brainwane: My smiling face in front of a brick wall, May 2015. (Default)
[personal profile] brainwane
I read The Underground Railroad in 2016. I thought it was engaging, moving, and accessible,* and I nominated it for a Hugo Award (Best Novel).

Na'amen Gobert Tilahun reviewed Underground Airlines as well as The Underground Railroad in Strange Horizons and discussed several aspects of both books. That review mentions speculative elements in Whitehead's book beyond the railroad mentioned in the title, in case you are wary of spoilers.

I have read John Henry Days, The Intuitionist, and I think at least one other Whitehead book, and am trying to reflect on how Whitehead approaches and uses the railroad, because I think it's different than the way a lot of speculative fiction authors do, and has more in common with how other mimetic fiction authors tend to use speculative premises. I want to compare The Underground Railroad to Never Let Me Go, where the story doesn't concentrate on (or, sometimes, even mention) the origin story of the big plot premise, and instead the story is entirely about the lives of people living or resisting -- just for themselves, to survive or thrive -- within that system.

* I think Whitehead deliberately works to make the book accessible to people who have not previously read slave narratives, fictional or nonfiction -- I think he spells out subtext more often than he would if he assumed the reader had more of a grounding in antebellum history or the history of anti-black racism in the US.
rydra_wong: Lee Miller photo showing two women wearing metal fire masks in England during WWII. (still IBARW)
[personal profile] rydra_wong
There are books you can't put down, and then there are books you put down a third of the way through so that you can run to the computer and start ordering more books by the same author. The Intuitionist is that good.

I don't know whether this should be counted as sf/f, slipstream, magical realism, or something else altogether: its very own genre of lucid-dreaming surreal noir, a vision of a city that might be New York riven by the conflict between rival schools of elevator inspectors, the Empiricists with their faith in dutiful physical inspection and the Intuitionists who aspire to sense defects by tuning into the the soul of the machine itself.

Lila Mae Watson is the first "colored" woman (the book is set in what feels like the '40s or '50s) to become an elevator inspector - and she's an Intuitionist. When an elevator she inspected inexplicably goes into freefall, she finds herself at the centre of a web of political intrigue, where race, class, secrecy and mysticism intersect in the hunt for the "black box": the design for a perfect elevator.

Lila Mae is a fantastic protagonist: dour, self-contained, and, like the novel, utterly herself. But what makes the novel absolutely compelling is the narrative voice. Something like Don DeLillo, something like Walter Mosley (who contributed a well-deserved blurb), and a lot that's all Whitehead's own. This doesn't read like the first novel it is; it's unhesitatingly confident and polished in its idiosyncrasies:

Anyway, slept. In the biggest bed she has ever slept in, swimmable, Lila Mae buoyant despite her negligible body fat (a skinny one, she is). The bed possesses an undertow conducive to dreaming, but she doesn't remember her dreams when she wakes. On waking, her half-dreaming consciousness segues into a recollection of her visit to the Fanny Briggs building. It was simple: that's what Lila Mae is thinking about in her room at 117 Second Avenue.
sanguinity: woodcut by M.C. Escher, "Snakes" (Default)
[personal profile] sanguinity
1. Mildred D. Taylor, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.

I haven't read Roll of Thunder since I was a kid, and honestly, didn't remember much of what goes on in it. Reading it now, I can't help but contrast it with To Kill a Mockingbird -- the two novels are very similar in themes, plot, and setting. Both take place in rural, Depression-era South; both plots center around the racial injustices of the place and time; both are narrated by young girls who are only just becoming aware of the racial politics that around them; both narrators are relatively sheltered and prosperous, as compared to their peers; both narrators idolize their fathers and alternately look up to and chafe under the influence of their older brothers.

I've read Mockingbird umpteen times in my life, and for the first half or so of Taylor's book, Roll of Thunder felt to me like I had rotated the Mockingbird world in my hands and was looking in at it through another window, seeing many bits of the story that had been hidden from Scout. And then the world twisted on me. In this story, Atticus isn't a hero.

Mr. Jamison, the fair-minded white lawyer who is respectful to the black families and willing to incur personal risk while advocating in their interest, is... well, pathetically ineffectual. He is portrayed as a good man and an ally, but he isn't trusted, either. He is very alien, very removed from their lives, and no one can forget that he acts solely from his own sense of morality and may buckle under social pressure at any time. And, as I said, despite all his efforts, he can't do all that much to help anyone. During the book's climax, OMG SPOILERS! ) This is a very, very different portrait than the self-composed Atticus reading below Tom Robinson's cell window while they wait for the lynch mob.

And, yanno, notwithstanding all these lines I just spent on Mr. Jamison? He's a minor character. He's hardly mentioned in the book at all. I just finished reading the novel this morning, yet I had to go look up Mr. Jamison's name so that I could write this post. However grand and heroic Atticus is in Mockingbird, his alter-ego barely exists in the Logans' world.

The ending of Roll of Thunder is... abrupt. More of a highly-emphasized break between acts than a true end of a novel. But I hear that Taylor wrote bunch more about the Logans...
ext_6334: (Zora Neale Hurston)
[identity profile] carenejeans.livejournal.com
Note: This book figures large in my bookish past, and I started writing this essay for an (unfinished) post for IBARW. Not all of my posts will be this personal.


I first read Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye more than thirty years ago. I haven't read it very often since (about three times, once for a class in college) but it has stayed with me, lodged firmly on my memory's bookshelf. It's one of my "foundational" books -- those books that you find just when you need them (even if you didn't know you needed it) and which fit into your brain like a puzzle piece from the Big Picture of, you know, life, the universe, and How Things Really Work.
Read more... )

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