The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (2016) – A Man Booker Longlist Review

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Whether American author Colson Whitehead’s novel makes the Man Booker shortlist or not this book is likely to be commercially the biggest seller of the lot, due to its very good word of mouth which is creating an army of devotees and also its raft of American literary prizes including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.  Deservedly so? Absolutely!

This is a little gem of a novel which has Barack Obama claiming “terrific” on the cover and was helped up the bestsellers lists by Oprah Winfrey’s enthusiasm.  If Whitehead wins the Man Booker and he must be up there with a very strong chance, he will be the third man of colour in a row following Jamaican Marlon James and American Paul Beatty.  Whitehead’s book is, as far as I am concerned better than these two winners.

It is the story of Cora, who begins the novel as a slave on a plantation in Georgia.  The first section is involving but nothing that we have not read before, well researched from slave accounts.  I felt that I knew where the novel was going.  All this changed with Cora’s escape on the Underground Railroad, which many will know as a network of supporters and safe places which helped escapees in their bid towards freedom.  Whitehead has made this a physical thing in his book, an actual railroad which operates underground.  One character says of it;

“Most people think it’s a figure of speech…….. The Underground.  I always knew better.  The secret beneath us, the entire time.”

 Operating in the book almost like a primitive Hogwarts Express characters emerge from this surreal journey not knowing where they are into Whitehead’s fictional representation of a Southern American location, as if they are Dorothy in Oz or Gulliver on his travels but here the new locations provides a different aspect of the black American experience.

A word being used frequently about this novel is “dazzling”, appropriate enough for the characters emerging from the darkness of the underground system as well as for the tale Whitehead spins for his readers.  Strong characterisation, a rich and imaginative plot, this is a book I found myself slowing down as I got near the end as I didn’t want the experience to finish.

I knew I was going to like this book and bought it in paperback as soon as the longlist was announced.  It was a novel I had earmarked for reading whether it made the lists or not.  I was worried that because I had built it up in my head it would be disappointing (which is how I felt about “The Essex Serpent”).  I certainly was not disappointed on this occasion.  It ticks all the boxes for me, an involving, entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read.  Whether the Man Booker judges will, in order to ensure a balance of winners, favour a female or British author remains to be seen but this would be a deserving winner.

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The Underground Railroad was published in paperback in the UK in June 2017.  It is currently number 53 in Amazon’s Top 100 books and is the number 1 bestseller in their “Metaphysical and Visionary” category.

 

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Like Venus Fading – Marsha Hunt (Flamingo 1998)

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I really loved Marsha Hunt’s novel “Joy” (one of my 100 Essential books reviewed here) and also got a lot of pleasure from “Free”, although it was not as strong as her debut.  This novel, her third, slips in nicely between the two.  Hunt claims it as fiction loosely based on the life of Dorothy Dandridge, an actress  and singer who swept to a short-lived fame  but struggled in the Hollywood of the 1950’s and 60’s but whose significance as an African-American actress at Hollywood of the time is huge.

This is the story of Irene O Brien who relates her tale, beginning with a catalyst event in her life from 1965- a presumed suicide attempt.  The story moves back to Irene’s childhood and a singing partnership with her sister, a marriage which sours the sibling relationship and the birth of her autistic daughter Nadine.  Irene struggles increasingly to cope with Nadine, not knowing what was wrong with her, as her own work as an artist’s model takes off.  This leads eventually to movie work in Hollywood, where, for this beautiful woman, the casting couch is very much in evidence.  Irene’s career highlight is an Oscar nomination but such fame is only fleeting as Hollywood is not, at this time, set up to sustain a career and provide consistent work for the African- American actress.

