#9 in our new regular feature that offers up staff-selected recommendations for your consideration.
A fun and compelling read from the creator of the New York Times dialect quiz that ignited conversations about how and why we say the words we say, a graphically stunning and delightful exploration of American language.
Did you know that your answers to just a handful of questions can reveal where you grew up? In December 2013, Josh Katz released an interactive dialect quiz in the New York Times that became the most viewed page in the paper’s history. Now a graphics editor, Katz harnessed the overwhelming response to that quiz to create Speaking American, an extraordinary and beautiful tour through the American vernacular.
How do you pronounce “pecan”? What do you call a long sandwich with varieties of meats and cheeses? Do you cut the grass or mow the lawn?
The answers to these questions—and the distinctions they reveal about who says what and where they say it—are not just the ultimate in cocktail party fodder; they are also windows into the history of our nation, our regions, and our language. On page after page, readers will be fascinated and charmed by these stunning maps of how Americans speak as they gain new insights into our language and ourselves.
For fans of Eats, Shoots and Leaves and How the States Got Their Shapes, Speaking American is an irresistible feast of American regional speech.
#7 in our new regular feature that offers up staff-selected recommendations for your consideration.
This week I’m going with an oldie but a goodie by the amazing Michael Crichton. His retelling of the Beowulf saga, Eaters of the Dead, is masterful and a gripping read, with all the drama and grounding in fact that this prolific writer brings to all of his work.
In A.D. 922 Ibn Fadlan, the representative of the ruler of Bagdad, City of Peace, crosses the Caspian sea and journeys up the valley of the Volga on a mission to the King of Saqaliba. Before he arrives, he meets with Buliwyf, a powerful Viking chieftain who is summoned by his besieged relatives to the North. Buliwyf must return to Scandanavia and save his countrymen and families from the monsters of the mist….
Crichton shares how the retelling came to be when a friend of his was giving a lecture on the “Bores of Literature”. Included in his lecture was an argument on Beowulf and why it was simply uninteresting. Crichton stated his views that the story was not a bore and was, in fact, a very interesting and compelling work. The argument escalated until Crichton said that he would prove to him that the story could be interesting if presented in the correct way. And he more than proved his point with this amazing tale, replete with adventure, daring, swordplay, Vikings, Neanderthals, demons, and battles with both actual and mythical creatures, along with real and fictional details and footnotes and sources and characters that blur the lines between fact and fiction and keep you turning pages.
#5 in our new regular feature that offers up staff-selected recommendations for your consideration.
Colson Whitehead has been getting a lot of attention, and deservedly so, for his latest novel, Underground Railroad. In this Oprah’s Book Club Selection, Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.
So, yes, read that great book, but also consider Ben H. Winter’s chilling new thriller that offers a brilliant and completely different take on the same difficult landscape by daring to mix slavery and science fiction, Underground Airlines.
In this chilling new thriller, a bounty hunter named Victor tracks fugitives for the United States Marshals Service. But his mission, like his past, is complicated: The people he’s chasing are escaped slaves. Their main crime is rejecting a life of forced servitude. And Victor himself was once one of them.
The novel is both creatively and professionally risky as it tackles the thorny subject of racial injustice in America. It takes place in a contemporary United States where the Civil War never happened, and slavery remains legal in four states, and it’s narrated by a former slave who has paid a steep moral price for his freedom. “I had reservations every day, up to the present day, because the subject is so fraught, and rightfully so,” Mr. Winters said. “It isn’t as if this is ancient history in this country.”
Both books come highly recommended, deepening the impact and adding layers of complexity to one another.