nonfiction

Book Review: The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease by Daisy Hernández

“You don’t know what you don’t know” is something we say often at my house, and I wonder a lot about how many things are out there that I don’t know about (this is why I’m so drawn to nonfiction! I want to know ALL THE THINGS). And when I learned about a book about a contagious disease that affects millions but that most people have never heard of, my curiosity was immediately piqued. And that’s how The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease by Daisy Hernández (Tin House Books, 2021) ended up on my TBR. And Ms. Hernández was right: I’d never once in my life heard of Chagas.

Daisy Hernández grew up with a sick aunt. Tía Dora had become sick by eating an apple, Daisy believed, until she was older and learned that her aunt, with whom her relationship was often contentious due to, among many things, the aunt’s homophobia, had been infected with Chagas disease after having been bitten by a kissing bug. Tía Dora suffered terribly throughout her life, and Daisy later learned that yet another aunt had died as well of Chagas in South America. What was the insect that had so troubled her family? Despite the phobia Daisy had developed of it, she set out to learn more.

As it turns out, kissing bugs are all over in South America and the southern US. “Every adult with Chagas is a child that wasn’t treated,” one doctor says, and it seems to be true. Many adults who are found to be infected (usually discovered when their blood donation is tested) aren’t symptomatic, though it can take years until symptoms (like heart failure) make themselves known; others begin showing symptoms early on, and no one is sure why. Several years ago, Zika was all over the news, but Chagas, which affects more Americans than Zika, hasn’t gotten a fraction of that kind of attention. With bravery, determination, and a deep-seated curiosity, Daisy Hernández has penned a part-memoir, part-scientific narrative that clues readers in to the dangers of Chagas (with climate change, kissing bugs are heading north – this is everyone’s problem) and the devastation they cause.

When I picked this up, I was a little hesitant. I had just finished a fairly heavy book and wasn’t sure I could handle any intense scientific reading at this point, but Ms. Hernández deftly combines her research with her family’s story. Instead of being bogged down by this, I blew through it in a day. The effects of Chagas are difficult to read about; Tía Dora’s suffering is detailed throughout the book and it’s not pretty, but it’s less shocking than the fact that even with all the medical and science writing I’ve done throughout my life, Chagas had never once appeared in any of it. How does this affect so many people and yet no one talks about it?

The Kissing Bug combines the best of open, honest memoir writing with science writing that is simple enough for even the most science-phobic brain to grasp (I *really* wasn’t much of a science person growing up; it’s only being married to a molecular biologist and getting a daily lecture on All Things Science that has helped me appreciate it more). I appreciated Ms. Hernández’s admissions of how terrifying it was for her to research and write about the very thing that killed her aunts and devastated her family so deeply; knowing how tough it was for her to be out in the field with researchers, collecting kissing bugs in the dark, bending over microscopes to peer at T. cruzi, added another layer of humanity to her story. I’m honestly not sure I could’ve gone on this journey if I were her. Mad respect.

The Kissing Bug is an easy read about a tough subject, and one that desperately needs this kind of light shone upon it. Highly recommended.

Visit Daisy Hernández’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash by Edward Humes

I realize I read about a lot of niche subjects, but garbage might just be the nichiest (what? It’s a word if I want it to be a word). Reading about the trash we create, the mess we’ve made of the world, and the people devoting their lives to cleaning it all up serves as a reminder to me of the work I need to be doing in order to make things better. If you’re beginning to realize that ‘there’s no such thing as away,’ that things don’t just disappear when you toss them in the trash, that everything you buy has consequences for the planet, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash by Edward Humes (Avery, 2012) might need to go from your TBR to your brain.

What happens when we throw things away? What exactly goes on in a landfill? (Sometimes it’s not much. People have unearthed 50-year-old hot dogs and heads of lettuce, looking pretty much fresh.) What exactly is all of this doing to the planet, and how much longer can this continue? Edward Humes has thrown the switch on the floodlights that illuminate the mess we’ve made, the dangerous situations we’ve created, and the people working to both take care of them and to make them better.

Because there are better ways, and Mr. Humes shows not only people who have chosen careers dedicated to improving how we deal with trash, but showcases people who have restructured their lives so that they create much, much less of it. While the book occasionally wanders into the technical, Garbology is a wake-up call and an inspirational manifesto for all.

