November 24, 2017

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

When a book wins the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and is a choice for Oprah’s Book Club, notice must be taken. Such is the case with The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, an epic novel about Cora, a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation.

The book has been on my “to read” list since its 2016 release, but I must admit, the topic of slavery was a tough issue for me to tackle; likewise, the Holocaust. How can anyone justify such inhumanity to other sentient beings? Whitehead, however, allows the reader to think about these issues through the eyes of slaves, slave owners, slave hunters and people on both sides of Abolition.

The Underground Railway is fiction with a touch of magical realism. In Whitehead’s world before the Civil War, the railroad is an actual transportation system with secret stations, tracks and volunteers both black and white who keep the conveyance running.

The novel has much in common with The Iliad and other ‘grand journey’ stories, but Whitehead has imbued the writing with emotional scenes and unforgettable character depictions. Cora encounters villains and heros alike on her flight from slavery.

I often found myself close to tears while listening to this masterful work. Yes, I used an audio book to experience The Underground Railroad.

However you choose to experience this award-winner, I urge you to consider reading The Underground Railroad. I plan to get a paper copy in the near future so I can further appreciate the fine writing of Colson Whitehead.

And what a movie this will make! Spielberg or Oprah, have either of you bought the movie rights yet?

Lincoln In the Bardo by writer George Saunders

One of my favorite fans recommended the novel Lincoln in the Bardo, an unusual and poetically moving work by George Saunders.

Saunders was impelled to write a book about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s beloved son, Willie when he learned that newspaper accounts reported Abe creepily and heartbreakingly visited his son’s crypt to hold the recently dead body. Imagine the Pieta with Lincoln and Willie as stand-ins.

Saunders’ book takes place over one evening in the “bardo,” a limbo-like place between life and death and uses true history citations as well as fictional footnotes.

Another book-loving friend found the middle of the book to be tedious, but I found it to be one of the most creative pieces of writing that I have encountered in quite a while. James Joyce’s Ulysses comes to mind as we become privy to the thoughts of Lincoln, Willie and several other “sick-box” residents.

Those who want a speedy plot-driven read should look elsewhere. If you’re up for a challenging mixture of fact and fiction, beautifully and adventurously written, consider diving into the Bardo.

New Amazon bookstore on Southport in Chicago

Since March 2017, Amazon has had a bookstore on Southport in Chicago, the only one in the Midwest. I finally got around to stopping in last night. As a supporter of independent bookstores, I had mixed emotions about the internet behemoth setting up shop in Chicago.

Let me confess that I bought a book. As a Prime member, the store sold me the book I wanted for the low price I had found on the internet. My debit card info showed up on their system confirming that I was a Prime member and away I went with my selected book. The salesclerk said I could also download the Amazon app to buy products in the future.

As a downside, the book selection is not deep. Amazon’s on-line best-sellers are apt to be the majority of books available and all book covers face out which looks nice, but limits stock space further. There is comfortable seating throughout the store for customer use.

The store is also a hub for all things Amazonian like the Echo, the Kindle and the Fire. I was intrigued by the Phillips lamps and light bulbs which can be controlled by digital assistant, Alexa. There were also small items for kids in the children’s literature section.

A coffee bar within the store, but separated by glass from the merchandise, has limited indoor seating. Outdoor tables now overlook the trendy Southport boutique and restaurant crowd.

It occurred to me that Amazon saved the free prime shipping fee by selling me this book for the low internet price. Might they be thinking of using this model for other items they sell?

Amazon has several other business concerns under its umbrella such as imdb.com, audible.com, AbeBooks, Goodreads, Twitch.tv, Woot, Zappos and now Whole Foods Market.

Oh, and the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos has also invested in airbnb, Uber, Google and he bought the Washington Post newspaper in 2013. His space company, Blue Origin will begin offering rocket ship rides in 2018. Talk about a vertical and horizontal operation!

13 Hours: the Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi by Mitchell Zuckoff with the Annex Security Team

Mention the word Benghazi and both liberals and conservatives bristle. Journalist Mitchell Zuckoff interviewed the private security personnel who were present on Sept. 11, 2012 in Benghazi, Libya and has created a non-fiction account that is absolutely riveting.

Although the principal American consulate in Libya was in Tripoli, Ambassador Christopher Stevens was visiting the diplomatic Compound in the secondary city of Benghazi on September 11, 2012. A few blocks away was a CIA center called the Annex with highly trained security guards who were tasked with keeping Ambassador Stevens and other American officials safe.

We are given first hand accounts of the attacks on both the Compound and the Annex. The reader is placed in the midst of fire, smoke, bullets and bombs. The bravery of both private and governmental agents is awe-inspiring.

Your political view of the debacle may not change, but you will certainly know more about what American personnel face when working in countries hostile to the United States.

I have not seen the 2016 movie adaptation by filmmaker Michael Bay, which received mixed reviews, but the movie title and tag line does illuminate a major theme in the well-written book. “13 Hours: the Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. When everything went wrong six men had the courage to do what was right.”

Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart

My book-loving middle sister recommended Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart, a delicious historical fiction about a woman who stands up to a spoiled heir who runs into their family horse and buggy with his new-fangled motor car.

