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Posts Tagged ‘Ben Winters’

I realized when I was writing about The Quiet Boy that I had not read Underground Airlines. I really like Ben Winters‘ writing and if you’re a longtime reader of bookconscious you know I’ve read many of his books. So I looked in my library eBook platforms and checked it out. I loved it and will buy it so the Computer Scientist can read it too. I am guessing that life was hectic when Underground Airlines first came out; I remember seeing it and meaning to read it. Anyway, I’m really glad I read it now!

As with several of Winters’ other books, this novel is partly a mystery, partly speculative fiction, and deeply humane. I’ve said before that readers can learn a thing or two about being human from his books; that is the case with Underground Airlines as well. It’s set in a world where Lincoln was assassinated before becoming president, and Congress subsequently passed a series of compromises and a Constitutional amendment allowing slavery to remain legal and regulated in the South. By the time the novel takes place, only four slave states remain. The main character, who goes by the name Victor, is an escaped slave who works for the U.S. Marshall service, tracking others who have escaped.

When the book opens Victor is in Indianapolis, working a case. He meets a young mother, Martha, and her child at the hotel where he is staying. As he draws closer to finding the person he’s tracking, he finds himself helping Martha, and also revisiting memories he’d rather forget. Just when he thinks he’s solved his case, things fall apart, and now it’s Martha’s turn to help him. Winters uses their friendship to shine a light on the racism pervasive even in the abolitionist north. He seamlessly comments on inequity, “nice white people,” corporate greed, political dysfunction, and violence, but it’s not heavy handed. All of this fits into the story.

Which is compelling — I was nearly late for work one morning because I thought I could just finish a chapter I’d stayed up too late reading and when I looked up, I had ten minutes to feed the cats, get dressed, make coffee, grab a piece of toast, and fly out the door. Winters’ characters are complex people; there is no simple good guys/bad guys divide, and even the ones you root for do some things you wish they wouldn’t and vice versa. Winters gets that people are imperfect and sometimes act in surprising ways. Reading his books, I always get the sense that he is hopeful about humanity.

Underground Airlines is a terrific read, and it would be a great book club pick. There is a lot to unpack. I also think this would make a terrific movie or TV series. When I described it to the Computer Scientist he said it sounded like it has a similar vibe to Philip K. Dick‘s The Man In High Castle. I don’t know as I haven’t read that book or seen the show, but I did read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and I get how the two writers could be compared.

Also, Underground Airlines ends with Victor trying to track down Martha’s partner, Samson. I would love to read that story! The final lines of the book left me wondering about a sequel. Earlier in the story, more than once, Victor or his handler express that “everything happens,” alluding to the fact that slave or free, black Americans are always in danger. At the end of the book, Victor has flipped that narrative and is hopeful about the chances of finding and freeing Samson: “Everything can happen. Everything is possible.” Could there be more in store for Victor and Martha?

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Yep, those are two very different books. This is bookconscious, I’ll manage to find some connection – stay with me.

Let’s start with Audre Lorde. I read Sister Outsider for my class on Social Justice in the Anglican Tradition. The book is a collection of Audre Lorde’s essays, conference papers, and talks, first published in 1984. Lorde considered herself a poet, as the introduction by her editor, Nancy Boreano notes, but she is also a powerful prose writer. Lorde writes about the many facets of her own identity as a Black lesbian feminist and about the failings of movements that advocate narrowly for the liberation of just one segment of society. She was critical of feminism for not also fighting racism and classism, and of womanism for not lending support to gay and lesbian people. Like so much else that I’ve read lately, the parts of Sister, Outsider that spoke most to me were those addressing the institutional root cause of our divisions: capitalism.

As Lorde explains in “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefinding Difference:”

“In a society where the good is defined in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, there must always be some group of people who, through systematized oppression, can be made to feel surplus, to occupy the place of the dehumanized inferior. . . . Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people.” Ironically, this wastes human capital, as Lorde notes, because the the outsiders are the ones who have to explain themselves to the dominant class: “There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.”

Like Pauli Murray, Lorde was ahead of her time in describing intersectionality, critiquing the reproduction of oppression in marginalized groups that inhibits liberation for everyone, critiquing the lack of racial cultural and socioeconomic diversity in women’s studies and academia, and recognizing the power of creativity in helping people work towards a freer society. In “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” Lorde writes, “It forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams towards survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”

The essays on Lorde’s visits to the Soviet Union and Grenada are also very interesting and educational (the invasion of Grenada always baffled me, and I see it now in the context of US imperialism in Latin America), and bookend the collection. An interesting, thought provoking read. I wonder what Lorde would have to say about the rifts in human rights movements today? Her critiques unfortunately are still needed today, and it seems to me she would call on people to stop reproducing hierarchies of oppression within the LGBTQ+ and feminist communities as well as other progressive movements. I feel like she would appreciate The Sum of Us. Plus, she was a librarian! I look forward to really thoroughly processing her teaching in class.

