August 5, 2016

July Reading Recap

Last month, I happily devoured my first two anticipated summer reads, plus a release from earlier in the year.

UNDERGROUND AIRLINES by Ben H. Winters imagines a version of US history in which Congress passed the proposed Crittenden Compromise, guaranteeing the right to permanently practice slavery in states where it was already legal. The story takes place in a present day where slavery persists in four southern states. Elsewhere in America, the ramifications of slavery affect the lives of black citizens even more strongly than in our own reality.

Victor, who grew up enslaved, works undercover as a bounty hunter for the US Marshals Service, which has the responsibility to track down any "person bound to labor" who escapes to freedom. The job fills him with constant self-loathing, but he's very good at it. His latest case brings him to Indianapolis in search of a young man smuggled out of a plantation by the Underground Airlines (a metaphorically named movement: "Only very rarely is there a real plane involved.") Victor has to find the man before the Airlines gets him to Canada, but the further he investigates, the more unusual the details of the case become.

The conflicts inherent in Victor's life make him a fascinating protagonist, and each element of his character is well-developed and specific. I was glad to have him as my guide through the book's twisty plot and horrifying world. As with the excellent Last Policeman series, what most impressed me about this novel is how carefully Winters thought out every aspect of the premise. He's constructed a complete alternate history for the United States and its foreign relations, applied modern technology to the practice of slavery, and considered how systematic and individual racism perpetuates inequality. UNDERGROUND AIRLINES is an exciting mystery that grows ever more complicated and harrowing as the story progresses, but what kept me most enthralled was my desire to learn more about Victor and his America.

JULIET TAKES A BREATH by Gabby Rivera: When Juliet Palante reads the work of feminist author Harlowe Brisbane, it rocks her world. Juliet writes to Harlowe and scores a summer internship working out of the author's home in Portland, Oregon. It's the farthest Juliet has ever been from the Bronx, and she's excited and nervous about spending the summer with a white hippie writer in a white hippie town, far from her Puerto Rican family and the college girlfriend she's been afraid to tell them about. At the goodbye dinner before she leaves for Portland, Juliet comes out to her family, and the reactions are only the first surprises in what will be a wild, emotional summer.

This is a powerful coming-of-age story about a queer brown girl, and it pulled me in right from the start. Throughout the novel, I was caught up in all the raw emotions Juliet experiences, from joy to heartbreak, and I enjoyed her funny, opinionated commentary on the world and people she encounters. Juliet's summer exposes her to a wide range of approaches to feminism and identity. I was right there with her on that journey, having my mind opened and struggling against the ways white feminism excludes women of color.

While the writing is rough in places and the narrative doesn't always flow well, there is so much to love in this book, and I'm glad Juliet's story is out there.

THE LIGHT OF PARIS by Eleanor Brown: Madeleine is suffocating in a loveless marriage, longing for the life of painting she gave up for her controlling husband. After the couple has a terrible argument, Madeleine returns to her small southern hometown and her mother, another controlling and critical figure in Madeleine's life. While she dreams of an escape from the crushing expectations of other people, Madeleine finds a box of diaries kept by her grandmother as a young woman. In their pages, she discovers that Margie struggled with an overbearing mother of her own and wanted to write rather than get married. In 1924, Margie travels to Europe as a chaperone for a younger cousin, and what she experiences in Paris changes her life.

I loved getting to know the two protagonists of this novel. Both are artists who don't conform to the roles demanded by their high society families, and I wanted to see them succeed in breaking free. Brown does an excellent job with the settings in this novel, delightfully skewering the culture of debutante balls and ladies association meetings and vividly presenting the energy of 1920s Paris. I was hoping for a bit more from the story, because despite the two separate timelines, not a lot happens. Still, this was an engaging read that kept me well entertained while traveling.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Cait Etherington reveals The Secret Apartments of New York Libraries: "In the early to mid twentieth century, the majority of the city’s libraries had live-in superintendents. Like the superintendents who still live in many of the city’s residential buildings, these caretakers both worked and lived in the buildings for which they were responsible. This meant that for decades, behind the stacks, meals were cooked, baths and showers were taken, and bedtime stories were read."


Moxie said...

Great summaries--these books have been on my list for a while and it's helpful to know that they're actually worth a read. Also, I hereby volunteer to be a live-in library superintendent should the position ever be resurrected.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Sounds like a pretty great job, huh? Glad you found my recommendations useful. Happy reading!

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