Review: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

I borrowed this book from a friend. She thought to recommend it to me on the basis of the footnotes (long story), not knowing that I’m also a huge nerd for Ada Lovelace. I mean, I’m pretty obviously a huge nerd generally and she knew that much when she let me borrow it; I mean a nerd for Lovelace and the Analytical Engine specifically.

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage
Image courtesy Sydney Padua and Pantheon

Author: Sydney Padua

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.05 stars

Language scaling: B1 / C1

Plot summary: In this lighthearted steampunk alternative history, Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage build a working model of the Analytical Engine and go on adventures.

Recommended audience: Steampunk fans; graphic novel fans; those interested in the history of modern computing.

In-depth thoughts: There are two language gradings above; it depends on whether you include all of the primary sources and quotes that Padua provides in the footnotes, in the appendices, and (occasionally) in the dialogue in the comic itself. Padua’s contemporary English will probably be more familar and easier for EFL readers to grasp than quotes taken from Victorian-era sources. As a native speaker who is a huge fan of thorough, clearly cited research, I appreciate all of those quotes and sources; EFL writers might find that trying to read through some of those sections is too difficult.

If any of the language gets too complicated, though, you can give yourself a break and enjoy Padua’s adorable art.

Book Review: Kris

It would be hypocritical of me to encourage my students to read novels in English, and then not do the same in Swedish. I actually think it’s a good exercise for EFL teachers, as well: choose a foreign language you can reasonably read and understand and make ongoing attempts to read in that language. It’s important to remember how frustrating a foreign language can be, at times, and help you empathize with your students and be a better teacher.

This is going to be a shorter review than usual, for what I hope are obvious reasons (i.e. novels in Swedish won’t really help anyone learn English). But I like to keep as complete a public record of my reading as possible, so I still want to make note of it here.

 

Author: Karin Boye

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.66 stars

Language scaling: N/A

Plot summary: Malin Forst is a seminary student in the period after the first World War. Romantic feelings for female classmate, Siv, paired with with the free-floating uncertainty in post-World War I Europe lead Malin to a crisis of faith and subsequent nervous breakdown, after which she has to reevaluate her life and reassess her own moral code.

Recommended audience: Fans of queer literature; fans of modernist literature.

In-depth thoughts: I was already familiar with Boye’s other novel, Kallocain, which I actually read in English when I was an exchange student at Stockholms universitet in 2007. I’m not sure if Kris is available in English, but Kallocain definitely is and I would recommend that for EFL students who enjoy science fiction. But Kris is much different; it’s much more modernist and experimental than the relatively straightforward and plot-driven Kallocain. Boye explores Malin Forst’s breakdown through inner monologues and dialogues, conversations among notable historical figures and personified abstract concepts, as well as straightforward narration. The novel is episodic, which is great when you’re reading in a foreign language and have trouble maintaining focus for long stretches. (I love Par Lagerkvist, but I also think he could use chapter breaks and now and then.)

Boye is primarily known as a poet, and that shows in the way she uses language and imagery throughout Kris. It only took me so long to finish Kris because I was reading three or four book simultaneously, on top of being busy. It’s a great option if you need something to read for SFI, SAS, or AKSVA.

Book Review: The Dispossessed

I must have been 13 or 14 when I first tried reading The Dispossessed, maybe a bit older, and it just couldn’t stick. I had this problem with Le Guin generally—A Wizard of Earthsea was on a semi-required reading list for school a few years before I tried to tackle The Dispossessed, but again I couldn’t seem to get into it. Since then I just wrote Le Guin off as one of the great and admirable giants of science fiction who just wasn’t for me.
Fast forward to 2017, and I’m getting ready to visit one of my best friends; my visit will coincide with the August meeting of his feminist science fiction book club. The book under discussion is Karen Memory, but their last book was The Dispossessed and my host let me know that they’ll probably be discussing that one too, because most people couldn’t make the last meeting and there was still marrow to be sucked from the bones. So to speak.
I picked up Karen Memory at SF Bokhandlen but decided to give The Dispossessed another go. It seems like I’m a better reader now than I was at age 14, because I finished this one in record time!