Now how on earth am I going to connect Audre Lorde with Ben Winters? Well. The characters in his book, The Quiet Boy, are in one way or another victims of the same profit-over-people economy that Lorde cautions us to resist. That’s as far as I’ll go to push the connection right now.

Still, when I’m reading a book that requires studying — careful attention and thought, followed by processing what I’ve read and considering where it fits into the other reading I’m doing or have done, how it relates to the course, what learning it offers, what work I still need to do — it’s nice to have a mystery to read before sleeping. Like working a puzzle, reading something that swiftly moves your brain from clue to clue can be a great release. But this is no pat mystery (not that there’s anything wrong with reading those). Ben Winters is an author I’ve admired and enjoyed for years, and his books are always intriguing and thoughtful. This one was interesting for me to read as I now work in a hospital, and the plot revolves around a lawyer trying to win a malpractice trial after a boy named Wesley hits his head, is operated on, and is a shell of himself, walking endlessly in his room without speaking or interacting in any discernibly human way with those around him.

The lawyer, Jay Shenk, is hired again by Wesley’s family over a decade later when his father is accused of murdering the scientist who served as an expert witness in the malpractice trial. Throughout the book, Jay’s relationship with his son Ruben, and the impact of the two cases on Ruben’s life, are the focus. A mysterious man and his small band of followers are convinced that because of his condition, Wesley is the key to bringing about a “good and golden world” and this little existentially motivated cult play a key part in both cases. This twist is provocative in the best way, as are the themes Winters treats so well: the nuances of ethical behavior, family relationships, the impact of those who’ve died (or become walking shells of themselves) on the living, what it is that can transform humanity into a better version of itself.

One of the things I love about his books is that people I wouldn’t ordinarily seek out, like a policeman (in his Last Policeman trilogy) or an “ambulance chaser” lawyer like Jay Shenk shine as not only fully human but also deeply empathetic characters. Winters gently challenges readers to look beyond the exterior of the “usual suspects” that appear in his books, and he manages to make the familiar pattern of a mystery (which is comforting for many readers; we like mysteries because they fit into our deeply grooved mental binaries of good and bad) and expands it to something much more complex and thought provoking and even instructive.

You can learn a thing or two about being a better human from Winters’ books. There you go. Another way reading Audre Lorde connects with reading Ben Winters.

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I read a sequel (Stiletto, by Daniel O’Malley) this week, and in general I hate reviewing sequels, because so much of a reader’s reaction is informed by the first book (I enjoyed them both, but by design, wasn’t as blown away by the second one because the first is just so mind-blowing), and also, blog readers may not have read the first one. So, instead, here is a bit of readers’ advisory for you.

One of the librarians at my library asked for a good book to take to a lake house — something fun to read that wouldn’t require too much concentration. When I asked what kind of books she liked, we chatted a few minutes and I got the sense that she enjoys books about family relationships.

Here’s the list I gave her, which I realized just now is in no order. The book blurbs are mostly from the publishers, or book sites, and you’ll see I added my comments. I am pretty sure I’ve written about all of them on bookconscious.

Hi!

Here are a variety of recommendations:

The Beach House by Jane Green — Disregarding local gossip that pegs her as an eccentric, sixty-five-year-old Nantucket widow Nan skinny-dips in unattended pools and steals her neighbors’ flowers before her dwindling funds force her to take in boarders, a change that brings an unexpected visitor. A really summery read!

The Hollow Land and anything else by Jane Gardam — Young Harry Bateman comes from London with his family year after year to spend the summer at Light Trees Farm in the Cumbrian fells country, until he feels that it is his real home. I read this for a book club, but I love every one of Jane Gardam’s books.

How It All Began by Penelope Lively — The mugging of a retired schoolteacher on a London street has unexpected repercussions for her friends and neighbors when it inadvertently reveals an illicit love affair, leads to a business partnership, and helps an immigrant to reinvent his life. Don’t be put off by the mugging; it’s a really interesting read, because that one event sets off a whole chain of other things, but Lively focuses on the relationships, not the crime.

Left Neglected by Lisa GenovaSarah, a career-driven young mother, suffers a traumatic brain injury in a car accident that leaves her unable to perceive left-side information. The disability causes her to struggle through an uncertain recovery as she adapts to her new life. Same author as Still Alice; I was fascinated by the details about living with a brain injury, but the book is also about relationships.

