Wednesday, July 11, 2018

What did the Books and Beer Book Club think of Ben H. Winters's "Underground Airlines"?

Surprise, Daniel attends another book club! As we're jump-starting the Books and Beer Book Club, I thought it would be fun to attend some meetings where I'm not in charge. And when Jen picked Underground Airlines from Ben H. Winters as her second selection, I was excited to read and talk about the book. And it's fun to meet at Cafe Hollander. We didn't expect a crowd indoors, as usually folks cluster outside on the patio. But the weather was inclement and it took us a bit of time to get a table. But we got one.

I've wanted to read it since editor Josh Kendall told Boswell's buyer Jason and I about it one Book Expo in 2016. The Last Policeman trilogy was a triumph of genre smashing, speculative novels told with the structure of a crime novel, with each entry in the trilogy bringing the Earth closer to destruction. Underground Airlines similarly dove deep into alternative history (the Civil War is averted when Lincoln is assassinated before the war starts, leading the South to rethink secession and come up with a compromise), told as a classic chase thriller.

Victor is effectively a bounty hunter, hunting down black people who have escaped from the Hard Four states where slavery is still illegal. And of course Victor is black himself and has struck this devil's bargain so that he himself isn't sent back to slavery. He finds himself in Indianapolis, where his target, having escaped from a textile conglomerate in Alabama, was last seen.

I particularly love Winters's world building. What would a world be like in this alternative universe? And how much would it still be like our own, for better or worse. I love how there's not a lot of detailed explanation of what has happened, but instead, Winters throws in little details, often with a wink. The Gulf War? That refers to the Gulf of Mexico. Martin Luther King's assassination? He was fighting to turn Tennessee into a free state. Our friends? Why South Africa of course. Without pressure from the United States, Apartheid did not end, and they are one of our few allies. And Southern manufactures are the ultimate sweatshops, with such low costs that they supply Asia with clothing, one of the few regions that is not boycotting American products.

At the In-Store Lit Group, we start off with a brief statement from each attendee giving their thoughts on the book. The upside of that is that everyone gets to speak. The downside is that we've already set the tone for the like-don't like divide. At Books and Beer, Jen provides a series of questions to spur conversation, and we wait till the end to rate the book. On a one to five scale, it was close to a four, and that's with one of our attendees being a self-proclaimed hard grader.

After reading Underground Airlines, my hunch that Winters's novel would be interesting to read in tandem with Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, either in successive months or with one as extra credit supplemental reading. And fans of Ben H. Winters should be thrilled to learn that his next novel, Golden State, is releasing in early 2019. It's set in a society that, in reaction to the erosion of truth in governance, values truth above all else. What could possibly go wrong?

Still wondering whether to attend the Books and Beer Book Club? Why not join us? Have a beer and some frites. Here's our upcoming schedule. All discussions at Cafe Hollander.

Books and Beer Book Club
Monday, July 16, 7 pm: Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero
Monday, August 20, 7 pm: Mister Monkey, by Francine Prose
Monday, September 17, 7 pm: Bannerless, by Carrie Vaughn
Monday, October 15, 7 pm: Impossible Fortress, by Jason Rakulak. Coincidentally, Rakulak is thanked in Underground Airlines acknowledgments.

Mystery Book Club - Fourth Monday of the month, at Boswell
Monday, July 23, 7 pm: Open Grave, by Kjell Eriksson
Monday, August 27 pm: Death on Nantucket, by Francine Mathews
Monday, September 24, 7 pm: The Dry, by Jane Harper
Monday, October 22 pm: Bluebird, Bluebird, by Attica Locke
Please note we switched our September and October selections

In-Store Lit Group - Generally on the first Monday, with exceptions
Monday, August 6, 7 pm: Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann
Monday, August 27, 7 pm: Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward (moved from Labor Day)
--Tuesday, October 2, 7 pm: The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry (moved from October 1)

Sci Fi Book Club - Second Monday of the month, at Boswell:
Monday, August 13, 7 pm: Spaceman of Bohemia, by Jaroslav Kalfar
Monday, September 10, 7 pm: The Space Between the Stars, by Anne Korlett
Monday, October 8, 7 pm: An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon

Our comprehensive Boswell-run book club list.

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