Reading The Underground Railroad, Part II

(continued from part one)

Miriam: I agree James, it belongs on the same level as Beloved and the others. I’d also add The Known World by Edward P. Jones to that definitive list. The competition between the slaves struck me too, especially when it pitted women against men (like over the ownership of Cora’s garden patch). They had to do whatever it took to survive, even if it meant turning on their own.

I’ve wondered why Whitehead decided to use a female protagonist. It’s probably because of her vulnerability. Lizzie, I liked Cora too, but she was something of a prism to me, a way to view the larger world Whitehead created. Her persona was defined more by the actions she takes in a few key scenes rather than by her thoughts and feelings. It’s an interesting way to create a character. When I think of her I immediately go to the scenes where she violently defends her small garden patch, or when she throws her body over a young slave boy to protect him from a whipping, or when she’s acting out the slave scenes in the museum and pausing to give the onlookers the evil eye ... continued

Reading The Underground Railroad, Part I

Who knew Oprah would bring us together? James and I crossed each other’s reading tracks again with Oprah’s latest book club pick, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Even better, Lizzie had already read it, so we had three varying opinions. Since it’s been awhile since we held an online book club, we decided it was time to join forces again to hash out our response to one of the biggest books of the fall. In the past we’ve discussed Chocolates for Breakfast by Pamela Moore, H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (Lori Robinson joined that conversation too). 

As a child learning about history, Colson Whitehead was disappointed to learn that the Underground Railroad wasn’t literally a train that carried slaves to freedom. So for his new book, he made it real. The story follows a 15-year-old slave named Cora whose mother made a successful escape when Cora was a little girl (as far as she knows). She embarks on her own escape from a Georgia plantation, making her way north in search of freedom. Her route takes her on to a locomotive built by slaves that runs underground. The train stops in different states, and each location demonstrates a different version of how people responded to slavery. Cora is constantly on the run, chased by slave chasers and bounty hunters, and her journey takes her through every imaginable horror. The Underground Railroad echoes many other books in the genre, yet manages to have a remarkable voice all its own ... continued

Somebody Does It Better

Any child psychologist will tell you it’s a bad idea to compare siblings to each other. Ask big sis why her room isn’t as neat as her younger brother’s and she won’t clean it up, she’ll drop out of school and ride off on a motorcycle to the tattoo shop. It’s probably not a good idea to compare one country to another either, although I don’t know what the national equivalent of a regrettable tattoo is. But the Olympics are in full swing and global competition is in the air (along with Zika-laden mosquitoes) so let’s throw caution (and some bug spray) to the wind and ask the big question: How does the good old U.S. of A. stack up to the rest of the world?

Pretty well overall, I’d say. I don’t wear a flag pin on my lapel or anything, but most of the time I’m perfectly happy to live where I do. I’m on vacation abroad right now, though, and my trip has shown me that we have some catching up to do in at least one important area. I’m talking about our relationship with books, of course. Sure, you and I read like our lives depend on it, but not everyone in the fifty states feels the same way. France, on the other hand, shows signs of being the most book-obsessed place on the planet ... continued

Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst

In 2003 Carolyn Parkhurst published her debut novel, The Dogs of Babel. It had the most idiosyncratic premise. Paul’s wife dies after falling out of an apple tree and the only witness is their Rhodesian Ridgeback. In an effort to explain the circumstances surrounding his wife’s death, Paul decides to teach his dog how to speak English so she can tell Paul the truth about what happened.

Paul sounds a little crazy, right? You might say that Parkhurst specializes in the confusion of a person stuck in circumstances beyond their control. Fiction is the perfect place to conjecture what you might do in a heartbreaking situation. Paul’s goal is far-fetched but the portrait of his grief is achingly realistic, and the book became a huge bestseller. Please don’t consider it a spoiler when I tell you the dog doesn’t learn to talk. But Parkhurst does manage to show how language is not enough. Paul’s wife had language and he still failed to understand her.

Harmony is Parkhurst’s new novel and its premise and execution is just as distinctive as The Dogs of Babel ... continued

The Transylvanian Trilogy

The Transylvanian Trilogy isn’t what you think it is. Assuming you were thinking it involved vampires.

It’s natural that you might suppose so. The one thing everyone knows about Transylvania is that it’s the home of Bram Stoker’s fictional Count Dracula. Most also know that it’s an actual territory in Romania. That’s true now, and has been for many decades, but it’s not the whole story. We tend, or at least I do, to get stuck on a concept of world geography that was formed by the globes and maps that we used in elementary school, and think of those borders as more or less permanently fixed. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, and the process of learning that is a fascinating topic for another day ... continued

