Monday, October 18, 2021

"The Radium Girls" by Kate Moore

I've been meaning to read "The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women" by Kate Moore for quite some time now. Thankfully, so did my friend who organizes our "Clever Name" book club:  she made it our October selection, which gave me the nudge to finally pick it up and read it on my trip west to visit my parents last week. I started the book on the flight there, and finished it on the flight back home.  ;)  We'll be discussing it (as well as September's book, "The Midnight Library" by Matt Haig -- which I read late last year and reviewed here) at a Zoom meeting in early November. 

When Pierre and Marie Curie discovered radium in 1898, it was regarded as a miracle substance. During the First World War, radium was mixed into paint to create luminous dials for airplane instruments, clocks and watches. Hundreds of women -- mostly teenaged girls -- were hired for highly coveted, well-paid jobs as dial painters for companies in Orange, New Jersey; Waterbury, Connecticut; and Ottawa, Illinois (NOT Ottawa, Ontario, the capital of Canada! lol -- we drove by there on a road trip to Iowa via Michigan and northern Illinois a few years ago and were quite amused to see the signs pointing the way to "Ottawa."). The women were taught to put their paintbrushes in their mouths to hone them to a fine point, dip them in the radium-laced paint, paint -- and then repeat the process, over and over and over again. At night, their clothing, skin and hair would glow from the accumulated radium dust. The girls would even paint glow-in-the-dark designs on their skin and teeth to entertain each other. 

And then, one by one, they started getting sick. And one by one, they began dying -- prolonged, horrible, painful deaths. 

This is a horror story of sorts, made all the more horrific because it really happened. What makes it even more horrific is the companies' response -- or rather, the lack thereof -- to their workers' plight. They lied to the girls about the hazards of working with radium -- even after the hazards became well known and documented -- they refused to disclose the results of medical tests they required the workers to undergo, and they did everything they could to cover up what was going on -- to avoid acknowledging responsibility or compensating their former employees for their pain and suffering, or even to improve conditions for current employees. It took many long years for "the Radium Girls" to receive a modicum of justice (and some did not live to see or benefit from it), but their courage and tenacity led to changes in workplace safety regulations, a greater awareness of the hazards related to nuclear weapons and energy, and ultimately saved countless thousands of lives. 

From an ALI perspective, as you might expect, many of the women experienced infertility, miscarriages, stillbirths and premature births.  "...how many women were crippled or suffered the unique pain of childlessness as a result of their poisoning is also unknown," Moore writes in the book's epilogue. Poignantly, she also writes there how one Radium Girl's nephew "picked his way through the items Pearl kept in her loft:  a baby stroller, a crib -- strange things for an old lady to have in her attic, but perhaps Pearl found herself unable to let go of these final traces of the many children she had wanted, but could never have."  

This is a long and detailed book, written in a very readable style, focusing on the personal stories of some of the key women involved. Some readers will find it all fascinating and gobble up all the details -- but I can understand that it might be a lot for others to absorb. My main issue/complaint:  there's a very large cast of characters spread over several locations, and it was sometimes difficult to keep them all straight. It probably would have helped to have them listed at the front of the book for easy reference. 

Whether or not you read "The Radium Girls," it's a story that deserves to be much better known than it is, and Kate Moore deserves credit for bringing it to our attention. 

4 stars on Goodreads. 

This was Book #51 read to date in 2021 (and Book #3 finished in October), bringing me to 142% of my 2021 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 36 books. (This exceeds my best-ever showing in the Goodreads Challenge since I joined in 2016 -- which was 50 books read in all of 2019.)  I am (for the moment, anyway...!) 23 (!) books ahead of schedule. :)  You can find reviews of all my books read to date in 2021 tagged as "2021 books." 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

"Gerald and Elizabeth" by D.E. Stevenson

My D.E. Stevenson group recently started reading "Gerald and Elizabeth" together -- one of Stevenson's later novels, first published in 1969. As usual, I read the entire novel though myself, and will count it as a re-read once we've finished our chapter-by-chapter group read in December. 

