Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Apocalypse in Pairs, Part 2

Earlier this summer, I read a variety of books with an apocalyptic tone.  Those of you who know me will not be surprised--although I usually mix some non-apocalyptic reading in.  I'm surprised I slept at all as June transitioned into July, and I gobbled up apocalyptic book after apocalyptic book.  As I said yesterday, I was surprised to find how much some of them seemed to fit together.  Yesterday's post talked about 2 collections of short stories, and you might not be surprised that I'd link them together.  But in today's post, I'll talk about a surprising pairing, one fiction,  Karen Thompson Walker's The Age of Miracles, and one one non-fiction/memoir, Kristen Iversen's Full Body Burden:  Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats.

Walker's book has probably gotten the most publicity.  It was the glowing review in the New York Times that made me request it from the public library.  In this book, the rotation of the Earth slows, at first imperceptibly and then humans experience multiple extra hours in the day.  Yet sixth grade must go on!

I was much more interested in the larger context of the book than in the narrative arc of the 6th grade girl, Julia, who narrates the book.  At first I thought, how wonderful to have extra time in the day.  But the book makes clear that it's actually a curse which will likely mean the end of humans on the planet.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that I disliked the narrator.  In fact, I find myself intrigued by the narrator's experiences with the boy she likes and with her parents.  But reading about the pecking orders changing amongst the children bored me rather quickly.  This narrator lacks the pluckiness of a young narrator like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.  I wanted her to buck up more quickly than she did.

Likewise, I found myself much more interested in the family life of Iversen than in her childhood experiences with boys.  As a narrator, I found Iversen much more compelling than Julia.  But more compelling still was the larger story that Iversen tells.

Iversen places her personal narrative inside a larger history of life in the early decades of the post-World War II nuclear age in America.  She does a beautiful job of explaining the science.  She ranks right up there with Terry Tempest Williams for showing how family and history and the land all intertwine, and like Williams, she's got some lyrical gorgeousness in her writing.  Consider this example:  "The body is an organ of memory, holding traces of all our experiences.  The land, too, carries the burden of all its changes.  To truly see and understand a landscape is to see its depth as well as its smooth surfaces, its beauty and its scars" (page 338).

I first heard of this book when Iversen was interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air, a wonderful interview that you can access here, along with other highlights from both the interview and the book.  If you don't have time to read the book, make sure to make time for the interview.

But I read the book in a week-end--it's that compelling and readable.  Likewise, I read The Age of Miracles in a day because I wanted to find out what happened.  But Full Body Burden will stay with me and haunt me much longer.

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