploration of the early years of Winston Churchill. Quickly turn the pages as Candice Millard illuminates the Boer War in full Technicolor and shows young Churchill in his “Indiana Jones” years.

Rating: 5 stars
Category: Grandma’s Pot Roast, Nonfiction, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: September 20, 2016

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Friday, September 9, 2016

Mischling by Affinity Konar

Mischling ("mixed-blood" in German) was the legal term used in Nazi Germany to denote persons deemed to have both Aryan and Jewish ancestry. Author Affinity Konar uses the word to lead the reader into the horror chamber of Auschwitz where Josef Mengele’s experiments were “acceptable” because of the lineage of the Mischling victims. 
Poetic, ingenious, and exquisitely beautiful while simultaneously agonizing and sad, this is not a novel for sissies. I eschew plot-driven stories, yet I’m more able to stomach hard truths when the narrative compels me to turn the page. I was mesmerized by Konar’s brilliant use of metaphor and language, yet for this reader, the narrative didn’t propel it from a very fine novel to an exceptional one. Mischling deserves accolades for its subject matter, creativity, and prose, yet the narrative thread didn’t emotionally propel me as it might have done. Alternating between twelve-year-old twin sisters Pearl and Stasha’s views of their time in Mengele’s zoo, Mischling brilliantly highlights the emotional damage done by separating the twins as he experiments on them. As the sisters suffer primarily from their isolation from each other, Mengele’s physical and mental abuses seem even more horrific. Konar also paints kaleidoscopic pictures of villains, conflicted workers, and the other sets of twins within the camp with a brush that makes them come alive even as they make the reader want to escape. 

Konar’s ear for dialogue is spectacular and when the characters speak, the novel is transformative. Early in their time in Auschwitz, Stasha asks Pearl, “Would you rather be the key to a place that will save us or the weapon that will destroy our enemies?” Her answer, “I’d rather be a real girl,” Pearl said dully. “Like I used to be.”  Later Stasha’s friend Felix tells her, “I think you like to see the good in people because there’s been so much bad that you have to believe in good.”  Stasha replies, “Do you do that too?” “No. I see the good in knives instead of people. Although there’s really no such thing as a bad knife or a good knife, so long as it cuts.”  

I admire Konar’s lack of sentimentality in her portraits of the many suffering children and even of Mengele, yet, I found myself comparing my connection to them to my deep and abiding empathy for each character in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light You Cannot See. Doerr created a tour de force with characters that still haunt me. Konar created a fascinating glimpse of the people and horror of Auschwitz, but for me, it isn’t a masterwork.  I recommend it highly for its writing, however. Thinking of Konar’s name, Affinity, and its dictionary definition as a spontaneous or natural liking or sympathy for someone or something, sometimes expressed as a kinship, I can acknowledge that Affinity Konar created a world that gave this reader a sympathy for the characters and their plight, yet I didn’t develop the kinship needed to deem this a masterpiece. Still, I admire Konar’s skill in making Mengele real, yet never allowing him to highjack the story. The novel rightly belongs to the twins and to those real children and caretakers who suffered through Mengele’s brutality and whose lives inspired Konar’s well-researched novel. I’m grateful for Konar’s telling of their stories, yet, there were times when I could barely turn the page. 

Summing it Up: Mischling exquisitely bears witness to the atrocities perpetrated by Josef Mengele at Auschwitz, but reading of the abuses suffered by so many children in Mischling is almost impossible to endure. Twins Pearl and Stasha’s dual narratives offer prize-worthy, lyrical language and ask deep questions about forgiveness, yet this novel is only for those able to stomach those horrors.

Rating: 4 stars   
Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: September 6, 2016
What Others are Saying:
Mischling is a paradox. It’s a beautiful novel about the most odious of crimes, it’s a deeply researched act of remembrance that somehow carries the lightness of a fairy tale, and it’s a coming-of-age story about children who aren’t allowed to come of age. If your soul can survive the journey, you’ll be rewarded by one of the most harrowing, powerful, and imaginative books of the year.” – Anthony Doerr, Author of All the Light We Cannot See