This was a bit of a slow read for me, simply because I was trying to take it all in. We’ve really made a mess of things, when the ocean can be described as ‘plastic chowder’ by scientists who study this sort of thing. It’s all super depressing, but…it could be better. We could do better, and this book points that out over and over again. Garbology isn’t Pollyanna-ish in nature, but knowledge really is power, and it provides the reader with the important knowledge we need about the what, how, and why of our garbage, and how we can clean things up.

There’s a lot to think about here, and I guarantee that, if you read this, you’ll be thinking about and looking at your trash differently. I refused a plastic bag this week after finishing this book, and I’m going to try to keep that habit up (I got distracted in another line and didn’t think about saying I didn’t need bags until it was too late). I’m thinking more about how I can reuse other parts of my trash (recycling is good, but it really should be more of a last resort; there’s a reason why reduce and reuse come first!), and I’ve located some TerraCycle drop-off locations in my area so I can collect the harder-to-recycle items, like toothpaste tubes, for them.

Garbology might change you – and that’s a good thing. Our planet desperately needs that.

Visit Edward Humes’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Day the World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Saves the Environment and Ourselves by J.B. MacKinnon

I’m a non-consumerist at heart, to the point of, I can actually list the very few things I’ve bought so far this year that weren’t fully consumable (a pair of shoes to replace a falling-apart pair that were about 18 years old, and a pair of battery-operated candlesticks. Everything else has been either food or stuff like shampoo). I’m fully aware of the fact that our societal and worldwide consumption is killing the planet – well, one of the things that is killing the planet, anyway – and that’s how The Day the World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Saves the Environment and Ourselves by J. B. MacKinnon (Ecco, 2021) ended up on my TBR.

We all know the world has a problem with stuff. Just look around at what we own: closets bursting with clothes (some of which we barely wear), garages and basements exploding with stuff. We even rent out storage units to keep the stuff we can’t fit in our house. And all of this – the production, the transportation, the space used to sell it and the electricity that powers the stores – taxes the planet in massive ways. What would happen if we…just stopped buying things? Just completely stopped? Journalist J.B. MacKinnon methodically explores the impact that would have on the planet and on life itself.

It’s not a simple question to answer, and with the way the world runs, the impact would be on the economy just as much as it would be on the environment, maybe even more so. But it would affect everything and everyone around us (okay, maybe not everyone, and Mr. MacKinnon does get into that). If you’re especially curious about the economic impact of a world that decides that enough is enough, The Day the World Stops Shopping is likely something you’ll enjoy.

This was okay. I was expecting something a little different, maybe a more personalized look at the impact on communities and day-to-day life, of the return of bartering and a more Depression-era take on repairing and making possessions last. Instead, this book focuses heavily on the economic side of the end of consumerism (massive flashbacks to helping my son with his Economics homework, ugh). It was still interesting enough that it held my attention, but I definitely hadn’t added this to my list because of an overwhelming love for the principles of economics.

So this wasn’t *quite* what I wanted, but I’m not unhappy I spent my time with it. I can’t say I care any more about economics than I did, but I learned a few things along the way, and that’s never bad.

Visit J.B. MacKinnon’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Challenging Pregnancy: A Journey Through the Politics and and Science of Healthcare in America by Genevieve Grabman

I’m pretty terrible at being pregnant. I start barfing about ten seconds after sperm meets egg, and I had to be hospitalized twice during my pregnancy with my son (not quite so bad with my daughter, but I still had to be medicated the entire time). But for all the issues I had with both of my pregnancies, the babies were never in danger and I’m truly grateful for that. But those pregnancies left me with both a fascination for all that can go wrong for both parties during a pregnancy and the unnecessarily complexities and sometimes deadly consequences the American healthcare system likes to heap upon pregnant people (would you like to hear how my insurance company wouldn’t pay for medication to keep me out of the hospital, but it would pay for hospitalization? And how during my second pregnancy, it wouldn’t pay for medication at all? I’m still incredibly angry about all of this.) This is why Challenging Pregnancy: A Journey through the Politics and Science of Healthcare in America by Genevieve Grabman (University of Iowa Press, 2022) caught my eye on NetGalley. A quick tap of the request button and it was added to my kindle in just a few days. Much thanks to NetGalley, University of Iowa Press, and Genevieve Grabman for the opportunity to read this thoroughly engaging account of the author’s medically complex pregnancy and the system that stood in the way of solutions every step of the way.

