Book Review: The Radium Girls: The Dark History of America’s Shining Women

I knew about the radium girls in the vaguest of senses thanks to an offhand mention in The Radioactive Boy Scout, a book I read a few years ago. Silverstein mentions that scores of workers (women, mostly) in the dial-painting factories became ill and even died from their work, but since that’s largely a footnote in the story of David Hahn, Silverstein doesn’t go into much detail about it. I didn’t think about it any further until last year, when I saw that an available book on NetGalley was Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, adapted from and inspired by Melanie March’s play These Shining Lives.

Author: Kate Moore

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average Goodreads rating: 4.35 stars

Language scaling: B2/C1+

Recommended audience: Readers interested in the early 20th century American labor movement, women’s history, or the history of radium and radioactivity.

Content warning: While it’s only brief parts of the book, Moore does not mince words to describe the effects of radium poisoning on the women in question.

The cover of Kate Moore's "Radium Girls: The Dark History of America's Shining Women"

In-depth thoughts: I wavered between 4 and 5 stars for this book. The story is harrowing and written well overall, but at some points all of the information becomes more overwhelming than anything else. Moore also has a tic of spending a lot of time on the physical description of almost everyone involved; as someone who relates strongly to descriptions of aphantasia, it’s not surprising that I would not find detailed descriptions of people’s appearances compelling. Other readers will no doubt appreciate Moore’s dedication to making these stories as real as possible. Finally, the Kindle version had some display and formatting errors, mostly based around the small-caps font used for the newspaper headlines and photos (there weren’t any).

In the end I decided on 5 stars because I think my issues were with the formatting rather than the content, and because I think everyone should read this book.

I have to admit, I was not entirely prepared for what I read. I know enough about radiation poisoning to know that the women employed in these factories suffered, and suffered a lot. That’s a biological reality I knew going in. It was how steadfastly the companies refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing that was the most shocking and the most viscerally upsetting. Their legal battles dragged on for years—over a decade. It’s one thing to lose an arm or the use of your legs and have a workman’s comp case take a few years. It’s another thing for the case to go on for 13 years when you’re dying of cancer.

The radium corporations insisted that the sick, dying, and dead women were already in poor health when they started work; they refused to release medical examination records; they insisted that the cause of death in a few cases was syphilis, not radium poisoning. They claimed in one case that radium was a poison and therefore not covered by existing workman’s compensation laws; after the law was changed to include poison, they turned around in another case and claimed that radium wasn’t poisonous at all.

People talking about #resisting in this weird new era we live in also talk about the importance of surrounding yourself with stories of people being courageous and doing the right thing. I think that makes The Radium Girls a book we should all be reading. It serves as both an inspiration and a warning.

Book Review: Both Flesh and Not

The posts here have been very book-heavy recently. While I don’t feel I should, exactly, apologize for that, I feel like I should at least explain it. I did a surprise burst of reading at the end of last year and have been trying to get on top of it now so that my posts for the rest of the year won’t just be catch-up or weirdly untimely (seems a bit pointless to have a GoodReads round-up post in March). The alternative is to not feature my reading here at all, but 1) I feel that my reading, both for fun and for professionalism, is relevant to what I do and 2) I like talking about books.

In that vein, here is the first book I finished in 2017.

Image courtesy Little, Brown and Company

Author: David Foster Wallace

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.85 stars

Language scaling: C1+

Recommended audience: Pop culture junkies, word aficionados, recovering pedants, English nerds

In-depth thoughts: I received this book as part of my book club’s end-of-year book swap, which made for a very pleasant surprise in the mail! Anyone who pokes around my GoodReads profile can see right away that David Foster Wallace is one of my favorite writers—a friend recommended him to me as we both (that is: both Wallace and I) were English/philosophy double majors in college, which I guess is a flimsy reason to like an author; presumably this friend also recommended Wallace because of his brilliant writing, which is a much more solid reason to like an author. Somehow, despite my near-obsession, I never got around to buying this posthumous collection for myself (or even learning of its existence).

More Flesh Than Not is probably more appropriate for English lovers than it is for English students. One can be both, of course, but you really need a borderline unhealthy love for the language to enjoy Wallace’s dense, complex, and sometimes highly stylized writing. Professional language regulators (that is to say: editors, teachers, etc.) might find “Twenty-Four Word Notes” of interest, where Wallace lets his inner pedant have full rein. “The Nature of the Fun” offers solace and something like comfort (maybe) to fellow writers. And anyone who loves reading—like maybe chronically, dysfunctionally, really really loves—will surely appreciate Wallace’s ability to get to the heart of a book in his reviews and to give works the serious look they deserve, from short-form reviews (“Mr. Cogito” and “Overlooked: Five direly underappreciated U.S. Novels >1960”) to in-depth and quite frankly multidisciplinary framings (“The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress” and “Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama”), and anything in between (“Borges On the Couch” and “The Best of the Prose Poem.”)

