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Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

December 5, 2019

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A coworker recommended the HBO show Chernobyl. I wanted to get a better sense of the history before I watched the show. I was only ten years old when the reactor exploded at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in northern Ukraine. I remember what most people probably do—that there was an accident. That lots of people died. I knew that “chernobyl” is synonymous with the dangers of nuclear energy. I had seen photos of the deserted town of Pripyat. I’d read a story about the forests near Chernobyl, full of strangely mutated creatures. But I knew very little. 

This book covers the science of the disaster, the nationalistic pressure that led to the sub-standard construction of the plant, the bureaucracy and denial that slowed the response and the cover-up in the aftermath of the explosion. 

It also tells many of the heroic stories of the first responders and plant workers who sacrificed themselves in order to help contain the disaster. Greatest among them were three workers who, knowing they would likely die a very painful death from radiation sickness, volunteered to enter the plant and swim through radioactive water to drain two large tanks, preventing another, greater explosion that would have killed millions and spread dangerous levels of radiation across much of eastern Europe, ruining the food and water supplies for a century.  

The other heroes in the disaster were the scientists who worked to identify that a reactor had, in fact, been completely exposed, despite the denials of government officials. They worked to solve the compounding problems following the explosion, then went on to help uncover the truth about what went wrong in the first place (again, despite government cover-ups). 

It’s a riveting, horrifying story, with the best and worst of humanity on display. I highly recommend both this book and HBO’s series.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

November 27, 2019

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This novel, the first in a highly-acclaimed, highly-complex science fiction trilogy, was the first Asian book to win the HUGO prize for science fiction. It is a nested story so intricate that I had trouble following at some points. 

The first section deals with an astrophysics graduate student in Beijing during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. She receives a message from a pacifist within an alien civilization called Trisolaris (“Trisolaris” is a world with three suns, where the “three-body problem,” a physics problem concerning the movement of three bodies with gravitational fields, is critical). The message warns that if the Trisolarians discover Earth, they will destroy it. 

The second section takes place in the following decades. It has been discovered that the Trisolarians have indeed launched a fleet to destroy Earth, but it will not arrive for another 450 years. Various factions form around how to deal with the impending invasion. 

The story then jumps ahead to present day, where high-level government scientists are being murdered, and everyone plays a virtual reality game where the world within it oscillates between eras of apocalyptic environmental chaos and relative stability. The inhabitants have evolved to dehydrate themselves into flat canvases in order to survive chaotic eras, and Aristotle, Newton and Mozi work to solve the mathematics that will predict the stable and chaotic eras. 

The grandness of Three-Body Problem and the imaginative constructions of the various worlds are enough to fascinate the reader, even if how it all ties together is sometimes elusive. There’s one scene in particular—within the game, where a character reconstructs a computer using thousands of soldiers on a battlefield, each soldier holding a flag up or down to mimic the binary 1’s and 0’s of computer bytes—that will stick with me from this whole book for its epic creativity. 

Perhaps because it’s a translation, the prose is fairly straightforward, even flat at times. Character development is limited. But in terms of ambition, I haven’t read anything recently that even comes close to The Three-Body Problem. If you’re willing to make the investment and hang with it, you will be rewarded with a memorable trip. 


Related Reads:

Seveneves by Neil Stephenson

The Hunger by Alma Katsu

November 27, 2019

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This is a tough novel to describe without giving any more away than I’d want to know going into it (and I don’t like to know much going into a book). It’s about the famously ill-fated Donner party, who in 1846 became stranded making a late-season crossing of the Sierra Nevadas. The Hunger reimagines the story behind the final days of those unfortunate pioneers. It is a blend of genres, layering supernatural horror onto historical fiction. 

While there are a few over-reaches with the characters and the writing goes purple in a few places, the story overall moves along easily and the suspense has an even build. I wouldn’t put it in a category with the best horror, but as my friend Victor said when he recommended it, it’s an interesting premise that would probably make a pretty compelling movie.*

 

*I just looked to see if the book has been optioned as a film. It has, by Ridley Scott, whose son Luke is set to direct it for Fox. Coincidentally, I shot my first commercial with Luke back in 2000, when I was working at an ad agency with Victor. 


Related Reads

The Midnight Assassin

In the Valley of the Sun

 

The End Is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments, from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses by Dan Carlin

November 26, 2019

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Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History is a long-form podcast (the typical episode is 3-4 hours) that covers the “drama, extremes, empathy and vivid examples of both the highs and lows of humanity.” He likes to say that he’s not a historian, just a fan of history. Part of his appeal is that his delivery is far from academic—more like a guy at the bar recounting a boxing match. Although some series are long enough to be audiobooks (the six-podcast series on World War I is about 20 hours), they’re loose and meandering, full of tangents and interesting asides. 

The End Is Always Near audiobook (narrated by Carlin) ditches the informality of the podcast and, though Carlin warns he doesn’t have a “conclusion” like books are supposed to have, does have a central theme: the end of civilizations. How do societies fall? What does extreme hardship do to the people of a civilization? Is happiness affected by one’s perception of where their civilization sits in terms of progress? 

“Certain narratives such as ‘Golden Ages’ and ‘rises and falls’ are so ingrained in our thinking that it’s easy to forget that there might be other ways to see things.” He notes, as an example, that certain people under the Roman Empire welcomed the invading barbarians as liberators. History is told with a point of view, so what makes a civilization greater or lesser is often dependent on where you sit. 

