The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead ✎✎✎✎

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Like a runaway train, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad swept through 2016 on its way to winning the National Book Award for Fiction. You had to read it so that you knew the construct, the fantastical reimagining of a historical event, the simply gut-wrenching language; so that you could keep up with the conversation.

In Whitehead’s imagination the underground railroad, said to have saved over 30,000 people from slave-holding states, is an actual railroad. Engines, conductors, station agents, tunnels carved from the earth by those who would use them to escape.

The tunnel pulled at her. How many hands had it required to make this place? And the tunnels beyond, wherever and how far they led? She thought of the picking, how it raced down the furrows at harvest, the African bodies working as one, as fast as their strength permitted. The vast fields burst with hundreds of thousands of white bolls, strung like stars in the sky on the clearest of clear nights. When the slaves finished, they had stripped the fields of their color. It was a magnificent operation, from seed to bale, but not one of them could be prideful of their labor. It had been stolen from them. Bled from them. The tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables – this was a marvel to be proud of. She wondered if those who had built this thing had received their proper reward.

. . .Who are you after you finish something this magnificent—in constructing it you have also journeyed through it, to the other side. On one end there was who you were before you went underground, and on the other end a new person steps out into the light. The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath, the miracle you made with your sweat and blood. The secret triumph you keep in your heart.

The reader travels the rails and stops with Cora, a young woman imprisoned in slavery on a

Georgia plantation, an orphan, the victim of a brutal rape. When a fellow slave offers Cora the chance to run, at first she declines, then she hesitates and then, she decides to go. The two make it to what initially seems a haven — another imagining of Whitehead where the town population imports “pilgrims” from slavery for nefarious purposes — from which they must run again to another and another. Yet Cora takes refuge in her mind, seeking out knowledge, learning, literature.

What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.

In Juan Gabriel Vasquez’ review for the New York Times, he says: “In a sense, “The Underground Railroad” is Whitehead’s own attempt at getting things right, not by telling us what we already know but by vindicating the powers of fiction to interpret the world. In its exploration of the foundational sins of America, it is a brave and necessary book.” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/14/books/review/colson-whitehead-underground-railroad.html?_r=0

whitehead-bookThe Underground Railroad is the first work I’ve read by Colson Whitehead, but according to Salon.com,  he is “[a] recipient of the MacArthur (the so-called genius grant) and Guggenheim fellowships, Whitehead is the author of six previous novels, including “John Henry Days,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prizeand The New York Times bestseller “Zone One,” a zombie tale set in New York.” Sounds like there is more good stuff out there waiting for me to get to. The Salon article includes an interview with Whitehead about the inspiration for The Underground Railroad. “The idea of ‘what if the underground railroad was actually real,’ is, in many ways, something we picture in elementary school. Yes, it’s fanciful and childish. But it also had many possibilities and that got me thinking about all of this in an active way.” http://www.salon.com/2016/08/27/why-colson-whitehead-made-the-underground-railroad-real-its-fanciful-and-childish-but-it-also-had-many-possibilities/

The Underground Railroad is a beautiful but frequently-tough read, particularly for those who may be more willing to pretend (as I once heard a neighbor say) “all that ugly stuff is over.” In this particular time, Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad may be just the warning bell we need to stay attuned.

MENU

When Cora reaches Valentine’s place in Indiana, there is a feast day which includes “hogs . . . chopped on the long pine table and covered dipney sauce. Smoky collards, turnips, sweet potato pie.”

I love watching Top Chef, the current season of which is being filmed in Charleston, S.C. On a recent episode, they mentioned Edna Lewis, (April 13, 1916 – February 13, 2006), an African-American chef and author best known for her books on traditional Southern Cuisine. I’ve got two of her publications on order (back-ordered probably due to others having seen the same show) but I did find her recipe for Spicy Collard Greens on FoodandWine.com http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/spicy-collard-greens.

From my research, “dipney” is a sauce that was mopped on the meat while cooking. Here’s a recipe from a very fun website called the Obsessive Compulsive Barbecue: http://ocbarbecue.blogspot.com/2013/06/antebellum-barbecue-mop-recipe.html.

And from my grandmother’s cookbook, a recipe for Southern Sweet Potato Pie.

Wash 3 sweet potatoes and bake for 30 minutes until soft. (Don’t microwave incidentally, you can’t get the same texture.) Peel and mash. You need 2 cups of mashed sweet potatoes.

Preheat oven to 425.

Cream 1 cup butter, 1 1/2 cups sugar together and then mix with the mashed potatoes. Add 4 eggs, one at a time, until blended. Mis in 1/2 cup bourbon, the grated rind and juice of 1/2 orange and 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Pour the filling into the pie crust (my grandmother always used Pet-Ritz) and bake for 10 minutes. Turn the heat down to 350 and bake for another 45 minutes until the filling is set (it doesn’t wiggle) and the crust is brown.

Sift with confectioners sugar when cool or serve with a bourbon-whipped cream.

MUSIC

Spirituals would be ideal. I’ve mentioned the American Spiritual Ensemble before, led by the University of Kentucky’s own Dr. Everett McCorvey, and their music certainly would hold up to a discussion of The Underground Railroad.

