Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

2017:15
3 of 5 stars
Published 2016

Reader: Clarke Peters
Abridger: Sara Davies
Producer: Mair Bosworth

This wasn’t a book I expected to read right now, though I thought I might at some point. Then I saw via Twitter that BBC Radio 4 was streaming this book for free online for the next few weeks. It’s produced for their Book at Bedtime series. Perfect. Why not? I’ve never listened to an audio book before. This one appears to be abridged which means it’s not word for word what’s in the actual book but conveys the story. I think this still counts as a book read/heard, though!

This is the story of a slave, Cora, who is terribly used and abused on the plantation where she lives. A new slave, Caesar, decides to run away on the Underground Railroad. In this story, it’s an actual railroad and train, not a network of safe houses and hidey holes like it was in reality. There are sympathetic abolitionists at each stop/terminus who help hide the slaves/passengers until they can catch another train. Cora and Caesar run and in the process, during a confrontation, Cora accidentally kills a young white man. Even more reason to run, now, since she’s branded as a murderer.

The story follows Cora through several stops including both North and South Carolina and Indiana. Each stop finds Cora with the slavecatcher on her heels and facing the horrors of racism and slavery. There’s an element of fantasy to the book as well, or at least it felt like it. Some of the things like early surgery to perform tubaligations to enforce birth control seem a bit unread given the historic period, early 1800s, that the book is covering. But you go with it. There are lynchings and shootings. Cora is in danger much of the time. Caesar disappears, presumably captured or killed. Cora manages escapes that almost seem worthy of a Hollywood movie heroine and perhaps we will see that at some point.

This book has been really promoted and hyped. It’s won some awards and has had the backing of both Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama. Heady recommendations, indeed. Is it worth the hype? Maybe. The story itself is pretty good. I would imagine the book details a lot more of the horrific things that happened so it would be difficult to read at times. I admit, as a white person, it wouldn’t resonate as deeply with me.  I would probably be more engaged in a book I could read rather than listen to and I may pick this up in paper or ebook format at some point.

The abridged audio version didn’t really flesh out many of the secondary characters and each incident seemed very isolated, and viewed a bit from a distance even if Cora was directly involved. It almost feels at times like it’s “this happened, then this happened, etc” You don’t really feel emotionally attached to Cora. I don’t know whether that’s due to the audio version or if the book conveys that as well. I’ve read some other reviews that suggest I’m not alone in that opinion. Secondary characters and flashbacks into their lives are there to depict more nuggets of abuse, not really contributing to the main story. Only one of the flashbacks actually ties up a plot thread.

This is my first try at an audio book and I have to say I’m a bit iffy on the format. That’s mainly due to my attention tending to wander. The reader seemed pretty good. He changed his voice a bit for different characters but not so much that it was jarring. I don’t know that it would be a format I’d end up using much but it was certainly worth a try. I’d say the book and story were good but not great. I’ve read other fictional accounts depicting slavery that I couldn’t put down and thought about afterwards. This won’t stick with me but maybe that’s due to the audio format. Your mileage may vary.

Adding to the Hype

You know how it seems like everyone is reading the same book? A book will catch the attention of the media for whatever reason and it’s the one all the ads, all the newspapers and magazines are telling you that *everyone* is reading. So then, everyone you know really is reading it. Everyone loves it, everyone is talking about it. They’re going to make a movie about it. And, for me, and I stress that emphatically, *for me* often a popular book that’s got a lot of hype and publicity will be a disappointment.

Not everyone is going to like every book. I know that books I love sometimes have not been received well by other people. I can’t understand it (she said with a wink). I do know that in general, the books that seem to be overhyped do not end up on my favourite book lists.

I don’t remember books being hyped when I was growing up but they must have been. Books that stayed at the top of the best seller lists for weeks didn’t stay there by choice. They stayed at the top because people were buying and reading them. With the rise of the internet and social media, you just hear about it more often, I guess.

The first “Everyone is reading it” book that I can recall was The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller. I didn’t get around to reading it until quite some time after everyone else did and it certainly didn’t live up to its reputation for me. I found it slow and boring and the movie they made out of it was just as awful. My friend and I sat and watched it one Friday night and took the piss out of it all the way through.

The next book that was a media darling was The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown. Everyone raved about it. A slew of new releases after that had similar types of storylines, that quest that took you back to the past. Some of those I actually did like. DaVinci Code? Not so much. That was one book I couldn’t even finish. I think I got 3 or 4 chapters into it and slammed it shut in disgust. I remember one particular reason was that I found the dialog very choppy, clunky, cliched and predicable. It was painful to read. I read reviews to get the story and watched the movie (which was…ok) to see how it ended.

Don’t even get me started on the Fifty Shades of Grey debacle. Just don’t.

It got to the point where I often avoided a popular book because of the hype. That’s not to say I haven’t continued to read them now and then and, I have to say, I’ve even enjoyed some on occasion. One book that hit the shelves in the past few years that sparked legions of readers was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I read it. I loved it.  The movie wasn’t bad, either. Then I read the first two books by Gillian Flynn (Sharp Objects and Dark Places) and I loved them even more! More recently, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins was pretty good, too, though not quite as riveting as GG. It’s one of those “If you liked Gone Girl, You’ll love…” books that avalanche out of the publishers after one book makes a huge impact. Those sorts of recommendations generally don’t pull me towards a book because they’re only trying to cash in.

