Review: Underground Airlines by Ben Winters

underUnderground Airlines by Ben Winters (Mulholland Books, 336 pages)

Recommended for: Readers or fans of alternate history, historical fiction, or spy/crime/adventure stories. 

Underground Airlines is an intriguing, suspenseful alternate history novel which asks the question of What if the Civil War had never happened and slavery still existed? The reader is placed alongside an escaped slave named Victor in the “free” north where segregation is still grossly perpetuated in a United States where slavery is still practiced in the “Hard Four” states. He’s been captured under the Fugitive Persons Law by the government and made to be a “soul catcher,” finding escaped slaves and returning them to slavery.

Victor at first seems cold and unfeeling before one realizes he has his own ways of coping: “I was not a person but a manifestation of will. I was a mechanism—a device.” He is sent to capture his over-200th escaped slave while investing the modern representation of the Underground Railroad, hence the title. Almost immediately, the reader is reading a redemption tale—but will it be enough to justify the horrifying idea that slavery was never abolished?

“Freedman Town’s purpose is for the rest of the world. The world that sits, like Martha, with dark glasses on, staring from a distance, scared but safe. Create a pen like that, give people no choice but to live like animals, and then people get to point at them and say ‘Will you look at those animals? That’s what kind of people those people are.’ And that idea drifts up and out of Freedman Town like chimney smoke, black gets to mean poor and poor to mean dangerous and all the words get murked together and become one dark idea, a cloud of smoke, the smokestack fumes drifting like filthy air across the rest of the nation.”

Though some have deemed the world building Winters executes here a triumph, I found it hard to follow and a bit too fantastic at times, specifically his references to pop culture and black celebrities (Michael Jackson, James Brown). I would hope that in a world so different from ours, things would be more different and much worse. The writing was too often dry as well, and I didn’t care about the characters as much as I thought I would, probably because it takes way too long for Victor to explain why he’s so troubled by his situation. I also had a problem with the way women are represented in the novel, but that’s a discussion for another day. In all, despite the intriguing premise of the book, there wasn’t that much there to make it different from other novels covering stories of slavery except that the main character is working for the wrong side.

I am not a long-time fan of Ben Winters like many of the readers flocking to this book. I heard about it first on IndieNext and thought well, if indie booksellers like this one, then I’ll give it a go. I should have first remembered that books about slavery are so hard to read (I recently read Homegoing and with The Underground Railroad yet to review, I’m afraid of the timing). I’m not saying I want to shield myself and as a white person forget it happened, but my heart is so heavy given the events of July and these past few months. Much too late did I realize the horror of what I was reading: a book considering that slavery never ended when it did, written by a white man. While he was going for an eye opener, and something to reveal how this terrible occurrence isn’t really that far from the racism of our day, the more I read, the more disturbed I felt that this book was even written and a publisher jumped on it. I just couldn’t escape that. In all, to me it wasn’t that redeeming of a narrative, and so I fear the publisher accepted the work based solely on the alternate-history plot device. 3.5 stars.

That being said, a lot of people have loved this book, so if you’re at all curious, check it out here.  

For some, this book is going to be a brain churner, which is great. Book clubs who want to create a discussion on racism in America would probably like this book, as I’m sure there are many different opinions on its execution.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

Advertisements

Review: Spiritual Sobriety by Elizabeth Esther

It’s been a while since my last review, and I held off on posting my last Blogging for Books review because it means so much to me to get it right (also, I LOVED IT, and my excitement was skewing my ability to write an objective review). So heeeeeeeeere is a book that was honestly very good. Not perfect, but also not long, and I would recommend checking it out if you’ve ever been frustrated or hurt by a church or religious experience. Enjoy!

spiritual sobrietySpiritual Sobriety: Stumbling Back to Faith When Good Religion Goes Bad by Elizabeth Esther (Convergent Books, 192 pages)

Recommended for: Readers of faith (all kinds), readers who are tired of religion or have a negative viewpoint towards it, spiritual readers, readers of Anne Lamott, Addie Zierman, Madeleine L’Engle, Lauren Winner.