Read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Remember its lessons as well as its beauty and power and tragedy. colsonwhitehead-erinpatriceo-brien_sq-7c50afdaaa81e8021d312015cea780f25ff42465-s300-c85.jpg

 

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Moonglow, by Michael Chabon ✎✎✎

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Michael Chabon’s words came to me first in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the Pulitzer-Prize winner of 2001. In large part due to my father’s own interest in 1940s and 1950s-era “Classic Comic ” books (he swears he passed college literature by reading the comic book versions only of Les Misérables and Moby Dick, among others), I fell in love with Michael Chabon’s writing. His words in Moonglow, a novel that reads like a memoir with a narrator named “Mike Chabon” enhanced my admiration.

paper-moonMoonglow is Chabon’s ode to perhaps his idealized family history: a grandfather who was a rocket man, part John Wayne-part John Glenn; a grandmother who was a French Jew, a traitor to her country and her faith, a witch and a wise woman; a scandalous rabbi uncle, cheating father, confused mother. The man can definitely turn a phrase. Consider:

At the possibility of truly being seen, something in his chest seemed to snap open like a parachute.

Or

He felt the shock of contact. The weight of her against his chest felt like something she had decided to entrust to him.

And finally, the image that has stayed with me for days:

In his fitful eastward progress through Belgium and Germany that winter, my grandfather had shared all manner of billets: with dogfaces and officers, in misery and in comfort, in attack and in retreat, and pinned down by snow or German ordnance. He had bedded down under a bearskin in a schloss and in foxholes flecked pink with the tissue of previous occupants. If an hour’s sleep were to be had, he seized it, in the bedrooms or basements of elegant townhouses, in ravaged hotels, on clean straw and straw that crawled with vermin, on featherbeds and canvas webbing slung across the bed of a half-truck, on mud, sandbags, and raw pine planks. However wretched, accommodations were always better or no worse than those on the enemy side.

He can definitely turn a phrase. Moonglow is Chabon’s love letter to perhaps his idealized family history: a grandfather who was a rocket man, part John Wayne-part John Glenn; a grandmother who was a French Jew, a traitor to her country and her faith, a witch and a wise woman; a scandalous rabbi uncle, cheating father, confused mother.

On his deathbed, Mike Chabon’s grandfather makes a confession: he was the one who time-von-braunfound Wernher von Braun’s stock of V-2 plans, undercutting the Nazi SS officer’s (and father of the NASA Moon Shot) ability to negotiate his escape from Germany. From this confession, Mike uncovers more family secrets that he is not sure he really wants to know.

Chabon’s novel gleams with aurulent moonlight. From the character’s star-watching hobby, to grandfather’s rocket building, and the moon glow songs of the war era, Chabon the author rarely misses a chance to include a lunar reference.

I listened to Moonglow on the audible app and truly enjoyed the narrator’s voice, pacing, and flair for French, German, Southern, etc, accents. It was something I looked forward to turning on when I got into the car for a drive.

With the family secrets angle, the World War II history, a romance, and several mysteries, Chabon’s Moonglow has something for everyone and is a good choice for a book club. I do recommend it. And I am especially excited to recommend a menu and music. Each fall, I enjoy throwing a Harvest Moon Party featuring “moon music” and food. I hope you enjoy.

MENU

Full Moon Cocktails contain 1 1/2 ounce orange curaçao and 1 1/2 ounce amaretto served over ice.

Or make Full Moon Punchman-in-the-moon

  • 2 (750-milliliter) bottles white rum
  • 2 cups applejack
  • 3 cups Velvet Falernum
  • 1 cup Campari
  • 3 cups cranberry juice
  • 3 cups orange juice
  • Juice of 6 large lemons (about 1 cup)
  • 2 liters ginger ale
  • Ice
  • 2 large lemons, thinly sliced
  • 2 medium limes, thinly sliced
  • 2 medium Gala or Fuji apples, thinly sliced

INSTRUCTIONS: Combine rum, applejack, Velvet Falernum, Campari, cranberry juice, orange juice, lemon juice, and ginger ale in a large punch bowl. Add ice and stir until well blended and chilled, about 40 times. Top with lemon, lime, and apple slices, and serve over ice in a punch glass.

Mezzelune Pasta. This half-moon shaped pasta (mezzelune) is similar to ravioli and you can find it filled with many of the same ravioli-typical fillings: cheese, meats, nuts, etc. I generally use a simply butter and parmesan sauce for the pasta.

Moon Pies. Make (or buy) very thin chocolate chip cookies. Tate’s Bake Shop cookies work well. On the flat side of a cookie, spread marshmallow cream then top it with another cookie. Make as many sets as you will serve. Then dip half of the cookie/marshmallow cream combo in melted chocolate and allow to cool. This will earn raves!

(Or you could find some of that astronaut ice cream they sell at the Air & Space Museum)

MUSIC

This is a fun one! So many great songs.