Author: Ursula K. Le Guin

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.18 stars

Language scaling: C1+

Plot summary: Two hundred years ago, a group of idealistic anarchists left the planet Urras to start a colony on the moon. Now, a physicist named Shevek is the first man from Anarres to travel to Urras, now fraught with competing nation states and competing political philosophies, to continue his research into Simultaneity.

Recommended audience: Science fiction fans; political theory junkies

Image courtesy Penguin Classics

In-depth thoughts: First of all, I’m proud of myself for finishing a book I abandoned years ago. My own book club tackled The Invisible Bridge for April? May? and despite picking at it for two months I just couldn’t get into it. I finally returned it to the library well past its due date, unfinished, acknowledging that not being able to finish this book was keeping me from others I might enjoy more.

Struggling with The Invisible Bridge slowed down my reading and I went from being 5 books ahead of my GoodReads goal to being a book behind. Madonna in a Fur Coat was the shot in the arm I needed to get back to reading again, and The Dispossessed was the self-esteem boost I needed after the first “did not finish” I’ve had in a long, long while.

While I can see why teenage me couldn’t get into The Dispossessed, adult me really liked it. I liked the little grammatical nuances of Pravic (like the total absence of possessive pronouns), I liked the world-building, I liked how Urras was a whole planet full of nations at cross-purposes instead of a single monoculture. (Planets in science fiction are almost always analogues for countries, and I hate that. Just look at how diverse and fractious and not-united Earth is!) I liked how neither Urras nor Anarres were all-good or all-bad, but both oppressive and less than ideal in their own way, though maybe that’s pessimism on Le Guin’s part.

Or maybe it’s just realism. #bleak

Armchair BEA, Day 2

Since I don’t have another book to talk about, I thought I’d continue with the blog prompts from this year’s Armchair BEA.

What makes or breaks a book? How do we rate the books, or determine if it is good literature or a good story? What do we want from an author event? How does diversity representation fit into all of this?

Is there any single thing that makes or breaks a book? Bad writing, I guess—by which I primarily mean the quality and readability of the prose. A multitude of sins can be covered by gorgeous language; likewise, the world’s most compelling plot or narrator can be irrevocably hampered by awkward, stilted, or just plain bad prose.

Then there comes the issue of story crafting, and how an author deals with things like plot, character, and setting, and I think all of those things end up being up to personal taste. The books I love best tend to be character-driven pieces where nothing much actually happens; the ones I put down are books that have bland, unappealing characters. Rabbit, Run and Revolutionary Road are great examples of this. And A Death in the Family, just for a title that doesn’t full of Rs.

The “we” in the following two questions is implicitly the book blogger community, and I’m as far removed from that community as someone who (sometimes) blogs about books can be. So I can really only speak for myself here, rather than speculate on patterns within the book blogosphere.

When it comes to rating books, I’m sticking with the GoodReads 5-star framework:

  • 1 star: Didn’t like it
  • 2: It was okay.
  • 3. I liked it.
  • 4. I really liked it.
  • 5. I loved it!

To that extent, even though I think “a good story” and “good literature” aren’t always the same thing; the best “a good story” can do with me is 4 stars. I reserve my stingy 5-star ratings for books that I feel qualify as “good literature.” (Or, in the realm of nonfiction, books that are spectacularly written and touch on something I think everyone should know.)

Every book starts out as a 2-star book, and then it moves up or down depending on how things go. My biggest struggle is between 4 and 5 stars. What is “good literature”? How is that any different from “a good story”? And there’s plenty of “good literature” that have received miserable ratings from me.

Genre and media also represent issues. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga, but at the same time I don’t think it’s necessarily a 5-star series, either. What would make it a 5-star series, though? Nothing I can really think of. And it feels a little petty to hold out on that last star just because of some ineffable “something” that’s missing (but that I can’t describe). I swing back and forth on giving that one 4 and 5 stars. (It’s currently sitting at 5, but I might go and change it after finishing this entry.)

