Friday, February 09, 2018

More minis - Flowers for Algernon by D. Keyes, The Radium Girls by K. Moore, and Artemis by A. Weir

In my continuing quest to catch up with myself, I've sorted out three books that I purchased and decided to give them mini review treatment. I liked all three for dramatically different reasons.

I opted not to write a post about my 2018 reading goals but one of my goals is a continuation of my "one classic per month" goal for a third year. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes was my January choice.

Charlie Gordon has an extremely low IQ but a surprising amount of determination, so he's been chosen to be the first human in an experimental treatment. Only tried previously on mice (and not always with good results), the experimental surgery made a mouse called Algernon extremely smart. The book is told in journal form from Charlie's perspective as he goes through the surgery, quickly gains intelligence, falls in love, and then things fall apart.

I've seen a movie version of Flowers for Algernon, long ago, but this is my first time reading the book. All I could remember of the movie was that it was both moving and sad. And, as it turned out, the sadness toward the beginning almost overwhelmed me. Charlie has always been a happy man, in spite of his limitations. He has a job and people who watch out for him. But, after his surgery, he starts to become aware that people have been teasing him for years. Maybe they weren't his friends, after all.

At this point, my friend Kelly told me that it's one of her favorite classics. I was planning to finish the book, regardless, but I'm glad she gave me hope to help me push through the hardest part. Regardless of how it tugged at my emotions, I was really blown away by the writing. I knew the book was going to end sadly, all along. But, the way it was handled was perfect.

Flowers for Algernon is brilliant and heartbreaking and beautiful and awful and maybe even a little hopeful. And, definitely kind of deep, the way it makes you think about how we treat each other and how crucial friendship and love are to having a meaningful life. Highly recommended and a new favorite. I gave Flowers for Algernon 5 stars. I looked up Daniel Keyes and found that he wrote quite a few books, so I'm hoping to eventually find and read more of his work.

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore is even sadder than Flowers for Algernon because it's a true story. Subtitled "The Dark Story of America's Shining Women" -- the shining part is literal; they got radium all over their clothing and hair and faces, so they glowed in the dark. The Radium Girls is the story of women who painted watch dials and other instruments. Because they used paint brushes and the work was delicate, they used their lips to bring the brushes to a fine point each time they dipped into the paint. This meant they were actually ingesting little bits of radium all day, every day, at work. Because the paint had to be mixed from a powder, it also got all over their hair, clothing, and bodies.

At the time The Radium Girls took place, in the early 20th Century, radium was considered healthful. People drank radium concoctions and handled it without gloves, completely unaware of the damage it was doing to them. But, it didn't take long before the women at the first radium dial-painting establishment began to have serious health issues.

There were several companies involved in the painting of clock dials, over the time span covered. All went to great lengths to hide what they knew about the connection between the health problems their formerly-healthy and vibrant young female painters were experiencing (and then their deaths) and the paint they were using. And, the health problems were appalling. The vast majority of the early employees began losing teeth, getting infections in their jaws that would not heal, and even losing pieces of jawbone. Some had legs that shortened, giving them a dramatic limp, some developed back problems. All were in horrendous pain. When they died, their deaths were generally attributed to something entirely different from the actual cause. It took years and years, scores of deaths, miscarriages, and dismemberments, and a number of lawsuits before the surviving women successfully proved their case.

Highly recommended - While the descriptions of the health problems these young women experienced (and their equally horrific deaths) were heart-rending to read, The Radium Girls serves as an excellent reminder of why we have the "burdensome regulations" the current presidential administration is trying to do away with. When given the opportunity to do what's right, corporations do not regulate themselves but will fiercely fight to defend the bottom line, even to the extreme of letting people die to keep a company from losing money. It was particularly horrifying to find that even doctors were involved in the subterfuge. A heartbreaking read but an important one. It's notable that the author deliberately researched the individuals and described them in depth because she wanted to make it clear that they were living, breathing human beings. Getting to know them made it even harder reading about their deterioration, their hideous pain, and their deaths. I admire the author for that choice.

Artemis is the story of Jazz, a woman who lives on the moon colony Artemis. Her father is a welder and she's a smuggler. When she's offered a huge amount of money to sabotage four large machines, she agrees because she's perpetually broke -- her living quarters are so small they're known as a "coffin", a place to sleep and store her things with a low ceiling and a shared bathroom.

Basic storyline: Things go wrong, blah-blah, murder, danger, science stuff I didn't understand, everyone is going to die (literally, everyone on the entire moon colony). Will Jazz save the day?

Artemis is very entertaining (ignore the "blah-blah") but I didn't follow the science in Artemis as well as that of The Martian and I thought Jazz sounded more like a guy than a gal. In fact, I didn't realize Jazz was short for Jasmine for the first chapter or so, so I was picturing a male protagonist till I found out that was wrong. Jazz sounds a lot like Mark of The Martian -- lots of expletives. But, Artemis is a fun story and after a little initial boredom when the author was setting the scene, I really began to enjoy the book. At some point, it became can't-put-down exciting and I may have had a little reading hangover after the night I finished it.

Highly recommended - While Artemis didn't grab me from page one as The Martian did, I still found the idea of a moon colony captivating and hung in there. In the end, I liked Artemis enough that I wish I had my own copy to save for a reread. I read a borrowed copy. I just hope Andy Weir manages to vary his characterization a bit, next time out. There's only so much one can stand of protagonists who constantly swear. I did appreciate the fact that he tried to make his whip-smart, rebel character female but he should probably stick with males.

©2018 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. Flowers For Algernon is on my tbr and eventually I’ll get to it. I’ll prepare my self to be sad.

    1. It's definitely a sad book but so beautifully, brilliantly written and it has heart. So, it's worth reading. I liked what the author had to say. But, yeah, save it for when you're not already down in the dumps because the sadness level will challenge you, at least toward the beginning of the book.

  2. I read Flowers for Algernon in junior high and I think we watched the movie after discussing the book. I would like to read the book again and I'll probably look for the movie once I'm finished. I also want to read Radium Girls. I had hoped my book club would have picked this for 2018, but maybe they will next year when it's in paperback. It sounds like a winner in spite of the sad subject matter.

    1. Unfortunately, the movie is not currently in production. Maybe it's available on one of the streaming platforms like Netflix. I looked up the DVD and was disappointed to find that people are selling it for $50 and up (or were when I looked).

      Radium Girls is a very well-written book and you have to appreciate the fact that the author went out of her way to describe individuals - to put faces and names to the victims, rather than just describing them from a distance. But, wow, is it hard to read. They went through absolute torture and the cruelty of the dial businesses, hiding evidence and continuing to operate (which meant more victims) was appalling. It was definitely a good book for discussion.


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