What doctors first suspected to be a blighted ovum turned out to be a set of twins, shocking Genevieve Grabman. And things would only grow more complicated. The twins were soon diagnosed with a complicated condition known as twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome (TTTS), for which the outcomes for both babies and mother are often not good (death for all three is a distinct possibility, along with lifelong neurological problems for the babies). Alongside of this, the smaller twin was suffering from sIUGR, or selective intrauterine growth restriction and a dangerous two-vessel umbilical cord (which was only tenuously attached to the placenta), both boys had heart defects- basically, a lot of what could go wrong did.

Ms. Grabman’s degree in public health and her experience as a lawyer helped her navigate the often difficult-to-understand research articles about the serious medical conditions she and the twins were experiencing, giving her a massive advantage over most other people dealing with similar problems, but even with these advantages, she ran up against the wall of politics. Anti-abortion legislation heavily limits what treatments are available to pregnant women in the US, and time and time again, Ms. Grabman found that what she wanted for her pregnancy and what was considered best practice and safest in a medical sense wasn’t allowed, in favor of more dangerous procedures with worse outcomes, thanks to anti-choice politicians.

Woven throughout Ms. Grabman’s tense and frustrating narrative are facts and statistics about the dire landscape that is American maternal healthcare. For every 100,000 live births in the US, 17.4 mothers die, a statistic that is the highest out of the fourteen most-developed countries. Women’s lives are sacrificed on the altar of politics, and outcomes are decried in favor of placating the religious right. Twin-to-twin transfusion system statistically has a particularly poor outcome (along with suffering from a dearth of good research), and readers will come away from this book with a fresh sense of horror for not only the dangers of such a complex medical condition, but also for the ease of which politicians are willing to disregard medical necessity (for children and mothers they have no stake in caring for) for ideals.

This is a moving, intense narrative. I appreciated Ms. Grabman’s attention to detail in terms of the research available, and her acknowledgement that if she found accessing proper medical care difficult, with her degrees and knowledge of reproductive law, how much more difficult and stressful is it to navigate the medical system for women with potentially deadly conditions who have less education, less ability to read the scientific studies, and fewer qualifications that mark them as someone to take seriously for the researchers and doctors she contacted?

Challenging Pregnancy will have readers questioning everything they thought they knew about the American healthcare system, abortion politics, and what the true consequences are for voting for candidates who call themselves pro-life.

Challenging Pregnancy: A Journey through the Politics and Science of Healthcare in America by Genevieve Grabman is available on March 1, 2022.

nonfiction

Book Review: Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back by Mark O’Connell

Sometimes a book ends up on our TBR and sits there for long enough that we forget how it ended up there in the first place (or, you know, pandemic stress just erased all that information from our brains for more important information, like, “Where did I leave my mask?” Sigh). That’s Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back by Mark O’Connell (Doubleday Books, 2020). I don’t remember how it ended up on my TBR anymore, and my library no longer had it available as an ebook, but interlibrary loan saved the day when it was up next on my TBR!

Mark O’Connell found himself obsessed with the end of the world as we know it. What would happen? How would humanity react? Would it be an asteroid or climate change or something we hadn’t yet considered? He didn’t become a prepper himself, but he began to dive into the industries that have sprung up to accommodate the fears of people who are ready to begin planning for worst-case scenarios, and Notes from an Apocalypse is the result.

In this book, Mr. O’Connell visits a community of survival bunkers in middle-of-nowhere, South Dakota. He travels to New Zealand, where rich Americans have bought up property to ride out a disaster. He investigates the prepper industry, that hotbed of American consumerism (also good for men whose wives are away and who don’t know how to cook, with those MRE-type meal packets…), and he examines the ultra-rich’s obsession with Mars colonization for when we ruin this planet too much to continue living on it. And maybe it’s exposure therapy, but in the end, he becomes a little more comfortable with not knowing what comes next.

