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.

Circling like it’s 1996

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It would appear overnight: rows and rows of paperbacks, “chapter books” and illustrated classics. When the Scholastic Book Fair rolled into my middle school, setting up shop amidst the short stacks in the library, I didn’t even try to act cool. Who can act cool in the face of a veritable literary buffet?

Having some of my parents’ cash in my pocket and the autonomy to choose any book I wanted was intoxicating. I remember obsessing over the flyer sent home, tallying up the costs for stories I wanted to share with Mom and Dad (I always went overboard — imagine). I’d come home clutching a new purchase like Walk Two Moons, an all-time favorite. Then I’d collapse on my grandparents’ couch after school and get lost in another world until dinnertime.

My husband casually dropped the first Scholastic flyer sent home from the kids’ preschool on the kitchen counter with all the other mail and detritus, like it was just another piece of paper.

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I wasn’t ready for the buoyant whoosh of emotion that hit me when I saw it. I’m talking serious, legitimate excitement … I mean, as excited as a frazzled 34-year-old mom with a pinched nerve in her back can get, anyway. I sat down with this thing like it was a particularly juicy bit of gossip I wanted to absorb in great detail.

And absorb I did. I started circling books like it was 1996, y’all. Curious GeorgeLittle Owl’s SnowDinosaurs Don’t Have Bedtimes! Few stories were safe from my Sharpie.

Never mind that we have stacks and stacks of children’s books already — some I began collecting long before Oliver and Hadley were even born. But as my sister correctly pointed out, the collection we have now features baby-approved or extremely “young” stories. As we get closer to Ollie learning to read himself, I’m investigating the early readers and beyond.

I chose two new stories to add into the bedtime rotation, placing our order online (hello, 2019!). I’m definitely more excited than they could possibly be.

And now, the hardest part … the wait.

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!

Why I quit making reading lists — and why I’m back

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I didn’t keep track of a single book I read in 2018.

Given how immersed I was in cataloging everything I read up until my kids arrived, that felt strange. Even after I found myself with little energy and less desire to keep up with full-blown reviews, I was updating Goodreads with the audiobooks I’d listened to, at least.

But for 2018? Cold turkey. I was tired. Reading had become less a pleasurable pursuit than a strange struggle to “keep up,” both in the book blogging world and outside it. I felt like I’d created something with write meg! and I needed to crank out content to appease … someone.

Publishers? Readers? Myself?

So I stopped. If it doesn’t give you joy, why do it? And, to be honest, it was all I could do to keep my eyes open until 9 p.m. Once the kids were in bed, I was right behind them. My job is very busy. The house is always a mess. So many responsibilities tug at me day in and day out, and I needed to loosen the hold of those that I could.

Here’s the thing, though: being a reader is part of my identity. I don’t feel like myself without my books. Novels are a vacation. A trip from reality. A chance to escape, to punch out, to be “someone else” for a while.

Without books, I’m … me. Exhausted mom of two.

I wanted to find my way back to reading … but without the self-imposed pressure I’d come to put on myself as a blogger and reviewer. There had to be a better way.

So I rediscovered books in 2018 — just for myself. The kids were sleeping more. Our household was less disrupted. I returned to novels like reconnecting with a best friend — just without the requirement that I evaluate every single one. I was tired of my obsession with counting everything.

Life was stressful enough. I just wanted to read.

So I did. But I didn’t review or catalog. I didn’t set reading goals, nor did I keep a running list of what I’d purchased or finished or borrowed.

2018 became the year of the lost book.

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Turns out … well, I miss my lists.

I am lists. Lists are me.

When I don’t have them? There’s … nothing. A total blank where my favorite reads from 2018 should be.

Did I not read anything compelling last year? Nothing memorable, influential, worthwhile? This can’t be true, especially knowing I give most books the 10-page test — if it doesn’t hold my attention after 10 pages, I quit.

Yet without my trusty spreadsheets and up-to-date Goodreads account, I struggle to think of a single title I loved in the last 12 months.

That just won’t do.

So I’m back. Last week I flipped on the lights of my dormant Goodreads account, shaking the dust from every surface. I’ve finished three audio books since January 1, and absolutely loved Katherine Center’s How to Walk Away. I’m thick in the middle of Michelle Obama’s Becoming and love it so much, I don’t want it to end.

And, of course, there’s my kids’ bedtime reading. The rhyming undercurrents of my daily life.

For Hadley, it’s Five Little Pumpkins. For Oliver, Where Do Diggers Sleep at Night?

I mean, where do they sleep at night?

Do they dream of holes they dug?

Do their moms reach front to backhoe when they give a good night hug?

These are the questions of our era, friends.

And with little readers in the making (and much more reading for me!), I look forward to answering them.

Book chat: ‘Food Whore’ by Jessica Tom

Food WhoreTia Monroe knows food.

That passion is what propelled her into New York’s fashionable, dirty, complicated, cutthroat culinary world. A young critic and baker once featured in the New York Times, Tia now hopes to gain an internship with a famed foodie at work on her next cook book. . . until that opportunity crumbles like a days-old cookie.

Left starting in the coat check (!) at an upscale restaurant, Tia makes the acquaintance of Michael Saltz: the Times critic known for making and breaking the city’s top establishments. Michael giveth, and Michael taketh away — until a strange medical issue threatens to take everything away from him.

Rich, powerful and well-connected, Michael Saltz needs Tia’s perspective — and her palate — to uphold the lavish life to which he’s accustomed. And Tia? She’s wooed by the promise of Michael finally connecting her to the mentor she wanted in the first place. (The pricey meals, expense account and hot chefs are a bonus.)

But can she get out from Michael’s grasp without getting burned?

