Upright Women Wanted was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2020. This is my first Sarah Gailey, I know them from Twitter and I’ve clocked reviews of their books. But the description of Upright Women Wanted caught my attention and plunked itself on my to read list. Alas, I wanted to love this book but instead I just really liked it. Its good, its comfortably three stars good but the idea and themes deserve four. Unfortunately the beginning confused me more than set the stage (although it does that too) and I spent most of my reading time playing catch-up.
Set in a near future American Southwest where extended wars have led to a general collapse in society and a return to a west familiar to Western movie enthusiasts (down to the vernacular), the book is full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing. The book follows Esther who is a stowaway in the Librarians’ wagon. Esther is running from her father, an arranged marriage to the man who was previously engaged to her best friend whom she was in love with, and that same friend’s execution for possession of resistance propaganda at the hands of her father.
But the most important part of this book – the part that makes me wish I could comfortably rate it four stars – is the way in which Esther is coming to terms with her queerness, without even having the words to describe it. She has been taught her very being is wrong, damnable, and that she is alone. Through the course of the book she starts to come to understand that the world is populated with people of every stripe, and the Librarians that she has run away with are much less State approved than she initially thought. By the end, Esther has found a home, and a purpose, and I was glad to have read it.
Damnation Island was a book I pulled off my shelves when quarantining and social distancing began back in March. I had read Ten Days a Madwomanin February and I decided an adult non-fiction trip to Blackwell Island was needed to balance and expand the accounting in Noyes’s book. I was right, there is much important history here – particularly pertinent to our times as we reexamine and revisit the functioning of corrections, and how we as a society care for those around us. Often as I read I was shaking my head – both at how far we’ve come and how much farther there is to go before we can be said to be treating our fellows humanely, and with care.
From Goodreads: “On a two-mile stretch of land in New York’s East River, a 19th-century horror story was unfolding. Today we call it Roosevelt Island. Then, it was Blackwell’s, site of a lunatic asylum, two prisons, an almshouse, and a number of hospitals. Conceived as the most modern, humane incarceration facility the world ever seen, Blackwell’s Island quickly became, in the words of a visiting Charles Dickens, ‘a lounging, listless madhouse.’ In the first contemporary investigative account of Blackwell’s, Stacy Horn tells this chilling narrative through the gripping voices of the island’s inhabitants, as well as the period’s officials, reformers, and journalists, including the celebrated Nellie Bly. Digging through city records, newspaper articles, and archival reports, Horn brings this forgotten history alive: there was terrible overcrowding; prisoners were enlisted to care for the insane; punishment was harsh and unfair; and treatment was nonexistent. Throughout the book, we return to the extraordinary Reverend William Glenney French as he ministers to Blackwell’s residents, battles the bureaucratic mazes of the Department of Correction and a corrupt City Hall, testifies at salacious trials, and in his diary wonders about man’s inhumanity to man.”
On the whole, this is a good book. Horn does an impeccable job researching her topic – the Source Notes at the back of the book could make a course curriculum all their own. Damnation Island tells its story through the people who lived and worked and suffered on Blackwell’s in the 19th century and Horn is a talented writer in bringing these real people to life on the page. Unfortunately, the book was also slow. Horn is telling us so much in the narrative that it takes awhile to process, to completely follow what is on the page. Structurally all her decisions work, following a few main characters throughout and introducing specific ones to tell specific tales, breaking the history of the Island up by the different facilities, but it still remains a bit flat, at times a bit clinical.
But, this is still a good important book, but be prepared to have to work at it a bit.
This is a book I read specifically because of our current pandemic. In my job I am responsible for much of the physical care of our historic collections and buildings and the response to COVID-19 is just as much an emergency/disaster response as any of the other things that make their ways into our plans. As I make updates to our Emergency Procedures and our Collections Care Policy and Procedures to reflect long term closures as well as reviewing our Disaster Plans, I began reading as many white papers and other scholarship as I could, as well as watching nearly two dozen webinars on this and surrounding subjects (there’s a reason I haven’t gotten much other reading done).
It should also be noted right off the top that this is *not* a book for the vast, vast majority of people. As it is, Building an Emergency Plan: A Guide for Museums and Other Cultural Institutions by Valerie Dorge isn’t even meant to be read in its entirety by most people who read it. It is, really, a collection of instructional chapters for different people in a response team – each person in charge of a section of the plan has their own chapter and are instructed to skip most of the others.
And, mostly that works. The beginning section has the “for everyone” information, the basic components of what makes up emergency planning and response. This is a foundational text in the field, and that means that it is twenty years old this year, and a lot of the examples and research are older, but the core concepts remain the same even if some of our tools have changed. In a book like this I think the important question is did I get what I needed? Do I feel more informed? I am able to answer yes to both questions and that is enough.
My reading intake has dropped off considerably since May, but book club kept me with my hand in the game so to speak, because I really enjoyed my first choice, The Disasters by M.K. England. This book ended up on our selection list because I saw an interesting write-up about it and thought hey, I want to read that book. Sometimes it pays to be the Book Club Maven. (I also read I Hope You Get This Message, I had previously readThe Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet which I loved, and while I’m glad so many chose to read An Unkindness of Ghosts I actually put it on the list because I didn’t want to read it – not everyone likes what I like.)
The Disasters is a road trip story – a favorite trope. Our narrator, hotshot pilot Nax Hall, has a history of making poor life choices and getting into trouble with authority figures so it is not exactly a surprise when he’s kicked out of Ellis Station Academy in less than twenty-four hours. He’s dejected that his life’s goal of getting out to the space colonies as a pilot is gone, but he’s not surprised per se. Nax’s one-way trip back to Earth (what happens to washouts) is cut short when a terrorist group attacks the Academy before Nax and three others leave. They manage to escape, but they are also the sole witnesses to the biggest crime in the history of space colonization. They are now on the run and framed for atrocities they didn’t commit, and Nax and his fellow failures execute a dangerous heist to spread the truth about what happened at the Academy – and stop an even larger disaster from happening. In order to do that they will spend four days traveling between worlds on the run and in hiding and picking up some help along the way.
We’re with Nax through the entirety of this quick 350 page work, and the story isn’t the same in the hands of another lead. England draws her characters so well that any of the others could have been their lead, but there’s something about Nax, how he implicitly exists as the cross-points of defining characteristics, that adds some needed depth to the themes England is poking at. Speculative fiction is built on tales of exploration, survival, ingenuity, exceptionality, and redemption, and this book is not without those things. The crew of The Kick are each exceptional in their own arena and ingenious to boot, they are out to redeem themselves from their failure at the Academy, but also to ensure the survival of many, many people. The world they live in is the product of continued exploration, and the exploration continues in the background of the book.
I also unabashedly love a found family story, and this book also explores that trope. It’s probably because I grew up in a loving, mostly stable home and my parents were and are the kind of people who accept all comers. If you needed some family in your life, they were going to see that you got it. That is in fact how in his early 20s my oldest brother ended up in my family in the first place, but that’s not my story to tell. But the story of a the family of friends created under stress and duress in The Disasters hit all those notes for me, and I’m hoping it speaks to the warmth of both kinds of family (since our narrator Nax’s birth family are pretty great too) that are in the author’s life.
As to the future setting, the universe of The Disasters is a realistic, but hopeful, place. Progress has been made in the 150+ years between now and then, but its uneven and not quite what we might hope. Its also a future with bureaucracy and corruption, but in most places the structures of the new colonies focus on the things that people love, not the things that drive us crazy. All in all, I’m glad to have read this one, and hope you were too if you read it.