‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead

‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead     (2016) – 306 pages


‘The Underground Railroad’ is a novel about the United States’ most brutal atrocity, human slavery.  If a slave ran away from the plantation but was caught, the white slave owner could chop off his or her foot.   The white slave owner could drag a couple of the fourteen year old girls out behind the woodshed to breed them and invite his teenage sons to join in the fun.  The white slave owner could do whatever he wanted to his slaves.  The slaves were his property.

What makes ‘The Underground Railroad’ powerful is that it is not an impassioned plea against slavery, but instead an objective enactment of the details of life for the slaves.  We see slavery through the eyes of the slave Cora whose grandmother Ajarry was captured in Africa and shipped to the Randall plantation in Georgia.  Cora’s mother Mabel ran away from the plantation when Cora was ten never to be heard from again. The plantation is now divided up between the two Randall sons, the northern half to James and the southern half to his younger brother Terrance.

“James was as ruthless and brutal as any white man, but he was the portrait of moderation compared to his younger brother.  The stories from the southern half were chilling in magnitude if not in particulars.”  

When James dies, and Terrance takes over the whole plantation, Cora and her friend Caesar decide to run away.

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses of people who would help the runaway slaves to escape to free states.  The conceit of Colson Whitehead is that there really was a railroad and train running underground which will take runaway slaves to different parts of the country.  Thus the sections of the novel after Cora and Caesar run away take place in different states which are stops on this imaginary railroad: South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and finally the free state of Indiana.  Each state has its own severe brutal racists, including Indiana. Ever present is the slave catcher Ridgeway who is following just behind Cora and Caesar to catch them and bring them back to the Randall plantation.

In actual fact, very few of the slaves in the deep southern states of the United States could ever successfully run away what with all the slave catchers and night riders and other assorted vicious folk working in league with the despicable white slave owners.  The Underground Railroad did not operate that far south.

Every location that Cora stops has its own cast of characters, and the story gets somewhat diffuse as Cora and we travel from state to state.


Grade:   B+ 

“You Will Know Me” by Megan Abbott – Gymnasts at the Top of their Form


“You Will Know Me” by Megan Abbott    (2016) –   340 pages


“You Will Know Me” is a suspense novel set in the obsessive compulsive world of girls’ gymnastics.

Megan Abbott lays it all out quite nicely for us in a chart early on.


There are 2,200 Level 10 girl gymnasts nationwide.  Of these 2,200 girls, 65 0f them will make it to Junior Elite.  Of the 65 Junior Elite gymnasts, 45 become Senior Elite.  Of the Senior Elites, 28 girls make the National Team, and of these only 5 girls make the Olympic team.  So there is a lot of pressure in the world of top-level girls’ gymnastics.  We don’t hear much about the girls who don’t make it somewhere along the line to the Olympics.

The families of the gymnasts at or near the top levels have to put up with a lot of trouble too.  Top athletes require special coaches and gyms which are expensive.  Weekends for the family are spent traveling long distances to matches.  Other family members may be neglected in the family’s single-minded pursuit of a position for their talented daughter.   Making it or not making it to the next level is only a matter of inches for the girl in any maneuver.

So Megan Abbott has found the ideal conditions for a suspense novel.  Throw in a mysterious death, and we are rolling.  It also helps that the girls and the parents who belong to these top-level gymnastics teams are a close-knit group.

Devon Knox is the girl gymnast star in “You Will Know Me”.   From an early age Devon excelled and now is at Level 10.  Even at a young age she was stronger at gymnastics than the rest of the girls.  She has precision and steely determination.  Her parents, though not rich, have always gotten the special coaches and gyms she requires. They needed a second mortgage for their house to afford the expenses. Sometimes in pursuit of their daughter’s and their own dreams, they neglect their son Drew.  The story is told from the point of view of the mother Katie who is pretty much the average housewife and mother.

“No one ever wants to believe bad things about their own family,” Katie said.   

