Tag Archives: Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

Back at the start of the year, I was delighted to be asked by the wonderful women who organised the brilliant DiverseAThon (an initiative to make people read more widely and diversely over a week and then hopefully for even longer) and I leapt at the chance. Part of the week of reading involved a group read of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. This was a book I’d had on my shelf a while and been meaning to get to because the premise sounded so interesting, taking the figurative ‘underground railroad’ which was a network of safe houses that many slaves escaped their confines from (by 1850 it was estimated over 100,000 slaves had used it to escape) and turning it a real physical railroad, underground. I was both intrigued and slightly nervous about how someone would give slavery this speculative twist and how it would work. Yet we need to try things that make us a little nervous, don’t we? Plus, I was hosting the twitter discussion around the book and so on I read.

Fleet Books, paperback, 2016, fiction, 400 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I am always encouraged when a novel takes me straight into the heart of its own story. No preamble, no waffle, let’s just get on with it. (Somewhat ironic because preamble and waffle could be two of my middle names.) Carlson Whitehead does this with The Underground Railroad as we are taken directly into the life of Cora, a young woman living on plantation in Georgia. To use the word ‘hard’ for Cora’s situation would be a huge understatement. As we follow her daily life we are taken back to the witness both the escape of her mother which left Cora abandoned and to fend for heslef as well as the abuse she receives from some of those enslaved with her as well as the treatment. Cora’s life is a difficult one to read, Whitehead rightly writing about it in its full spectrum of horror, yet we can barely even grasp how horrendous that life must have been to live.

A feeling settled over Cora. She had not been under its spell in years, since she brought the hatchet down on Blake’s doghouse and sent the splinters into the air. She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o-nine-tails. Bodies alive roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft. She had seen boys and girs younger than this beaten and had done nothing. This night the feeling had settled on her heart again. It grabbed hold of her and before the slave apart of her caught up with the human part of her, she was bent over the boy’s body as a shield. She held the cane in her left hand like a swamp man handling a snake and saw the ornament at its tip. The silver wolf bared its silver teeth. Then the cane was out of her hand. It came down on her head. It crashed down again and this time the silver teeth ripped across her eyes and her blood splattered the dirt.

Yet after an act of rebellion a fire that seems to have been building in Cora’s soul, no matter how many awful things are done to supress it, an unlikey friendship with a fellow slave, Caesar, soon leads to a plan to escape on The Underground Railroad, a train that will lead them to another city and hopefully freedom. Here the novel goes from a tale of horrors to a tale of glimmer of hope and adventure as they plot and figure out just how to make their great escape.

They met at the schoolhouse, by the milk house after the work there was done, wherever they could. Now that she had cast her lot with him and his scheme, she bristled with ideas. Cora suggested they wait for the full moon. Caeser countered that after Big Anthony’s escape the overseers and bosses had increased their scrutiny and would be extra vigilant on the full moon, the white beacon that so often agitated the with a mind to run. No, he said. He wanted to go as soon as possible. The following night. The waxing moon would have to suffice. Agents of the underground railroad would be waiting.

It is at this point that Whitehead brings us The Underground Railroad itself. Interestingly as you are reading up to this point you feel a strange kind of anticipation, delight and marvel at its arrival from beneath a desolate building under a dusty trapdoor where nothing but a barren station seems to be waiting. Here, Whitehead does something really interesting both in terms of the device of the railroad and the plot. You see the railroad is at once somehow magical and impossible yet very much real. The only way to describe it, which seems such a cop out in some ways, is as a speculative being. Not because we know that it didn’t ‘literally’ exist but because the railroad never really knows where it is going to take you. It could whisk you to Mexico or Canada and safety (I found this particulatly poignant considering America’s current president and his immigration and refugee rhetoric) or it could find you in somewhere much less hospitable. It is a magical lottery or a dangerous game of chance.

As Cora heads north, you might think that the story is going to become a tale of her arriving at the next destination and setting up a comfortable new life. Whitehead has far more in store for her than that taking us from one destination to another and in doing so depicting a much broader and also all the more unnerving vision of America at the time. From one stop in a small town she would have been better not to have ended up in, to a city which seems so pristine and hopeful and yet has some very dark secrets hiding behind its seemingly forward thinking and accepting façade.

Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood. With the surgeries that Dr. Stevens described, Cora thought, the whites had begun stealing futures in earnest. Cut you open and rip them out, dripping. Because that’s what you do when you take away someone’s babies – steal their future. Torture them as much as you can when they are on this earth, then take away the hope that one day their people will have it better.

