Tag Archives: National Book Award

Looking for the Real Underground Railroad

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On the U.S side of the Detroit River, statues from the International Underground Railroad Memorial look across the river to freedom in Canada.

I’m working my way through Colson Whitehead‘s best selling book, The Underground Railroad which has received raves from just about every book critic and taken home  just about every award including this year’s National Book Award for fiction.9780385537032-1

The New York Times described it as “a hallucinatory novel about the horrors of American slavery and the sinister permutations of racism, an imaginative portrayal of the routes to freedom literally on a railroad.” .…that is underground. Kinda trippy, yet an effective way to portray the issues and the experience.

It’s not hard to find real underground railroad “stations” along various routes that enslaved people traveled on the route north to freedom in the 1800s. This wasn’t some sort of subway system, but rather a dangerous trip much of it on foot, as slave hunters followed in pursuit. The stories of the people—both escaped slaves and those who sought to help them—are often as dramatic as anything an author could invent. The U.S. National Park Service offers a great list of sites across the country.

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In Detroit, looking at Canada.

Some of my favorite of such places are in Detroit, mainly because it’s so close to Canada you can practically smell it. (Maybe it’s the Canadian Club distillery I smell over there across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario.) How close, yet so far, those escaping people must have felt to their freedom, less than a mile across the river. That’s particularly tangible in Detroit’s Hart Plaza where the International Underground Railroad Memorial overlooks the river. The installation features two groupings, one in Detroit with its counterpart across the river in Windsor, both by sculptor Ed Dwight.

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The Detroit component features two gateway pillars that bracket a ten foot by twelve foot sculpture with nine slaves and a railroad “conductor” pointing toward Canada in anticipation of boarding a the boat across the Detroit River to safety. The Windsor installation consists of a twenty-two foot high granite Freedom Tower that also serves as a candle representing the flame of freedom, along with a male slave giving thanks and a female slave holding a baby. A female Canadian underground railroad conductor is welcoming them both to safety.

Several other Detroit destinations offer their own story of abolitionist activity. The First Congregational Church of Detroit offers a “storytelling” re-enactment of the underground railroad passage. On the tour visitors are “shackled” with wrist bands at the entrance of the tour and begin their journey by entering through the “Door of No Return,” on Goree Island in Africa. “As this journey begins,” says their web site, “visitors transform into passengers on the underground railroad and are led to freedom by a conductor. Passengers hide from bounty hunters, cross the  Ohio “Deep” river, and take retreat in a safe house in Indiana which is owned by Abolitionist Levi Coffin.” Finally, they move to “Midnight,” the code name for Detroit and take safe haven at the First Congregational Church of Detroit before moving on to Canada.

Detroit’s Second Baptist Church  was also a station and received some 5,000 slaves before sending them on to Canada. By giving them food, clothing, and shelter the church was in total defiance of the Fugitive Slave Laws. The church offers tours that describe it’s long service to the community as a underground railroad stop and other activities.

For more, check out “And Still We Rise: Our Journey Through African American History and Culture” at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

 

For more on Detroit, see my posts on street art there and on the Motown Museum. And for more reading on the underground railroad, see the list at Longitude Books.

 

 

 

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National Book Award Winners, Classics—Other Required Reading for 2016?

 

My fellow readers and travelers—what do you suggest for a 2016 must-read list?

I’ve been chugging my way through Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, which won the Man Booker Prize earlier this year.I look to such awards as one way to compose my reading list for each
new year. I’ll add to that the books nominated for the 2015 National Book Award.

The winners were announced last night: for fiction Adam Johnson, Fortune Smiles; for nonfiction,Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me; for poetry, Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus; and for Young Peoples Literature, Neal Shusterman, Challenger Deep. The list of other National Book Award nominees is listed below.

As I assemble my 2016 reading list, book awards are a great way to find books and authors I may not have heard of, with sort of a “best of the year” stamp of approval. I like to blend in few classics, too, especially those Victorian-era novels by authors such as Hardy, Dickens, the Brontes of which I’m a fanatical fan. New on that list for me, the works of Elizabeth Gaskell. (I’m embarrassed to admit I never heard of her until I saw North and South on Netflix.) And, I toss in a little non-fiction for good measure.

