Underground Railroad

    Underground Railroad is not a book that needs any help or promotion from me. It was, after all, the Oprah pick for her Book Club. That fact alone probably sold more copies of the book that people I will ever meet in my entire life. Then, when we add to that fact that Oprah actually got the release date of said book moved up over a month-- that might tell you all you need to know. And, the truth is, I might be a little late to the party when it comes to posting something about the book, but that doesn't change the fact that I read it and I wanted to talk about it.

    First of all, and perhaps the most talked about aspect of the book, the underground railroad of the title is a literal railroad that is underground in the book. Now, I've read various things that say, "Well, Whitehead makes everything except that one thing realistic" or "That's the only changed detail from the reality of times during slavery." Neither of those statements are true. There are several things that are not accurate historically or that are evocative of certain times which, while they are pivotal to African American history, did not occur in the timeline which Whitehead gives us.

    For example, at one point, Cora (the main character) goes up to the roof on the 12th floor of a building in South Carolina. That's great except for the fact that in the 1840s or 50s where she is, there aren't any buildings that tall. Not in SC. Not anywhere. It was only in the late 1850s that the elevator that could make a tall building like that possible, was conceived, and it was over another 30 years before the first steel structures over 10 stories were built. Does this matter? Not really. Did it put me off at first? A little. I was truly concerned that Whitehead was guilty of sloppy historical research, at best. Still, the writing was so good, I kept reading.

    I'm not sorry I did. There were other instances of historical manipulation-- some so subtle that only a historian would notice (like the skyscraper), some that are pretty blatant (like the underground railroad being a real railroad), and various degrees in between. I expected this would get on my nerves but I found that it didn't. Rather, this allowed me to enjoy the story but to also see it as a work of art that was making a statement without being pedantic.

    Was this book fun? No. Was it easy? Sure, all the words were English and were of a nature I understood so in that, sure it was easy. But easy also connotes that there's a breezy nature in the reading of the material and that is not true in this case. I found my heart broken on at least two different occasions in this book and I'm not ashamed to say that I cried. So, easy? Not really, but it's not hard in the ways that Faulkner is.

    I can't say much more as I don't want to give away anything. I will say this, though, if you don't read this book, you're missing out. Oprah wouldn't lead you astray and neither would I! (Okay, Oprah might! But I never would!)


Professional Reader

Ten Prayers That Changed the World: Extraordinary Stories of Faith That Shaped the Course of History

Ten Prayers That Changed the World: Extraordinary Stories of Faith That Shaped the Course of History by Jean-Pierre Isbouts is an intriguing book. Being a college professor (teaching both writing and history) I'm a sucker for both a well written book and a book that gives fresh perspective on historical events. What I am not is a Christian. At least, not in the sense I believe Christ is the only path to redemption. I tend, frankly, to be more Buddhist. So, I admit, as intriguing as the book seemed, I was afraid I might run into a road block with this book--it might be preachy or too "Jesus-y."

However, Isbouts is a renowned historian with several books to his credit as well as a few films. While I'd never read anything by him before, I can certainly see myself looking out for his other works because Ten Prayers That Changed the World: Extraordinary Stories of Faith That Shaped the Course of History is the sort of book that Christianity (and all faiths) need today. Isbouts writes of ten highly influential prayers in history and tells the story of each (how the praying of the prayer came about and what outcome the prayer had) in a manner that very much follows the ancient tradition of history as a story. Personally, a storytelling approach to the ten narratives is one of the biggest selling points of the book for me-- it's not simply a lot of stuffy factual academic writing meant to impress other historians. 

Writing means a lot to me-- I have an MFA in creative writing after all-- and while I can and sometimes do read academic historians, it's sometimes not very pleasant to do! Isbouts has a storyteller's gift, though, and while we know that parts of what he writes are fictionalized (he can't know exact dialogue in most cases) the gist of what he tells are true stories.

