The Underground Railroad tells the story of a slave who escapes a Southern plantation and makes her way North, facing a variety of tension-filled challenges, cultural observations, and threats from both well-meaning and ill-intentioned people.
I wanted to like this novel so much more than I did. But I got really hung up on the way the author distances the narrative from any sort of lived experience. Most every aspect is told, not shown. The most pivotal, dramatic moments—including the violent climax—exist through flashbacks after the reader already knows the outcome. And it’s not a dialogue-heavy flashback, in which one character explains his or her first-person experience, full of emotion and reflection. It’s more of a textbook description of the action. The only emotion comes from the horror of the action itself, not from any connection to the characters experiencing it.
And, okay. The railroad. I try hard not to read any other reviews (just the book-jacket-type summaries) before I start a book. So when Cora and Caesar climb down into a tunnel and end up on a subway platform… what? I had to ask someone. “Have I misunderstood this my whole life? It *is* a metaphor, right?”
The literal railroad underground throws this novel into a different category, at least for me. It’s no longer historical fiction. Something closer to fantasy fiction. And then I don’t know how much to believe from the rest of the story. That might not have bothered me so much if the novel was on a topic besides American slavery. But there are so many untold stories on this topic already—dramatic, emotional stories that need to be shared, even as fictionalized accounts—that I can’t find a place where this horrific fantasy version fits.
I can see why so many people liked this novel. Obviously, take it all with a grain of salt—although I have no idea how big a grain to recommend. And if you find you’re not engaging with the main character in the first few chapters, it’s okay to give it up, because that’s not going to get much better.
The only excuse I have for waiting so long to draft a review of this short story collection is that I was too busy telling everyone I know about it in person. I stumbled across A Manual for Cleaning Women based, I think, largely on browsing algorithms in my library’s app. I’d never heard of Lucia Berlin, but these stories evoked the same response in my heart as hearing John Prine for the first time. An enthusiastic, “Where have you *been* all my life?” after a deep itch has been scratched.
I loved every one of the 43 stories in this collection, although I can admit that some are stronger, more emotional, than others. “Macadam” has become a common word in my house now. I think often of Sally and her children, of Melina and César, of Bella Lynn. Sometimes, I think of Jesse, Amelia and her pobre mojito, Dr. HA Moynihan’s toothless mouth, and the narrator’s mother, but that’s more painful.
The one story that set me weeping above the others—the one I listened to on audiobook multiple times and the one that forced me to sit in the parking lot after I’d arrived to work just to pull myself back together—was “Stars and Saints.” It begins, “Wait. Let me explain…” and tells a story of terrible circumstances all piled together outside of anyone’s control in a way that inevitably result in each character making the worst decisions for everyone. I can’t say more about it. If you can spare 15 or so minutes, read this story. And you might want to be alone and give yourself 5 or so extra minutes to clean yourself up afterward.
Did anything other than sexism keep Lucia Berlin’s largely autobiographical stories away from me until now? She does a wide range of unladylike things. But I enjoyed her stories of addiction and sex and blue-collar jobs much more than any of the Bukowski we read in college. Because she doesn’t try to make it seem glamorous or even that fun most of the time. She manages to enjoy herself despite the terrible situations she gets into, not because of them. She shows all the dirt under her fingernails and shrugs. Isn’t this the way life is, she asks? Messy and full of life and hope and heartbreak?
If you have a pulse and empathy and can read, check out A Manual for Cleaning Women. And behold humanity.
There’s a line within the first paragraph of Moby Dick in which Ishmael tells us that he heads to the sea “…whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever … it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off.” That line marked the first time I laughed out loud at the novel and convinced me that I was going to love it.
Although heading to sea occasionally is within my grasp (see my August 2017 adventure with Jubilee Sailing Trust, incredible although expensive), the more reasonable alternative may be to pick up the next book in the Aubrey-Maturin series. To send my mind to sea instead of my whole body.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed Master and Commander, the first book in the series, I hesitate to recommend it without hedging. It’s always great when books teach you something about yourself, and I learned that I love hearing ships described. I love the talk of sails and lines and decks and masts. I love the incredible danger these sailors faced so regularly and how it brings them together as a family unit.
But as a single novel? It’s middling. The events that happen are more like vignettes rather than a cohesive arc. Because it’s the first in a series, the reader knows that Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin will survive, no matter the odds. And this series nature also prevents the plot and the characters’ relationships from evolving dramatically.
