Between the nonfunctional hospital wifi and the only decent television programs being overtaken by baseball, most of my entertainment last week was good ol’ fashioned books.
Midnight at Chernobyl popped onto my radar after I watched the excellent HBO series Chernobyl, and proved most impressive. This comprehensive history of the Chernobyl tragedy begins with a history of nuclear power which skilfully lays the groundwork for explaining why one of the stars of the Soviet power program malfunctioned so dramatically. No word can describe the author’s research better than exhaustive; it consumed nearly a decade, and features interviews from numerous former employees of the plant. Although there were systematic problems with Soviet industry — shoddy manufacturing quality, for instance, which would hasten the reactor’s failure — the key problem was several design flaws which exacerbated one anther’s failings, put into action by a safety test so badly executed that its instigators were given criminal sentences after the fact. As bad as Chernobyl was, it could have been far, far worse if not for the heroic efforts of men on the ground, who exposed themselves to lethal, even torturous amounts, of radiation to stop the disaster from compounding on itself. The ‘liquidators’ are also honored here. If you have any interest in the Chernobyl event at all, absolutely give this consideration. Fans of the show will be surprised to learn that its heroes and villains were not exactly accurate; Dyatlov, the show’s obvious baddie (language), is a far more sympathetic figure in the book — no less a cantankerous supervisor, but one who took pride in his work, who was not abusive, and who did his best to work with his men to figure out what had happened.
Following this, I took on Good Reasons for Bad Feelings, which I was optimistic about from the start and was not disappointed by. Its author, Randolph Nesse, had previously written Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine, which examined our bodies’ history and the consequences of natural selection on illness. The work made me aware that many ‘symptoms’ of sicknesses are often our body’s attempt to fight off infection, and that by focusing treatment on symptoms only we effectively undermine our return to health. Judging by this book, his original introduction to that line of thinking was his attempt to understand mental illness through the lens of natural history. Although he ends with chapters on how mismatches between our evolved environment and modernity creates mental problems (just as he did for physical ailments in Why We Get Sick), the meat of the book consists of research into how our natural instincts can misfire and create mental distress, particularly our social drives. I may say more on it later when I can re-read it and draw up notes; I only had time to throw some books into a bag last week, and my Chromebook is long dead.
.D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win the Second World War was a fascinating look into how the Allies infiltrated France with female agents, delivering them by paradrop or boat, and tasked them with finding French allies and building a network of resistance that would make it possible for a third-rail attack at the opening stages of D-Day. The invasion of Europe was a staggering effort years in the making; not only did men need to be trained, equipment conceived and manufactured to overcome the Nazi coastal defenses, and all this preparation kept from a very well organized German intelligence network, but groundwork had to be laid. What did the beaches look like? Were there reliable French citizens who could be enlisted in an Allied-guided effort to hinder Nazi consolidation of power in France, but more importantly to strike at the right hour to disable transportation and communication networks across occupied France when the landings commenced? Interestingly, many of the Brits’ initial agents were French women who had emigrated to the UK, either because they’d married Britons or because they were fleeing the Nazis. Women were chosen not only because men were particularly needed in combat situations, but because they were less suspicious, viewed as less of a potential threat by the Nazis. In the occupation years they recruited allies, distributed weapons, passed on intelligence, and did what they could to sabotage the Nazis when the time was right. The story itself was superb, but its structure was wanting; Rose goes back and forth from D-Day to the landings of the agents, and I found this more confusing than not.
Northhanger Abbey is my fourth Jane Austen novel, and by far the easiest. It has the fewest characters of any Austen novel I’ve yet read, and because Austen was only beginning to write when she composed its story, its humor is a bit more obvious than in her other novels. As a bibliophile, I especially enjoyed Northanger’s self-awareness; the narrator refers to Catherine as her heroine several times, and the main character and her friends are obsessed with novels, particularly The Mysteries of Udolpho. One even keeps a booklist! Most of the novel is the usual Austen fare — relationship drama, as Catherine is crushing on Henry Tinley, who is amusing but keeps disppearing, and her new BFF Isabella and Catherine’s brother are sweet on one another, but bound for trouble. Meanwhile, Isabella’s sister John pines for Catherine, and is incredibly oblivious to his ‘permanent friend zone’ status. (There’s an entire page of John attempting to turn Catherine’s gentle “Down, boy”s into come-ons, only to be shot down again. It’s funny in a sad, absolutely-been-there kind of way.) What Northanger is most known for is Catherine being so besotted with gothic novels that when she’s invited by Henry to hang out with his family, she infuses their mysterious manor with literary drama and convinces herself that Henry’s pop murdered his wife — among other things. This aspect of the novel provided humor in its own right, but didn’t dominate the novel the way I’d expected; Catherine’s visit to the Abbey occurs rather late in the story, when relationship drama is already collapsing toward the end.
If you’re tired of reading, I’m sorry but there’s more.
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield is an atypical astronaut memoir, in that it’s less a biography and more of a self-help book. Although the author does recount his career in NASA, and provides stories about life working space and on the ground, they’re more meant to illustrate principles that he learned throughout his life, principles that others can utilize in their own lives to be more productive and fulfilled. It’s essentially Back to Earth, but….a lot better. However….I’ve read so many astronaut books since July that I didn’t love this one as much as I would have in other circumstances.
One welcome bit of humor last week was Mary Roach’s Fuzz, an usual work for her in that it doesn’t focus on some area of interest that’s taboo, like death or sex or the digestive system. Fuzz is hard to categorize, actually, as it focuses on how humans respond when nature transgresses human laws. How do people determine if someone was killed by a cougar or by someone who wanted to frame a cougar, for instance, or cope with pick-pocketing blackmailing macaques? Roach is usually a science humorist, but this is more about the intersection of law and nature. Greatly amusing, and very unusual for Roach in that it’s not vulgar in the least.
Believe it or not, I read two more books last week, and one of them was 800 pages. I am not going to write off Greg Iles in a paragraph, though. The other outstanding is a Star Trek novel, The Enterprise War, which I’d prefer to give an independent review because Captain Pike deserves it.