Tuesday intro: The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

Once again I’m linking up again with Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea who hosts a post every Tuesday for people to share the first chapter / paragraph of the book they are reading, or thinking of reading soon. In really enjoy these tasters when I read them on other blogs so wanted to join in.

This week I’m reading non-fiction, which I never read enough of, in the form of The Radium Girls by Kate Moore.  This is what it’s about…

31409135The incredible true story of the young women exposed to the “wonder” substance of radium and their brave struggle for justice…

As World War I raged across the globe, hundreds of young women toiled away at the radium-dial factories, where they painted clock faces with a mysterious new substance called radium. Assured by their bosses that the luminous material was safe, the women themselves shone brightly in the dark, covered from head to toe with the glowing dust. With such a coveted job, these “shining girls” were considered the luckiest alive—until they began to fall mysteriously ill. As the fatal poison of the radium took hold, they found themselves embroiled in one of America’s biggest scandals and a groundbreaking battle for workers’ rights.

And here’s how it starts…

Prologue

Paris, France
1901

The scientist had forgotten all about the radium.  It was tucked discreetly within the folds of his waistcoat pocket, enclosed in a slim glass tube in such a small quantity that he could not feel its weight.  He had a lecture to deliver in London, England, and the vial of radium stayed within that shadowy pocket for the entirety of his journey across the sea.

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

Emma

Where My Heart Used To Beat by Sebastian Faulks

30738612On a small island off the south coast of France, Robert Hendricks – an English doctor who has seen the best and the worst the twentieth century had to offer – is forced to confront the events that made up his life. His host is Alexander Pereira, a man who seems to know more about his guest than Hendricks himself does.

The search for the past takes us through the war in Italy in 1944, a passionate love that seems to hold out hope, the great days of idealistic work in the 1960s and finally – unforgettably – back into the trenches of the Western Front.

I have been a huge fan of Sebastian Faulks since reading Human Remains over ten years ago.  After I had, I went on a bit of a Faulks binge and read everything he’d written up to the that point and have read every book he’s written since.  Some I’ve loved, some I’ve not.  None have been boring and one, Engleby, is one of my favourite books of all time. Why, then, it’s taken me over a year since it’s release to read Where My Heart Used to Beat is beyond me – other than there are too many books on my shelves and my kindle for me to keep up.

The book opens in the early 80’s with Dr. Robert Hendricks’ leaving New York in a hurry.  Why he’s in a hurry is never completely clear, though as you start to get to know him you wonder if he isn’t always slightly on the run – from his past and from his life in general.  Back in London, he decides to respond to a letter that he received weeks before from a Dr. Pereira, inviting him to visit the doctor at his home on a small island off the coast of France.  Faulks likes France and a lot of his books are set there (even if just in part); the way he writes about it, with affection, is so clear I felt that I was there with him.

He is drawn to the Pereira because he says he knew Hendricks’ father during WWI and has things to tell him.   Hendricks never knew his father, he died when he was two, and has mixed feelings about knowing more but feels compelled to accept the offer of a visit.  In fact, he has mixed feelings about everything to do with his life.  He seems incapable of forming lasting relationships, keeping himself at a distance from those who try to become friends and pulling away from romantic relationships as soon as they become serious.

Pereira instinctively sees this in Hendricks and, over the course of several weeks and several visits, slowly draws out the story of his past, what in it has led him to become the man he is in the present.  It’s a past that starts with his dead father before focusing on his experiences in WWII and his lost love, Louisa, a woman he has never been able to forget.  Weaving between past, present, his time in France and his time in England, slowly the story that emerges is of a man who is in pain, and always has been.

The irony in it is that he is a psychiatrist, he should have been able to see and understand his behaviours, yet it takes a stranger to bring him out of himself and help him try and maybe find some peace during the last years of his life (Hendrick is 64 in the present).  I found this side of it very sad and the story overall very touching.  Faulks has an amazing ability to paint a picture of what a person is thinking and feeling without beating you over the head with it.  I felt like I was discovering the truth at the same time as Hendricks.

The story itself focuses on themes that are familiar to a lot of Faulks’ writing.  His books look at love, loss, the war and also mental illness.  Faulks’ description of the battlefield is unflinching and unflattering at times.  The men he writes about were heros but the war itself was not a heroic time.  How men and women lived, how they behaved, in order to survive is shown here in all its glory and tragedy.  His description of how mental illness was seen over a period of around 80 years was also fascinating, especially as I work in the mental health field.  There is tragedy in this too, in how people were treated – especially things like PTSD – and how they were judged.

In fact, tragic could sum this book up in many ways – I felt a lot of sadness whilst reading it, as Hendricks laid himself bare and I came to understand just how he had never truly lived despite having an interesting life and successful career.  Don’t get me wrong, there are moments of joy in his memories and light at the end of the tunnel as he comes to terms with his past, but this is not a happy book.  Because of that, it won’t be for everyone I’m sure.  I know other reviews I have read have said as much.  For me, though, it was a wonderfully written window into a damaged soul and I really liked it a lot.

Enjoy!

Emma

 

liked-it-a-lot

Source: Library
Publisher: Vintage Digital
Publication Date: 30th June, 2016 (first published 10th September, 2015)
Pages: 337
Format: ebook
Genre: Literary fiction
Find on: Amazon UK / Amazon US / Goodreads

 

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

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This is what I knew about the Lusitania before I read Dead Wake:

1. It was sunk by a German submarine on 7th May, 1915

2. There were no survivors

3. The sinking led to America joining World War I

Rather, this is what I thought I knew because it turns out that, other than the date, I didn’t know anything at all.  There were survivors (although not many – 764 out of nearly 2,000 passengers and crew) and America didn’t join the war for another two years.  I am always amazed by how little I know about what I think I know!

After reading Dead Wake, I obviously know a lot more – more than I ever thought I would about the world of luxury ocean liners definitely – and I do feel just a little bit wiser as a result.  The facts and figures, though, were the least important or interesting part of the book for me.  It was the people, whose stories I got to hear thanks to detailed records, diaries, journal and letters that have been preserved (including the log of the U-boat captain responsible for sinking the Lusitania).

By using these, Erik Larson does a brilliant job of turning a 100 year old tragedy into something that feels very real.  I felt connected to the people he described and was genuinely affected when I realised that some of the people I was reading about, who I thought were telling their stories after the fact, hadn’t made it and their words had come from their letters, diaries and the memories of others.

The records showed a level of naivety (or innocence?) that amazed me.  The passengers just didn’t think they were at risk, despite a German warning published in newspapers that the Lusitania was fair game, and Cunard was convinced the ship was too fast and too big to sink.  In this age of heightened security it is hard to imagine but I have to remember this is a different time, one where the rules of war were changing but no one quite understood how much.

Erik Larson does a good job of setting the scene for the world as it was and creating a sense of place and time.  My only complaint here would be that, given the US didn’t enter the war in 1915, he spent a little too much time on Woodrow Wilson’s personal life.  For me, these are the only bit that dragged and I found my eyes skimming these sections.

Otherwise though, I found the book absorbing.  It was well written with enough detail to fill in the many gaps in my knowledge without feeling dry.  The personal aspect I mentioned earlier really helped with this but so did the language, which wasn’t overly technical.  There was also a nice mix of pace, with short chapters here and there – maybe a letter or a telegraph – to break things up.

The only other thing I would have liked is some pictures but his was an e-book and a review copy so I am not sure if you’d get those in the paper version.  It would have helped me (and stopped me reverting to google).  This though is minor and wouldn’t stop me recommending it – liked it a lot!

Emma

Note: this is a review copy but all thoughts, feelings, and comments are my own.