Spiritual Sobriety is a breath of fresh air. A memoir following Esther’s first book, Girl at the End of World, which is about coming out of a fundamentalist cult, this book covers the questions of whether one can come back to faith after experiencing a religious fervor that is damaging and ultimately a hurtful message from the Church. And her answer is yes, though it takes healing.

Esther describes that if you are one of those people who questions whether faith is worth it because of horrible experiences it’s possible you used God and religion like a drug the same way addicts use substancesto numb pain, alter [your] mood, or simply to escape the realities of this messy, unpredictable thing called life.” She calls it akin to being “high” on God. This is what she herself experienced, so she’s speaking from personal experience with a warmth of a mentor sitting down for coffee with you.

Once she identified her problem with what she previously practiced as religion, she struggled with depression and realized that her religious addiction was preventing her from experiencing faith as it was meant to be. At this point, the book is more of a “how to” than a memoir, but with the purpose of helping all who read it discover a deeper faith that is meaningful without being riddled with unhealthy behaviors.

If you liked Addie Zierman’s When We Were on Fire, you’ll love this book, but know that it is more instruction rather than personal emotional recollections. She includes research from books on this subject as well as quotes from interviews she conducted with people who faced similar experiences. Traveling through the journey with the reader, Esther also writes discussion questions at the back of each chapter to help walk you through healing and identifying personal issues to find acceptance, love, and a meaningful faith. The reader has the choice to go through the discussion questions and personally develop their ideas and faith or simply read it as a learning experience. The practical advice invites readers to decide for themselves if they want to rethink the way they relate to God or practice religion, and she is gentle with her suggestions. It is also a short read.

Coming from someone who experienced similarly damaging relationships with churches, camps, religious conventions, and even people in the Church, I very much appreciated the fresh viewpoint. I would say this book isn’t perfect and got a little repetitive at times, but it is definitely a positive stepping point for releasing and working through anger towards harmful religious experiences and looking at them from a fresh, learning perspective. I have a sense that this book will stay with me for a long time, and I may revisit it should I choose to delve back into faith with vigor. I will recommend this to any friend who has ever questioned their relationship with the Church, though I would also encourage any believer or person of religious experience to explore what this book is trying to say. 3.5 or 4 out of 5 stars.

Buy the book from IndieBound here, or support your local bookstore! I received this book free from Blogging For Books as part of their Book Review Blogger program in exchange for an honest review.

 

help make Milkweed Books happen!

open-book-inthenews
(photo from http://www.openbookmn.org)

I haven’t yet written about Milkweed Editions‘ new bookstore opening in the Open Book building in downtown Minneapolis called Milkweed Books! This store is particularly exciting because 1) any new independent bookstore is worth celebrating, and 2) it will be rather unique even among indie bookstores.

Originally the store planned to open in late June but now the grand opening will be on September 20th. The store will be located in the Open Book building in Minneapolis, shared by The Loft Literary Center: one of the biggest nonprofit literary centers in the United States, which also houses the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. Imagine all of these businesses in one building! There’s a small coffee shop/cafe inside as well as the MN Center for Book Arts’ retail store, meaning that if you like books or writing at ALL, you’ll be pretty happy hanging out there for hours on end. The Milkweed Books store will be open before that but the grand opening is scheduled for the 20th.

You can read more about the bookstore here, where there’s a Kickstarter raising money (their goal is $25,000) to help make the bookstore happen. You can pledge as little as $5, just the price of one fancy Starbucks coffee, to help make a difference. As of my writing this, they’re almost to $15,000 in just a few days since its launch.

“Milkweed Books will showcase and sell titles primarily published by independent presses, nonprofit presses, and other publishers working to bring the most exciting literary art to the marketplace. If you want to find the best new poetry, or creative nonfiction, or short stories, or translations, this bookstore is for you.”

The manager is Hans Weyandt, who edited a book with Coffee House Press called Read This! Handpicked Favorites From America’s Indie BookstoresI loved this book when I picked it up before National Indie Bookstore Day this year, and I especially love knowing the book recommendations come from experienced booksellers who have waded the vast pool of literature before me. I’ve said this before: the hardest part about being a bookseller myself is the ever-growing, endless TBR (to-be-read) list I create by talking with coworkers and customers!