The View from Penthouse B by Elinor LipmanTwo newly-single sisters, one a divorceé, the other a widow, become roommates with a handsome, gay cupcake-baker as they try to return to the dating world of lower Manhattan. Also, The Family Man — Reunited with his long-lost stepdaughter by an ex-wife’s hysterical plea for help, gay lawyer Henry Archer allows the young woman to move into his basement, where she reluctantly poses as the girlfriend of a down-on-his-luck former sitcom star. I also love her book of essays I Can’t Complain. She’s funny and wise.

French Leave by Anna Gavalda — Simon, Garance and Lola flee a family wedding that promises to be dull to visit their younger brother, Vincent, who is working as a guide at a château in the heart of the charming Tours countryside. For a few hours, they forget about kids, spouses, work and the many demands adulthood makes upon them and lose themselves in a day of laughter, teasing, and memories.

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain  — Dining alone in an elegant Parisian brasserie, accountant Daniel Mercier can hardly believe his eyes when President Francois Mitterrand sits down to eat at the table next to him. After the presidential party has gone, Daniel discovers that Mitterrand’s black felt hat has been left behind. Daniel decides to keep the hat as a souvenir, and as he leaves the restaurant, he begins to feel somehow different. I also loved The Red Notebook (same author) — After finding an abandoned handbag on the street, a Parisian bookseller endeavors to find its owner, the woman whose jottings he discovers in a red notebook within the bag. Both of these books are a mini trip to Paris!

The entire Mrs. Pollifax series by Dorothy Gilman – My grandmother introduced me to these, and Mrs. Pollifax is one of my favorite characters of all time. Mrs. Pollifax is a widow and senior citizen who decides one day to leave her comfortable apartment in New Brunswick, New Jersey and join the CIA. Funny, thoughtful, and absolutely charming books. The first is called The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax.

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai — Lucy Hull, a young children’s librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, finds herself both kidnapper and kidnapped when her favorite patron, ten-year-old Ian Drake, runs away from home. The precocious Ian is addicted to reading, but needs Lucy’s help to smuggle books past his overbearing mother, who has enrolled Ian in weekly anti-gay classes. I could overlook the somewhat improbable plot because the heroine is a librarian and favorite childhood books are an important part of the story.

The Last Policeman trilogy by Ben Winters – In the first book, which is set in Concord (the hero even goes to the Concord Public Library!), Earth is doomed by an imminent and unavoidable asteroid collision. Homicide detective Hank Palace considers the worth of his job in a world destined to end in six months and investigates a suspicious suicide that nobody else cares about. This series is fantastic, and I don’t usually like mysteries or pre-apocalyptic books. The author won both the Edgar and the Philip K. Dick awards, he’s funny and smart and so are his books.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer— In 1946, as England emerges from the shadow of World War II, writer Juliet Ashton finds inspiration for her next book in her correspondence with a native of Guernsey and his eccentric friends, who tell her about their island, the books they love, German occupation, and the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book club born as an alibi during German occupation. If you didn’t read it when it came out, it’s a lovely book.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson — Forced to confront the realities of life in the 21st century when he falls in love with widowed Pakistani descendant Mrs. Ali, a retired Major Pettigrew finds the relationship challenged by local prejudices that view Mrs. Ali, a Cambridge native, as a perpetual foreigner. Really good characters and a light touch, even though it’s a book about serious issues.

All Together Now by Gill Hornby —  When their singing coach dies unexpectedly before a big contest, a motley group of singers ina community choir from a small English village must overcome their respective challenges if they are ever going to succeed. Again, how could a book about a small town fading be so much fun? The characters.

How to Be Good by Nick Hornby — Katie, a liberal, urban mother and doctor from North London, finds her life turned upside down when her husband, David, undergoes an outrageous spiritual transformation, in a hilarious novel about marriage, parenthood, religion, and morality. I love Nick Hornby; his charactars are funny and real.  I also loved High Fidelity — Follows the love affairs and belated growing up of a “Generation X” pop music fanatic and record store owner.

If you like nonfiction, both Calvin Trillin (I just recently read Travels With Alice, about vacations he took with his wife and kids; he’s hilarious) and Bill Bryson are fun and quick to read.

That’s probably too many books! But I wanted you to have options if some of these are not available.

 Enjoy!

