The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I so enjoyed seeing Colson Whitehead speak at TSU almost a year ago – it seems a little strange it’s taken me this long to get to this one!

The Underground Railroad is compelling, a story with momentum and imagination. I had forgotten that the underground railroad would turn out, in this book, as a literal railroad that runs underground: that was a fun surprise to experience. “Fun” is not precisely the right word for this book, though. It’s about slavery and the quest for freedom; there is little here that is light or fun.

The protagonist is Cora, a young enslaved woman who makes a run for it with a young man, Caesar, who she doesn’t know very well. It begins with a little prefacing history, of Cora’s grandmother and mother before her. Her mother escaped the Georgia plantation where she and Cora were born, never to be seen again. The ghost of that woman hangs over Cora’s decisions and her feelings about those around her.

Cora travels, with and without Caesar, through several states via the underground rails. We see the details of various stations on the railroad: this one beautified and furnished, this one bare, a statement about the hard work required to dig survival out of rock and earth. Cora asks, who built the railroad? And the response: “Who built anything in this country?”

Cora will continue to wonder about the hidden hands who contribute to the quest for a better life, even as that life eludes her in her travels. This is not particularly a story of redemption or of happily-ever-after. Each time Cora survives a brutal and shocking turn of events, she loses those she cares about, and cynically revises her hopes: how stupid (she thinks) she was to think it could get better. The places she gets to know along the way could be viewed as archetypes (remember from Whitehead’s talk that I heard something like this idea): the place where no Black person is suffered to live, where the streets are lined with hanging corpses; the place where life appears secure only on the surface; the place where all can contribute according to their abilities. These steps along the way are instructive. But the book does not necessarily end on a hopeful note.

There’s a bit here of something I watch out for in books like this, historical fiction featuring ordinary or marginalized people: Cora perhaps holds a bit more far-reaching wisdom of the world than someone with her life experience might be expected to have. For example, she observes slave labor replaced by cheap Irish immigrant labor, and muses that as the Irish supply runs out or goes out of fashion, another poor country will send its emigrants to form the next wave. This speculation about the poor countries of the world seems like a lot for a woman who’s lived her life on a Georgia plantation to come up with. It’s a clear temptation, especially with benefit of hindsight, to invest one’s apparently “ordinary” characters with special knowledge and wisdom.

I appreciated the range of characters. Most of the book is told from Cora’s perspective, but short interspersed chapters come from the points of view of secondary characters, including racist white ones. I imagine those chapters in particular might have been hard to right, but also interesting to write, and they enrich the book by complicating things. Not that the evil slavecatcher gets much sympathy; but hearing his inner thoughts makes him more real, more believable, and therefore more frightening. Complication, in literature, is always good.

I believe I expected this book to be magical realism, and I’m not entirely sure that’s my impression after reading it. There’s nothing here (that I noticed) that couldn’t happen in our real and non-magical world. The literal underground railroad would be a feat of engineering and supplies, but not strictly impossible. The good and bad luck (if we can call it that) Cora and others face certainly seems fantastical, but is in line with the well-documented true stories of enslaved people. That said, it was a vibrant, rich way of telling the story of slavery and struggle: one we’ve heard/read before but clearly aren’t done with. The railroad part was fascinating, nicely told. The characters were always intriguing. I think pacing may be the great feat of this book: I scarcely was able to look away once I was in it. Thank you, Colson Whitehead.


Rating: 7 stations.

The Gulf by Belle Boggs

Where a failing writer, ill-conceived for-profit education and the American political divide come together, the result is both funny and feeling.

The Gulf by Belle Boggs (The Art of Waiting) is a hilarious, pitiable, thoughtful first novel not to be missed. A rare combination of silliness and poignancy, with momentum and compassion, this is a story for every reader, but especially for struggling writers.

Marianne is desperately underemployed and about to lose her apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y., and her poetry manuscript has been long stalled. Eric, her best friend and ex-fiancé, has an annoyingly good job teaching overseas, as he works to complete the second novel in his two-book contract. When he calls from the United Arab Emirates with a business offer, Marianne wants to say no, but she has no other option.