I’m skipping over author events (most authors I like are either dead, noteworthy recluses, or both—”author events” aren’t really a thing for me) to go straight to diversity.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of the classics I hate or can’t bring myself to finish (and that end up getting those 2- and 1-star ratings on GoodReads) are ones by (dead) white guys. I have notable soft spots in my heart for dead white guys with outsized reputations (Henry David Thoreau and David Foster Wallace chief among them), and certainly a shift in diversity doesn’t guarantee that a book will become a flawless masterpiece for me—I still think Native Son trades on base stereotypes and a pretty awful treatment of women, white and Black alike—but it does give a writer an edge in as much as they are more likely to have something fresh or interesting to say.

No-No Boy is about the aftermath of the Japanese internment camps and World War II in Japanese-American communities, but it’s also about the universal struggle of coming to grips with your ambitions in the face of what your family and community want out of, and expect for, you. The context of No-No Boy really bring those struggles into a sharp focus, precisely because of the stressful balance between Japanese and American cultures. The Fifth Season enriches the fantasy genre by taking up the issues of subservience, marginalization, and exploitation (issues that still plague the United States today, often falling neatly along race and gender lines) instead of/within the usual story of “fight the evil monster and save the kingdom” that we’ve all read a thousand times. And so on.

There was another set of questions for Day 2, but I’ll tackle those another week. Even with skipping the question about author events, these were questions that generated a lot of food for thought! Let me know what you think in the comments, or on Twitter (@KobaEnglish).

Book Review: Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali

As the paucity of book reviews* here would suggest, I’ve been in a reading slump recently. As an avid reader, I always find it troubling when I go for weeks without finishing a proper novel. Madonna in a Fur Coat was exactly what I needed to break my losing streak.

I’m a member of an informal Internet book club that’s going on two years old. It’s done a really good job of balancing light fiction, classics, and nonfiction, so I have to say that our two founders (who started the club and who pick most of the books, though with input from everyone else) have excellent taste! Other books I’ve read (and enjoyed!) for this book club include  The Road to MeccaPassing, and The Price of Salt.

*Picture books notwithstanding.

Author: Sabahattin Ali

Translators: Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.5 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Plot summary: From the dust jacket flap on my edition:

A shy young man leaves his home in rural Turkey to earn a trade and discover life in 1920s Berlin. There, amid the city’s bustling streets, elegant museums, passionate politics and seedy cabarets, a chance meeting transforms his life for ever. Caught between his desire for freedom and his yearning to belong, he struggles to hold on to the new life he has found.

Recommended audience: Anyone interested in Turkish literature; anyone who likes a tragic love story.

Madonna in a Fur Coat, Sabahattin Ali
Image courtesy Penguin Clasics

In-depth thoughts: I am a sucker for character-driven stories that feature moody, introspective protagonists. I guess that even as an adult, I’m an angsty teenager at heart. That’s not to suggest that there’s anything callow or self-indulgent about Madonna in a Furcoat. Even if it leans heavily on romance tropes that might strike some readers as overdone or tedious, what makes Madonna in a Furcoat stand out isn’t the love story but the writing and the characters. It would have been a welcome palate cleanser after The French Lieutenant’s Woman, a novel with a similar plot but altogether different style and attitude towards its characters, particularly its love interest. I’ll leave off with a favorite quote:

Just as warm sunlight can, by passing through a lens, turn to fire, so too can love. It’s wrong to see it as something that swoops in from the outside. It’s because it arises from the feelings we carry inside us that it strikes with such violence, at the moment we least expect.

Book Review: No-No Boy

I have two big shout-outs/thanks in this post. First, for Adam over at Memento Mori. As soon as he mentioned No-No Boy in one of his videos, I realized that I had never read anything about the Japanese internment camps. I think we had a copy of Baseball Saved Us somewhere in the house, but I want to say it was my brother’s (baseball fan that he is) and not mine. I might have never even read it and just remember the cover.

The second shout-out and thanks go to my friend Henny (of Dirt Nap Podcast fame), who was kind enough send me a huge dump of ebooks from my Goodreads “to-read” shelf, including . . . No-No Boy!

