nonfiction

Book Review: Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham

I was too young to remember anything about Chernobyl, only being five at the time of the accident, and information was slow to leak out in the days after the explosion (and news didn’t move as fast back then, anyway). But it’s become something that fascinates me as an adult. I read Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich in 2019, but I realized I really didn’t know much of the specifics of what happened, and in order to more fully understand, I would need to read on. A friend mentioned Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higganbotham (Simon & Schuster, 2019) after I’d read Voices, and so onto my list it went. I held back from reading it for a while, intimidated by the 538 pages, but fear not; a lot of that is footnotes, and the text in my ebook copy ended at around 50%. It’s not actually *that* huge of a book.

Adam Higginbotham has created a masterpiece here, weaving a story of incompetence, shame, national pride, and suffering that takes the reader back to the early days of Soviet nuclear innovation, where anything was possible and the USSR was large and in charge (if only in its own propaganda). The desperation of the Soviet Union to appear as a major force in nuclear power on the world stage required its architects, builders, and engineers to cut corners at every turn in order to keep up with the pace demanded by its leaders. What happened at Chernobyl was inevitable, caused by a major design flaw; if it hadn’t happened there, it would have eventually happened at another Soviet nuclear plant.

At every turn, Mr. Higginbotham shows how the wrong decision was made that cost lives and increased human suffering and environmental damage to the extreme. The truth was hidden for ages as unsuspecting citizens were exposed to massive amounts of radiation. Those in charge were loath to admit that mistakes had been made (by themselves or anyone else); what mattered more was how the Soviet Union appeared in the eyes of the rest of the world. The dangers of nationalism and pride are illustrated on every page of this remarkable book about a disaster that opened the public’s eyes to the dangers of nuclear power plants.

This book is a LOT. A lot of history with which I wasn’t familiar (I was born in 1980; I vaguely remember learning bits and pieces about the USSR when I was growing up, but I very much remember having a class discussion after the USSR fell and what that meant), a lot of explanation about the science behind nuclear power that I will admit flew right over my head, a lot of Russian names I struggled to keep straight (part of this is due to the fact that I read it as an ebook; I have a harder time reading nonfiction on my kindle. There IS a handy guide to who’s who in the front of the book, and I would really have liked to have been able to flip back to that!), a lot of anxiety-inducing scenes where the radiation levels were off the charts, and days upon days where leaders failed to evacuate anyone and instead let them marinate in radiation in order to save their own stupid pride. While I couldn’t explain anything about nuclear physics or engineering, I definitely have a better sense of the story of Chernobyl: what happened, what was covered up and lied about, and why.

This has all left me with a massive disdain for nuclear power, although Mr. Higginbotham is clear that things have gotten safer since then, with better design and different sources of power that are much less likely to melt down. But that’s still not zero danger, as Fukushima has shown us, and I’m not sure I’ll ever feel totally relaxed when it comes to the subject of nuclear power plants at all. I’m definitely glad I read this, though, because I absolutely feel better informed about the disaster and tragedy that was Chernobyl.

Visit Adam Higginbotham’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet by Sandra Goldmark

I’m a big fan of frugality, and also a big fan of taking care of the environment, whether that means consuming less, consuming better and/or smarter, or taking care of what you already have. So it’s no surprise that Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet by Sandra Goldmark (Island Press, 2020) ended up on my TBR. Even when you’re fully committed to something, it helps to have a reminder every so often of why you became committed to that ideal in the first place, and this book certainly served as the kick in the pants that I needed.

Sandra Goldmark has a background in theater, and in the design and creation of many theater sets and costumes, she’s learned many skills in the repair of various items that have brought her shows to life with minimal budgets and objects that have been used, reused, and reimagined in many ways. Those skills helped fuel the repair pop-ups she and her husband and a work crew ran around New York City, taking in broken items (everything from toys to furniture to appliances and clothing, and likely far more) and doing their best to repair them. And along the way, Ms. Goldmark learned a few things.

A lot of what we own is poorly made, with plastic parts that break easily and aren’t easily repairable. Spare parts for quick repairs are often entirely unavailable, and thus whole items, for want of a tiny, tiny part, become complete trash. Often, items are legally unrepairable by the consumer; even when they are able to be fixed, it’s often cheaper (but not a better use of our resources) to throw the whole item out and buy a new one. How many broken items do you have sitting around your house, waiting for the day when you finally decide to try to fix them? Our throwaway culture is a massive problem, affecting the climate and the environment in ways we’re only beginning to pay for, and while darning our sweaters and replacing our worn bike gears isn’t going to solve the problem that is climate change, when we pay attention to even the little problems, the big problems begin to fall in line, or at least make more sense. Repairing our broken items, taking better care of what we own, buying used (and better!) when we can, and ensuring that the items we no longer need get into the hands of people who do need them are all things we can do that make a difference when done on a large scale.

