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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What I’m Reading: Underground Railroad and News of the world.

I haven’t reviewed a single book I have read for my own enjoyment yet this year. Yikes. I have been busy writing lots of reviews for Booklist though.

Call it spring cleaning but I am going to try to focus on reviews in the coming days, and I will be pairing them. Some of the pairs will be obvious readalikes but others will not.  All will be linked for a reason which I will explain though. Reviews won’t be every day, but they will be frequent in the next week to ten days.

Today I am getting started with two books I read at the start of the year, Every year I begin the year with the “best” books from the previous year which I didn’t get to. In this case there were two. I am pairing them today because of that reason which for some readers, myself included, makes them readalikes, but based on a more traditional appeal based readalike algorithm they would not be.

I make this point to remind you that people have a variety of reasons as to why they like the books they like. Yes, often we are looking for books with a similar feel, but also it is important to remember that some more arbitrary reasons make books readalikes for each other.

Treat each reader and their needs as unique and make sure to find out exactly what they are looking for as they finish one book and begin another.

Here we go...

First up, the most decorated book of the year, Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Summary from Goodreads:
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood - where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted. 
In Whitehead's ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor - engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar's first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven - but the city's placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom. 
As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman's ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.
Appeal: The first thing I want to point out is the least obvious from the summary-- Cora. Cora is an amazing protagonist. Whitehead writes her in a way that allows us to dissolve into her-- or maybe saying she dissolves into us is more accurate. She is a very specific woman with a very detailed history whose head we get deep inside of, but she is also an enigma. Whitehead does this deliberately so that the story can be both specific and universal at the same time. For me this was the biggest appeal of the story, Cora. I fell into her and didn’t want to leave, even when she made me take a long and hard look at myself and my country.

Cora’s story is one of America. She is not perfect, she makes mistakes [big and small], she has character flaws, but she wants to be free and wants to do the right thing. Like America itself, as the story ends, we are not sure what will happen to Cora in the future. She moves on. The first part of her journey-- to freedom-- is now over, but what she does with that, we won’t know.

Interestingly, however, we do learn the exact and specific fate of every other character. I loved this storytelling technique because it gave what is actually a fairly open story, a feeling of closure.

All of the characters are rich and interesting-- from the good ones to the bad guys and those in between [of which there are many], but it is not only character which drives this story. It is also fairly plot driven. Yes, the storyline is thought provoking with all of the frame of a good historical, but it is also full of suspense that keeps the narrative moving at a surprisingly quick pace. You want to know what is going to happen next. The action and anxiety of Cora and her comapnions' desperate attempts to stay free and alive keeps you turning the pages.

There is real danger and drama here, but there are also quiet moments that will stay with you long after you finish. For me, two examples are the descriptions of Cora’s work in a live diorama in a SC museum and her time hidden in a NC attic. Those scenes are descriptive and they say so much about the reality of our country and its history even though they could have never been.

Which reminds me, I need to address the alternative history aspects of this novel. Yes, Whitehead makes the Underground Railroad a real railroad, and imagines a south that did not exist; however, I would describe this alternative history aspect as more similar to magical realism. I know you can’t call it that because the alternative part is not magic at all, but in terms of how it reads, it had the lighter touch of magical realism as opposed to the heavier hand of alternative history.

The language here is also a huge appeal. It is lyrical, extremely descriptive, and captivating but not hard to read. The story flows even though the writing is lush. It is conversational and complex at the same time. It allows you to “live in the moment” of the story and/or contemplate the larger picture; it’s your choice.

This is the rare title that works for character driven, storyline driven, frame driven, and/or language driven readers. All can find and then focus on what they most enjoy here. I think this is also why it has been the most consensus best book of a year that we have had in a long time.

Three Words That Describe This Book: magical feel, thought-provoking, strong protagonist

Readalikes: There are many ways to go here. I am going to start with the setting-- the African American experience. For this I suggest Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. The way Whitehead and Gyasi are able to connect the stories of specific African American characters to tell an “everyman” story is remarkable. In both of these books get a portrait of a shared American history. It’s a specific perspective but it reflects upon our shared experience. You can click here to see more detail and to get some more readalikes [especially The Known World by Edward P. Jones]

Although it is set in the 1980s, I couldn’t stop thinking about Delicious Foods by James Hannaham while I was reading Underground Railroad. The unique storytelling choices, lyrical writing about difficult things and the strong protagonist from Delicious Foods reverberated in my head as I was reading Underground Railroad. Click through for my full review of the Hannaham novel which also has more readalikes.

