The Library Basement
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Tag Colson Whitehead

Readings for June 2017

Among the Gentiles by Luke Timothy Johnson

You know what I like? A book which has 40% of its page count taken by end notes. If you like that sort of thing too, then Among the Gentiles by Luke Timothy Johnson may be just the book for you. I picked this up from my church library and really enjoyed it, though it was a bit of slow read due to Johnson's dense scholarly language (again: love it).

The basic topic of this work is the Greco-Roman religious context of early Christianity. I have read quite a bit on the Jewish context of the church's beginnings, but honestly knew very little about what "paganism" was really all about. Johnson helpfully distills ancient Greek and Roman religious practice in to four broad categories. He then points out where both Judaism and Christianity may have rubbed shoulders with the religion of the empire during their development.

Spoiler alert: the conclusion is not "Christianity is a thin veil over paganism", as cover-story pop scholars will be disappointed to hear. I heartily recommend it, but I suggest you have some experience in reading academic texts in Christian history.

Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

When I heard the next Colson Whitehead title had been published, I was ecstatic. However I must confess that when I heard that Underground Railroad had been selected for Oprah's Book Club, I got worried. Could it be that one of my favorite authors had become a commercial sell-out? How could an author as special as Whitehead gain traction with the wider audience such an endorsement bring?

I was wrong to despair. Underground Railroad is a good book, and more importantly, it is a good Colson Whitehead novel. It even won the National Book Award. Yes it got the Oprah nod, and I hope that the increased sales and publicity keep Whitehead clothed and fed long enough to pen many more books.

Another spoiler alert: the twist in this novel is that there is a literal underground railroad. As in, there's a ladder hidden under a trap door in someone's barn, and beneath there is a train platform, where a locomotive pulls in and carries runaway slaves to points further North. But that's not really what the book is about. You'll read about the horrors of slavery and the triumph of humanity in spite of that horrid institution. Recommended so that you too can run away with Cora to freedom.

Readings for March 2015

In which I went full Knausgaard.

My Struggle, Books 1 and 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

If you have read any literary reviews in the past years, you have read about Karl Ove Knausgaard. His six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle been written about everywhere, mostly favorably. Seeing that book one was out in paperback, I picked it up, and it was not long until I picked up book two.

This is going to sound silly, but here it goes: Knausgaard's work had to classed as fiction because it is too true to be a proper autobiography. He writes with incredible candor about personal matters, and does not spare his ego nor the feelings of those around him in what appears on the page. So in spite of the literary praise reckoning him to Proust and other superlatives, one of the most exciting aspects of readings this work is to see just what observations he makes which most would not dare to commit to writing.

Some readers approach the immense count of pages with trepidation, fearing that this is simply a tome of over-sharing, a vast catalog of "what I had for lunch" status updates. But it is a lot more than that. Knausgaard's prose and power of observation make for the most sublime reading in the midst of any topic. His characters are vivid, and the stories are compelling.

Quite frankly I loved the first two volumes. Knausgaard's struggle is stated in different ways in each of the first two volumes so far, but I felt resonance with both. He wants to do good work, and feels he is capable of doing so, but his life circumstances (arrived at through his own will) constrain him. I think that is a common sentiment, especially among those who review books.


The Noble Hustle by Colson Whitehead

As I was reading Colson Whitehead's newest, I got a funny feeling that I had read it before. And then I realized that I had indeed - it was excerpted in the pages of Harper's some months before. So that accelerated my enthusiasm, which is already very great when it comes to reading Whitehead.

The Noble Hustle's premise is simple: writer gets staked to play in the World Series of Poker. If you know anything about Whitehead, you know that his wit and irony is going to make for great description of that strange world. I had not read any of Whitehead's non-fiction, and it was definitely a treat.

Pick it up, read it. Learn a bit about poker and the crazed world which surrounds it. Root for the author to win it all, but don't be too sad when he doesn't. Recommended.

Readings for March 2013

Better late than never.


  • Journal of Biblical Literature 131:2 - I cannot recall any standout articles, but I do have a general sense of being convinced by several and thinking relatively few were silly.
  • Scientific American November 2012 - R. Ewan Fordyce and Daniel T. Ksepka reveal some surprising history about the ancestors of modern penguins. My favorite tidbit: some were huge!

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

I first encountered Colson Whitehead when I found The Inuitionist at the Portland Wordstock book fair. I have read it twice since, along with all of Whitehead's other novels, enjoying them all immensely. From time to time when I am at the bookstore I browse the "W" section to see if I am in for a surprise, and I sure was this last visit to Powell's.

Colson Whitehead wrote a zombie novel. And it is good, very good. I have not read a whole of zombie lit, but I would hazard to say that Zone One is the best example of this current rash of zombie novels. He of course deals with the topic with some fresh perspectives on the zombie metaphor, but has some fun along the way as well. I laughed out loud fairly frequently whilst reading it.

So let's just say that with Zone One, this latter day pop culture fixation on zombies is over. Whitehead has taken it to the zenith, and is therefore to be recommended.

The sin of not reading Whitehead

I first encountered Colson Whitehead's literature at Portland's Wordstock expo. I bought The Intuitionist and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Since then I've also immensely enjoyed John Henry Daysand Apex Hides the Hurt. Whitehead truly is among the best of American novelists writing today.

Therefore, when I heard of a new Whitehead novel, Sag Harbor, I instantly reserved it at the library. However, for some insane reason which defies memory, I did not read it when I was finally able to check it out. Truly a mistake. But tonight I've rectified that mistake. I'm not sure why, but a whim took a hold of me as we were at a routine pickup at our local library. I checked under "W" and against all odds, Whitehead's new novel was there. So now I will partake, and enjoy, and repent.