To put this into context with the inspiration, Dorothy Dandridge, was born around the same time as Hunt’s fictional character, spent her childhood as part of a song and dance act with her sister, gave birth and struggled with a brain-damaged daughter and received the first Oscar Best Actress nomination for an African-American actress for her role in “Carmen Jones”in 1955 (losing to Grace Kelly).  In the years following this her career fell into decline and she died aged 42 in 1965. Donald Bogle in his book “Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams – The Story Of Black Hollywood” (2005) says this of Dandridge;

“For some, she represented unfulfilled promise.  For others, she was a sign of the power of drive and ambition to break down barriers.  For others, she was a doomed beauty, struggling heroically against personal demons and the fundamental racism of the industry.”

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Dorothy Dandridge

I was very much drawn into Irene’s story.  Hunt has the knack of revealing and withholding just the right amount of information to keep the reader on their toes.  (This was achieved superbly in “Joy” by having the superb character, Baby Palatine, as an unreliable narrator).  Irene’s life takes place in a time of great social and cultural change.  She was born in 1923, was a young woman during the war, participated in the madness that was Hollywood in the 1950’s where audiences began to diminish as television took hold and witnessed much civil unrest leading to the disenchantment for that generation in the 1960’s.  It is all very convincing and as Irene says in her final words in her memoir;

“…but doesn’t every life amount to more than a few paragraphs and time-worn images?

In my case, like Ethel Waters used to sing, ‘Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.’……

 Because no-one knows us like we know ourselves.”

 Marsha Hunt has been involved in other projects since the publication of “Like Venus Fading” but has not produced another novel.  In her three novels she has shown vast potential and I am sure there is another great work within her.  For me, this misses out on the five stars because Irene’s story is so close to that of Dorothy Dandridge.  I would have liked there to have been more of a step away from the source material to let Hunt’s imagination take full flight.  It is however a compelling tale which needed to be told.

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Like Venus Fading was published by Flamingo in 1998

 

100 Essential Books – Joy – Marsha Hunt (1990)

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I seem to have gone off slightly on a celebrity writer tangent recently. Amongst my last few posts have been books by Joan Collins, Fern Britton and John Major but here is probably the most successful, in my opinion, of  all celebrity-written novels. Marsha Hunt became well known in the 60’s and early 70’s as model, actress, singer and girlfriend of Mick Jagger.

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She lived in London during this time and became a regular name in tabloid newspapers for amongst other things, giving birth to Jagger’s daughter; being photographed naked by Patrick Lichfield, the Queen’s cousin, for the cover of “Vogue”; being in the cast of the London production of “Hair” as well as its official image in a silhouette of a famous photo by Justin Villeneuve (Twiggy’s manager)- see below; being the first black woman on the cover of British fashion magazine “Queen”; being the reputed inspiration for the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” and performing at the 1969 Isle Of Wight Festival.

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It seemed as if Marsha was the epitome of American glamour in Sixties London, gaining an almost iconic status.   She was a household name and probably the highest profile African-American woman in Britain. She spent the 70’s doing such diverse things as appearing in films such as the Hammer Horror “Dracula AD-1972”, making a disco album with Giorgio Moroder and became a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre.

By 1990 Marsha was living in a remote part of France and after getting the writing bug with autobiographical works put out her first novel “Joy” and what a superb debut it was. Front cover blurb compared her with Toni Morrison and this is an apt comparison as her writing was, like Morrison’s, of sheer quality and as a novelist she outshone her achievements in other areas of the arts.

The title says it all, this is an absolute joy to read. Set during the course of one day, with many flashbacks this is the tale of Joy Bang, who with her sisters became a girl group and had a hit record. Joy has died before the opening of the book and her passing is viewed through the eyes of a superb character and absolutely unreliable narrator Baby Palatine, a neighbour of the Bang girls. Her life has always revolved around Joy and her family. Celebrity, family secrets and truth are weaved so proficiently in this excellent novel. If Marsha Hunt’s novels have passed you by this is the place to start. Her second novel “Free” (1992) seems to me to be a less satisfying work. I’m not sure whether it is because it is set further in the past but it seems to lack the sheer confidence in structure and narrative style which made the debut so delightful. It’s still good but not as essential as “Joy”. I have her 1998 novel “Like Venus Falling” sat on my shelves, it is a recent acquisition and I hope to get round to reading it soon.