Like all good suspense novels, ‘You Will Know Me’ barrels along, and you read it quickly.  Megan Abbott is very adept at handling the family dynamics and the gymnastics team dynamics that propel this story.   Abbott gets the details exactly right down to the “smell of damp leotards and pit foam” to the “funfetti cupcakes”. The reader totally believes this situation could happen and thus follows the story intently.

With its single-minded intensity, ‘You Will Know Me’ is a fine example of the Suspense genre.  The main criticism I can reasonably make is that I prefer novels which are more than one thing.

Read it anyway.


Grade:   A-   


‘Tropic Moon’ by Georges Simenon


‘Tropic Moon’ by Georges Simenon   (1933) – 133 pages     Translated from the French by Marc Romano



‘Tropic Moon’ takes place in deepest, darkest Africa in the French colony of Gabon in the 1920s.  Gabon was a small colony along the west coast of Africa on the Equator and is now an independent country.  About 85% of Gabon is jungle rainforest. The natives who lived there in the 1920s were unembarrassed to walk around totally naked.  An estimate of the total number of white people who lived in the entire colony at that time was less than 500.  The white people made no secret of the fact that they were there to exploit the natural resources and the natives of the area.  The background of many of these white people was spurious.  Why else would they be in hot, sticky, brutal Gabon?

The two main characters in ‘Tropic Moon’ are Joseph Timar, a young Frenchman who has just arrived in Gabon, and Adele, the woman who along with her husband runs the hotel where Timar stays in Gabon.  Adele wears clinging dresses and no underwear and is a drinking and bed buddy with most of the men at the outpost.   The story is told from the point of view of the young man. On his first night in Gabon, Timar wakes up to find Adele in his bed.  Only later does Timar find out that she along with all the other French colonists in Gabon knew that Timar’s uncle was an influential politician in France.  Adele asks Timar to obtain a special permit from his uncle to conduct a business operation in the Gabon jungle.  Meanwhile Adele’s husband dies of a tropical disease, and Adele is involved in the murder of a local native.

Later there are scenes in the jungle where Timar is the only white man on a canoe propelled by twenty naked black men.  They return to their native village where Timar and a bunch of other white men he meets up with have an orgy with the native women.  Timar takes up with one of the native girls for a short time.

9781590171110Are people really as bad as they are made out to be in these romans durs (‘hard novels’) of Georges Simenon?  I am not sure.  I suppose there is some misogyny in his viewpoint as the women tend to be made out to be especially immoral and deceitful.  Part of Simenon’s autobiography is made up of stories of his mother’s cruelty.  Apparently he was unloved by his mother.   Later he made up for it, claiming he had sex with 10,000 women.  There is some controversy as to whether or not Simenon collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, and he self-exiled himself to the United States for ten years.  It appears that Georges Simenon was more interested in preserving his career as a writer during the Nazi years than in actually helping the Nazis.

I’m finding these psychological novels of Georges Simenon quite entertaining.  ‘Tropic Moon’ does give a nasty, picturesque, and possibly realistic view of a colonial outpost. This is a strong antidote to any too rosy view of colonial life.  I will continue to read more of these romans durs.  However I am still not ready for the Inspector Maigrets just yet.


Grade:   A- 

‘Brightfellow’ by Rikki Ducornet – If I Can Just Get Past the Oddness…


‘Brightfellow’ by Rikki Ducornet   (2016) – 143 pages


Perhaps the best word to describe ‘Brightfellow’ by Rikki Ducornet is “surreal”.  The novel has a strange dreamlike nightmarish quality.  The works of Italo Calvino such as ‘The Baron in the Trees’ and ‘The Nonexistent Knight’ are also described as surreal, but they are bright and sunny.  Perhaps darker writers such as Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King are a better template for ‘Brightfellow’.

