The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is Worth the Hype

railroadThe Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood – where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

 In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor – engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven – but the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

 As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

Via Goodreads

 

I really want to talk about Colson Whitehead’s ingenuity in The Underground Railroad. The conceit is simple and explosive – the Underground Railroad is a real railroad built in underground tunnels. This could be its own novel: the creation, the stationmasters, the variety of trains used. When Cora and Caesar decide to run, they take a train without knowing where it will go.

Cora travels the rails several times and her first stop in South Carolina brings a story rooted in history, then quickly subverted into an alternate history with the real trains, into modern times. She is in a city that has twelve-story buildings with elevators. There are modern-seeming hospitals. With just enough information to set the scene, Whitehead makes the city seem like today, despite the hidden atrocities. Unfortunately, those don’t affect the reality of how things are today even as metaphors.

Cora is given a fake name in South Carolina and I want to praise Whitehead’s skill with the names. The section opens with a woman named Bessie leaving her job as a nanny to walk to the dormitory where she lives and deciding what to do with her free weekend, which will most definitely include some classes. As the previous section introduced the slave catcher pursuing Cora and Caesar, I assumed Bessie was a new woman we were meant to learn about. Actually, she’s Cora. And that’s the skillful part. We learn about Bessie and her name is the one used. Then we learn Bessie is Cora and Whitehead seamlessly slips back to calling her Cora even in a city where she’s known as Bessie. It’s so well done. It reminded me of Hilary Mantel’s lack of using the protagonist’s name for a significant portion of the beginning of Wolf Hall. Deceptively simple.

As Cora travels from one landing spot to the next, she finds good fortune and bad. She remembers those who helped her, those who hurt her and those she hurt. She learns how difficult it will be to stay free on her terms. Her internal struggle with fighting to never go back is visceral and complicated. Not that she wants to be a slave again but the cost of freedom is unfortunately so high.

The last sections of the book broke my heart several times. Whitehead periodically includes a section about a character other than Cora. One was about Caesar and when he first saw her on the plantation. Another is about Mabel, Cora’s mother who ran away. We learn the truth about that night although Cora never will. She will always carry the pain of being left behind.

This novel is difficult to read at times but so worth it. If you’re someone who strays away from books that receive a lot of hype, don’t. Believe the hype. It will be worth it.

The Personal Impact of “Rapt” by Winifred Gallagher

raptRapt: Attention and the Focused Life

By Winifred Gallagher

In Rapt, acclaimed behavioral science writer Winifred Gallagher makes the radical argument that the quality of your life largely depends on what you choose to pay attention to and how you choose to do it. Gallagher grapples with provocative questions—Can we train our focus? What’s different about the way creative people pay attention? Why do we often zero in on the wrong factors when making big decisions, like where to move?—driving us to reconsider what we think we know about attention.

Gallagher looks beyond sound bites on our proliferating BlackBerries and the increased incidence of ADD in children to the discoveries of neuroscience and psychology and the wisdom of home truths, profoundly altering and expanding the contemporary conversation on attention and its power. Science’s major contribution to the study of attention has been the discovery that its basic mechanism is an either/or process of selection. That we focus may be a biological necessity— research now proves we can process only a little information at a time, or about 173 billion bits over an average life—but the good news is that we have much more control over our focus than we think, which gives us a remarkable yet underappreciated capacity to influence our experience. As suggested by the expression “pay attention,” this cognitive currency is a finite resource that we must learn to spend wisely. In Rapt, Gallagher introduces us to a diverse cast of characters—artists and ranchers, birders and scientists—who have learned to do just that and whose stories are profound lessons in the art of living the interested life. No matter what your quotient of wealth, looks, brains, or fame, increasing your satisfaction means focusing more on what really interests you and less on what doesn’t. In asserting its groundbreaking thesis—the wise investment of your attention is the single most important thing you can do to improve your well-being—Rapt yields fresh insights into the nature of reality and what it means to be fully alive.

Via Goodreads

 

I stumbled across a reference to Rapt in a book I read last year and I was intrigued by this quote:

“In short, I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.”