Some people will really hone on on the alternative history aspects here. For me personally, they were more magical realism [as I already noted], but for those readers, there are plenty of options. The most obvious readalike is Ben H. Winters’ Underground Airlines. Reading these two novels in tandem would be a great reading experience. I would love to see a more adventurous book group give it a try.

For readers who are really into Alternative History, click here for an excellent resource.

Finally, for those who want more magical realism than alternative history set in a similar time period while still having compelling characters and lyrical prose should also try Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I am about to start this one on audio myself.

As I mentioned above my second review is extremely different from the first.  While Underground Railroad is lushly lyrical and magical, News of the World by Paulette Jiles is sparely lyrical and extremely realistic. I will explain more below but first, the summary from Goodreads:
In the aftermath of the American Civil War, an aging itinerant news reader agrees to transport a young captive of the Kiowa back to her people in this morally complex, multi-layered novel of historical fiction from the author of Enemy Women that explores the boundaries of family, responsibility, honor, and trust. 
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels through northern Texas, giving live readings from newspapers to paying audiences hungry for news of the world. An elderly widower who has lived through three wars and fought in two of them, the captain enjoys his rootless, solitary existence. 
In Wichita Falls, he is offered a $50 gold piece to deliver a young orphan to her relatives in San Antonio. Four years earlier, a band of Kiowa raiders killed Johanna’s parents and sister; sparing the little girl, they raised her as one of their own. Recently rescued by the U.S. army, the ten-year-old has once again been torn away from the only home she knows. 
Their 400-mile journey south through unsettled territory and unforgiving terrain proves difficult and at times dangerous. Johanna has forgotten the English language, tries to escape at every opportunity, throws away her shoes, and refuses to act “civilized.” Yet as the miles pass, the two lonely survivors tentatively begin to trust each other, forming a bond that marks the difference between life and death in this treacherous land. 
Arriving in San Antonio, the reunion is neither happy nor welcome. The captain must hand Johanna over to an aunt and uncle she does not remember—strangers who regard her as an unwanted burden. A respectable man, Captain Kidd is faced with a terrible choice: abandon the girl to her fate or become—in the eyes of the law—a kidnapper himself.
Appeal: The above plot summary is the perfect example of a long plot summary that tells you everything that happens yet doesn’t give away why someone would would read this book.

This is the perfect example a character centered novel. The point of the story isn’t the journey or even the awesome setting. Those are reasons you keep reading and they are entertaining, but it is the Captain who is the pulse of the story. The Captain’s thoughts, his life story, his personal journey are the reason you would read and enjoy this story.

One of my favorite things about this novel is that it is a contradiction of itself. This is a slim, quick read but it is very thoughtful and nuanced. Also, the protagonist, the Captain, and the landscape are both spare, with a hard exterior, but if you peel away the gritty top layer, both reveal a beautiful interior.

Here’s another one-- The captain doesn’t say much, but he is a master of language. He speaks to make money. By the way, of course people would pay for someone to read them the news. News was both hard to come by AND most were illiterate.  Reading about it was very interesting and I could totally picture scenes like the Captain’s reading happening.

More contradictions: The Captain is deeply flawed but a 100% admirable man. Johanna and the Captain are so completely different, yet he is the perfect guardian for her.

Finally, News of the World is unapologetically a Western in every sense of the genre. I have been saying for a little bit now that the Western is having a revival and with wonderful novels like this coming out, I think I may be correct.

Three Words That Describe This Book: character centered, strong sense of place, beautiful

Readalikes: Many readers may want to give more Westerns a try after enjoying News of the World. Here are a few options:
For people who want the same overall feel and a similar storyline but told on a longer, more saga length scale, try The Son by Philipp Meyer.

Other authors who use a strong Western setting to tell a character driven, compellingly paced story are Ivan Doig and Sandra Dallas.  

Finally, News of the World was the top Library Reads pick in October 2016. I post the library reads every month here on the blog. I also use these lists to help find sure bet reads for a wide range of readers. I am not kidding. I often just go to the site and pick a random month and year, start reading the annotations, and then suggest one of the titles to someone. It works really well. So, that means the entire database of Library Reads could be a potential readalike here too.

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