Consider pledging to this fantastic new bookstore and supporting one of the coolest centers for books in the States. For more information, check this article by the American Booksellers Association. Hope to see you at the grand opening!

get these September events on your calendar!

I know I’ve skipped… well, way too many months. Summer IS much slower for literary events compared to the spring and fall. Are you ready for fall things like leaves changing and cider? I know, too soon, too soon.

Ever read Jonathan Safran Soer, Emily St. John Mandel, or Liane Moriarty? They, among many other great writers, are coming to MN!

Here’s a rundown of things to get on your radar for September. Again, I know I’m not super consistent with posting the same events every time (if they’re monthly or recurring) but just shoot me a line to include what I missed! I’ve tried to be more inclusive by focusing on each bookstore and linking to all their upcoming events after featuring just one on here.

As always, in the “Events” tab above you’ll find the Rain Taxi official literary calendar and other resources to help with finding book readings  and lit events in the Twin Cities area.

  • Thursday, September 8th: Graywolf Literary Salon: A World of Voices
    • Featuring authors Anuradha Roy, Solmaz Sharif, and Monica Youn in conversation with Graywolf publisher Fiona McCrae and executive editor Jeff Shotts about fiction, poetry, and twenty-first century ideas. With musical performances by cellists Jacqueline Ultan and Michelle Kinney, and percussionist Gary Waryan.
    • This event does require tickets, and they’re on the higher end, but consider it a donation to a FANTASTIC independent press.
    • It’s going to be so great.
  • Wednesday, September 14th: Sky Blue Water Book Launch hosted by Wild Rumpus Books for Young Readers, the release of short story collection that celebrates Minnesota’s vibrant storytelling tradition, edited by Jay D. Peterson and Collette A. Morgan.
    • This event is offsite, but only a block from Wild Rumpus and they will be selling books for signing.
    • For a list of all events at Wild Rumpus, check out their Facebook events here!
  • Thursday, September 15th: Eric Dregni presents Let’s Go Fishing
    • Looking for the perfect Minnesotan coffee table book for dad for Christmas? This is your best bet! But shhhh (my dad doesn’t read this blog… I don’t think.)
    • For a list of all events at Subtext: A Bookstore, check out their Facebook events here, or visit their website! They have a monthly book club, too!

If you can, I encourage you to check one or two of these great events out and perhaps discover some new awesome reads along the way! Let me know in the comments if there are any others you’re excited about this month! 

 

Review: Rad Women Worldwide by Kate Schatz

Guys. GUYS GUYS GUYS I loved this book! Also, I’d like to announce that it’s the first NetGalley book I’ve finished and reviewed since creating an account and becoming a NetGalley “Professional Reader.” I was so excited when I got approved for this one and a few others, so expect a few more reviews from me from NetGalley.

rad women worldwideRad Women Worldwide by Kate Schatz (Ten Speed Press, 112 pages)

As a woman and feminist, I was so proud while reading this book. Let me praise it from the rooftops and hand sell it to every girl, boy, mom, dad, relative, friend, you name it. Everyone could benefit from reading this.

I was devastated to discover I did not even know about most of these women before picking up this book. I felt myself longing to have had this book in my hands as a girl in school when it came time to pick the people I wanted to write my research papers on. When it’s published, you can bet I’m gonna be buying myself a copy to pass along to my children someday and will hand sell it at Christmas as such a beneficial book.

If you’re at all curious about the women included, pre-order a copy now. Here are some of the most badass mothers, social activists, astronauts, scientists, doctors, teachers, athletes, musicians, artists, suffragettes, queens, spies, and even a pirate! Imagine picking this up in school as a girl and realizing that the options for your career are ENDLESS and that no one can tell you what you can and can’t do. Each description is quite short, like a brief summary and biography of why this woman was/is a luminary and what she contributed to society. I wished they were longer, but it is really is just a gateway for you to learn the fast facts now and research more if you want to later. Also keep in mind it really is meant for a younger audience, but doesn’t alienate adults at all either. It’s nice to having something so short and yet empowering. Women seriously rock! I also was so happy to see diversity represented as well as giving women credit who lived so long ago (think: Ancient Egypt). At the back there’s a list of other rad women around the world divided up by country. I wish I could add some to the list, though it’s quite long as is.

