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

E2119CB3-9FC6-4F3D-A3CA-F28F0CFA3D4FIn late August 1986, a power surge at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant caused a days-long fire that unleashed unprecedented amounts of radiation into the surrounding areas of Ukraine and Belarus.

In Voices from Chernobyl, Svetlana Alexievich records the profoundly tragic stories of the accident’s victims — from members of the clean-up crew at the plant to soldiers assigned to work in the area to parents of small children affected by the radiation.  In each short, heart-wrenching story, difficult questions loom:  why did this happen, what could have prevented it, and how can life continue after such a profound disaster?  By documenting the lives and deaths of the men, women, and children impacted by the blast, Alexievich gives voice to both the survivors and the ghosts of the world’s greatest nuclear catastrophe.

Quote:
“One time I filmed people who’d been in concentration camps.  They try to avoid meeting each other.  I understand that.  There’s something unnatural about getting together and remembering the war.  People who’ve been through that kind of humiliation together, or who’ve seen what people can be like, at the bottom, run from one another.  There’s something I felt in Chernobyl, something I understood that I don’t really want to talk about.  About the fact, for example, that all our humanistic ideas are relative.  In an extreme situation, people don’t behave the way you read about in books.  Sooner the other way around.  People aren’t heroes.”

Author:
Svetlana Alexievich is a Belarusian author and journalist.  Her books include War’s Unwomanly Face; Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War; Enchanted with Death; and Voices from Chernobyl.  In 2015, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Published:  1997
Length:  240 pages 
Set in:  Belarus and Ukraine
Translated by:  Keith Gessen

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The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams

the hour of landWritten to coincide with the centennial of the U.S. National Park Service, The Hour of Land explores how the preservation of public lands has changed American history and culture.  In a powerful and often poetic voice, Terry Tempest Williams articulates her own intimate experiences with national parks and monuments, and decries the destructive forces of development and climate change.

By focusing on 12 specific parks — including Big Bend in Texas, Acadia in Maine, and Canyonlands in Utah — Williams shows the rich diversity of American landscapes.  Also excellent on audiobook, The Hour of Land will compel you to grab a walking stick and set out for your nearest national park.

Quote:
“Knowledge matters.  Justice matters.  Hindsight shows us our blind spots and biases; we can recognize ourselves as human beings caught in the cultural mores of a specific time.  This is not to excuse the brutal and tenebrific acts of the past, but to consider them in the light of what we know now.  By definition, our national parks in all their particularity and peculiarity show us as much about ourselves as the landscapes they honor and protect. They can be seen as holograms of an America born of shadow and light; dimensional; full of contradictions and complexities. Our dreams, our generosities, our cruelties and crimes are absorbed into these parks like water.”

Author:
Terry Tempest Williams is an activist, memoirist, and novelist.  Her works include When Women Were Birds, Refuge, Desert Quartet, and The Hour of Land.  She divides her time between Utah and Wyoming.

Published:  2016
Length:  397 pages
Set in:  Alaska, California, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming, United States

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The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

association of small bombsThe Association of Small Bombs opens with violence: a bomb explodes in a crowded Delhi marketplace, killing two young brothers named Tushar and Nakul Khurana.  Their friend, Mansoor, survives the blast.  While Mansoor grows up haunted by the deaths of his childhood friends, Tushar and Nakul’s parents struggle to overcome their all-consuming grief.  In a separate storyline, Karan Mahajan introduces Shockie, a bomb-maker from the northern Indian region of Kashmir.

By weaving together stories of those affected by this one market bombing — barely a blip in the fast-paced news cycle — Mahajan untangles the complex, harrowing worlds of those who cause and suffer from acts of terrorism.

Quote:
“Now Mr. Khurana, who had been a troubled, twitchy sleeper ever since he’d become a documentary filmmaker years ago, began to suffer from dreams that impressed him deeply, and he never failed to discuss them with his wife or his collaborators.  He didn’t mention that he was terrified during their nightly unspooling; that he slept in the crook of his wife’s armpit like a baby, his body greased with sweat, his leg rotating out like the blade of a misfired fan. But the dreams were truly notable, and in the first and most frequent one, he became, for a few minutes, the bomb. The best way to describe what he felt would be to say that first he was blind, then he could see everything. This is what it felt like to be a bomb. You were coiled up, majestic with blackness, unaware that the universe outside you existed, and then a wire snapped and ripped open your eyelids all the way around and you had a vision of the world that was 360 degrees, and everything in your purview was doomed by seeing.”

