Hot Book: The Underground Railroad

You may have heard that Oprah Winfrey has selected The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead as her latest book club pick. Even before Oprah put this book on her list, there was a lot of attention starting to build around this book. The New York Times said this: “Whitehead’s imagination, unconstrained by stubborn facts, takes the novel to new places in the narrative of slavery, or rather to places where it actually has something new to say. If the role of the novel, as Milan Kundera argues in a beautiful essay, is to say what only the novel can say, The Underground Railroad achieves the task by small shifts in perspective: It moves a couple of feet to one side, and suddenly there are strange skyscrapers on the ground of the American South and a railroad running under it, and the novel is taking us somewhere we have never been before.”

Vogue magazine did a fantastic interview with Whitehead, and includes this about the book: “The result, blazingly ingenious and heart-crackingly propulsive (the novel deserves every prize it will inevitably win), plays with time and geography to tell a story of race in America, a kind of picaresque in horror that touches on everything from the early days of the KKK to the Tuskegee “bad blood” experiments—but also more subtle modes of dehumanization, such as blackface shows and museum installations cozily depicting the Middle Passage.”

I’m including the summary here, courtesy of Goodreads, just so you can see exactly what it’s about. If you are already on the holds list for this book, and want something to read while you’re waiting, come see us in Center for the Reader — we always have plenty of suggestions for good reads!

Summary: Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all slaves, but Cora is an outcast even among her fellow Africans, and she is coming into womanhood; even greater pain awaits. Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her of the Underground Railroad and they plot their escape. Like Gulliver, Cora encounters different worlds on each leg of her journey. 

Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors of black life in pre-Civil War America. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

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TSTL-Free Romance Reads

Some smart reads for romance fans:

See what we have by these authors in the catalog:

Alisha Rai
Roni Loren
Emily Foster (Nagoski)
Delphine Dryden

Thanks, Book Riot!

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Staff Pick: The Last Divine Office

This week’s Staff Pick comes from Dennis, who wrote about the book The Last Divine Office: Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Geoffrey Moorhouse:

The Last Divine Office is a portrait of the English Reformation as viewed from the choir stalls at Durham Cathedral. The book begins with an extended history of the cathedral, the attached Benedictine monastery which supplied its clergy, and the shrine of St. Cuthbert which provided its focus. Events in the outside world are kept largely in the background as the monks cycle through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of their Lord in the liturgical year, year after year, with the archbishop and monastery steadily growing in wealth and influence. Even after Henry VIII’s break with Rome, life for the monks continues more or less as normal, even as the process of accretion reverses, with the monastery’s holdings methodically stripped away layer by layer to feed the royal treasury. By the end of Elizabeth’s reign, the monastery was a shadow of its former self, but, as Moorhouse reveals, an oddly substantial shadow.

Moorhouse covers the subject with skill, sweeping through centuries of history without becoming either boring or superficial. Most importantly for the story he has chosen to tell, he ably conveys a sense of place — the reader is able to smell the accumulated reside of centuries of incense, hear the echoes of the Latin chants, feel the impress of the personalities of the patron saints as they shaped the history of the community. Less convincingly, Moorhouse portrays Cuthbert Tunstall, who served as Prince-Archbishop of Durham from 1530 to 1559, under Henry VIII and all of his children, as the model of an Anglican bishop — able to bend with the passions of the day in order to preserve what is most worth preserving. Unfortunately, this seems to neglect the lessons of Tunstall’s own experience, which led the man who took the Oath of Supremacy under Henry to refuse to do so under Elizabeth.

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Bonk at The Crack Fox


Happy hour from 4-8? Yes, please! Central Book Club Too will meet over cocktails at The Crack Fox Wednesday, September 14, 6:30 p.m., for our discussion of Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. Place a hold here, or pick up a copy anytime in Center for the Reader.

CBCToo now has its own Goodreads group page, too! Join us for discussion and details on upcoming meetings and events. (In addition to our monthly book chats, we’ve got a literary white elephant slated for December.)

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A Black Lives Matter Reading List

See what we might have in the catalog.

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Two Writers Walk Out of a Coffee Shop

…and get kicked off a public school’s bench.

