2017 Reading Challenge, Book 36


An Oprah book, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

This novel centers on our heroine–Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Whitehead doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrific (but accurate) life of slaves, and Cora’s lot is especially bad. Abandoned by her mother at a young age, she is alienated by her fellow slaves and has to fight especially hard for survival in an already brutal situation on the plantation. One day, a handsome young slave named Caesar approaches Cora and asks her to run away with him. At first, Cora laughs it off–like most slaves, she has had it literally beaten into her that escape is not an option–but after witnessing a final horrific event take place on the plantation, it becomes the straw that breaks the camels back. After talking to Caesar about the underground railroad, Cora decides to take control of her fate, no matter what the cost. Ultimately, the risk of death becomes more bearable than continuing to live as a slave. 

After building up Cora’s character and setting the scene of her prison (the plantation), the rest of the novel unfolds to reveal the perilous and terrifying journey Cora undertakes during her desperate search for freedom. Cora will endure even more disturbing and unimaginable experiences as she travels the underground railroad in desperate search of freedom. She goes to unexpected places, meets unanticipated people, and ultimately makes life-changing decisions in the pursuit of personal freedom.  Although the novel brilliantly pulls back the covers to view the gory, gruesome details of the antebellum South, making especially poignant commentary on the societal construct of racism, at the heart of this novel is the continuous question–what is the true cost of freedom, and is it worth the cost? How much of herself must Cora lose, and is it worth what she gains? Whitehead unflinchingly examines the moral relativism of self-preservation and asks the tough questions–in Cora’s case, it’s how far is she willing to lose herself to escape her prison? Do those choices really make her any better than her captors? What is more important–being right, or being free?

I see a lot of criticism on the choices Whitehead makes in terms of character development, point of view, and writing style in this novel. I think we must ask ourselves if some of the choices were done for specific reasons. Let’s start with point of view. Many readers ask, why is the story not told in the first person from Cora’s perspective? True, it would have made the story even more poignant, but what statement does Whitehead make by choosing not to go there? Maybe this is a commentary on how even her story isn’t her own; how the narratives of Black folks are often skewed, distorted, and hijacked by others to fit a larger narrative. Maybe Whitehead is underscoring that as a slave, Cora is denied even the right to tell her own story on her own terms–like many Black Americas who are told that “racism isn’t real,” and their experiences are invalid by their white peers. What about the distance Whitehead keeps from developing his characters? Perhaps this is a mechanism for turning these characters into a more representative perspective of slaves as a whole rather than drilling down into an individual’s experience. We can’t say for sure, but I think if you focus rather on whether or not you like something and start asking why the author does things a certain way, it can be a much more productive experience. So don’t believe the negative hype. The story, like all stories, is what you make of it, and what you bring to it.


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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 35


A Futuristic book, Cities in Flight by James Blish

James Blish’s Cities in Flight is a series of four novels that documents Earth’s discovery of technology that allows them to achieve long distance space travel and the ramifications of Earthlings traveling the galaxy and beyond.

Book One – They Will Have Stars

Book one starts off on Earth in the not so distant future of 2020(ish). Earthmen have discovered a technology known as the spindizzy which allows them to pick up an entire city and move it off the Earth’s surface. The technology is of little use to them, however, until they can find a way to overcome the issue of space travel–the fact that it takes several human lifetimes to travel a significant distance in space. By the end of the first novel, the secret project of Big Pharmaceutical is revealed–they have discovered anti-aging medications that allow humans the ability to live several lifetimes. This makes space travel a real possibility for the first time in human history. We’re left at the end of this novel with cities lifting off the face of the Earth and going onward, out into the great unknown.

Book Two – A Life for the Stars

The second novel takes readers hundreds of years into the future. We see the cities in flight and how they have made their way across space, living hundreds of years, to discover what lies beyond. This is probably my favorite of the four novels as it’s fascinating to see how the cities and their occupants have adapted to longer lifetimes and space travel. The technology is fascinating and very impressive considering when the novel was written.

Book Three – Earthmen Come Home

It seems that options are running low for our Okies in this installment of the Cities in Flight series. New York is running low on supplies but hasn’t got any decent options for work. Their only recourse is to land on either one of two warring planets despite being warned not to get involved by the authorities. Amalfi decides to take a risk and uses his dashing wits to play the situation to the advantage of the city. This is the longest of the four novels and believe me when I say it FEELS the longest—there was a lot I could have personally done without, but to each their own. The novel does definitely set the stage for the fact that despite all of their technology and extended lifetimes, the Okie Cities are running out of options for space travel—the galactic economy seems to be failing, leaving many cities stranded and destitute.