‘Brightfellow’ is about a boy named Stub.  In the first chapter he is four years old and living with his mother, but by the end of the chapter his mother leaves him.  He lives with his father a short time, but his father dies in a house fire, and Stub must fend for himself.  By the second chapter he is a young man living surreptitiously in a hidden room of the anthropology library on campus, stealing food as needed, and researching the spurious anthropologist Verner Vanderloon.  He assumes the name of academic Charter Chase  In the reviews, Stub is described as “feral”, but Ducornet never uses that word to describe him.  I look upon Stub as a wild child/man. ‘Brightfellow’ would probably be classified as a suspense novel, but there is an undercurrent of campus humor here.

Later an aging homosexual Professor named just Billy takes him in to live in a campus neighborhood residential home.  For a while their life seems somewhat stable, but Stub is fixated on the next-door neighbors, especially the seven year-old daughter Asthma.  The fixation is not at all sexual but somehow relates to his misbegotten upbringing.  This is all very strange.

I have read one previous novel by Rikki Ducornet, ‘Netsuke’.  That novel was a tale of relentless sexual obsession in a much more realistic mode than ‘Brightfellow’.  I was very much impressed with Ducornet’s style of writing in ‘Netsuke’, and it made my year-end Top Ten list for that year.

However ‘Brightfellow’ did not have that same impact on me.  The writing is fine and very readable and held my apt attention throughout.  However the situations were too weird and strange for me to fully comprehend, let alone empathize with.  Also the final payoff or scene of the novel seemed unearned and did not resonate with me.

I do like the fact that Ducornet went in a totally different direction with this novel than from her last, indicating her willingness to try different things.


Grade:   B


‘Innocents and Others’ by Dana Spiotta – Women and Their Movies

‘Innocents and Others’ by Dana Spiotta   (2016) – 275 pages


An alternate name for ‘Innocents and Others’ would be ‘Women and Filmmaking ’ but that would be too formal.   The first thing you notice in ‘Innocents and Others’ is the creative and endearing use of words. It sizzles with energy, intelligence and wit as few novels do.   This writing is almost sensuous.  Dana Spiotta could write about nearly anything, and I would happily read it.  In this novel she writes mainly about the making of movies.

‘Innocents and Others’ jump cuts from scene to scene just like some of the indie films which are its subject.  Very little of the novel is exposition; instead it captures the moments of living for these female filmmakers.  This novel would probably be considered an experimental cutting-edge fiction, but it is not cold and analytical as some experimental novels tend to be.  It is warm and easy to like.

The novel starts with a strong 32-page tour-de-force.  This is a ‘How I Began’ installment that independent documentary filmmaker Meadow Mori has written for the ‘Women and Film’ blog.  She talks about her living arrangement with an elderly male film legend (Orson Welles?) which began just after high school.    It is written in such a way that the reader may question if the affair really occurred.  Anyway this opening is so clever and entrancing that there is no way the rest of the novel can match it.  Not that the rest of the novel isn’t winning, just not quite as captivating.

One of the side benefits of reading ‘Innocents and Others’ is that it contains a lot of tidbits on the history of filmmaking from the very first films by the Lumière Brothers to Charlie Chaplin to Ida Lupino to Orson Welles to Jean-Luc Godard to Alfred Hitchcock.  My own independent research found that many of the very first short films by the Lumière Brothers made in the 1890s can be viewed on YouTube. Here and here are examples.

There are three main characters in ‘Innocents and Others’, the aforementioned documentary filmmaker Meadow Mori, her best friend Carrie Wexler who makes silly but popular teen comedies, and a gal simply called Jelly who hacks phone calls and is the subject of one of Meadow’s documentaries.  There are also a few male friends and lovers met along the way.

In ‘Innocents and Others’, Dana Spiotta has accomplished the near impossible.  She has written an experimental novel which is still very likeable on the human level.


