Category Archives: books

Chernobyl

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear DisasterVoices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a book of people telling their experiences after the Chernobyl nuclear incident. Relatives of people who had worked to contain the burn out, people who directed evacuation, people who helped destroy homes, gardens, and the very earth that was too radioactive to remain, people who later moved into the Zone in spite of everything.

A few moments stand out for me. A nuclear engineer desperately trying to get government oficials to act for peoples’ safety, being brushed aside because a government person higher up had said all was well. A person sent in to measure radioactivity who wasn’t allowed to tell the people living there that what was happening. People planting peas because it was in the plan, and they hadn’t been told otherwise. People who had to work to contain the reaction because the radiation was so great it interfered with the functioning of robots. People in hospitals who were so radioactive they could not have visitors.

It is not an easy book to read–maybe three or four interviews at a time. But it is an important book to read to vicariously experience the immense power of a nuclear reactor gone awry. Freak accident though it was, it is important not to be unprepared should there be another one.

ETA link to documentary and essay mentioned in comment below.

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A Native American Novel

Yearly, my county library chooses a book for “Everybody Reads” month in February and schedules multiple related events, including an evening with the author as speaker. This year’s selection was unusually good.

There ThereThere There by Tommy Orange

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novel tells of several Urban Indians whose lives converge in a pow wow in Oakland, CA. A thoroughly modern story, yet roots of the past appear in the Prologue. I was especially intrigued by the section, “Urbanity.” Instead of showing separation between city and rural, reservation life, the section presents unity: “An Urban Indian belongs to the city, and cities belong to the earth. . . . The process that brings anything to its current form–chemical, synthetic, technological, or otherwise–doesn’t make the product not a product of the living earth” (11).

At first each chapter felt like a random vignette. Gradually an overlap of detail became apparent. The pace continued to quicken till it was a page turner at the end.

The meaning of “there” changed throughout, for me culminating at the end, emphasizing the identity formation that was a struggle for some of the characters.

This novel is told from multiple perspectives. While each adds information, many show the same scene from a different perspective, a much more satisfying use of the technique. The number of characters with issues avoided becoming a soap opera. I have yet to put my finger on the source of this success, but success it was. Problems did not dominate, though they were present. There were also vivid moments of strength.

Getting to “know” so many characters, with rather short vignettes, left me amazed at how well I felt I knew them. The idea of being a person behind masks is made explicit in the tales of Tony Loneman; however, it is stated in the Javier Martas quotation in the headnote to Part I: “How can I not know today your face tomorrow, the face that is there already or is being forged beneath the face you show me or beneath the mask you are wearing, and which you will only show me when I am least expecting it”(13). I’m left feeling I should reread to see how it applies to others.

The ending, so often a problem, is here quite successful. It is motivated by all that has gone before; it is believable; it is satisfyingly ambiguous with hints of the future.

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A Novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Water DancerThe Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is not your ordinary underground railroad story. Myth and magical realism combine to trade one set of dangers for another. It is more a story of the main character, Hiram Walker’s development. And of relationships.

The novel is narrated by the older Hiram (frequently addressed as Hi)  looking back on his youth. Reflections on youthful decisions increase as the novel progresses. Hi’s growth is motivated and believable. The pace of narration is steady with mostly moderate ups and downs (a few more dramatic).

The life of slavery is neither romanticized nor told in harrowing detail. Because Hi is a house slave, we do not see the hard labor. Brutality is referenced more than it is shown. Although more attention is given to positive experiences of caring for one another and community, there are constant reminders that even so, the Tasked, as slaves are called, are not free.

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A Novel

The Dark Flood RisesThe Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As with so many good novels, the first read is but an introduction. Many more encounters will be needed before getting to know it.

There are so many characters that at first I didn’t think there was a main character (in spite of book jacket naming Fran). But as the novel progressed, I realized Fran was central. However, she is not the sort of person I like–so needing to be needed. Still, one does not have to like a character to be intrigued by their thoughts and encounters.

All the characters–or at least almost all–have some connection to aging or death. Fran is in her 70s as are Jo and Teresa, friends from her youth. Jo had a friend, Owen; Owen has a friend, Bennett. Christopher, Fran’s son, has lost his girlfriend to a sudden illness; Christopher goes to the Canary Islands to visit Bennett and Ivor. Each character has several vignettes. As I read, I began to think that if a person were named, they would eventually have a vignette. Almost true, but not quite.

So with all these old folks, we get a variety of attitudes toward aging. Yet none of the characters exist merely to be illustrations. They are developed proportionately to their space in the novel. For now I’m thinking Fran, Christopher, Jo, and Teresa as main characters, and the rest as subordinate. I may add Owen to the main list. Not sure.

Action is not a part of this novel. Everyone plods along, thinking thoughts, having conversations. Drama is minimized (having to abandon a car because of flooded roads; an evening with a daughter that could have been emotional is pretty flat).