This was a new book to me (if I did read it as a teenager, I have no memory of it), and my assumption from the title alone was that Gerald and Elizabeth would be a romantic couple. (I may also have been influenced by the cover image on the used paperback edition I managed to find and purchase online -- see photo, left!). They are, in fact, half-siblings. 

Even though it was published in 1969, there's still a very 1950s flavour to this book (not a hippie or Beatle in sight, lol).  As the story opens, Gerald is travelling aboard a ship from South Africa back to England.  He is in no mood to socialize and keeps to himself (we soon learn why), but still manages to attract the attention of a wealthy American family (and their pretty daughter Penelope, in particular).   

Back in London, he reunites with his half-sister, Elizabeth (Bess). Bess has always wanted a husband and family, and has neither, for reasons that eventually become clear -- even though she's being pursued by Sir Walter MacCallum, a wealthy shipbuilder from Glasgow. Instead, she's pursued a career on the stage and become a famous stage actress. She's overjoyed to see Gerald again, give him a home and help him get back on his feet again. 

Many Stevenson novels are at least partly set in Scotland, and this one is no different: Gerald travels there to visit his aging Uncle Gregor on Cannochbrae, the farm where he spent part of his childhood. 

Many Stevenson books contain references to the characters and settings in her other novels, and this one is full of them: Drumburly ("Music in the Hills" and "Shoulder the Sky/Winter and Rough Weather"); Haines, Reverend Mr. Kirke and Freda Lorimer ("Five Windows"); the Reverend Mr. Heath and Limbourne ("Katherine Wentworth" and "Katherine's Marriage"); and I believe there are others from the books I haven't yet read (which I'm sure my fellow DESsies will point out as we progress through the book together). ;)  Gerald's story continues in "The House of the Deer" (the last book Stevenson wrote before her death in 1973, published in 1970), which we will also be reading sometime in 2022. 

This had many of the hallmarks of another great Stevenson read: strong characters, lovely descriptions, a strong sense of morality and propriety. Unfortunately, my usual enjoyment of another Stevenson novel was somewhat marred by a couple of things as the plot unfolded. 

(**SPOILER ALERTS**) 

Bess's reluctance to marry and have children stems from the mental illness that runs in her mother's side of the family. Gerald sets out to learn more and hopefully put her mind at ease. What he discovers had me rolling my eyes and shaking my head. It's one of those hoary old plot twists -- not entirely out of the realm of probability, I'm sure -- but one that happens far more often in the books and movies than in real life...!  

The books is also marred by some anti-Semitic references in a scene that takes place in an antique shop near the end of the book. I was forewarned because I had read some reviews mentioning this on Goodreads (and apparently this passage was toned down somewhat in later editions of the book), but I still found it wince-inducing to read. Yes, times were different then, and Stevenson was very much a product of the time and place she lived in -- but still, this was 1969 and not the 1930s, when she began publishing books. One would hope for something better, 24 years after the end of WWII...!  I would never tell anyone not to read a book based on a few offensive paragraphs -- but be forewarned.  

2.5 stars on Goodreads, rounded up to 3 (because of my abiding affection for DES) -- but not one of her best. 

This was Book #50 read to date in 2021 (and Book #2 finished in October), bringing me to 139% of my 2021 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 36 books. (This equals my best-ever showing in the Goodreads Challenge since I joined in 2016 -- 50 books read in all of 2019.)  I am (for the moment, anyway...!) 22 (!) books ahead of schedule. :)  You can find reviews of all my books read to date in 2021 tagged as "2021 books." 

Monday, October 11, 2021

#MicroblogMondays: Thankful

I am "home," for the first time in 22 months (!). Back in the province where I grew up (mostly), back with my parents, my sister & her partner. 

We had to get up at 3:30 a.m. to leave the house at 6 and be at the airport by 6:30 for an 8 a.m. flight. We were double-masked (standard pleated medical/disposable and Old Navy cloth) for five hours (not bad in flight terms, but longer than we've had to do for a while...!). 