Eric has inherited an aging motel on Florida’s Gulf Coast, and wants to realize an old college joke of Marianne’s: a low-residency writing school for Christian writers. Marianne, a liberal atheist, soon finds herself in business with Eric, his venture capitalist brother, Mark, and their silent partner, great-aunt Frances. Ensconced in the crumbling motel with occasional hurricanes passing through, Marianne doesn’t precisely want to fleece the applicants sending in embarrassing manuscripts, but she certainly could use the money.

What follows is part hilarity: Marianne and Eric flub their Bible references and flirt with hooking back up; the earnest students have no idea how a writing workshop is supposed to work; and the down-and-out instructors (all the Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch can attract, or afford) prove eccentrically dysfunctional in various ways. It’s part pathos: as real as Marianne’s struggle to complete her own manuscript is the troubled calling of Janine, poet, home economics teacher, mother of two, who writes about Terri Schiavo. Mark lands a big investor that specializes in for-profit education for the Christian market, but their intervention quickly upsets everyone involved. Marianne finds herself, against all odds, rooting for her students–those right-wing nuts she once laughed at. As the biggest storm of the year approaches the ramshackle Ranch, she’ll have to make a stand.

Boggs’s gifts are many. The Gulf‘s plot is inspired, even accounting for the arguable overabundance of novels about MFA program shenanigans. Perhaps the greatest genius is in her characters: Marianne, Eric, the writing instructor who can’t remember anyone’s name, the hotelier next door, Janine and the former R&B superstar now banking on an autobiographical novel to make his comeback. Each of these is perfectly developed and flawed just enough to be lovable, if hapless. The book hums along with fitting momentum, so that when the storm hits, the reader is entirely invested in this well-meaning but ill-fated crew. Redemption is a risky ambition, especially with inspirational writing, but Boggs pulls it off with The Gulf‘s denouement. This is a novel of keen comedy, insight and empathy.


This review originally ran in the March 8, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 applications.

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield

Recommended by a few friends. I find this one holds a few solid truths, but maybe didn’t need to be book-length.

Good lessons: Steven Pressfield (author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, Tides of War, and many more) argues that anyone trying to do a good or great thing, whether it’s art, activism, or entrepreneurship, faces Resistance. (His capitalization.) Resistance can be a guide: when we feel Resistance, it means we should push in that direction; that’s where we’re meant to go, where we want on some level to go. (He points out that where there is Resistance, there is love – meaning our love or passion for the pursuit in question.) Fear is a sign of Resistance. We must undertake that which we fear. That’s Book One.

Book Two covers how to combat Resistance: by Turning Pro. This means treating our art, or whatever it is, as our day job. Treating it as our day job. (He is chiefly concerned with art, as his title suggests, and most chiefly with writing, because that’s what he knows.) In other words: take your work seriously (butt in chair, no excuses, etc.).

Book Three is concerned with what Pressfield calls angels, or we might call the Muse, or inspiration. It argues that certain strategies may be undertaken to make way for the Muse, to invite her in and make her feel comfortable. He quotes that common line from Somerset Maugham (?): “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” Actually he quotes this line in Book Two, but I think it fits in Book Three just as well. They build on each other, being, you know, all one book.

These are all good points, but even at just 165 pages and loads of white space, I think they could have been made a bit more succinctly. There are some instructive anecdotes: the Maugham quotation (which is likely misattributed), the winds of Aeolus (lesson about not stopping before the finish line), Henry Fonda’s fear (lesson: we all have it always), and a fun one about how great Lance Armstrong is (this book was published before his accomplishments were so besmirched). But there are also some instances of what I’ll call cuteness. “The professional endures adversity. He lets the birdshit splash down on his slicker, remembering that it comes clean with a heavy-duty hosing.” “If you’re in Calcutta working with the Mother Theresa Foundation and you’re thinking of bolting to launch a career in telemarketing…” I don’t know. There’s a thin line, perhaps, between useful examples and cutesiness. Personally, I feel it’s crossed here.

If this all sounds a little self-helpy, it did to me too. And the back cover’s a dead giveaway.

In the best self-helpy traditions, Pressfield calls upon God to back him up. “If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius.” Again as a purely personal reaction, no thank you to the God stuff.