Book Four – The Triumph of Time

The series comes to a crashing conclusion with this final installment. The city of New York has settled on “New Earth.” Another traveling planet, He, engages with the city to discuss their discovery of a point in space that indicates the collision of two universes—theirs and another that is an antimatter universe. The two are set to collide and destroy both, but it will also trigger another big bang and create a multitude of new universes in the wake of its destruction. Both cities will fight to gain control of the collision point, hoping to have control over the demise of the universe and everyone inside of it.

This installment was definitely my least favorite of the series. It felt like different writing; everything seemed disjointed and rushed in a way that didn’t fit with the time and development of other characters and storylines throughout the arc of the series. The ending is predictable, but really, how else could such a series conclude? I believe the overall sentiment Blish aims for with these books is the hubris of humankind, no matter how far out in the universe we may expand.


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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 34


A book about race/identity, Absalom, Abasalom! by William Faulkner

I have a long-lasting love affair with William Faulkner. It started back in college when I was working at the library shelving books. I caught a glimpse of As I Lay Dying on the shelf. The title caught my eye—probably because of the band by the same name—and the cover intrigued me even further. In this case, I am happy I judged a book by its cover because I read that book and it completely blew my mind. Faulkner is one of those rare geniuses who looked at the literary canon, said “nope!” and then proceeded to write in a way that turned the literary world on its head. I am a huge fan of authors who shake up the literary tradition and favor them over the Jane Austens of the world. This was sad for me throughout undergraduate and graduate school because these authors are rarely taught in the classroom due to their challenging nature, but I had an amazing time exploring their writing on my own. I try to regulate my Faulkner intake, so I incorporate one of his books a year to spread things out and really savor his writing. With all of that being said, I do have to say that this was not one of my favorites.

Look, you know Faulkner is a challenging read anytime you decide to sit down with his books. This one in particular really pushed my limits. I found it more difficult than usual to follow the plot line through the shifting points of view and stream of consciousness for which Faulkner is famous. Perhaps it was, in my opinion, just not a very interesting story, so I had issues keeping track of things. Normally, I am riveted by the plot and the complex style is an additional enhancement in his work. This time, I was too bored by the story to really pay attention and follow along and the style was more of a hindrance. It’s the back story of a family friend of Quentin Compton’s, and the story is told through multiple perspectives to reveal that memory is at best a tricky, subjective thing. While that is a cool idea, and the style Faulkner uses to convey this theme is amazing, the story itself was a bit of a snoozer. I think it was a great idea that somewhat missed the mark.


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2017 Reading Challenge: Book 33


A book that got bad reviews, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

So technically, the book didn’t get “bad reviews,” but it was banned from the United States on the grounds that it was pornographic and indecent, so I think it still fits for this challenge. People who actually got to read the book gave it glowing reviews and it’s easy to understand why–though we can’t call him a poet per say, Miller is definitely a talented writer and wordsmith. His language is beautiful, descriptive, and poetic. He even writes in haiku at several points throughout the prose. So while I wouldn’t so this is poetry, it’s definitely a lyrical prose.

Miller is also brilliantly funny, and he does a beautiful job of illustrating the sensory experiences and the philosophical struggles of a young person finding their voice as a writer. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that Tropic of Cancer was published in the USA, and there were obscenity trials against the novel that changed the course of American free speech and laws on pornography. In many ways, this book was pivotal to the definition of art and freedom of speech in our country and as such, it is an important part of our literary tradition. However, I really struggled with the way Miller writes women in this book…I’m still not sure if he is a horrible misogynist or he is brilliantly exposing the way men have objectified women throughout history; I would be interested to know your thoughts. One thing is for sure–if anyone bothered to tally up the amount of times he uses the word cunt, the number would be stupefying.

In terms of theme, the book is about the nomadic life of a struggling writer in 1930s Paris. It’s based on Miller’s own life and experiences. While there is no real “through-line” in terms of plot–the book seems to fluctuates in time and place and often slips into stream of consciousness–it is still a delightful read that will keep you intrigued even though you might not be sure why. It’s rather like thinking back on the blur of drunken hilarious memories from one’s college experience. Reading this is like grabbing a beer with an old friend and reminiscing on the crazy things you did in your early years when you were still finding yourself.

