Sunday, January 29, 2017

Underground Railroad (by Colson Whitehead)

I read and loved Underground Airlines last year, but Underground Railroad is the one that has been getting all the accolades and is of course on the Tournament of Books shortlist. I decided as a point of comparison, I would read it.

I hesitate to use the word "entertaining" to describe a book about slavery, or to imply that I need "entertainment" in my books about slavery. But Underground Airlines was entertaining and a bit of a page-turner -- although I don't think it shied away from the implications of its premise. Underground Railroad was more of a painful experience, so more difficult to read. That's not a criticism, by the way -- but a difference in my experience of each. 

Both of them are slightly alternate histories, though Railroad's is more subtle -- the only change is that the railroad is a literal railroad, with tracks and trains and tunnels, that aids Cora on her attempt to run away from plantation life and find freedom in the South.

It wasn't until the end of the book that I actually got why there was a literal railroad, and it was at that point that my mind was totally blown: Cora herself is a metaphor for the bridge between slavery and present-day America, showing that the damage of slavery is clearly alive and well in the black experience today. That is not a huge surprise, thematically, but the final chapter made both Cora and the railroad more overtly metaphorical than at any point earlier in the book.  And of course, then you know how Cora's story turns out, and it's the story of black America. Cora's life becomes all black lives. It is a brilliant conclusion.

However, I would still rank this below some of the other recent books I've read on the same theme, notably The Good Lord Bird, The Sellout, and yes, Underground Airlines.  For me, the brilliant ending was not enough brilliance to carry me through the painful, and somewhat predictable, and somewhat underdeveloped meat of the story. I expect this to go far in the Tournament of Books, but maybe not win. I'll be interested in the commentary, however!

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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (by Benjamin Alire Saenz)

Recommended by the Goodreads RHC group in the category of "YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+."

I really enjoyed this. The writing is sparse and dialogue-heavy, and reminds me of Paula Danzinger.  It's not my favorite style, and it's a little odd when letters are presented in the same style as Aristotle's internal narration, but I went with it and ultimately it worked for me. Ari is a wonderful, complex character. I enjoyed the exploration of sexuality and of culture (the boys are both Mexican-American, and they each grapple with what that means).  And I found the ending very moving. 

SPOILERS BELOW

I'm still pondering the significance of setting this in the late 1980s and not addressing AIDS at all with any of the characters. In fact, all four parents are pretty accepting, even encouraging, of their sons potentially being gay.  I found each character individually persuasive, but it struck me as anachronistic.  Then I wondered why not just set it in the present-day and avoid the anachronism. And then I thought maybe Saenz had a reason for approaching it this way.  I'm curious to know what others who read it thought about it.  (A quick Google search shows me that it's not just me.)

Anyway, overall, thumbs up on this!

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Sunday, January 15, 2017

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl (by Mona Awad)

This linked set of short stories was on the Tournament of Books longlist, but didn't make the shortlist.  But as a linked collection of short stories, it qualifies as a Read Harder Challenge book. And regardless of what list it's on or not on, I am so glad I read it!

If you've ever been a fat girl, you will relate to these stories so hard.  Unflinchingly honest and unafraid of portraying Lizzie as an object of attraction as well as ridicule, the stories delve into her deep insecurities as well as her deep strengths.  The early stories (before there is a weight loss narrative) resonated the most deeply with me,  but the later stories reminded me wonderfully of Jen Larsen's Stranger Here, equally honest and well-written, and equally resistant to the narrative of fat = bad, skinny = good that Awad is grappling with here.

My only criticism is that the ending seemed abrupt -- the stories do form an overall narrative, and it seemed to end with more of Lizzie's story to be told.  I didn't need 100% pat resolution, but a tiny bit more than what we got would have been satisfying. But that's a quibble. I really enjoyed this.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Tales of the City (by Armistead Maupin)


My first selection for the Read Harder Challenge*, this book fits the category of "Set within 100 miles of your location."

I enjoyed finally getting a chance to read this groundbreaking novel, and I can see why its frank portrayal of gay life was such a revelation at the time.  As a novel, it's really dialogue heavy and very short on description -- which made me want to see the famed miniseries version, more than anything else. It's a fast, breezy read filled with terrific characters whose lives overlap in a string of implausible coincidences. Entertaining and charming.

In keeping with the RHC category, I also adored all the references to towns all over the Bay Area, not just locations in SF, but all over. I'm not sure if I'll delve into the rest of the series, although this was written and published in the '70s, so I am curious how and when the AIDS crisis impacts our cast of characters.  But I'm going to turn my attention to the Tournament of Books longlist (and soon, I hope, the shortlist) and keep further Tales of the City for future reading enjoyment.

*As a side note, if I re-read Go Tell It on the Mountain, it would check off five categories on this list.  I feel like I can find one that does even better, though. (Not that I want to knock off the list that easily.) 

[ ] Debut novel
[ ] Book you’ve read before
[ ] Classic by an author of color.
[ ] A book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey
[ ] A book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color

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Tuesday, January 03, 2017

As You Wish (by Cary Elwes)

As you may suspect, this is a memoir of the filming of The Princess Bride by Westley himself. I got this in hardcover last Christmas and mostly wanted to get it off my bookshelf! But it was an enjoyable holiday read. 

The intro starts off a little shaky (the overuse of adverbs is truly astonishing) but I think the ghostwriting kicked in, and then it was an enjoyable and quick read. It includes reminiscences from the rest of the cast, which I loved.  Bill Goldman and Wallace Shawn are apparently completely neurotic. Andre the Giant drank wine by the case. Mandy Patinkin and Elwes went through an astonishing amount of training for that incredible swordfight. And there are strong hints that Westley and Buttercup got it on in their trailers between takes.

Definitely a fun read if you enjoy this film!

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