Author: John Okada

Aside: the story of John Okada, the author, is kind of tragic. No-No Boy is his only novel. It was published in 1957 to a lukewarm reception at best, and so he more or less left the writing world for the rest of his short life. He died in the early 70s of a heart attack, and while he was working on another novel at the time, the documents are lost to us so it’s hard to tell if he just had notes, or if he had a completed draft, or if he had something almost completely finished. Only a couple of years after his untimely death, No-No Boy was sort of rediscovered and quickly attained the recognition and praise it rightly deserved.

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.73 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Plot summary: No-No Boy is the story of Ichiro Yamada, a no-no boy who comes back to his life in Seattle after his prison sentence. His mother is proud of him for being a no-no boy; she thinks Japan actually won the war, and that soon she and other loyal Japanese will get to go back. Others are, unsurprisingly, furious with Ichiro, white and Nisei alike. Eventually Ichiro runs into Kenji, a fellow Nisei and a veteran who lost his leg in the European theater and who is only getting more and more ill. Kenji seems to understand Ichiro, at least better than anyone else does, and the two spend a lot of time together as Ichiro tries to figure out his new place in the world.

Content warning: Okada writes about the racial tensions going in post-WWII America, so dialogue can include terms that have since fallen out of favor (or flat-out racial slurs).

Recommended audience: Those interested in post-WWII American history or teaching/studying it in school; those interested in Asian-American authors; those who enjoyed George Takei’s stage show Allegiance.

Cover of the new edition of John Okada's No-No Boy.
Image courtesy University of Washington Press

In-depth thoughts: The title No-No Boy refers to the loyalty questionnaire Nisei Americans (American-born Japanese) were required to answer, as a de facto test of patriotism/”Americanness.” The last two were real humdingers:

Question 27: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?

Question 28: Will you swear unqualified allegiances to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or other foreign government, power or organization?

Thousands of people answered “no” to both questions for a variety of reasons: misunderstanding the terminology, resentment at being asked to swear loyalty and serve in the armed forces of a nation that had ripped them out of their homes and sent them to detention centers, fears that they would be deported to Japan regardless and that a “yes” would come back to haunt them, etc. They became known as “no-nos” or “no-no boys” and served time in prison for their answers. Okada was not one of them, but the protagonist of his novel is.
There are a handful of books I review here that I really hope people will go out and read (if they haven’t already). Usually it’s because they’re really good, but this is one I think we should read because it’s important. Well, and it’s also really good and worth reading regardless—Okada takes the stream of consciousness style that really came to a head with the Beats and makes it his own. Here’s a quote from early on the in the novel, when Ichiro decides to pay a visit to the university where he was studying before the internment camps and then prison:

Not until the bus had traversed the business district and pointed itself toward the northeast did he realize that he was on the same bus which he used to take every morning as a university student. There had been such a time and he vividly brought to mind, with a hunger that he would never lose, the weighty volumes which he had carried against his side that the cloth of his pants became thin and frayed, and the sandwiches in a brown grocery bag and the slide rule with the leather case which hung from his belt like the sword of learning which it was, for he was going to become an engineer and it had not mattered that Japan would soon be at war with America. To be a student in America was a wonderful thing. To be a student in America studying engineering was a beautiful life. That, in itself, was worth defending from anyone and anything which dared to threaten it with change or extinction. Where was the slide rule, he asked himself, where was the shaft of exacting and thrilling discovery when I need it most? If only I had pictured it and felt it in my hands, I might well have made the right decision, for the seeing and feeling of it would have pushed out the bitterness with the greenness of the grass on the campus and the hardness of the chairs in the airy classrooms with the blackboards stretched wall-to-wall behind the professor, and the books and the sandwiches and the bus rides coming and going. I would have gone into the army for that and I would have shot and killed, and shot and killed some more, because I was happy when I was a student with the finely calculated white sword at my side. But I did not remember or I could not remember because, when one is born in America and learning to love it more and more every day without thinking it, it is not an easy thing to discover suddenly that being American is a terribly incomplete thing if one’s face is not white and one’s parents are Japanese of the country Japan which attacked America. It is like being pulled asunder by a whirling tornado and one does not think of a slide rule though that may be the thing which will save one.