In all, this book is well written, needed, and absolutely fabulous. The cut paper illustrations by Miriam Klein Stahl were an incredible as well and added a dynamic to even the women featured who lived thousands of years ago, and the quotes were also a marvelous addition. You will not regret reading this book. 5 stars, without a doubt.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

the Harry Potter midnight excitement is contagious

Are you a Harry Potter fan? Are you excited for the new book? What are you doing this evening?

911Xmhn9+rLThe context: As you probably know, the most anticipated book (er, play) of the summer, the screenplay Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, will be released into the hands of fans at bookstores tonight at midnight or (like in my store’s case, at 10 am Sunday). This book is the only sequel to the beloved series and comes out the same day the play is premiered in the UK.

The audience: Are you, like me, almost exactly the same age as Harry? Did you, unlike me, grow up reading each one, attending book release parties and midnight screenings of the movies?

I unfortunately grew up in a conservative community who sort of shunned Harry Potter (I say unfortunate because I wish we hadn’t and that I had been allowed to read it, since I’ll always feel like I missed out) but when I was 19 I happily started reading the books and watching the movies with my friends. That was the summer the last movie was released, which I also didn’t watch until I had read all the books. (It’s already been 5 years!)

The happenings: So naturally I had to post about this because it’s exciting and fun. I’m not sure I’ll be attending any parties due to having to work 3-10 today, but if you live here or I’m sure anywhere as lots of B&Ns are having parties, you should join in the fun if you want. I love how a beloved storyline and characters can reveal a community of people who simply love fun, magic, and the values of love shown in the series. They truly are amazing books.

Will I be reading the screenplay? Well seeing as I don’t have more money for books right now, I checked the library, and there are OVER NINE HUNDRED HOLDS FOR OVER 100 COPIES OF THE PLAY.

So I’ll think it’ll be a while for me 😉 I’m also hesitant because it’s a play, but since I’m not a hardcore dedicated, grew-up-with-Harry fan, I’m not gonna write you a “this is why I’m not reading the Cursed Child” speech.

Here are some of the midnight release parties happening in the Twin Cities this weekend: (I started making this list but then found the rest over at the Pioneer Press)

 

Northgate Brewing: 783 Harding St. N.E., Minneapolis. Family-friendly activities beginning at 4 p.m. (This looks super fun. This is where I’d be if not working. Harry Potter and beer/cider!?!? Yes please!)

SubText Books: 6 W. Fifth St., St. Paul. 9 to 11 p.m. costume contest and drinks (for families) at Tin Whiskers Brewing Company, 125 E. Ninth St., St. Paul, followed by midnight-release party at the store with birthday cake and birthday party games.

Red Balloon Bookshop: 891 Grand Ave., St. Paul. Party begins at 10:30 p.m. Saturday, followed by Wee Wizard Brunch at 12:30 p.m. Sunday with breakfast in the Great Hall and wizarding crafts.

Barnes & Noble: In Roseville, Edina, Maplewood, Minneapolis, Burnsville, Eden Prairie, Blaine, Minnetonka, Maple Grove and Mall of America.

Half Price Books: St. Louis Park and Coon Rapids

Valley Bookseller: 217 N. Main St., Stillwater. Opening at 8 a.m. Sunday to celebrate Harry Potter Day.

So to celebrate I may just be making butterbeer for my friends and I. Are you celebrating?

 

24 in 48 Readathon!

Well, guys, my very first Readathon starts tonight at midnight! It’s called 24 in 48 and it’s where you read for 24 hours in the 48 hour weekend. No, it’s not 24 books! (wouldn’t that be the dream?) I found out about via my favorite app, Litsy, where the book community has just been fantastic. I couldn’t be happier spending this entire, super hot weekend inside with the AC reading books (:

I’ve slacked off in July due to thoughts, sickness, a new job, and shit hitting the fan, and I wish I had told you all about this earlier, but I get that not many can participate. I mean, it means not really having any plans on Saturday AND Sunday, but since I’m sick, that won’t be a problem for me. (I also originally got this weekend off for a writer’s retreat that I ended up not being able to attend, so luck was on my side.) I’ve heard about them in the past but always had to work!