Jessica Tom’s Food Whore was fast-paced, light and entertaining — everything I love in good chick lit. Comparisons to a foodie version of The Devil Wears Prada are pretty spot-on, but I liked Tia’s persistence and willingness to step out to reach her goals.

Even if that meant getting stepped on.

As a narrator, Tia could be frustrating, though. She’s frequently gullible, though I can’t pretend I would know better. The plot line with her college sweetheart was a little irritating, given dude was as interesting as plain vanilla ice cream (let him go, lady), but I liked the push-and-pull Jessica Tom established in Tia’s conscience: settle for the old, or strive for the new?

Though Tia is our main squeeze, Michael Saltz — and his creepiness — seep between every crack in the story. He presents himself as Tia’s savior, a one-man ticket to a better life, but I had the sense he was all bluster from the beginning. We know his intentions aren’t romantic (he’s gay), but his obsession with Tia as the one remaining tether to his lifestyle and prestige is . . . unsettling, to say the least.

Food Whore moves quickly — so fast I finished it in a few days, which is a record for this new mama who rarely reads more than a few pages at a clip. It often kept me up past my bedtime, and I found myself thinking about Tia and her madcap adventures throughout the day.

Fans of women’s fiction, tantalizing food descriptions, New York settings and speedy reads will enjoy Food Whore. I really liked slipping into Tia’s stylish shoes for this adventure through New York’s culinary culture — and I would return in a heartbeat.

4 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided for critical consideration

Books on Oliver’s shelves

Oliver and books

Last Christmas, shortly after announcing my pregnancy, I received a gift for Baby J that made me cry — and it wasn’t just the hormones: two sweet board books from Magan at Rather Be Reading, favorites of her daughter’s. The official beginning of our little one’s library.

In April, Baby J became Oliver, and our son’s book collection has grown exponentially. Like many excited readers and parents-to-be, I’ve been quietly building his stash for years. I wrote about my “secret” book-buying back when he was the proverbial twinkle in my eye, and I’m finally able to share many of the books I’ve been collecting with him.

At nearly 6 months old, Ollie is starting to show an interest in “reading.” I prop him up in my lap with a book in front of us, then try to be patient as we’re inevitably interrupted by baby hands slapping the pages or a hunger cry breaking the momentum.

I love reading aloud. Not to, you know, toot my own horn or anything, but I was pretty much the designated class reader in fourth and fifth grade. So.

Since my reading talents have been dormant for the better part of two decades, I’m really livin’ it up now. The whole reading-to-my-belly thing never felt natural, but reading to an actual infant is an entirely different experience.

Ollie is too little to have obvious preferences, but he does kick his little feet crazily to a few “favorite” books. Here’s what we have stacked in the nursery right now.

(And P.S.: taking a page out of Steph’s book, I created a Goodreads shelf to catalog Ollie’s reading adventures. I plan to keep up with them there!)


Children's books


The Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen
Illustrated by Dan Hanna
This unique, adorable story — with very clever rhyming — chronicles the Pout-Pout Fish’s excuses to friends as to why he’s a total downer. A shot at love turns that frown upside down. The Pout-Pout Fish is so much fun to read, I find myself thinking of the little rhymes — “I’m a pout-pout fish with a pout-pout face . . .” — throughout my work day. You know: alone.


On the Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman
If you want an instant parent tearjerker, look no further. A sweet, soothing story describing the uniqueness of each child welcomed into the world.

Nothing we’ve read feels as personal nor has impacted me as deeply as this book, which was a gift from a family friend in New York. We didn’t receive it until Oliver had been home from the NICU for a few weeks, but I read it once and immediately fell in love. I’ve read it with and without Ollie, and have the entire story memorized.

The “night” part is what gets me, I guess. Oliver was born at almost 10 p.m. I remember laying alone in my hospital room after my husband went to see him, the first person in our family to touch his tiny hand. Though I know it’s cliche, we were changed forever. On the Night You Were Born so perfectly summarizes those feelings for me, and how special and unique each tiny baby is. It’s just . . . a beautiful book.


Don Quixote by Jennifer Adams
Illustrated by Alison Oliver
This retelling of Miguel de Cervantes’ famous story is simple, but compelling to little eyes: bold colors and vivid illustrations with both English and Spanish words. Something about this book ignites a fire in Ollie; he kicks his feet like a madman and loves it.


Whoever You Are by Mem Fox
Illustrated by Leslie Staub
A story that packs a powerful punch. Regardless of skin color, nationality or origin, children everywhere are alike, linked and connected. A great primer for teaching about differences, tolerance and friendship.


Firebears, the Rescue Team by Rhonda Gowler Greene
Illustrated by Dan Andreasen
If you know a future firefighter (or even if you don’t), Firebears will captivate them. The story of a rescue squad ready to (adorably) protect the community, the Firebears come to the aid of neighbors and cats stuck in trees before fighting home fires.

Given I was a child so paranoid about flames that my parents purchased a fold-up ladder for my second-story bedroom, this might have freaked me out as a tot — but the message about safety is a good one, and I love the vertical images of the bears sliding down the fire pole. Cuteness.


The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
This classic has enchanted me since childhood with its bright colors, beautiful illustrations and evolution of a hungry caterpillar who eats everything, then eventually emerges as a butterfly. This was the very first book I read to Ollie (who slept the whole time, of course): short and truly sweet!


A Halloween Scare In . . . by Eric James
Illustrated by Marina La Ray
Written for each state (we have Maryland), this Halloween story will delight children and parents equally with its local places, clever state connections (the flag on a mailbox!) and cute story about being yourself and facing fears. My hometown is mentioned, which is really icing on the witch-shaped cake. Very adorable!


I’m always seeking new reads for Oliver’s collection. What are some of your favorites? What books do your little ones adore? Please share!