Finally, this collection uses selections from Wallace’s own word list (assembled while he was working on the Oxford English dictionary) as something like illustrations? section breaks? between each essay. Whether you find that charming or a gimmick depends on taste, I suppose. I fall in the former camp. There’s something very intimate and personal about a glimpse into the words that someone found fascinating, confusing, or anything else necessitating a dictionary consultation. It’s an appropriate touch and I appreciate it.

 

My Favorite Books of 2016, According to GoodReads

A new year is now well underway, so time to look at the best books I read last year!

On GoodReads, I handed out a total of five 5-star ratings. (This out of 46 books total: I confess to being stingy with my stars.) Two of them went to travel memoirs, two of them went to science writing, and the last one went to a novel. In my GoodReads round-up of 2015, I ordered things chronologically. This round-up will be ordered thematically, as it includes more than just novels.

Travel Memoirs

1. America Day by Day, Simone de Beauvoir; English translation by Carol Cosman

Image courtesy University of California Press

Reading de Beauvoir’s perceptions of the US and its citizens as an American myself was a strange but thoroughly satisfying experience; all the more so during a contentious and (ultimately) disappointing election year. Cosman’s translation is elegant, though I say this without having read the original French. (I do say this, however, with having read Leonard M. Friedman’s translation of The Mandarins and attempting Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier’s translation of The Second Sex.) America Day by Day is treasure trove of insights into the American psyche and quotes and observations that feel as relevant today as they did in the late 40s, coupled with picturesque descriptions of the American landscape.

 

2. The Road to Mecca, Muhammad Asad

Image courtesy Fons Vitae

The Road to Mecca is half travel memoir and half religious conversion story. If it was bittersweet to read about de Beauvoir’s frustration with cynical and disaffected American youth (passages that might well have been written today), it was heartbreaking to read about Asad’s travels through cities like Damascus and Aleppo–passages that never could have been written today. As rhetoric in the US and Europe surrounding Muslim immigrants and refugees becomes more and more inflamed, books like Asad’s become more and more necessary.

 

Science Writing

3. Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body, Jo Marchant*

Image courtesy Broadway Books

The subtitle there is unfortunate, as Marchant never promotes the kind of message you see in things like The Secret (i.e. “You just need to want to cure your cancer!”). Instead, she takes a look at all of the ways the placebo effect can mitigate illness and promote health, and how it can be incorporated into evidence-based medicine. Marchant thoroughly documents her journalism and seeks out patients, scientists, and health professionals alike.

4. What is Fat For? Re-Thinking Obesity Science, Ignatius Brady, MD*

Image courtesy Ignatius Brady

In my non-professional life, I practice and promote body positivity, which led me request this book from NetGalley. What is Fat For? ties together years of bariatric medicine research and experience. The book is remarkable not only for its level-headed insight, sympathy, and avoidance of hype, but for its outstanding quality as a self-published book. This is fodder for another post, probably, but I will say this here: my problem with the increase of self-publishing authors is that many of them, especially new authors, do not put in the effort or the expense to put out the highest quality of work possible. What is Fat For? is the first self-published book I’ve read that is just as polished and well-written as anything from one of the Big 5. More importantly, I think it could be a valuable part of the body positivity movement’s toolkit.

Novel

5. The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin

Image courtesy Orbit Books

Through what must have been countless hours of effort, Jemisin managed to produce an eminently readable, beautiful novel while hitting many of popular literature’s recent trends (post-apocalyptic dystopias). I’ve been a nerd for as long as I can remember; this includes all of the attendant stereotypes about taste in literature. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve become rather picky. Sturgeon’s Law aside, it does seem like there is a tendency for genre authors to allow the whiz-bang of their chosen genre to make up for pedestrian writing. Not so with Jemisin and The Fifth Season, which is maybe best described as a post-apocalyptic fantasy take on Beloved. I don’t know how I managed to forget to put up a review here; I’ll have to fix that posthaste. (Possibly I’ll wait until I finish reading the entire trilogy.)

There you have it! My best books of 2016. What were yours? Comment or tweet @KobaEnglish!

*indicates I received a free ebook copy from NetGalley in exchange for a review. Both of those reviews have already appeared elsewhere.