Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Death by Dumpling

Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien (2018)

After dramatically quitting her job, Lane Lee finds herself waiting tables at Ho-Lee Noodle House, her parents' restaurant in Asia Village. One day she makes a delivery of dumplings to Mr. Feng, owner of the plaza, and later he is found dead. Everyone at Ho-Lee Noodle House knew about his shrimp allergy and there's no way they'd make such a deadly mistake. All eyes point to Ho-Lee's cook, Peter, but Lana knows he would never intentionally kill anyone. As the investigation heats up, Lana and her roommate Megan decide to do some investigating of their own.

I heard about this on the Get Booked podcast from Book Riot, a podcast that I really didn't need to know about because it is only informing me about more and more books that I need to read. But I heard this episode at the perfect time - I had gone from Midnight in Chernobyl to Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen and needed a light, fun palate cleanser.

Lana was in a bad place when the story opens, having come through a bad breakup from which she has clearly not yet recovered, plus more recently quitting her job. We never get details about the old job or why she quit, just that it was sudden and dramatic and working in a restaurant is a big change from whatever she was doing. She was 27 but felt younger to me, a little naive. But I liked how she made this murder case into a project, determined to find out who killed this person she liked so much. She was so organized, and would write out all the facts in her notebook to lay it all out and make sure she had everything right before going any further. She also made sure her list of suspects was thorough and logical, even if it meant including people she liked and wanted to think wouldn't murder anyone. She really cared about all of the people involved. She was a fun character too; she harbored a deep and abiding love for doughnuts. And once after the murder when the press tried to get her attention she pretended she couldn't speak English. There's also a minor romance plotline going on in the background too, which I quite liked.

The writing isn't perfect. The dialogue has plenty of moments that don't feel natural, and there were even a few errors that a proofreader should have caught. But when all was said and done, those are pretty insignificant. Chien has created a great storyline with interesting characters and enough red herrings that I was kept guessing throughout the novel. It's a fun, quick read!

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Mary Toft

Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer

There's a story from the 18th century about a woman named Mary Toft, who gave birth to 17 dead rabbits, confounding the medical community. In this novel, Dexter Palmer has taken that story and added a rich cast of characters and created a narrative that makes readers think about the nature of truth, and all the ways in which we deceive ourselves and others.

It begins in the town of Godalming, England with a kid named Zachary, brought by his mother to Dr. John Howard, who treats his tonsil abscess so successfully that Zachary is inspired to pursue medicine himself and becomes Dr. Howard's apprentice. He begins learning the trade, and then observes a case which confounds even the experienced Dr. Howard: they are called to the house of a woman in labor, and she gives birth to a mass of rabbit parts. Then, a week later, she does so again. And again every few days. Out of desperation, Dr. Howard writes to some medical colleagues in London, and here the story begins to spread and take on a life of its own.

Along the way, Zachary meets Anne, an intriguing young woman with a port-wine birthmark across most of her face, who travels with her father's "curiosity show." It's basically a freakshow when Zachary goes to see it in Godalming, a parade of people with unfortunate and shocking conditions. Zachary and John Howard watch it together and then discuss which people were real and which were hoaxes. Later, when they are in London, Zachary sees a darker version of this show, one which features shocking animal cruelty and reveals a very disturbing desire among London's very wealthy.

This book contains a lot of fodder for thought and discussion about human nature. It questions the very nature of truth, and suggests that if enough people believe something, then it becomes true, and illustrates the power of groups to influence how we think and act. One character presents the idea that humanity is a finite resource that some people try to take from other to make themselves more human and, in so doing, make those others less so (think slavery.) It is clear that at least some of the doctors thought themselves more human than poor Mary Toft, a subject of curiosity and awe to them, but not an actual person with feelings, whose welfare they cared about.

It's easy to forget while reading this that the same author wrote Version Control, because they are so very different from each other. But it's clear that Dexter Palmer is an incredibly talented and creative writer, one whose books I will continue to anticipate.


