Book chat: ‘Midnight in Chernobyl’

Midnight in ChernobylWhat do you know about Chernobyl?

What do you think you know about Chernobyl?

I’ll go first: until a few weeks ago, next to nothing. As the wife of a physicist, I’ve been with Spencer as he “talks science” on many occasions. He’s great at breaking things down when I ask questions, but I usually have to get him to start at the beginning. As an English nerd, I’ve always fashioned myself to be someone only moderately capable of understanding something like a positive void coefficient.

Adam Higginbotham’s stunning Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster changed all that. Not only am I apparently capable of understanding scientific principles a decade-plus after I last set foot in a classroom, but I can enjoy it, too. When Higginbotham is at the helm, at least.

Midnight in Chernobyl opens with the key players of the infamous April 1986 disaster — and that’s fitting, of course, given how many people and oppressive power structures all contributed to the eventual failing of the No. 4 reactor at the power station in Ukraine, then a part of the USSR. I already felt lost in the roll call, but my husband convinced me to stick with it. The names — unpronounceable, at first, to my western ear — all soon came sharply into focus: Akimov. Dyatlov. Brukhanov. Legasov.

It’s not about one person . . . not several people. Not a single system or single failure. Not just a single finger on one fateful button. “The holes in the Swiss cheese lined up,” as they say. And since zero people need a dissertation on Chernobyl from me, I’ll leave you to much wiser folks if you’re interested in the subject matter.

Better yet — read this book! It’s loads more fun than a bunch of Wikipedia entries, I assure you. Even if it is very interesting to see corresponding photos of everything Higginbotham describes.

What’s amazing about that, though, is I already had a thick stack of mental pictures: of the dark, water-filled tunnels beneath the reactor and its deep, burning throat; of the reactor hall blown open, and the people scrambling in its wake. Of the radioactivity so thick that it actually shrouds the bottoms of photos in something like fog. Higginbotham describes everything so poetically, it’s easy to forget we’re talking about nuclear meltdown. About science. This? It reads like literature.

I was hooked.

It’s no surprise that the author is a journalist. The book describes everything in stunning detail; his passion for the subject is evident. The level of research must have been insane. I loved when, toward its final pages, Higginbotham himself entered the narrative, describing the settings of his interviews with Chernobyl scientists still living or spouses left behind, picking up the radioactive wreckage all these years later.

Chernobyl2Now suitably intrigued by Chernobyl, like so many before me, I’ve started watching the acclaimed HBO miniseries after the kids go to bed. Spencer has already watched the whole thing through once (twice?), and it’s not exactly light bedtime viewing . . . it’s disturbing, of course. Incredibly well done and memorable, but not relaxing.

It’s hard to stop once you’ve started, though. From the evacuation of Pripyat — now an extreme tourist destination — to the government cover-ups and human toll eventually collected in Moscow’s Hospital No. 6, it’s impossible to look away from this terrible slice of history.

The show is great, but I didn’t need it to deepen my understanding of Chernobyl. Everything depicted in the show is as I’d imagined from Higginbotham’s writing. Midnight in Chernobyl paints such a vivid picture that I scarcely needed to “see” anything at all.

I won’t forget it. You won’t, either.

5/5

See more on Goodreads

write meg!’s reading honors for 2019

Since becoming a mom, I’ve struggled to read and write the way I once did (see Exhibit A: this entire blog). But as my kids get older, I feel little pieces of myself — my “old” self — bubbling up to the surface.

And almost without warning this fall, I … started reading again.

I was nervous at first. Could I keep this up? Was it a fluke? But after I cracked open my Kindle day after day, night after night, I felt it: that intoxicating pull of a good story … a draw much stronger than playing the 418th level of Candy Crush on my phone. My reading mojo had returned. I’m back.

While I don’t make new year’s resolutions, per say, I’m definitely trying to be more intentional with my time and attention. And I’ve realized something that was missing through my exhausting days (months, years …) as a new mom: the ability to tune out, even for a little while.

For me, like many of you, that portal comes through reading. It centers me.