This resonated with me personally because I have been dealing with panic attacks for five years. I am in a significantly better place than where I started but I found that anxiety and panic attacks colored my perspective on life. Ask me how I’m doing and I’ll probably give a response relative to a panic attack. “Rough weekend, lots of panic attacks” or “Doing okay. I haven’t had a panic attack in a month.” I counted days and weeks between panic attacks, even as they happened less and less, trying to find a pattern of cause and effect.

This book arrived just as I was starting to contemplate that there may be no pattern and no discernable cause and effect for my panic attacks anymore. (There used to be a clear delineation as to why they happened.) Considering a lack of a pattern is terrifying for me because, one, I pride myself on my logical mind and ability to find patterns to problem-solve and, two, because no patterns means there’s no reason and that’s just chaos.

With my therapist I found a way to approach this terrifying conceit – that which I give my attention to becomes the focus of my life. Not that I believe thinking about a panic attack results in a panic attack but that seeing my life through a lens of anxiety colors everything in a stressful hue. Maybe focusing my attention toward something else would change my relationship with my anxiety. I have come to accept I will have it and panic attacks will occur from time to time despite my best efforts. So why keep dwelling on it?

When asked what I value, I told my therapist reading and writing. I will choose those activities over others. I plan my day around writing in the morning, reading on my lunch breaks and doing one or the other most nights. Left to my own devices, I will read a book on a Friday night instead of watching a movie or going out. It felt strange to say I ‘value’ reading and writing, as opposed to saying they are hobbies or interests, but it’s true. I want my life to be filled with reading and writing so I must value them.

We can up with a homework assignment (because I do love homework and I say that without any sarcasm) to focus on what I value even more than I already do. It’s why I started this blog back up, so I have a place to list the books I’m reading and any thoughts I have about them. As I read Rapt during this time, I took notes because there were so many interesting things to consider. I love taking notes. I spent my time with words in a thoughtful, purposeful way and it’s felt good.

Rapt presents a full picture of attention and focus, including work environments and the concept of multi-tasking, but I was drawn to the sections more philosophical or psychological. Gallagher’s main conceit (the aforementioned quote) carries throughout the book. That which you give attention to becomes your life. Maybe you love TV so watching shows after work is a focused event for you. Maybe you’re more like me and it can be about killing time and an idle mind is no good for me. Better to find things that capture my attention and do those. For me that is reading and writing, conversations face-to-face, and selected movies and shows that engage and excite me.rapt

I’m glad I took notes as I read this book because I know I will want to go back and remember ideas and quotes. Refreshing my memory of the book will help me stay on point with directing my attention toward what I value and enjoy.

An Idyllic Life Among the Savages

savagesLife Among the Savages

By Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson, author of the classic short story The Lottery, was known for her terse, haunting prose. But the writer possessed another side, one which is delightfully exposed in this hilariously charming memoir of her family’s life in rural Vermont. Fans of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Cheaper by the Dozen, and anything Erma Bombeck ever wrote will find much to recognize in Shirley Jackson’s home and neighborhood: children who won’t behave, cars that won’t start, furnaces that break down, a pugnacious corner bully, household help that never stays, and a patient, capable husband who remains lovingly oblivious to the many thousands of things mothers and wives accomplish every single day. “Our house,” writes Jackson, “is old, noisy, and full. When we moved into it we had two children and about five thousand books; I expect that when we finally overflow and move out again we will have perhaps twenty children and easily half a million books.” Jackson’s literary talents are in evidence everywhere, as is her trenchant, unsentimental wit. Yet there is no mistaking the happiness and love in these pages, which are crowded with the raucous voices of an extraordinary family living a wonderfully ordinary life.

Via Goodreads

 

Life Among the Savages was originally published in 1948. Some parts fell quite dated – smoking while pregnant, being able to pay for things with nickels and dimes because some things only cost a nickel or a dime, being knocked out to give birth, the constant repair and reuse of clothing (although that’s not a bad lesson to pick back up – while others are timeless – the cacophony of children, mothers coming together to deal with a fight between their children, growing into a home, the entire family coming down with the same bad cough at the same time.

I find this style of memoir very charming. I typically stumble across them and find myself yearning for a raucous house full of children and a husband prone to retreating. Jackson’s style of writing provides the tenor of the household. Scenes around the table have people speaking over each other and small comments on peas that roll off plates. It’s a neat trick that doesn’t often appear in novels, no matter how realistic they purport to be. The dialogue is messy and overlapping, although never confusing. Her skill as a writer shines in this element.