This ended up being a really interesting book! I hadn’t given much thought to these industries in the past, so I really appreciated Mr. O’Connell putting in that thinking for me. He’s spot-on in his observations of the intersection of (toxic) masculinity and the prepper community. I hadn’t known anything about the ultra-rich (like Peter Thiel) flocking to New Zealand to buy up land (so much so that it seems New Zealand changed the laws about this; they’ve always been a difficult country to immigrate to anyway, but I’m glad they’re doing what they can to protect their land from greedy Americans), so I’m glad I’m better informed about this. And the community of underground survivalist bunkers in North Dakota? SO weird, and fascinating to learn about. (Leave me out. I’d rather the apocalypse come for me than to spend time cooped up in with the kind of people that can afford those things. Ugh.)

Notes from an Apocalypse turned out to be a quick but fascinating read, and I can already tell it’s going to be one that I think of frequently in the future. I’d love to see an updated version or another book by Mr. O’Connell about the intersection of these industries and the people who flock to them and the COVID-19 pandemic. Because we all know that the people who have spent their time planning for the worst-case scenario were the first to deny the seriousness of this pandemic…

Visit Mark O’Connell’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis

Obviously, I love nonfiction. If you’ve hung out in these parts for any length of time, you know that I’m a huge, huge fan of that whole section of the library. (I do enjoy fiction as well! I promise!) And I really love nonfiction that reads like a novel. The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis (WW Norton Company, 2021) is exactly that. I learned about it from another one of those best-of-the-year book lists and added it, but I was a little worried about reading it at first. Haven’t we all had enough pandemic at this point? Was my brain too full for this? Yes, and no, respectively. This is an amazing, fabulously-written, rage-inducing explanation of how we got here and why it’s so disgustingly bad out there.

Years ago, a father who worked for Sandia National Laboratories was fiddling with a new work program when his daughter, who had been learning about the Black Death, came in and saw it, and, after realizing that program might be used to predict disease, began working with her father to learn more. They eventually developed a whole project that they managed to get in front of some important people, people who were tasked (mostly self-assigned; kudos to George W. Bush for actually understanding how terrible a pandemic could be and putting together a team to work towards formatting a response. I hadn’t known about this) with working out a nationwide response to a potential pandemic.

This pandemic team saw what was coming. They understood what could happen and began working to put in place a plan to save not just American lives, but lives around the world. The one thing they didn’t expect: that the leadership at the top wouldn’t care. That there was no leadership, that no one cared about saving lives if it meant their egos may take a hit and if the economy might struggle and so, basically, every American would be entirely on their own.

This is a truly remarkable book about a group of wildly intelligent people who understood the dangers of communicable disease and did everything they could to prepare the country, only to be ignored, mocked, and treated as though they were hysterical nutjobs. We could have cut COVID-19 off at the start, could have led the world in the response and saved millions of lives. Instead, we went with the strategy of protecting Donald Trump’s already over-inflated ego and stroking the egos of the people at the CDC (who had little interest in stopping the pandemic, only seeing what happened as it rolled out and protecting the economy instead of lives). We decided to protect the economy instead of people. Michael Lewis has thrown the curtains wide open on how there’s really no such thing as leadership when it comes to public health in the United States.

I’ve pretty much lost all respect for and trust in the CDC after reading this; it’s explained so much to me about why they’re so desperate to get kids into schools with a virus variant that has an R-naught of TWELVE. I’m completely, utterly disgusted, and I’m grateful to Michael Lewis because this book was the perfect read for right now. I understand what’s going on so, so much better now.

If you can’t figure out why the US has made these decisions (or why your country has looked to the US for leadership and has made similar decisions that have resulted in so much death and suffering), if you need to make sense out of why we’re here at this moment in history and absolutely no one gives a shit about the body count, about the trauma being foisted upon healthcare workers (who are leaving in droves because of it), about why the people in charge are insisting that you get back to work even if you’re still sick, this is the book that will grant you some insight into the dearth of empathy and leadership in the top echelons of the United States. We’re all on our own; there’s no one coming to save us.

If I could’ve given this book ten stars, I would have. It was incredible.

