Interesting take on a historical artifact

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The Underground Railroad

by Colson Whitehead

Bare-bones plot:  Cora is a Georgia plantation slave made doubly miserable because she is shunned even by her fellow slaves.  When Cora and two others attempt escape, Cora accidentally kills a young member of a posse attempting to recapture the escapees.  She manages to reach the temporary safety of the underground railroad, and the rest of the novel follows her nightmarish journey from security to hardship to recapture and eventual rescue.  But will she ever attain her freedom?

The Underground Railroad is a very good novel that pulls no punches and fears no reprisal. Whitehead’s depictions of violence, against slaves, those who assist them, and those who hunt them when they abscond, are visceral, bloody, and bone-jarring. Protagonist Cora is one of the strongest and most realistic characters I’ve encountered recently, and I found myself caring deeply for her suffering and hoping for her success in escaping slavery. There are many colorful supporting characters who either help or hinder Cora along the way, but antagonist Ridgeway is by far the most compelling and sympathetic. He is so clear in his convictions and determined in his sense of rightness that he is hard not to like, at times, despite the despicable role he fills. Two things I particularly enjoyed about the novel are the way Whitehead uses disjointed narrative to tell the stories of all the important characters and his use of an actual underground railroad complete with rails, ties, engines, and tunnels as the most mysterious but binding character in the book. As a longtime resident of Tennessee, I was both gratified to see it feature so prominently in the story and horrified to see it portrayed as a blasted, burnt, and hellish realm.

 
This is the first Colson Whitehead book I’ve read. I perused several interview articles about him that make clear The Underground Railroad is a departure for him. It sounds like some of his previous books may be somewhat similar to George Saunders’ style, and since I’m such a fan of Saunders’, I’ll probably read some more Whitehead.

I previously posted this review, minus the “Bare-bones plot”,  on Goodreads.

Take care, be well, and happy reading!

Denny

 

Modern American Struggles and Success

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Hillbilly Elegy:  A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

by J.D. Vance

(I also posted this review on Goodreads and Amazon)

Life is hard for hillbillies, the working poor, and middle-class white Americans and their children.  If you have a hard time believing that statement, just read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, the haunting story of his troubled (and troubling) childhood, which he split between Kentucky’s coal country and the dying, industrial burg of Middletown, Ohio, and how he was able to survive his early years then go on to thrive.

Vance’s basic premise is that hillbillies, which he describes as the descendants of Scots-Irish immigrants to the Southern Appalachian areas of the United States who live in a culture of poverty, ignorance, addiction, violence, and invincible family pride, face significant barriers to success.  They tend to have access to minimally effective schools.  They live in broken, dysfunctional families wherein both parents have (or, far too often, the only parent has) a hard time remaining employed and paying the bills.  There are large numbers of people addicted to illicit drugs and/or alcohol in their communities.  They live in an honor culture that is rife with physical, emotional, and verbal abuse.  Their youth is scarred by a disproportionately large occurrence of adverse childhood experiences.  And perhaps saddest of all, they often have little or no access to information about how to break that cycle and begin on a path to success or the support necessary to achieve it.  Certainly almost all of the above were aspects of the author’s early life, which he narrates in painstaking detail and heartbreakingly honest, straightforward prose.  I say almost because, as he acknowledges, Vance had the benefit of several supportive and encouraging family members throughout his life and was fortunate to encounter good mentors in the U.S. Marines and especially after entering college.

The book is well-written and very well-edited.  I found very few errors in spelling, grammar, or syntax, and the narrative moves along at an admirable pace.  With 261 pages divided into 15 chapters, a Conclusion, and a generous Acknowledgments section (and less than 2 pages of minimal endnotes), the average reader should be able to complete it in no more than 3 – 4 hours.  I disagree with some of the conclusions that Vance reaches about how to begin trying to solve the various societal problems he describes, but then, he and I are at different ends of the ideological spectrum.  I would also point out that a lot of the issues he raises are by no means unique to the cultural group about which he writes.

I enjoyed Hillbilly Elegy quite a bit.  Thanks to my occupation and location (probation officer in rural Tennessee), there was very little in the book that surprised or shocked me, but for higher-income city dwellers and more sophisticated readers, this will be an eye-opening book about the difficulty of life in vast swathes of America.

Star rating: 3 of 5, good enough to recommend.

Take care, be well, and happy reading!

A Serendipitous Malfunction

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Americana by Don Delillo

This review was simultaneously posted on Goodreads.

I had not previously read any of DeLillo’s work when, as I sat perplexed in my office late on a Monday afternoon wondering what to listen to next during my lengthy daily commute, while browsing my awesome library’s mind-boggling collection of electronic audiobooks, I stumbled across Americana.  Hmm, I thought, the title is eye-catching, and the blurb sounds intriguing, so why not give it a whirl?

