I have a feeling I am forgetting a book before I even start this post, which makes me anxious. When I actually have this baby, who is due to arrive very soon now, will I remember what I read? WILL I READ AT ALL???
As far as I can recall, the first new book I read this year was Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. This is one of those books that I’m glad to have read despite the fact that it is impossible to enjoy given the brutality of the subject matter. About Cora, a young enslaved woman who embarks on a journey seeking freedom facilitated by an actual underground railroad, the novel is a fascinating kind of historical fiction. The way I read it, various atrocities from different time periods were sort of overlaid onto Cora’s slavery-era experience–a hiding-in-the-attic situation like Anne Frank’s, a devious medical experiment that made me think of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and eugenics movements, a living history museum that recalled the Hottentot Venus. Without knowing that the underground railroad was not historically a true underground railroad with tracks and train cars, I think it would follow that all of the other brutalities Cora faced were historically accurate, too–and they were, in a way, although perhaps not in terms of chronology. Layering and collapsing history the way he did, I thought Whitehead brought home a sort of continuity of violence and oppression. The structure of the book, which periodically dipped into another perspective for a chapter to show the reader–but not Cora–what happened to other characters, I found very effective.
My next read was a huge change of pace: Marcy Dermansky’s The Red Car. The short speedy book that I think might not have been as short as it seemed–it went so fast–is about a woman named Leah, who moves from one adventure to the next as quickly as the prose, without necessarily knowing what she is doing, where she is going, or why. The story starts when she is in college, then it is six years later, then ten, then the rest of the book takes place within the span of two weeks. Each of the previous time periods is important in the present, but almost haphazardly so–Leah doesn’t recall the past so much as encounter it as she moves forward. There is a bit of magical realism in the book–or is there?–lots of sex, tender feelings, self-doubt. It’s simultaneously dark and light, wild and startlingly realistic (amidst all the action she’s embroiled in, Leah takes time-outs to telecommute to her job). I loved it.
It has long been a problem for me that I am so behind on reading James Baldwin’s work and, with the release of the new documentary I am Not Your Negro, I really had to start filling in the gaps. I thought I’d begin with Go Tell it on the Mountain, his first novel. About a fourteen year old boy named John, as well as the adults in his orbit, the novel toggles between Harlem and the South, the past and the present, and tells a complex story of race, desire, infidelity, parenthood, religion, sexuality, and family. The prose is always sharp and specific, but at times it rises with the moment to be truly ecstatic. The way that it mixes religiosity with homosexual desire is really beautiful. Knowing when the book was published–1953–and that it is semi-autobiographical, it must have been very brave, too.