This is a quick read, but it’s also a swift kick in the pants if you’re looking for some motivation. My repair skills are limited, but I’m continually learning and I use the skills I do have when necessary. That said, things back up and I put them off, but this week, I stitched holes in a pillow, a blanket, a pair of pants, and a shirt, and I crocheted a rip in a seam of a store-bought blanket, all because of this book. Ms. Goldmark is right that we need to take better care of the things we own, that creating new things is great, but that there’s a limit to what we need, and that repairing the things we own needs to be a bigger focus than creation.

She has a lot of great ideas of what companies can do in order to become leaders in this movement- what would it be like if Ikea dispatched on-the-go furniture repair people to come fix your table or bookcase, or if they had places in their stores where you could bring in your lamp or duvet cover for a quick fix? Some companies such as Patagonia or REI are already working to close the loop, as she puts it; more need to follow in their footsteps, but we can help by supporting the companies who are already participating in these more sustainable business practices.

I liked this a lot. It got me thinking about the things I can do to better care for what I own, and the skills I need to learn to better repair. My husband is pretty awesome at this and has learned to fix a LOT of broken items around our house (he repaired a backpack strap this week- the plastic part had broken and he mended that, saving the entire backpack. I was impressed); I’m more in charge of things like basic sewing repairs, but I definitely have room for improvement- I’m wanting to learn how to darn socks, because that’s such a useful skill. That’s on my agenda soon, and I’m looking forward to it.

Follow Sandra Goldmark on Twitter.

nonfiction

Book Review: Browsing Nature’s Aisles: A Year of Foraging for Wild Food in the Suburbs by Eric and Wendy Brown

Finally! Finally, it’s warm out when I’m reading a book about foraging! Normally, it’s freezing and there are twenty feet of snow on the ground, a fact that never ceases to amuse me. Perhaps I’m just looking for a taste of warmer weather when that happens. This was more coincidence; Browsing Nature’s Aisles: A Year of Foraging for Wild Food in the Suburbs by Eric and Wendy Brown (New Society Publishers, 2013) had been on my TBR for quite some time and it was time to move it off of there. Thanks, interlibrary loan!

Eric and Wendy Brown, who live in suburban Maine, realized they wanted a more local, more sustainable way of life. They began to garden, they bought some chickens, they started to frequent their local farmer’s market. But they realized that this wasn’t enough, and that to supplement their diet, they needed to check out what nature was providing all around them for free. Starting with their own yard and branching out to the wide-open spaces around them, they began to learn the local plants that most people regarded as weeds or nuisances. Taking classes with urban foraging experts and instructors and learning from mycologists, they built up their confidence in identifying edible plants, fruits, roots, and mushrooms, and began to supplement their diet with items they foraged themselves.

This isn’t an instructional book. There are no, “Here are the plants that are safe to eat, here’s how you identify them and what you do with them once you’ve got them in your kitchen.” It’s the recounting of one couple’s adventures during a year of foraging in Maine. They talk about why they got started foraging (this part is a little doomsday-style depressing; it’s not necessarily inaccurate, just something to watch out for if you’re in a poor mood at the time) and their successes and failures, and all the reasons why urban foraging is a good idea. It’s not a bad story, but to be fully honest, I didn’t necessarily find anything new or inspiring in it, either.

I’m always impressed and a little bit baffled by people who live in the suburbs but who manage to find all sorts of wild-growing food. We have things like chickweed and common plantain and dandelions growing in our yard, of course, but there aren’t really stands of wild berries or apple trees growing nearby that are free for the taking. There are no empty fields where we can forage. All the forest preserves around us have signs all over explicitly stating that removing any kind of nature from the preserve is strictly forbidden. I’m very honestly unsure of where on earth we would find the kinds of things these authors are constantly stumbling across. There’s just not a lot of nature around us that we’re allowed to take things from, at least, not that I’m aware of. Maybe I’m just missing out. Our local community college did offer an evening prairie walk, pre-pandemic, where an instructor would walk with the participants and point out edible plants. I had planned on signing up for that, but, well, you know. I’m sure that’ll come back in 273489374923 years, when this is all over…

