The Underground Railroad | One Slave’s Adventure on a Literal Freedom Train

The Underground Railroad
Colson Whitehead (2016)

Colson Whitehead is garnering well-deserved kudos for this terrific work of historical fiction about a runaway slave’s odyssey via the Underground Railroad. Cora is a young slave living with few friends and no family on an antebellum Georgia cotton plantation. When Caesar arrives, it doesn’t take him long to peg Cora as a survivor and the perfect partner to make an escape to a better life up north.

The book takes the form of a rail adventure, as the author imagines the Underground Railroad as a literal subterranean rail line with trains, conductors, engineers, and stations. Once off the plantation, we follow Cora and Caesar on their epic adventure, including a pivotal stopover at an idyllic town in North Carolina that may not be what it seems. In pursuit is a ruthless slave catcher obsessed with capturing the pair. The Underground Railroad is an intense and richly rewarding book, with twists, turns, and terrible surprises, memorable characters, and masterful prose.

Telegraph Avenue | Head on Down to Brokeland Records

Telegraph Avenue
Michael Chabon (2012)

I’ll admit Telegraph Avenue was a bit of a struggle at first, but thanks to my commitment to book club and faith in Michael Chabon, I settled in to the book and found it a relevant and satisfying read, resulting in an interesting, lengthy discussion.

The story focuses on four characters in 1980s Oakland, California. Archy and Nat are longtime friends and partners in a struggling second-hand record shop, located in a space once occupied by a barbershop fondly remembered by old timers in the hood. Brokeland Records is at risk of becoming a piece of neighborhood history itself when a famous hometown boy, the fifth richest black man in America, announces plans to open a mega-record store in a new development down the way. As Archy and Nat react to the news, Chabon intertwines the stories of their wives, Gwen and Aviva, who work together as at-home midwives. Following a complicated delivery that requires hospital intervention, Gwen and Aviva find their own business and friendship compromised by the repercussions of a vindictive father and the condescending delivery room doctor. Parenthood, infidelity, race, class, friendship, gender, and pop culture play out in a “simpler,” pre-technology era.

The threads of this multi-character tapestry take a while to cohere, partly due to Chabon’s writing style, which can be quite effusive—sometimes I found myself screaming in my head, “enough already”—but the story is never boring and the prose is often breathtaking. Characters are nuanced, which make them human, sometimes frustratingly so, but that’s all part of the rewarding journey down Telegraph Avenue.

In the Heart of the Sea | The True Whale Tale That Inspired Moby-Dick

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
Nathaniel Philbrick (2001)

Anyone following my book recommendations for low, these many decades, could probably guess that this book was bound to show up on my list. I’m a fan of Moby-Dick (see my review here) and am continually drawn to true tales of high seas adventure (my reviews of The Perfect Storm, Batavia’s Graveyard, and Over the Edge of the World to name a few), so it only follows that a National Book Award-winning work of narrative non-fiction about the events that inspired Moby-Dick would be right up my alley.

In 1820, the Nantucket whale ship Essex was attacked by a sperm whale and quickly sank in the Pacific Ocean, stranding the crew for over ninety days at sea. Three decades later, Herman Melville drew inspiration for his epic whale tale from the infamous disaster. Philbrick’s informative and exciting book tells the Essex story and the history of New England’s 19th-century whaling industry with lively and engaging prose. Such an amazing true tale, so compulsively readable, it’s easy to see how it would eventually make its way to the big screen.

Dead Presidents | Curious Tales of POTUS Death and Remembrance

Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders
Brady Carlson (2016)

This is an entertaining and sometimes hilarious romp through some odd and unusual footnotes of American history, the truth-that-is-stranger-than-fiction surrounding the deaths and post-mortem shenanigans of certain U.S. presidents. Author Brady Carlson visits tombs, memorials, shrines, libraries, and eternal flames to explore the ways presidents have been memorialized—or not. It’s surprising how much material Carlson had to draw from, and he makes the most of it, presenting this historical travelogue with a light-hearted, humorous tone.

As someone who has logged many miles road tripping America, visiting the birth and resting places of many presidents, I particularly enjoyed hitching a ride with Carlson on his journey through the odd after-life of these dead heads of state.

