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Posts Tagged ‘Kirkus’

I’ve been listening to The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead on my commute because it’s this month’s pick for a book group I’m invited to on Monday. Audiobooks are not my first preference but I figured it was a way to squeeze in reading another book, especially since I had a Kirkus assignment to read and review. The narration of The Underground Railroad, by Bahni Turpin, is very well done, if you do happen to be an audiobook fan.

If you haven’t already heard about this book it is a highly acclaimed novel by an author who was already well regarded before The Underground Railroad, which  won the National Book Award and drew reviews comparing it to BelovedLesMiserablesThe Invisible Man and other literary greats.  I think Whitehead’s brilliance in this book is in the way he mixes the actual American past with speculative history but hews always to the core truth of his novel: that racism is not going anywhere without justice, and that justice is impossible unless people choose it. Mabel, Cora’s mother, has her own very brief chapter towards the end of the book, in which readers finally learn what became of her (Cora believes she abandoned her, Ridgeway the slave catcher believes she is the only one of his quarry ever to elude him). As she is deciding what to do herself, Mabel thinks, “The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.”

Simply put but true. That’s the central theme of this book. Unfortunately in Whitehead’s imagined nineteenth century America, very few people refuse, and those who do suffer unspeakable horrors from which they never fully recover, if they even survive. Nearly every character who helps Cora, black or white, ends up dead or hunted by those who wish them dead. Royal, who rescued Cora from Ridgeway after he’d finally caught her, tells Cora “. . . that every one of her enemies, all the masters and overseers of her suffering, would be punished, if not in this world, then the next, for justice may be slow and invisible, but it always renders its true verdict in the end.”

It’s hard to know what to make of this; Cora’s story and those of the other black characters in The Underground Railroad are unrelentingly painful and hopeless — even if they reach “safe” territory or are “freed” they are not free of racism and they live in a nation where racial injustice and violence are the norm. The pain of reading this book isn’t in reflecting on America’s history — after all, Whitehead takes creative license with history, speculating enough that this is not merely historical fiction but something more radical, a work of imagined  historical fiction — the pain comes from the fact that the truth of the novel is not in our past. It’s our present, it’s the root of many of America’s problems today.

Reading this book in light of the recent actions to roll back many civil rights actions taken by the last administration, and to “double down” as the New York Times reports, on the war on drugs, despite much evidence that harsh penalties and harsh policing did not work, and has increased racial inequality and caused untold suffering, especially for women of color, is especially painful. The America we live in today, ruled by fear of the “other” based on a highly delusional sense of superiority, is quite recognizable in The Underground Railroad. While Cora’s America is somewhat more lawless, and some of the crimes perpetrated in The Underground Railroad would be prosecuted today even if they were directed at black citizens, there is still today official sanction of racist policies in the name of “justice.”  Perhaps this is even starker to me because I am in another book group reading The New Jim Crow month by month, one chapter at a time and sharing articles and talks with each other on racial inequality and injustice.

So, did I enjoy The Underground Railroad? That would probably not accurately characterize my experience of the book. I think it’s an amazing piece of writing. I certainly sat in my car more than once to hear a few more lines before it was time to go into work. It will stay with me, and I was left wondering about Cora’s fate – the ending was perfect. It entered my consciousness and interacted with other things I’ve read and thought. Parts if it threw me for a loop — it’s not straight narration — but that is in service to the story, not some writerly trick. All of that makes it a great read.

But be warned it’s also wrenching, and at times nauseating. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Feeling slightly wrenched by another’s fictional experiences is good for helping someone privileged, as I am, to try to wrap my head around what black Americans experience every day. So read it. Be ready to let it work on you. And then do something; take Mabel’s words and live them: refuse to be a part of the meanness of the world. One thing I’ve come to understand is that it’s not enough to reject racist ideas, what’s required in this world is to openly oppose them, in thought, word and deed. Call or write an elected or appointed official to oppose racist policies. Tell someone you hear victimized by racist talk that you are with them and you are sorry. Tell someone saying racist things that you will not listen to such talk. None of this is easy but it’s what’s required if justice is ever to come. The thing I will take away from The Underground Railroad is what it says about the role of free will in the world. Refusing isn’t just refusing, it’s choosing.