28588315Rebecca Schiff of The Bed Moved (which we have on-shelf) interviews Chilean author Alejandro Zambra for Electric Lit:

Zambra had thrown out the first fifty pages of a more traditional novel he was trying to write about 1993. The process had been making him feel like a “f**king author,” like he was writing a book he should be writing. I knew what he meant. Anything that felt like a “should” was death to the mysterious thing that makes writing good. The answer lay in finding a form that would allow the story to be told spontaneously. For Zambra, the form came from the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test, a standardized test he’d taken in 1993. At the time, the CAAT determined the futures of Chilean high school students, and caused a great deal of stress to teenagers. Zambra had structured his book like the verbal sections of the test, with headings like “Sentence Order” and “Reading Comprehension.”

“At first,” he said, “writing the questions was pure parody and joy, like imitating voices of people, but later I understood it also as making fun of myself and trying to find out how those structures stayed inside me.”

Zambra added that one could read Multiple Choice without prior knowledge of literary genres, and that he hoped the book would reach people who hadn’t had a literary education.

Writers who grow up under dictatorship have a true interest in democratizing literature, I noted. Writers who grow up under democracy have a true interest in remaining snotheads.

Read the full conversation here, (beware — there’s a small multiple-choice quiz at the end…) and place your hold on Multiple Choice, out last month, via our catalog. Check out our other titles by Zambra while you’re at it!

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Are you up to Strand snuff?

Check your literary trivia chops with their quiz (the likes of which have been used for hiring Strand booksellers since the ’70s!):

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“There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes but always.”

This is the beginning of one of my favorite books, The Phantom Tollbooth. You may have seen the map in our exhibit in the Carnegie Room here at Central Library. Haven’t seen the Fantasy Maps exhibit yet? Come to the Library!!

The Phantom Tollbooth is a book that I think is actually more enjoyable if you read it as an adult. I first read it when I was a child, and it didn’t really seem that funny. Weird, yes. Funny? Not so much. When I got older, I read it again and it was much funnier because I actually understood the wordplay and the puns. 2011 marked the 50th anniversary of the book, and NPR had a really interesting bit from author Norman Juster. I was particularly struck by what he said here:

“Not everyone in the publishing world of the 1960s embraced The Phantom Tollbooth. Many said that it was not a children’s book, the vocabulary was much too difficult, and the ideas were beyond kids. To top it off, they claimed fantasy was bad for children because it disorients them.
The prevailing wisdom of the time held that learning should be more accessible and less discouraging. The aim was that no child would ever have to confront anything that he or she didn’t already know.

“But my feeling is that there is no such thing as a difficult word. There are only words you don’t know yet — the kind of liberating words that Milo encounters on his adventure.”

As I mentioned, you can see the map in the book in our Fantasy Maps display. You may find copies of the book in our catalog — take one home, enter the lands of Digitopolis and Dictionopolis with Milo, meet Tock and the Humbug, and have an absolutely wonderful adventure!

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First Lines from the New and Noteworthy

Some first lines from hot-off-the-presses fiction (to whet your summer reading appetite):

“Some people hate cats.” How to Set a Fire and Why (Pantheon, July 2016) by Jesse Ball. Fourteenth book, seventh novel.

“In exercises 1 through 24, mark the option that corresponds to the word whose meaning has no relation to either the heading or the other words listed.” Multiple Choice (Penguin Books, July 2016) by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. Eighth book, fifth fiction book.

“In twilight they passed bloody Tadoussac, Kébec and Trois-Rivières and near dawn moored at a remote riverbank settlement.” Barkskins (Scribner, June 2016) by Annie Proulx. Tenth book, fifth novel.

“A soldier looked over the parapet and thought no army could even begin to crack open the towers that marked the corners of the city.” The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir (City Lights Publishers, July 2016) by Susan Daitch. Fifth book, fourth novel.

“A woman who adored her mother, and had mourned her death every day for years now, came across some postcards in a store that sold antiques and various other bric-a-brac.” Ninety-Nine Stories of God (Tin House Books, July 2016) by Joy Williams. Tenth book, fifth story collection.

Courtesy of Poets & Writers. Pageturners ends this Saturday, so click a title to place a hold, and come claim your prizes before time’s up!

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Trump’s Campaign Slogan Courtesy of Butler

And yes, we have the clairvoyant text, Parable of the Talents, right here. It’s #2 in Butler’s Earthseed duo, #1 being the famous Parable of the Sower.

Be sure to check out our Presidential Fiction display if you happen to be in the downtown area, too! A couple of recent additions: Crooked by Austin Grossman and W.E.B. Griffin’s By Order of the President.

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