Likewise, because we can’t truly know what it was like to live at other times in other civilizations, it’s hard to know if progress correlates with happiness. Even in eras of decline, it’s hard to compare to older, more advanced civilizations. After a couple generations, people are just used to it. Nobody in the Dark Ages was running around saying, “Back when I was young, we had it so good. The aqueducts brought clean, botulism-free water…”

We look back at the ruins of great ancient societies, and the assumption, even as we study how they fell, is that our modern civilization couldn’t suffer the same fate. Even as we create apocalyptic movies and enjoy post-apocalyptic literature, as we are fully aware of the danger of our nuclear arsenals and see the effects of climate change, we don’t seriously consider the idea that society could collapse. But if it did, what then? How would we be remembered (or discovered) by future civilizations? 

It’s some of these more theoretical questions that are the through-line and highlight of this book. Carlin draws analogies from history, so along with the thought experiments, we learn quite a bit about the demise of different societies—war, famine, great migrations. The book does what Hardcore History does. It makes history palatable. Human. Exciting. 

I prefer the podcast somewhat, but this is a good book nonetheless.

 


Related Reads

Drift: The Unmooring of the American Military

The Wizards of Armageddon

But What If We’re Wrong?

The Alienist by Caleb Carr

November 3, 2019

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There’s a reason you can still spot this book on the shelves near the front of bookstores or on the “staff recommendations” shelf. It’s an excellent piece of historical fiction about a serial killer case in New York City, 1896. Carr expertly weaves the fictional plot together with the development of crime-solving techniques (e.g. fingerprinting), the woes of New York tenements and news stories of the day. The novel is also populated by real-life characters from the period, including J.P. Morgan and figures of the New York police scene, including Teddy Roosevelt, the police commissioner at the time.

This was about a decade after Jack the Ripper terrorized London and a killer preyed on servant girls in Austin (both unsolved and possibly linked, according to one theory). It was also around the same time H.H. Holmes confessed to murdering 27 people in Chicago. So, although the term “serial killer” wasn’t yet coined, the concept was in the public consciousness.

At the center of the novel are three characters: John Moore, a reporter and narrator; Dr. Lazlo Kreizler, the alienist of the title (“alienist” is an outdated term for a psychologist or psychiatrist); and Sara Howard, a secretary at NYPD headquarters. Carr develops each of these characters well, and the dynamic between them makes the novel more than just a plot-driven whodunit.

Fans of Sherlock Holmes will find much to like here. But The Alienist has more progressive themes, since it was written a century after Arthur Conan Doyle penned the Sherlock Holmes stories. Likewise, fans of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City will find much to like here (or vice versa). I will likely check out the next in the series.

 


Related Reads

The Midnight Assassin

The Devil in the White City

Mindhunter

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

November 3, 2019

NOTE: I wrote this review in 2004 (back when my reviews weren’t so wordy). I’m posting it now because it relates to my review of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist.

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This was on a lot of people’s lists for the best books of 2003. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s the parallel story of Chicago’s preparation to host the World’s Fair in 1893, and the story of a psychopathic serial killer living at the same time and place. The writing is good. The history fascinating. Larson tells the horrific story of the murders without lapsing into sensationalism, and paints the majesty of the World’s Fair and the effect it had on the people of Chicago with a wonderfully vivid brush. If a similar fair were to take place today, it would seem overly extravagant. If a madman were to create a house of torture today, it would seem yet another sign of our degenerative times. But in 1893, the extravagance stems from a sense of civic pride rather than corporate greed, and the murder spree is so out-of-place that it does seem like the work of the devil. Two great stories that, juxtaposed, stand even stronger.

Chase Darkness with Me: How One True Crime Writer Started Solving Murders by Billy Jensen

October 21, 2019

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So you wanna be an amateur detective? There’s plenty of work out there for you. In 2018, a stunning 40% of murders went unsolved. And with the internet, you can now connect with thousands of other wannabe sleuths who have gone beyond a love of true crime to actually trying to solve them. Propelled by shows like Making a Murderer and Mindhunter and a seemingly endless stream of true crime podcasts like Serial, My Favorite Murder and Atlanta Monster, it seems everyone thinks they can be Encyclopedia Brown. 

I’m a moderate true crime fan. Helter Skelter a few years ago to Mindhunter and Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark last year. Not so much the podcasts.  I’m more fascinated by the hunt than the crime, and the amateur community adds another interesting element. 

Jensen was an online friend and collaborator of Michelle McNamara while she was obsessively working the unsolved case of the Golden State Killer. Unfortunately, she tragically passed away in 2016, leaving both her case and her book incomplete. Jenson helps finish both stories here, not only detailing the identification and capture of the Golden State Killer, but also how he worked with McNamara’s husband, Patton Oswalt, to finish her best-selling I’ll Be Gone in the Dark from Michelle’s notes. As such, this is a great companion for that book. 

But beyond that, Jenson tells about his own obsessions. His cases. What brought him to true crime and amateur sleuthing. And how you too can stay become a sleep-deprived, highly caffeinated pourer over police reports, crime scene photos and conspiracy-laden chat boards. I don’t mean to denigrate—I find it interesting because it is so darkly weird. Because these people seem pretty normal, yet have this macabre obsession that has the feel of a suburban book club, yet deals with stab wounds and blood splatter patterns and the psychological profiles of sociopaths.

I would definitely recommend I’ll Be Gone in the Dark first, but if you’ve read that and want more, Chase Darkness With Me is a great next read.