The House of the Seven Gables | Visit the House, Read the Book

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The House of the Seven Gables
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1851)

My road trip this past summer included a stop in Salem, Massachusetts, the perfect excuse to finally check the box on this American classic. Nathaniel Hawthorne was a frequent visitor to his cousin’s seaside mansion, which served as the inspiration for his tale of a cursed house, tinged by witchcraft and mysterious sudden death.

My reading of Seven Gables was definitely enhanced by the excellent house tour, fresh in my mind, but I’d recommend it to anyone curious about the book that distilled life in 19th-century New England, defined Hawthorne’s reputation, and set the bar for American gothic fiction.

Disrupted | What a Short Strange Trip It Was

Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble
Dan Lyons (2016)

I really got a kick out of this book. Sure, it reminded me a tad of my former lifetime working in a tech start-up, but we were never this cult like, cutthroat, or crazy. Dan Lyons’ memoir begins when he loses his job as a tech writer at Newsweek. At fifty, he decides to try the tech sector from the inside and takes a job at HubSpot, a start-up in Boston lousy with venture capital cash and rabid enthusiasm for their mission.

Lyons, nearly twice as old as most of his colleagues, is a stranger in a strange land. Through his hilarious observations, we get a glimpse into the bizarre corporate culture, strange personalities, dysfunctional and sometimes downright hostile work environment, and blatant ageism at HubSpot, as well as the whacked-out business practices of the start-up economy. Following Lyons on his cockeyed HubSpot roller coaster ride is edifying, surprisingly suspenseful, and thoroughly entertaining.

Britt-Marie Was Here | And You’ll Be Glad You Knew Her When

Britt-Marie Was Here
Fredrik Backman (2016)

As I collect my annual recommended reading list, folks are going to notice author Fredrik Backman is well represented. A Man Called Ove bowled me over early in the year, and a few months later, I devoured Britt-Marie Was Here, the story of a middle-aged woman whose life is upended when she leaves her cheating husband and starts over, a stranger in a new town. Similar to Ove, Britt-Marie is a quirky, extremely well-defined, somewhat rigid, and not completely likable character—and I loved every minute spent with her. Shortly after landing in town, Britt-Marie unwittingly finds herself in charge of the community rec center and inherits with it a rag-tag, losing youth soccer team. No matter that she doesn’t know the first thing about the game.

Opinionated at best and passive-aggressive at worst, Britt-Marie isn’t one to make friends easily or quickly. As the story progresses and Britt-Marie becomes more enmeshed in the goings-on of this backwater town and all its Backmanesque characters, her past is revealed, deepening the story’s emotional core. Things continue to get interesting when the rival soccer team plays dirty and Britt-Marie’s contrite husband shows up on her doorstep.

Author Fredrik Backman’s unique voice, comical characters, and narrative heart make this another book to be enjoyed and shared with friends.

In the Woods | Kicking off a Promising Detective Series

In the Woods
Tana French (2007)

First book in the Dublin Murder Squad series

If you ask me, police procedurals on American TV are a dime a dozen—dull, cliche-ridden wastes of time. On the other hand, set the murder in the United Kingdom, put a flawed detective with a tortured past on the case, have their story told with literary style and well-crafted prose, perhaps add a dimension of psychological thriller, and I’m eagerly along for the ride. So it was for the Jackson Brodie novels of Kate Atkinson (see my reviews for Case Histories, One Good Turn, and Started Early, Took My Dog here) and so it is with the Dublin Murder Squad series by Tana French. On a whim, I read In the Woods (the series’ debut novel) and that whim is going to cost me considerable hours of reading time—I’m hooked and look forward to tearing through the next five installments in the foreseeable future.

Irish detective Rob Ryan is assigned a new partner and a case that hits a bit too close to home. When he was 12, Rob (who then went by the name Adam) witnessed the brutal murder of two friends. He was found days later in the woods, bloodied, traumatized, and suffering from amnesia, unable to recall crucial details from the unsolved crime. Two decades later, when a girl is murdered in the same woods, Ryan and his partner Cassie Maddox catch the case, and he’s forced to revisit old ghosts while keeping his secret past from his colleagues. As the investigation develops (along with the working relationship between first-time partners Ryan and Maddox), Ryan struggles as the line blurs between personal and professional mysteries.

Author Tana French’s writing elevates story, dialog, and atmosphere to deliver a book that satisfies as a character drama wrapped in a mystery.