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2017 Reading Challenge: Book 32


A non-fiction book, Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Erik Larson has an uncanny ability to take an historical event and breathe an element of life into that transfigures the event from an abstract “event” into a fully-fleshed out story, one that feels so three dimensional and real it’s as if the reader is right there with the people experiencing the event. You can see, smell, hear, touch, and taste everything. The amazing thing about that is nothing is fictional–he uses the letters, memoirs, and accounts of the people who were present to re-create a vivd, visceral experience for the reader. I feel this way about all of his books, but this one in particular really made me feel as though I were aboard the Lusitania on her final voyage.

The book chronicles every aspect of this fatal voyage; all of the seemingly arcane happenings that led to the untimely fate of the vessel and the majority of her passengers. One of the things I loved was that Larson tried to show the perspective from all angles–the German Uboat captain, the captain of the Lusitania, the passengers, and the corporation that owned these ocean liners. You get the sense that all of these things converged to create the improbable sinking of this great ship. The hubris of the passengers, the crew, etc. is startling, especially coming off the wake of the recent Titanic disaster. Yet this hubris serves to highlight the ways in which modern warfare began to morph into something altogether darker and different with the first World War.

There are so many interesting aspects of historical focus throughout the book; it is hard to chose just one area, and I really feel that no matter what your historical interest, you will find something fascinating to read about here. However, I think my favorite part was learning more about Uboats during this time and how ridiculously unstable and terrifying it was to be on these submarines. It was incredible to me how these men had the courage and composure to go down in these vessels when they had such a high failure rate. Early Uboat technology was appalling, as you will discover in these pages.

As usual, Larson managed to take something that was already interesting and turn it into a fascinating, horrifying, and beautiful experience. I found myself thirsty for even more knowledge at the end of the book. If only history professors everywhere could harness the retelling of history as Larson does, more people would be enthralled and enamored with the incredible and amazing events in the past.

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 31


A book set in a place you’d visit, A Town like Alice, by Neville Shute

Back in high school, I read Neville Shute’s novel On the Beach. It has haunted me ever since—literally, it haunted my dreams,—it gave me horrific apocalyptic nightmares for years. To this day, it remains on my favorites list; it was terrifying because it was so well written and realistic, which is why I adore it despite the fact that it scared the crap out of me. Due to my immense love for Shute’s work, I bought a copy of A Town like Alice years ago and promised I’d revisit Shute’s work at some point. It seemed like a great opportunity to sneak this into my reading challenge under a book that takes place somewhere I’d like to visit. I have always wanted to visit Australia, so it was very fun to take an imaginary journey there through this piece of fiction.

Important to note: Shute uses a true story as the basis for the central plotline. In real life, a group of about 80 Dutch civilian women and children living in Sumatra were taken prisoner by Japanese forces in the 1942. At a loss for what to do with these women, the Japanese forced them to walk for two years from one end of the country to the other in search of a non-existent female prison camp. Many died along the way. In later years, the validity of this account has come into question—the Shute foundation claims he was mistaken, and the women were not forced to walk, but were transported. Either way, it’s a fascinating story. In my edition, Shute leaves a note to readers that he met one of the surviving women from this group, and while he had never before based his fiction on real people, he never met someone as courageous and inspiring as this woman, so he felt compelled to (sort-of) tell her story.

Shute chooses Noel Strachan, solicitor and Trustee of our main character, to narrate the tale. Our main character is the 30 something Miss Jean Paget, a young Englishwoman recently repatriated to England after surviving the war in Malaysia as a Japanese POW. Noel describes the process of creating a trust for one of his clients, a distant relative of Jean’s, which upon the death of Jean’s mother and brother during the war leaves the trust entirely to her. Suddenly finding herself wealthy beyond her imagination, Jean must consider what to do with her future. She decides to use part of her inheritance to return to the village in Malaya where she lived out the war years in peace after a grueling two-year death march around the country. She hopes in some small way to repay the villagers for their kindness, which led to her survival, by drilling a well for them. This leads her to divulge the harrowing tale to her trustee, and he to readers as he recounts her story. This aspect of the novel alone is fascinating and would be plenty enough to sustain the novel on its own. In fact, I’ve read several reviews where readers feel this should have been the story in its entirety. But I disagree—I enjoyed the second wind of this novel just as much as the first.

