A century ago, radium was one of the most exciting wonders of modern times. Not only could it make things glow in the dark, it also had healing properties that could be used for medicinal purposes. Then America went to war, and the demand for radium products skyrocketed. In 1917, many young women from Newark, New Jersey were presented with the opportunity to work for the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation. Painting radium on watch dials paid well, and the positions were highly sought. The women, most in their late teens and early twenties, were taught how to mix radium — a fine powder that floated everywhere — with water to create a paint. To get a fine enough point on their paintbrush, they were instructed to put the brush tips between their lips. Lip…dip…paint.
The Newark plant was rather strict about how much of their product was used, and the women were reprimanded if any was wasted. Demand for radium products increased, and a second plant in Ottawa, Illinois was opened. There, they weren’t so strict. Radium was fun — and healthy! — and the girls were allowed to take leftovers home to paint on their skin and clothing; their fashionable glow made them the envy at dances.
Decades before Match, OkCupid, and Tinder, there existed the Marriage Bureau in London, offering the unorthodox — some might say scandalous — services of finding clients their future husband or wife. War loomed large and single young men were posted abroad in the British colonies; when they came home on leave, they didn’t have time to find a proper date — much less their future wife — before returning to duty. And though times were changing and more women were entering the workforce, a lot of young women still lived at home and lived under their parents’ rule. How would they ever find someone?
In The Marriage Bureau, Penrose Halson recounts the first ten years of the Bureau’s existence. A restless twenty-four-year-old named Mary Oliver visited her uncle in India. He told her that she should find a way to introduce the boys stationed there to some women when they went on leave; otherwise, they’d never find someone to marry. The idea stuck, and she brought it up with her friend Heather Jenner, a beautiful socialite who had already been divorced and was intrigued by the idea. They forged ahead with their eccentric plan and ended up charming the media in their favor. With the publicity, they suddenly found their “mating” services in high demand even through terrifying times like the London blitz.
I’m doing Read Harder 2017. I would have read both of these books anyway, but it just so happens that they both work for Task 3 (read a book about books).
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch
Publisher/Year: Harper, 2011
What it is: After the sudden death of her older sister, a reeling Nina Sankovitch turns to books for solace. She and her sister frequently traded and discussed books, and on her forty-sixth birthday, Nina begins a literary journey and healing process: she’ll read one book a day for a year and write about every single one. This book is a memoir of that year.
Why I read it: Confession: I got this as an advance copy…6 years ago. I’d always been meaning to read it — when it came out, it was very popular in the book blogosphere — but I just never got around to it until this year.
What I thought: I read anywhere from 75-100 books a year depending on how hectic life gets. I think the most I ever read was 134. So I’m thoroughly impressed with anyone who can read more than that, and being able to read a book a day — and actually sticking with it — is just mind-blowing to me. The complete list at the end of the book is impressive. As for the book itself? It was just okay. She writes a lot about her family history, then ties in the books she read according to the theme of the chapter. It’s occasionally repetitive, and I would have liked more about the books themselves. She’s a lovely writer with beautiful sentences, but insight-wise, I wished she’d pushed it further. It all felt too tidy.
I became introduced to Meg Howrey’s writing a few years ago through her sophomore novel, a New York City ballet drama called The Cranes Dance. Her third novel intrigued me because of its radically different subject matter: in The Wanderers, three seasoned astronauts prepare for the first human mission to Mars.
A multinational crew — Helen Kane from the United States, Sergei Kuznetsov from Russia, and Yoshihiro Tanaka from Japan — is chosen by a private space exploration company to spend 17 months together in an intense training simulation. During this period, they’ll live together as if they were really on a journey to Mars. They’ll train inside a high-tech 24/7 simulation of their upcoming mission that comes complete with equipment failures and other possible emergencies they might encounter. Each has their own visions of making history, but they also harbor emotional baggage. Regardless, they are determined not to crack under pressure.
A little over a year ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. when the oral arguments for Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt were presented before the Supreme Court. I’m a clinic escort at one of the clinics that was central to the case, and after two frustrating years of political ping pong, it felt good to just stand outside the Supreme Court and rally with our people. In the midst of it all, I spotted Dr. Willie Parker nearby, at which point I fangirled hard and ran over to ask to take a selfie with him.
In the reproductive justice world, Dr. Parker has celebrity status. He’s an outspoken black abortion provider in the South, and after being featured in Dawn Porter’s documentary, Trapped — which, by the way, is on Netflix — he became an even more recognizable figure in the fight for abortion access. He’s also an outspoken Christian who applies his religious beliefs as a type of liberation theology towards reproductive justice. It’s a radically different take on what people imagine in regards to abortion clinics and religion (trust me: as a clinic escort, I see and hear the shaming, fire-and-brimstone versions of “Christianity” outside the clinic with relative frequency).