Visit Michael Lewis’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Gory Details: Adventures from the Dark Side of Science by Erika Engelhaupt

Who doesn’t love gross stuff?

Okay, so, like…lots of people. I’m not one of them, though. I love gross stuff. The grosser, the better, and so when I learned about the existence of Gory Details: Adventures from the Dark Side of Science by Erika Engelhaupt (National Geographic Society, 2021), it went right on my list. What better way to gain more knowledge about gross things and how they affect our lives? Life is weird and squishy and pretty much just all-around disgusting, so I knew this book would be a perfect fit. And it was!

Human bodies are disgusting, when they’re alive and in death. Animals are pretty foul themselves. Insects? EW. And in Gory Details, science reporter Erika Engelhaupt answers all those weird questions that you’ve wondered but maybe haven’t felt brave enough to ask. Will my dog eat me if I die alone in the house? What happens if a cockroach climbs in my ear- and what’s the deal with earwax, anyway? Some of the gross things covered in this book might qualify as things you could have lived without knowing- eye worms, anyone?- but others will fascinate you endlessly.

So if you’re curious about crispy, sautéed grasshoppers (mmm), bacteria in your dog’s mouth, floating feet that wash ashore on the beach, and how, even in an empty building, you’re never, ever alone (so. many. facial. mites), you NEED this book. Embrace the morbid curiosity you had as a child and dig deep into this book. You won’t be disappointed- a little squeamish, maybe, and you may never want to eat seafood again (trust me on this one), but you’ll have so much fun learning these bizarre facts.

MAN, this was a fun book! What a great way to start off what will surely be a fabulous year of reading. I loved every page of this and didn’t want the disgusting facts to stop flowing, even as I squirmed and my stomach rolled. If you’ve ever enjoyed Mary Roach’s science writing, Erika Engelhaupt is of the same school, with that same snarky, accessible style that makes for a fun read the whole way through. I truly hope she comes out with an entire shelf of books in the future, because this was seriously great. Entertaining, informative, and a brilliant example of how much fun science writing can be.

Five stars, two thumbs up, and three cheers for this excellent book!

Visit Erika Engelhaupt’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France

I was born in 1980; for people born in my generation, there’s never been a time where AIDS hasn’t existed. I remember first learning about the deadly virus in fifth grade, when my class watched a video featuring Magic Johnson, and my teacher (who was one of the best teachers I ever had) led a class discussion afterwards. In my life, AIDS has gone from an absolute death sentence to a chronic health condition that can be managed with one pill a day (for some folks). The implications of that are enormous. One of the books I recommend most is And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts; it was because I love that book so much that I wanted to read a more recently-written story about the people behind the long, painful journey to an effective treatment for AIDS. I knew as soon as I heard about How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France (Knopf, 2013), I had to read it. At over 500 pages of narrative, it’s a dense, hefty read, but it’s well worth your time.

David France has chronicled the emotional odyssey of the late seventies through the mid-nineties for the New York gay community, from the first few deaths that rang alarm bells and alerted people that some terrible new illness was going around, to the final triumphant moments when an effective treatment was finally on the horizon. The path to that triumph is littered with dead bodies, pain, horrific suffering (both physical and emotional), ruined lives, and grief; it was also lined with friendship, camaraderie, infighting, broken friendships, and young adults coming into their own amidst terrible tragedy.

The government ignored them (“It only affects gay people, so just let it take them out”). Their families abandoned them. Their health providers often turned them away. Hospitals refused AIDS patients treatment. Funeral homes refused to care for their wasted bodies. Scientists didn’t see their suffering as a priority. But the gay community refused to face death sitting down; their voices rose to a fever pitch and remained there, even throughout their grief and suffering, until finally, finally, after so much loss and death, the people who could help began to listen. It would take over 100,000 American deaths for an effective treatment to finally arrive.

This is a moving, tragic, infuriating, and beautifully written narrative of a time in history that should never, ever have happened. It’s horrifying how easily the United States is willing to throw its own citizens away (and this happens in so, so many aspects); it was more than willing to write off the endless suffering of the gay community, telling them they had brought this on themselves and it was God’s punishment (in Judaism, there’s a term for this kind of behavior, which translates to ‘desecration of the name of God;’ I think it fits in this instance. Using God to justify someone else’s suffering, while you stand idly by and mock them? Yeah. It fits).