Constance Kopp inadvertently begins to do detective work, learns how to handle a gun and uncovers crimes such as arson, kidnapping, assault, and even murder. The year 1914 vividly comes to life as we see the Kopp women, Constance, Norma and Fleurette battle not only thugs and bullies, but the restrictive roles placed upon women before World War I.

Amy Stewart’s writing reads like the best detective fiction yet the Kopp Sisters and their stories are based on fact. I see that Stewart has written two sequels to this rollicking read, Lady Cop Makes Trouble and Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions. I have to get copies, stat!

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the F. B. I. by David Grann

If your taste runs to historical non-fiction, consider Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann, a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and the previous bestselling author of The Lost City of Z.

A veritable “Reign of Terror” was waged on the Osage tribe in the 1920’s as wealthy members were bumped off for their money and “headrights.” Local law enforcement and courts in Oklahoma seemed unable or unwilling to investigate and prosecute the guilty parties.

Enter Tom White, a Western sheriff who was tasked by Edgar J. Hoover and his fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation with getting to the bottom of this rash of Indian deaths by poison, guns and bombs.

Just when you think the case is all wrapped up, Grann digs deeper to find more skullduggery. The book reads like a cross between precise journalistic writing and a thriller. Killer of the Flower Moon belongs on the shelf with other books about the West, Native American history and the FBI. Truth is stranger than fiction, indeed.

GNOD – The Global Network of Discovery

I happened upon a site with the acronym gnod, quite by accident, while looking for authors similar to crime writers Donna Leon and Henning Mankell. Created by Marek Gibney in Hamburg, Germany, the Global Network of Discovery (gnod) features word maps to discover authors related to what you already like.

Not only can you look up networks of authors, but you can also fill out brief questionnaires that help the site learn more about people’s literary choices. The user is queried about whether you know, like or dislike a particular author.

The site also has sections on music, art, movies, and electronic products. In truth, the electronics portion seems to be the site’s commercial raison d’être, but this shouldn’t dampen your enjoyment of the rest of the site when you are looking for new authors, composers, films, and artists.

http://www.gnod.com/

The Nightingale by author Kristin Hannah

Published in 2015, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah was the darling of book reviewers and book clubs alike when it first came out. It viewed World War II France from the perspective of two sisters, one woman who was trying to raise her daughter without fighting against the German occupiers and the other, an active member of the Resistance.

I must admit that the prose is not going to rival any of the great literary giants, but the plot is engaging and there are many emotional moments as the characters navigate through the treacherous waters of loyalty, patriotism, brutality, self-interest and love.

There seems to be an inexhaustible interest in World War II, Paris and the Resistance. This book belongs on the large shelf of entertaining historical fiction that is set during this turbulent and storied time.

Hannah, the author of over 20 books is yet another lawyer-turned-writer. She lives with herhusband in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii.

http://kristinhannah.com/

The Handmaid’s Tale: Chilling series on Hulu

I must admit that I have never read any Margaret Atwood but The Handmaid’s Tale which debuted as a novel in 1985 has been on my “to do” list for years. Now comes a tv series adaptation of the iconic book presented as a Hulu original.

Elizabeth Moss (Peggy on Mad Men) is extraordinary as June/Offred, a baby-making handmaid in a religiously fanatic society of a frightening fictional future.  We see flashbacks of her previous unfettered life as a wife and mother along with scenes of her current servitude in the household of The Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his barren but beautiful wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). Her only reason for existence is to bear children for this upper crust couple.

Fellow handmaids include her revolutionary friend Emily played by Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls) and Moira, her friend from her married days, portrayed by Samira Wiley (Orange Is the New Black) who seemingly escapes from this dystopian world, biblically called Gilead, but whose whereabouts remain unknown.

Having watched five of the ten episodes, I can say this is a finely-made mini-series with vivid costumes, artful cinematography, intelligent dialogue and masterful acting. New episodes premiere on the Hulu streaming platform on Wednesdays. You could say I have the series “book-marked.”

Nutshell and The Vegetarian: Literary classics?

Do you remember having to read assigned books as a student where you didn’t enjoy the experience but you felt like you’d read something important when finished? Ulysses? War and Peace? The Stranger? Two recent books definitely deserve the description of “Literary” with a capital L.
Hang Kang, a female South Korean writer has penned a slim novel called The Vegetarian. Told in three parts, the lead character, Yeong-hye suddenly decides to become vegetarian after having recurring and unsettling dreams about animals. Her husband and family take the news poorly, to say the least.
Her brother-in-law, a modern video artist becomes obsessed with having her be the model for his latest creation. Divorce, suicide and a mental institution are the way-stations on Yeong-hye’s descent. A Korean reviewer deemed this short work as “very extreme and bizarre.” Still, the writing is beautiful and the sub-text intriguing.
Much easier to read, but no less disturbing is Nutshell by Ian McEwan whose literary output includes Atonement, named Time magazine’s best novel of 2002. McEwan has taken the tale of Hamlet and told it from the point of view of a fetus in the present day. The unborn child overhears his mother and uncle plot the murder of his father. One layer of the brief novel is what the embryo experiences, but McEwan has the child tap into a universal consciousness that allows the author to ruminate on current culture and thought. The prose is spare and gorgeously crafted.
After these two “meaty” books, I mightily need some sorbet in the form of a light detective novel or a rom-com paperback.