I will only add one small thing here in terms of plot as I really feel to best experience Cora’s story is to simply go on this journey (sorry, I hate that expression) with her. However, I do have to add that what I found wonderful about this book is the characters, be they at the forefront or in the background no matter how long they are in the novel for. Whitehead manages to capture the essence of the slaves, those who sympathised with them and wanted to help them and those who hated them and wanted to capture, own and punish them. From a couple who risk everything to help Cora, to Ridgeway an utterly contemptible man – one of those villains you really, really, really love to hate and adds a Victorian-like cat and mouse element to the book. From a character who appears for the briefest of times (I won’t give their name away but I will say I wept at their exit from the tale) to Cora herself who is one of those lead characters who just has your heart from the start.

The Underground Railroad is a fantastic book. Brimming with both the horrors and hopes of life. My slight quibble, and it is slight yet something I felt, might be that I would have liked another stop or two on the underground railroad but then how much can any character or reader endure in one book? See, very slight quibble. It is not often I say a book should be a staple read in everyone’s literary diet but as Obama has already done so with this book I feel I can. Whilst creating a brilliantly written gripping tale of adventure Whitehead reminds us unflinchingly of the horrors of slavery and the past which provides a dark mirror to what is going on in America now. The Underground Railroad feels at once like a contemporary new voice and take on this subject whilst also being part of the rich existing canon of fiction around the subject.

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Filed under Colson Whitehead, Fleet Publishing, Review

The Man Booker Prize Longlist 2017

I know I said that the relaunch of Savidge Reads would be next week, however one of the  most common comments from those of you who have done the feedback survey (which I posted earlier in the week and would love even more of you to fill in, you might win some books if you do) was that people loved hearing about prizes on here. So with that in mind here is the Man Booker longlist for 2017 which has not long been announced…

MB2017 BookStack

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber)
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Ireland) (Faber & Faber)
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan-UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Ireland) (Canongate)
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (UK) (4
th Estate)
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals)
The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (India) (Hamish Hamilton)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury)
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (UK-Pakistan) (Bloomsbury)
Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
Swing Time by Zadie Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (US) (Fleet)

What do I think of it? Well my initial thoughts (as I am literally typing this moments after the list going live) is that it is an interesting list if not a wholly surprising one. Barry, Hamid, McCormack, Roy, Saunders, Shamsie, the Smiths (not the band but imagine if Zadie and Ali made a band that would be something) and Whitehead have all been heralded and been up for several awards – if not winning them before.

This is by no means a slight as a) long time readers will know I do have a thing for the Booker b) I have read and loved the Barry, Hamid and Whitehead novels this year (reviews coming soon) and indeed love Ali Smith full stop, plus as with Ali’s I have been very keen to read the new much awaited Roy novel. I am also intrigued to get to both the Saunders and the McGregor as they have been on my TBR for quite some time. So interestingly this is one of the most instantly ‘yes I would read all those books’ Booker longlist I have seen in some years, in fact it is also one of the most ‘ooh I have actually read a few of those’ Booker linguists. Yet one of the things I love about book awards is discovering something or someone completely new to me.

This is possibly because I am a contrary old so and so but it is true. So for me the Fridlund and the Mozely are the ones I am the most keen to rush out and read now (if I wasn’t myself judging the Costa’s, though I may still have to get it). That said alongside the Mozely the other book I most want to read is the Shamsie, an author who has been up for many an award with both Burnt Shadows (which I funking adored) and A God In Every Stone (which I also thought was pretty blinking brilliant) and whose new novel feeds into my recent mini obsession of greek myths retold. So those may be three I try and squeeze into my summer/fall reading.

Which would I like to win at this point? Without a seconds thought Mohsin Hamid is my current personal favourite to win, which may shock some of you as you may know that I fell hard for the Barry. Yet, I utterly adored Exit West when I read it and it has grown on me more and more since both in the way it looks at refugees, war and love with a speculative yet oh so realistic twist or two. More on that book, and some of the others, very soon.

In the meantime… What about all of you? What are your thoughts on the list? Are you happy, is there a title or two missing for you? Which have you read and what did you make of them? Any favourites?