Though my official count for 2019 only comes to 25 books, I’m proud to have read so much just in the last few months. I’ve lost touch with what’s buzz-worthy here in the book blogosphere, so my recent favorites are not necessarily … recent.

Still, here’s what I loved most in 2019:

how to walk awayHow to Walk Away by Katherine Center, who creates characters that are so relatable you look for them in Target. As usual, this novel was gripping and addictive — impossible to quit, with a well-built and believable love story set in a hospital during the main character’s rehabilitation after a plane crash.

Sounds … well, really over-the-top to write it out like that, but I swear Center is a magician! She is such a beautiful, heartfelt writer, and I’ll be coming for Things You Save in a Fire in 2020.

girl you leftThe Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes, transitioning between time and place with a haunting refrain. Loved the angle of art and the providence of works, which dovetailed nicely with my newfound interest in the Gardner Museum heist (have you listened to the Last Seen podcast yet?!).

Moyes’ historical tale isn’t as beloved as the blockbuster Me Before You and its follow-ups, but I still think she’s hugely talented with some truly memorable passages here.

Overdue LifeThe Overdue Life of Amy Byler by Kelly Harms — like reading a transcript of my own life. It was almost too much sometimes … like Harms had peeked behind the curtain that is my overly-caffeinated exterior to share private pieces of my soul.

Single mom Amy, long saddled with the responsibilities of her household after her husband unceremoniously flees their family, is a character most (all?) of us can relate to. She’s tired. She’s trying. I loved the redemptive transformation here. Read it in a few sittings and couldn’t wait to return between breaks.

I'm FineI’m Fine and Neither are You by Camille Pagán, with its ripped-from-the-headlines feel. The whole story was absolutely painful to read at points … so painful that, at 2 a.m., I had to force myself to put it down lest I read until morning and do nothing about the terrible ache in my best.

Still, it was life-affirming, too: powerful and relatable. As with Amy Byler above, there’s plenty of Penny in all of us. And pretending to be fine doesn’t mean we are fine. Accepting that is the first step to real change. I dig it, man.

Raising Your SpiritedRaising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, which has changed the way I parent our four-year-old son: totally a spirited child. Just having that moniker — “spirited” — changed how I think about and relate to my son. Not wild. Not difficult. Not stubborn. Just … different. Spirited.

Kurcinka’s compassion and practical advice have helped me to examine my own impatience as a parent so I can be my best self for my intense son. It also helped me see that I’m not, in fact, a bad or lazy mother … one who would rather give in to have peace than fight to be “right.” 

Basically, parenting is freakin’ hard. But the suggestions provided here have helped restore a measure of peace to my house. I definitely view my relationship with Oliver differently now, and have been able to take a step back and get myself together many times thanks to the practical examples in this book. If anyone out there thinks they might have a spirited child (you’ll know if you do…), highly recommend this one. Thanks for the recommendation, Mom!

So what’s up in 2020? I’m not sure, but I feel optimistic about what my reading year might bring. I plan to continue in my no-pressure way, finding stories that interest me and help me grow as a person, reader and mom. And plenty of fun ones, too! (I’m reading American Royals now, for example — escapism to the max.)

It’s all about balance. And coffee.

And reading with coffee.

… Now we’re talking.

My kids’ favorite books — and my favorite kids’ books

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When I daydreamed about becoming a mom, the vision of reading to my curly-haired children (who do, in fact, have curly hair!) often included a book in my hands. I did the whole “read to your belly” thing when pregnant, even though that felt awkward. And I started collecting children’s books long before I had the children themselves.

It’s taken a little while, but for the most part? I think we’re raising readers, which makes me so happy. My daughter, in particular, loves to share stories; she’s always schlepping into our “library” (now more of a giant toy box, let’s just be honest) to grab a book and plop into my lap. Oh, the joy. Alllllll the heart-eye emojis.

Hadley is now two and a half, and Oliver is four. Both have Fire tablets (I know, I know!), which tend to occupy their attention … but my husband and I have been pretty diligent about controlling their time spent in front of screens, even though it’s just so dang easy to let them zone out while I do … well, anything. Like cook dinner. Or go to the bathroom. Or answer the group text that’s gotten out of hand.