The narration is 99% omniscient author; however, at least twice she says something like, we can’t know what happened then, or we can’t know what he thought about this. An interesting break in the pattern–in breaking expectations makes us aware of expectations and conventions.

The novel felt finished; I almost missed the “Envoi.” I don’t think it was needed.

Besides aging, two other social issues are present. Sara, the girlfriend who died young, was doing a documentary on refugees; Poppet, Fran’s daughter, is researching climate change issues. As readers we are aware of these issues, but not in a heavy handed way.

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Reading History

Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous ResistanceOur History Is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance by Nick Estes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book reoriented my thinking about what I thought I knew, revealed an international aspect I had not known, and made me more hopeful for the future than I have been in quite a while.

This book belongs to the genre represented by Howard Zinn’s Peoples’ History, histories written not from the perspective of the dominant. So, as one mostly aware of traditional tellings of Anglo-Indian relations, I was exposed to a Native telling and interpretation of Indian wars and treaties and land grabs. In this version, killing off the buffalo is about more than greed; it is about choking a people to extinction by taking away their food supply. It is about ending a land promise in a treaty that was premised on “as long as the buffalo shall roam.” Damming rivers became a way to remove arable land and force an impoverished relocation.

And stereotypes were challenged: “My ancestors were tribal historians, writers, intellectuals, and fierce Indigenous nationalists at a time when Indians weren’t supposed to be anything but drunk, stupid, or dead” (12).

I had heard the phrase “sovereign nation” earlier in a talk by a Native historian but not grasped its full meaning. It was explored in Estes’ long chapter, “Internationalism.” That history traced the ongoing process from implied national identity in treaty making (treaties are made between nations), through diminishment when US government shifted from treaty making with nations to managing individuals, and on to the UN declaration of the rights of Indigenous peoples.

I am always interested in the significance of a title, and this one was particularly enigmatic. One hint appears in this statement: “There is no separation between past and present, meaning that an alternative future is also determined by our understanding of our past” (14).

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A Different Sort of War Story

Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War IILast Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II by Svetlana Alexievich

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Never having lived in a war zone, I was hardly prepared for these vignettes. I had to pause often as I read this collection of memories of those who were children during WWII. Amazingly, the style of each is poetic, so I wondered to what extent Alexievich had edited them. (Of course what I read was a translation, but I am assuming the translator retained the style of the original.) That I even asked that question may have been a way to gain distance.

Alexievich, the bio says, has spent most of her life in Belarus, and most of the vignettes referenced Minsk, though one was of the siege of Leningrad. The age range of the children at the start of the war ranges from 0-13–a few had not been born at the beginning of the war.

I did not see a pattern to the arrangement other than alternating between the very young and 10-13 year olds. Although all were deeply moving, some were more horrible than others–those were spread out, and the last several seemed to have more detail about the victory.

What amazed me most was children having to see their parents shot, then having to make decisions about what to do. Others had been left at home and had to decide between waiting for mother to return or evacuate when other neighbors were leaving. Some had an older sibling, but others (6-8 year olds) were the older sibling. Some hunted Mama. Some started out with a parent, but got separated.

Hunger was ever present: the siege of Leningrad, 900 days; hiding in the forests; orphanages making do with what they had.

Many of the 12-13 year olds wanted to help fight; some did though the official age for joining was 16. One told of shooting a man.

All telling events no child should have to experience.

And all the while, as I read, I couldn’t help think that there are children having these experiences now, caused not by Germans but by us, directly in Iraq and Afghanistan, indirectly in Yemen and Syria. This is a book all leaders should read before the choice is made to go to war. This is a book people like me who have not experienced war first hand need to read.

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Ursula Le Guin Was a Blogger

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What MattersNo Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wish I had known Ursula Le Guin was a blogger while she was alive and blogging! Second best is reading this collection from her blog entries.

They are arranged relatively thematically, definitely not chronologically. Pard, the cat, entries are grouped in small groups and spread throughout. I think that works to maintain interest in them, having them pop up now and again. And as humorous relief. The small groupings each have a theme: finding and adopting Pard, Pard claiming the mobius scarf and time machine, Pard and the mice. My favorite line from these is “He just doesn’t accept the lap hypothesis” (30). People who love cats will especially like these entries.

Given my interest in resisting ageism, it is not surprising that I liked the first section, “Going Over Eighty.” Mostly it is an honest assessment of aging and the changes it brings; it also involves poking fun at euphemism. Another favorite statement:
“‘You’re only as old as you think you are!’
Now, you don’t honestly think having lived 83 years is a matter of opinion” (13)

Essays cover many topics: war, the economy, literature, language–many involve looking closely at something often overlooked. Her love of language shows in her analyses and in her descriptions.

A book to read more than once.

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