Send me your ideas and look for my final list.

Other Contenders for the National Book Award 2015
Fiction Karen E. Bender, Refund
, Angela Flournoy, The Turner House;
Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies; 
Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life

Non Fiction Sally Mann, Hold Still; 
Sy Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus
; Carla Power, If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship; and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran;
Tracy K. Smith, Ordinary Light

Poetry
Ross Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude
; Terrance Hayes, How to Be Drawn; 

Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things
; Patrick Phillips, Elegy for a Broken Machine

Young People’s Literature
Ali Benjamin, The Thing About Jellyfish; 
Laura Ruby, Bone Gap
; Steve Sheinkin, Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War
; Noelle Stevenson, Nimona

Nicole Krauss Builds a "Great House"– Her Thoughts on Writing and Reading

    I went to St. Paul last night to listen to Nicole Krauss at a session of Minnesota Public Radio’s “Talking Volumes” series.  Krauss has been nominated for the National Book Award for her third novel, Great House. (Read The New York Times review of the book. ) 

    At events such as these, someone invariably asks about the author’s creative process, how he or she writes.  Authors often have a very hard time coming up with an answer.  That, or they’re sick of the question. And since, it’s a very abstract process, the answer is usually not very satisfying.  I’d rather hear more generally about the ideas the author wants to convey than about her methods. However, Krauss speaks about as well as anyone I’ve ever heard on the subject of the writing process.  She’s as articulate in a conversation as she is on the pages of her books. Krauss says writes as she goes, without a lot of outlining.  She seems to go where the writing takes her.  She revises as she writes so at the end of the process, she has mostly a finished product. “I make the doorknob first, then the door, and the room,” she said in describing her writing process. “Only much later do you step back and see the whole house.”

    She spoke about how, perhaps because she’s a writer, it’s sometimes difficult to find books that totally carry her away, the way books affected her as a child.  However, she raves about Israeli writer David Grossman and his book To the End of the Land. “It blew my mind,” she said. I’m eager to pick that one up and suggest it to my book club. (See the New Yorker article about Grossman.)

    I also enjoyed a PBS Newshour interview with Krauss last week.  Interviewer Jeffrey Brown ended the interview with, “Finally, sort of on that subject, I can’t help but notice the centrality of books and literature to many of the characters in this novel. A couple of them are writers, others are really great readers. We don’t seem to live in a time where that’s true for most people anymore.”

    Krauss responded, “It’s certainly true in my life. I think I am who I am because of the books that I read, and I think of myself still as first and foremost a reader and then following that a writer. But I’m aware that both in my last novel The History of Love, where there was a book that was a center that connected all the characters, and now here is this desk, which is at least one of the components that connects, that these are objects that are saturated with the possibilities of literature. I do feel like I’ve staked my life on this, which is this idea that literature affords us this absolutely unique possibility in no other moment in life. Really, I think again in no other art form can you step so directly, so vividly without any mediation into another’s inner life. You are stepping fully into this stream of what it is to be another person. And I think when you do that, you inevitably form a kind of compassion. It teaches a kind of empathy. So for me this is like a great value of literature. It’s also again for me, somebody who’s obviously — all my characters are often solitary, they’re struggling with that solitude, but they are not content with it. They would like to move beyond it, to transcend it to express themselves to others in a way that I think they all feel is possible. And it’s no accident that literature becomes a kind of singular way for many of them to do that.”

    Empathy, compassion, what it’s like to be another person… Makes you wish more people would pick up a book.

    See her conversation with Brown at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/blog/2010/10/conversation-nicole-krauss-great-house.html And look for a video and transcript of Krauss’s “Talking Volumes” interview to appear soon the MPR Web site.http://find.publicradio.org/search?site=mpr&proxystylesheet=mpr&client=mpr&output=xml_no_dtd&filter=p&numgm=5&q=talking+volumes&x=14&y=14