Anyway, here’s my way overly ambitious stack, including my laptop since I have a manuscript I’m behind on reading. Also pictured here is Pond, since, let’s face it, she’s probably not going to leave me alone (although her brother is an even bigger problem).

IMG_3841

Many of these are books I’ve started and haven’t finished, library books, books I’m reviewing, or books that I’m reading for different purpose. Had to include poetry, horror, short stories, a graphic novel, nonfiction, Italy, and some novels. (Not pictured: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.)

I’m so excited! I won’t be posting updates during the Readathon here, but if you have an iPhone you can find me at Litsy: WordWaller or on Twitter @WordWaller.

Anyone else participating? Or, if you wish you could, what books would you be blowing through? 

books & the literary community as healing

Alright, friends. Here I am after QUITE the absence, and for that I am sorry. It’s totally not that there haven’t been July events to keep you aware of or awesome June events to talk about (because there have been! I have so much to catch up on), but that I think it’s not secret July has been a total shitstorm in our country.

The day after Philando Castile was shot and killed, I decided to take a break from speaking my own voice out into the social media depths and simply share those voices which haven’t been feeling heard. I received some backlash, I solidified some viewpoints, I worked up the courage to share controversial content for what I believe in, and I got to know myself a bit better.

My desire is not for this blog to cover that content. Not because I don’t believe in speaking up, but simply because I don’t want to alienate anyone who loves books or calls Minnesota home, and also because I don’t think my voice, as a white woman, is so very different. I’m learning that the best thing I can do right now is support, learn, and assist those who’s voices need to be heard right now.

I AM going to plug what I’ve been reading and plan to read, of course, and coincidentally that covers the turmoil the nation has been experiencing. I think readers have a big responsibility right now to read and, at least for those of us who don’t experience racism good timeday to day, educate themselves and open up their minds to the voices and experiences of their neighbors, friends, coworkers, and fellow citizens.

MPR last week published a GREAT piece about how books about racial studies or by people of color are flying off the shelves of our local Minneapolis/St. Paul bookstores. I can testify that I’ve sold at least one copy a day of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and I watched A Good Time for the Truth (by local, Minnesotan authors, which is what I’m reading now!) sell out before the weekend of July 9-10. I believe strongly in the power of that book:

The impact of “A Good Time for the Truth” is different, though, Zumberge said, because it’s local.

The book “is the experiences of people of color who live in this state. You cannot say ‘Oh, it’s not us,'” Zumberge said.

“I’m glad that people are turning to bookstores,” [Martin of Common Good Books] said. “Because it’s what bookstores are really good at: Helping understand the world around us.” (Read the whole piece here).

I echo that statement, which is why I see the literary community as a place for healing.

I had the privilege of experiencing that directly last Monday evening at Subtext Books. I heard word that there’d be a discussion of A Good Time for the Truth with editor Sun Yung Shin, and so my partner and I went even though I had only read the first two chapters at that point. We were a big taken aback that it wasn’t a regular event but rather an intimate book club of around 25 people, but we stayed and listened to a wonderful discussion about the influence of the book and the courage of the writers who have shared pieces inside.

Sun Yung Shin spoke about how the anthology came about, how she wanted an anthology including many different viewpoints and representations of different races, and that it was important for it to be a creative piece. Those of us there agreed–the stories really are so well written you feel as if you are friends with the writer and listening face to face. In that way, the stories are that much more real and influential. They cannot be ignored. 

I have more notes from that discussion that I’d love to share some other time, but it’s important that I say we all agreed that reading matters. Our discussion leader asked the question: is reading enough?

The unanimous conclusion was yes. Reading is important, and it does make a difference. If just one person’s mind is changed and they tell their friends, that’s a difference. If one of those people becomes an activist or has influence where some laws could be changed, that’s definitely a difference. And so on.

If you’re a reader who wants to make a difference but perhaps doesn’t know how, or doesn’t know where to start, or wants to know which books could be deemed most important right now, here’s a list of books Writers of Color Say We Should All Read Now. This list is so, so good because I don’t think any one person could have come up with all these important works. I’m a bookseller and I didn’t even know about most of them (partly because our sections on racial, gender, women’s, and LGBTQIA+ studies are always going fast! An awesome problem to have). blues vision

I would also like to spotlight Blues Vision: African American Writing from Minnesota from the list, another anthology on race also published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press last year. I’ve sold books for well-attended readings from this anthology at the Loft and always been sad I couldn’t listen in from my book table. If there are more events like this, you can bet I’ll do my best to be there.