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Filed under Man Booker, Random Savidgeness

Other People’s Bookshelves #61 – Nikesh Shukla

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week, for a special 60th post in the series, we are off to Bristol to join author Nikesh Shukla who has just left an array of gorgeous treats for us all to nibble on as we have a nosey through his shelves. I had the pleasure of taking part in Newcastle Writer’s Conference which involved lots of bookish chatter, laughter, beer, vogue-ing, book recommendations and almost karaoke. Let’s get to know him a little better before we start riffling shall we…

Nikesh Shukla is the author of Meatspace, Coconut Unlimited (which was shortlisted for a Costa Book Award), The Time Machine (which won best novella at the Saboteur Awards 2014, and Simon reviewed here) and Generation Vexed (a non-fiction book co-authored with Kieran Yates). He wrote the multi-award winning short film Two Dosas, a Channel 4 sitcom pilot called Kabadasses and has contributed to Buzzfeed, Guardian, Independent on Sunday, BBC Radio 4 and many more. He also sent a lambchop into space, which was nice. He talks about race, rap and comics a lot on Twitter. And is a new dad. Which supercedes all of this.

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Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

I keep everything I plan to read at some point. I’m getting to a point where my shelves contain more unread than read books, which is very different from how it was when I was growing up. I read everything on my shelves. And I kept everything on my shelves. Even stuff I didn’t like. I didn’t have much access to books as my local library was small didn’t stock what I wanted to read. I was obsessed with reading writers that looked like me (not white) so I had to buy everything. And I read it all. And quickly learned that much as I felt this compulsion to read writers I felt a cultural affinity for, they had more than one story. And it was ok to not like them all. I think that’s the problem with the attitude to writers of colour today – people still assume we only have one story to tell. Sorry, I’ve gone off topic. To bring it back, I junk books I’m not enjoying when I know I’m not feeling them, and I eject from books I like when I feel like I’ve got it. I hold on to the ones I like in case I need to revisit. The culled ones, twice a year, I take them to my work and host a free-for-all.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

They started off alphabetical – A-Z fiction, A-Z non-fiction, A-Z short stories and A-Z homeys (books by my friends) but I’ve just given up at this point. My TBRs are by my bed (growing perilously tall – if it’s suddenly announced that I died when the new Paul Murray book fell from a giant height and smashed my nose into my brain, don’t suspect foul play). We also now have children’s books, picture books and board books everywhere because we’ve read to our baby at a young age. We’ve put most of her favourites in a box in front of the television. I have an orange shelf to match the orange of my study walls. The paint colour is the same Pantone as the cover for Coconut Unlimited, which I love. I have a shelf of books that is my ‘study of orange’. I love the colour orange, it’s auspicious in my family’s cultural heritage and it makes me happy. I have a t-shirt with Hindi on it, which translates as ‘In the game of life and death, we’re all oranges’.

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What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

Oh god, wow, this just dredged up a memory. With money I borrowed off my dad, I bought Better Than Life by Grant Naylor. It was the second of the Red Dwarf books. We were in a rainy hotel on a weekend away in Portsmouth and I had seen a friend reading it at school, and was desperate to also read it, because I was obsessed with Red Dwarf. Mum was really pissed off I bought it because it was Red Dwarf and therefore silly. Not a proper book. It taught me a lot about comedy. I stayed up all night reading it in our tiny family bedroom, biting the sheet to avoid LOLing.

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

I don’t think so. I think I’ve charity shopped the ones I’d be really embarrassed about. For two weeks, in 2004, I read every Dan Brown book that was out. I’m sorry. I’ll never do it again.

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

My copy of Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her is signed. It says ‘Finally we meet, young brother. Stay on course. We need you.’ A copy of a Zadie Smith book has her referencing an injoke we had about dubstep when I did a podcast with her. Two writers I respect and admire treating me like I could be an equal – it’s very inspiring. The most cherished book that doesn’t involve a namedrop is my tattered copy of a book called Bombay Talkie. It came out in like 1999 or 2000. I found it in my university bookshop. It’s the only book that Ameena Meer wrote. It is the book that set me on my course because it told a story I knew I had to counter with my own. It’s really special in my heart because reading it was my day dot of wanting to be a writer.

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What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

My mum read Mills and Boon books and my dad has only read an Aristotle Onassis biography. They’re not big readers. I tried to read Crime and Punishment when I was 11, because the pretentious narrator of a Paul Zindel had read it. I didn’t get it.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

Hell yeah!! Now I don’t collect records or box sets anymore because of streaming services, I collect books.

