The Book Nook aims to give an insight into the bookshelves of editor’s and writer’s of The Yorker. It acts as a type of online book club and reviewing platform, where editor’s and writer’s can review and reflect on recent books they have read. Please contact email@example.com if you and your book would like to be featured! Welcoming all forms of literature. August’s Book Nook (although short but sweet!) features: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larson and Heartburn by Nora Ephorn.
Violet, Editor. The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (2017)
The critically acclaimed and 2017 Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad is set in the midst of American slavery in the mid to late nineteenth century. It follows the journey of protagonist, Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Upon hearing about the possibility of escaping the brutality of her everyday life, she joins fellow slave Caesar, aboard the Underground Railroad.
In a work of highly acclaimed historical fiction, it alludes to the network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during slavery. Colson Whitehead portrays The Underground Railroad as a physical railroad with trains and conductors used by African-American slaves to escape into free states with the help of abolitionists. But the movement was never so physically established as Whitehead presents in the novel. Historically, it was a movement of resistance that sought to provide safe palaces and refuge to salves from abolitionist sympathizers. Within the novel’s promises of freedom, too often it resulted in greater troubles and persecutions. Whitehead suggests the false freedom promises of the Northern states and uses the re-imagining of the physicality of the railroad, to evoke the terror and obstacles confronted by African-Americans in their plight of resistance. Cora experiences deprecating conditions, brutality and starvation in her pursuit of freedom. A poignant point is made regarding the sense of desperation and depravity that African-American slaves were willing to endure, to experience a mere slice of freedom.
The novel’s plot focuses on Cora and her journey after discovering the Underground Railroad. However, it is not an undulating path to progress. Cora undergoes numerous obstacles and setbacks which offer a critical insight into the conditions of resistance. It is within Whitehead’s critique of the notion of freedom, that a significant point about history and the present day is made. Despite having periodical distance from the horrors of the past, the maintenance of freedom still fails to be a universal right in twenty-first century America. The plot of the novel takes a bleak tone, “[Cora] wondered why there were only two kinds of weather: hardship in the morning, and tribulation at night”. It never promises a positive ending. Importantly, it does not follow what the reader always wants to hear which is why it makes such a moving comment upon the race debate in America across the decades.
Although this novel has an enduring message I found this book hard to read. It took well over a month and it was left for a week at a time on some occasions with no progress. The writing style is disjointed – it is not smooth and easy to read. Some chapters were far too drawn out, whilst some were painfully short. Despite appreciating the critical message and aim of the book, in hindsight I never felt myself wanting to read it or reaching for it. But perhaps all of this is the very point. It is not meant to be an easy or enjoyable read. Perhaps it is meant to be harsh and disjointed as the path to freedom is never straight and simple. In Whitehead’s style absent of perfectionism, it is possible that he is making a further comment on the, ‘unfulfilled promises of the present day’ (see blurb of book) in regards to supposed universal freedom. I can see why this novel became so critically acclaimed and the winner of so many literary awards due to the critical perception upon the progress of human history. However, its form and style may limit its accessibility through a lack of connection with the reader, despite possibly contributing to the overall message. There is no doubt that certain sentences are painfully beautiful, but I cannot help but feel a lack of direct connection to this novel, and the characters within.
“Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from the outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits.”
Violet, Editor. Heartburn, Nora Ephron (2018, First Published 1983)
I never intended to read this book. Whilst taking a trip to Waterstones in York – I was sold this book by a convincing, and very charismatic bookseller as part of their ‘buy on get one half price’ deal.
Although republished in 2018 with a new beautiful cover and introduction by the author, this novel by the screenwriter of the classic 1980s Rom-Com, When Harry Met Sally, was first published in 1983. In the introduction, Nora Ephron (author) vaguely describes the book as semi-autobiographical. The story follows the voice and thoughts of Rachael Samstat, after discovering her married life is about to fall to pieces. Drifting between New York City, and Washington D.C, Rachael takes us through the inside conflict underwent during the break up of her previously, perfect marriage (or so it seemed). Rachael writes cookbooks for a living and would be something of a celebrity chef today. Interwoven with the witty narrative (which is often than not, laugh out loud worth) are her favourite recipes. Food manages to hold her together during difficult times, and provides the reader with multiple cravings!