Monday, December 2, 2019

Midnight in Chernobyl

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham (2019)

I was on the cusp of 13 when the disaster at Chernobyl occurred so I was completely unaware of it until probably years later, and even then I didn't know much about it. But I heard a lot about this book recently and was further inspired to read it after Baba Dunja's Last Love, a novel that took place with the Chernobyl disaster as a backdrop.

Higginbotham has put together a detailed account of the time leading up to the disaster, how things went wrong, and the aftermath. It was fascinating and stressful to watch it all unfold, even though I knew it ended in disaster. It's so hard to watch that train wreck coming.

I appreciate that we didn't get the entire history of the Soviet Union or of nuclear energy before getting to the real story. Too many nonfiction books dump far more background information than needed, and though I did get a little bit bogged down in the explanation of how the reactors work, that was tough because of my poor understanding of science, not because it was unnecessary. There was enough story here to not have to pad it. This might be a good time to mention that the book isn't as daunting as it first appears; although it's over 500 pages, the main part of the book is 372 pages, with the rest being the afterward, notes, and even an index (how I love an index in any nonfiction book!) There were SO many people in this story it was hard to keep them straight, but there's a helpful list of everyone in the front of the book, which I also appreciate.

What most surprised me about how this disaster went down was that even though there was an explosion, it wasn't especially dramatic. Nobody knew how bad it was just after, so people were still going about their business in the nearby town of Pripyat for quite a while before being evacuated. Although radiation traveled quickly to Scandinavia and other areas, you do need special equipment to detect it, so it wasn't always obvious right away. Of course, the government cover-up didn't help, but there was a real lack of information and poor communication also. The seriousness of the situation wasn't known until later, and the consequences definitely weren't dealt with for far longer than they should have. I couldn't believe how long they debated where or not to evacuate people who lived in the area. And even then, people were willing to still work at the plant to try and get the other reactors back up and running. I actually have questions about this still, because I don't quite understand how people were going to work here every day when nearby Pripyat had been permanently evacuated because of the danger.

I was also surprised to learn how many other disasters had occurred before Chernobyl. This, too, was covered up as part of maintaining the illusion of Soviet superiority when it came to nuclear power. They just kept blaming it on operator error and continuing on with other nuclear projects, though eventually they had to admit there were serious problems with the design of the type of reactor they were building. (There were human errors as well, to be sure.) But Chernobyl was a larger disaster that was impossible to keep secret, and it resulted in a legal trial and changes to the way reactors were built.

I thought Adam Higginbotham did a great job of giving us a full picture of this disaster and the circumstances surrounding it, without getting bogged down in too much extraneous detail. For a nonfiction book about a well-known historical event about which we all know the ending, it was quite a page-turner.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

The End of Night

The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light by Paul Bogard (2013)

Several years ago, probably in 2013 when the book came out, I heard Paul Bogard interviewed and I've never forgotten it. He talked about how we have lit the world so brightly that it is difficult (if not impossible) to ever see stars, and that maybe we should reconsider the need to use lights everywhere, all the time. What stuck with me most was what he said about safety and security: that we often use these as reasoning for adding lights everywhere, but that it may actually make us less safe. I've thought about it ever since, but didn't think I'd ever have the motivation or stamina to read an entire book on the subject. What inspired me to pick it up was a recent trip I took to Maine; one of the things I was most looking forward to was seeing stars. It was overcast the whole time so there were none to be seen, and it made me think more about what I'm missing in the night sky by living in a city.

Surprisingly, I not only made it through the entire book, but I found it pretty interesting. Sometimes nonfiction books really could have been articles and they are heavily padded with excessive background information and tangents. When things started to get tangential here, though, it always retained at least some relevance and was always interesting. So although the book is about light pollution, I learned that there are still gas lamps and lamplighters in London, that once a Luna moth emerges from its cocoon it never eats again, and that when bats fly too close to turbines the pressure drop makes their lungs burst.

I learned about all the ways in which artificial light at night is bad for us and for animals. It upset circadian rhythms in most species, it negatively affects visibility with shadows and glare, and makes it easier to commit crimes at night because the people committing them can see what they're doing. There is apparently a possible connection between working night shifts and certain kinds of cancer, because we only produce melatonin while in natural darkness, and melatonin plays a role in preventing the growth of these types of cancer.