Where (for me) novels like On the Road became self-indulgent and navel-gazeyNo-No Boy balances these deep dives with action and spreads them among multiple characters. We get to know Ichiro quite well, but we also spend time in the heads of the people around him, who have different perspectives, experiences, and opinions.

I hope that whet your appetite! If you’ve read No-No Boy, I’m curious about what you think. If not (or even if you have, I guess), what are some other under-read and underappreciated classics that you think should be more famous? Why?

Friday 5: Over/Under

What’s a film you consider overrated, and what’s a related or similar film you consider underrated?

This is actually a conversation I like to have with people. It’s interesting to see when people’s opinions diverge from the generally given consensus. It’s been a long time since I’ve had this conversation with people, though.

The first answer that comes up for me is the Sam Raimi Spider-man movie. There was a lot of buzz about it when it first came out, so I went in with high hopes. Something just never clicked with me, though, and I left the theater feeling disappointed.

If I had to go with an underrated superhero movie (since we’re in the genre), that’s a little tougher. So I’ll cheat and branch out a little bit, and say that some of my favorite movies are maybe in danger of becoming underrated or unknown. I’m a huge fan of The Marx Brothers, Vincent Price, and Gene Kelly (also major props to Donald O’Connor, an equally talented dancer who had the rotten luck of not being as handsome as Gene Kelly). It’s good to appreciate the old as well as the new.

I will say this, though: of old things, I think The Three Stooges are fantastically overrated.

What’s overrated about the area in which you live, and what’s underrated about it?

I’m not sure what’s overrated about Stockholm? But I don’t think a lot of people realize how many (free!) museums there are in Stockholm, as well as festivals, concerts, and events. It has all of the culture of New York City, but with a fraction of the population.

Whose talent or skill is overrated, and whose is underrated?

This is a tricky one. I think I’ll say that the concept of “talent” itself is overrated, as it leads to so much self-defeat. It takes a lot of work to get good at something, and if you just rely on focusing on what’s easy the first time around, “you’re gonna have a bad time.”

I think people underrate the value of a good copyeditor, but I might just be biased. 😉

What item in the supermarket is overrated, and what’s underrated?

I will never be able to enjoy bacon the same way the rest of the world does. I can choke it down if I accidentally end up with some in a meal somewhere, but I’m still quite likely to pick it out. Nor have I ever developed a taste for coffee or fizzy drinks.

As for underrated, for years I labored under the false notion that cottage cheese was bland, boring diet food. I don’t know if that’s still the reputation it has today, but I’d like the record to show that cottage cheese is delicious.

What’s utterly terrific except for one or two things?

A few years ago, I read Jennifer Ouellette’s The Calculus Diaries. As a humanities student trying to (belatedly) make peace with STEM, it was right up my alley, and overall I really enjoyed it. Except! In one of the chapters, she repeats the apocryphal story about ancient Rome and post-festivity vomitoriums. Ancient Rome had vomitoriums, but they weren’t special rooms for vomiting after a particularly large meal; they were (and are) just exits in large public buildings like stadiums or amphitheaters.

Book Review: Bad Bye, Good Bye

I am long overdue for a review of this sweet little picture book! Here are my thoughts on Bad Bye, Good Bye.

Author: Deborah Underwood

Illustrator: Jonathan Bean

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average Goodreads rating: 3.91 stars

Language scaling: A1+

Recommended audience: Children struggling with a move to a new home.

Cover of "Bad Bye, Good Bye" by Deborah underwood and Jonathan Bean
Image courtesy HMH Books For Young Readers

In-depth thoughts: The simple language Underwood uses makes Bad Bye, Good Bye an excellent choice for new learners and new readers, regardless of first language. The fact that Underwood s able to use such simple language to encapsulate all the stress of moving to a new home is a testament to her storytelling abilities. This would be a great addition to any classroom, as every teacher will encounter a “new kid” or two who still has anxieties and stress over their recent move (or a departing student who’s nervous about an upcoming relocation).

