This week Colson Whitehead came to town to talk about The Underground Railroad for a local author forum series Will and I love. A few times a year, two writers share the stage—set up like a library, with a big wooden table, comfy chairs, and gigantic bookshelves—for an interview-style book discussion.
Whitehead discussed the inspiration and history for his latest work, of course. (We found out he first had the idea for The Underground Railroad sixteen years ago—but he didn’t think he had the skills to do it justice till now.)
It wasn’t a political discussion, but when Whitehead grazed the topic near the end of the hour, his interviewer pounced, and asked him for the books he’d recommend for our post-election reading lists. I thought you’d like to hear his answer.
His first response was immediate: “If you need comfort, go to the books you love.” Whatever they are.
After a moment’s thought, he recommended three specific titles, all thoughtfully written works with plenty of nuance, regardless of your political beliefs. Here they are.
This novel, the first from short story author Saunders, doesn't come out till February 14, and Whitehead says to read it as soon as possible. This is a story about Lincoln, America's 16th president—kind of. The "bardo" of the title is a Tibetan concept: it's a spiritual landscape—a kind of in-between place—where we are sent between physical lives. When Lincoln's son Willie was 11, he died of typhoid, plunging Lincoln into deep grief. Saunders uses this real event as a jumping-off point to explore the near-unbearable grief of an individual, linking it to the disarray of the country he leads, at the height of its Civil War, and imagines how Lincoln's despair changed the outcome of the war. The critics are loving this: I'm not sure if that makes me happy or nervous. A little of both, I think. More info →
What Whitehead had to say about this bestselling memoir: occasionally "you see someone find a perfect subject, who has obviously found the perfect voice for who they are." After her father dies, McDonald stumbles upon a unique way to assuage her grief: she purchases and attempts to train an English goshawk with the deceptively quaint name Mabel. McDonald had been a falconer since she was a child, but her hawk is wild, unpredictable, irascible—as is her grief. Part memoir, part nature story: her tale is moving, poignant, and surprising. More info →
Whitehead didn't pointedly recommend his own book, but he did say it was timely. (Will it ever not be?) In this imaginative piece of historical fiction, the Underground Railroad of history becomes a subway—an actual locomotive, powered by coal and running on actual track below the surface. Whitehead drew inspiration from Gulliver's Travels and real-life heroine Harriet Jacobs for his story of Cora, a Georgia slave who sets out on a heroic quest to find freedom in the North. More info →
Previously recommended for post-election reading: The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. And to save $$$ on any books, including these recommended titles, Amazon has revived its $5 savings on a book purchase. Get the details here.