Off the Shelf: Midnight in Chernobyl

I read so many books each year that it’s sometimes hard to even remember what I’ve read. It’s only May and I’ve read over 15 new books, re-read four of those that I loved so much that I wanted to wallow in them, started another ten that I’m working through when I travel – and that doesn’t include my bedside table reading, which is mostly re-reading murder mysteries or fantasy novels from my extensive collection.

I am generally not susceptible to book reviews. I am an eclectic reader and I love discovering new books. Sometimes I stumble across them in passing, in another book or an article. Sometimes a friend recommends them. Sometimes I hear an author speak on TV or I see that a favorite author has a new book out (you’re on my list, Jared Diamond!).

Often, I will be in a bookstore and see a display with a book I loved and next to it I’ll find something else that attracts me. This is what bookstores do that you’ll never get online.  I worked in the business for over 30 years and I’ve seen that this is what booksellers do and no one has ever figured out how to do it well online. (And the new physical locations of the online juggernaut don’t do this well – they are just giving you what you would get online.) If Barnes & Noble closes its doors, a lot of these incidental discoveries will end because the smaller, local bookstores can’t support the volume required for publishers to continue having a profitable market for authors in these tiers, these books will disappear, and the reading public will suffer. Think about that the next time you save a few cents by shopping online.

Where was I? Oh yes, I don’t generally read books because someone told me to. A few times at work, I was told to read and recommend a book that the company had decided to make bestsellers and I always quietly gave my copy away unread to someone else – who often loved them and created the word of mouth buzz that I was supposed to create.

Ok, so I somehow stumbled across a review of two books on Chernobyl, and here’s what the reviewer said that persuaded me (I paraphrase): The first book was okay. But be careful if you start reading Midnight at Chernobyl on the subway because you’ll miss your stop.

That reviewer was right.

Wow, what a great book. I had never really been interested in this topic – what more could you say, Russia let a nuclear plant go nuclear and didn’t tell anyone? Yawn. I was alive when this happened and I remember the fear that captured the news. Would this cloud come to the U.S., what would happen to us, what had really happened there, why didn’t they tell anyone? Then the next hot news story came along and it faded into the background. Since then, I’ve seen it pop up in horror films, where stupid American tourists follow a local guide on an adventure and get eaten by zombie dogs and mutant cannibals. So I was not really curious.

I didn’t really believe the reviewer that this book would hold my attention but something about the review stayed with me. So I downloaded it to my nook app and started reading on the train home. And the reviewer was right. I usually use my app only when traveling, preferring to read paper at home, but this time I kept reading when I got home, stayed up all night, put it down reluctantly to go to work, read at lunch, and kept reading after work.

The author took a topic I had never been interested in, created a great story, with compelling characters, and a page-turning plot. Usually when I read, I choose a genre or a story that has a strong sense of place, of world-building, and I don’t care much about characters or plot. So for me to praise characters and plot is a big deal.

What I loved were the details. Here’s an example that takes place midway through the book. The previous section felt dark and brooding; this section actually feels lighter – as if the sun had just risen on a beautiful clear day. Over in Sweden, a worker at a nuclear plant happened to set off the radioactivity alarm when he reported to work one morning. Odd, the alarm is supposed to go off when workers are exiting the plant — to alert the plant that there’s a leak somewhere within the plant so they can fix it – the alarm doesn’t go off when you’re entering, must be broken. The worker wastes some time with the security team, trying to figure out what’s wrong with the alarm, then they all shrug and he goes on with his day. Later, passing through the lobby, he notices a long line of people entering the plant, all setting off the alarm. Hm. He walks up to a guy in line, and asks if he can borrow his shoe, tests it in his lab, and discovers unbelievably high levels of radiation. Full scale panic in the plant – they must be leaking externally! But after warning the town, reporting to the national authorities, and conducting extensive safety checks — all things Russia did not do when Chernobyl melted down — they are even more confused. Because there’s nothing leaking from their plant. So where’s all this radiation coming from? Then someone gets the idea of checking the weather patterns… oh, look, it’s coming from Russia (cue dramatic music).

I have not done the author justice in summarizing this story here – he tells it much better than I do – but I hope I have given you an idea of what a great storyteller he is.

I learned way more about the history of nuclear energy, the Soviet Union, and radiation poisoning than I ever thought I’d want to. And I loved almost every minute of it (a few of the more scientific pages were a little much for me, although I know my husband would love them).

Midnight at Chernobyl is going on my list of non-fiction books that I read over and over again like The Coming Plague, Guns Germs and Steel, 1491, Dirt, and Popular Crime. And now, having written this review, I feel like I will always spell Chernobyl correctly from now on.

Score one for the team!

p.s. Starting watching the HBO-GO Chernobyl mini-series last night. This book is much better than that.

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