Don’t minimize the influence you could have. Read these books. Share them with people, and start seeing the literary community as a place of discussion, healing, and beauty.

Do you agree that books and the literary community can be a place of healing? Where have you see this for yourself? Do you have books you would recommend strongly at this period in time? I’d love to start a discussion on this! 

 

 

 

where I went in May

Here is my long overdue recap of the literary events I was able to attend in May! It’s a big season of change in my life right now, so bear with my lateness. I will also be posting very soon a post of literary news of things happening in the Twin Cities area that aren’t event-specific.

May was a busy month due to a wedding I was in and being out of town, but I caught some really great events featured below!

May Event Recap

On May 1, I was able to attend the Twin Cities bookstore Rep Night where we listened to Random House representatives talk about the exciting new books coming out this summer. I landed an ARC of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (review to come soon!) as well as some others I’m really excited to dive into quite soon. We also listened to short readings and talks by authors Peter Geye, author of recently released Wintering and Nathan Hill, author of The Nix. Other perks of being a bookseller include meeting other booksellers in the area and nerding over our love of books.

IMG_2641

Poetry bingo & Strongbow at honey mpls!

Later that week on Wednesday, May 4, my partner and I went to honey mpls for a poetry reading with Coffee House and Graywolf presses complete with POETRY BINGO, and it was bomb. The release of Amanda Nadelberg’s Songs From a Mountain from Coffee House Press. She was hilarious and, in honor of Mother’s Day, read excerpts from her mom’s journal from when Amanda was a baby. Good drinks with good publishing friends.

IMG_2774

This is my ACR of his short story collection along with teasers of 3 of his re-released novels!

Over the weekend on Saturday, May 14, Andy and I listened to Brian Evanson read at Magers & Quinn from his new short story collection A Collapse of Horses just out from Coffee House Press! It’s a delightfully spooky short story collection best read in Evanson’s voice himself. Saw friends from Coffee House at this event as well!

alimon_brightdeadthingsOn Monday, May 16, Milkweed hosted “Taking the Risk to Change Your Life for Art: A Reading & Conversation with Ada Limón and Joan Vorderbruggen” at Open Book/The Loft Literary Center, which was an absolutely fantastic evening. Ada Limón read from her latest poetry volume Bright Dead Things, which was incredible, and they all had a lovely discussion about creativity and how it does or should fit into our lives. I will be writing up a whole separate post about this talk because it was just that good. And check out Ada’s poetry collection if you want to read some great poetry!

Unfortunately I didn’t make it to many events last month, but we are making up for it in June for sure!

Did you attend any awesome literary events in May, or listening to any readings on NPR or any book-related podcasts? Please share in the comments! 

Updated event: Max Porter on June 23

briefOriginally I posted about a reading at Magers & Quinn on Thursday, June 23 that I am SUPER excited for: Max Porter reading from his debut from Graywolf Press, Grief is the Thing With Feathers.

BUT let me tell you, I just found out that Man Booker Prize winner and author of A Brief History of Seven Killings Marlon James will be joining him (and reading from his own book)!

WHAT. Oh my gosh I’m excited. I saw Marlon James at Friends of the Hennepin County Library last year even though I didn’t get to personally meet and he is incredible. You don’t want to miss this, guys.

Excerpt from the M&Q event page41xE70s+S8L._SY344_

“One of the only accurate representations of grief I have ever found in literature. [Porter] combines verse, narrative, essay, myth, drama, jokes, bad dreams, and the language of therapy in a way that seems magical, permanent, utterly integrated, as impossible to distill to its components as it would be impossible to remove or isolate grief from love, or from life itself. Says Crow of grief, ‘It is everything. It is the fabric of selfhood.’” —Sarah Manguso

P.S. Sarah Manguso also happens to be a Graywolf author, and I am reading her book Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, and it is beautiful. Just sayin’.