Author:
Karan Mahajan is the author of the novels The Association of Small Bombs and Family Planning.  His writing has been featured in NPR’s All Things Considered, The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.  Born in Delhi, India, he now lives in upstate New York.

Published:  2016
Length:  288 pages
Main Setting:  Delhi, India
Secondary Setting:  Kashmir, India

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The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston

lost city of the monkey godIn The Lost City of the Monkey God, Douglas Preston details the centuries-long rumors of an abandoned city somewhere deep in the remote Mosquitia region of eastern Honduras — and the thrilling, high-tech mission to find it.

By scanning the dense jungle from an airplane with a machine that maps the land with lasers, a team of scientists was able to identify large and unmistakably human-made structures.  But as they set out to see the lost city for themselves, the expedition faced danger from all sides: unseen predators, quicksand, and lethal diseases living within even the smallest of insects.

Written in Preston’s engaging voice, The Lost City of the Monkey God examines many topics:  Honduran history, controversy in modern archaeology, the cruel destruction carried out by conquistadors, and how disease can wreak havoc on populations.

Quote
“Through it all, I peered out the window, transfixed.  I can scarcely find words to describe the opulence of the rainforest that unrolled below us.  The tree crowns were packed together like puffballs, displaying every possible hue, tint, and shade of green.  Chartreuse, emerald, lime, aquamarine, teal, bottle, glaucous, asparagus, olive, celadon, jade, malachite — mere words are inadequate to express the chromatic infinities.  Here and there the canopy was disrupted by a treetop smothered in enormous purple blossoms.  Along the central valley floor, the heavy jungle gave way to lush meadows.  Two meandering streams glittered in the sunlight, where they joined before flowing out the notch.  We were flying above a primeval Eden, looking for a lost city using advanced technology to shoot billions of laser beams into a jungle that no human beings had entered for perhaps five hundred years:  a twenty-first-century assault on an ancient mystery.”

Author:
Douglas Preston is an American novelist and non-fiction author.  His works include The Monster of Florence, the Wyman Ford series, the Agent Pendergast series, and the Gideon Crew series (the latter two are collaborations with author Lincoln Child). 

Published:  2017
Length:  328 pages
Set in:  Mosquitia, Honduras

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Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House by Alyssa Mastromonaco with Lauren Oyler

who thought this was a good ideaWhen Alyssa Mastromonaco began working for political campaigns, she had no idea she would one day serve as President Barack Obama’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations.  Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? is a collection of stories about her life, interspersed with solid career advice and the quirky lessons she learned while wending her way through the strange world of high-stakes politics.

Told in a frank and funny voice, Mastromonaco’s memoir is as much about the intricate details of working for the president as it is the importance of carrying emergency stashes of stomach medication when visiting foreign dignitaries.  From scheduling snafus to the unique challenges of finding a women’s bathroom in the White House, Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? is a delight from start to finish.

Quote:
“When I first met Barack Obama in December 2004, I’m not sure he liked me very much.  I had worked for John Kerry on and off for four years, and although the secretary of state has a reputation for being aloof, the two of us had had a very warm and close relationship, pretty much from the moment I started as an assistant in his press and scheduling office in the spring of 2000.  I expected my rapport with Senator-elect Obama, who was much closer to me in age and disposition, would be similar.  Plus, I was coming off the presidential campaign for the Democratic nominee. I figured Obama, who was basically unknown at the time, would be thrilled that someone with so much experience — as well as so much wit and charm and talent! — would want to come and work for him.  I was wrong; Barack Obama is tougher than that.”

Author:
Alyssa Mastromonaco was Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations for President Barack Obama from 2011 to 2014.  Since then, she was worked for Vice Media and A&E Networks.  She is originally from Rhinebeck, New York, and Who Thought This Was a Good Idea is her first published book.