Now, before anyone gets too outraged and says "WAIT! Jesus is mythology!" I'd just say, nothing in history is 100%-- it's a highly subjective medium.  There's a line in Don Henley's "The Garden of Allah" that goes, "there are no facts, there is no truth/Just  data to be manipulated/ I can get any result you like/What's it worth to ya?" History is more objective than it once was, to be sure, but it can never, ever, be entirely objective. And Isbouts goes about the work of historian as it once was and is meant to be-- that of storyteller.

And these are fascinating stories-- from the prayer of Abraham to Gandhi's prayer for peace--  all are worth reading just as historical episodes. Isbouts does better than that, however, he ends each story with a section where he discusses why this prayer is significant, why it changed history, how it had positive impact. Personally, I found the chapter on Jesus' Prayer to Abba (no, not the band) to be one of the most profound things I have read in a long time. Even though I'm not Christian, I suddenly understand this prayer in an entirely different way.

I'd recommend this book-- it's got Jews, Protestants, Catholics, even a Hindu and I would recommend it without reservation. Well, let me amend that, if you are a narrow minded Christian who believes only your brand of Christianity will go to heaven, you might forego it. It's not a hellfire and brimstone kind of read. It's a book that looks at the role of spirituality in history and the impact it can have. 

If I had anything negative to say, I might say it seems disappointing that a book by National Geographic has photos and images of the people who said the prayers but they aren't in color. That's a SMALL quibble and one that I think is really just nit picking on my part. I had the same ridiculous complaint years ago when I read another book by them. So, just overlook that as my nuttiness!

I'm grateful to National Geographic for providing me a copy of this book and to TLC Book Tours for making me a stop on the  virtual tour. This is a book I went into with some trepidation but came out on the other side pleased to have been allowed to review it and I look forward to exploring the work of Isbouts further!

Professional Reader

Why They Run the Way They Do by Susan Perabo

I'm reading a lot of short stories lately along with my non-fiction. Perhaps this is because it's so easy to find places to leave the book and come back later, or maybe the short story is making a comeback. I tend to think it's a bit of both, as I don't necessarily read for long stretches at a time and short stories are great for that sort of duck out, come back 20 minutes later kind of reading. But in the last few years, it seems as if there are a great many short story collections being published.  Not just being published, but winning some major awards. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan comes to mind, as does Phil Clay's Deployment.

I requested this ARC because I am both in a short story mood and I liked the cover of this one-- Scrabble tiles! My review would be the same on this one, ARC or not. It's a damn fine collection.

In any case, Why They Run the Way They Do was a truly remarkable collection of stories. While they didn't have the thread running through them that would make it a "stories as novel" type of read, there were some excellent thematic similarities in the stories but they weren't so similar it all seemed like it was the same story with the same narrator. There was a mix of first person and third person narrative. There were male and female perspectives. There was a comfortable age range as well, with a story about 13 year olds, a story about high school seniors, one about about grad school age people, then at least one of someone who is 50ish or 60ish. It's a nice, diverse,  mix, in other words. 

There's nothing particularly odd or strange in any of the stories, just a honest portrayal of what life, death, and the spaces in between (and all the bad choices we can and do make) with a nice mastery of language.

I won't go into specifics on titles-- I loved "Life Off E," "Indulgence," and "This is Not That Story." If I'm honest, I loved pretty much all of them. I initially wanted to complain because there was a story about MFA students in the collection and I tend to feel like that's navel gazing to some degree, but when I consider the story, I think it's well done, it's an honest story that doesn't really have any pretension, I also think it captures some of the frustration of going through a program like that and then coming out into the world.

There was a story that when I read it (I won't give a name because I don't want to ruin the experience) that I almost felt cheated by the end, but when I slept on it and thought about it fresh, I get why it ended that way and feel it was really quite cleverly done. So, my complaints are pretty well on zero on this one!

I'd highly recommend this debut work by Susan Perabo. I think (and hope) we will hear more from her!


Professional Reader

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea

This book is part of my ongoing personal challenge to read David Bowie's top 100 books.

