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Yes, you really do need to read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

2 Mar

colson_whitehead_underground_railroadIf you’re doing this whole “reading” thing right, there should ideally be a shortlist of books that changed your mind/blew your mind/expanded your mind, whether on specific subjects or just in general. They don’t have to be the greatest books ever written, or even particularly literary or influential (though it’s always nice if they are). They’re just the ones you read in the right place at the right time in your life, or in history. They’re the ones you consciously or unconsciously absorbed into your worldview. A shortlist book is one you finish and then think about, constantly at first and then on and off for years, or even decades, afterwards.

My shortlist for books about racism, and specifically slavery, is particularly short, mostly because I’m an asshole who spent at least 50% of her formative years reading Stephen King and Sookie Stackhouse novels (no regrets though, no regrets). Many of the books on that list I’ve only read in the past few years—The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Homegoing, Americanah—and this month I added a new one: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Continue reading

Lessons from The Terranauts: Filter bubbles have nothing on real bubbles

31 Jan

terranauts_tc_boyleIn a world being redefined by xenophobia and authoritarianism, reviewing books has seemed, well, frivolous of late. I read Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler last month, but was distracted by Trump before I could start a review draft. I tore through Han Kang’s The Vegetarian a week ago, but got sidelined by protests before jotting down any notes. I inhaled Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 on Saturday, but a murder mystery at sea seems silly when staring down an IRL humanitarian crisis. And don’t even get me started on George Washington’s biography—the man once graciously returned a lost dog to a British general, in the middle of a war. Donald Trump’s broadsides feel pettier than usual after even a few pages with the original founding father.

Still, reading a book—preferably one set in a time/place/galaxy far, far, away—can be a welcome reprieve these days, and I really went into T.C. Boyle’s The Terranauts expecting to forget, for at least a few hours, about the particular brand of America we find ourselves in at the moment. I suppose, in some sense, the book did accomplish that: For a few beautiful hours, I disliked the characters in this novel almost as much as I dislike a certain newly minted leader of the free world.  Continue reading

If you only read one novel about a 19th century Scottish triple-homicide…

14 Dec

graeme-macrae-burnet-his-bloody-projectThe fact that His Bloody Project is (mostly) fictional is either the most or least important thing you could know about it, depending on how much you care.

Framed as a memoir written by an accused murderer, coupled with court transcripts and another associated documents related to the crime, HBP—down to its faux-bloody-fingerprinted cover—wants very badly to sell itself as a true-crime adventure, an In Cold Blood for fans of 1800s homicides committed in remote and sparsely populated Scottish enclaves. That the book is in fact a epistolary novel marauding as truth makes it all the more ambitious and, like its main character, all the more tricky to pin down.

Said main character is Roddy Macrae, who opens his lawyer-prescribed written statement, i.e. the book, with a fairly direct confession:

“My life has been short and of little consequences, and I have no wish to absolve myself of responsibility for the deeds which I have lately committed. [My advocate] has instructed me to set out, with as much clarity as possible, the circumstances surrounding the murder of Lachlan Mackenzie and the others, and this I will do to the best of my ability….I shall begin by saying that I carried out these acts with the sole purpose of delivering my father from the tribulations he has lately suffered.”

Continue reading

3 thrillers to distract you from all of the things

17 Nov

It’s a good time to read a gripping book: The weather is getting colder, the days are getting shorter, and it’ll be hard to maintain a decent library when climate change puts us all underwater. So here are a few page-turners that got me through the past week. Continue reading

Hillbilly Elegy is a humblebrag of a memoir

2 Nov

51idsm4kvzl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Memories of an Appalachian adolescence meshed with analysis of the disaffected white working class, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy has been making the rounds as a primer on the sentiments that have given rise to Donald Trump. It certainly has all the right ingredients: Vance is a white man who grew up poor in Ohio with family roots in Kentucky. His mother struggled with addiction and had a string of bad boyfriends and husbands. Vance was mostly raised by his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw; his sister; and a cast of eccentric aunts and uncles.

Vance’s childhood was chaotic at best, and he might have been headed down the same path as so many of his peers (unemployment, drugs) were it not for Mamaw’s tough love and his spontaneous decision to join the Marines after high school. After the Marines came college, then Yale Law. Then a year clerking, a year lawyer-ing, a year in operations, and then—oh the end. Then this book. Because Vance, now a Silicon Valley investor and contributor to The National Review, is only 31. Continue reading

5 books, reviewed real quick

25 Oct

Summer 2016 went by far too fast, distracted as we were by Donald Trump and the return of the bare midriff. But even though my ST updates this year have been lackluster at best—it’s my 2017 resolution, I swear—I did actually manage to finish some books this summer. So before the frost fully sets in, here are a few things I done read recently. Continue reading

Timehopping with Homegoing

14 Oct

img_2430As cars and RVs line up to pay the $25 entry fee to Arches National Park, I find myself tempted to assume that what’s ahead will be overwrought. Commercialized. Banal. The minimum-effort visitor to Arches (i.e. any rando with a car) can take an 18-mile drive around the park, at the entrance of which sits a quintessential visitor center—part education, part kitsch. I haven’t seen Delicate Arch yet (Arches’ most iconic landmark) and yet I have: on keychains, t-shirts, laminated posters, and lighters—and painted in great detail on a canvas in my Moab, Utah hotel room.

Once inside, a winding road takes me up a rock cliff, which I notice absently, and then with something bordering on panic. All the relevant alarms start to sound in my brain: YOU ARE DRIVING ON A CLIFF! THE SIDE OF THE CLIFF IS RIGHT THERE! And while I know I’m supposed to be feeling some sort of How Stella Got Her Groove Back exhilaration—I’m here! On my road trip! Seeing natural beauty!—mostly I am terrified. I’ve had a driver’s license for 17 years, but I’ve also seen Final Destination a bunch of times.  Continue reading