The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

I finished this book this afternoon, listening to the audiobook read by Bahni Turpin. As with my last Booker read, the panel’s choice echoed the day’s news all too well. The legacy of slavery is with us.

The Underground Railroad has already won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, among others, so who needs to hear a lot about it from me?

The one thing I knew about this before I started reading was that Whitehead literalizes the railroad: it has underground stations, rails and trains, as so many of us imagined when we first heard about it as children. In some ways, this turned out to be the least interesting way in which Whitehead reimagines history. As Teresa writes in her review, the railroad functions almost like a time travel portal. Although the setting is clearly the ante-bellum US, it isn’t our US, and as Cora travels to different places, she travels through the ugly history of race in the US. There are places and episodes that evoke Jim Crow, eugenics and the Tuskegee experiments, arguments over gradual vs revolutionary change, respectability politics. Whitehead’s rails and Cora’s journey traverse a wider swath of American history than a more realistic novel could have.

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Autumn, by Ali Smith

Note: I just realized I spelled Elisabeth’s name wrong the whole way through this post, because I automatically typed it the way I spell my own name. I’m leaving it with the error noted rather than correcting the whole post.

Autumn is another novel composed of fragments. Call it a collage, fitting, since its muse of sorts is the Pop artist Pauline Boty, whose collages Daniel describes to Elizabeth.

Daniel and Elizabeth’s relationship is at the center of this novel, love of a sort, if not the romantic sort. In the book’s present-day timeline, the summer and autumn of 2016 (following the Brexit vote), Daniel Gluck is 101 and dying, Elizabeth Demand is 32 and a semi-employed lecturer in Art History.

They met when Elizabeth was a child given a school assignment to interview a neighbour. Daniel becomes a mentor of sorts, introducing to art and literature, going for walks on which they ponder truth and lies and story-telling. “What are you reading?” is his perennial greeting for her.

She buys classics from the charity shop and reads them as she sits beside sleeping Daniel in his care home. Elizabeth may choose these books more or less at random, but Ali Smith didn’t: A Tale of Two Cities, Brave New World, Metamorphoses. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Elizabeth reads. And Smith writes: Continue reading

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The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne

After History of Wolves I wanted a little Booker break, and I had Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter in my library pile. I enjoyed this thriller but it was exactly the wrong choice of palate cleanser after Wolves, because they share many elements–it made for an interesting comparison, though.

Despite the title, this isn’t really a Girl on the Train/Gone Girl kind of domestic thriller, though parts of it are certainly and oddly domestic. The Marsh King is the name the press gives narrator Helena’s father, who kidnapped her 14-year-old mother and held her captive for 15 years. Helena grew up in their isolated cabin in the marshes, adoring her father and her wild life, only gradually becoming aware that there is something wrong.

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History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund

Man Booker #2. If I read them all in 2 days, I’d actually do the longlist. I don’t anticipate that will actually happen.

I’ll never manage these Booker posts if I try to provide coherent reviews. Blurb from publisher here. Review by Jennifer Senior I’d pretty much cosign here. My random thoughts? Read on here. Continue reading

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Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

This is a book composed of fragments, woven together from many voices, some real, some invented (I wasn’t always sure which were which, but it doesn’t really matter). My thoughts about it are going to be fragmented too.

I blasted through Lincoln in the Bardo in two days. Its voices would have rewarded lingering, I think, but immersing myself in them for a few hours straight worked well too.

I’m not sure the ideas of the novel would have held up to slower reading. I’m not sure its ideas are the point. Even racing through, I felt that Saunders’ picture of the afterlife was infused with clichés. The bardo is a liminal state between life and death. Here’s Hari Kunzru’s description in his review:

Waking life, dreams, meditation and in particular the period between death and rebirth are all bardos, states of consciousness sandwiched between other states of consciousness. We are always in transition, from dreams to wakefulness, from life to death. When someone dies, Tibetan Buddhists believe that they enter the bardo of the time of death, in which they will either ascend towards nirvana, and be able to escape the cycle of action and suffering that characterises human life on earth, or gradually fall back, through increasingly wild and scary hallucinations, until they are born again into a new body.

Saunders combines this idea with elements of Christian purgatory. Is it fair to expect anyone to come up with new ideas about life and death and loss? Probably not. The vibrant voices Saunders invents often revivify the clichés, the intensity of their desires (however gross they sometimes are) and mourning are the strength of the book.  Continue reading

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