Book Club: The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad is going to win the Pulitzer this year, of this I am certain. I’m sure you’ve heard about this incredible book by now if you’re not living under a literary rock. I’m not breaking new ground here telling you about it; I saw a copy at the grocery store a few weeks ago, and you can get it at an airport bookstore. Its ubiquity is well-deserved: everyone should read this.

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The Underground Railroad is a very, very difficult easy read, if you will. It’s so riveting that I read this whole thing on a cross-country flight, but you know how people are more susceptible to crying on planes? I was crying by page ten. It’s exceptionally hard to get through in a great many parts, but the writing and storytelling is so compelling that you can’t stay away, even as it shows you things that make your worst nightmares seem like an afternoon at Disneyland.

The book tells the story of a slave named Cora and her journey on the Underground Railroad. We move forward and backward in time and place, learning about her mother and grandmother’s experiences as slaves and seeing what the world is like in different parts of the American South. In Colson Whitehead’s imagining of the Underground Railroad, the railroad part is not a metaphor; it’s a literal railroad. There are actual locomotives and train schedules and conductors and stations.

While the book doesn’t tidily fit into the category of magic realism, it moves back and forth between heart-wrenching, unflinching depictions of American slavery and a bizarre dystopian dreamland, making the reader feel unmoored and uncertain, much like the protagonist. After Whitehead departs from a strictly linear and factual narrative, he’s freed up to touch on things that happen outside the timeline, like the advent of skyscrapers, the eugenics movement, and the Tuskeegee experiments. These slightly out-of-scope elements serve as a prescient warning to Cora (and the reader): this isn’t going to be over when you get out of the slave states and this isn’t going to be over at the end of the war.

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I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I hold a master’s degree in Southern Studies, so I’ve done a lot of reading and studying on how region and history is taught across the country. You were probably taught a very simplified version of events that was at best 20-60% accurate. It’s very tempting to make slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction into a tidy narrative of right and wrong, where everyone was either doing the enlightened and morally correct thing or they were not, and The Underground Railroad is not interested in furthering that story in any way, shape, or form. Whitehead integrated matter-of-fact primary sources that felt extraordinary and exceptional to me, but he periodically reminded me that no, this unimaginable cruelty and horror was pedestrian, and the fact that this is foreign to me speaks to my position of privilege. Whitehead skillfully wove in an under-discussed part of the post-war period in America: the sanitizing of slavery begun almost immediately and continues to this day. I was really in awe of how he drew parallels with the contemporary state of race in the United States with the Civil War; without ever saying it directly, he brought things like “stop and frisk” policies into context.

Whitehead has done copious research to place you in the direct path of the horrors of slavery, and he’s not about to let you off the hook with some story where everything works out great in the end and there’s a tidy moral. Things are not easy for Cora and her trials aren’t even close to over when she escapes the plantation. Many of the people who help her along her way meet gruesome ends. Some of the white railroad conductors are at best reluctant (with many deeply resentful of the circumstances that forced them into service) to help. The more well-intentioned pretty plainly don’t see former slaves as human beings, but rather something significantly less than they and exist almost completely in made up environs. It’s hard to read; you get to a point where you want badly for Cora and her friends along the way to eke out a win, but Whitehead withholds that because you know what? This is not Meet Addy or Dear America: 1863. You’re an adult and you need to acknowledge that slaves did not get an easy win, and racism is very much alive and well.  There’s hope, to be sure, but there aren’t any promises.

It’s important to read books that challenge you and expand your world view, and this book absolutely did that for me. Considering slave narratives in this surreal milieu shone a bright light on some things I hadn’t previously considered, to say nothing of how incredible his writing is. There’s so much to say about his research and storytelling that you almost forget, but paragraph for paragraph, the Underground Railroad was stuffed with beautiful prose that lunged off the page at me.

Next week, I’m reading this. Please join me!

Have you read the Underground Railroad? What did you think? Did you also cry to yourself for hours after finishing it? Tell me in the comments.

Lazy Sunday: 28 April

Well, friends, I got you these. Enjoy a quiet day.