Published:  2017
Length:  244 pages
Set in:  Washington, D.C., United States

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Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free by Héctor Tobar

deep down darkOn August 5, 2010, tremors ran through the San José mine outside of Copiapó, Chile, collapsing tunnels and trapping 33 miners three miles below the ground.  The result of hundreds of interviews, Deep Down Dark details the harrowing 69-day rescue effort and the toll taken on the men buried within the earth.

By focusing on a handful of the miners, Héctor Tobar elucidates their stories — from their initial despair, to the spark of hope at the possibility of rescue, and then finally to the strange and invasive effects of their sudden fame.  Filled with moments of acute emotion and explosive tension, Deep Down Dark is an illuminating and humanizing examination of the story that captured the world.

Quote:
“Franklin is contemplating a return to an earlier, simpler, and nonfamous version of himself: He will be part of a couple again, with the mother of his children.  As he thinks about the goodness of this personal transformation, his embrace of humility, he sees the workingmen around him getting puffed-up heads about how important they are and the glory that awaits them on the surface: They’re even wearing a kind of national team jersey as they gather for their underground Independence Day celebration.  It seems silly to Franklin for his fellow miners to think of themselves as national heroes when all they’ve done is gotten themselves trapped in a place where only the desperate and the hard up for cash go to suffer and toil. They are famous now, yes, but that heady sense of fullness that fame gives you, that sense of being at the center of everything, will disappear quicker than they could possibly imagine. Franklin tries to speak this truth to his fellow miners, but he does so halfheartedly, because he knows the only way to learn it is to live it.”

Author:
Héctor Tobar is a novelist and journalist, and worked for more than a decade as a national and foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.  His nonfiction books include Deep Down Dark and Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States, and his novels are The Tattooed Soldier and The Barbarian Nurseries.  

Published:  2014
Length:  320 pages
Set in:  Copiapó, Chile

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Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

little fires everywhereIn the small Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio, conformity is the ideal to which most people aspire — including Elena Richardson.  A local news reporter and general busybody, she is also the mother of four vastly different children:  popular Lexie, athletic Trip, sensitive Moody, and troublemaker Izzy.  When the Richardson family rents out one of their apartments to artist Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl, these new tenants soon become entangled in their lives.  And with a fresh controversy building in Shaker Heights — the fierce custody battle between an immigrant mother from China and white adoptive parents — tensions between the Warrens and the Richardsons build to a fiery pitch.

Written with a keen eye for character detail, Little Fires Everywhere explores what it means to be a family — and how long-held secrets can fray even the strongest bonds.

Quote:
“Mia looked down at Izzy, this wayward, fiery girl suddenly gone timid and dampened and desperate.  She reminded Mia, oddly, of herself at around this age, traipsing through the neighborhood, climbing over fences and walls in search of the right photograph, defiantly spending her mother’s money on film.  Single-minded almost to excess.  Something inside Izzy reached out to something in her and caught fire.”

Author:
Celeste Ng is the author of Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere.  Her writing has appeared in publications including One Story, TriQuarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, and the Kenyon Review Online.  She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Published:  2017
Length:  338 pages
Set in:  Shaker Heights, Ohio, U.S.

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We Are Not Such Things: The Murder of a Young American, a South African Township, and the Search for Truth and Reconciliation by Justine van der Leun

we are not such thingsIn 1993, during the final days of apartheid in South Africa, a white American Fulbright scholar named Amy Biehl was killed by a mob of young black protestors in the township of Gugulethu outside Cape Town.  Her story — from the violence of her death to her parents’ swift forgiveness of their daughter’s killers — came to symbolize the transcendent success of South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Two decades later, Justine van der Leun moved to South Africa with her husband and began to research Amy Biehl’s story in hopes of writing a book for American audiences.  As she interviewed people who had been in Gugulethu on the day of the murder, including the men convicted of the crime, strange discrepancies began to emerge in their stories.  We Are Not Such Things is Van der Leun’s untangling of the complex narratives surrounding Amy Biehl and her killers — and her search for the  messy and elusive truth.