She also uses long paragraphs of ‘what if’ style conversations with other women to show how the housewife is prone to lists and handling information. “I share this” and then “she’ll share that” with the husband’s piping up and being ignored because this is actually all during a bridge game.

These could be very distracting and confusing but she is adept at guiding the reader through her story to its conclusion.

Memoirs like these are lovely and idyllic. They are very different from a memoir about a difficult childhood or abusive relationship or even a life that has both highs and lows. This subgenre of memoir – I have no idea what to call it – revels in the charming parts of life; frustrating at times but still the stories to look back on fondly. I’m sure Jackson had plenty of rough patches in her life, her ability to see these stories shows she can keep her attention on the good parts when she needs to.

Some of the charming parts that made me want to live with this family:

  • The rundown house they rent in Vermont that has its own personality.
  • Her son Laurie’s tall tales about a bad boy at school. (Guess who’s really the bad boy?)
  • Her daughter Jannie’s vivid imagination – at one point she has seven children that she speaks of as if they are currently around her, frightening strangers at times, until the children grow up and move away.
  • Her husband who continues to read The Wizard of Oz out loud even after Jannie has left the room because one of her ‘daughters’ is sitting with him.
  • Her youngest child Sally’s constant talking and singing described as “part song, part story, part uncomplimentary editorial comment.”

Disappearing into a delightful world such as this is a wonderful gift on a tough day. My life looks nothing like this and may never but knowing that it existed, even if exaggerated or handpicked for maximum effect, is a balm. Life can be difficult but then your children put on a show in the living room to entertain you.

A Dip into a Supernatural World

nightNightshades

Nightshades #1

By Melissa F. Olson

Alex McKenna is the new Special Agent in Charge of the Chicago office of the Bureau of Paranormal Investigations—the division tasked with investigating crimes involving shades.

 Or vampires, as they’re more widely known.

 Children have been going missing, and agents are routinely being slaughtered. It’s up to McKenna, and some unlikely allies, to get to the bottom of the problem, and find the kids before it’s too late.

via Goodreads

This book was shorter than I expected, which is a compliment. There is so much meat to the world Olson creates that much more time could have been spent explaining the history of shades (vampires) being revealed, the struggles of law enforcement to deal with this new population, how regular people felt about shades.

Olson decided to keep the writing tight, providing just enough information to understand the underlying structure of the world and letting the plot fly. And it certainly flew. Children are disappearing and shades are suspected. Then federal agents start being killed on their searches. Enter a new team with a shade masquerading as a human to help stop the rogue shades and swiftly arriving climactic battle.

There is clearly more to this world and more to the struggle between one group of shades and humanity. Olson threw us into the water for an introduction and makes you want to keep swimming.

Dueling and Complementary Themes

emberAn Ember in the Ashes

An Ember in the Ashes #1

By Sabaa Tahir

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

 It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

 But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

 There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

Via Goodreads

 

I always find prophecies to be tricky literary devices. Are they meant to come true no matter what or can the outcome be changed? Depending on the world of a story, one or the other must be chosen. In An Ember in the Ashes, prophecies come true but in the most unlikely ways.

Elias and Laia meet by accident after she has become a spy in the Commandant’s household and immediately are drawn to each other. They each struggle with the cards they have been dealt and are trying to be the best people they can be under terrible circumstances. Laia is undercover as a slave to get information to the Resistance in order to have them rescue her brother, her only surviving family, from prison and certain death. Elias is ready to desert from the military he has been raised to fight in when the Trials occur, an event that will result in the new emperor, and he is chosen as one of four contestants by the Aurors (those with all the prophecies).

Extreme situations, up to and including torture, keep them both learning about themselves and force them to strive further. Elias’s prophecy comes true in an extraordinary way that links him to Laia as they escape together.

It’s interesting that Laia must learn to trust people as Elias learns to be his own man, which sets him apart from the world he grew up in and his close friends. Both lessons are valuable in different situations so I appreciated having their arcs be separate but complimentary.

The ending is an obvious set up for another installment in the series, but resolution occurs for some large issues – Laia can move forward in a new way to save her brother and Elias makes peace with his best friend who doesn’t understand his choices.