A Quick, Nervous Bird

Billy Collins is one of my favorite living poets, mostly because he’s so, so funny. I don’t want to reduce his insightful, smart writing to just humor, but I think it’s great that he gets the joke of being a poet. There’s so much handwringing and black beret-wearing in the realm of Serious Literature, so I find it really refreshing.

ANYWAY, in honor of yet another day of National Poetry Month, I bring you A Paradelle for Susan. The paradelle is allegedly a formal poem from medieval France, similar to a villanelle, though actually, it was just a poem that Collins invented to make fun of excessively formal writing exercises. The best part? The writing establishment believed him and started writing their own paradelles. Please enjoy!

 

Paradelle for Susan

by Billy Collins 

I remember the quick, nervous bird of your love.
I remember the quick, nervous bird of your love.
Always perched on the thinnest, highest branch.
Always perched on the thinnest, highest branch.
Thinnest love, remember the quick branch.
Always nervous, I perched on your highest bird the.

It is time for me to cross the mountain.
It is time for me to cross the mountain.
And find another shore to darken with my pain.
And find another shore to darken with my pain.
Another pain for me to darken the mountain.
And find the time, cross my shore, to with it is to.

The weather warm, the handwriting familiar.
The weather warm, the handwriting familiar.
Your letter flies from my hand into the waters below.
Your letter flies from my hand into the waters below.
The familiar waters below my warm hand.
Into handwriting your weather flies you letter the from the.

I always cross the highest letter, the thinnest bird.
Below the waters of my warm familiar pain,
Another hand to remember your handwriting.
The weather perched for me on the shore.
Quick, your nervous branch flew from love.
Darken the mountain, time and find was my into it was with to to.

Book of the Week: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

This week, I bring you Nathan Englander‘s short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne FrankPeople made a metric tonne of noise about this when it came out early last year, and I just now got around to reading it myself.

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So, the great thing about short story collections if you don’t somehow already know this (maybe you majored in engineering in college or something) is that you pretty much always have time for them. It’s not like getting Anna Karenina in your hands and thinking “I’ll just do this later.” You have time right now.

Anyway, more specifically about these short stories: I loved them. Like any collection of short stories, there are some that are better than others, but three of the eight stood out to me. The eponymous story, “Sister Hills”, and “Camp Sundown” are outstanding examples of stories that grapple with Jewish identity in America, the confusing feelings some American Jews have about their coreligionists in Israel, and the ways in which the trauma of the Shoah still reverberates loudly in contemporary society.  The others take on these themes, too, but when I was reflecting on these stories after I finished, those specific ones resonated with me.

The great thing about Englander is that he’s a Jewish writer unafraid of being pretty Jewish (there’s no glossary of terms or parenthetical insert about what this means or whatever, so keep up), but he doesn’t beat you over the head with it the way Michael Chabon sometimes can or Phillip Roth almost always does. “What We Talk About…”, for example, touches on the universal-but-still-weird feeling you get when hanging out with friends from childhood with whom you no longer have anything in common. “Sister Hills” and “Camp Sundown” tangle with how frustrating your family can be, and the changing nature of filial piety. There’s so much to unpack page to page that I won’t even try to summarize it.

I also loved that he isn’t afraid to be a little funny, or to talk about the Holocaust in ways that are…unconventional, to say the least. “Free Fruit for Young Widows”, for instance, is a fairy tale set up that talks frankly about the horrors of war while making use of magical language. If there’s another example of that somewhere, I don’t know where it is.*

Anyway, I can’t recommend this highly enough, even if you feel like you’ve had your fill of Jewish-American writers writing about Jewish-American topics. It’s a collection with a great mix of gravitas and humor, and his word-pickin’ skills are second to none.

Have any of you read this? What did you think about his stories? Which were your favorites? Did you hear him read his favorite Singer story (also one of mine) on the New Yorker podcast? OMG PLEASE GO LISTEN.

Next week, I’m reading another short story collection. Please join in!

*readers, please note that I love magic realism and will revisit this love early and often.