Book Review: Voices from Chernobyl

Voices from Chernobyl written by Svetlana Alexievich and translated into English by Keith Gessen

On April 26, 1986, reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station exploded and caught fire, setting into motion one of the worst nuclear disasters in human history.  It’s been decades since the events of Chernobyl and the details of what happened that day are documented for all to read in history books.  However, what is harder to find is information on a more personal level about those who experienced the event first hand, and those who are still suffering from it.  That is what Voices from Chernobyl is about.

Voices from Chernobyl, written by Svetlana Alexievech and translated into English by Keith Gessen, is a compilation of monologues compiled from interviews conducted by Alexievech herself.  These monologues touch on an element missing from most literature written about Chernobyl.  That element is the human element.  It accounts everything from the government’s and people’s reactions to what was left behind in the now contaminated land around Chernobyl.

The book covers personal stories told by those who were actually there.  It is broken into three sections titled The Land of the Dead, The Land of the Living, and Amazed by Sadness.  Much of it can be hard to read at times, such as Lyudmilla Ignatenko watching her husband die from radiation sickness, but it is the horrendously sad stories that often need to be recorded the most.

And for each sad story accounted by an individual there is another that will help restore your faith in your fellow human beings.  For instance, Vasily Nesterenko, former director of the Institute for Nuclear Energy at the Belarussian Academy of Sciences, fought tooth and nail to try to convince his government to help protect its population from the radiation.  He didn’t stop until they dragged him to court and he had a heart attack.

What’s even more shocking is that for each of these stories of extreme hardship, there are many more about normalcy and how life continued to carry on in the face of such a huge disaster.  It is these numerous accounts that make you truly understand that the people who were involved with Chernobyl were just ordinary people, like you and me.  When reading history books, it’s hard to remember that.

You see, when historical events happen and are recorded into the history books to be taught to our children, something tends to be left behind.  Everything becomes factual, sterile.  Feelings, emotions, and personal experience falls to the wayside.  What’s so very sad is that these pieces of history, the personal human histories, are just as important as the cold hard facts.  What people went through on a personal level, as well as on a societal level, needs to be preserved.

And that’s what Voices from Chernobyl is about, the personal histories of Chernobyl.

Kim Harrison Books Are Like Self Torture Devices That Leave You Wanting More

Pale Demon by Kim Harrison

I mentioned a while back in my first blog post on this site that I was stuck on the book Pale Demon by Kim Harrison.  Whatever it was about that book, I just couldn’t bring myself to read it.  It was just so slow with nothing happening.  I found myself wishing I was done with it so I could move on.  Even going as far as to swear I would never read another Kim Harrison book ever again.

This past week, I was finally able to sit down and finish the darn thing.  To my surprise, the last quarter of the book totally and completely hooked me and never let go.  I even rescinded my threat to never read any more of her books.  I wanted more!

This made me realize something.  I don’t hate Kim Harrison books.  I hate the middle of Kim Harrison books, and Pale Demon showed this in a starker contrast than any of her other books that I have read.

Kim Harrison books always follow the same pattern.  They begin with a premise and drop a few tidbits to really intrigue you.  You get sucked in.  From there, the story flows into the middle section, where very little happens.  Plot points are few and far between.  Characters move around and interact, but these interactions usually have little consequence to anything grander than the immediate future.  The middle section is just there to shuffle all the characters into their places to prepare them for the conclusion.  It’s there to torture you, and just when you think you can’t take it anymore, the conclusion happens.  And the conclusion is always one major universe altering plot point after another, all in very quick succession.  It’s one big exciting plot explosion of enjoyment that’s there to leave you wanting more.

Pale Demon shows this very well.  It starts where the last book left off, reintroducing the fact the main character has to get to the west coast in time to meet a deadline.  Unexpectedly, she has to bring another unlikely character with her and protect them, and herself, along the way.  From this unexpected twist, we move into the middle section of the book where they drive across the country for two-thirds of the book.  During this drive across the country I can only think of one major plot point that happens (which I won’t go into detail about to avoid spoilers).  All they do is drive!  Once they make it to the west coast plot points happen in quick succession, forever changing the main character’s life in a multitude of ways.  By the end of it all, I was ready and willing to read the next book.

Essentially, for two-thirds of the book, nothing of interest happened.  However, the conclusion to the book was so good (with a cliffhanger nonetheless) that I am seriously thinking of reading the next book in the series soon.  I can’t help but think that this pattern equates to self inflicted torture.  Self inflicted torture that I keep coming back for.

Smart Phones Make Me Read Less

One great habit I’ve picked up over the years, thanks to my family, is that I love stories of any format, be it television, movies, plays, video games, whatever.  If it’s a good story I enjoy it.  I absorb stories at an incredible rate.  At any one time there’s always a few shows I’m watching, and when I finish one, I quickly find another.  However, one thing I haven’t been doing recently is reading book.

Books are a great thing which everyone should read and continue reading throughout their lives.  They inspire the imagination and bring people into another world.  If I can find a fantastic series, such as The Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks or Codex Alera by Jim Butcher, hours of my time can fly by as I blaze through book after book and get lost in their fantasy.  If I’m out of guaranteed good reads I usually revert back to semi amusing series like Eve Dallas by Nora Roberts, Anite Blake by Laurell K. Hamilton, or Rachel Morgan by Kim Harrison.

Except recently.

It all started around the time I got my Droid Incredible.  With my new smart phone I was always connected, which meant I could always read things on Twitter to keep up on events, or use Wikipedia to look up things I’m wondering about.  Even worse it has games, and being a gamer I play them all the time when I have nothing better to do.  Like many smart phone users I also do these things while in bed, and bed was where I read the most.

This wasn’t a problem a few months ago when I was reading Black Prism by Brent Weeks.  That book is amazing and kept me enthralled through the whole thing, but then I finished it and didn’t have anything else to read.  I moved on to a book in a backup series, Pale Demon by Kim Harrison, but fizzled out on that about halfway through.  That’s when I started to realize something.

I would rather mess around on my phone than read a somewhat amusing book.

It’s been about two month, I’m sad to say, since I’ve read a book.  I’m stuck on Pale Demon and feel like I need to finish it before I move on.  Of course I can never get myself to read it. I guess I just need to grit my teeth, continue reading, and hope I find another amazing series soon.