But I don’t want glassy-eyed zombie kids sprawled out in the living room. The tablets have their time and place — but we read to the kids nightly, and try not to reserve stories simply for bedtime. I say this not to be smug, but to really say that we’re making an effort! I think that’s my mom motto: making an effort. Trying. Striving.

So here’s what they’re loving lately . . . and what I’m loving, too. Because let’s be honest: there’s nothing fun about re-reading PAW Patrol: To the Lookout for the 97th time!

Just try telling that to my son.

 

Hadley’s Faves

I Love You Just Like This by Sesame Workshop: The “Sesame Street” love is still going strong at our house, and this sweet story about how much Elmo’s mom loves him has great illustrations and all those beloved characters. I will totally own that I tear up at the end, too.

Five Little PumpkinsFive Little Pumpkins by Tiger Tales and Ben Mantle: OK, how adorable is this? I have such fond memories of this story told in song form when my sister and I were in elementary school. I bought this book for Ollie as a baby and can’t resist its charms. Neither can Haddie.

Pop-Up Surprise Haunted House by Roger Priddy: Cute rhymes, captivating (and spooky!) pop-up characters — Hadley can’t get enough of this one. Our record is fives times in a row.

 

Oliver’s Faves

The Little School Bus by Margery Cuyler and Bob Kolar: Driver Bob picks up students en route to school, and I love how inclusive and sweet this story is. (Also, Bob drinks coffee faithfully — I feel you, Bob.) Ollie just loves all the vehicles and enjoys finding kids who “look like Uncle Eric.” The whole series is really fun!

Oliver book.jpegOliver Who Would Not Sleep by Mara Bergman and Nick Maland: Ohhh, the irony. Not terribly surprising that my son loves a book spearheaded by a little boy named Oliver who refuses to go to bed, preferring his adventures in outer space. We read this nightly, and the cadence of the story is soothing.

Goodnight Tractor by Michelle Robinson and Nick East: This book is a total snoozefest — and I mean that in the best way. It’s like a drug. I barely get to the halfway point when my rambunctious guy will pass out cold. It’s melodic, fun to read (and listen to), and definitely perfect for tractor lovers.

 

My Faves

truffula treesI’ve been trying valiantly to get the kids into Dr. Seuss, pulling out all my childhood favorites in the process. I had some success with The Lorax after they watched the recent version of the film with its candy-colored Truffula trees. One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish is next on my list! Man, that book captured my imagination as a kid.

I’m guessing this will be surprising to exactly no one, but I can still barely through through On the Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman without breaking down into tears born of love, fear, and everything in between. Reading it to Ollie takes me back to the night he was born, finally coming into the world at almost 10 p.m. Phew — read at your own risk.

/ / /

What books are you sharing with the little ones in your life? 

Do you have a favorite Seuss classic?

Are you weirdly surprised to see me posting on a random day in September?

I swear I’m still chugging along, though I do find myself spending less time on social media and being more thoughtful about what and how I’m sharing online. Not out of fear, per say … but an awareness that I’ve been putting my life out there for a long time, and sometimes it feels right to reserve a little something for my family … and myself.

Does that make sense? I don’t know. One thing hasn’t changed: I’m still tired and drinking way too much coffee. But I’m home with a stomach-sick Hadley boo today, so it felt like the right time to check in. I’m still here, and you can also catch me on Instagram. Hi!

Book chat: ‘The Hopefuls’ by Jennifer Close

the-hopefulsBeth can’t say she entered into her marriage with Matt ignorant of his political aspirations. But when her husband relocates them to Washington, D.C., as part of his work for President Obama, the tedious, seedy and, yes, often dull side of politics takes over her day-to-day life.

A friendship with Ash, a Texan also in the city due to her husband’s presidential connections, adds levity and companionship to Beth’s life — but Ash’s husband, Jimmy, has political goals of his own. When Matt and Jimmy become entangled in “turning Texas blue” as part of Jimmy’s campaign to earn a spot in local government, jealousy and indignation threaten to derail more than just their friendship.

