book review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a powerful book in that, though it is fictional, depicts horrific situations that many real slaves had to endure.  Whitehead’s story follows a slave named Cora from her life on a plantation, her mother’s abandonment, her decision to escape, and the people she encounters during her journey.

Whitehead portrayed many aspects of African American history through Cora’s journey.  In one instance, she saw white people depicting blacks, using their racist stereotypical beliefs as motivation.  In reality, this happened quite often in film, with white people dictating how blacks should look and behave on screen.  In another instance, she saw white people gathered to watch the hanging of a runaway slave as an afternoon amusement.  Historical documents show that this, too, happened.  In another instance, Cora learned about a hospital for blacks that were actually conducting experiments on them for syphilis (read “Bad Blood” about the Tuskegee experiments).  There were descriptions of how the KKK burned houses.  From what I know or have learned about slavery, the things that happened to Cora or that she saw actually did happen to slaves and blacks in the United States.

Not only were the depictions accurate, the characters were realistic.  What I mean by that is that none of them were perfect – they all had their flaws and they seemed like real people with their own personalities.  The author did a great job of revealing enough of their traits to tell the reader who they were.

I was enjoying this book (actually, enjoying is probably the wrong word because there were many gruesome things described, but I liked the writing style and the book was engaging) until I got to the bit where Cora ran away on a real underground railroad.  I had to do a double take when the author described a real railroad.  Huh?  I had always heard that the underground railroad was a metaphor for the network of people that housed runaway slaves.  I know that this book is fiction, but this part of it really annoyed me.  Mostly, I didn’t understand the reason for changing the metaphor into a real railroad.  Everything else in the book seemed historically accurate – sometimes the years may have been off, but the events themselves were accurate.

I would still recommend this book, but I hope that people will understand that it is fictional and won’t think that there was a real underground railroad that runaway slaves used.

Book review: Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Evicted is a non-fiction, ethnographic look at housing in Wisconsin for  low income families.  The author followed several families as they navigated different housing situations.

The main argument of the book is that we need more affordable housing.  Desmond makes the argument that housing should be a right to which all Americans are entitled.  The general rule of thumb is that less than 30% of total net income should be spent on housing.  However, many people, not just low-income families, spend more than 30% of their income on housing (according to Bloomberg) because the cost of housing has outpaced income.  Amongst lower income families, the percentage spent on housing is generally much higher.

The book was well-written and presented what I thought was a fair accounting of both sides of the housing problem.  On the one hand, people faced eviction due to circumstances outside of their control such as losing a job, unexpected expenses such as a death in the family, illness, etc.  On the other hand, there are times when they were evicted due to their poor judgment and behavior (drug use, arguments/fights, not discussing or trying to work out a payment plan with the landlord, etc.).  Compounding their problem was their inaccessibility to decent housing, including: searching for housing on foot (no access to the Internet or a car to search for housing or not knowing how use the Internet to search for housing), landlords who are prejudiced about renting to minorities, landlords who refuse to rent to families with children, and limited income.

I had to stop reading this book for a while because I got so upset by it.  I was upset at the cycles of eviction for the people in this book.  I was angry at the landlords who wouldn’t fix their properties so that basic needs such as running water or plumbing were met.  I was angry at some of the poor decisions that were made (struggling to provide food and pay rent, yet having money for pot, cigarettes, and sometimes drugs).  I was angry at the number of companies that cut back on expenses by hiring people part-time so that they don’t have to cover benefits.  Most of all, the children’s situation upset me.  Not only didn’t they have time to make friends, they fell farther and farther behind in their education as they were moved around.

At the end of the book, the author presented some possible solutions to the housing problem.  The solution that was presented in the best light was using universal housing vouchers.  He described how universal housing vouchers had been used in other countries successfully.

Don’t skip the epilogue and the section called “about this project.”

Disclaimer: Thanks, Santa, for giving me this book for Christmas.  🙂

Book Review: A Case of Conscience by James Blish

A Case of Conscience is a science fiction book about four humans who go to the planet, Lithia, to evaluate it.  The Lithians have a utopian society.  In fact, their society is so great that it leads one of the humans, Father Ruiz-Sanchez, to believe that it was created by “the Adversary” (the Devil).  Upon the humans returning to Earth, one of the Lithians gives them his own child to raise.

Spoilers ahead (because I can’t discuss what I hated about this book without discussing what happened)…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lithian Earthling, Egtverchi, becomes a popular public figure with his own television show.  Unfortunately, he causes a lot of problems by inciting public disobedience and  violence.

I would have liked this book better if it were more science fiction and less religious theology.  Actually, sound religious theology would have been okay.  My biggest problem with this book is that actions of the characters didn’t match their personalities.  One of the characters, Cleaver, is a physicist.  He is smart, very scientific.  However, he thought it would be great to use Lithia as a bomb producing world.  He also goes on to destroy the Lithians main mode of communication upon his return to Lithia.  Father Ruiz-Sanchez is a Jesuit priest and a scientist/man of medicine who believes in creationism.  Ruiz-Sanchez argued that Lithia was too perfect and that Lithians were the evolved ideal form that humans aspired to be and therefore they must be the Devil’s creation seemed ridiculous to me (God=creationism, Devil=evolution).  Again, I have a lot of trouble believing that someone who is a scientist would believe in creationism dogma.

There were other parts of this book that made no sense to me.  For example, there was a description of how Egtverchi attended a party thrown in his honor.  At the party, guests were given train rides, but the descriptions of the train rides were bizarre.  For the most part, guests were extremely disturbed by the train rides … but yeah, let’s have parties where we upset our guests … and partygoers who must have heard about the train rides previously who are still willing to go on them, even though they know that the train rides are going to be awful.

The character of Egtverchi represented the lost and displaced.  This is evidenced not only in his background (being a Lithian raised on Earth), but also in the people to whom he appealed on his television show.  At first, his character revealed the ugliness in society (he tore through rooms and exposed some of the shadiness of public figures), but then he became the ugliness by telling his viewers to reject being a part of society in a violent manner.  Interestingly, he became ugly after he became accepted (he had a loyal following).

I did not care for the writing style of this book because it read like a religious theology book.  I cannot recommend this book to anyone.

Disclaimer: I received a preview e-copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.  This book was published January 24, 2017.