Years ago, I had a book called The People's Almanac. It was really a book of trivial information compiled and categorized into book form.  I found the book in a free box in Martin, TN's only used bookstore (back when they had a used bookstore). There were two, Volumes I and II, and they had just these random articles and were great toilet reading.

Anyway, there was an article in one of the volumes on Yukio Mashima, a Japanese author who died in 1970. What is memorable about Mashima is not that he was one of Japan's foremost writers-- think James Joyce to Ireland-- but that Mashima committed suicide via seppuku. Seppuku, for those of us who don't follow a samurai code or feel particularly self murder-y, is ritual suicide via disembowelment.


Yeah, let me repeat that for you. Yukio Mashima committed seppuku in 1970 when he was at the height of being "Japan's Most Important Person in Literature of the 20th Century."  

Mashima was  a writer who was nominated not once for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Not nominated twice for the Nobel Prize. No, this was a writer who was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in literature and at the age of 45, he took over the headquarters of Tokyo's Japan Special Defenses Office, and staged an attempted coup d'etat, demanding the reinstatement of the Emperor. When Mashima went outside and addressed the soldiers, they jeered him and acted annoyed. He came back inside and, and following the bushido code,  took a sword and disemboweled himself.


And the funny thing is, I didn't realize it. I just picked a book at random off the Bowie list and searched for it. It wasn't at the local library (big shock there) and it wasn't on the regional e-library (another huge shock) and it wasn't at the college library where I work. It was, however, at the library of the college where I went to grad school.

Now, that's an hour away and sounds like some really deep obsession until I explain that my spouse takes a night class there and I often go with her so as to just have the time together and do any big city thing I might want while she's in class. So, I went and got it last week while she was in class. 

So, I read 60 pages that night. It wasn't bad. It was, actually, pretty interesting. The story of a group of 13 year old boys in post WWII Japan and their desire to strip themselves of any emotion or sentimentality. The goal, I believe, was to become "hard hearted." The story centers on one boy and his widowed mother and her relationship with a Japanese merchant sailor who grew up dreaming of finding glory and greatness at sea.

It was only once I got home that I realized-- THIS WAS THAT GUY! THIS WAS THE GUY WHO DISEMBOWELED HIMSELF! I'm not sure if it matters to the reading, but it certainly does make the nihilistic  view of the 13 year olds  of the book much more disturbing. And The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea is a dark and disturbing book. There is not a lot of graphic stuff, but there IS a lot of stuff that might be challenging without historical context and there's plenty to chew over once you find out what the author did five years later.

I'm glad I read it. It was not a long read, but it was a read that might prove culturally challenging for Westerners if they don't understand the idea of "saving face" and the ways in which that has manifest in Japanese culture. I don't think one has to be an expert by any means (I certainly am not) to understand it, but I think without it, the characters might seem like deranged lunatics. (To some degree, the kids are, but that's beside the point.)

Anyway, that was my first Bowie book of this challenge. I'd recommend this one. It's interesting, challenging, but not so difficult that it couldn't be read by any literate person.


Professional Reader

David Bowie's 100 Books

So, here's a thing...I was looking at David Bowie's top 100 books.  I've always liked David Bowie. Not necessarily as a musician...I haven't listened to much music in the last 20 years and certainly haven't listened to much new music. I tend to, if left to my own devices, like really bad music. So, I mostly just listen to Pearl Jam and whatever folk music my Other One is listening to (Glenn Hansard, Damien Rice, The Tallest Man on Earth). I like music, but I find that I can't follow movies, music, and books. I have to pick two. So, it's movies and books!

But, Bowie was more than music. Bowie was art, reinvention. Bowie was an actor, a musician, a fashion icon. Just because I haven't really listened to his music post 1985 doesn't mean that I don't think he was a hell of a smart guy and an artist to be respected. And anyone who compiles a  list of 100 books THIS GOOD? Well....that's someone to emulate!