While Americana was downloading to my trusty Kindle, I did some quick research on DeLillo and learned that he is most often labeled as employing Modernist as well as Postmodernist literary styles while exploring largely Postmodern themes.  I was raised and largely trained on Modernist literature, and though  I’ve never been a huge fan of Postmodern style and structure (or the lack thereof), I do find value in some of its themes.  I certainly didn’t learn anything that would indicate I had made a poor choice.  In fact, after reading how much he is credited with influencing some of today’s most lauded authors and noting his impressive list of prestigious literary awards and nominations, I had begun to think he’d be a good candidate for the resumption of a periodic project I’m engaged in of reading in a single year a given author’s ouevre or at least as much of it as I can get my arthritic hands on.  Previously I’ve done so with Kurt Vonnegut, José Saramago, and Umberto Eco and loved them all.

I listened to the first 90 minutes of Americana on my way home from then the next day back to work and almost immediately struggled with whether or not to continue.  Protagonist David Bell is a handsome child of privilege and a young, successful, and rising executive at “a network”.  But he’s bored.  And disillusioned.  And an alcoholic.  And an incorrigible, unfaithful, womanizer.  And paranoid.  And a ruthless, backstabbing, treacherous gossipmonger.  And he’s surrounded by a passle of similar types, all flat, stock characters.  I hated David Bell, I hated most of his supporting cast, and I hated hearing about their vapid, petty, despicable lives.  Nevertheless, I pressed on,  admittedly with less attention to the narrative and a jaded ear.  I was sure that it would begin to get better once the promised road trip across America got underway.

But it didn’t.  Instead, part 2 is a flashback to Bell’s youth.  And although it was not as painful to listen to as part 1 was, and Bell is not yet as revolting as he later becomes, there are a couple of stock Postmodern diatribes against the absurdity of modern life that served only to make me tune out.  Also, we learn a lot about Bell’s highly dysfunctional family, especially his father, who is as irredeemably entitled and judgmental as Bell is.  As frustrating as it was to listen to, it at least serves to fully explain what Bell later becomes.  As Part 2 ended, I again struggled with whether or not to give up on it.

And yes, friends, intrepid reader and auditor that I am, I carried on.  At last, the road trip began, a chance for the loathsome and increasingly self-loathing lead man to begin to learn about his flaws and start to improve.  Alas, Part 3 dashed my hopes again.  Bell and his traveling companions alight, and instead of taking inspiration from the peace of the road and the peculiarities of the towns they drive through and the locals they meet, they become benumbed and bewildered, hypnotized by what they perceive as the monotony and banality they encounter.  By the time Bell hits upon the idea of embarking on a side project, to make a film about his life and where he came from, he and others have gone off on several additional rambling, distracting Postmodern rants.  And it is at that point in the tale, after I had for the third time almost decided I couldn’t continue to listen, that fate intervened, very probably to the benefit of my sanity or at least my peace of mind: my audiobook malfunctioned!  It just quit playing and, after I pulled on to the shoulder of the road and fiddled with my Kindle momentarily, persisted in refusing to play.  Hallelujah!  Saved by the gods of reading!

To be fair to Mr. DeLillo and in order not to offend the more sensitive of his fans and fans of Postmodern literature in general, I will concede that maybe the medium and, to a larger degree, my own frame of mind at the time contributed to my dislike and my inability to give a fair listen following my initial disgust.  Given DeLillo’s exalted status among living authors, I think once I’ve attained a little distance from this disappointing experience I will check out a copy of the physical book and give it another chance.  Depending on how that goes, I may even read some more of his work.

No star rating for now; I’ll let you know what I think after I read the actual book.

‘Til then, take care, be well, and happy reading!

2 Free e-books

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“Spectrum” by Aidan J. Reid

I received a free copy of the ebook in exchange for my honest review.  This review or a version of it is also posted on Amazon & Goodreads.

“Spectrum” is a quick and somewhat frightening read, an epistolary short story told entirely through a series of journal entries written by the protagonist to describe her experience while participating in a pharmaceutical study followed by a corporate medical report analyzing the results of the study.

Although I enjoyed “Spectrum”, there are a couple of things I take issue with.  I think the main idea of the story, that Big Pharma is dangerous, perhaps in a sinister, unethical, and even illegal way, is a topic worthy of a much larger work, either a collection of thematically related short stories about numerous test subjects or as a novel.

My major complaint is about Mr. Reid’s use of character in the story.  Every character in the story is a flat stock character, and the reader isn’t given enough information about any of them to have grounds for caring about their plight.  The protagonist, whose name we are never given, is an unlikable, unsympathetic, unreliable narrator, so it is difficult to care about her or what happens to her.

