Books, so many books & so little time. How do you know what to read?

Here’s a blanket statement: There are some INCREDIBLE self-published books out there (mine, for example). There are also some awful ones. There are books that read like a first draft, others that just need editing, and some that plain old stink.

But guess what? I’ve picked up books at the library from major publishers that stink. That read like first drafts, with characters that still need to be fleshed out or nonsensical plot threads that should have been cut. There are whole sections of Random House-published books convincing me that the line editor just fell asleep while reading.

So picking a book from a major publisher over a self-published book is no guarantee of quality.

OTOH, picking a book that has sat on the NYT bestseller list for weeks, that won a major prize (or was nominated), and that has  hundreds of 5-star reviews on Amazon IS a guarantee that even if you don’t like the book, you’ll have something interesting to say about what everyone else is reading.

I loathed the Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection Olive Kitteridge, for instance, and can tell you what buttons it pushed for me, while you describe what you loved about the changes the series made in the character, and we’ll have a decent conversation.

So, on to the book I just finished:  Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

It won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. It also won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction, which might have clued me in that this wasn’t a historical novel. At least, not a conventional historical novel.

Underground Railroad follows Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation whose owners live in various stages of internal corruption. The book’s portrayal of white people reminded me of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in a way: each character was representative of a certain stereotype, bad and good along a spectrum, in their relation to slavery. The bad are shockingly, disgustingly bad; the good … well, be careful. You never know.

The fact that Underground Railroad is NOT historical fiction comes as a delightful surprise when you get to the part where reality takes flight. Our characters, before that magical moment, are so brutalized that they’ve dissociated from their own pain. Mothers cannot love their children; a retreat to madness helps them cope. But after Cora’s escape from the plantation, she is schooled and taught to read; she literally flowers, her mind reaching out to learn. She begins to take control of her life, wondering if she can but knowing more strongly each day that she cannot go back.

What Cora experiences does not fit into the past  as we know it. There are Progressives who want to help her as well as sterilize her, and town festivals that culminate in the hanging of any hapless black person caught during the week. Clearly, these elements ring of other eras, but not exactly.

I’m still trying to figure out how to define what the book was really about. An unchronological microcosm of the black experience over the last 200 years? Something like that. It’s always fascinating and in terms of character arc, Cora’s reaches stratospheric heights.

Highly recommended, unless you’re one of those who resent any fantasy elements in their historical-ish novels.