So this book was just okay for me. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, and I didn’t find the writing to be terribly interesting. It wasn’t bad, by any means, but it was no Stalking the Wild Asparagus, either.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness by Rebecca Lerner

Why is it that I always seem to read gardening and foraging books when it’s cold out? I think I’ve only ever had the sense to read one of these books when I could actually put the information I learned in it to use. Just seems to always work out that way, and on my last library trip before they closed to everything but curbside pickups, I grabbed a copy of Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness by Rebecca Lerner (Lyons Press, 2013). I’ve always been interested in urban foraging and have read plenty of books on the subject, but I haven’t really done much with what I’ve learned, other than make a lovely batch of dandelion jelly a few years ago, with dandelions collected from the surplus in my yard (and only in a year when we had so many, there were tons left over for the bees. My two cups of dandelions didn’t even make the tiniest of dents). The community college here offers walking tours of the prairie outside the school with an expert who points out edible native plants, so I’m hoping to take one of those tours when life goes back to normal. Until then, I read on!

Rebecca Lerner is an urban forager, hunting for edible, usable plants in Portland, Oregon, and the surrounding areas. She begins her story with an experiment, having been assigned an article where she lives solely off of items she’s foraged for a week. The experiment fails massively, since Rebecca is a novice, but she learns from her failure and is determined to improve her skills. Immediately, she pinpoints everything she’s done wrong and sets out to learn from friends and locals who are skilled foragers. She finds new greens, edible berries and nuts (even those that need a lot of work to be edible- like acorns), plants that serve as natural medicine and tea, and a way of living that suits her just fine.

This one was just okay for me. It started out fine; Ms. Lerner’s enthusiasm is admirable, and I appreciated her ability to showcase the mistakes she made- who hasn’t made enthusiastic-yet-massive screwups at the beginning of a new project? I enjoyed following her adventures in the streets and urban landscapes of Portland, the process of learning to cook these new-to-her foods, and her descriptions of their tastes. It was easy to feel as though I was right beside her, tramping through a neighbor’s yard, minding the spikes and thorns of these edible plants, and tasting the explosions of flavor of nature’s gatherable bounty.

Her enthusiasm for her homemade medicine cabinet alienated me a bit, however. I’m not against natural medicines, but she displays excitement for certain things that I 100% know have been debunked by peer-reviewed studies. And boasting that her homemade medicines helped people get over their colds in two to three days isn’t exactly the flex she wanted it to sound like (you know, the normal amount of time people would get over a cold?). Her explanation of why people stopped using these homemade medicines fell flat for me (husband is a molecular biologist; it’s all science, all the time here, and I’ve done a lot of reading in the past on the natural health and supplement industry. There’s no conspiracy or power-grab takeover; many of these natural cures simply don’t show any levels of effectiveness when put to rigorous scientific testing). The placebo affect is real and I’m all for using that to its full effect, but I dislike the more woo-based treatments being passed off as being as or more effective than evidence-based treatments.

This isn’t a bad book, despite my being turned off by her allegiance to her homemade medicines. It’s a fun story of learning to appreciate what the earth offers around us, learning to notice the bounty and learning to take advantage of it in a respectful way. It’s a fairly quick read if you’re into this subject.

nonfiction

Book Review: Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter

I’ve always been a big secondhand shopper. Even as a kid, I recognized the value in buying something for less money, and as I grew older, I appreciated that used items were less taxing on the earth’s resources. Yard sales and thrift stores have always been my jam. That’s why I was so excited to read Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019). What exactly happens to the items we drop off at the thrift store? What happens to the items that don’t sell? Where, exactly, does all this stuff go?

Adam Minter travels around the world, from the US to Japan, from Malaysia to West Africa, following the stream of secondhand stuff, from thrift store drop-offs and rejects, to items cleaned out from homes where the residents have died or left for nursing homes or assisted living. Our lives are full of stuff, and all that stuff has to go somewhere at some point. Japan has excelled in the creation of businesses meant to deal with possessions after the death of their owners; West Africa has done an amazing job of creating industries that repair and refurbish outdated technology, including laptops, computers, and televisions rejected by Americans. The problem of used clothing, which includes fast fashion made from cheap fabric, is a little trickier, however.

