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Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places Paperback – May 28, 2013
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The Amazon Book Review
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
“A darkly comic romp.” —Elizabeth Kolbert, staff writer, The New Yorker
“An environmentalist book that avoids the usual hyperventilation, upending stubborn myths with prosaic facts . . . Blackwell is a smart and often funny writer.” —Wall Street Journal
“Witty and disturbing . . . Call this the anti-guide book.” —New York Post "Required Reading"
About the Author
ANDREW BLACKWELL is a journalist and filmmaker. He is a 2011 Fellow in Nonfiction Literature from the New York Foundation of the Arts. Visit Sunny Chernobyl is his first book. He lives in New York City.
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For those of us who like to armchair travel, VISIT SUNNY CHERNOBYL delivers in spades; the vivid language and use of the five senses is nothing short of amazing and the colorful characters he meets along the way leap off the page.
Some of the more technical aspects of the story—how a nuclear reactor works, what oil sands are, how plastics break down—are described succinctly, in layman’s terms, and appear organically; it’s so entertainingly presented, in fact, that it feels like you’ve actually learned something with no effort at all.
The best part of VISIT SUNNY CHERNOBYL, though, is the dry humor that emerges from Blackwell’s spot-on observations; I didn’t expect to be laughing, and while I’d like to share some of my favorite lines here, they really need to be taken within context.
The second half of the book, I think, is a bit stronger than the first; there is a more personal tone to Blackwell’s narrative and the humor is a bit more biting. This is probably because at the time he was writing those chapters he’d just faced a heartbreak, and he’s trying to find himself and purpose in life again even as he’s trying to finish the project. This struggle, though only glimpsed, adds a richness to the narrative—and because of it, this grand tour of places most of us will never go yields a most surprising discovery: “The task now, perhaps, is not to preserve the fantasy of a separate and pure nature, but to see how thoroughly we are part of the new nature that still lives. Only then can we preserve it, and us.” (Page 173).
If you like creative nonfiction/memoir, this is a great read.
I loved the first chapter about Chernobyl. It's not only informative about the disaster itself, but underlines the sociopolitical aspect of those living in Kiev, dealing with radiation, and the aftermath of the event. The first chapter is everything I could have wanted.
It goes downhill from there. Every chapter gets a little more laborious than the last, and filled more with personal anecdotes about travel and his love life. The chapter about the great Pacific garbage patch is far more about him being on a boat for weeks than it is about the garbage patch itself.
He also has this weird habit of starting out some chapters in some action-packed hellscape that he never really connects the dots back to. The chapter about logging in the Amazon starts off with him in the aftermath of a slash and burn operation, cinders falling, shoes getting hot, smoke in his lungs... but then spends the entire chapter bemoaning the fact that the logging operations are not as severe as he thought, that slash and burn operations are no longer common place, and how much he wants to actually see it.
The first two chapters were good, and if you have an interest in this kind of stuff it might be worth a read, but don't expect the book to keep the pace.
=== The Good Stuff ===
* Blackwell, while maintaining a sarcastic facade, seems to really try to understand the places he is visiting. During his writings about India, he almost has me wondering if perhaps clean water isn't simply overrated...something humans can live quite well without.
* Blackwell is able to put many of the "environmental disasters" in context. One great example, when we look at Chernobyl, we see death and destruction on an unprecedented scale, and wonder how those poor people can survive. But consider that a little over 40 years prior to Chernobyl was what the Soviets called "The Great Patriotic War" which killed many more people and produced suffering that made a little nuclear disaster seem like a speedbump.
* For the most part, the author writes well and keeps the stories moving. He definitely sees the humor in most situations, and is fairly honest and upfront about his feelings and impressions.
=== The Not-So-Good Stuff ===
* Blackwell's sarcastic tone can cross the line into snarky. At times I found his humor to be a bit tiresome and tedious. The constant comparison (in my mind) to PJ O'Rourke didn't help matters, as PJ has a much surer touch on his satire.
* At times, especially later in the book, the author gets a bit "preachy". A few of the chapters went on way too long, much past the point where I was interested in what was happening or what Blackwell had to say.
=== Summary ===
Reviewing these types of books is a bit tough. What one person sees as a humorous crusade, another sees as condescending preaching. I believe most anyone will find at least some humor, and some revelation, in each of the chapters, although you may be more of less tempted to skim some of the longer stories.