I have read and listened to some amazing non-fiction in the last couple of weeks, three books by turns heart-breaking and scathing and hilarious, books with strong voices.
Voices from Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievitch
I put this on hold at the library shortly after Alexievitch won the 2015 Nobel Prize, and a lot of other people had already had the same idea. It was worth waiting for.
Alexievitch’s work is oral history, essentially a collage of voices of people she interviews with no framing from her beyond a note of the person’s name and role (scientist, party official, mother, teacher) at the end. Her art comes in selecting and arranging these voices, and, I assume, in the unheard questions which elicit them. In an afterword, she talks about how emotions are as real as facts, and her subjects often speak with great honesty about their feelings: the pain of losing loved ones, their fear of the future, their despair, their sense of betrayal by the government and disillusionment, but also their pride in being Soviet and in serving their nation. Here’s one example, from an environmental inspector on her role in preventing panic by concealing the truth about the accident’s consequences:
Everyone found a justification for themselves, an explanation. I experimented on myself. And basically I found out that the frightening things in life happen quietly and naturally.
While I was reading the book I looked up online images of Chernobyl and the ghost city of Pripyat and of people who live in the exclusion zone. These words and images will haunt me for a long time.
One of the most fascinating parts was the way the accident both did and did not change people’s feelings about the Party and about being Soviet. Many people who came to live in the exclusion zone are Russian refugees from former Soviet states that collapsed into violence. The invisible threat of radiation means little to them after war–and in any case, they have nowhere else to go. I’m curious now about Alexievich’s latest book, Secondhand Time, which is about post-Soviet Russia.
Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren, read by the author
This memoir of a life in science has been getting raves, and deservedly so. My review could be “what she said.” But OK, here is some of what I loved about it. I loved Jahren’s beautiful, vivid writing about plants–sections about plant life frame the sections about her own life. To some extent this is metaphoric: we hear about fruits and seeds before we hear about her professional success and motherhood, for instance. But it’s much more than that. These passages give clear, precise scientific explanations, they are filled with wonder at the natural world, and they also made me feel that plants are as fully alive as I am, that they too are engaged in the struggle to survive.
I loved Jahren’s depiction of her eccentric bond with her friend, lab manager, and chosen family member, Bill, a relationship that’s central to her adult life but not romantic or sexual. I loved her description of childbirth, which like her writing about plants combines wonder, devotion, and scientific precision. Her writing about her bipolar disorder is honest and moving. I understand depression–although I’m grateful I’ve never felt it so profoundly–but she gave me a sense of what mania feels like. I love it because she tells us about the lengths to which she goes in her devotion to her work, and she doesn’t apologize for that devotion because she’s a woman. “Honest” is perhaps the best word to describe this beautiful book.
I loved listening to the author read it, both because you could hear the laughter or tears close to the surface of her voice sometimes, and because she pronounced “root” in a way I haven’t heard since I left the Midwest (like foot, not shoot).
The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson, read by the author
In some ways, The Argonauts was a great follow-up to Lab Girl. It, too, blends memoir with other forms–it won the National Book Critics Circle award for criticism. It, too, is “about” work and marriage and motherhood, and vividly depicts childbirth (oh, how vividly–talk about honest). It’s also about gender and identity and queerness and transformation and art and I don’t even know what else. Olivia Laing’s review gives a better sense of it than I can:
It is, after all, about love and its fruits: both the falling in love and the maintaining of affection, devotion, tenderness. It is about love and marriage, motherhood, pregnancy, birth and family-making, and because it is a book by Maggie Nelson, it turns every one of these concepts on its head.
I enjoyed listening to it, letting Nelson’s voice wash over me, but it’s not an ideal book for listening, both because Nelson’s ideas and quotations from theorists are too complex to absorb easily that way (for me, at least), and because it’s written in short sections, which, unmarked in the audio version, could be confusing and disjointed. Maybe that disorientation is deliberate and would be true in print as well, but at least I’d have a visual marker of the change in direction. I plan to get my hands on a print copy and read it again.