April 2020: Colson Whitehead

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April 2020: Colson Whitehead

1sweetiegherkin
Mar 1, 2020, 7:09pm

In April, we'll be reading works by Colson Whitehead. What's on your TBR list for this month?

2sparemethecensor
Mar 1, 2020, 7:43pm

I read Zone One and hated it. I seem to be in a minority viewpoint there. I remember little about it other than a sense of dislike, and apparently I rated it 1.5 stars here. Woof.

I quite liked The Underground Railroad, however. A clever conceit that was well executed.

Not sure what else I'll check out from him in April.

3Yells
Editado: Mar 1, 2020, 11:51pm

I really enjoyed The Underground Railroad as well. I have The Nickel Boys on audio so I will post once I finish that one.

4Yells
Mar 18, 2020, 4:06pm

I just finished listening to The Nickel Boys on audio. I enjoyed it, but with everything going on in the world these days, audio was probably not the way to go as I got distracted and had to backtrack every so often. It was also a really sad story so perhaps not the best choice overall. However, it was an excellent book and an important story to tell. Elwood is a bright kid who makes a bad choice (wrong place at the wrong time kind of choice) and ends up at the Nickel Academy. It's the 60's so racism and segregation are still in full swing. He arrives scared but determined to do his time and get out as fast as possible. Unfortunately, the guards there have a different agenda and Elwood soon realises the horrors that await everyone there. It is based on a true story so that makes it even more horrific.

5sweetiegherkin
Abr 4, 2020, 12:22pm

>4 Yells: Oh wow. I've heard good things about that one. Sounds interesting but incredibly sad.

Since we're all stuck at home, I'll be looking into whatever my library has available digitally re: Colson Whitehead.

6Yells
Abr 4, 2020, 12:35pm

If anyone knows how to lend a Kindle book (can you lend one?), I have a digital copy of The Underground Railroad that someone can borrow.

7sweetiegherkin
Abr 12, 2020, 12:50pm

>6 Yells: I'm not sure... not super familiar with Kindle. This is what Amazon says on their website: https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=GJUXNRAHSH6LX6FA

8sweetiegherkin
Abr 12, 2020, 1:17pm

Today I finished Sag Harbor, which is not usually one of the top Colson Whitehead titles I hear people talking about, but it was available digitally through my library.

It's essentially a coming-of-age type story that focuses on 15-year-old Ben during a summer he and his brother stay out at their family's beach house with their parents only coming out during the weekends. However, it's clearly being narrated by an older Ben, and he oftentimes dips back into memories of other times.

It's one of those books where nothing really happens of great significance and it's more about character development. Usually I like those kinds of books but as as >4 Yells: says, perhaps now was not the best time for it. With all that's going on in the world, seems like I am doing better with books that have the kind of action that draws you right in or are full of enough humor to distract me for a bit.

That being said though, I still liked this book on the whole. There's a lot of deep themes about identity, race, family, etc. underneath the seemingly mundane exterior of a bunch of boys hanging out all summer doing a whole lot of nothing. Whitehead is clearly an excellent writer, and I look forward to reading other books by him. My only real complaint is that while the male characters are well developed (especially Ben of course), the female characters are just there as objects for the boys.

My library also has a digital copy of The Underground Railroad available so that's up next for me.

9Yells
Abr 12, 2020, 1:30pm

If anyone wants to PM me their email address, I can try to 'lend' it. I'm curious to see how easy it is.

My tastes are all over the map these days. I just finished the new Jeffrey Archer and while his books are usually brain candy, I found this one confusing and weird. But then my brain is confusing and weird so maybe it wasn't the book. I also finished Oliver Twist and loved it. And I'm not generally a Dickens fan. It's like bizarro/opposite world.

10sweetiegherkin
Abr 21, 2020, 2:15pm

>9 Yells: I hear that. Seems like a lot of what I'm reading lately is middle-of-the-road, but I cannot tell if that's actually the books or if it's me.

11sweetiegherkin
Abr 21, 2020, 2:47pm

Earlier this week I finished The Underground Railroad. It's definitely well written, but also intense -- understandably so with the subject matter. Slavery, physical abuse, sexual assault, lynchings. It's a difficult read for that reason. I found myself having to switch away from it to just listen to some upbeat music for a bit. The characters are well done and the final reveal about what happened to Mabel was poetically tragic. Personally, I wasn't that big a fan of Whitehead's use of an actual railroad instead of a metaphorical one, but that's mostly because I think there are enough people out there already confused! No need to add on to that, imho. But overall, it was a good read. I had been hesitant to read it before because of the subject matter and knowing it would be unsettling, but it was interesting and worth seeing what all the buzz was about.

