📚 What to Read Next (No. 218): Tragedies of the '80s
Happy Friday, readers!
I’m on vacation in Utah as I’m writing this. Capitol Reef National Park is incredible. Though Utah’s other parks get more attention (Arches, Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Canyonlands), Capitol Reef holds up and doesn’t have the insane crowds. All week I’ve been calling it a poor man’s Zion; it’s like 85% as beautiful with only 30% of the people around. Don’t sleep on Capitol Reef; it’s really cool. (Escalante National Monument, about an hour south, is also stunningly beautiful.)
Funny story: I forgot my entertainment backpack at home—books, computer, chargers, etc. So I’m writing this on a tablet and I “had” to buy a book (and chargers) at Target on day one of our vacation. I went with Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile, which, so far, is . . . splendid.
So, this is a slightly shorter edition of What to Read Next, featuring a couple recent fantastic reads about 1980s tragedies.
Let me know what you’re reading—I always like to hear!
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
I grew up in the 90s and early 00s, and I don’t remember hearing anything about AIDs. That’s probably more common than not; back then, it wasn’t something that kids were exposed to in educational settings. What’s a little more surprising is how little I’ve encountered the topic in my subsequent years of reading.
The Great Believers, which centers on a group of friends in Chicago’s gay community, fills that knowledge and empathy gap.
Though New York and San Francisco were the epicenters of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, every major metropolitan area was impacted, including Chicago. Makkai does a great job setting the scene/atmosphere, and showing us how terrifying that time period would be for anyone in the gay community.
At the time, AIDS was an unknown and basically untreatable killer. It would go through neighborhoods and gay enclaves without abandon. When you combine that medical crisis with the secrecy, shame, and underlying hatred towards gay and lesbian men and women, it made for a scary time and place.
And yet, our vibrant characters—Yale, Charlie, Fiona, Richard, Julian—went on living. They danced, they worked, they created, they protested. Through it all, they believed that things would get better. Not right away, but some day.
Immediately after I finished this book, I gave it a 4+ rating in my mind. But after letting it sit with me for a bit, I don't hesitate to give it 5 stars. I’ve thought about this one a lot since finishing, and I’ve explored a lot of other AIDs content—books, podcasts, documentaries.
The Great Believers beautifully accomplished exactly what Rebecca Makkai hoped it would, which is to shine a light on the AIDS crisis, get readers to empathize with the AIDS community, and get them to dig deeper.
I highly recommend this one, especially if the idea of gay characters suffering through AIDS makes you uncomfortable.
Midnight at Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham
With Chernobyl back in the news, it seemed like an appropriate time to pull this award winner from 2019 off my shelf and give it a read. Not only does Higginbotham tell the dramatic minute-by-minute story of what happened in the early hours of April 26, 1986, but he also gives us incredible background on the Soviet culture and bureaucracy which led to the accident.
The greatest strength of the book is Higginbotham’s superb storytelling. These aren’t the dry, cliched Soviet characters you’re used to reading about. The characters in this dramatic tale were young men on the up and up. They had the best jobs in the Soviet Union, they had nice apartments, they fished on the weekends (in nuclear runoff, mind you), and above all, they were just trying to make a life for themselves.
But the Soviet Union was so intent on building big and building fast that key safety elements were overlooked or flat out ignored. Combine that with the Soviet obsession with secrecy and never admitting an error, and you get a recipe for nuclear disaster.
Which is exactly what happened a little after midnight on April 26, 1986.
Though the nuclear physics and the mechanics of the disaster went a little over my head, Higginbotham does an extraordinary job of explaining how the explosion and meltdown happened. Most importantly, he relates how the people of Pripyat (the town that was built up around Chernobyl) were impacted, both right away and years on.
Yes, it was obviously a mechanical disaster. But it was an overwhelmingly human tragedy.
Reading this will assuredly help you better understand what’s happening in the region right now, as well as how disasters happen in the first place. Midnight in Chernobyl is a great book.
Thanks so much for reading! I really appreciate the time and inbox space.