Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad
By: Eric Foner
W.W. Norton, 2015

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Between 1830 and 1860, five thousand slaves escaped to freedom annually, most of them were young, single men.  Gateway to Freedom is an interesting history of the Underground Railroad.  More broadly, and perhaps more applicably, Foner details the various methods that slaves used to escape from slavery in the antebellum period.  He points out that while the Underground Railroad presents an image of organization, the Railroad was really more a series of ad hoc individuals doing their best to help many escape to the North and to freedom.  In particular, Foner focuses his attentions on the New York City vigilance committee, which was the precursor to what we understand more commonly as the Underground Railroad.

One of Foner's most interesting points is the hypocrisy and inherent contradictions in the arguments of many southerners.  Southerners argue that secession was rooted in a desire to wrest control of governance from the Federal government and bestow the majority of policy decisions on the states.   Contradicting this premise, during the antebellum period slave owners fought for a sweeping, national fugitive slave law that would infringe on the rights of individual states.  Foner points out the hypocrisy of  this argument: anti-federal power, except when it is protecting the rights of slave holders.

In addition, I enjoyed learning about the politics and tensions that existed among northern abolitionists and Underground Railroad orchestrators.   During the antebellum period there were underlying tensions between the Garrisonians and those who wanted to use the political system to fight the slave system. Additionally, there were tensions between those who favored helping fugitives versus those who felt only total abolition was enough.  The political theatrics underlying this noble cause fascinated me.

My favorite part of this book, however, were the stories of the individuals. In Chapter 7, Foner presents the reader with numerous, true stories of escape.  These escape stories buoyed my belief in human resilience and ingenuity. 

I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in the Civil War or basically any history "buff."  As a student of Civil War history myself (yes I am waxing nostalgic for my undergraduate days), I feel this book was well-researched and argued.  A definite win.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Live by Night

Live by Night
By Dennis Lehane
William Morrow, 2012

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Live by Night is your typical gangster story.  Set in 1920s Boston and Miami, Lehane tells the tale of Joe Coughlin who finds himself running part of an organized crime syndicate in Florida.  In even more stereotypical fashion, Joe finds himself consistently running into trouble with the leader of a competing crime gang, who of course hates Joe because they both fell in love with the same woman.

My mom bought this book awhile back from the discount shelf at Barnes & Noble; she probably went home and plowed through this and the other 8 books she bought in a weekend.  It then sat on the shelf for several months until she foisted it into my hands.  What I'm trying to say is this isn't my typical read.  That being said, I actually liked it.  Lehane has  a way with story-telling.  His crime drama sucked me right in with its cliff hangers.  While the plot checked all the boxes of the definition of a crime drama, Lehane puts enough personality into his books that they don't read generically.  Additionally, the ending was a bit surprising.

As I've already said this isn't my usual type of book selection and aside from the generous donation from my mom, I also read this book because we had tickets to see Lehane speak live at the Carnegie Music Hall.  Let me be absolutely clear: I loved Lehane's talk!  While his books are dark, Lehane is witty and full of humor.  He had me laughing aloud (literally) the entire time.  He does a great Irish accent and imitation of his Irish ancestors.   His sense of humor caught me off guard because of the dark nature of his books.  All around a great entertainer and even if you haven't had the chance to read his books you should definitely take up that opportunity!

I'd recommend this book to anyone looking for an easy and engaging read...a recovery book perhaps?  Or anyone interested in crime drama (or what Dennis Lehane calls Urban Fiction).  I'd recommend his talk to anyone at all!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch
By: Donna Tartt
Little, Brown and Company, 2013

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Donna Tartt's novel, The Goldfinch, relates the story of  a boy, Theodore Decker, who loses his mother in a traumatic way at a relatively young age.  In relation to his mother's death, he procures a small painting of great renown.  Tartt then follows the boy through his youth into early adulthood with the painting constantly hovering in the background.

Very rarely does a book leave me feeling so conflicted.  While last year reviewers and book clubs raved about this book, I can't say that I agree.  Let me be clear, I liked The Goldfinch, but I didn't love the book.  I wavered between boredom and utter enthrallment while I read this book.

I felt that Donna Tartt did an excellent job developing her characters.  Each character within the book is endowed with realistic complexity and great description.  As cheesy as it sounds, I could actually envision the characters, particularly Hobie.

What frustrated me about this particular book was the uneven pace of the plot.  At times I simply couldn't finish the pages fast enough as the events advanced at a rapid and suspenseful pace.  At others the book plodded along full of the mundane and disinteresting.  However, I think that was Tartt's intention.  She made you forget about the painting only for it to resurface with a jolt, just as it would have for the "hero" if he can be called that experienced.

The questionable nature of the "hero" brings me to my next point.  Theo simply wasn't a likable or relatable character.  I understand that he was supposed to be scarred by the tragedy that took his mother, but I found him contemptible and dull, which contributed to my inability to be truly interested in the book.

In conclusion, I don't think that I will ever re-read The Goldfinch, I never reached a point where it was a drag to finish.   Overall my review would be that the book was just so-so, which I understand is in contrast to the majority view. 

I'd recommend this book to book clubs because I think that it could spark some good debate with varying opinions on the likability of the book.  It is isn't a difficult read so I'd recommend it for a good lazy Sunday afternoon as well.