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Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear DisasterVoic­es from Cher­nobyl : The Oral His­to­ry of a Nuclear Dis­as­ter by Svet­lana Alex­ievich
My rat­ing : 5 of 5 stars

Svet­lana Alex­ievich won the Nobel Prize for this and her oth­er books, but don’t let that stop you from read­ing this breath­tak­ing col­lec­tion. It’s as if Chekov and Gogol and Dos­to­evsky had a three way, and their love child died in the bloom of her youth while song birds, drunk on vod­ka-infused berries nabbed from a bowl by her bed­side, sang dirges that meld­ed with her fit­ful, flut­ter­ing soul into an ether that filled the lungs of the­se men and wom­en laid waste by Cher­nobyl. Every­body here is lost, for­got­ten, sac­ri­ficed, for­lorn, but they are so god­damned alive. When was the last time you had to stop read­ing a pas­sage for a min­ute because it was so great you didn’t want it to end ? That hap­pened over and over. The scope and depth of all it is over­whelm­ing, and since I fin­ished it tonight, I haven’t begun to put it in a crit­i­cal con­text. But I’m a lit­tle drunk on the melan­choly.

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Dalva Dal­va by Jim Har­rison
My rat­ing : 5 of 5 stars

Admit­ted­ly I began the book with a lit­tle dread. I just fin­ished Wolf, Harrison’s first nov­el and one I’d first read in grad­u­ate school in 1988. I have car­ried a high opin­ion of Har­rison ever since, but now I had to won­der why ? What I liked about it at 26 left me cold at 53, so I was pre­pared for a sim­i­lar reac­tion to Dal­va, espe­cial­ly since Har­rison would be writ­ing in the first per­son as a wom­an, and I’d hap­pi­ly wash out ear­ly.

But Dal­va is a mar­vel — both the book and the char­ac­ter. Dal­va is in her mid-40s and liv­ing in San­ta Mon­i­ca and work­ing as a social work­er when we meet her. But as the nov­el unfolds, we real­ize this bare­ly her at all : Part Sioux, Dal­va is the great-grand­daugh­ter of a famed mis­sion­ary and hor­ti­cul­tur­ist who was more of a con­vert to the Sioux than a con­vert­er. He took a young Sioux wife and man­aged to find him­self in the mid­dle of much of the ter­ri­ble destruc­tion of the Sioux and their way of life at the hands of the Unit­ed States mil­i­tary. He also had a great deal of land. As such, Dal­va is not only rich with his­to­ry, she’s plain rich ; when she returns to her fam­i­ly home in North­ern Nebraska to search for the son she had with her 16 year old Sioux boyfriend, she brings along Michael, an alco­holic pro­fes­sor and her some­time lover, who has been grant­ed the oppor­tu­ni­ty to read & pub­lish Great-Grand­fa­ther Northridge’s per­son­al let­ters.

Har­rison lets Dal­va nar­rate the first and sec­ond third of the book, while Michael takes over in the mid­dle. Har­rison also includes long pas­sages from Northridge’s jour­nals, so what starts out as a dis­arm­ing­ly prim and undis­tin­guished sto­ry is actu­al­ly the oppo­site. Har­rison writes beau­ti­ful­ly as Dal­va as she nav­i­gates her life today and as she recalls the events of the past forty years that have formed her ; while Michael is a com­i­cal, annoy­ing aca­d­e­mic, Har­rison still invests him with a wry wit, pathos, and some sur­pris­ing insight about Dal­va and her fam­i­ly. Northridge’s let­ters are a mix­ture of 19th cen­tu­ry benev­o­lent naiveté and a more mod­ern sci­en­tific dogged­ness. The­se three streams of voice and time become a fast and loud river that is as much about the Sioux and their destruc­tion as it is about Dal­va and her sor­rows and solace.

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