Paul Bogard visited many of the darkest places so he could see the natural night sky, and spoke often of the International Dark Sky Association which works to recognize places that have little or no artificial light at night. Some communities have taken steps to improve their lighting so it reduces the associated problems. It was surprising to learn about how inefficient and badly-planned lighting is in most places. But it was heartening to hear how many people are concerned about it and working to educate the public about these issues and make improvements in how we use light.

Part of me feels discouraged that I now have one more thing to worry about, but another part of me sees how easily the problems associated with light pollution could be solved with more education. We cling to our current practices out of ignorance about the issues. I found this book very easy to read for a nonfiction book without a linear story, and highly recommend it. Bogard makes a compelling case for preserving natural darkness, one that should interest anyone who cares about the environment and public health.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Baba Dunja's Last Love

Baba Dunja's Last Love by Alina Bronsky (2015)

Baba Dunja had to leave her village of Tschernowo after the Chernobyl disaster, but a year ago she came back despite warnings that radiation levels were still too dangerous. Some of her fellow villagers followed her and now they are living out their remaining years in relative peace. But a stranger shows up in their midst with a little girl and seems ready to stay there, and Baba Dunja will not hear of a healthy child being brought to such a place.

At just 135 pages, this novella is a quick, fun read and packs in quite a lot. It opens with Baba Dunja being awoken by Konstantin, her neighbor's rooster, which is a great introduction to the way this small group of people put up with each other every day. There are fewer than a dozen people in this village and they rely on each other, so they must get along. Because of the radiation, their families can't visit and Baba Dunja writes to her daughter in Germany frequently and receives packages from her, but her greatest sadness is that she has never met her granddaughter Laura, and is unlikely to.

I thought the title must refer to a late-in-life romance, but that's not at all what this is about. I thought for a while it might refer to her granddaughter, but I think her greatest love is for her home. It's a hard life in Tschernowo too, with no stores, no telephones, and no buses. When Baba Dunja wants to go to the nearest town for supplies, she must walk a couple of hours to a bus stop so it becomes an all-day affair. The rest of the time she subsists on vegetables from her garden, in which she takes great pride. It's not an easy life, but she still loves it.

Although I read and loved another book by Alina Bronsky, I had no real plans to read more of hers. But one day I was looking for something on the library shelves nearby and came across this and felt inspired to read it. The dark humor is similar to that of The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, but Baba Dunja is not cruel like that book's protagonist, making the tone of this one much more positive. If you like dark humor, quirky characters, or Russian literature, I highly recommend this author.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Trauma Cleaner

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein (2017), narrated by Rachael Tidd

Sandra Pankhurst makes a living cleaning other people's houses, but only if there's been a death or a hoarding situation. She has specialized knowledge and equipment to deal with intense cleaning needs like bodily fluids, feces, and decomposition. This would all make her interesting enough, but she's also a transgender woman who transitioned back in a day when most people didn't realize that was possible.

Sandra's story is told by Sarah Krasnostein, who alternates between stories of Sandra's present-day work and her life growing up. She's in her 60s now and suffering from some pretty serious health problems, but she's still as lively and salty and competent as ever. This woman is super organized, knows how to talk to people who are justifying living in squalor, and has a deep compassion which is often tempered with an honest and often harsh attitude.

Krasnostein says that Sandra is not the most reliable narrator because she has a lot of problems with her memory and it made writing this book difficult. She did have help though, notably through interviewing Sandra's ex-wife Linda. They were together back when Sandra was living as a man and had two children before Sandra left. Their story was quite a sad one, with Linda's un-requited love for Sandra and the rift it left between Sandra and her children, who she was no longer allowed to see after the divorce.

But the worst part of Sandra's life had to be her childhood. Adopted by a couple with a daughter who weren't able to have more children, Sandra was welcome in the family until they were surprised by two more natural children, at which point Sandra was made to move into a shed in the yard and not allowed in the house after 4:30pm. They also apparently didn't feed her anymore. I don't know how parents can just stop loving a kid, or maybe they never really loved her, but they were just awful people. It was clear Sandra just wanted their love and acceptance and couldn't get it, and it only got worse once she came out as transgender.