In any case, I was looking at his list of books and found that while I hadn't read a great many of them, the ones I had read, I liked a great deal.  They were:

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (not my favorite Faulkner but the first Faulkner I really "got" so it's special to my heart)

Passing by Nella Larsen

The Stranger by Albert Camus

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Wasteland by T.S. Elliot

McTeague by Frank Norris (I loved loved loved this book when I read it in college! It's an underrated classic!)

1984 by George Orwell

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (one of the best nonfiction books I've ever read)

These would all make my top 100 as well-- except perhaps the Burgess book which...I don't know, I would re-read but I don't remember loving it like I loved some of these other books. All the other books are books that make me want to jump up and down. 

So, I thought, what sounds interesting on his list? And I settled upon a book called The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea by Yukio Mishima. It took me looking at about 4 different libraries before I found it at the University of Memphis library. I was headed that way last night for my Other One's class (I like to go with and hang out while she's in class) and figured I'd get it. It's 182 page book and I'm on page 75 now. And I keep thinking, what if I did the whole list? How long would that take? How hard would that be? I figure in taking on projects you can pick two from the "cheap, fast, and good" and have to go with those two because you can't accomplish all three simultaneously, I would pick cheap and good. So, this a project without an end date. I'm going to read the books on Bowie's top 100 list because, well, because there are probably worse things I could do.

I'll find this books as cheaply as possible, read them, blog about them. I don't say what regularity I will do this because I don't know what can be found. Some things on the list, it won't happen...for example the listing for Beano says it's a comic from the 1950's. I don't think I can find that, but I will look, see what I see. There are a couple of comics and magazines that I don't think I'd have any way to read, but again, I'll hunt down the books, read them, write about them.

I figure this should be something I can complete in 10 years or so! Wish me luck!

In case you want to check out the list, you can read it here. Which ones have you read? And which ones do you want to read now?


Professional Reader

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Wow. Just wow.

One of the reasons I read is to find windows into other worlds, other cultures. To that end, I try to read a great many diverse books. I like diversity in my writers, my books, my topics, even the location of where my book came from!

I got an ARC of The Vegetarian and sort of put it aside, thinking I had plenty of time. Next thing I knew, it was being released. So, I decided to read it RIGHT THEN! And, I have to say, I wasn't sorry. It's an excellent book.

I went into the book not knowing any plot so I won't belabor you with a lot either, but I want to say a couple of things I really liked about the book. First, it gave me insight into the very restrictive world of South Korea and did so in a way that was, honestly, heartbreaking. I pride myself on my strong will and after reading this book, I'm so grateful to not be in a society that is so restrictive of individuality.

Second, don't go into this book thinking there will be lots about vegetarianism-- there's not. The main character makes that decision and the plot of the novel then follows the ramifications of the choice. Don't think going in that the book will be a rant about how killing animals is wrong or that it's a rant against meat eating, because it really isn't. At all.

There is only one thing keeping me from giving the book five stars. Some of the language of the translation is very clunky. Since it was originally published in Korean I am mindful to not judge TOO harshly on some of the wording which could seem awkward to our Western minds. (For example, it seems odd perhaps that the characters say things like, "Father-in-law, it is good to see you today." Another example is when we have a character who takes care of others and is referred to constantly as a "carer." I'm not sure that's even a word and is certainly not a poetic turn of phrase. Another example is when a character's nipples "quietly harden." I've no clue what that last one means, but it was rather jarring and disrupted an otherwise fine passage.

Small quibbles, though! Most of the book is well written and the story is heartbreaking. The Vegetarian broke my heart like I think most people's hearts were broken over A Little Life (which, frankly, I hated).  I recommend the book highly!

Professional Reader

Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin

I'm giving this book a three stars because I found the first half of the book to be really helpful...to a point. About halfway through, however, Rubin starts talking about her low carb diet and starts to really get on my nerves.

I realized about half way through, the book was about twice as long as I could take--it turned into a rage read for me then with made up names for things like the "strategy of pairing" and how you can make something a habit by pairing it with something-- like the man who prays on his drive home...I mean, come on, seriously?