While I enjoyed this, I did find it a little dry from time to time, but I will fully admit that this may have been a personal issue due to the timing of my reading (could anyone focus well on anything the first week of November?!?!?). His criticism of planned obsolescence (one of the dumbest concepts ever created) and companies that deny their customers the right to repair the products they’ve purchased is perfection (as is his spotlight on iFixit.com, a website crammed full of repair manuals for products whose companies don’t necessarily offer them). Far too many societies have adopted an attitude of disposability,  and that’s obviously a major, major problem. Adam Minter does an excellent job of focusing on this problem without condemning the reader, who has likely been guilty of these behaviors and attitudes at some point in their life, throughout the text. There are problems, yes, but there are solutions, many of which readers can actively engage in.

I’m careful about the clothing I buy- I stay away from fast fashion (especially after having read Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fast Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline; I cannot recommend this book highly enough); I don’t buy dry-clean-only clothing; I make sure what I do purchase (which is almost always secondhand) are things I can repair if necessary (I’m trying to learn how to darn socks, but so far I stink at it. I am, however, awesome at patching over holes and stains, and I’m working on my embroidery so as to make visible mending more aesthetically pleasant), but Secondhand has definitely inspired me to keep going with all of that. The amount of secondhand clothing in the stream is too high for us to do anything other than take good care of what we own.

Visit Adam Minter’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

I’m perpetually about ten years behind in my reading. I mean, pretty much every book in the world is on my TBR, so I’m never actually caught up, but if something is popular at a certain point in time, that basically ensures that I will ignore it for the next decade in favor of reading things people read ten years before now. Reader problems, amiright??? I never got around to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper, 2007) when it first came out, but I grabbed a copy at a used book sale last year, since I figured the price was right (man, I miss those book sales, but it’s giving me a chance to catch up on reading from my own shelves!), and this was what came on next on my by-the-TV shelf.

Author Barbara Kingsolver and her family moved from their home in Tucson to the farm property her husband owned in Virginia in search of a more authentic life in which they could grow their own food and eat more locally, taxing the earth’s resources less. They began a year-long experiment in growing their own food in sizeable gardens, raising chickens and turkeys (and doing the slaughtering themselves), and eschewing almost all food products that didn’t come within a hundred (or so) miles of their home. Starting in the spring, they realized they’d have to give up a few staples- no more bananas, fresh fruit was hard to come by at that time of year and they had to substitute with locally grown rhubarb, etc.- but they soon realized that almost everything they needed or wanted could be grown on their land, obtained from a local source, or foregone entirely. It wasn’t easy- it involved hard word, sacrifice, occasionally paying a little more or doing a lot of research to find a local source- but it changed the way her family saw their own abilities, their community, and the world.

Ms. Kingsolver is a master storyteller; The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favorite books, and I have a copy of The Bean Trees waiting for me on my downstairs shelves. The stories she tells in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle are lovely; they make me want to plow up my entire lawn and plant a massive garden (how is it that I always manage to read these books at the end of the season???), and it definitely got me thinking more about buying local products and paying attention to where my groceries come from. It doesn’t always make sense to purchase products that come from thousands of miles away when there might be a similarly-priced alternative that comes from our own area, that doesn’t have as much packaging and hasn’t used up so much fossil fuels to land on our doorstep (sometimes only to liquefy in the crisper bin, yikes!). Ms. Kingsolver makes a good point that we must do better eating locally; our climate and the future of our planet depends on it.

What I didn’t particularly care for were the sections on meat and her proclamation that vegetarians would totally chow down on meat if they could see the happy lives of the animals on the farms where she purchases her meat products. That felt dismissive and reductive; I stopped eating meat and cut way back on the animal products I consume in general after a bad cholesterol test a few years ago. I don’t sit around eating tofu burgers, as Ms. Kingsolver claims (and what little tofu I do consume comes from about twenty miles away anyway); my diet consists of legumes, vegetables, fruits, and grains (not much of the fancy stuff like quinoa, either, it’s usually outside our budget), and that wouldn’t change even if Happy Lamb Farm took their lambs to Disneyland every other week and bought them all Mickey Mouse shirts and balloons. I’m doing the best I can for what my body is telling me it needs, and I didn’t appreciate having my health concerns dismissed in this manner. It seemed a bit self-righteous and didn’t mesh well with the rest of the tone of the book.