Although potentially a sad story with a bleak outcome – Ephron’s relentless humour and style makes the reader come away with nothing but an aching smile. Rachael Samstat, despite being an 80s creation remains utterly relatable and the ultimate female heroine. The 1980s prelude to Helen Fielding’s era of Bridget Jones.
Lighthearted, easy-going and a pleasurable read. The reader forgets they are engaging in the physical act of reading, but is instead, are reminded of having a gossip with their best friend.
“And then the dreams break into a million tiny pieces. The dream dies. Which leaves you with a choice: you can settle for reality, or you can go off, like a fool, and dream another dream.”
Chris Haywood. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson (2005)
Between Blomkvists’ relentless coffee-drinking and Salanders’ endless shrugs, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a superb read. It defines its genre impeccably by constantly keeping you guessing on ‘Who’s done it?’ the ever-present question in a good crime novel. I am aware I’m coming very late to the party (13 years) but I undoubtedly felt the thrill of watching the course of events play out on the page exactly how the readers back in 2005 would have. The novel strikes me as timeless with the delicate societal issues it breeches.
Regarding the plot (and no this is not a spoiler because in the words of the great Stephen King, “it’s a book, you can’t spoil a f***ing book”) it starts with Mikael Blomkvist, a recently disgraced journalist, who takes something of a sabbatical out in the remote area of Hedestadt after being contacted by a Henrik Vanger to research the disappearance of his niece Harriet, in exchange for dirt on the industrial tycoon Hans Wennerstrom. Salander, an anti-social computer hacker working for a security company eventually gets embroiled in this undertaking and the rest is history. The plot takes a truly satisfying course with revealing hints and clues as to what happened to Harriet and who was behind it, the pages turning, you eagerly anticipate the next big reveal. It definitely keeps you on the edge of your seat. Or my uni bed in my case.
The plot goes much deeper than just briefly described and that is the beauty of the book. It has many layers, giving the reader intrigue into the various characters and their motives, whilst providing a wider context that relates the reading to other issues that are still prominent today. Issues such as sexual abuse, particularly against women which was clearly an issue in Sweden (the setting of the novel), dilemmas facing journalists on truth and etiquette (an ongoing dilemma for those in the profession) and corruption within business. All these issues are addressed and have ‘real life’ consequences for the characters within the book, resulting in them truly hitting home to the reader and stimulating wider thinking. The sexual abuse that is so vividly described, such as Salander encounters, makes it hard for the reader to escape this wider thinking which is part of the appeal of the book. A large part of writing is about having an underlying issue to address, whether it is personal to the writer or a more overarching dilemma and The Dragon Tattoo does this brilliantly.
Not only this, but strong characters are also pivotal in a good story as without them what do you have? Nothing is the answer, and Larsson emphatically succeeds in building these characters to base his story around. Salander is the character who springs to mind whilst I make this point, as her interactions and personality within the story invoke frustration and sadness with some laughter and feelings of ‘what a frickin bad ass’ on the side. The variety of feelings she brings out to the reader can only be put down to the expert writing of Larsson. Although Salander is undoubtedly the most intriguing character within the novel, characters such as Blomkvist (mainly due to his ability to deal with Salander), Henrik Vanger and his nephew Martin all compel you to read through their unique personalities and individual motives. I did not come out of this read with the feeling of ‘this character was weak’ or ‘why did they react like that?’. The characters were all fabulously written and their ability to invest me as a reader was superb.
When judging whether or not I have enjoyed a book and feel fulfilled by it, there must be a strong and satisfying ending. The Dragon Tattoo did provide me with this, but it did so in the epilogue rather than ‘the end’. It felt to me as though the epilogue should have just been included in the story itself. If it had not been included then I would have felt frustrated at having not found out what happened to Hans Wennerstrom (who through the whole book you wish justice to be well and truly served to). The book itself finishes with Salander traveling to Zurich under the mask of disguise undoubtedly tinkering and fiddling with Wennerstroms overseas accounts, but without the epilogue I would not have known to what end. However, I am picking at threads as there is an epilogue which explains the outcome of that particular string of events, which provides a strong and fulfilling ending and clearly opens the door for a continuation of the characters stories. Thankfully there is this continuation with the sequel to this novel, but I’m yet to read that and very much excited to do so.
Overall, I have 99% positive things to say about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as it ticks all the boxes required of a successful crime novel and much, much more. I certainly look forward to reading on through this trilogy.