Tag Archives: Slavery

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

the-underground-railroad-by-colson-whitehead Title: The Underground Railroad
Author: Colson Whitehead
Publisher: Fleet Books, Hachette
ISBN: 978-0708898390
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I love the choices made by Oprah for her book club. She does a brilliant job of it. I also think that single-handedly she has had a huge role to play in getting America to read. I remember it was 2000 or something like that I when I was first introduced to her book club. Internet was in the very nascent stages in India and we had Star Plus though (it had not become Star World yet I think) and there was the Oprah Winfrey Show that would air every morning at 6 am and I would watch it religiously. That is when I was introduced to her book club and since then I have been a fan. From what is been told, Oprah actually got the publishers of this selection to sort of push the date of publishing right back so she could announce it on her network. I am mighty impressed and she is one of the few people who can pull this off.

The latest book (not Love, Warrior) that I have read from the stable is “The Underground Railroad” and I must say that I was mesmerized by this book. I have not read any other work of Colson Whitehead and always wanted to start with Sag Harbor but I am glad that it was this book that started it for me. “The Underground Railroad” is brutal. It is fictitious but I am sure that most of it has happened – and perhaps it is easy to talk about suffering in fiction than it is in the form of a memoir or biography. I honestly believe in this. I think that when you speak of human redemption, suffering or something that is so heartbreaking, fiction will get more people to connect to it.
So what is the book all about? Why am I raving about it?

The book is the story of Cora, the young runaway slave from Georgia. It is also about Caesar and how they both flee the Randall plantation and head north via an actual underground railroad. The story is set in 1812 and must I say that this book is not for the weak-hearted. There is a lot of violence and emotional torture but it had to be told because there is no escaping it. You cannot and must not sugar-coat sorrow. So Cora and Caesar are on the run and while that happens, Cora manages to kill a white boy who tries to capture her. From there on they are hunted endlessly and how they manage to do what they want to makes for the rest of the story.

Colson’s writing reminds me of Morrison. There are passages and sentences that will leave you breathless and you will reach out for that glass of water. It will happen. You will get angry because slavery is just not what should ever exist. You will also cheer for Cora and for some people she meets along the way. You will mainly hoot for the perseverance and courage of the protagonist and want to change things in your life. “The Underground Railroad” is not just a book about slavery, it is also a book about humanity and how there is always a way out. A must read this year and it will not disappoint you at all.

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Book Review – Philida by Andre Brink

Title: Philida
Author: Andre Brink
Publisher: Harvill Secker, Random House
ISBN: 978-1846557040
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 320
Rating: 5/5

I am always a little wary when I pick up a long-listed or a short-listed Booker title to read. It somehow conjures the image of some heavy-duty reading and while that is true for most books, it also sometimes happens that I tend to enjoy the particular read a lot. The same happened with, “Philida” by Andre Brink that has been long-listed for this year’s Booker.

A lot has been written about the condition of slavery. From Toni Morrison to Flannery O’Connor to Eudora Welty, all have touched on the topic and eloquently so through their stories and novels. Philida also revolves around the same theme.

Philida is about Philida, a slave in South Africa in the 1830s, when slavery was about to be abolished. She is the mother of four children; fathered by Francois Brink, the son of her master (I was not even surprised when I read this). The year is 1832. The Cape is ridden with rumours of the liberation of slaves. Philida decides to file a complaint against Francois who had promised to free her, but has not. From there on her life changes beyond recognition.

The novel also is told in third person, but goes back and forth in first-person narratives as well – that of Philida’s, Frans (Francois), Cornelius (her master), and Petronella. It is a bit difficult to read the book initially, but once you get the drift of the narrative, it becomes relatively easy.

The reason the book seems so real is because it actually happened. Andre Brink is the descendant of said slave owners and while dramatic license has been taken in writing fiction, some of the characters in the novel actually existed at one point. For me, this information alone was enough to thoroughly enjoy the writing.

The writing takes its own sweet time for any reader to get his or her teeth into it, but once they do, there is no keeping it, till you finish it. The novel pitches different narratives and it is yet very-well written. A novel about slavery and a woman’s need to set herself free is quite predictable, but like I said, it is the writing which makes it what it is.

“Philida” is a read which is not easy and at the same time, the realities of slavery and the road to its abolishment are cleverly brought to front. The concept of master-slave and courage as opposed to cowardice is clearly seen in the book. I would recommend it for sure and hope it makes it to the short-list of the Booker this year.

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Book Review: Habibi by Craig Thompson

Title: Habibi
Author: Craig Thompson
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0-571-24132-3
Genre: Graphic Novel
Pages: 665
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I remember when I finished reading, “Blankets” for the first time. I was mesmerized by the writing and the illustration prowess of Craig Thompson. I had to procure a copy of, “Goodbye Chunky Rice”, which I loved a little more than “Blankets”. I had heard of, “Habibi” sometime ago and when I received a copy of it, I started and ended the book and still reeling from its effect.

Craig Thompson as an illustrator and a writer takes risks. Habibi is very different from the other graphic novels that I have read. It reads as a novel to begin with and the sketches are intricate and magnificent. One cannot begin to think what black and white drawings can do to the heart and the soul. To realize its potential, you have to read Habibi.

Set in timeless Middle East, the book fuses legend and myths with grim realities, following the lives of Dodola, an Arab girl sold into child marriage by her illiterate parents. Her husband is kind enough to teach her the script, how to read and how to write. She is kidnapped by dacoits, runs away from the slave market with an African child who she raises as her own for nine long years (names him Zam), living a sheltered life in the desert on an abandoned ship (it is beautifully drawn in the book), whores for desert nomads in exchange for food, is help captive in a Sultan’s harem, and is in a dungeon as well. Bottom-line: Her life is not rosy. The only comfort she found was with Zam and the years spent with him and she doesn’t know where he is. She ultimately finds him and finds out about his suffering, only to reach the end where there is much positivity and love. I am putting it loosely in this review as I do not want to reveal anything about the plot and what happens in the book.

Habibi (My Beloved) is a love story. Of a girl who takes in an orphan and is representative of everything she is to him – a friend, a mother, a guide, a sister and a lover. Habibi has several sub-plots. There is the emphasis on the heritage of Islam and Christianity and its similarities, which again are beautifully expressed. There is a lot of hard-facing reality in this book. For instance, when Zam is alone and without anyone by his side, the measures taken by him to survive are raw and realistic. The visuals are marvelously done and the message is heart-felt. For instance, Zam loves listening to stories told by Dodola, and it is done fascinatingly in the book.

For me Habibi was a journey of a different kind. It taught me a lot and also made me realize that at the core of it, humanity sometimes is not what you might expect it to be. Thompson balances the points of view between spirituality and lust delicately and brings the concept of, “struggle with oneself” quite eloquently throughout the book. Habibi celebrates life through it all and for me that is the highlight of this book. A must graphic novel to adorn your shelves for sure.

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