However, it was when she hit upon the "treadmill desk" that I started to scream at the book. I don't know why, but for some reason, the idea of people with treadmill desks really just fills me with rage. I can't explain it. Maybe it's because I'm one of the "rebel" tendencies she mentions-- I think there's truth to that particular aspect of her book because every strategy she had in the book she went "This won't work for Rebels" or "this MIGHT work for rebels but it's unlikely" and it just made me so angry I wanted to change my entire life to prove her wrong.

So, there's some good stuff in here, but there's some stuff that had me yelling at the book, too!

Professional Reader

It Ended Badly by Jennifer Wright

Do you like history? Have you ever had a relationship end badly? Do you like to laugh?

 If you answered any of those questions with a yes, then this is the book for you! Filled with lively history told in a funny and engaging way, Wright's book of thirteen romances that went really badly  looks at some bad relationships that will make your most insanity filled romance seem tame. Well, tame unless you killed them. Or maimed them. Or perhaps just decided would make your relationship one in which you pretended they were a ghost. Unless you did that sort of thing. In which case, you might be in the book. Or in jail. And then you probably don't get to pick your reading material-- in which case I'm sorry you won't get to read this book because you made bad and insane choices. You're missing out on a gem.

It's a crazy book, but it's crazy good.

Wright is the kind of writer I wish Sarah Vowell were. Everyone loves Vowell because she loves history but I find her humor to be off putting more than engaging. Wright's humor is a little silly but in the best way and her history is pretty damn solid, as well. I find with Vowell I tend to argue her points and be bothered that her points are often a bit simplistic, yet I never did that will Wright, perhaps because she's got this great tone that is both light, breezy, funny, but also very good at imparting historical fact and complexity. 

That sort of thing is important to me-- I've got a couple history degrees! So, I fully recommend this book. You don't HAVE to love history to enjoy it but I think once you read it, you'll be all the better for it. And, you'll look at your own relationships and feel quite grateful we don't murder each other with the frequency of the Romans!

*I was provided an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Professional Reader

Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology

Let me preface this by saying, I always felt a little dismayed that Leah Remini was a Scientologist. She seemed pretty cool-- even though I never watched King of Queens, there was always something about her I felt drawn to but then when I would think, "Oh yes, she's a Scientologist!" I felt a little creeped out.

I know it might not be very cool to say that about Scientology, but there's something about practicing Scientologists that creeps me out. So, when I saw her on 20/20 talking about leaving the "church" I was curious, I knew I would read the book. 

What I didn't expect was to come away from the book with a new respect for Remini. She's tough, smart, funny. She's able to see where she's been wrong, but not afraid to speak her mind about the injustices she sees committed by the church like the excessive amount of money that people are expected to spend in order to "go clear" or the fact that people in the church who have gay children are expected to "disconnect" from them.  

It's a compelling memoir as well, but I think for me, the best parts of the book are where she explains how hard it is to leave a place you've called home for thirty years, how hard it can be to stand up for what you believe is right and just, and how it can cost you to the comfort of what you have found strength in. I can't imagine having being part of a religion and being a faithful and devout follower of it only to realize I was wrong about it. The inner conflict of feeling both that "my church has lost its way" and "bad things will happen to me now that I have broken from this church" must be immense. And I also realize that many view Scientology as a cult (I'm one of them), but that doesn't mean it's any less painful for someone who was emotionally invested in it to leave.

Troublemaker is an excellent book-- not because it dishes dirt on Hollywood or Tom Cruise-- but because it illustrates the profound journey of a little girl who grew up in Bensonhurst with big dreams and her struggle with becoming a person of moral integrity, a person who speaks even when her voice shakes about the injustices she sees around her.  Her book is well written but also has a sense of toughness and tenderness and honesty that are rare in celebrity memoirs.

Come to the book to read about Tom Cruise, or Hollywood gossip, but know that by the end, you'll get so much more than that. You'll learn why people turn to Scientology, what being in the Church entails (it's an immense investment of both money and time), and you might just walk away from the book feeling a bit better about the times you've been the voice of reason in a crazy world.

