Sunday, February 19, 2017

Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Typically, when I read one of Oprah's magazines, I pay attention to books she recommends. There have been hits and misses (she doesn't have the home runs like Books on the Nightstand had) but her interview with Colson Whitehead was very interesting. His new book, Underground Railroad, is historical fiction that re-imagines the Underground Railroad that we all (should) know as an actual railway system that spirits away slaves to freedom. I had never read any of Whitehead's book so I made a Goodreads note to try this out.

Then, Whitehead and this book were featured in the book review section of the New York Times. I can't possibly ignore this now, can I? This book is chasing me everywhere. I put myself in line for it at the library. And then, there it was on NPR. Alright! I'm getting it!

The actual underground railroad was a series of secret routes and safe houses.

In Whitehead's world, the railroad is literally underground and comes complete with station agents who help the escaped slaves continue on to a new life.

I don't want to make this book sound cute. It's not. It's brutal and painful to read. It may be fiction but it's based in history and what slaves endured is horrifying at best. The book follows Cora, a slave on the Randall plantation. Her grandmother, Ajarry, was kidnapped from Africa and brought over to work to the cotton fields. Ajarry had Mabel who had Cora. The chapters are broken up in a way that we learn about Ajarry, Mabel, Ridgeway (a slave catcher), Caesar (Cora's runaway companion), Ethel, etc. interspersed with chapters about the various states Cora ends up in.

Mabel is the only slave to have successfully escaped the Randall plantation. She left Cora behind and that has been burning inside Cora ever since she became a stray. When the somewhat decent but still bad Randall brother died, the absolutely horrible and tyrannical brother took over his plantation. This prompted Cora and Caesar to run away to freedom. Lovey, Cora's friend, realizing what they were doing, took after them to find freedom herself. After a skirmish with night hunters, Cora kills a young white boy who was trying to capture her. Caesar and Cora get away, Lovey does not. We find out Lovey's fate later in the book.

Once Caesar and Cora find the first tunnel to the railway station, they are on their way to South Carolina. From here, the book follows Cora as she assumes a new identity, works for wages and tries to make a life. Ridgeway, the slave catcher who failed to catch Mabel, is not letting Cora get away.

Being that this is fiction, I am very curious if the chapter about North Carolina is true. While all of the book is difficult to read, the North Carolina chapter was particularly horrific. I've never been able to wrap my mind around how people could be considered property and how humans could treat other humans so badly. Yet there it is, in our history, repeated over and over and over again continuing on to present day.

I've said a few times that this book is hard to read. It is but it's worth the read. Our history is painful and it should never be shoved under the rug because we don't want to acknowledge how horrible our ancestors acted towards other human beings. Whitehead hit this one out of the park. Thank you for writing this, Mr. Whitehead!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Full of Life by John Fante

When I really love an author, I try to find out who inspires the author because chances are very good I'll love their inspiration as well.

When I found at the Charles Bukowski was inspired by John Fante, I picked up a few of Fante's books and started reading. I, once again, show my skill for picking books out of order because I don't realize they are a series and read Ask the Dust right off. Way back in 2006, I remember enjoying the story a great deal but wondering how Bukowski was influenced by Fante.

I found Full of Life in my stacks and decided to get back to Fante. Almost 10 years later, here's what I see now: Fante is a storyteller and the story is every day life. In the three books I've now read, Fante shows us his life as a struggling writer who finds some success. I do feel, now, that Fante and Bukowski are branches on the same tree (maturity on my part? who knows).

Full of Life gives us a snippet of Fante's life with his very pregnant and emotional wife, Joyce. An atheist, something about having a baby turns her to Roman Catholicism, and she insists on John joining her. Already a lapsed Catholic, John doesn't immediately run back to church.

By this time, Fante has sold some books and has some money. He also, unfortunately, has bought a house with termites. He fetches his father, Nick, to help fix the damaged flooring. Nick is a dramatic curmudgeon who truly loves his son but gives absolutely no end of grief to Fante.

So here we go. Basic life as told by Fante. No explosions. No mysteries to solve. No plot, really, to speak of. It's a book, and author, worth reading.

The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide by Francine Jay

So, per Goodreads, I started this in April 2016 and finished it February 2017. Don't let that influence you that this was a bad book!

Around 2014, I got a desperate need to purge things from my house that I no longer needed. I was shoved in this direction by my friend's sudden death and all of her things left undone, with her family sorting through her belongings. I really felt the urge to get my space organized and minimized. I was on a good kick for a while (paycheck stubs from my first ever job at 17 years old? Yeah...gotta go!) but lost my steam. Everything seemed very overwhelming. And my house continued to feel very FULL.

I downloaded this book on a recommendation and appreciated the breaking down of the pieces of getting rid of clutter and keeping it away. The reason it took so long to finish is because I was putting it down and going to a room and starting to declutter. See? It works!

Jay tackles every room and occasion (including your wedding clutter, if you have it) as well as mental clutter. Becoming a minimalist in body, soul and home is an aspiring thing. I'm happy that I've already made some good changes, but looking around, I have a ways to go.

Moving forward towards that minimalist lifestyle!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Chase by Janet Evanovich

The second in the Fox and O'Hare series. While some of the circumstances these two get into are a bit far-fetched, I love them. I love that Kate is a kick ass woman who doesn't need saving and that her ideas are often the ones that "save the day". These two characters really work well together and play off of each other nicely.