None of the above, though, renders the story unworthy of being read.  It is compelling and, technically speaking, fairly well-written; I only found one or two spelling and grammatical errors.  And as I said, the main idea is important and worthy of a fuller treatment.

Mr. Reid, if you see this review, I’d be happy to offer more detailed editorial comments & suggestions.  If you’re interested, drop me a line.

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Cold Calling by Haydn Wilks

I received a free copy of the ebook from the author in exchange for my honest review.  This review or a version of it is also posted on Amazon & Goodreads.

Cold Calling is not a pleasant story, and it is a difficult read, but it’s a not a bad book.

Let me explain.  It’s not pleasant because, although not immediately apparent, it’s a horror story.  It’s difficult for a couple of reasons.  The story is told in a rapid-fire, second-person, semi-stream of consciousness style that serves to allow the reader into protagonist Rhys Davies’ head and understand his existential pain. The first part of the book repeats Davies’ daily routine ad nauseum:  he wakes up, often late, then spends his workday at a mind-numbingly, soul-suckingly, pointless job at a call center; goes home, listens to a couchbound, t.v.-addicted roommate drone on endlessly about her meaningless day at a similarly demeaning job; retires to his bedroom and plugs in to the Internet, where he spends hours alternating between trolling relentlessly on multiple social media platforms and browsing increasingly depraved porno sites and engaging in self-abuse; goes out clubbing with his other despised roommate, drinks himself into a stupor; and finally stumbles home and tumbles into bed. Again.  And again.  And over and over and over again.  As I said, ad nauseum.

But therein lies Mr. Wilks’ genius in this story.  Just as that routine was becoming so boring that I was about to give up on the book, Davies’ actions veer off into the unspeakable, and it becomes apparent that the seemingly endless repetition of banality and depravity is necessary to establish the reason for Davies’ psychotic break.  The second reason Cold Calling is difficult is because the acts that Davies commits once he finally breaks are truly, despicably, horrible, and his justifications for repeating those acts in escalating orgies of violence are deeply disturbing.  No spoilers here; you’ll have to read the book to see how horrifying it really is.

Finally, just as in Wilks’ prior novel, The Death of Danny Daggers, which I also enjoyed and reviewed on Goodreads and Amazon, Cold Calling is full of spelling and grammatical errors, which at times become distracting, at least for this English major and former adjunct professor.  Mr. Wilks, if you read this review, I’m offering my services as a copy editor on your next project if you’re interested.  You already know how to reach me; just let me know.

I don’t end 3-star or better reviews on a bad note (I rated this 3 stars on Amazon & Goodreads) so I’ll finish by saying this:  I’ve been reading horror fiction since I was a pre-teen, and this was the first story in years to really shock me.

My thanks to both Mr. Reid and Mr. Wilks for the free review copies.

 

Second First Post

I hope y’all won’t think I’m cheating by writing a 2nd 1st post.  After I started my blog, it wasn’t long before I became discouraged because I was having trouble figuring out how to make my blog look and act the way I wanted it to.  I should’ve signed up then for Blogging University, but my discouragement coincided with an overwhelming influx of work that took several months to complete.

This is what I wrote then about my intentions for my blog: “I intend to post at least weekly, sometimes more often, sometimes less as time and circumstances permit.  Some posts will be book reviews, some may be random thoughts about whatever happens to be occupying my aging, ranging brain at the moment, some may even be rants about politics or current events.  I’ll make it up as I go along.  Since I already have a small body of posted or published reviews, I’ll probably include some of them to begin.  I hope you’ll come back often or even follow and grow with me.” 

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This statement still holds true.  More than any other reason, though, I am blogging to see where it takes me and what it leads to.  I have wanted to write since I was in 4th grade (and that was a long time ago, folks!) but am lazy and fearful so have only made periodic efforts at doing so in various ways.  I have started but never finished a few short stories.  From about 1994 – 2003, I wrote a fair number of poems and even published a few.  Several times I started a private journal but never sustained it beyond a year.  I have exchanged correspondence with my elected representatives.  From about 1996 – 2008, I wrote a lot of letters to the editor of my local newspaper, many of which were printed.  I even wrote and performed a couple of songs with two friends in 2004.  I know I still want to write, but I just don’t know what; fiction or non-, short stories or novels, reviews, poems, editorials, or just occasional blog posts.

I plan to use WordPress, and any bloggers gracious enough to provide commentary on and criticism of my writing, as the mallet and chisels to sculpt myself into whatever kind of writer may exist within.  Even if all I end up with is a pile of rubble and a roomful of dust, at least I will have once more made the effort.  So wish me luck and share your thoughts.  Don’t be afraid to hurt my feelings.  I have thick skin and am very hard to offend. 