12sweetiegherkin
Abr 21, 2020, 3:54pm

A couple of quotes that stood out to me from The Underground Railroad:

- ‘I’m what botanists call a hybrid,’ he said the first time Cora heard him speak. ‘A mixture of two different families. In flowers, such a concoction pleases the eye. When that amalgamation takes its shape in flesh and blood, some take great offense. In this room we recognize it for what it is -- a new beauty come into the world, and it is in bloom all around us.’

- Georgina said the children make of it what they can. What they don't understand today, they might tomorrow. 'The Declaration is like a map. You trust that it's right, but you only know by going out and testing it yourself.'" (in reference to the Declaration of Independence)

I also found this interview with the author that has some interesting tidbits: https://www.vulture.com/2016/08/colson-whitehead-author-of-the-underground-railr...

13sweetiegherkin
Abr 21, 2020, 10:17pm

P.S. Taking a little break from Colson Whitehead to read Dune for this virtual book club: https://sclsnj.libnet.info/event/4262742 FYI, in case anyone here is interested in joining as well.

14sweetiegherkin
Maio 2, 2020, 10:30pm

Although >2 sparemethecensor: did not review it positively, I still picked up Zone One because it was available digitally through my library. I'm listening to the audiobook version and am not quite halfway through it. So far, I'm finding it quite a fitting read to our current global situation. Take this quote for instance:

The last time he saw his childhood home was on Last Night. It, too, had looked normal from the outside, in the new meaning of normal that signified resemblance to the time before the flood. Normal meant "the past." Normal was the unbroken idyll of life before. The present was a series of intervals differentiated from each other only by the degree of dread they contained. The future? The future was clay in their hands.

There is one character who is "a firm believer in the Island Theory of plague survival," but the narrator sees it otherwise:

It was hard to argue with the logic of the Island die-hards and their sun-drenched dreams of carefree living once every meter inside the beach line had been swept. The ocean was a beautiful wall, the most majestic barricade. Living would be easy. They'd make furniture out of coconuts, forget technology, have litters of untamed children who said adorable things like, "Daddy, what's on demand?"

In practice, something always went wrong. The Carolinas, for example. Someone snuck back to the mainland for penicillin or scotch, or a boatful of aspirants rowed ashore bearing a stricken member of their party they refused to leave behind, sad orange life vests encircling their heaving chests. The new micro-societies inevitably imploded, on the island getaways, in reclaimed prisons, at the mountaintop ski lodge accessible only by sabotaged funicular, in the underground survivalist hideouts finally summoned to utility. The rules broke down.


Without getting overly political, I feel like we see that a bit now. People who thought they were prepared for some sort of "apocalypse" event did not foresee what we actually have happening and find themselves unable to cope. And, also, stay-at-home orders are the most helpful if all people actually stay at home...

However, here's another review that like >2 sparemethecensor: finds the book less than stellar. https://buffalonews.com/2011/10/30/an-occasionally-inspired-take-on-the-zombie-a... It might all be in the timing of when it's read.

15sweetiegherkin
Maio 3, 2020, 7:49pm

Here's another quote that stood out:

Mark Spitz had met plenty of the divine-retribution folks over the months. This was their moment; they were umbrella salesmen standing outside a subway entrance in a downpour. The human race deserved the plague, we brought it on ourselves for poisoning the planet, for the Death of God, the calculated brutalities of the global economic system, for driving primordial species to extinction: the entire collapse of values as evidenced by everything from nuclear fission to reality television to alternate side of the street parking. Mark Spitz could only endure these harangues for a minute or two before he split. It was boring.The plague was the plague. You were wearing galoshes, or you weren't.

I could see how folks expecting a traditional zombie story would not be thrilled by this title. For me, it seemed to help that I had just read two other Colson Whitehead books so I got a sense for what his style would be like. And that it wouldn't be a George Romero "Night of the Living Dead" kind of zombie story.

In addition, I personally kind of like how the "z" word is never used. It's the plague, Last Night, skeles, stragglers....