Review | Pax :: A Fox and His Boy Come of Age

Pax
Sara Pennypacker (2016)
Illustrated by Jon Klassen

Here’s why dust jacket art matters. I was first encouraged to pick up Pax when I caught a glimpse of its striking cover. Flipping through, I saw illustrations peppered throughout the book and thought this was just the ticket to encourage a budding young reader I know to sink her teeth into the story of a fox and his boy. Well, my young friend was unimpressed and never cracked the cover. I, on the other hand, was hooked from the start by the most heart-wrenching opening chapter I can ever recall reading. It was so devastating, I had to close the book and put it down for a while before I was ready to read on.

The titular character is a fox, raised from a kit by a boy named Peter. Motherless, Peter lives in the country with his father, where he and Pax can spend long hours rambling together. When an unnamed national conflict arises (the author is careful not to date the action), Peter’s father enlists, forcing the boy to release Pax back into the wild and leave his best friend far behind when he goes to live with his grandparents.

Over the course of this duel coming-of-age story, Peter struggles to tame his wildness (his anger) while Pax must foster his wildness in order to survive. The narrative excels because author Sara Pennypacker conveys the fox’s story and his communication with others (human and animal) without resorting to sugary anthropomorphizing. The spare and evocative pen and ink illustrations by Jon Klassen (he of the awesome Hat series of children’s picture books) are perfectly matched to the story.

In Pax, author Sara Pennypacker and illustrator Jon Klassen have created a Charlotte’s Web for a new generation, a rich experience that will resonate with readers of all ages.

Review | The Sport of Kings :: A Book to be Reckoned With

The Sport of Kings
C.E. Morgan (2016)

I’m adding this book to my pantheon of very challenging pleasure reads, alongside Middlemarch (which I didn’t much like) and Moby-Dick (which I loved.) The Sport of Kings will sit on the fence between them, at least for now, as I continue to mull over my reaction to this book.

Having read C.E. Morgan’s first book (All the Living, 2009), which came as an amazing surprise, I looked forward to revisiting her distinctive writing style. Kings, clocking in at over 500 pages, is an equally rich, rewarding, and challenging read, but it’s also at times ponderous and meandering. Spanning multi-generations of multi-characters, primarily set in the moneyed horse country of Kentucky (but also the impoverished inner-city of Cincinnati), this book reads like a hybrid of Faulkner, Melville, Steinbeck, and Shakespeare, as it grapples with race, class, entitlement, money, poverty, slavery, and the responsibility (and imprisonment) of one generation to the next.

None of the main characters are particularly likeable, but they’re human—complex, puzzling, and imperfect. There’s Henry Forge, who inherits his father’s Kentucky farm (land that has been in his family since after the Revolutionary War) and builds his fortune by switching from crops to thoroughbreds (over his daddy’s dying wish), hellbent on a quest to build the next Secretariat. Henry grooms his daughter Henrietta to be the next to add luster to the family’s good name. Henrietta is a tragic character, whose life is charted by her family tree before she’s even born. Then there’s Allmon, a bi-racial ex-con hired to work as a groom, who has a distant and unknown connection to the Forge family. The sun around which they all revolve is a thoroughbread filly named Hellsmouth, the likes of which has never been seen.

The Sport of Kings is a book that demands complete attention, and you want to give it, as you absorb each sentence with care. Morgan’s prose is a master class in description, lush and evocative without pretension, but for a book of this length, such verbiage can get a wearisome. While I marveled, for instance, at the way Morgan accelerates time, propelling a character through the years with the brevity of a page or two, like a verbal film montage, by the end of the book I couldn’t take another hyper-florid description of day’s end. Just set the dang sun already!

To say there’s a lot going on in this book is an understatement, as characters attempt to stake their claim while trying to escape and reshape their pasts, at times with the weight of the world’s problems upon them. Reading Kings is worthwhile but difficult, and it takes time. It’s a book you could get through quickly by skimming, but you don’t want to. The expressive writing invites you to slow down and savor the language; there’s just so much of it.

While not a great book (and I really wanted to love it), The Sport of Kings is a book that will spark interesting discussion. (I have no doubt it will be taught in American literature courses alongside the greats.) I keep asking others if they have read it, hoping to find an impromptu book discussion that will certainly enhance the reading experience.