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I’m over halfway through my 7 week class. It’s been hard to read much. In fact, the only things I’ve read are my textbook (which I don’t care for) and some things for work. One of which is Callings, a StoryCorps collection about work. We’re considering it at my university as a common read for the freshmen. Other than the subtitle, which includes the word “passion” (I told my freshman student success class that I think “follow your passion” is crummy advice), I enjoyed it. Like other StoryCorps books, it’s a collection culled from the interviews people submit.

There are actually several examples in the book that fit the advice I prefer over “follow your passion” — follow opportunity and try to be happy where you are. A number of people interviewed discovered things about themselves by taking jobs they needed but didn’t necessarily want. Or their career took a turn in a direction they never expected and that became their life’s work.

An example I really loved was Rev. Eric D. Williams of Kansas City, Missouri. He talks about being asked to hold a funeral for young man who died of AIDS, because his own church wouldn’t have it. Rev. Williams didn’t want to either but he listened to his heart, which was telling him that being rejected by your church when your kid has died is wrong, and he needed to help. After that he realized his community wasn’t talking about AIDS, and that he could educate people about it, to help end the fear and prejudice.

What he said that really got me was this: “I came into this work kicking and screaming. I just didn’t want to do it. But my heart was pulled. Everything good that I’ve been able to accomplish in ministry, has started with some kind of burden, and AIDS burdened me.” I find that really interesting. I’m not even sure what to make of it. Burden as a breakthrough . . .  I really want to ponder that.

What Rev. Williams, and many other people featured in Callings, did was ask themselves questions about their life and the world and the work at hand, and take action for themselves as they answered those questions. The other book I recently read (albeit very quickly; I hope to go back and spend more time with it when I can), was Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions  by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana. Over on Nocturnal Librarian I blogged about coming across the work of the Right Question Institute in an interview about the Question Formulation Technique and librarianship. I decided to read Make Just One Change so I could try QFT. It’s a good guide to the technique and has helpful examples of real life applications. But I wasn’t sure when I’d try it.

Well this week, I used QFT with my Student Success class. This is a one credit year-long course all freshmen at my university take, and I’m teaching a section of it this semester. We’ve had a few weeks to explore the idea of vocation — not an easy concept for anyone, let alone 18 year olds, to wrap their heads around. After a week where there wasn’t much discussion and a fair number of bored looks, I decided to shake things up a bit. I asked them to read the rules of the QFT (Ask as many questions as you can; Do not stop to discuss, judge or answer the questions; Write down every question exactly as it is stated; Change any statement into a question) and then come up with questions using this question focus: 

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.” Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

(No, I haven’t yet read Let Your Life Speak but I’ve read excerpts)

Once they had questions, they looked at which were open and which were closed (could be answered with yes, no, or another one word reply). They practiced changing questions from one kind to the other, and thought about what the pros and cons of each kind of question are. Then they prioritized three of the questions they chose and wrote down why those were their priority, and thought about how they might use those questions. Finally, they reflected on what they had learned about asking questions, what they had learned about the question focus, and what they would do with what they learned.

It was fabulous. I had split them into groups of three, and each group came up and talked about their question creation and analysis, and I could not have been happier. When I handed out the papers, one of my peer mentors had already said she didn’t get it and didn’t think they would, and I had enjoyed (not really) a moment of panic that the whole plan was going to flop miserably. But they got into it — conversation was livelier than it had been in weeks. And, they came up with some really good questions, like “How will I know if my life is speaking?” and even “What is life?” and they had amazing ideas about how to use what they learned, from asking questions in order to study for hard exams (many in my class are nursing students) or using the questioning method we had explored to look hard at issues in the world around them.

If you’re an educator or leader of any small group, I highly recommend you give it a try.

Of course this means I need to come up with something really good for our next class, which is also our last. We’re talking about service, and I have a surprise field trip planned, so there isn’t going to be time for a full QFT, but I will remind them to use what they learned as they write a reflection.

This weekend I have to read a pre-pub novel for Kirkus, but I hope to be back to pleasure reading very soon. Only three more weeks of adolescent development class!