In 2004 Marsha Hunt was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a high profile battle with the disease and produced a best- selling account of these times in “Undefeated” (2005) which she still thankfully is. For the cover of this Patrick Lichfield recreated his famous naked Vogue shoot. At one time she was writer-in-residence at a prison in Ireland, where she now lives. Her collaboration with inmates led to an Irish bestseller of their stories “The Junk Yard” (1999). This is a woman who seems to have lived so many lives in one and has achieved success in many fields, but for me, “Joy” is her greatest achievement.

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Joy was published by Virago in 1990. Editions seem to have been published over the years by Flamingo , Penguin and Fourth Estate and Harper Collins. The image used above is from the Fourth Estate e-book edition which is available from the usual outlets.

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Maya Angelou – The Autobiographies – A Real Life Review

 

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Author, poet, singer, actress, civil rights campaigner Maya Angelou left us in May 2014 at the age of 86. At the time I was re-reading her sequence of autobiographies beginning with “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”, her most famous first volume of her life story. I carried on reading to the sixth volume “A Song Flung Up To Heaven” and ended up with a strong sense as to why this formidable woman is rightly acclaimed one of America’s greatest writers of the twentieth century. I haven’t yet read her 2013 publication which is an overview of her relationship with her mother “Mom & Me & Mom”.  Here is my book by book guide to Maya’s work.angelou books

caged birdI Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1969)fourstars

When I first read these autobiographies I was probably in my late teens and this was the one which made the most impact, probably because it is the tale of Angelou’s youth, taking her up to the age of sixteen and the birth of her son. Perhaps its a book to read when you not much older than that for it to have the greatest effect, as on re-read I
found Angelou’s prose a little flowery on occasions. For me this book comes most alive in Stamps, Arkansas, in and around her grandmother’s general store and Angelou’s relationship with her and her brother Bailey. A move to St Louis brings about a chilling incident with her mother’s boyfriend. It all makes for high quality reading.

gathertogetherGather Together In My Name (1974)fivestars

The subsequent volumes of Angelou’s life-story do not have the same kudos attached to them, in the UK anyway, as her first, so I did not approach re-reading this with the same level of expectation. I found myself enjoying it even more than the first book and for me it is the strongest in the set. I probably read this one first when I was around the same age as Angelou herself in the narrative. Maybe it needed a bit more distance and experience, which I know contradicts what I felt about “Caged Bird”. Angelou is in her late teens, has her baby son and is back living with her mother. It’s largely a search for a career and her place in the world (not sure why it has the religious-implying title). She goes from Creole cook (with no experience of Creole food) to her most questionable action when her encounter with a couple of predatory lesbians sees her wanting payback by getting them to turn tricks as she becomes an “absent madam” in a brothel. She wants to join the army but is challenged by McCarthyism, becomes part of a dancing double act and is duped into becoming a prostitute herself. All within a couple of hundred pages! It is well paced and very involving.

christmas Singin’ & Swingin’ & Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas 1976)fourstars

In this third volume music plays a central role as Maya begins working in a record shop where she meets and then marries a white Greek man. Following the breakdown of this marriage she becomes a dancer at a strip club, then a cabaret singer with her own show and a growing reputation and then part of a world tour of “Porgy And Bess”. The most striking thing in certainly the last two books has been her willingness to give things a go and usually doing them to a convincing standard. (I’m not including relationships here which to this point haven’t been wholly successful). Once again, I was with her all the way- willing her marriage to work. The world tour gives us a chance to see her as a fish out of water in different countries where the Afro-American cast is being feted in a way which could not have happened in America at that time. There’s an examination of the effects her prolonged absence has on her son and a happy reunion at the end .