Jennifer Close’s The Hopefuls caught my eye because, hello, I adore the cover. I’m also a Marylander who lives within breathing distance of Washington and am always swept up in politics, both local and national, and I’ll admit to being a bit wistful regarding the halcyon days of the Obama Administration. The story opens at the start of his first term, and it was actually bittersweet — especially given the current state of affairs — to think about how different life was then.

The Hopefuls had my attention early, gaining good ground even with the constant digs against D.C. (yes, it’s hot and humid; yes, everyone here talks about their job as a way of gaining status), but my enthusiasm for the story flagged by the time Matt and Beth departed for Texas to help with a weirdly unattainable political campaign put on by Jimmy.

Told from Beth’s first-person perspective, I expected … more of Beth in this story? As it stands, she’s merely an observer — and not a terribly interesting one at that. Though we’re told she’s a writer, she spends her time in Texas complaining and wandering around the house she and Matt now share with Jimmy and Ash, “helping” with the campaign here and there but ultimately doing nothing but seething with rage as Matt comes increasingly distant.

There was so much potential in a subplot regarding whether Beth actually wants to have the child she knows her husband longs for, especially as all of their coupled friends start families … but it never really goes anywhere, at least not in a satisfying way. Beth has an opportunity to look inward regarding the source of her anger as her closest girlfriends become mothers, but the novel just stays on-the-surface throughout. That disappointed me.

I enjoyed Close’s examination of adult friendships and liked brash Ash (hey, that rhymes), but her dynamic with husband Jimmy was pretty sad — and Matt and Beth’s marriage ultimately flounders, too. As a look at how changing priorities can impact — and damage — relationships as marriages mature, I think The Hopefuls works. But it’s just a little depressing, too.

3 out of 5

Pub: 2016 • GoodreadsAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for review consideration


Book chat: ‘We’re All Damaged’ by Matthew Norman

We're All DamagedIt’s been a year since Andy Carter’s safe suburban life collapsed. His marriage explodes when his wife leaves him for a neighbor; his ultra-conservative mother has changed completely in her quest to take her talk-radio show to the next level, casting his father in the background. Andy loses his job, then acts a fool at his best friend — and former brother-in-law’s — wedding.

Skipping town seems wise — until the need to see his dying grandfather brings him back to Nebraska. It’s there that he meets Daisy, a young “friend” of his grandfather’s. Daisy has her own complicated background, but she takes a shine to Andy as she took a shine to his granddad. In the midst of this, the Carter family is targeted after his mother makes outlandish and homophobic remarks . . . just before marriage equality is achieved in the U.S. Some unseemly family information is released in the process, leading to further scrutiny.

Is that a light at the far end of the tunnel . . . or just a train?

Having loved Norman’s debut novel in 2011, I went into We’re All Damaged looking for that same sensational spark. The story started out promisingly, what with Andy getting dumped at an Applebee’s (!) and all. Our narrator was obviously going to be down on his luck, maybe a bit of a ne’er-do-well, but hopefully one with a heart?

Something about We’re All Damaged failed to click with me. It felt extremely current, tackling issues like gay rights, the conservative/liberal media, internet ethics . . . and I could appreciate the intent. But it just felt a bit full to me. Full of too many issues, too many characters, too much chaos for me to really lose myself in the story. If we’d had fewer hot-button topics to address, I might have enjoyed focusing more on Andy’s evolution. As it stood, I never broke past the surface.

Andy’s brokenness was endearing at first, but quickly became frustrating — especially as Daisy enters the scene. Daisy is totally a manic pixie dream girl — one I could never figure out, given we knew next-to-nothing about her (aside from her many tattoos, which are addressed constantly). She seems to be a nymph designed solely to help shove Andy out of his post-divorce funk. And that was boring.

Matthew Norman’s sly, biting humor peeks out occasionally, but isn’t used to best effect. I did like the nod to Curtis Violet, famed author/father in his first book, as well as the hilarious passages about Andy’s dad’s paintball assault on the squirrels smuggling goods from his bird feeders. His obsession and description of that battle felt just a little heartbreakingly human to me.

We needed more of that.