And still, I enjoyed it. I listened to it on audiobook in the car—steering my own ship through the highways of central Ohio—and I can’t tell you how many turns I missed that month because I was wrapped up in an epic sea battle. So, if you also like tales of watery adventure, piracy, and ropes (a lot of ropes), give this one a try. I’ll likely revisit these characters when I next feel like knocking random people’s hats off.
In this fantasy novel, the first in a series, a teenaged girl comes of age in a world that’s suddenly not the one she thought she knew. It’s way more interesting.
I don’t want to reveal too much, but watching Kendra realize that her hallucinations are actually a view into the world as it really is—full of magic and creatures and alternate realities—is a delight. The reader cheers for her throughout the story as she discovers more and more people in her life are in on the deception, and she faces down threats without fully understanding her own power or theirs.
There’s no way to avoid being drawn in to the world with her, watching her figure out the rules, possibilities, and limitations while learning to trust her own instincts.
The author (who, full disclosure, is a personal friend of mine) does a great job at revealing this magical realm slowly, giving readers the outline of its hierarchy and purpose without delving too deep into the mechanics. I don’t often read series—too much of a commitment—so this slow reveal confused me at first. I finished the book with question marks still around what this all means for Kendra and what she’s ultimately capable of. But, of course, I’ll have to read the next two or three forthcoming books for that part of the story!
And I will continue with this series. Kendra is too likeable, and the world too threatening, to abandon her after Book One. I look forward to enjoying Book Two as much as I enjoyed Book One!
Mrs. Dalloway is one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing. This most recent read was not the first and won’t be the last. Like The Great Gatsby, this is a novel I’ll revisit over and over again throughout my life, gleaning new perspectives and a new respect for it every time.
What do I love? The balance of detail between physical actions and internal monologue, including how one influences the other. The empathetic rendering of not just the POV characters, but every character, so you feel exactly what they’re feeling, in the full context of their lives. The contrast between Clarissa’s life and Septimus’s life, both so important, so essential, although not in obvious ways. The weaving together of their storylines throughout this single day in London. Their reactions to love, to ambition, to societal expectations. Their interactions with the secondary characters, and the secondary characters’ reactions to them, which we also see in stunningly honest detail. And so much more.
I reached out for Mrs. Dalloway on instinct, like looking for a rocky outcropping after a shipwreck, as antidote to the state Ulysses left me in. Of course, Woolf was reading Ulysses while writing this, so that’s no coincidence. Although scholars, and even friends, may disagree, I think these two show Woolf’s blatant superiority to Joyce. He may have written an “important” novel, but it’s unreadable and unrelatable.
Woolf shows that, as a skillful, careful writer, she can tell a deeply personal story about a single day through multiple first-person accounts and make it enjoyable and emotional. Not just readable, it’s re-readable, over and over.
Having such trouble lately finishing a novel, I set about browsing for something entirely different for me. Dodgers pulled me in and kept me engaged (and talking about it) from beginning to end. What a great surprise!
I found Dodgers through my library’s audiobook app when browsing through the African-American Literature section. It wasn’t until today, novel completed, I discovered that the author, Bill Beverly, is a white man. That may say something about his ear or my ignorance, I’m not sure. And I’m not sure how that knowledge would have changed my enjoyment of the story. Just wanted to mention it here for context.
The novel follows East, a young African-American kid who runs a crew standing yard by a drug house in Los Angeles. (Take that, Henry James.) East is conscientious in the way you’d want your accountant or lawyer to be—focused on every detail and driven to accomplish his goals, although maybe a little humorless. East’s boss sends him and three other boys in a van to Wisconsin to commit a murder. No cell phones, no credit cards, no weapons (in theory), just each other.
Of course, it all goes wrong. Or it goes right in the very worst ways. The amazing thing about the narrative is that it’s mostly a slow, cross-country road trip that’s packed with tension. Knowing what they’re going to do, every encounter is spiked with risk. And seeing their amazement at what America outside LA looks like leaves the reader wondering how they’re ever going to know how to go unnoticed once they finish their mission.
The author must average one metaphor per sentence when describing the land that East and the others travel through, but it's effective. And staying as close as he does to East’s POV is effective too. East may not be the smartest character or the most fun or the most violent, and he likely has a concussion for part of the trip. But his eyes don’t miss much. He’s constantly analyzing every situation, sizing up the risks and guessing at others’ motivations. This is how he has survived in LA. But will it be enough for Wisconsin? Or Iowa? Or Ohio?