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We just got back from a week in Isle la Motte, one of the Champlain Islands in northern Vermont. Even though this year we spent a day in Montreal, I still somehow read eight books and finished a 9th (and nearly a 10th):

I finished Getting Schooled by Garret Keizer, which I’m reviewing in September’s Mindful Reader column, and which I loved — Keizer writes about a year in which he returned to teaching high school after 14 years. He recounts a bit about his earlier years teaching, his writing career, and the changes he observes, culturally and in the world of education, in his small Northeast Kingdom town. And the day we were leaving I was up early and very nearly finished Every Day in Tuscanby Frances Mayes. She writes about post-fame life in Cortona and includes recipes as well.

I read (in no particular order)

Ben Winters’ World of Trouble, the 3rd in the Last Policeman trilogy. A friend told me before I left for vacation that it was the best of the three and she is right. She also warned me it’s sad; also very true. I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the ending, which could have been awful, but Winters write it beautifully. One spoiler: it’s not set in Concord, NH, like the first two in the series. But Hank Palace is still the last policeman, and I continue to admire his heart and dedication, his refusal to quit in the face of ridiculous odds, and his selfless pursuit of the truth.

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. This book is a “big” novel from a “big” author (his latest book, out in September is already on the longlist for the Booker Prize). Various reviewers compared it to The Great Gatsby and referred to it as a 9/11 novel, an immigrant novel, a great American novel, and a post-colonial novel. I thought it was an interesting story, well told, but I was a little doubtful about the marital problems of the main character, Hans van den Broek, and his wife Rachel. Basically she is so rude to him that I had a hard time believing he’d keep wanting to work it out, but I suppose love is strange. When the book opens, Hans has learned that an old friend, Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian cricket referee and businessman with dreams of building a cricket stadium in New York, was found murdered. He reflects on how his friendship with Chuck developed after 9-11 when Rachel moved back to London with their son.  If I had to boil down what I thought Netherland was about I’d say it’s about isolation.

Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden. I loved Impunity Jane when I read it to my daughter years ago, and this book had been calling to me from the used book section at Gibson’s for weeks when I finally bought it. When the book begins, Louise Poole and her two daughters, Emily and Binnie, have arrived in India where Charles Poole has been living, estranged from his wife and alone for many years. As the novel unfolds, readers learn more about the troubled family as well as the agricultural college Charles has helped build. We meet Narayan Das, a veterinarian, who scorns traditional Hindu beliefs and traditions and despises the caste system. And Anil, a Brahmin student who is only studying agriculture because his father insists, but really prefers writing poetry. When Emily’s dog dies, all of these characters’ play a role in the drama; most of them experience an epiphany of some sort. A satisfying, evocative read, which left me with much to ponder.

Marrying Off Mother and other Stories by Gerald Durrell. Longtime bookconscious readers know I adore Durrell. My Family and Other Animals remains of my favorite memoirs ever.This collection of stories is based in fact; some of the pieces have the same tone as his memoirs. Durrell is a unique writer, whose work is suffused with his love of the natural world as well as his warmth and the joy he seems to take in his unusual life. He also has a terrific sense of pacing; I always imagine it would be best to hear his work aloud.

This Close by Jessica Francis Kane. Another story collection, some of them linked, about people and their relationships with each other and with society. I liked it — not too dark, not too light, interesting characters. Kane’s stories remind me a bit of Ann Beatty’s. This is fiction about feelings, heavier on interactions than actions. But you don’t come away feeling like humanity sucks when you’re through reading this collection, which is good for a vacation read.

And the best for last:

A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardamone of my favorite authors.  I was really looking forward to this one and it didn’t disappoint. Gardam’s writing is exquisite and this story really grabbed me. Gardam captures adolescence beautifully, and her main character, Jessica Vye, reminded me of myself in some ways — feeling different than everyone else and being both glad of it and repulsed by it. Every character is interesting, and not a word is misspent. I am not sure I can even put into words what it is about Gardam that I love so much; I always wish her books would never end.

Unapologetic by Francis Spufford. Like a long, cool drink of water on a hot day.  Spufford is witty and clear, and doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but nonetheless writes about contemporary faith in a way that is both reassuring and challenging. This book is his answer to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and I enjoyed it. I don’t think it would convince atheists to change their minds (at least not the ones I know) but it might convince them to allow that not all believers are mindless idiots, and that alone makes it a great contribution.

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth. If you’ve seen the BBC series, his is the first of three memoirs by the real Jennie in the series. She writes with great affection about the community of nurses and nuns where she lived and worked in London’s East End in the 1950’s. It was a perfect book to read after enjoying Alan Johnson’s This Boy. I intend to find and read Worth’s other books as well. She was a remarkable lady and her writing is vivid, cheerful, clear, and reflective.

 

 

 

 

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