Though We’re All Damaged wasn’t memorable for me, I do look forward to meeting up with Norman — a perceptive, skillful writer — again someday.


3 out of 5

Pub: 2016 • GoodreadsAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher/TLC Book Tours for critical consideration


Book chat: ‘Year of Yes’ by Shonda Rhimes

Year of YesI enjoyed the hell out of this book.

I’ll say it again, complete with cursing (and I don’t take that lightly): I enjoyed the hell out of this book.

As a woman. As a writer. As a mother. As a working mother. As a person that struggles with eating. As a human being with thoughts and hopes and feelings.

At the risk of sounding completely cliche, Shonda Rhimes? My spirit animal.

I’ll preface this review (will it be a review? More like nonsensical gushing, I fear . . .) by stating that, prior to picking up Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person, I knew little about Shonda herself. If you are similarly unfamiliar, she is the powerhouse behind Thursday nights on ABC: creator, head writer and executive producer of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” as well as “Private Practice.” She is also executive producer of “How to Get Away with Murder” and “The Catch,” produced by ShondaLand.

Shonda is, in her own words, an FOD: First Only Different. She is an African-American woman who has achieved tremendous success as a blockbuster writer and producer — doing what she loves and is clearly exceptional at: making TV “look like the rest of the world.”

I tend to go into motivational-type memoirs with a skeptical eye, but had a hunch I would like this one: and I did. I loved it. Shonda is personable, engaging, inspiring — as a person and a writer, of course, but also as a mother. With three daughters looking up to her as well as a powerful job, the pressure of doing everything well would crack anyone. Can we do it all?

To hear Shonda tell it: well, no. In one of my favorite chapters in Year of Yes, Shonda admits that excelling in one area of her life (work) often makes her feel like she’s failing in another (home), and vice versa. Over and over again. She gives a powerful analogy about once obsessing over Whitney Houston, wanting perfect hair like Whitney’s — trying anything and everything to achieve that signature look, but still failing.

Years later, a stylist confides not even Whitney had Whitney hair: it was a wig.

A wig.

Shonda talks about how, in acting like we have it all together and not discussing our struggles, we’re doing a disservice to other women. That’s a wig. It’s OK to admit we need help. Shonda’s comes in the form of one Jenny McCarthy: not the actress, but her wonderful nanny by the same name. She freely admits that, without Jenny, she could never keep all the plates spinning.

Yes of Yes arrived at the perfect time for me. Almost a year into motherhood, I’ve struggled with my quick return to work and how to similarly stay afloat with so many responsibilities pulling at me from all sides. After one poorly-timed (but not malicious) question about whether I “feel bad” dropping off my son at daycare each day, I needed Shonda. I needed Shonda to tell me I can do this. That I’m already doing it.

Not perfectly — because no one does, regardless of what they’ll tell you. But I’m trying, and that’s enough.

As a writer, I related deeply to Shonda’s stories of life “in the pantry”: when she was perfectly content to sit amongst the canned goods, staging elaborate battles between the vegetables and sealing herself off from the world. The youngest of six children, Shonda grew up in a loving family outside Chicago and has a close relationship with her siblings: especially sister Delores.

It’s a comment by Delores that sparks Shonda journey: “You never say ‘yes’ to anything.” It was muttered on a Thanksgiving morning, setting off a series of changes that resulted in saying “yes” to the things that would normally scare her. Public speaking was on the list, of course, but so was considering her diet. Morbidly obese at the start of the “Year of Yes,” Shonda realizes she had been putting food on top of feelings: saying “yes” to “fatness,” trying to ease her unhappiness by eating.

She doesn’t play up the weight loss as instrumental to her evolution, but shedding more than 100 pounds will certainly do that to a person. But far more than the physical weight, she says, was the weight of all the difficult conversations she hadn’t wanted to have: with a boyfriend about why she didn’t want to get married (ever, to anyone); to toxic friends she didn’t realize only wanted to see her unhappy. It’s only when begins asking hard questions — of others, but also herself — that she truly transforms.

By the end of Year of Yes, I felt altered with her. I thought of the ways I’d been mistreating myself, both through overindulgence and misplaced guilt about motherhood. About why I write and why I need to write, and why it’s OK to say I want to work and be a working mother.