If modern crime novels have this sort of character-focused, slow-burn tension, I’ll start reading more of them!
One does not simply *read* Ulysses. Because Ulysses is not simply a book. It’s in the format of a book, but I think that has more to do with the technology of the time than a conscious attempt by Joyce to find the medium that best expressed the artistic vision he had. Today, I imagine it would be some kind of interactive website or even museum space, filled with video, lights, music, and maybe some hallucinogens.
One needs a strategy for tackling Ulysses. A friend of mine swears she read Ulysses, in print, one summer while following along with Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated. She says she really enjoyed it, and that the 640+ pages of fine-print annotations made her feel like she was doing the detective work needed to fully understand the context of Ulysses. She’s likely both more intelligent and more patient than I am, because trying that made me feel like I was going insane. I couldn't get myself to care about the biographies and geographies and histories of every real and imaginary reference, some of which I’m pretty sure were supposed to be a joke anyway.
Since finishing this marathon, I’ve found that most other people who claim to love Ulysses took a class, usually during their undergraduate years, with a professor who almost exclusively studies the book. This intense, semester-long focus led by a knowledgeable and experienced tour guide seems to help make the whole thing more bearable. I imagine it’s a gift to have someone to tell you which parts of the text you can safely skip and which have something really interesting happening just under the surface. But if a book needs an expert guide to be made tolerable, then can it really be considered a “good” book? What about all the readers out there who don’t have first-hand access to such an expert?
I eventually developed my own strategy. I got the audiobook on CD from the library (with much thanks to Columbus Metropolitan Library for letting me keep it for 6 months!) and listened to it during my commute every day… or every day I could while still avoiding the temptation to drive my car into a river. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and this is the first one I recall with an intro explaining the process behind its creation. Apparently, Joyce’s heirs would only release the rights for the audiobook if Donal Donnelly was the narrator (he does a pretty great job), and the production staff spent way longer than usual on research and notes to figure out how the text should be read aloud. I can’t imagine it could be done any better than what Recorded Books managed to pull off. This made it much easier to keep up with the sound effects, songs, and dialogue than the printed text would have allowed.
Near the beginning of each episode, I also read the summary and analysis on SparkNotes. (Hey, if it’s good enough for Bob Dylan’s Nobel speech…) Really, this was invaluable to me. I could keep up with the incremental plot movements and character interactions without getting too frustrated with the layers and layers of obscurity piled on top of them by this sadistic author. OK, maybe I still got a little frustrated. But having a broad understanding of each episode in advance helped me push through.
As a novel, Ulysses is miserable. The characters don’t develop, many of them are indistinct from one another, and they don’t have stakes or goals. They mostly just get drunk, complain about the state of Irish culture all day, and entertain deeply repressed thoughts about sex. The plot is barely worth mentioning. The writing is (intentionally) inconsistent, obscure, and overwrought. You’re as likely to encounter a fart joke as a reference to Jesuit philosophers. There’s a whole chapter that critiques Hamlet, and another in which the main character masturbates in public. It’s a mess.
And the women characters are the worst. It made me wonder if Joyce had ever really spent time listening to a woman, let alone understanding her in any significant way. The very very few female characters exist entirely through a man’s lens. Even when the narration enters their heads (even Molly’s), they define themselves entirely by the attention they draw from men based on how they look and act and speak.
But I get why Ulysses is considered important. Joyce shows off a wide range of writing styles here, and he does all of them well (although I’m admittedly more familiar with some than others). It’s impressive that all these words and tones came from a single author. If Ulysses were turned into some kind of epic movie or mini-series, you’d need a different director for each episode; one person alone could not capture what makes Ulysses unique. That doesn’t mean it’s worth reading, just that it’s “important.”
I actually finished Ulysses in July, but I'm just now finishing this review. In a week or so, I’ll post my rather grumpy plot summary of Ulysses here. Stay tuned!
In this deeply honest book, Evan J. Peterson introduces and defends PrEP while laying bare his sexual anxieties and exploring how PrEP has helped them. Through short personal stories, we learn about his experience of being a gay man born into the era of AIDS and the relief of seeing a way out of the nightmare. Many readers, I suspect, won’t have much knowledge of PrEP before reading this, and it serves as a great introduction.
Full disclosure: I’ve been friends with Evan since we met at Florida State University, and I’m a straight cis woman, and I didn’t know about PrEP (or even HIV-pos undetectable status) until Evan started writing about it.