My sister & her partner met us at the other end. She likes to present herself as a tough cookie -- but we hugged and we both had to wipe our eyes. 

When we arrived at my parents' house an hour or so later, I sobbed in the embrace of both of my aging parents -- a little slower, a little more frail and a little more stooped since the last time I saw them.  

I am beyond thankful to be here with them all. 

You can find more of this week's #MicroblogMondays posts here. 

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Odds & ends

  • It's 7 p.m. and it's almost dark outside... already!! (And the time change hasn't even happened yet...!) 
  • On the bright side, the autumn colours are starting to pop out, and they are gorgeous. :)  I hope they aren't all gone by the time we get back home...! 
  • As I mentioned in a recent post, dh & I are headed west this weekend for a long-overdue and long-anticipated visit with my family -- our first visit since Christmas 2019!  I am SO happy to FINALLY be going -- but also a little stressed. :p  I tend to get a bit stressed before travelling anyway -- what to pack, errands to run before we leave, making sure the alarm clock is et, etc. etc. -- and of course, flying while COVID-19 is still very much in the picture does NOT help (despite double-vaccinations & double-masking!). Send good vibes, please!  
  • A member of dh's extended family has experienced a double tragedy/loss this week. Not really my story to tell, but suffice to say, we had a shocker of a phone call this morning. I know I don't really have to remind people in this community, but tomorrow is not promised... hug your family members and tell them you love them, every day. 
  • Blog housekeeping: New tags recently added for "food" and "my reading life." I've tagged a handful of relevant posts that I remembered and could easily find, but I am sure there are more out there among the nearly 2,000 (!!) posts I've published over almost 14 years... I will tag more as I encounter them!   

Monday, October 4, 2021

#MicroblogMondays: The best meals I've ever eaten

Mel recently asked us  "What are the best things you’ve ever eaten?"  Here are a few random memories (the list could change as I remember more!).  