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My college friend Marybeth asked me a little while ago to ask if I would read a novel called Mine that her friend’s sister, Katie Crawford, wrote. I didn’t know anything about it, except that Marybeth had read the first chapter and liked it. I finished yesterday morning and I can tell you this: it’s better than most of the books Kirkus has sent me to review in 2016.  I really enjoyed it and I think it deserves a wide audience.

Those of you who read my blog regularly will not be surprised to learn it’s published by a small press, Deeds Publishing in Athens, Georgia. I know there are some good books being published by the big five and other large publishing houses, but I will continue to remind readers as often as possible: there are really good writers being published by independent small presses all over the place, and if you go to your nearest independent bookstore the booksellers can hook you up with some wonderful books you will very possibly not hear of otherwise. Ok, plug for indies over (for now).

Mine is the story of two sisters in a small mining town in Pennsylvania, Janie and Maggie. The story describes their bleak childhoods and how that upbringing impacts both of their lives. The most important events that inform everything that happens to them for the rest of their lives are their parents’ deaths and Janie’s becoming pregnant by a priest who was himself abused by a priest as a child.

I don’t recall reading a date, but hints in the story and the timeframe in which the mines closed (which they have by the end of the novel) make me think the girls’ childhoods might be in the fifties or sixties? As would have been common at the time, Janie is sent away when her pregnancy becomes obvious, to some nuns who take care of “fallen” girls; refreshingly in this novel, the nuns are very kind and caring. But she’s made to give the baby up. About a year or so later, Maggie & Janie move to Philadelphia, where Maggie’s new mother-in-law lives. But Janie is faithful, visiting both the hospital room where she last held her infant daughter and her parents’ graves every week.

I don’t want to give away the rest of the plot, but I do want to recommend this moving book. It would make a good vacation read because it’s one of those books you don’t want to stop reading. The ending is satisfying without being tied up in a bow. The writing is compelling. You probably know older women who were a little like Janie when they were young; no amount of personal tragedy could dim her faith or her kind-heartedness.

This would also be great for a book club. I’d recommend pairing this novel with the movie Spotlight; we finally watched it last weekend and Mine made me really think about not only the Catholic Church’s complicity but also the enormity of the human tragedy — this book reveals just a few victims, and when you scale that up worldwide, it’s pretty mind-boggling.

But I digress. Go get this novel. If you like fiction about women’s lives, historical fiction, or just reading something that’s not on every airport bookrack, ask your local bookseller for Mine, or suggest your library purchase it.

 

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Ok, for those of you who’ve followed along with my can-I-or-can’t-I finish Infinite Jest: I can’t. I tried. I made it to page 500 something. But I have a Kirkus assignment, a tall to-be-read pile, and a book I put in a purchase request for waiting at the library, and also it was slowly dawning on me that even if I persevered to the end, I was not going to “find out what happens.” What seemed interesting and fascinating in the first few hundred pages began to wear me down.

Infinite Jest is still an interesting book. I was amazed at how prescient it seems even though it was published in the early 90’s. Sadly it doesn’t seem all that far fetched that an American administration might consider corporate sponsorship of time. And the drug addiction in the book seems pretty timely. But I was disappointed that the complex plot lines did not become clearer as I read, and I feel a little ripped off that I spent over three weeks trying to get through a novel that was ultimately impenetrable when I have so many other books I want to read.

Would I recommend anyone else try Infinite Jest? I know there are many people who think it’s brilliant. There’s a temptation with a book this out of the ordinary to believe it’s a work of genius that is just beyond the average reader. But I’m afraid I feel like any book that doesn’t reward the reader with some insight after three weeks of hard slogging is probably not a good book. It may be a creative, experimental work, it may be groundbreaking and innovative and unique, and I’m all for complexity, nonlinear narrative, unreliable narrators, etc. But I’d like, in exchange, a good story. This book didn’t give me that. And it’s fairly depressing, to boot. So I’m out.

A side note — I tried Infinite Jest as an ebook at first, and then when it was clear I couldn’t finish it by the time my Overdrive loan would expire, I placed a hold on the hard copy. I’d advise anyone trying to read this book not to bother with the ebook. If you want to try to read the footnotes — something I had limited success doing even in the paper version — it’s just completely inefficient to try to do it in the ebook.

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