heartThe Heart Of A Woman (1981)  fourstars

Quite a lot happens in this book but central is her marriage to black African Vus and the reader is required to put down their “I know this isn’t going to work….” feelings to let the story unfold. Angelou’s marriage comes at a time when there was great Black American enthusiasm for Black Africa. With such unrest in the USA it seemed to some that Africa had got it sorted out, an assumption that might have been a little premature. The book begins marvellously with Billie Holiday becoming a regular visitor at the Angelou home, fascinated by the “squareness” of Maya and her family orientated life. Two polar opposites and it doesn’t end well. Maya continues with singing but interest in the Civil Rights movement leads her to a post in Martin Luther King’s fundraising team. There’s a shaky relationship with an unsuitable bail bondsman before she is swept off her feet by the visiting Vus. The gulf between the Black American Woman and Black African Man becomes apparent in this section. Maya moves to Cairo and when that gulf becomes too wide and the marriage crumbles she relocates to Ghana. Once again, son Guy is Maya’s constant and he encounters a brush with death. We have music, theatre, relationships and a lot of politics. It’s not quite as captivating as the first three volumes but it is still high standard autobiographical writing .

all godsAll God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes (1986)threestars

Picks up where “Heart of A Woman” left off. Maya begins to forge a life in Ghana and gets a job at the university where Guy is studying. This is a story of ex-pats and not belonging as Maya faces the quandary of looking like the Africans but still not being fully accepted by them. Unlike America, it is not the colour of her skin which can cause the problems. She forges relationships mainly with a group of Black Americans who have found their way to Ghana in the hope for acceptance and a better life. Malcolm X brings the situation in America back into their lives when he comes for a visit and Maya resumes her acting career with a tour in Berlin and Italy. The Berlin sequences features a memorably excruciating breakfast party where Maya is invited by a German family and brings along an Israeli man. Here the writing really comes to life. Things take an almost mystical turn towards the end when Maya begins to sense déjà vu on a trip to a village where she is recognised even though she hadn’t been there before. This flummoxes the usually rational Angelou and her sense of displacement is brought to a head. The fragmentary nature of Maya’s sojourn in Africa affects the writing and I did not find this volume as involving as the other four. I found it enjoyable rather than essential reading.

songflungA Song Flung Up To Heaven (2002)threestars

A sixteen year gap in the publication dates although this does pick up where “All God’s Children” left off. Maya returns to work with an organisation for Malcolm X, but before she can start he is murdered. Her story is slighter here it is the events of an America in crisis which dominate. Maya has to come to terms with Malcolm X’s assassination, is on the site of the Watts Riots and in a weird history-repeating itself kind of way, just as she is about to re-start work with Martin Luther King he too is gunned down. It is in this volume that she begins work on the poetry she is associated with and the story is brought up to the point where she begins work on “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” For me this book is the least impressive of the sequence. It feels a little empty and is slightly repetitive and meandering. I know its driven by circumstances but I don’t like to see Maya at her most goal-less. I prefer the more driven-have-a-go at anything Maya of “Gather Together”. She has inevitably lost the recklessness of youth. Here we see her friendships with other notable Afro-Americans; the writers James Baldwin and Rosa Guy together with the actress Nichelle Nichols (Uhura in “Star Trek”), but her depictions of these relationships does not go deep enough for me and this thin quick-to-read volume has a tendency to skim a little superficially along the surface of the Black American life of the 1960’s. Having read six volumes, however, Maya and her family seem like old friends so I enjoyed catching up with them in this instalment.

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My Top 10 Reads Of 2014 – Part 2 – The Top 5

 

 

 

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  1. What Was Lost – Catherine O’Flynn (2007) – Read in October 2014

This debut novel did well in various first novel awards when it was published and I’m not surprised as the writing is of a high standard. It starts out with an absolutely captivating central character, ten year old Kate Meaney who covers up her miserable background with her preoccupations of herself as a girl detective, in search of a crime to solve. It’s the mid 80’s and there’s a very good feel for the period. Kate spends hours in a bleak “modern” shopping centre, where she vanishes under suspicious circumstances. The story moves on twenty years and the improved Green Oaks shopping centre becomes the centre character, throwing up ghosts for those who work there, challenging their mundane existences in what they see as fairly dead-end jobs. I found both strands of the story engrossing. There’s some laugh out loud humour and good plot twists.