Moondance/My Funny Valentine Van Morrison

Moon River Andy Williams

Moonlight Sonata Chopin

Moonlight Serenade Glenn Miller and His Orchestra

Blue Moon of Kentucky Béla Fleck

East Of The Sun (And West Of The Moon) Diana Krall

Clair De Lune Debussy

Moonlight Serenade Frank Sinatra

Sister Moon Sting

Moonlight In Vermont

Fly Me To The Moon Diana Krall, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra — any version you love

It’s Only a Paper Moon Ella Fitzgerald

Blue Moon The Marcels

MOVIE CASTING

Mike Chabon  — Jason Schwartzman

Grandmother — Juliette Binoche

Mother — Alison Brie

Grandfather — Eric Bana

Uncle Ray — David Krumholtz

Happy Eating and Reading!

 

My Reads: Best Books of 2016

Happy New Year! 2016 has come and gone, leaving trail marks, some more scorching than others. But in my own rearview mirror, I have some books that I truly enjoyed — not all of which were published in 2016 — and will relish the thoughts they left behind and the opportunity to re-read them in the future.

shakespeareA special delight of this past reading year for me was the Hogarth Press Shakespeare rewrite project. I enjoyed Anne Tyler‘s Vinegar Girl, a revision of Taming of the Shrew , and Jeannette Winterson‘s take on The Winter’s Tale entitled The Gap of Time. I haven’t reviewed Vinegar Girl yet, but here’s more on The Gap of Timehttps://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/07/27/the-gap-of-time-jeanette-winterson/

austenI enjoyed even more the Harper-Collins “Austen Project” series re-exploring the novels of Jane Austen, particularly Eligible! by Curtis Sittenfield, which is one of my favorite books of the year.  So far, all I have read are Emma by Alexander McCall Smith. I have not yet read Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid or Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope. Here are my more in=depth reviews: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/08/13/emma-a-modern-retelling-by-alexander-mccall-smith/, https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/07/17/eligible-by-curtis-sittenfeld/.

book-drawing-lessons-0005.jpgIn addition to my top five list, which I’m getting to . . ., I also had some very fun book experiences this year. I traveled to New Orleans and sat in the lobby bar of the Pontchartrain Hotel jotting some notes for my own novel and hoping I was channelling the soul of Tennessee Williams, reputed to have written Streetcar Named Desire in the same location. I attended the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning’s Kentucky Literary Hall-of-Fame ceremony and enjoyed seeing Bobbie Ann Mason accept her position as only the second living member of the Hall of Fame. My fellow writing group members and I traveled together to New York for a Pitch Conference with our respective works and met fellow writers from across the country, New York editors and agents. I achieved publication with two short stories! The first in Nowhere Magazine, http://nowheremag.com/2016/10/clearing-out/, and the second in the second edition of AvantAppalachia, avantappalachia.com. 

Back to my top reads of 2016:

metropol-postcardA Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Dear Mr. Towles: I love your words. Your elegant view of life. The grace and beauty with which you depict humans and the events surrounding them. I will read anything you write. (You should too.) Full review: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/10/15/a-gentleman-in-moscow-by-amor-towles-✎✎✎✎✎/

Commonwealth by Anne Patchett. There are those writers who can haunt you with an idea. Some who can impress you with a particular sentence or a descriptive image. Anne Patchett launches all the weapons in her impressive arsenal at the reader with every book she writes and leaves the reader with her words, thoughts, ideas, and novels imprinted on their memory. Full review: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/11/17/commonwealth-by-ann-patchett-✎✎✎✎/

sittenfeld_eligible3Eligible! by Curtis Sittenfield. Any writer who can take Jane Austen, Mr. Darcy, Skyline Chili, the Bachelor, and a day trip through Lexington, Kentucky, and combine them into a funny, sexy, skewering romp through American pop culture should be a best-seller. And Ms. Sittenfield deservedly is. I loved Eligible! https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/07/17/eligible-by-curtis-sittenfeld/

brooklyn.jpgThe Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney and Modern Lovers by Emma Straub. I’m cheating a little to include two books as one, but there was something quite similar to me in these two tales of Gen X’ers aging into parenthood, amid family crisis and the havoc of the past. I liked and frequently recommended both. Full reviews for both novels: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/06/08/modern-lovers-emma-straub/ and https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/05/04/the-nest-by-cynthia-daprix-sweeney/

Finally, I struggled over this but am going to include The Sport of Kings by Kentucky horse-racing-neck-and-neckauthor C.E. Morgan. I feel like I spent the most time with this doorstop of a book this year, as I reviewed it for my mother’s book club and wanted to do as well as possible in approaching the themes and history as possible. I hazarded some guesses as to the notably reticent Morgan’s literary goals, but long and short: it’s quite a masterpiece of Kentucky history and I feel it must be included here.https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/10/22/the-sport-of-kings-c-e-morgan-✎✎✎/

So, there’s my 2016 roundup. I have a few more reviews to add from the end of the year: The Mothers by Brit Bennet, The Nix by Nathan Hill, Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. And then it’s to my to-be-read stack for 2017: The Underground Railroad, The Guineveres, Tana French’s The Trespasser, Hillbilly Elegy. And then there’s that novel I’m supposed to be writing!

Happy Happy New Year and all the best reading — I hope I can help guide your choices.

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