  • Mrs. G's perogies and holubtsi (cabbage rolls). She used to cater events in the small Manitoba town where my dad's family is from, which is where my parents first encountered her and her cooking. My aunties make excellent perogies and cabbage rolls too, but my mother did not want to pester them every time our family wanted some. (We tried making perogies ourselves once when I was a kid, from my best friend's mom's recipe... they weren't too bad tasting, but they are time consuming and very finicky to make.)  So, back in the mid-1980s, my parents started ordering from Mrs. G -- like 20 dozen each at one time -- driving more than an hour & a half one way to pick them up (and then an hour & a half home again -- my dad calls it "making a perogy run,"  lol), and then freezing them, to be doled out as treats when we kids come to visit and on special occasions like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. Mrs. G is now in her 90s (!) and her catering days are long behind her, but she will still do a large order for my dad once or twice a year (although her daughter does most of the work these days). Dad is now 82 himself (!) but says it's worth the drive to get what he wants. My sister has searched for alternatives in the city (which is full of Poles & Ukrainians, so you'd think it wouldn't be hard to find...), but nothing she's come up with has quite equalled Mrs. G's, according to the taste buds of our family. ;) 
    • (My dad prefers things simple:  her perogies are filled with a mashed potato/cheddar cheese blend, boiled and then served with melted butter and sour cream. Sometimes a bit of fried onion (although dad is not fond of onion) &/or bacon bits.  Her Ukrainian-style cabbage rolls are small and filled with rice, dill and a bit of bacon for flavouring. No meat, aside from the bacon bits. Dad cooks them in the oven with tomato sauce/juice & oil, or even just plain, with some oil & water and a lot of dill. Divine!)  
  • My mom's turkey, gravy & stuffing (my grandmother's recipe, which includes bread cubes/croutons, raisins, celery, onions, apples and seasonings). Nothing compares. These days, my sister cleans & preps the turkey while I chop & prep the stuffing, under Mom's supervision. 
    • Speaking of turkey dinners, I have fond memories, growing up in small Prairie towns, of the fall suppers (sometimes referred to as fowl suppers) organized by various church and community groups as fundraisers at this time of year at church and community halls. For a ridiculously low price, you could line up at the hall, grab a plate and help yourself to a buffet that would include turkey and mashed potatos with gravy & stuffing, vegetables, several kinds of salads, buns/dinner rolls, a bottle of water or can of pop and/or coffee/tea, and then a luscious spread of pies (apple, pumpkin and others) and other desserts, all while visiting with your neighbours while seated at long trestle tables covered in paper tablecloths. I haven't been to one in years myself, but my parents still go. Some now offer takeout, and I believe that's how most operated last year during COVID-19.  
  • The cafeteria at my workplace in downtown Toronto offered subsidized and surprisingly tasty breakfasts, lunches and snacks at very reasonable prices, dine in or takeout. It first opened when the building was new, in the late 1940s/early 1950s, when there were far fewer affordable dining choices in the area available to employees. It was specifically for employees of my company and their guests, but people working for other companies in the building and neighbourhood knew about it and often got their lunches there too. I don't think anyone ever stopped them. There were usually two or three hot entrees offered daily (meat, starch & veggies for $5-7);  a short-order grill where you could get a hamburger, hot dog or grilled cheese, etc.;  a salad bar; a soup bar with four different kinds of freshly made soups daily (I particularly liked the navy bean, the cauliflower cheese and the broccoli cheddar); a made-to-order sandwich bar, with your choice of bread, meats and condiments, served with sides of potato chips and/or carrot & celery sticks;  and a daily grilled panini. Just before Thanksgiving, Christmas & Easter, there would be a turkey dinner including turkey, stuffing, mashed potatos & gravy, veggies, a small salad, a bun, a can of pop or bottle of water, a small cup of nuts, and a choice of apple or pumpkin pie (or a piece of fresh fruit). I don't think the price ever went above $10 for all that while I worked there.
    • There were some great places to eat in the food court of our building (and the other nearby office buildings) as well (along with the usual fast-food chains). There was an Italian restaurant (now long gone) that had a takeout counter, where I got excellent pizza slices and wonderful risotto for years. A Chinese restaurant (also long gone) with a takeout counter that offered wonderful spring rolls and lemon chicken. And many others. 
  • The linguini with clams & white wine sauce at a little hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant near our first apartment in midtown Toronto. I particularly remember going there with dh, BIL & SIL on Valentine's Day in the mid/late 1980s, pre-nephews. The place was decorated with confetti on the tables and helium balloons that clustered on the ceiling, with curled ribbons dangling down (very festive). The friendly staff (who knew us by then) greeted us warmly (even though we didn't have reservations! -- we went early, before the expected crowds, so they were happy to accommodate us) and were attentive but not obtrusive. The restaurant, sadly, is long gone, but the fond memories remain. 
  • Breakfasts at the Charles Inn in Niagara-on-the-Lake, described here
  • The maple salmon at Salty's on the waterfront in Halifax. I had lunch there by myself while in Halifax on business in mid-November 1997, after a lovely Sunday morning exploring the waterfront and visiting the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (which has a marvelous Titanic exhibit -- this was just before the movie came out). It was a grey day, not too cold, with snowflakes softly falling. The restaurant was not too busy, and I had a table with a view of the boats on the harbour and the twin city of Dartmouth across the water. Dh & I returned there in September 2010 on our belated 25th wedding anniversary trip to Nova Scotia, and it was every bit as good as I had remembered. I look forward to returning someday!  
  • The thin-crust, wood oven pizzas we get from a local Italian restaurant (including a "white" pizza with thinly sliced potatos, pancetta, caramelized onions and rosemary for me). Besides pizza, they're also known for their gelato and they do a booming business at the takeout counter, especially in the summertime. :)  
    • Also:  the thin-crust, wood oven pizza we had at Fiazza in Byward Market in Ottawa a couple of years ago, recommended by a friend who lives there (described here). Yum! 
  • Burgers and fries from Hero Burgers, a local chain. (Haven't been there since the pandemic began, sadly.) 
  • A nice, well-seasoned steak (medium well, please) with a baked potato and veggies. I've had great steaks in several places, both at restaurants & people's houses (dh's cousin barbecued some amazing, tender steaks for us on our recent cottage weekend)... I don't have it often these days, but it's something I love to eat now & then. 
You can find more of this week's #MicroblogMondays posts here.  