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    4. 12 Years A Slave – Solomon Northup (1853) – Read in September 2014

The book has had a new lease of life as a result of the Oscar winning film, which I waited to watch until I had finished the book and which very much captures the flavour of this extraordinary memoir. Northup was a free man living in New York. On a trip to Washington he was kidnapped and sold into slavery, ending up at a cotton plantation in the South, by then it has been beaten into him that to reveal his real status would only lead to more thrashing and probable death. He cannot even reveal he can read and write. As a slave it’s relentless work, cruel treatments and thrashings for the next twelve years. I was willing on his plan for escape and bitterly sorry for those left on the Epps plantation. He very effectively conveys the futility of the slave existence and the terror that lived inside them all, knowing each day could be their last. There’s occasional deviations outlining how cotton is produced, how sugar is harvested, which is actually quite fascinating and makes his memoir of interest as a historical document as well as a dramatic story. I am ashamed that I did not know of this book before as I have read much Afro-American writing. Thankfully, the film has brought the book back into prominence and Northup’s words can take their place in the canon of great American writing.

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  1. Dead Tomorrow – Peter James (2009)- Read in October 2014

I know the similar sounding titles get confusing but this is one of his best I’ve read so far. (I think “Dead Simple” is just slightly ahead).  A couple of teenagers with their organs removed are recovered from the sea which develops into a human trafficking plot with a subplot of a teenage Brighton girl whose liver is on its last legs and whose mother is contemplating desperate measures to keep her daughter alive. It is both tense and thought-provoking stuff. We are tantalised by the ongoing plot strand of DS Grace’s wife’s disappearance and Grace’s sidekick Glenn Branson has his part beefed up a little and shows human failings. This is the fifth book of a very strong crime series.

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2 .The Last Town On Earth- Thomas Mullen (2006) -Read in May 2014

This is a thrilling debut. Set in the small American mill-town of Commonwealth, founded by Charles Worthy, a philanthropic mill-owner who wants to offer a fair deal for his workers. All seems to be going well at the tail end of the Great War, with the USA now involved in the combat when a more catastrophic event (in terms of American lives lost) occurs – a Flu epidemic .   Commonwealth decides to go into quarantine and post guards to prevent entry from potentially flu-ridden outsiders. One of the guards is Philip, the Worthy’s adopted teenage son. Whilst on duty he has to make a decision which has a tremendous effect on the town. Mullen has produced a balanced, rich tale with great moral implications and depth, very good characterisation and the plot is engrossing, tense and unpredictable. I loved it. (Just don’t read it when you have the flu!)

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1. The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) -Read in January 2014

I cannot understand how this book has passed me by up to now. If I had read this as a teenager – Wow! Even though my teenage years are long gone this still packs a hell of a punch. Set around 1961-2 in the Bronx, The Wanderers (after the Dion song) are a teen gang obsessed with sex, fighting, staying alive and pop music. In a episodic set of interlinked stories Price so effectively conjures up this group of friends moving towards adulthood. It is shocking, violent, sexy and like many teenagers full of bile for anyone apart from themselves! It does, however, work superbly. It’s unsympathetic, gritty and yet touching. This is certainly one of the best books of the 70’s and my favourite book I read for the first time this year. I loved the characters; Eugene, the stud with a secret; Joey, a victim of his outrageously aggressive father; Perry, home alone with his mother and Buddy whose wrong choices cause him to grow up too fast. (The 1979 film of the same name despite similar themes is unrelated)

So that’s my Top 10 Books of the Year. Okay, nothing in that list was actually published in 2014 but it takes me a while to get round to books. (I did read a couple that did make their first appearance in 2014 but they didn’t make my Top 10 list). Next post will be my favourite re-read of the year. Clue – it’s a non-fiction examination of the two of the biggest stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood.