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

Enduring Potter magic

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Guys. Did you know that this July marks seven years since the final installment in the Harry Potter series was published?

Seven. years.

I was a freshly-minted college graduate working at Borders when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released, leading our store’s midnight party with trivia, activities and more. All with the grace and aplomb you’ve come to expect from me, of course.

Kidding. I was acting like a total lunatic, dressed in a black gown I’d originally purchased to wear as the wedding date of a man who would ask me to be his girlfriend in one of the most public, cringe-inducing moments in Megan History.

But that’s another story . . . and one I am totally not putting on the Internet.

(Don’t worry: that man is happily married now — to someone else. No permanent damage done.)

But back to HP. Given I still run an Etsy shop stocked exclusively with Hogwarts fashions (and still sell ’em!), I remain enmeshed in the Potter world. But for the average person? Well, I guess the magic has worn thin.

Or has it?

When Amber recently wrote she was finishing up the first book in the series (for the first time!), I was reminded of all the excitement that came with experiencing the stories myself in 2007. I’d resisted the allure of Potter as my dad and sister, both huge fans, eagerly devoured each new tome in the series.

Dad and Katie were such huge fans, in fact, that I kind of figured that was their thing — and just stayed out of it. As an English student, I guess part of me also thought I was above a “children’s” fantasy series.

I didn’t get it.

Until I did.

Pressed into leading the Deathly Hallows activities that July night, I wanted to have a darn clue who these characters were so I wouldn’t embarrass myself. Given we had almost 1,000 people show up that night, I wasn’t too keen on looking dumb on a microphone — and knew I needed some background knowledge.

I’d seen the films released to date, of course — so it’s not like I couldn’t pronounce “Hermione” or something. But the details? The bigger picture? I didn’t have that. And I wanted to be as excited as everyone else.

I’ve written about this night several times, which is sort of funny. It was a blip in the grander scheme, I guess — the night of this book’s release. But I had just started as an assistant editor at the newspaper, keeping Borders as a part-time job because I loved the atmosphere and adored my coworkers. I started working evening shifts and weekends, dividing my time between the office and the bookshelves.

Fresh from college with my bachelor’s, I was savoring the freedom of reading whatever I wanted whenever I wanted — of no term papers, no homework, no long commutes to school. My family had just returned from Europe, my graduation gift, and I’d fallen in love with London so swiftly that it startled me.

I’d just turned 22 — just two days before.

They were happy times. Pretty carefree times. We all have our problems, sure, but I felt young and free in a way I never had before. And when my manager asked me to be our store’s “mistress of ceremonies,” I was flattered — and took my job super seriously.

Hence my reading of the series.

Flash-forward seven years . . . and I’m still at the newspaper, albeit in different roles. Borders has shuttered and re-opened as a Books-a-Million, which has the bones of the former place but not the soul. My relationship with a coworker there has long since ended, and I met and married a wonderful man in that time.

But I carry those memories with me. Even if I’ve lost touch with the people and customers who filled my days with so much fun and joy, I’ll always look back on my years there — years painted brightly, too, with Harry Potter — with happiness.

On a recent dash into the post office, I learned about a limited-edition book of stamps featuring The Boy Who Lived, along with his friends and enemies. Now — in 2014.

I bought it. I’m using them.

The magic does live on with us. Every day.


Book talk: ‘S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim’ by Cynthia Sass

Many of us struggle with our weight.

I don’t know when being “chunky” first entered my realm of consciousness. Though I was a little heavy as a kid, I never worried about it; my family certainly didn’t comment on it, and whatever self-esteem issues I had as a teen didn’t stem from my appearance. In college, my brisk walks across the University of Maryland’s sprawling (and I do mean sprawling) campus kept me lean and mean . . . even as I downed my daily meal of Chick-Fil-A chicken nuggets between classes.

Of course, like so many, those carefree days of cupcakes and soda couldn’t last forever. Taking my first desk job in 2007, I’ve worked in an office — on my rear end for more than eight hours a day — for half a decade. Though the numbers on the scale didn’t immediately jump up, my weight has steadily increased. To date, I’m about 30 pounds heavier now than I was in college. And on my 5’3″ frame, that’s definitely obvious. To me and others.

Still, I don’t lose sleep about my weight; I mean, I’m way more than my dress size. I hadn’t really given my weight a major thought until I started noticing clothes I wore just a year ago were getting snug, and I started hating the way I appeared in photos. In an unguarded moment, my jaw actually dropped when — yes — I saw a recently tagged photo of myself on Facebook. So many chins.

This isn’t one of those “AND THEN I GOT MY ACT TOGETHER!” tales of success, friends; I wish I could spout off my recent accomplishments and how I fell in love with exercise and stopped drinking Diet Coke and dropped four sizes and now feel amazing. I hope that, someday, I’ll come back here to share some of those successes (minus giving up the whole diet soda thing — I can tell you now, that ain’t happening). But I’m not there yet. I’m not even close to there yet.

This whole thing? Getting healthy, getting in shape? As for all of us, it’s an ongoing process. I’ve written about discovering Zumba and the wake-up call that was a visit to my family doctor a month ago. I know that, at 26, I’m no longer young enough to discard health warnings or think, “Oh, those problems won’t happen to me.” I know that if I don’t get myself together now, it’ll be really hard — maybe too hard — to get myself together later. And I don’t want that.

Enter my research phase. Short of developing a way to physically push myself up off the sofa after work to walk or go to class or anything, I’m searching for a way to get myself into a healthier rhythm — through exercise and diet changes — and have turned to my favorite way to learn stuff: books. They’re great, right?

Opening Cynthia Sass’ S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches, I felt a little nervous; for so many, myself included, “d-i-e-t” is a four-letter word. I’ve never been on a diet. Everyone I know on a diet seems to be, well . . . sour-faced. And liable to mouth off at you for daring to eat a piece of cake in front of them. (Jen Lancaster mentioned that in Such a Pretty Fat, and by golly — it’s so true.)

To be honest with you, I don’t want to diet. I really like food. I don’t use food (or lack thereof) to punish myself, and I certainly don’t sit around in a steaming pile of guilt for eating a cookie. Fashion bloggers’ svelte figures don’t send me into a self-hating rage, though I do tend to avoid others’ exercise-obsessed boards on Pinterest. Yeah, I know I’m not exercising; I don’t need perfect abs in my face to remind me I will never, ever look like that.

But that’s all right. I’m all about healthy — and so is Cynthia Sass. An acclaimed weight loss expert, Sass is part of the brains behind the Flat Belly Diet! — a New York Times bestseller from a few years back. She’s the real deal: a registered dietitian board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics, and the sports nutritionist for several major sports teams. Her credentials definitely stack up.

S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim, previously published as Cinch!, is a quick, engaging read that never felt belittling. Sass’ approach isn’t of the “boot camp” variety, using scare tactics and harsh words to intimidate would-be dieters. Despite what I was expecting, this book isn’t just about dropping weight quickly; it’s about making notable, small and valuable changes to your diet to help increase weight loss, improve your well-being and change your quality of life. I dug it.

Sass’ approach is designed to establish order to your meal times and isn’t built off “starving, restricting or depriving yourself,” she states. Reading the book, the plan is actually anything but starving yourself: it’s eating healthy, balanced and specific meals on a schedule, and it emphasized good, clean eating above all else. The “S.A.S.S.” part of the diet has to do with the low-fat, healthy and specific seasonings Sass recommends to cut out fattier alternatives like condiments and salad dressings.

The plan is two-fold: either begin with five days of a calculated eating plan, which Sass sets out for you, or bypass that part and go straight for a 25-day stretch of enjoying specific foods. Here’s how that all goes down:

The optional 5-Day Fast Forward jump-starts your results — up to an eight pound loss in five days. The Fast Forward calls for four simple meals a day, made from clean, delicious, detoxifying, filling, nutrient-rich foods shown to support weight loss. [Sass] even include[s] a grocery list that specifies all the ingredients you’ll need (and recipes!), so preparing for the Fast Forward (which is vegan and vegetarian friendly) is a breeze.

The 25-day plan again calls for four meals a day, but draws from a much broader but specific array of food choices. A day’s worth of meals can potentially include: a Chocolate Pear Ginger Smoothie for breakfast, Fresh Mozzarella Basil ‘Pizzalad’ for lunch, Shrimp Creole for dinner, and a snack of Cranberry Parmesan Herbed Popcorn! With this core plan (also vegan and vegetarian friendly and adaptable for gluten free diets), you can easily drop a size in just one month.

Reading Sass’ plans and goals, I was nodding my head vigorously and imagining myself snacking on the five foods she emphasizes in the 5-Day Fast Forward: raspberries, non-fat plain organic yogurt, spinach, almonds and organic eggs. She states from the get-go that the Fast Forward is optional — so those who aren’t interested or don’t want something to structured can skip this completely and get right to the 25-day meal plan.

The book does a great job of including materials that can actually get you started — and, in my case, these cut down on my excuses to not give it a try. Grocery lists outline everything you’ll need to get going, and the foods listed? Well, I already like ’em. The book includes real-life recipes, personal stories from those who have found success with the plan and plenty of sidebars to break up the text. This isn’t a long, droning health book you must read cover-to-cover before beginning; you can breeze through the early chapters, get a feel for the routine and get crackin’. As I was reading, I just kept thinking, “This is doable.”

For me, the highlights of S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim are the success stories — with before-and-after photos (who doesn’t love those?). Women (and men!) describe how they made the plan fit into their busy lives, how it’s benefited them and how they manage to keep up with it long term. There’s the bride who had to return a size-12 wedding dress for a size 6, the couple who dropped weight together and those who shed pounds within the first week of going on the Fast Forward.

Of course, the careful individual in me views those “drop weight fast!” claims with a skeptical eye — not because I don’t believe it’s possible, but because I’m unsure whether it’s healthy. Still, Sass’ plan is certainly not based on starvation or traditional dieting, and the science behind the weight loss makes sense. Of course, there’s no substitute for good old fashioned exercise, too. Just check it all out to be sure it makes good sense to you.

So am I ready to S.A.S.S. myself slim? I’m getting there. Since starting the book a week ago, I’ve found myself picking it up often before bed and grabbed many of Sass’ recommended foods on my last grocery store run. Though I’m not ready to do the Fast Forward or commit whole-hog to the 25-day plan, I’ve learned quite a bit about the importance of good fats and how to snack healthier. I’ve already developed a raw, unsalted almond habit (so crunchy!) and am thinking more about the times at which I eat — and how big my portions are. I’ve begun drinking even more water than usual and am trying to limit myself to one Diet Coke a day.

Over the next few weeks, my plan is to incorporate one of her low-calorie recipes as a lunch or dinner substitute every day and go from there. As S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim helped drive home, a healthy lifestyle is a process . . . and a daily, conscious choice. I hope with time it can become second nature. And you know I’ll report back with my progress.


ISBN: 006197465X • AmazonGoodreadsLibraryThingAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest opinion

Waiting on Wednesday: The Sky Always Hears Me

sky_always_hears_me Kay at The Infinite Shelf featured a novel last week that I’ve been thinking about since seeing it — Kirstin Cronn-Mills’ forthcoming The Sky Always Hears Me: And The Hills Don’t Mind, due out Sept. 1. Check out that gorgeous cover, and then read the description from Amazon:


Sixteen-year-old Morgan lives in a hick town in the middle of Nebraska. College is two years away. Her mom was killed in a car accident when she was three, her dad drinks, and her stepmom is a non-entity. Her boyfriend Derek is boring and her coworker Rob has a very cute butt that she can’t stop staring at. Then there’s the kiss she shared with her classmate Tessa…

But when Morgan discovers that the one person in the world she trusted most has kept a devastating secret from her, Morgan must redefine her life and herself.


Sounds like your typical coming-of-age tale, right? Probably not exactly. Kay cites a review by Amanda at The Zen Leaf as the inspiration for wanting to read this one, and after checking out Amanda’s thoughts, I’d have to agree! Plus, I’ve really been enjoying Kirstin Cronn-Mills’ blog — she’s a Harry Potter fan, and actually teaches a college class on J.K. Rowling’s work! How much would I love to go back to school for that?

What’s everyone else waiting on? Check out more responses at Breaking The Spine!

Booking Through Thursday: Library memories

booking_through_thursLet’s go Booking Through Thursday!

“I saw that National Library week is coming up in April, and that led to some questions. How often do you use your public library and how do you use it? Has the coffeehouse/bookstore replaced the library? Did you go to the library as a child? Do you have any particular memories of the library? Do you like sleek, modern, active libraries or the older, darker, quiet, cozy libraries?”

Well! National Library Week is indeed happening soon — April 12-18. I can’t say that I frequent our local libraries for anything other than the Saturday book sale — which is amazing — but I do love the general atmosphere of being surrounded by books and book-minded people! I guess that’s why I loved working at the bookstore so much.