Facebook

My Goodreads friend and fellow newbie blogger Steven (you can find him at https://aquestionersjourney.wordpress.com/) has been gently but persistently nudging me to blog about my Facebook experience since after finally joining it in mid-2016 my Goodreads production slowed to a trickle.  Steven, this is for you.

I joined Goodreads, my first experiment with social media, in January 2015.  I always knew I would have to join Facebook someday since my daughter was rapidly approaching her tween years and would be on it before I knew it.  So I gave in an joined in May 2016.

As I’m sure many new users do, I really went overboard.  I spent hours every day, in 5-, 10-, 15-minute increments, posting thoughts, pics, albums; browsing news stories; reading posts; and generally just wasting time and too much of what precious little brain power I yet possess.  And I continued doing so for months.

Part of the pull was morbid fascination with the political views and posts of my growing number of Facebook friends and family.  My joining coincided with the last 6 months of the nauseating and embarrassing 2016 USA presidential campaign, which saw ridiculous amounts of ignorance, invective, and insidiously fake news flooding the medium.  It was like watching the cliched slow-motion train wreck.  I couldn’t resist and, gods help me, had to add my 2-cents’ worth from time to time.

One afternoon in August, after ungluing my eyes from my laptop screen and peeling my sweat-sticky fingers from the keyboard only to realize I couldn’t see out my window or maneuver unhindered from my chair to my office door due to the teetering piles of files and loose paperwork encroaching on every side, I had an epiphany.  Facebook was the granddaddy of all distractions, there was nothing on it worth spending more than a couple of minutes a day on, and if I didn’t straighten up and get busy, I would soon be so buried in work that it would take 6 months or more to dig out from under it.

So I resolved then to temper my facebooking and get the hell to work.  I set a goal of being at least 95% caught up by the time I left the office for the Christmas break, a goal which, if I accomplished, would be an unprecedented achievement in my present career.  This is not the sort of job that lends itself easily ever to being caught up.  I’ve been doing it for over 12 years and have NEVER been completely caught up.  Of course, I had also never been so pitifully behind as I let myself get between May & August either.  It pleases me to say that, when I left my office for 10 days on 12/16/16, I had exceeded my goal and was 100% caught up.  I left my desk with no work undone.  And since returning on 12/27/16, I have continued to spend less than 15 minutes a day on social media.  I have caught up my ratings and reviews on Goodreads.  I have read and responded to Steven’s 2 most recent brainbending blog posts.  I have scanned and reacted to the most interesting or urgent of my friends’ and family memberss Facebook posts.  Best of all, I have been able to deal with every bit of work as it has come in and see no reason not to be able to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.  Now I just have to be more diligent in maintaining my blog.  This is my first post since July 2016, but I’m going to try my hardest to post at least once a week from now on.

So my final verdict on Facebook specifically and social media in general:  It isn’t evil and needn’t necessarily be a disruptive distraction.  It is great for keeping in touch with or at least viewing pictures of far-flung family and friends, for knowing which real-time associates to seek out or avoid because their views are similar or antithetical to mine, and for occasionally posting cute or funny pictures of my beautiful wife and adorable kids.

Next up:  my thoughts on a few recent books I’ve read, already posted on Goodreads and shared to Facebook.  Is it overkill to post on all three platforms?

Stardust

by Neil Gaiman

I’ve been re-reading Gaiman’s works these past few months as he’s one of my favorite authors, but I think I should quit or at least take an extended break. The more I read, the more I admire his writing, and I fear I’m falling further under his spell. Seriously, I’m in danger of developing a man-crush on Gaiman because he’s just such a freakin’ awesome writer. He has an amazing command of the knowledge of many different cultures’ mythologies that the most amazing fantasy just seems to flow out of him like, well, like living water. (Sorry Jesus!).

Stardust is an amazing fairytale, a timeless love story, and a raucous, good-natured adventure. Tristran Thorn and Yvaine are two of the great characters in fantasy, and, as is always the case with Gaiman, they aren’t the only ones in this book that I hope to read more about someday. If I were inclined to write fan fiction, Gaiman’s books would be the ones that inspire me to do it, just like if I were going to write & sing songs Whiskeytown would motivate me.

Stardust rocks, y’all, really. I let my 10 year-old daughter read it, and she burned through it in less time than it took me. She loved it too. A note of warning, though: I first read this many years ago when it was originally published, and I forgot that it has a couple of mildly graphic love scenes in it. Oops. It may not be appropriate for 10 year-olds. Just so ya know.