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18 November 2018

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Book Review

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Visit Sunny Chernobyl

(And other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places), by Andrew Blackwell (Rodale, $25.99)

It’s at moments like this, when you’re trying to take your vacation in a militarily controlled nuclear disaster zone – for which, I might add, there is no proper guidebook – that you must be more than normally willing to expose yourself as a fool in the service of your goals.

This quote sums up so much about this wonderful, hilarious, grim, offbeat and powerful book. Based on the conceit of creating a tourist’s guide to the world’s most polluted places, starting with Chernobyl, it is a tour de force exposé of the waste and havoc we cause with our industrial lives, in ways we hardly expect and prefer not to think about.

But of course the book is much more. It is also a tribute to the average people who live at or near these places, working in them, enduring them, cleaning them up. And Blackwell’s writing is so wonderfully self-effacing and observant, so ripe with stunning turns of phrase, that it is – despite its disturbing subject matter – a delight to read.

Indeed, one can’t help being fascinated by these horrific places, contaminated by radiation or tailings or trash, or oil and chemical spills, while at the same time having little interest in visiting them. Thank God for Blackwell’s fortitude.

The title essay, about Blackwell’s trip to Chernobyl and its environs, where he tries to convince local guards to let him canoe and fish in the Pripyat river, is perhaps the best at drawing the stark contrast between what we think about these places, and what they are really like. As he remarks at one point,

Most people came to Chernobyl just to get their two photographs… They treat the staff like servants and leave. They never bother to find out what a nice place the zone can be.

Other chapters take us to the Gyre – where swirls of ocean-bound trash congregate in the Pacific, to Amazon forests being torched to make way for soy, to the gargantuan coal sands mining operation in Canada, to ground zero of the oil boom in Texas to the polluted Ganges. Along the way, it is the people he meets, their dialogue, the stories of their lives, that make this book a true find.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: July/Aug 2012