16sweetiegherkin
Maio 15, 2020, 1:10pm

You may have heard this news already, but Nickel Boys won a Pulitzer prize.

" ... Colson Whitehead won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in fiction on Monday for his novel The Nickel Boys, joining William Faulkner, John Updike, and Booth Tarkington as the only writers to win the prestigious prize twice. But unlike the other three, Whitehead’s wins are consecutive efforts, his last book, The Underground Railroad, having garnered a Pulitzer in 2017."

Full story here: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/05/colson-whitehead-awarded-second-p...

Quite an achievement!

17sweetiegherkin
Maio 15, 2020, 1:44pm

Back to Zone One because I really did enjoy it, here's a few more links related to it.

Interview with the author: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/10/colson-whitehead-on-zo...

"In terms of what the word zombie means to other people, well, I don't know. When I was starting the book, I would say, 'I'm writing a horror novel with zombies.' And my sort of bookish friends would say adopts a clipped, defensive tone: 'I don't like zombies. I don't like zombie books.'

And I'd ask them, 'Well, what zombie books have you read? What zombie films have you seen?' None. So people who are inside horror culture have their own ideas about zombies, and the people outside have their own stereotypes about zombies. What I tried to do with the book was embrace some of the conventions of the film genre, and reject others. By keeping what I like, and throwing out what I don't, I hopefully can expand people's ideas about this type of horror story. ... For me, the terror of the zombie is that at any moment, your friend, your family, you neighbor, your teacher, the guy at the bodega down the street, can be revealed as the monster they've always been."

A more positive review than the one I posted earlier: https://www.npr.org/2011/10/15/141236169/zone-one-what-happens-when-zombies-take...

A somewhat more neutral review, although I dislike the metaphor used for it: https://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/30/books/review/zone-one-by-colson-whitehead-boo...

However, I did really like this analysis from that review -- "The shape it makes is a love story. More specifically, a story of lost love, at first glance contemporary America’s for its own cultural protocols — from sidewalk etiquette to sitcom vectors — but beyond that, humanity’s love for ritual, its dependence on ways of imposing meaning on the void; for religious trinkets or scientific models or personal superstitions or long-term financial plans; for every gimmick, brand preference, boxed set or mumbled prayer that helps us deny the absurdity of our predicament and the certainty of death. "

18sweetiegherkin
Maio 15, 2020, 2:11pm

And just a couple more quotes from Zone One:

- He missed the stupid stuff everyone missed, the wifi and the workhorse chromium toasters, mass transportation and gratis transfers, rubbing cheese-puff dust on his trousers and calculating which checkout line was shortest, he missed the things unconjurable in reconstruction. That which will escape. His people. His family and friends and twinkly-eyed lunchtime counterfolk. The dead. He missed the extinct. The unfit had been wiped out, how else to put it, and now all that remained were ruined like him.

- When he used to watch disaster flicks and horror movies he convinced himself he’d survive the particular death scenario: happen to be away from his home zip code when the megatons fell, upwind of the fallout, covering the bunker’s air vents with electrical tape. He was spread-eagled atop the butte and catching his breath when the tsunami swirled ashore, and in the lottery for a berth on the spacecraft, away from an Earth disintegrating under cosmic rays, his number was the last one picked and it happened to be his birthday. Always the logical means of evasion, he’d make it through as he always did. He was the only cast member to heed the words of the bedraggled prophet in Act I, and the plucky dude who slid the lucky heirloom knife from his sock and sawed at the bonds while in the next room the cannibal family bickered over when to carve him for dinner. He was the one left to explain it all to the skeptical world after the end credits, jibbering in blood-drenched dungarees before the useless local authorities, news media vans, and government agencies who spent half the movie arriving on the scene. I know it sounds crazy, but they came from the radioactive anthill, the sorority girls were dead when I got there, the prehistoric sea creature is your perp, dredge the lake and you’ll find the bodies in its digestive tract, check it out. By his sights, the real movie started after the first one ended, in the impossible return to things before.

There were more passages that struck me, but unfortunately I didn't head over here earlier to put them down and now they've fallen out of my head.

19Yells
Maio 15, 2020, 3:40pm

>16 sweetiegherkin: I've been living under a rock lately, so didn't know that - very cool! It was quite a powerful book.