Quote:
Until I met Mzi at a burger shop downtown, I had been tracking the same story that every journalist before me had written, except that my aim had been to tell for the first time the full tale as it stretched over two decades. But Mzi informed me that he believed that this long-accepted story of the circumstances of Amy’s death was not exactly accurate.  His revelation had led me, in a series of nearly unbelievable coincidences, to a meeting I had had the day before.  After months of frenzied searching, I had finally found an old and ruined man who had also been in Gugulethu on August 25, 1993, though few remembered him.  Nobody had ever told his account of that day, nor made the chilling links between what had happened to him and what had happened to Amy Biehl five hours later and a quarter mile away. The old man knew something about brutal mobs and racial violence, and he was the final piece in the jigsaw I had been painstakingly piecing together for two years.

Author:
Justine van der Leun is the author of Marcus of Umbria, a travel memoir, and We Are Not Such Things.  She has written for Harper’s and The Guardian, and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Published:  2016
Length:  448 pages
Set in:  Gugulethu and Cape Town, South Africa

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Whatever You Do, Don’t Run: True Tales Of A Botswana Safari Guide by Peter Allison

whatever you do dont run

Filled with humor and tense is-he-about-to-get-eaten moments, Whatever You Do, Don’t Run details Peter Allison’s adventures as a career safari guide in Botswana.  From swimming with elephant herds to accidentally stepping on crocodiles to facing down charging lions, Allison may seem at first to have a death wish.  Fortunately, his genuine respect and understanding of animals allows him navigate even the most dangerous situations with skill and — occasionally — grace.  Told in a funny, familiar voice, Allison’s stories come alive on the page, leaving readers to feel the searing heat of the Motswana sun and the smell of a disgruntled water buffalo’s breath.

Also highly recommended on audiobook.

Quote:
“Other elephant herds came and went in the months that followed, but they had a wary wildness to them, easy to see in the way they held themselves as I approached.  I could not get as close and would never have tried swimming with them or attempted what I did the next time Salvador and her family came to Mombo.  I found the group ambling along and felt a surge of fondness for them, which doubled when I saw that Salvador’s daughter (easily recognized as she had inherited her mother’s buck teeth) had had an addition since she had last been with us.  The little chap was already walking confidently but still had little control over the many thousands of muscles in his trunk.  It swung like a rubber hose under too much pressure, on occasion so violently that it would startle him and send him scurrying to his mother for protection.  Like every other guide or wildlife lover who is eventually eaten or trampled, I felt that I had a bond with this herd that would make me safe with them.  I wanted to try my luck again.”

Author:
Peter Allison is the author of Whatever You Do, Don’t Run; Don’t Look Behind You; and How to Walk a Puma.  Born in Australia, he currently lives and works in South Africa.

Published:  2007
Length:  246 pages
Set in:  Botswana

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Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

tipping the velvet

Born in Whitstable, England in the late 19th century, Nancy Astley has known little more than the drudgery of working in her family’s oyster house — that is, until she sees Kitty Butler perform on a Canterbury stage.  Captivated by Kitty’s delicate face, powerful voice, and masculine costumes, Nan seeks out her affection and the chance to leave the coast for the bustling city of London.  But once in London, Nan’s fortune ebbs and flows from fame and fortune to heartbreak and hardship, leaving her to fend for herself and slowly construct her own identity.  Rich in detail and written with Waters’s distinctive Victorian flair, Tipping the Velvet is a charming, immersive coming-of-age story.

Quote:
“The trip from Bethnal Green to Cable Street did indeed take us through some of the roughest, poorest, squalidest districts in the city, and could never, ordinarily, be very cheerful.  I knew the route, for I had walked it often with Florence: I know which courts were grimmest, which factories sweated their workers hardest, which tenements housed the saddest and most hopeless families.  But we were out that night together — as Florence herself had admitted — for pleasure’s sake; and though it might seem strange to say it, our journey was indeed a pleasant one, and seemed to take us over a rather different landscape to the one we normally trod.  We passed gin-palaces and penny-gaffs, coffee-shops and public-houses: they were not the grim and dreary places that they sometimes were, tonight, but luminous with warmth and light and colour, thick with laughter and shouts, and with the reeking odours of beer and soup and gravy.”

Author:
Sarah Waters is the author of six novels: Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith, Affinity, The Night Watch, The Paying Guests, and The Little Stranger.  Born in Wales, she currently lives in London.

Published:  1998
Length:  472 pages
Set in:  London, England, United Kingdom

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