Underwood has a number of picture books under her belt in addition to Bad Bye, Good Bye. She’s also the author of The Quiet Book and its companion The Loud Book!, as well as the Here Comes Cat series, Part-Time Princess, and Interstellar Cinderella (perhaps better suited for slightly more advanced readers).

Bean’s art is also charming, with a blocky, collage-y feel that reminds me a lot of Eric Carle and Ezra Jack Keats. You can see more of Bean’s work on his website, which includes illustrations for the EmmyRunaway, and Mokie & Bik series. He is also both author and illustrator for This is My Home, This is My School, a picture book introduction to homeschooling.

Overall, I think Bad Bye, Good Bye is a great addition to any teacher’s library. Lots of kid lit ink has been spilled on the topic of moving, but sometimes the simplest story is the most effective one.

Book Review: Otto and the Flying Twins

I picked up Otto and the Flying Twins at a library sale some months ago, and in an odd coincidence (given the book’s subject matter) I had it in my bag while I was stranded in town on Friday.

Author: Charlotte Haptie

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.62 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Recommended audience: Fantasy aficionados

In-depth thoughts: Teachers wishing to address prejudice and The Holocaust could do worse than to include Otto and the Flying Twins in the curriculum.

On the surface, it’s a whimsical fantasy story about an evil queen (though in an updated form of an evil councilwoman) trying to eradicate magic from the city, and the young boy and his magical friends who stop her. But dig a little deeper and it’s hard to deny the parallels with pre-World War II Germany: the “magicos” are declared inferior and a threat to the city’s well-being, relegated to ghettos or sent to work in moonstone mines.

It’s hard to strike a balance between light whimsy and serious hardship, and my only complaint with the book is that Haptie never finds a good balance; despite some serious moments, the mood tilts very heavily towards “fun fantasy.” Rather than address the very real problem that hatred and prejudice is built up over lifetimes and generations, Haptie compresses what was probably two or three centuries of anti-Semitic sentiment that contributed to the Holocaust into just a couple of years and the flimsiest of pretenses—essentially, one individual’s personal grudge. (And greed, but arguably it’s something like greed that drives people to blame The Other for economic woes, so that’s not so unrealistic after all.)

But it’s a fantasy book for middle grade readers, not Holocaust scholarship. I realize this is a very high-level nitpick, and I’m willing to overlook it because everything else about the book was delightful.

Anyone familiar with YA and middle grade tropes will see some of them refreshingly subverted or avoided. The titular Otto isn’t The Chosen One; that’s actually his dad, Albert who does much of the heroics (if off-screen). Otto is, of course, gifted with what everyone considers The Best Power Ever, but it’s well-balanced: neither over-powerful enough to render his friends useless, nor so under-powered that we wonder why anyone values such a power in the first place.

When his mom finds out that Albert hid his Karmidee heritage from her, she lashes out at him and spends most of the rest of the book angry at him, for ugly reasons (internalized prejudice) as well as respectable ones (building a life with someone only to find out they’ve lied about a very important part of themselves is bound to be a shocker). It’s a response that feels very human, especially because she balances it with protecting her family. There’s nothing worse than conflict driven by one or more parties being willfully stupid. Instead, Dolores does what she can to protect her undeniably magical family and keeps her frustration with Albert separate.

Otto’s obligatory female sidekick, Mab, isn’t presented as a love interest, which is refreshing—but this might be due to the target audience (the story feels and reads much more middle grade than YA). She’s not entirely useful, it feels like, except to explain things to Otto (and by extension, the reader).

The language in this book is something to behold. There is an air of genuine whimsy in this that I found lacking in Harry Potter. (Well, either lacking or totally oppressive.) Normal Police, widges, dammerung, an Impossible List . . . Haptie takes well-worn fantasy tropes and adds her own unique spin to them.

Otto and the Flying Twins is the first in a trilogy of books. I get the impression that they were meant to be a longer series, but seeing as the last one was published in 2006, I think it’s safe to say that the series stops at three books. If you can find it, get it. Otto and the Flying Twins is a great example of middle grade fantasy at its finest. More than that, it’s a great jumping-off point to discuss prejudice and resistance—topics that are going to be quite relevant for the next few years.

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.