Maybe I don’t need Shonda to validate my feelings, validate my choices, but I sure feel better having her as a part of my tribe. She mentions her “ride-or-dies” quite frequently — the people she can count on for anything. And she admits that one is technically fictitious, but very real to her: Cristina Yang of “Grey’s Anatomy,” a character written by Shonda and portrayed by Sandra Oh.

So Shonda, if I may be so bold, I’d like to add you to my ride-or-die list: a friend I feel I can always look to for support, guidance and motivation. Your Year of Yes found me at the moment I most needed to hear it, and listening to this book on audio — read, of course, by the author — was an amazing experience. Thank you.

5 out of 5

Pub: 2016 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio book borrowed from my local library


Book chat: ‘The Ramblers’ by Aidan Donnelley Rowley

The RamblersAs readers, we’re all looking for that magic.

The spark. The recognition. The connection. Whatever the special ingredient is that pulls us close, that makes it impossible to let go of a story and its characters . . . well, Aidan Donnelley Rowley’s The Ramblers has it.

I’ve been an ardent fan of Rowley’s since Life After Yes, her 2010 debut, and followed the progress of The Ramblers through the author’s Instagram feed. When I learned her sophomore novel was ready to be released in the wild? Er, I might have shrieked a bit. And then it arrived, I petted it, and we got down to business.

Set over the course of one autumn week in New York City, The Ramblers tells the stories of Clio Marsh and Smith Anderson — longtime best friends both set adrift by lovers, family and circumstances, clinging to each other through life’s changes before finally realizing they’re ready to inch into whatever comes next.

Smith and Clio are flawed. They’re struggling. Leaving her roots with a mentally ill mother and distant father, Clio is now a successful ornithologist who also leads bird walks through Central Park in New York City. Smith is Clio’s college cohort, a life organizer — a fixer — who grew up in a blue-blood family . . . but her advantages come with many costs.

Clio is in love with Henry, a hotelier who desperately wants her to move forward — and in — with him; Smith is still smarting from the cataclysmic break-up of her engagement to a doctor her father didn’t deem “suitable.” Clio believes it’s time to confront her grief at her mother’s recent death, but it’s actually her life — their shared lives, disrupted and distorted — that she’s mourning. And Smith has to learn how to snap the gilded strings her parents wrapped around her wrists . . . just in time to attend her younger sister’s wedding.

Here’s the thing about Rowley: her writing is gorgeous, lyrical, intentional. Each word is carefully selected; nothing is left to chance. This could come across as stilted, even condescending — but it doesn’t. The result is a novel of fully-formed characters that endear and irritate. They make an impression.

Described in the publisher copy as a “love letter to New York City,” the setting certainly has a starring role in this story. I knew nothing about the Ramble before diving in, but found myself picturing it beautifully as we moved along. I actually didn’t do any research until after I’d finished; I wanted to save my own mental pictures. They were pretty accurate, it turns out: the Ramble is a 36-acre “‘wild garden'” within Central Park where more than 40 species of birds perch year-round.

Clio’s occupation — and preoccupation — with birds was unique, interesting and never overdone. It’s her choice to lead birdwatching groups through the Ramble that brings her to Henry, crying quietly on a bench — a man who is also a little broken, a little scuffed . . . and the perfect match for her.

This is a love story, but it is not a love story. Though it could get steamy, even sexy, this is really a modern story of two women choosing to unshackle themselves from the past — and prior selves. There is growth, and when you finish? You feel like you’ve really gone somewhere. You’ve arrived.

Recently-separated Tate’s storyline was, in my opinion, the least interesting of the three — but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy getting to know him and how his life would come to intersect, however briefly, with Smith’s.

Fans of thoughtful fiction, lush New York settings and lyrical writing will find much to adore in The Ramblers. There is much more I could discuss, but it’s a novel best enjoyed on its own merits. And after adoring Rowley’s first work so much? Well, it was more than worth the wait.

4.5 out of 5

Pub: 2016 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher/TLC Book Tours for critical consideration