To be clear, I found myself turning Resistant to this book as early as Book One. Pressfield asks that we banish “trouble” from our lives, which seems to include the troubles of others (there’s a separate heading for self-dramatization, but they are clearly linked), which feels a little like cutting off the loved ones who need our support now and again; he’s against support, too. He allows that depression and anxiety “may” be real, but the other disorders were created by a marketing department. This is not a man you need in your personal life, friends. He “may” be a bit toxic.

There are good points here, to be sure. But the packaging was not precisely to my taste. Your mileage may vary.


Rating: 5 troubles to be avoided.

The Way Home: Tales from a Life Without Technology by Mark Boyle

This memoir about living off the grid and tech-free in County Galway will inspire, connect and slow down the most impatient of readers, and that is a very good thing.

Mark Boyle was The Moneyless Man in his memoir of that title, about the first of three years he spent living without money. The Way Home: Tales from a Life Without Technology covers another first year: Boyle has now made the shift to a life without modern technology in County Galway, Ireland. What is modern technology? Obviously, definitions are complicated, but for Boyle his new way of living means hauling his own water; fishing, foraging and gardening for his food; making his own beer and wine; and traveling by bicycle, by hitchhiking and on foot. (He beats himself up about monofilament fishing line but, within the book’s timeline, has not yet found an alternative.)

Organized as the diary of a year in its four seasons, The Way Home is a thoughtful study, often wise but always questioning and seeking. With frequent references to Edward Abbey, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Robert Macfarlane, Wendell Berry, Henry David Thoreau and others, Boyle places himself in a grand tradition of intellectual naturalists and thinkers. He also makes repeated forays (both literally and in imagination and research) to Great Blasket Island, an unusually literary place where a technology-free lifestyle only recently ended. He aims to query every decision, investigate its outcomes: while writing this book using a pencil, he stops to consider the making of that tool–its wood and graphite and paint, the extraction of these materials and the transportation of the workers who made it. Boyle, stymied by the ecological impact of such a simple technology as a pencil, is a former vegan who now eats fish and venison. He is a man willing to rethink his outlook.

Boyle has a sense of humor as well as a deep sensitivity to the needs of people as well as the planet and its ecosystems. “Rome,” he reflects, “wasn’t demolished in a day,” as he gardens with the (plastic) tools available and plans for the future. His writing style is pensive and unhurried. His lifestyle is in many ways “slow,” as in slow food and slow transportation, and he observes that writing by hand after a longtime addiction to computers has slowed his thought processes, for the better. “Just as carpenters always recommend measuring twice and cutting once, I’ve begun thinking twice and writing once.”

The result is a deeply appealing examination of nearly all aspects of modern human life, by a thorough, careful, concerned narrator. Readers already considering various forms of disconnection from modern technologies–in favor of a reconnection with local plants, animals, soil and people–will be goaded and inspired. Those less attracted to composting their own feces will nonetheless be entranced by Boyle’s unusual lifestyle, and perhaps moved a little closer to the earth.


This review originally ran in the March 5, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 scythe blades.

Shipping Container by Craig Martin

Another in the Object Lessons series, and I was rather excited about this one, because boxes and containerization are among my obsessions. But alas, Shipping Container let me down.

It starts out with promise: Craig Martin sits writing in a shipping container, “looking out over the dramatic landscape of Loch Long” in Scotland. I was pleased to encounter, on page 5, Donald Judd’s box-inspired and boxlike artwork (having just recently seen some Judd out in the West Texas desert) – somehow this coincidence felt both surprising and nearly inevitable. I was charmed to consider the statement that “things control our behavior, mediating how we travel from A to B, or open a door for example.” When Martin muses about the container as building component, its crossover uses, and its wide-reaching implications for shipping, globalization, and economics, I lean forward with interest.

Unfortunately, he quickly leaves dramatic landscapes and crossovers behind in favor of research, acronyms, and jargon-heavy theory (economic, strategic, logistical, tactical, and yawn). For this reader, there’s nothing wrong with research or acronyms, and not much wrong with theory, as long as it’s leavened with some of that dramatic landscape… or personality… or narrative. I kept reading, hoping that Martin would shift gears and reward me with something interesting, some whimsy, some surprise. But no.