Grade:   A- 


‘The Pages’ by Murray Bail – Ambiguous and Elusive and Enigmatic, yet Warm


‘The Pages’ by Murray Bail   (2008) – 196 pages



Two women in their 40s – Erica and Sophie – are on a mission from Sydney to a family sheep farm in the interior of Australia in order to appraise the work of a philosopher who lived there and recently died.  Still living on the sheep farm are the philosopher’s brother and sister.  The philosopher did his work in an old shearing shed on the farm, and his papers are still in there to be read and evaluated.  Actually Erica will be doing all the work; Sophie, a psychoanalyst who is escaping Sydney after another of her disastrous romances fell through, is along for the ride accompanying her friend.  Erica is disciplined and systematic in her work; Sophie is sexy and passionate and unruly.

“They were city women.  Comfortably seated and warm, they were hoping to experience the unexpected, an event or a person, preferably person, to enter and alter their lives.  There is a certain optimism behind all travel.” 

This is the setup for the needless-to-say unusual plot of ‘The Pages’ by Murray Bail.  Over the years I have come to appreciate Australian novelist Murray Bail and his atypical stories.  I like the fiction that I read to be original, intelligent, and as rich and strange as all the complications that arise in this life.  The novels of Murray Bail meet all these requirements for me.

I would much rather read a writer who is too subtle and profound for me rather than one who is not subtle or profound enough.   With Murray Bail, a subtle and profound writer to the extreme, I feel like I am extending my horizons beyond the limits that they were before.  Enigmatic, elusive, ambiguous…  These are words to describe Bail’s fiction.

What exactly do philosophers do?  They write lines like these:

“There is nothing ordinary about anything.” 

“The process of disturbing the mind is the mind.” 

“The desire to love is stronger than the desire to be loved.” 

Bail ends his novel with five pages of these exceedingly wise or incredibly foolish lines written by the philosopher.  I am not at all sure that Bail isn’t showing that the life work of this so-called philosopher is a failure.  That is the kind of curve ball Bail throws us, that this philosopher’s work might be a self-deluding joke.  I am not sure.

Perhaps the best phrase I have seen to describe Murray Bail’s fiction is “oddly compelling”.  As far as I am concerned, you can throw all your simple straightforward single-minded stories out the window.  I would much rather be reading Murray Bail’s unreliable engaging narratives.


Grade:     A-


‘You Can’t Change That’ by Raydio – A Great Exhilarating Rock and Roll Song


As most of you know I usually write about books, but this is one of my rare forays into music.  I have discovered the perfect rock and roll song and a fine live performance of it.  It is an old song that has never really gotten the credit it deserves.  The song is “You Can’t Change That” by a band called Raydio which was led by Ray Parker Jr.  It came out in 1979 and only reached number 9 on the charts, but this is not your typical number 9 song.  Here is an excellent video from 1979 on YouTube of Raydio doing this song.  You can watch it also by clicking on the picture.

I’ve watched the video and listened to ‘You Can’t Change That’ probably over a hundred times, and I have still not tired of it. It is an exciting lively warm performance that you just want to hear and see over and over.

Early on in the video you see Arnell Carmichael jumping around the stage, and that is indicative of what is to come.  The tune starts out with Ray Parker Jr. singing with the rest of the band joining in as needed:

Honey, I’ll always love you
I promise I’ll always love you
‘Cause I think the whole world of you
And you can’t change that, no, no

Parker’s voice is smooth and steady. He is the group leader.  But then Arnell Carmichael takes over the vocals moving things to a new dimension of pure energy and bliss:

There’s nothing you can do or say
I thought about this for many a day
And my mind’s made up to feel this way
And you can’t change that

R-2166513-1270363731.jpegThis is a powerful performance by Arnell Carmichael, and he owns this song.  Whenever he sings, your ears perk up and take notice.  His energy and spirit are contagious, and the whole band is smiling because they know they have nailed it.

Ray Parker Jr. is probably most famous for his Ghostbusters movie theme song (“I ain’t afraid of no ghost”), but ‘You Can’t Change That’ is the one song which captures the spirit of rock and roll more than any other song I know.  Thanks especially to Arnell Carmichael for that.




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