Reading in Times of Trouble

steam_and_sorcery Like many people around the world, I am deeply affected by what is happening in Japan. My heart goes out the Japanese people, and I admire the steadfastness and determination, not to mention great courage with which they deal with the terrible situation they find themselves in.

At the same time, I am deeply disturbed by what is going on in Fukushima. I am old enough to remember watching, as a child, the news about the partial nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, in 1979. When the reactor at Chernobyl blew up on April 26, 1986, I was sitting in my parents’ garden, studying for my high school exams that were scheduled in early May. It was an extremely warm late April that year. We all spent hours outside in the sunshine, not knowing yet (rumors – from Finland mostly – about a radioactive cloud were very vague) what was going on above our heads. We went inside when it started to rain, when the radioactive particles came down. We later threw away all the fruit that had been growing during this rain.

So my memories of Chernobyl are vivid, and my shock at seeing similar events unfolding is deep. Hearing about the brave men who work at the plant, and hearing about the millions of litres of contaminated water that flow into the Pacific Ocean unfiltered, makes my heart bleed.

In times like these, when I am deeply involved emotionally with very tragic events (and I am involved, in spite of my comparative safety – remember I sat under that cloud 25 years ago), what books do I turn to?

Surprisingly, detective stories. Directly after the events at Fukushima began to unroll, I started with a Dorothy L. Sayers glom. The early ones, the ones with little or no romance – Whose Body?, Clouds of Witness, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Strong Poison. In between I squeezed a recent Michael Connelly novel, Nine Dragons. In Strong Poison, I found a possible clue to my present fascination with detective fiction. Here, Lord Peter says about Harriet Vane’s profession: “Damn it, she writes detective stories and in detective stories virtue is always triumphant. They’re the purest literature we have.” There is something in that: In most mysteries, evil happens but is contained in the end through the detectives’ efforts. The world gets damaged, but is made whole again.

The other genre I have read during the last three weeks is Steampunk. Steampunk’s attitude towards technical advances is mostly optimistic, mirroring the real-world attitude of many Victorians. If machinery is abused, which does happen, there is a way to contain it. In Steam & Sorcery by Cindy Spencer Pape, for example, (minor spoiler ahead) the heroine is able to break any machine with a touch of her hand. This is a highly reassuring image.

What kinds of books do you read when you are troubled by what is going on the world, in Fukushima and other places? How do you find solace in books?

– Rike Horstmann

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