He has a tendency to use 40 words where ten would do, as when he describes some of the finer points of smuggling: “Crucially, it is the ability to conceal such practices that is paramount. As described earlier, the use of false floors in containers is intended to make the container appear absolutely normal, should it ever be opened by Customs or security officials. Evidence of tampering is decisive, particularly the attempts by smugglers to conceal evidence of interference with containers themselves.” In other words, smugglers like to hide the fact that they are smuggling. I got impatient.

An overlong chapter on smuggling and security ends with the observation: “the ISO shipping container is an incredibly convenient box in which to move things, be they legal or not.” I spared you the first 28 words of that sentence, and look how neatly it concludes. Those 19 words, in fact, could sum up not only the chapter but the book.

You can see I got a bit prickly about Shipping Container. What I loved most about Sock and Souvenir was how widely they ranged over their subjects, how they let the simple sock or souvenir mean so many different things – how they surprised me. Here, I found a dry discussion of the shipping industry over time, with a few tantalizing tidbits at the very end about “cargotecture,” or shipping containers as building material again. (Me, I’ve seen container homes; drank beer in a container brewery; and used to race at a velodrome that stored its track bikes in containers onsite. This is not a new or surprising use of shipping containers. The surprise, if anything, was that this phenomenon didn’t receive more coverage.) I’m sorry to be so negative, but I haven’t much good to say. I wish I’d put this one down without finishing it, as I did Matthew Battles’s Tree. Not every Object Lesson is for me. Your mileage may vary.


Rating: 3 internecine discussions.

Galley Love of the Week: The Whisper Man by Alex North

Be among the first to read The Whisper Man by Alex North, a Shelf Awareness Galley Love of the Week. Presented on Mondays, GLOW selects books that have not yet been discovered by booksellers and librarians, identifying the ones that will be important hand-selling titles in a future season.

Alex North’s The Whisper Man will leave readers every bit as sleepless and spooked as is young Jake Kennedy, a boy who knows too much about the world around him, a world where a killer who’s been locked up for 20 years now has a copycat. In the alternating perspectives of precocious Jake, his novelist father, a grizzled police detective, an ambitious younger detective and others, this thriller conveys both simple terror and complex psychological twists. Ryan Doherty, executive editor at Celadon, notes, “What makes this one special is the incredible father-son relationship at its core–a relationship that transcends the genre and gives the novel a true beating heart.”

Galley Love of the Week, or GLOW, is a feature from Shelf Awareness. This edition ran here.

The Absent Hand: Reimagining Our American Landscape by Suzannah Lessard

This broad social-historical consideration of American landscapes will satisfy and challenge the most serious reader.

Suzannah Lessard (The Architect of Desire) offers a broad cultural examination of place in The Absent Hand: Reimagining Our American Landscape. The result is a work of great scope that’s grounded by an interest in landscapes, the forces that shape them and how they in turn reshape us. Lessard chases big mysteries. “Always behind my readings of landscapes are the questions, Where are we…? and What is our relationship to our surroundings now?”

Lessard begins with a close description of “the village” where she lives near Albany, N.Y. She then travels outward, to visit a nearby friend and consider suburbophobia, and therefore the history of the suburbs–as foil to the city, as military defense concept, as commercial center, as “edge city.” Having considered terms like sprawl, metropolitan area, edgeless or stealth city and more, Lessard uses “atopia” to refer to landscapes “where contemporary development, directly expressing contemporary times, was unrestrained.” She is also quite interested in “online” as a place, from its origins in Cold War strategy through the option it provides as escape from real places.

Lessard is at her best when handling the ways place and people interact (Disney’s attempt to build a history theme park just south of Washington, D.C.), and on shakier ground when handling larger issues (market forces versus governmental powers). One of her finest chapters considers a mall in King of Prussia, Pa., and the tensions and challenges facing shopping malls across the country.

As Lessard shows, Cold War policy, the Depression, the legacy of slavery, racist housing policies, nuclear armament and more have all played roles in the development of the suburb and the contemporary landscape. Mixed in with these references, Lessard often cites works of art–Van Gogh, Shakespeare, Han vases–as means to understand place.

Lessard can speak from a place of economic comfort that may grate some readers, but the value of her decades of research is undeniable. The Absent Hand is often dense, as Lessard draws upon centuries of human history to make her arguments. In this ambitious work, place is examined, deconstructed and incrementally illuminated, even as our landscape changes anew.


This review originally ran in the February 19, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 paintings.
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