The other thing about paperback bestseller packaging that highly annoys me is when you want to read the blurb on the back to see what it’s about and all you get are excited praise and kudos which also fill up the first few pages inside as well. No, thanks. Don’t tell me how this is the best book ever and it’s un-put-downable… tell me what the damn book is about! I’ll put a book right back on the shelf if all the publisher can do is fill the covers with exclamation points.

Just an aside, do you notice how, when a book goes viral, it isn’t just the plot line or plot device that’s taken up by subsequent books but also the look, feel and style of the book’s cover also gets copied?

This brings me to three series of books. Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) and the Outlander series.

The Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling started out as children’s books. The first two books of the series are thin and easy to read. They caught on. Kids loved them. Parents read them to their kids and realized they were smart and fun and exciting even for adults. The books got thicker, the stories a bit more adult and the story got darker. They grew up along  with the children that started with The Philosopher’s (Sorcerer’s) Stone.  Hugely successful movies were made. A theme park has been opened. That’s when you *really* know you’ve made it big!

I didn’t pick up the books until, I think, the fourth or fifth book was released. The hype kept me away.  I borrowed the first four from a friend whose opinion I trusted and borrowed the rest from family members as they were released from there on because I liked them so much.  I had a friend who looked down on the Harry Potter phenomenon and hype, that kids might read these but never read another book. I asked him did it really matter that some kids might never read another book? If Harry Potter can get kids reading, some of them will continue and become lifelong readers and surely that’s a very important thing. He did concede my point.

I like the books a lot though I think they could have used a bit more editing as they went on. That seems to be an ongoing problem. An author is so popular that nobody wants to cut a word out of their manuscripts when really, they could be tighter and less bloated.

A Song of Ice and Fire

A Song of Ice and Fire

That brings me to A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin. For most people, I think the HBO series Game of Thrones was the catalyst for people picking up the books. I had certainly never heard of them before that but I think people that were dedicated fantasy readers knew about them and George R. R. Martin certainly has his fans who have stuck with him all the way. I decided to read the books when I started to read the series and I have mixed feelings about them. I did read all five but I’m not sure I’ll read any others. Remember that word, “bloated”? Oh. My. God. I never thought so much endless detail could be fit between the covers of a book. My husband assured me that for that type of book, a lot of detail was normal to build the “world”. No. Seriously. Too much. And when he picked up the first book to read it, he agreed. Yep, wayyyy too much time spent describing every *single* dish at a banquet and every stitch of clothing on every guest in the room. Not necessary. Really not. No wonder it takes him years to write each book! That aside, I skimmed through the boring bits and enjoyed the bones of the actual story quite a lot.

The Outlander series

The Outlander series

That brings me to the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. She takes a very long time to write each book as well. I saw the first book, Outlander, in the bookstore when it was released in hard cover in 1991. It looked interesting. Romance. Time Travel. Historical fiction. Yes, I think so. And boy, did I love this book! The characters leaped off the pages. It was clear that the history was meticulously researched. Details, yes, there was details and perhaps a bit too much at times but I didn’t seem to mind. My husband tried to read it and got bogged down in the herb garden descriptions and gave it up. He is enjoying the tv series, though. Yet, nobody talked about the books. I never saw or heard any real publicity.

By the time the third book came out, the author came to Halifax for a signing. I saw it listed at my local bookstore and I took my copy and arrived at the shop early. The small bookstore was heaving with people, mostly women (the novels are seen as “romances” but really have so much more than that). I got in line and waited patiently, chatting to the others. Everyone said the same thing. “I thought I was the only one that knew about these books”! Word of mouth. No hype. I did tell people about the books and lent my books to family and friends. Jamie and Claire Fraser (the main characters in the series) found new fans with every person I lent the book to. Yet the series never seemed to be hyped.

The Starz channel in the US picked up the rights to the books, with the author’s approval, and the series has now aired two seasons, based on the first and second books. The publicity and the hype is heating up. The series and actors are getting noticed and I bet the book sales have spiked considerably. In this case, in my opinion of course, the hype is deserved. It’s an amazing series but I do know people that couldn’t get into the story. Everything is subjective.

Of all three series I’ve mentioned here, Outlander is my favourite and I’ve reread it many times. It’s the “little engine that could” approach. It spread initially by word of mouth. The author herself says that the book defied a type, that bookstores never knew where to shelve it. Was it a romance? Science Fiction? History? It has aspects of all three and she fought for it to be included in general fiction because the romance section didn’t attract much of a cross section of readers, not like the general fiction section does. The series has two Companion books and another “spin off” series of books about a secondary character, Lord John Grey which are quite good as well.

Other popular series I liked were (the names of the first book in the series) Hunger Games, Divergent, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo just to name a few. I won’t touch the Twilight series with a barge pole. I prefer my vampires not to glitter in the sunshine! Anne Rice’s vampires are scarier and the Sookie Stackhouse books (the excellent True Blood series was based on them) are lots of fun (but the series was better!).

There you have it. The ups and downs of popular books from my experiences. There have been more books that have been generating a lot of talk and winning awards and quite often, those are very good and worth the publicity. I’m not being sniffy about popular books, truly I’m not. I love a ripping Jilly Cooper or Jackie Collins as much as the next person. I just want my books to be well written, with good dialogue and interesting characters, something to make me laugh or cry, something to keep me guessing, something to inform me or entertain me.

Reading is subjective. Reading is important. The point is to read and it doesn’t matter if your tastes are not my tastes. I think our lives are enriched by reading and we should encourage our children and open up the world to them through books.

Other blog posts I’ve found about hyped books.
Chapter Adventures.
A Frolic through Fiction