The Heist is all about a bronze rooster. Donated by the Chinese and living in the Smithsonian, the Chinese want it back. They send someone to come get it and while, normally, this isn't a problem, it's a problem. The rooster at the museum is a fake and we can't send a fake back to China, can we? Enter Fox and O'Hare, to steal back the real rooster and replace the fake before the rooster heads to China.

They are up against an asshole of a guy who is basically a rich, well protected jerk who buys stolen art. Thankfully, Fox and O'Hare know how to handle him. Which they do in quite a clever way, until the asshole, Carter Grove, realizes he's been robbed of the rooster. He sends an assassin their way, the Chinese pick up guy arrives early and the fake rooster is already on it's way to China and ....well, heck breaks loose.

Kate and Nick....they got it handled.

I'm enjoying this series more and more. Can't wait to get on to the next one.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Tricky Twenty-Two by Janet Evanovich

Another Stephanie Plum book. Same premise as the 21 books before, same characters, same plot devices. Same laughs and entertainment factor, so I'm not complaining.

Plum and Lula are out to grab a college kid who skipped his court date. Somehow, this ends them up in the middle of an insane professor's plan to release fleas infected with the bubonic plague on the campus. There's also a quick encounter with a serial killer that chops up women and feeds the pieces to feral cats. And Morelli gets a colonoscopy.

Just read it. If you are a fan, you'll like it.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I listened to this through the CraftLit podcast. This is another of those classic books where everyone knows the story (but please stop calling the monster Frankenstein) but very few people have actually read the story.

This was not the Frankenstein story I thought it would be.

(although I still really like Young Frankenstein)

Victor Frankenstein is a regular guy who has a deep interest in the natural sciences. He works feverishly to create a being, a life. There is very little fanfare when the monster awakens in the novel. What is evident is Victor's horror at what he has done. Victor abandons the monster to it's own devices while he goes into a "frenzy" or hysterical illness and is out of commission for quite a while. Quite literally, he lays eyes on his creation for moments before not seeing it again for YEARS.

Victor is a putz. He abandoned his creation because he didn't like how it looked. He created human life and turned his back on it. How differently this story would have been if he had taken the time to teach the monster how to be a decent human. But you can't really teach what you don't know, can you?

A member of Victor's family is found murdered with another member of the family arrested for it. Victor knows it's the monster getting his revenge. Yet each and every time he encounters the monster, he does nothing but flail at the injustice to HIM, Victor.

We get the monster's side of the story and end up very sympathetic to him while thinking more and more that Victor is a putz.

A showdown between the two is inevitable yet, Victor fails again to do anything. In the end, Victor dies without having stopped the monster and the monster moves on.

Excellent novel with a lot of "Really? Isn't that a coincidence?" which only sidebarred me a little. We needed the coincidences to keep the plot moving. This is very much a Romantic style novel (not Hallmark romantic....era Romantic) and Victor's flailing and monologues were a tad much for me sometimes. Overall, I'm so glad I now have the original Frankenstein under my belt. The movies misinformed me! :)

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I'm truly going to try and keep up with the local book club this year. This is our first book and I really struggled reading it. The prose felt strangled and I kept getting dropped out of the actual story by the language. I read quite a bit and have a pretty good vocabulary but I had to keep asking me Kindle to define words because there was little to no context. Boom...dropped again.

I found that I didn't really want to finish this book but now I have an accountability partner for book club so I picked it up again and got myself through Part One.

Tony Webster and his friends bring new kid Adrian into their clique. The kids all sounded pretentious enough that I wanted to slap them but we sort through them "dealing" with a fellow students suicide. Dealing as in, it really doesn't seem like they cared. They move on through college with Tony getting a girlfriend, Veronica. There's nothing about her that seems remotely redeemable and, by the end of the novel, I really think she's only in this book to drop clues. Eventually, Tony and Veronica break up and Veronica and Adrian get together.

Then Adrian commits suicide.

Part Two actually got me more interested. Tony marries, has a kid, divorces. He moves through his mundane and adequate life. A perfectly acceptable, simple life. When he gets a letter from a lawyer letting him know that he came into money and documents from Veronica's mother when she passed. Oh, intrigue! Tony goes on a retiree's quest to get the documents from Veronica, which turn out to be Adrian's diary. Here is where Veronica is particularly 2D and useless. I will admit that the story picked up a bit, once you ignore the writing, and led to an interesting twist. A twist that I was completely unsure of when I got to it and had to go and re-read several sections and then check the interwebz to see if I was right. I was and that was weird.

So, Amanda, you say....was there anything you liked?

Yes, thanks for asking!  The gist of this book is about memory. How what you think you remember isn't really the reality you should remember. Tony reframed his memories to feel better about himself so when he sees his letter to Adrian and Veronica, he got a rude awakening of how horrible he actually was. We all do this, don't we? We smooth away the rough edges of memories so we can live with them and go on with our mundane lives.

I wrote down a section because it did hit home. My mundane life was stifling me so last year I made an effort to get out of my comfort zone and travel. This year, I have no desire to see another airport again for a long time, but I'm very happy I finally did the "immature" thing and packed my bags and winged around the country.

We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe.
We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly.
What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them.

I've always prided myself on being a mature, responsible realist.....maybe not anymore.