Tag Archives: Pulitzer Prize

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

Tinkers – Paul Harding

I can’t lie to any of you… the reason that I sat down to read ‘Tinkers’ by Paul Harding was because of the stunning cover! It simply makes you want to read it. There is of course that other small factor of a ‘Pulitzer Prize for Fiction’ with this book that makes it of interest. Not that I really know what I should be getting with a Pulitzer Prize winning book. In fact I had to have a look back at previous winners I had read and what a mixed bunch they were. The immense ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, the utterly excellent ‘The Road’, the really rather good ‘Breathing Lessons’, the not half bad ‘Empire Falls’ and the prose filled ‘Gilead’ that I wasn’t sure I would like. Which category would ‘Tinkers’, the latest winner of the prize, find itself in?

‘Tinkers’ is an interesting little book (in many ways made me think of previous Pulitzer winner ‘Gilead’) in fact it almost verges on novella over novel and its nearly 200 pages but they aren’t all that big. I couldn’t tell initially if this book was really going to grate on me to start with. First off the book opens as a dying man, George, as he hallucinates that his house is falling down on him soon followed by the clouds and the sky. An interesting opening but one that I will admit had me confused and the initial confusion didn’t stop there are by a break in paragraphs you are drawn into the life of Georges father, Howard, a ‘tinker’ or a man of odd jobs or a pedlar, here and there with no warning of whose life you have stepped into quite when and where. Interweave these two tales with excerpts of a textbook on watches George owns and some notes on all things nature (which I am still not sure who wrote exactly) and eventually you have the tale of a dying man, his father and the childhood he had in the woodlands of Maine.

This isn’t really a book for those people who love plot because really there isn’t one. There are snippets of two lives and how they interconnected and in some ways how they didn’t. There is the occasional tale within the tale and one in particular of Howard and a hermit, which reads like a fable, is possibly one of my favourite mini-stories in a story of the year so far. The book definitely makes you think. In fact Harding’s debut novel is probably one of the most emotional books that I have read in quite some time, when I wasn’t a little lost (which is why this book fell short a little for me, but I will re-read it one day). It looks at life, it looks at death and in a strange way all that lies in between.

Harding’s prose is stunning; there is absolutely no other word for it. If you want a book that reads like the finest poetry without the rhyming or rhythm then this is definitely a book for you. I am in fact wondering if it’s the spell that Harding’s writing casts over the reader that makes it so difficult to put it down, though you do need a break now and again as it gets quite heavy emotionally, for a book that has no page turning plot I didn’t half get drawn in and read the book in a few sittings. I can’t say it was my favourite book of the year so far but it’s possibly one of the best, if not the best, examples of the written word and what it can do that I have seen if that makes sense? It’s certainly had an effect on me and I will definitely be reading Harding’s next novel.

A book that will: either bore you silly with its prose, if you are looking for a big plot, or haunt you with it and subtley leave you thinking. It was thethe latter of the two for me. 8/10

I am not going to do any suggestions for this book as its quite unlike anything I have read before, I want to compare it to ‘Gilead’ but that seems a little bit of a lazy comparison for some reason. Who else has read ‘Tinkers’? Whose been wanting too since it won the Pulitzer? Why is it winning an award can make a book we have never heard of or possibly not been that bothered about reading a must read? More thoughts on book prizes and awards tomorrow…

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Filed under Paul Harding, Review, William Heinemann Books

Frank McCourt 1930 – 2009

The sad news was announced this morning that the Pulitzer prize winning author Frank McCourt has passed away. I always think when an author dies what stories we might have missed from them and what there next book would be.

If it is an author that I haven’t read before such as Frank McCourt I then of course wonder what I have been missing out on and now think that I should get a copy of ‘Angela’s Ashes’ and read the work of what sounds like a brilliant author who is sadly no longer with us. Because of this mornings news I have decided to hold of the new page launch until tomorrow, its doesn’t seem quite right to have a blog party.

Have you read any of Frank McCourt’s books, where would you recommend I start? What is his style and which other books apart from the incredibly well known ‘Angela’s Ashes’ would you recommend and why?

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Gilead – Marilynne Robinson

I have had this book in my TBR pile for absolutely ages and though it has won awards such as the Pulitzer (which I prefer to the Man Booker in general) and been praised by family, friends and some bloggers it has never quite sold itself to me when it actually comes to starting a new book. There are a few reasons for this that I can think one was that it doesn’t have chapters (which really put me off The Road but actually didn’t matter) and I like a break now and again. The other, more important, reason was that I didn’t like the look of the subject matter. Firstly it’s the letter of a dying man, and secondly it’s got a very religious theme which always makes me wary. I have nothing against religion, I am not religious myself though and don’t like ‘preachy books’. I was beginning to think this might be much more for my catholic Non Reader.

