What I’m Reading This Week

Nonfiction: Gravedigger’s Daughter: Growing Up Rural by Debra Raye King [click title to read book review by Kathleen Waldvogel] To order King’s book: click here. Fiction: Double Exposure by Jeannée Sacken [click on title to visit author’s website] To order Sacken’s book: click here. Short Story Collection: Tomorrow in Shanghai by May-Lee Chai [click on title to visit author’s website]


In her memoir Gravedigger’s Daughter, Debra Raye King writes about growing up in a rural farming community near Menomonie, Wisconsin. Her father, John Edward Torgerson, was both a farmer and the local gravedigger–jobs he inherited from his father. In a series of essays, King reminisces about her childhood, which was both normal and unusual. In the 1950s, small rural farms were more plentiful than today, and King’s essays will resonate with readers who grew up on farms or in rural communities. But a small community usually had only one gravedigger, and that part of King’s childhood was unusual.

In the book’s first essay, “Shoveling Eleven Tons by Hand,” King describes her father’s gravedigging duties and how she and her sister eventually assisted him. She skillfully weaves facts, reflections, and anecdotes together, and after reading her first essay, I was amazed by her father and how he approached his duties of gravedigging with dedication and kindness. The essay also teaches readers about a part of death that most of us never think about–the actual process of how the dead are buried in a cemetery. The themes of community, family, and hard work revealed in King’s first essay continue throughout her book.

I’m enjoying King’s book because her essays are heartfelt, because I am learning about a way of life that has mostly disappeared, and because King’s writing is a joy to read.


The novel Double Exposure by Jeannée Sacken is a sequel to her novel Behind the Lens. I’m reading Double Exposure because I enjoyed Behind the Lens, which is a well-written, fast-paced story with engaging, memorable characters, and captivating story arcs. I also appreciate the dedicated research Sacken did for Behind the Lens because I learned something about Afghanistan and its struggles. To read my review of Behind the Lens on Good Reads click here. [There are no spoiler alerts.]

Annie Hawkins, a war photojournalist, is the main character in both novels. Double Exposure opens with Hawkins in Qatar waiting for a flight back to the United States. She longs to see her boyfriend U.S. Navy SEAL Finn Cerelli and her daughter Mel. However, her boss, Chris Cardona, demands to see her first when she arrives in Washington, D.C., then he informs her that she and their news organization are being sued by a rival news organization. Her ex-husband calls, concerned about their daughter Mel. Soon Annie will need to return to Afghanistan to cover the peace talks between the Afghani government and the Taliban, but she also hopes to find a young woman named Seema who disappeared in Afghanistan. And Annie has secrets she needs to keep from Cerelli. Author Sacken weaves all the action together with snappy dialogue, intriguing twists and turns, and superb storytelling. I started reading Double Exposure last night, and kept promising myself–just one more chapter and then I’ll go to sleep.

Both of Sacken’s book are available on audio: Behind the Lens and Double Exposure.


Tomorrow in Shanghai and Other Stories by May-Lee Chai was recommended by my daughter-in-law. Because we often love the same books, and because I write short stories, I asked to borrow the book.

The first story in Chai’s collection is “Tomorrow in Shanghai.” I liked this story so much I read it twice. The main character in the story is a young doctor, who entered the medical profession with great expectations for his future. But like Pip in Dickens’s Great Expectations, the young doctor discovers youthful dreams and adult realities are often at odds.

What I’m Reading This Week

Nonfiction: Not the Camilla We Knew by Rachael Hanel & Fiction: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt


I’m reading Rachael Hanel’s Not the Camilla We Knew: One Woman’s Path from Small-Town America to the Symbionese Liberation Army for a couple of reasons. First, I very much like Hanel’s writing. I read her memoir We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, and I enjoyed her voice, writing style, and her story-telling skills.

Second, the title, Not the Camilla We Knew, captured my attention. Camilla grew up in Minnesota, and as a young woman she joined the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), an organization of domestic terrorists. Hanel’s book title promised to give me the rest of Camilla’s story. Camilla died in a shootout in Los Angeles in 1974. The SLA and the events before and after that shootout were widely reported in the news. People involved in tragic events are often vilified or exalted, but reality is often murkier.