After recounting her tragic war years, Jean returns to Malaysia to dig the well. While there, she receives a shock. During the war, a young Australian POW helped the party of women survive by stealing food for them. The Japanese caught and tortured him in front of the women to prove a point, and the party of surviving women believed him to be dead. Upon her return to the village, however, Jean discovers that he survived and is living in Australia. This sparks an interest within her to find this man, Joe Harman, and reconnect with him to express her gratitude and sorrow over the torture he received at her expense. In an interesting twist of fate, around the same time, Joe discovers that Jean is an unmarried woman—he had hidden his love for her, even from himself, whilst under the assumption she was married. Once he discovered she was single, he decided he needed to reconnect with her and if possible, marry her. The conclusion of the story is the resolution between these two objects of fate, and the affects their love will have upon a small, rural outpost in the Australian outpost.

The novel is beautifully written throughout and will leave you sad when you reach the end—rather like saying goodbye to an old friend. Shute manages to incorporate it all—history, love, and economics—and create a beautiful and intriguing story of the power of the human will.


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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 30


A popular author’s first book, Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

Am I the only one around here who doesn’t apparently live in a 1950’s fantasy that the world is a wholesome place where nobody swears, has ill thoughts, or engages in misdeeds? After reading some of the reviews on Goodreads, I am shocked by how many people are so offended by “bad language” in literature that they felt necessary to put a disclaimer about it in their reviews. The point of literature, and all art, really, isn’t to avoid offense. It’s the exact opposite! Art is supposed to rip you from your comfortable little bubble and shove your face into the gritty reality that you spend so much time avoiding. It doesn’t gloss over the cracks and seediness of humanity; it revels in them. Art is supposed to jar us from our steady stream of routine disillusionment. It wakes us up, it makes alive, it allows us to empathize and become better humans. In my opinion, that is what differentiates “literature” from “books.” If that is what you’re looking for, then you will find that and more in Trainspotting. If you want to cuddle up with a warm novel that will help you avoid reality and warm your little heart, then this isn’t the story for you. Go read Nicholas Sparks or something.

The things that made this novel amazing:

The use of dialect. You will see this in just about every review. Welsh writes in a steady stream of Scottish dialect, which for most of us is a challenge. You almost have to read certain parts aloud, stop and re-read sections, and really pay attention to the context of the sentences to figure out what the hell the characters are saying most of the time. After a while, you will start to pick it up and things will go along more smoothly, but make no bones about it—this will test even the most stalwart of readers. However, for my fellow linguists out there, this also gives the novel its charm and makes it a real treat. There are some laugh-out-loud moments from the language the characters use, not to mention the crazy antics they get into. By giving these characters the use of their own slang and dialect, Welsh provides a level of authenticity that would otherwise be lost. The dialect also serves to reinforce the sense of camaraderie and community that this particular crew—the dregs of humanity—shares, despite the often horrific nature of their lives. It is a unique marker that makes them “one of the group,” for better or for worse.

Shifting narrative perspectives. You can essentially view this novel as a series of short stories, told from different characters’ points of view, and from different narrative points of view (first person, third person, etc.). Each story or chapter hangs together with the others on the narrative through-line of drug use (in this case, heroin). We see the varying stages of addiction—in the throws of the drug, in the sickness of withdrawal, shining recovery, and then ultimately, the relapse. While issues of addiction take center stage in this novel, there is a shadow narrative throughout. The true theme is less about the drugs and more about a class of people that society has given up on–poor people, uneducated people, people at the end of their rope and without the means to better their lives in any real way. The characters at the heart of this story are people who have nothing left to lose, which makes them dangerous but also somewhat free in a way that many of us aren’t. The grittiness of the novel isn’t about the drugs, but about the ways we treat fellow human beings that drive them to such desperation in the first place. This underlying theme is beautifully executed in large part to the choice of narrative structure on Welsh’s part. Through these beautifully rendered tidbits, we see the internal monologue of desperate human beings navigating a world that wants to pretend they don’t exist, and how that blindness to their true plight leads them down desperate avenues.

Morally bankrupt characters that are still weirdly likeable. No doubt about it, these people are the worst of humanity imagined into very solid, well-rounded characters–druggies, prostitutes, and violent sociopaths. You will watch them get into some truly hideous, gasp-inducing debauchery. They do things that will elicit shock from even the most jaded amongst us. You will be utterly revolted by the things these people do, and yet…there’s a weirdly likeable side to them, even at their worst. Particularly when you’re privy to the inner monologue, the ‘why’ behind their actions. It’s a fascinating look into the worst of humanity, and the scariest part of all may be when you find yourself empathizing with some of the things they think, feel, and say. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that “There but for the grace of God go I.”

This is definitely a MUST READ. Just give yourself plenty of time and space to navigate the language.


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