However knowing that I am going to be reading the Orange Shortlist over the next two weeks in the lead up to the winner being announced and knowing that Marilynne’s nominated book Home is in there and is a sequel and prequel and companion (confused much – I am) to Gilead I thought I should give it a go. There of course a big worry for me which was ‘if Gilead is rubbish how on earth am I going to get on with Home’? I opened it admittedly with quite a lot of trepidation…

Gilead is a novel which is in fact the letter of dying Reverend John Ames to his son written in Gilead, Iowa in 1956. Knowing that he will not be around for much longer and will not be able to tell his son of his ‘begats’ and family history he decides that he will write it all down for him. It’s his final testament if you will for his son ‘who may not remember me in the future’. Now you would be thinking that with a novel like this there isn’t going to be much joy, however actually despite there being no particular storyline this is really a book filled with the celebration of life. As John Ames memoirs come in stops and starts and have no particular structure you are given insight into the memories of an everyday man as he makes his way in the world and the trials and tribulations along the way.

I admit I was worried for the first 40 or so pages that this was going to be a beautifully written but ultimately boring read. Indeed was almost certain my ‘if you don’t like it by page 80 put it down’ rule was going to come into play but it didn’t. Page 80 was suddenly 20, 40, 60 pages behind me and the prose was taking me along with it on its meandering delightful journey. Robinson’s prose is possibly some of the most beautifully written prose I have the pleasure of turning pages too and undoubtedly is what kept me going to what is quite an ending (that is all I will say about the ending) and the final page.

Now it’s rare that a book can make me emotional but this one did. I don’t know if it’s because I myself have looked after someone who is terminally ill or just the prose and the way Robinson puts you into the mind of a dying man but passages such as this set me off.
“Just now I was listening to a song on the radio, standing there swaying to it a little, I guess, because your mother saw me from the hallway and she said, ‘I could show you how to do that.’ She came and put her arms around me and put her head on my shoulder, and after a while she said, in the gentlest voice you could ever imagine, ‘Why’d you have to be so damn old?’
I ask myself the same question.”

Was the religion in the book preachy? No not at all I actually found it quite insightful and thought provoking. There is a lot of debate over religion and war and how each affects the other and how divided people of the same faith can be over religious involvement, backing or prohibiting war can be. If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea I would say give it a go and see how Robinson can change your mind with her prose. I will admit the book is slightly too long at 282 pages and occasionally I found that John Ames was repeating anecdotes or statements more than once. If stunning prose and subtle observations of life over none stop plot and all the fireworks is your thing then this is definitely the book for you. I am going to say I sit on the fence.

Having the knowledge that Home is now out you can see that the clues are very much there in Gilead that it was planned as Boughton is always being discussed mentioning his children are ‘home’ or are coming ‘home’. Part of me wonders if Robinson’s idea is to eventually write the life of all the inhabitants of Gilead. I would like to give Robinson’s Housekeeping a go as that sounds like it has a fascinating storyline. If Home has the prose of Gilead then I think that there isn’t really any competition in the Orange shortlist… I will be able to tell you within the next two weeks.

Do you prefer plot over prose? Have any of you read Housekeeping? I would ask you if you have read Home but as I haven’t yet I don’t want anyone giving anything away!

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Filed under Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer Prize, Review, Virago Books

Breathing Lessons – Anne Tyler

I vowed last year that I would read much more Anne Tyler after reading Digging To America, and only read that novel. So when Cornflower said that I could join the Cornflower Book Group and that they were reading an Anne Tyler I was thrilled. You can read everything everyone else thought here, as for some reason I am not allowed to upload any comments onto any blogs at the moment. Naturally I am doing the review for you anyway here.

Anne Tyler won The Pulitzer Prize in 1989 and twenty years on you can still see why, her writing style is superb. She writes the whole novel in third person and yet through the characters thoughts you can hear their voices in first person and it’s incredibly effective. Breathing Lessons tells a day in the life of Maggie Moran. A woman nearing fifty whose own daughter asks her ‘when did you become so ordinary?’ As fifty nears she is looking at the lives of her children, husband and herself as she heads for the funeral of her best friends wedding.