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What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

I just bought The Box, by Gunther Grass, because it’s my book club’s next book. It’s okay. I also used the dreaded *m*z*n to buy a book that doesn’t have a UK release date. It’s called Delicious Foods by James Hannaham. It’s incredible. I’m shocked no one in the UK is going to take a punt on it. I also preordered at my local Foyles the debut book by Katherine Woodfine. She’s one of my closest friends and that book is headed directly to the homey shelf.

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

Oh my god, yes! I sold my comic book collection in my mid-twenties so I could go travelling. I wish I hadn’t. Also I leant my brother-in-law my copy of the now-out-of-print The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead and I need it back thanks.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

I bet he’s only read 40% of those. Which is a lie. It’s more like 47%.

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A huge thanks to Nikesh for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, here’s hoping I can get Ann Kingman to do it in the future too! If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Nikesh’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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Filed under Nikesh Shukla, Other People's Bookshelves

April’s Incomings…

Where oh where do the months seem to be going? Can you believe that a third of the year has already been and gone? Well it has! So being the last day of April its time to share with you all the latest incomings that have arrived at Savidge Reads temporary HQ in the last month, however they might have gotten through the door.

First up are the gifts that I have bought myself, or indeed exchanged at the lovely local café, and my reasons why. I think you will find I have been rather reserved this month…

  • Deja Dead & Death Du Jour by Kathy Reichs – I have seen reviews all over the shop about Kathy Reichs and have been meaning to read her forever, especially as I have been told she is on a par with Val McDermid and Tess Gerritsen. A review of another of Reichs books by Harriet Devine made me pick these up at the book exchange.
  • Nocturnes by John Connolly – I loved, loved, loved ‘The Book of Lost Things’ (pre-blogging) and rather liked ‘The Gates’ so this selection of short stories is sure to be right up my street.
  • Fresh Flesh by Stella Duffy – I have recently read the second, review pending, of the Saz Martin crime series by Stella Duffy and they are rather hard to get hold of so this one was snapped up the moment I saw it.

Up next are gifts that have been kindly sent/lent by people that I know. I realised I forgot to include some of the books I had for my birthday from people in my March Incomings which is rather shoddy of me, so…

  • Bedside Stories (a birthday pressie), and two treats of a World Book Night edition of Erich Maria Remarque’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ and ‘Cloudstreet’ by Tim Winton all from the lovely Kimbofo when she came to stay.
  • ‘Bel Canto’ by Ann Patchett from Lou of I Hug My Books as she loved it and thinks I will, we do have quite similar taste.
  • ‘Miss Buncle Married’ by D.E. Stevenson, a get well/birthday pressie from the Persephone purveyor herself Claire of Paperback Reader.
  • After seeing her review of ‘Love in Idleness’ by Charlotte Mendelson and letting Harriet know I loved the author she kindly offered me her copy of the only Mendelson I don’t have.
  • ‘The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot’ by Angus Wilson was a lovely old edition for my birthday from Paul Magrs. I haven’t heard of the author, but from the title I am guessing it might just be perfect for my love of books about women of a certain age.

So onto the books from the lovely publishers and lets start off with the paperbacks, a big thanks to Vintage, Virago, Picador, Myriad Editions, OUP, Hodder and Headline for these books…

  • Deloume Road by Matthew Hooton
  • What The Day Owes The Night by Yasmina Khadra
  • The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner
  • In-Flight Entertainment by Helen Simpson
  • The Death of Lomond Friel by Sue Peebles
  • Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
  • The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall
  • The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller
  • Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco
  • Hurry Up and Wait by Isabel Ashdown
  • Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Dandy Gilver and an Unsuitable Day for a Murder by Catriona McPherson
  • Touch The Stars by Jessica Ruston

And thanks to Headline, Macmillan, Atalantic, Serpents Tail, Harvill Secker, Picador, Portobello and Simon & Schuster for this joyful collection of an audiobook, trade paperbacks, proofs and hardbacks…

  • When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman
  • Scenes from Village Life by Amos Oz
  • Embassytown by China Mieville
  • The Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes
  • The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale
  • Walking on Dry Land by Denis Kehoe
  • The Reinvention of Love by Helen Humphries
  • The Winter of the Lions by Jan Costin Wagner
  • The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya
  • The Proof of Love by Catherine Hall
  • The Rest is Silence by Carla Guelfenbein
  • Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith

Phew, quite a loot. Without showing any preferential treatment I have to say that the new Tom Rob Smith is really, really exciting me. Which of the books and authors have you tried and tested? Any you would recommend or would like to see me get too sooner rather than later?

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