I think that in many ways, the bookstore/coffeehouse has replaced the library as a center of knowledge and community. Of course, I say this as someone who does not go to the library! Those that do will, I’m sure, have a totally different opinion. But in my experience, people came to our Borders to talk to one another, get a cup of coffee, browse through all the latest releases and hang out in the cafe. Our local library system doesn’t have the same ambiance that the bookstore does. It’s older, definitely darker and more out-of-the-way from the center of town. By contrast, our town’s only bookstore lies basically at the heart of the city, is easily accessible and always has new stuff. I prefer the modern feel of the bookstore, but that’s generally true of me.

giant_jam_sandwichBut that’s not to say that it was always that way. As a kid, I was a staple in our elementary school’s library — always picking up the same few books and, occasionally, branching out to grab some new ones. Up until around fifth grade, my favorite was always The Giant Jam Sandwich! I don’t think I’ve thought about that book in years. I loved it! Many of us would gather around one of the bookshelves, pulling the pages apart eagerly. In that same library, we actually had a huge replica of a Native American hut — yes, we were awesome — and all the kids loved to have storytime in there. I remember racing off to the library so I could be the first to select a picture book, then scampering into the darkness of the hut to read in peace. I’ve always been solitary!

My dad would take my sister and me to the county library, too. Like all dutiful girls of the ’90s, I loved the Babysitter’s Club books — and worked my way through the entire series on no time. We’re all very bookish, so constant trips to the library, the Super Crown bookstore (now a Panera!) and the WaldenBooks (now a Borders Express) were always in order.

 

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Booking Through Thursday: Worst best book

booking_through_thursLet’s go Booking Through Thursday!

“What’s the worst ‘best’ book you’ve ever read — the one everyone says is so great, but you can’t figure out why?”

This is a hard question for me to answer — mostly because I usually buy into the hype! There are few books heralded as really great that I haven’t ultimately enjoyed. Although I was hesitant to read them, I eventually broke down and loved J.K. Rowling’s famed Harry Potter series — and, though opinions are decidedly mixed on the subject, I did love Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books.

the_hobbitA book that I really wanted to like — mostly because it was a favorite of my father’s? J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit, which was pretty much insufferable to me as a middle schooler. I tried to pick it up again years later, but I really couldn’t process it or get immersed in the story. I loved the films based on the series, though!

curious_incidentLately, I’d have to say my vote goes for Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I’d heard quite a bit about the novel when working at the bookstore but never grabbed it — so I mooched it on BookMooch last fall. I read the first 60 pages or so and just felt . . . meh. Though it was definitely a fast read and I didn’t have any trouble quickly turning the pages, I wasn’t invested in the character at all — in fact, I felt an overwhelming sense of detachment. When 15-year-old Christopher, a young British man with Asperger’s Syndrome, begins talking about math and listing statistics and graphs and physics everywhere, I was gone. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for this sort of book at the time — I’m not sure. But I have no doubt that Haddon is a skilled writer, and  know that Curious Incident has a special place in the hearts of many. One reader on LibraryThing describes the book as a “brilliant and heart-wrenchingly real portrayal of a 15-year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome,” then describes the reader as feeling “raw, steely and shocked” upon completing the novel. And maybe I would have — had I gotten that far. As it stands, I had to move on!

Tuesday Thingers: Let’s review, shall we?

This week’s Tuesday Thingers question from the Boston Bibliophile:

Most of us book bloggers like to write book reviews — if we don’t love to write book reviews — but here’s today’s question. When it comes to LT (and your blog), do you review every book you read? Do you just review Early Reviewers or ARCs? Do you review only if you like a book, or only if you feel like you have to? How soon after reading do you post your review? Do you post them other places — other social networking sites, Amazon, etc.?

I guess my answer to this one is relatively simple this week! Since I started “seriously” book blogging in September, I’ve reviewed every single book I’ve read — both on LibraryThing and here on write meg! Clearly I love to read, I love to write and I love to vocally express my opinions on . . . well, everything. So book reviews are the perfect opportunity to do so! Since I’ve reviewed all my recent reading, I’ve definitely made sure to quickly post my reviews of ARCs and Early Reviewers, too.

Of the books I’ve read in the past or pre-2008, I’ve posted reviews on LibraryThing only for the books I remembered very clearly or about which had really strong opinions. Since my memory can be a little fuzzy, I didn’t think it was fair to try and post anything coherent about a book without it being fresh in my mind. I’m sure time will have changed my perception of everything.

As soon as I’ve finished the book, I generally post my review the next day. The only exception would probably be if I’ve completed the novel on the weekend, as I guess I’m generally a weekday blogger! I don’t post to Amazon because, while I use Amazon for basic information all the time, I still buy my books elsewhere. I haven’t really participated in that community much and feel that many of the book reviews I read there are very biased or just unintelligible! Though I mean no offense to any regular contributors out there — I know there are still plenty of savvy folks out on Amazon who like to post! I just generally get my reviews elsewhere — namely, from my favorite book blogs. And LibraryThing, of course!