Thursday, February 18, 2016

What Did the Book Club Think of "Voices from Chernobyl"? I Think They Liked It - I Was Stranded at an Airport at the Time.

So there's nothing like writing up a book club discussion when you didn't attend. It wasn't my intention to miss our discussion for Voice from Chernobyl; The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. I'd made plans like this before, coming home from a trip in the early afternoon and going to Boswell for a meeting in the evening. And I knew that one day I would do this and my plane would be delayed five hours, and our number finally came up.

The book in question was the most popular book in English by the recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Svetlana Alexievich. In fact, I only knew of one other book that had come out in the United States, Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War, and only Voices from Chernobyl was currently available when the prize was announced. It came out from the uber-independent Dalkey Archive Press, with rights sold to Picador. Somewhere in there it won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

There was much cheering from some circles when Alexievich won the Nobel, as a writer best known for nonfiction had not been awarded the prize in many years. Some call her a journalist but Alexievich doesn't use that term. All her books are in the form of oral histories, and unlike some oral historians, she really likes to let the voices stand alone.

That said, her subjects give a vivid picture of the Chernobyl disaster, not just the horrors of the event itself, but the repercussions, the cover ups, the lies soldiers were told when they were sent in to clean up. She reveals that at the same time officials were downplaying the situation, they were taking iodine pills and evacuating their children. And she also talks to the people who willingly repatriated the territory - they had nowhere else to go.

There's so much in the news that I was reminded of when I read Alexievich's Chernobyl stories, not
just the failed disaster relief programs around the world, but also the Flint water crisis right here in the United States. And it's also not a bad book to bring up when you're discussing nuclear energy. If someone says that it couldn't happen here one can look at America's infrastructure problems and beg to differ.

Here's a note on the translator, Keith Gessen. He is the author of one novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, which I almost read, but didn't, and is the editor of N+1, an influential journal that has also led to several book anthologies. We've done pretty well with City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis.

I can't say I loved Voices from Chernobyl - it can be a little repetitive and unstructured and a lot of depressing. But I'm so glad I read it and I'm excited to see other book clubs choosing it as well.

Regarding the meeting itself, I knew were were in good hands. Joyce, one of our regular attendees, had taught a class on Chernobyl. I asked around and the consensus seemed to be...that it was a good evening. Here's what Callista wrote to me afterwards:

"It was certainly a harrowing read at times and raises multiple issues about safety and governments and what is known and not given out as information to ordinary citizens, both in terms of physical disasters and how societies are managed.

"I also thought about the role of the whistle blowers and how they are then treated by governments and society aka the media."

Up next we're discussing Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption on Monday, March 7, 7 pm. The book was awarded the Andrew Carnegie medal for nonfiction and Dayton Peace Prize, also for nonfiction. Stevenson is in Milwaukee on March 9 at MATC. Note that tickets are still available to this event.

On Monday, April 4, 7 pm, we'll be discussing A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman's breakout novel. Our event with Backman is Saturday, May 14, 2 pm. We are very excited about this one!

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