Sunday, October 3, 2021

"The Lost Symbol" by Dan Brown

"The Lost Symbol" is the third of five mysteries/thrillers by Dan Brown, featuring Harvard professor/symbologist Robert Langdon. Tom Hanks played Langdon in movie versions of  "Angels & Demons," "The DaVinci Code" and "Inferno," and I'd read and (mostly) enjoyed all those books and seen those movies with dh. (The only one I haven't seen or read now is the most recent one, "Origin.") (I reviewed "Inferno" on this blog, here.) 

I recently saw an ad for a new TV series/adaptation of "The Lost Symbol." It's already being aired/streamed on the Peacock streaming service in the States right now, but it starts here on Oct. 11th (on Showcase). I always like to read the book before I see the film version, if possible, and I was able to find a cheap copy for my e-reader, so I picked it up and started reading. 

As with most Brown/Langdon novels, this was a fast-paced book that kept me turning the pages (waaaayyyyy past my usual bedtime last night, in fact, to finish it!). The previous Langdon novels I've read mostly took place in Europe:  Paris, London, Scotland, Rome, Florence, Istanbul. This one (aside from the opening and some flashbacks) is set entirely in Washington, D.C.  

As the book opens, Langdon receives a phone call from the assistant of his old friend Peter Solomon, asking him to fill in as guest speaker at a dinner at the U.S. Capitol that very same evening. But when Langdon arrives at the Capitol, there is no dinner -- just a disturbing object, encoded with symbols that Langdon recognizes as Masonic. Then he learns Solomon has been kidnapped. Over the next few hours, to win his friend's freedom, Langdon must decipher and follow the Masonic clues to unlock some powerful ancient secrets. As usual, there's a pretty girl (Solomon's sister, Katherine) tagging along for the ride.  

As I wrote in my previous review of "Inferno":  

Having read previous Brown/Langdon adventures "The Da Vinci Code" and "Angels & Demons" (as well as seeing the movie versions), I knew what to expect... You don't need to have read any of Brown's previous books to understand or enjoy this one. They aren't great literature, but they're generally fun, and you learn a bit about history and art and religion (and, in this case, science) along the way. 

I think that description fits this book as well. As dh said to me last night when we were discussing Brown's novels, "They're kinda dumb, but they're incredibly entertaining." 

3 stars on Goodreads. I'll let you know how the TV version stacks up to the book!  

This was Book #49 read to date in 2021 (and Book #1 finished in October), bringing me to 136% of my 2021 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 36 books. I am (for the moment, anyway...!) 22 (!) books ahead of schedule. :)  You can find reviews of all my books read to date in 2021 tagged as "2021 books." 

Saturday, October 2, 2021

The old "self-absorbed" stereotype again...

I've mentioned the comic strip "Between Friends" here a few times over the years. I've followed it for years -- I don't get a physical newspaper anymore, but it's in my Facebook feed. The cartoonist, Sandra Bell-Lundy, is Canadian. :)  The strip follows a group of women/friends, who are now middle-aged/50-something: Susan & her husband Harv went through infertility and eventually adopted a daughter, who is now in college (!)... Kim is a freelance writer married to a widower with a grown son... Maeve is divorced & childless... and her assistant, Helen, has two grown children.

Here's Friday's strip


LOL. 

However, my enjoyment was marred by a comment beneath the post which said "Maude [she didn't even get Maeve's name right...!], you are self absorbed. You will never know."  

Grrrrr....