I should mention this book takes place in Australia, but it sounds like the attitudes toward gay and transgender people is similar to in the U.S. It only makes Sandra's story more remarkable. There was a point in her 20s or 30s when she was working as a prostitute and she was raped and abused by a client - the most difficult part of the book to listen to - and she reported the crime. Shockingly, even though she was a transgender prostitute and this was the 1980s, the guy ended up sentenced to 6 years for the crime. What it must have taken for her to essentially lay herself bare in a court of law in order to see this case through really gives me pause. But Sandra was so matter-of-fact about everything; she knew how people felt about people like her, but at the same time had a strong enough sense of self-worth she didn't ever back down from a challenge.

Rachael Tidd reads the book with just the right notes of respect and empathy, as well as an Australian accent. I can't help but admire Sandra Pankhurst after learning so much about her, and the juxtaposition of her story and those of the clients she is helping gave me a lot to think about.

Friday, November 15, 2019

These Shallow Graves

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly (2015)

Jo Montfort is the daughter of a wealthy family in late 19th-century New York and her life is totally planned out. When she graduates from finishing school she'll marry Bram Aldrich, a plan that's been in place since they were children. But when Jo's father is killed, allegedly while cleaning his revolver, she suspects there is more to the story. So she starts digging, enlisting the help of reporter Eddie Gallagher, medical student and morgue employee Oscar Rubin, and a pickpocket called Fairy Fay. Following the long and winding trail of clues, Jo learns that there are more secrets in her family's business than she could ever have imagined and people who will go to any lengths to keep that information hidden.

As is the case with most heroines in novels, Jo is different from many other girls of her age and class. She wants to be a reporter like Nellie Bly, but her future has no room to pursue her own interests. The idea of marrying Bram isn't awful - they've been friends their whole lives and he's a genuinely good guy - but it doesn't excite her. Now, Eddie Gallagher excites her. She knows they can't have a future together unless she is willing to dash the hopes and dreams of both her family and Bram's, who have been long looking forward to uniting. She is trapped between what she wants and what is planned for her future, but right now she can't think about anything else except uncovering the web of lies and murder she has discovered. No matter how many warnings she gets from her uncle Phillip or from Eddie, she is compelled to keep looking.

Along the way she meets a young ruffian named Tumbler and a picketpocket her own age named Fay, both of whom Eddie knew growing up, and who work for a guy named The Tailor who provides them with food and shelter as long as they steal for him. He's compared to Fagan in Oliver Twist, but it hardly needs to be pointed out, the similarities are so glaring. There's even a scene in which Fay gives Jo a lesson in picking pockets that is almost straight out of the Dickens novel. I can't decide if it's a charming homage or a rip-off.

This isn't the only unoriginal part of this story, and I found some aspects of it completely predictable. For the intended audience of teenagers, though, I don't know if it would be. Presumably they haven't read lots of other stories yet that follow some of the paths this one does. Still, it was enjoyable and fun. I loved how Jo and Fay's friendship developed, and especially the conversation they had one night about their lives and freedom while walking over the Brooklyn Bridge and smoking. Their lives were so different it was difficult to understand each other in some ways, yet they both yearned for the same things and were both trapped in different ways. I liked Jo's ambitions to be a reporter, and how her knowledge of Nellie Bly helped her later in the book, and the way she struggled with the idea of marrying Bram, which wouldn't be terrible, but still not what she wanted. How hard was she willing to fight against a fate that was not bad, but only ok? This was a much better story than those in which young women are set to marry mean men they hate. Jo's life with Bram would be a comfortable one, and possibly even happy.

I've read a number of books by Jennifer Donnelly including the Tea Rose series and, most recently, Stepsister. While this book was maybe not as good as the others, I am happy to read anything she writes. She brings her historical settings alive, creates compelling characters, and always keeps me immersed in her stories.