That article made me sad though. To grow up always wanting to a black Stephen King or black Marquez? I can't imagine growing up like that, always in the shadow of something that you see as more powerful. That sentence brought home everything he has been trying to convey in his novels. I am so glad that he is now an accomplished writer in his own right and I hope he doesn't feel like he has to live in that shadow any more.

20Yells
Maio 15, 2020, 3:42pm

Never heard of Zone One but it sounds good!

21sweetiegherkin
Jul 30, 2020, 9:14pm

Didn't have time to post earlier but I did read Nickel Boys earlier this month (a little behind for this author, I know, but it took a while to get a hold on a copy). It was a beautifully written book and I quite liked the 'twist' at the end (although I started to guess it a little in advance). It was a sad story all around, especially since it was loosely based on real circumstances.

22BookConcierge
Jul 31, 2020, 11:45am

I'm picking up the audio of Nickel Boys today at the library, and will start it this weekend.

23sweetiegherkin
Editado: Ago 1, 2020, 9:53am

>22 BookConcierge: I hope you like it!

P.S. I listened to the audiobook too and thought the narrator did a good job.

24sweetiegherkin
Ago 1, 2020, 10:07am

Here's an NPR interview with Colson Whitehead re: Nickel Boys
https://www.npr.org/2019/07/16/742159523/colson-whitehead-on-the-true-story-of-a...

You can listen to the audio or read the transcript. This quote from the author on why he wrote the book stood out:

I didn't want to. I felt sort of compelled to. You know, I came across a story of the school in 2014. They wanted to sell the property, the state of Florida did. And they started exhuming the official graveyard, and then they found a lot of unmarked graves. And some archaeology students started excavating the unmarked graves and trying to ID different students who'd been there. And the story stayed with me. You know, if there's one place like this, there are many places. And maybe it's a reform school, it's an orphanage.

Talking to some folks in Canada, they talked about residential schools there where indigenous kids were taken from their families and put in schools to learn about white culture, and the same kind of abuse happened. And it seemed, if the story hadn't been told, someone needed to tell it.

25sweetiegherkin
Ago 1, 2020, 11:22am

P.S. I think that Whitehead's writing style in Sag Harbor was pretty similar to Nickel Boys and he touches on similar topics of racism and teenagers coming of age, but with less exploitation and abuse in their lives. So if you liked Nickel Boys, you may very well like Sag Harbor as well, and it can be a bit of a palate cleanser from everything being so sad (not that it's exactly a 'feel good' read either but you get my drift, I hope).

26sparemethecensor
Ago 19, 2020, 8:12pm

Of interest, perhaps, to fans of The Underground Railroad, I recently finished The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates which was well reviewed, but the entire time I kept thinking that it paled in comparison to Whitehead's! The conceits are similar, but I found Whitehead's to be far better executed -- Coates's use of magical realism felt uneven, and I did not care for the choices made around Harriet Tubman's character. Has anyone else read this? Wondering if others had a similar reaction...

27Yells
Ago 19, 2020, 9:36pm

>26 sparemethecensor: Haven't read that one yet, but oddly enough, I just finished watching Harriet, a film about Harriet Tubman. I quite enjoyed learning about her life. She was kind a remarkable woman.

28sparemethecensor
Ago 20, 2020, 7:18am

>27 Yells: Yes, I completely agree. Harriet Tubman was a truly remarkable and heroic figure.

This isn't specific, so no spoilers, but one thing that I didn't care for in The Water Dancer was that he gave Harriet Tubman magic powers to do her Underground Railroad work, but the events were (to my knowledge) all the same things she did in real life without any superpowers. It felt diminishing to her true story. She did these things as a normal human like any of us, not requiring magic...so why say she had it in this novel? What does it add?

29sweetiegherkin
Ago 22, 2020, 5:58pm

>26 sparemethecensor:, >27 Yells:, >28 sparemethecensor: I haven't read that one (sadly I haven't yet gotten around to reading any books by Ta-Nehisi Coates), but that does sound like an odd choice. Like you say, it almost makes her very real and extraordinary work sound less extraordinary because of special powers to do it, rather than her being a person who saw the problem as well as the risks, and choose to make a difference.

30sparemethecensor
Ago 22, 2020, 7:07pm

>29 sweetiegherkin: Thank you, yes, you put it very articulately. I completely agree.

31sweetiegherkin
Ago 22, 2020, 8:16pm

>30 sparemethecensor: thanks, although I see now that I put "choose" instead of "chose" ! whoops