Also, I think it's a valuable tool in making people who are in the Church much more human. I just always thought these folks must be brainwashed to stay in an organization that was strange, so overarching, so dominating of the lives of its members, but Remini has a done a great job of humanizing the people in the church, of showing how they come to find guidance and purpose and how they can stay even when they have moments of doubt. I am no longer creeped out, but rather sad that Remini lost a faith that she found solace in. My hope is that she, and others like her, know that their experiences make them stronger and that by speaking out, they serve as warning to anyone who finds themselves part of a corrupt institution that the hard path of speaking up is the morally just and ethically valid course of action.  

Leah Remini is a troublemaker in the same way Martin Luther, John Winthrop, Anne Hutchinson, and Leo Ryan were. So many troublemakers in history go through hardship. And yes, she's a celebrity, yes, she's much different than a Puritan woman cast out of her society, but the fact remains that she's someone unable to keep her mouth shut when she sees injustice and immorality taking place. She's honest about her flaws and wants her church to be as introspective as she is. They do not share that same stance. And she, much like every troublemaker who has come before her, will have to pay a heavy told. I thank her for illustrating that struggle and reminding us that following our moral compass isn't always easy but it is always best.

I think the world needs more troublemakers like Leah Remini, myself! 

Professional Reader

This is Your Life Harriet Chance by Jonathan Evison

This, for me, was a quick little read. It's an unusual book and I'd be inclined to recommend it. 

The novel tells the story of Harriet Chance, seventy-eight year old widow who, in the midst of her grieving, finds out that her husband, Bernard, had won a cruise to Alaska but he had not told her about. A decision is laid out before Harriet-- take the cruise or not take the cruise?

Against the wishes of most everyone in her life, and maybe even her own better judgement, Harriet does take the trip. And if that were all there were, I might not have enjoyed it. However, the novel is told like the old game show "This is Your Life" and Harriet's chapters are divided from third person present (at 78) to other chapters which are second person and have a tone like the game show host. I like how this is done. I found it to be engaging and interesting. 

I probably shouldn't have liked the character of Harriet but I did. She was flawed but funny. In some ways, she was a victim but in others, she was an ass. It's hard to know sometimes if the overarching "game show" host is her conscience or God, or what-- and so it becomes difficult to consider some of the things she does-- and that are done to her-- and determine what, if any, control she had over her life. It left me with questions.

Now, I have one tiny criticism but if you don't like to know ANYTHING about a book, then you should just read the book and read no further. This isn't a huge spoiler, it's something you learn in the first 20 pages.

I was bothered a bit by the character of her late husband-- he keeps literally popping in, "visiting" her. Now, I'm someone who likes my fantasy to be fantasy and my realism to be realism. And this book is largely realism but she's visited by the ghost or spirit of a dead man? Well, I suppose I can get behind that. Dickens "A Christmas Carol" does that, right? And, I think if Harriet just had moments when she sees him or talks to him and he's talking back, that would all be fine.

YET, it's not as simple as that. There are two or three (I believe three) chapters when we see Bernard in the afterlife, talking to the CTO (whatever that means, it's not explained) about how he is forbidden to go see Harriet. I found this part of the book off putting. If it's Harriet's story, why must it be muddled in by her husband? Why can't it JUST be Harriet Chance's life? Why must Bernard stick his ass in it?

When I was in graduate school, my thesis advisor once called Karen Russell's "Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Werewolves" trick literature. I don't necessarily disagree with that assessment. It's a sticky middle ground-- what's magical realism? What is acceptable in "realistic" fiction? And I think had we forgone the chapters where we see Bernard in the afterlife, it might be a much better book for me-- I could put all this together as part of her understanding of life. And perhaps that's how I should even view the afterlife chapters. However, this was the only part of the novel that bothered me. If you like Karen Russell, then you'll probably have no issue with this book.

Again, it's a fun read, and a quick one. I do recommend it and give it 3.75 kittens out of 5. I'm not going for 4 because of that whole "afterlife" aspect.

*Another frugal read-- thank you library!

Professional Reader