Hanel doesn’t excuse Camilla’s behavior, but rather tries to understand why someone who grew up middle class with so many options available to them decided to join a domestic terrorist group. While Hanel’s book focuses on Camilla, I’m also learning more about the SLA. Hanel spent twenty years researching and writing this book. I’ve read almost half of the book, and I have to say that Hanel’s dedication pays off. The book is well-written and it’s a page-turner.


I’m reading Shelby Van Pelt’s Remarkably Bright Creatures because I read a review about it on Angry Angel Books, a blog by Amanda Nissen. She raved about the book so enthusiastically that I had to check out a copy from the library. Nissen likes books “about women, especially older women,” and so do I. Older characters who are fully developed resonate with me, perhaps because I’m an older character. But also because older people are complete people, with all the thoughts, hopes, desires, and feelings of younger people. Often society wants to see older people as one-dimensional, as a stereotype. I’m about one-fourth into the book, and Van Pelt’s seventy-year-old character Tova, a widow, is a well-rounded, and I like her a lot.

But I was convinced that I absolutely had to read this book when Nissen described Marcellus, a remarkably bright octopus, who lives in the aquarium where Tova works. I find octopuses fascinating. Marcellus and Tova become friends. Readers meet Marcellus in short chapters, which are told from his point of view and interspersed among chapters told from the human point of view. His cantankerous voice is engaging and sarcastically witty as he describes his life in an aquarium, nudging readers to reflect upon how they interreact with nonhuman creatures.

Nissen’s review crackled with 1,000-watt-electric enthusiasm. Leaving no room for doubt, she discusses this book like one talks about a new love who is so perfect that there is nothing negative to be said. When someone touts a book or a movie in such glowing terms, there is always a chance that reality won’t match the hype. Nissen states that the book is “as bright and full of life as its cover.” And so far, I agree, wholeheartedly.

Something I’m Reading This Week

The Radium Girls (2016) by Kate Moore

I ordered my copy from Honest Dog Books in Bayfield, Wisconsin.

I’m on page 200 of 403. This well-researched nonfiction book tells the story of the young women who started working in radium-dial factories just before WWI. Glow-in-the-dark products were gaining popularity, and WWI would significantly increase the demand for them. The dial painters were taught to point the bristles of their brushes with their tongues–called lip pointing–in order to paint fine lines. Supervisors told the painters there was so little radium in the paint that it was harmless.

As factory owners and managers learned that traces of radium weren’t harmless, they hid that information from the dial painters because lip pointing was an efficient, inexpensive method for painting dials, and because they didn’t want workers to become fearful and quit. About five years after the dial painters began ingesting radium, they started suffering painful side effects which were fatal. After the consequences of radium paint became known and proved, companies who employed dial painters kept denying that the radium was dangerous.

One of the women harmed by the radium, found a lawyer who agreed to represent her and some of the other sick women. The companies used high-powered attorneys, lies, and rumors to try and thwart the sick women from winning their lawsuits. Moore skillfully captures the twists and turns of the legal battle between the radium-dial companies and the women who sought compensation. I don’t know how their legal battle ends yet, but I’m rooting for the women.

As I read Moore’s book, I care about the young women, who never grew old. I care about the families they left behind. I want the companies and their executives to be held accountable for their cold indifference to the lives of these women. As I read this story, it strikes me that not much has changed. The story of the women harmed by the profit-minded radium dial companies is the kind of story that still happens today, both in our country and throughout the world.

Stories like The Radium Girls are important because companies still lobby for fewer regulations and for changes to laws that make it more difficult for a harmed person to sue. Without regulatory laws or the ability to sue bad actors in a court of law, people are left to the mercy of those who value their company’s bottom line above all else. The Radium Girls reminds us that we need laws to hold companies liable for their actions.

Every evening I look forward to ignoring the TV and reading The Radium Girls. Moore’s writing is excellent. I’m thankful she told the story of the doomed women who started out loving their jobs and believed their companies were wonderful places to work. We can honor the radium girls by remembering them and by valuing the lives of all workers.

[If you’re interested in hearing Kate Moore talk about The Radium Girls and her newest book, The Woman They Could Not Silence (2021) Click here: Honest Dog Books.]