Author David France pops into the story now and then, as he was in the midst of it all, attending meetings and protests, caring for sick friends and lovers, and grieving many, many losses (people losing hundreds of friends wasn’t uncommon). This adds a personal touch to the story which gives it emotional depth; it’s not all protests, emotionally charged meetings, and observations from afar. This is a story observed up close; it’s personal to him, and he makes sure the reader knows it.

How to Survive a Plague is a heavy, emotional read, but it’s well worth your time.

Visit David France’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control by Steve Hassan

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know I’m fascinated by cults. Not just the cults themselves, though; I’m also fascinated by the mindset that it takes to join and stay in a cult: the beliefs and ties to reality that followers must suspend, the excuses they need to make, and the misbehavior that must be dismissed in order to continue to defend and remain within the group. What makes all that happen? What kind of perfect storm has to take place in order for a single person to convince themselves that this group above all others has it right, despite glaring evidence to the contrary? In the past few years, we’ve been able to watch- and still watch- this play out on a massive scale in real time, and when I learned about The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control by Steve Hassan (Free Press, 2019), I was interested. I’d heard interviews with Steve Hassan before on the topic of cults, and I had long before made the connection between the many, many cults I’ve read about and the behavior of Donald Trump’s most ardent followers. Onto my list it went.

Steve Hassan had once been a member of the Moonies, the colloquial name for members of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. His family recognized early on that he had been pressured into a cult; it took him several years to leave (with the help of his family, who were not members; it’s obviously much, much harder for people raised in these movements to extract themselves), and he went on to become a mental health expert who specializes in treating people who leave high-control groups. He’s well aware now of the tactics that the Moonies and other groups use in order to pressure people to join and stay in their movements, and he recognized early on that Donald Trump and his entourage have engaged in all of the same tactics in order to build their own movement.

Step by step, Steve Hassan breaks down how Donald Trump engages in the same mind control techniques that cults use, using specific examples not just from Trump and his entourage, but showing how those same techniques played out in other high-control groups (such as NXIVM, Jonestown, Waco, etc). (And this isn’t mind control like in cartoons, where people’s eyes spin around; these are psychological tactics designed to manipulate how a person thinks, to break ties with a person’s prior life and beliefs and instill new, mostly fear-based beliefs that encourage the potential convert to join the group, because the group or the group’s leader alone can fix this. Sound familiar?). The parallels are disturbing.

I enjoyed a lot of the content here. Seeing the tactics used by various cults and the Trump campaign broken down step-by-step is definitely eerie, especially seeing it all in one place. Mr. Hassan isn’t the only one to notice this; the podcast Behind the Bastards has noted this in multiple episodes, and if you’ve ever listened to the podcast Cults on Parcast, you’ll recognize the same patterns of behavior and control over and over again, used throughout all the various groups. There’s no doubt that the Trump campaign used and continues to use these unfortunately effective tactics. They work, yes, but they work by manipulation and fear. If you can’t convince people of your message without manipulation and fear, your message isn’t worth propagating.

The book did get a little dry for me at times, and there were several instances where the text veered into speculation. “Many people believe…” “Some people think…” I didn’t care for that and felt that it weakened his argument. In a book that is making such big claims (claims which I think are unfortunately accurate), I want every claim to be backed up with hard evidence. There’s no room for conjecture when you’re penning nonfiction about a presidential administration that engaged in devastating acts, and God knows there’s enough hard material to base these claims on. The speculation turned me off quite a bit, and I felt that it lessened the effectiveness of the rest of the book. It also strayed into straight-up political discussion more than I expected; I was looking for more of hard look at the Trump administration’s cult-like tactics in engaging its followers and keeping them coming back for more despite this often not being in their best interests (something we’re still seeing today throughout this pandemic, though there are definitely signs that the monster he created is beyond his control, what with his encouraging his rallygoers to get vaccinated, only to have them boo him). While it did contain some of that, it wasn’t as much as I had expected when I put this book on my list.

It’s definitely an interesting perspective, but not as in-depth of an examination as I had hoped for.

Visit Steve Hassan’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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.