Why didn’t I know about PrEP? Evan points out that HIV has become un-newsworthy as treatment options have improved. HIV is not the death sentence it was when Evan and I were growing up. Our attention on disease has moved on to Ebola and zika, our fundraising efforts to cancer research, our demographic judgments to opioid addiction. In the straight community (still dominant, despite concerns that Pride celebrations have become too mainstream), there’s just not much concern about HIV anymore. And in a lot of ways, that’s a good thing! Thirty years ago, few of us imagined that medicine would have come so far in treating—and now preventing—HIV. What we gave up is keeping the disease in the conversation so we’d know of advancements like PrEP.
Beyond PrEP, this is a sexual memoir. To a straight, cis girl like me, raised in the same era and similar culture as Evan, gay sex was one of those things that all the kids joked about, but I doubt that most of us knew exactly what was involved. With other shaming prohibitions against porn, masturbation, and sexual experimentation, there wasn’t a lot of room to even ask questions. Evan’s open and honest narrative covers not only the technical details of his sexual experiences, but also the anxieties, awkward moments, and uncertainties that formed his understanding of what it meant/means to be a gay man.
I highly recommend this book. Share it with your friends. Use it as a conversation opener to talk about PrEP and HIV. Use it as an opener to talk about sex. Let it help you work through those questions you were too shy to ask. And enjoy Evan’s open—and often funny—take on the experiences that have shaped his life.
One Summer provides a rather comprehensive view of America in 1927, with a special focus on New York, Boston, and Chicago. Bryson does a great job of providing the background information you need to make sense of the summer's news stories, and he lets you know how things turned out in the long run.
The book includes a lot of details that feel very well researched. The narrative-style stories are supported by data--pounds of food served, tickets sold, money made, hours in flight, home runs hit by various people and teams, etc.--that got a little overwhelming in the audio version, but probably work better in the print version.
The two men that really anchor the book (and who had incredible summers) are Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh. I also learned a lot about Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Jack Dempsey as well as, to a lesser extent, Henry Ford, Sacco and Vanzetti, Al Capone, and many more.
In many ways, hearing the stories of 1927 put today's news stories in perspective. Things have been worse in America. Racism and antisemitism ran rampant. Prohibition was still the law of the land. Floods overwhelmed both sides of the Mississippi. Bombs regularly blew up public officials' homes, and the murder rates were higher than they are today. But most criminals went free because forensic science was not nearly as advanced. Journalists desperate to increase circulation printed whatever sensational story they thought would sell, regardless of the truth. Although most people didn't know it yet, the economy was about to crash devastatingly. In 1927, most people had grown up in an America that was constantly lagging behind Europe in innovation and cultural importance, even though America had most of the gold. And yet, the faceless throngs, which seemed to gather spontaneously around any notable event, feel optimistic.
If you know anyone who's been alive since 1927, think of all they've been through, of everything that has changed in the last 90 years.
And, next time the world feels like it's ending, look at how far we've come and how far we could still make it in the next 90 years.
Best. State. Ever. is a very funny book that taught me a couple important things.
Well, now I'm one of them (grown-ups, that is). My eyes have stopped rolling quite so dramatically when Margaritaville comes on, and I can crack up while reading Dave Barry. Life goes on.
The funniest part of the book by far is the Introduction. Hearing him explain exactly what makes Florida great had me laughing so frequently that my husband put in headphones so he could focus on a much more serious book across the room.
After covering a brief history of Florida from the state's emergence from the ocean through the 1980s, when the Wikipedia article trails off, Barry offers brief travel essays from some of the more Florida-specific activities still available today. The best essays are the ones in which Barry is along for the ride: Key West, LIV (Miami nightclub), and Lock & Load Miami, but also Weeki Wachee, Spongeorama, and even The Villages. The essay on Cassadaga seemed like a missed opportunity, because Barry wasn't able to suspend his disbelief enough to enjoy himself. This is also a problem when he's hunting for the Skunk Ape, except that he obviously develops a deep respect for the person leading the hunt, and the essay becomes a reflection on a nearly extinct way of life unique to Florida.
I think, but I'm not sure, the humor of this book would translate to people who aren't from Florida. After all, I've only actually been to two of the places he visits. But I can tell you that everything in here rings true and gives a good picture of "Real Florida." And that's coming from someone who voluntarily moved away from the state and has no plans to move back! Every state should support a resident Dave Barry.
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