The Girls by Emma Cline

Just when it seems like our endless fascination with the Manson murders drifts off into obscurity it floats back into the public consciousness. Besides the recent parole hearings for former Manson follower Leslie Van Houten, there’s Manson’s Lost Girls, a new Lifetime made-for-TV movie about his female followers, and NBC’s latest David Duchovny drama Aquarius, about an LAPD detective trying to extricate his daughter from her life with Charles Manson. In addition there are two Manson-related feature films currently in development. Meanwhile, the real Charles Manson still maintains followers by writing letters from prison. But possibly the best reason we’re reliving one of the most notorious crimes of the 20th century is because of Emma Cline’s recently released first novel, The Girls ... continued

Q&A With Jodi Liano, Host of Our Next Cookbook Book Club

This month’s Cookbook Book Club on July 31st at 3pm is extra-special, as we’ll be joined by Jodi Liano, the chef who holds the reins of the San Francisco Cooking School. We’ll start the festivities with a presentation from Jodi, followed by some Q&A and an autograph session. Then we’ll segue into our potluck party.

If you’re not familiar with our Cookbook Book Club, this is a great time to give it a try. We experiment with different cuisines and cookbooks by bringing in a dish to share. (We supply the drinks.) Buy a copy of the featured cookbook, check out the recipes inside, test them at home, and then show off your skills. For more information, read a recap of our first one here.

This month’s host Jodi Liano is also the co-author of Cooking from the Farmers’ Market, July’s featured title. It’s an essential resource that shows how to get the most from a trip to our own Mercer Island Farmers Market and includes scores of recipes that employ all the great local produce you can find there. Her book is the perfect kitchen companion for anyone who enjoys cooking with the seasons. In anticipation of the event, we asked Jodi a few questions to whet your appetite ... continued

Bregrets? I've Had a Few

It takes a lot to push American news off the front pages of our nation’s papers, but British voters found a way to do it on June 23rd. They took to the polls in droves and by a fairly narrow margin decided to–well, no one knows exactly what they decided. I mean, we know they voted to have their country leave the European Union, but no one knows exactly how that will happen or what the result will be when it does. If it does. The noisy second-guessing in the aftermath is making the pre-election hype sound like a whisper by comparison.

Turns out this is a much bigger deal than many voters, particularly Leave voters, expected. The short-term effect has been to drive the value of the pound to its lowest level in decades, and the market losses were sufficient to drop the UK’s economic ranking from 5th largest in the world to 6th. Since Scotland and Northern Ireland wish to remain part of the EU, in the longer term it seems likely that Brexit will lead to the dissolution of a political institution that’s lasted more than three hundred years, the United Kingdom itself. And beyond that? No one, neither Eurocrat nor isolationist, knows ... continued

Breaking the Glass Ceiling

The women’s movement is having a moment. Whether you like her or not, Hillary Clinton is going to be the first female presidential nominee of a major American political party. This latest leap in female accomplishment is probably the most powerful example we can give when we tell our daughters, “look what women can do.” My daughter knows nothing about Hillary except that she must like pink because she recently wore a pink suit, but now one thing she will grow up knowing is that a woman can lead a political party and quite possibly be the president of the United States.

Female leaders have been radically different; some peaceful, some controversial, some extraordinary, some incompetent. They have come in various religions and political leanings. Besides their gender, the only common denominator is their tenacity, a quiet characteristic that only reveals itself over a long time span and variety of challenges. If you can’t spend your days living next to that kind of role model, the best way to understand the importance of that trait is to read about it. Film and television come in at a distant third in the ability to explore a lifetime of accomplishment.

There are plenty of nonfiction works written by or about male leaders, but female heroics are far less commonly well-captured on the page. When I think about current titles that will inspire young women, there are two works of nonfiction that bring female grit powerfully into focus. With graduation upon us and many young women pondering their future, Gloria Steinem’s and Diana Nyad’s books are worth passing around ... continued

More of a Phenomenon

If you’re talented, hard-working, and lucky, you may achieve artistic success. A standing-room only concert, a bestselling novel, an award-winning script, that sort of thing. If you’re immensely talented, intensely motivated, and have the enormous good fortune to invoke a spirit so mysterious we call it by a German name, the zeitgeist, then you might create an artistic phenomenon. What does that mean? Your work has to earn all the usual commercial success and critical plaudits, of course, but it also has to transcend those. Imagine something that’s equally popular with serious silver-haired C-SPAN viewers and frivolous rainbow-haired theater kids. Picture an experience that can bridge the yawning gap between teenagers and their parents. Conceive if you can of the tiny patch of common ground on which both Dick Cheney and Barack Obama can comfortably stand.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is the phenomenon I’m talking about, as you’ve probably already guessed. A Broadway show about “America’s first bureaucrat,” a  stylistic grab-bag of hip-hop, history, and Sondheim? If it were a horse, no one would have bet on it to finish one race, let alone win the Triple Crown like Secretariat. If there’s any explanation for the universality of Hamilton’s appeal, it probably has something to do with Miranda’s gleeful embrace of … well, everything. His willingness to absorb any influence and reinvent it for his own purposes has taken a stage production and turned it into a multi-media sensation.

So how do book lovers far from the Great White Way access the Hamilton phenomenon? ... continued

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