Not the storyline for many laughs, though there is humour because it’s Anne Tyler, but it isn’t meant to be a happy book. It looks at how satisfied people are with their own lives and the lives of their family. Maggie feels her husband Ira thinks she is fat and worthless, clearly how she perceives herself, that her daughter Daisy can’t wait to leave her ‘ordinary’ mother and her son whose wife walked out on him with their daughter feels much the same. On the journey and on the way back Maggie’s journey takes several surprising detours, mainly through Maggie’s interfering. Through these detours Anne shows us Maggie’s family past and why she is in the state she is in, you never hear about her childhood much, a mystery I thought might have solved many questions to her deeper personality.

With Maggie’s endless interfering and severe swaying of the truth it did leave you feeling you were seeing life through slightly unreliable eyes. The dialogue both external and internal is fantastic. I found the writing sparse, I have to admit I was shocked Ira and Maggie were still married and the rare signs of closeness and emotional contact between the two of them somehow felt false. I didn’t like Ira, but then again I didnt like anyone in the book particularily, not even Maggie and I normally love that sort of character but playing with peoples lives to such an extent isnt that likeable. It doesn’t paint a promising or fulfilling picture of married life as it goes on. I was shocked to see this in the ‘love’ volume of The Guardians 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read. I would have thought this would have been much more at home in ‘Family and Self’ out later in the week. More on that tomorrow.

All in all I found this a great read, though not possibly one of Tyler’s best I do think that it is a great read and one that everyone should give a try. I haven’t been put off Tyler from this which reading many reviews people were, I wonder what they were expecting. I will definitely be putting many more of her books on my TBR within the next few months.

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Filed under Anne Tyler, Pulitzer Prize, Review, Vintage Books

Empire Falls – Richard Russo

The latest Book Group Book ‘Empire Falls’ by Richard Russo has not only won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002, it has also taken me ages to read but with book group books I have made myself read to the end (I have only not done this on two books London Fields and Suite Francaise both of which I loathed, the latter will shock people I am sure) in the hope that once I had managed it would be one of those books where you feel immensely rewarded and are thoroughly grateful that you persevered. Can I at this pint as its so near say I didnt have this cover and think they need to rethink it as this english cover is so boring looking.

In some ways I am but let’s start with the setting. Empire Falls is a sleepy and slowly failing town in Maine (but as we all know sleepy town have dark secrets) a town that is predominantly owned by the Whiting Estate, the head of whom is now Francine Whiting, sadly the story isn’t based on her as it should have been – more of her later. One of the many buildings and enterprises she owns is the Empire Grill, run buy our protagonist Miles Roby.

Miles is stuck in a rut, after coming home from his degree to look after his dying mother he has never left Empire Falls again. He is going through a divorce with the warped Janine, his daughter Tick is a typical teenager, he has an ongoing feud with an old school friend who is now the law, he’s doing up a church, his father is a money grabbing semi-alcoholic and is played like a puppet by Francine whose cat wants to kill him and crippled daughter wants to marry him. That’s quite a character isn’t it? Bizarrely Miles plays second fiddle to almost every other character in the book.

Francine is undoubtedly for me the star of the show and sadly doesn’t feature in the book as much as she should I wanted so much more of her back story. Her cat Timmy (who is a girl) certainly needed to be in it more as it made me laugh which was much needed fabulous light relief. Janine is a wonderful slightly bitter slightly reminiscent ex-wife who has just discovered sex again which led to her affair and shes not letting the object of her new sex life get away and wants to be heading straight down the aisle once more. The women characters were actually by far the best and I think had the novel been written from their aspects the whole way through I would have enjoyed it so much more. But then there wouldn’t have been quite so many twists in the end.

There is one big twist that though there are some seeds of thought dropped along the way was much more dramatic and in many ways darker than anything I could have come up with which has little to do with Miles Roby at all and did make me re-read the page. The other twists involve flashbacks of both the Whiting family and Miles himself and give the book an extra depth in a way. Sadly though despite a wonderful host of characters (Russo from reading reviews is a wonderful character author in general) and the invention of a clever town setting with its mysteries and shock endings the book is far too long and at points became a real effort to read, thank fully the cat would appear during some of these.

I guess the test with a book, and with a new author in particular (by new I mean one you’ve not read before) is if you would read them again. Would I read Richard Russo again, at the moment I would say probably not, however the more I think about the book the more I realise what a clever writer he is and how observant. So maybe he is someone to add to my TBR in 2009 pile, I guess time will tell.

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Filed under Book Group, Pulitzer Prize, Review, Richard Russo, Vintage Books