The other bone I had to pick was about farmers’ markets. We have a lovely one here near us that sells a lot of really awesome local produce and locally made products; we haven’t been since last year, because it just gets SO crowded, but I really enjoy going. That said, Ms. Kingsolver seems to be attending different farmer’s markets than I do in terms of cost (as do the majority of people I’ve seen singing their praises). I do understand that local food is often going to cost more, but I can’t afford to pay six dollars for a pound of strawberries or tomatoes. So many of us are doing the best we can with our food budgets; a lot of Americans live life on the edge, paycheck to paycheck, and asking us to pay more for the food we eat isn’t always a tenable suggestion when you can either buy a pound of local strawberries, or apples and broccoli and a head of cabbage from the grocery store to feed your family for the week for that same price. It’s a terrible choice; we need those local farmers and their produce, but we also need full tummies and a varied diet. It’s frustrating to read that her experiment saved her money in some areas and her meals cost so little, when I’ve seen some of the prices of produce at our famer’s market and thought, “I could buy that and no other vegetable for the week.” Doing our best here, but there’s only so much we can do.

But the rest of this book absolutely put me in a warmer state of mind, in lush gardens with sun-warmed soil, in steamy kitchens with pots of tomato sauce bubbling on the stovetop with sterilized glass jars glinting on the counter nearby. The weather is turning here; we’ve got rain in the forecast for most of this week and chilly temps in the 40’s and 50’s, so it was lovely to curl up on my reading chair and follow Barbara Kingsolver into her barn and kitchen as the rain streaked my living room window.

Visit Barbara Kingsolver’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness by Nathanael Johnson

How often do you notice the nature outside your window, in your own backyard, or right next to your feet? It’s easy to tune out the squirrels, the insects, the birds, the trees and plants, but there are good reasons to look around you and notice. I’m not exactly a huge outdoors person, but I enjoy learning about the world around me, and when my friend Sandy mentioned she was reading (and enjoying!) Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness by Nathanael Johnson (Rodale Books, 2016), I knew I had to read it, too. I get so many great book suggestions from Sandy; she’s dangerous for my TBR, but that’s the best kind of friend to have! I don’t think I would have read most of the books I’ve read about nature (with the exception of foraging; I got into that subject all on my own) without her. Find yourself a Sandy. 😉

Nathanael Johnson never really paid all that much attention to the nature around him in San Francisco until his daughter started asking him to name everything around him. He realized that what she was pointing to had a name beyond just ‘tree,’ or ‘bird,’ or ‘plant,’ and he set about learning in order to provide her with more answers. As he inhaled more and more information, the world around him came into deeper focus and he began noticing things that had been in front of him, but unseen, the whole time. Why are pigeons’ feet like that? What is that plant, and can I eat it? What exactly are those ants doing, and what kind are they?

Becoming familiar with the world around you- the stuff you usually dismiss as background noise- helps you to respect nature more fully (thus working harder to protect it!) and helps you live more fully, he argues. You don’t have to get deeply involved with every single aspect of the natural world; if you find you’re more interested in birds than plants, then go with that, but find one subject that draws your fascination and go with it, because if you’re involved and invested in your surroundings, you’ll live a fuller, more engaged life.

There’s a section on invasive species here that helped me breathe a sigh of relief (for more on this subject, you *really* need to read Eating Aliens: One Man’s Adventures Hunting Invasive Animal Species by Jackson Landers), and I found his chapter on pigeons really engaging. We don’t have pigeons here in my town (or at least not by my house, and let’s face it, I haven’t been much of anywhere else for seven months now…), but I’ve always kind of been intrigued by them when I’ve seen them elsewhere. I *did* wish his chapter on plant life in the city was longer, but that’s just because I find the subject of urban/suburban foraging so fascinating. I was happy to see him give a hat tip to Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons; most writers who even so much as briefly mention foraging end up including something about Gibbons’s work, which I cannot recommend highly enough. I read it two years ago and still think of it often. Don’t let the fact that it was published in 1962 deter you; Stalking the Wild Asparagus reads as though it could have been written yesterday, and it’s fun, and funny, and it’ll have you examining the plants in your backyard in a different way.

I really enjoyed Unseen City. Most of the urban foraging/urban nature books I’ve read have been set in either California or New York; I’d love to see one of these books that deal with the Midwest and all our flora and fauna here. But Nathanael Johnson is as entertaining (and funny!) as he is educational when it comes to illustrating the benefits of developing a deep fascination with the world around us. Read this if you’re interested in taking a deeper look at the things you usually tune out.

Visit Nathanael Johnson’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.