Sunday, May 15, 2011

After Glow

Have you ever read a book so good that you read it slowly, to stave off the end? I used to work at a bookstore in Denver and one of my co-workers was reading through Patrick O'Brian's seafaring novels and he slowed it down around book seventeen or something just so he wouldn't finish reading the set during his lifetime. My friend was really let down the day Patrick O'Brian died. (By the way, these books make a nice gift for Father's Day. There are about twenty-one in the set, so your dad will be pretty taken care of for a long time, unless you double-up the books).

I recently slowed down while reading Radioactive by Lauren Redniss. The book is part biography of Marie Curie, the story of radioactivity, and art book. Did you know Curie was from Poland? Her real name was Marya.

You can smell the ink as you turn the pages. You know how it will all end, that Marie Curie changed science forever, that it killed her, that it continues to be dangerous. To tell the story Redniss created a delightful typeface, which gives the book the appearance of being written by hand, a re-telling in a very physical sense. She named the typeface after Eusapia Palladino, who held seances Marie and Pierre Curie attended. The story of someone's life is never a simple one and Redniss elegantly balances many components of Marie Curie's professional and personal history. The one of scientific discovery. Marie Curie: "It was obvious that a new science was in the course of development." The one of love. The one of triumph. (Marie Curie was named the first female professor to teach at the Sorbonne). The one of atomic properties. How they glowed at night. Their poisonous effects.

Throughout the book I was very attached to the idea of a blurred line between science and magic. Because Radium glowed, Marie Curie was awed by it. In the lab, it was something special. Curie wrote, "If a radioactive substance is placed in the dark in the vicinity of the closed eye or of the temple, a sensation of light fills the eye." In this context, seeking atomic energy and creating it, at least for the Curies, was spiritual. Mystical fusion was the thing that sort of kept them going. In Radioactive, Radium has nearly three sides: the mystical glowy side, the toxic side, and the healing one. It's still used as a cure for cancer. Even though exposure to it is so incredibly harmful. Pierre Curie died so young. Marie Curie followed. Her daughter and grandchildren also died of complications related to radiation exposure.

So are we supposed to celebrate the discovery of Radium or not? Are we supposed to answer? Redniss's book delicately and pointedly addresses the art of art, of pursuit, how earthly things seem so unearthly. Non-fiction doesn't have to be boring or terrible and Redniss's unique and investigative technique of conveying biography makes this book sit well with writers such as Dava Sobel, Rick Pearlstein, Lawrence Weschler, and Karen Elizabeth Gordon. I recommend reading this one slowly.

Monday, May 2, 2011

What Could Possibly Happen Next

According to the BBC and TPM, president Obama has said that, due to the death of Osama Bin Laden, the world is now a safer and better place. How does he come by way of this knowledge? For fear of retaliation, I don't feel safe. For wrongfully invading Iraq, I don't feel safe. For the cruel and harsh treatment of detainees, I don't feel safe. For the pillaging of the environment, the world is not a better place. I don't feel safe from toxic waste and harmful chemicals. A for-profit healthcare system does not make me feel I'm receiving better care. As local police budgets are being slashed, I don't feel safer on the streets. As our infrastructure such as bridges and highways are not being properly cared for, I don't feel safe traveling on them. The continuation of drilling for oil and for natural gas via hydraulic fracturing does not lead me to believe that my tap water is always safe to drink. The proliferation of GMO food does not make me feel my food is always safe to eat.

I am deeply troubled by Hillary Clinton's statement to al-Qaeda members: you can make the choice to abandon al-Qaeda and participate in a peaceful political process. Which one is she talking about? The one where the government invests in its people over business interests? Where government diplomats talk to and reconcile with enemies? Is a peaceful political process devoid of secrets?

When I worked on a farm one summer, the farmers said they don't shoot the coyotes at first glance because bigger ones move in and fight for the territory. To the White House complex: job well done. You perpetuate that which former president Bush started. Secrets, blame, torture, hunting people in the night. This is what our government is now. There is no question that I grieve for those who suffered in the attacks on September 11, 2001. I have also lost a family member at the hands of another, but even though I grieve every day of my life, I know that irrational actions will never repair the loss.

Obama says, "Today we are reminded that as a nation there is nothing we can't do." It's true. We sure do know how to kill. It is sad that Obama's patriotism is not generated by having the best education system, by having the cleanest subway cars, by supporting the arts. Do our political leaders know how to invest in energy resources safe for the environment? Do we know how to rehabilitate people who break the law? These things seem to be a bit of a mystery.