Tag Archives: non-fiction

Voices from Chernobyl edited by Svetlana Alexievich

Interested in?

  • Russian/Soviet history
  • science “fiction” – this stuff is stranger than fiction

The Book:

April 26, 1986, an incredibly significant event occurred in an otherwise little known part of Russia called Prypiat, Ukraine SSR. The event was the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster. A malfunction in the plant caused one of the reactors  to reach a high temperature resulting in a large explosion. The  explosion shot fuel and materials high into the atmosphere. This included dangerous levels of radiation.

The amount of radiation that was released from the explosion was 400 times the amount that occurred in Hiroshima.  High levels of radiation were detected not only in Soviet Russia, but also all over the world and were directly linked to the disaster.  It changed our world.

Voices from Chernobyl is a collection of stories told to and collected by Svetlana Alexievich. The stories give account to the lives that were affected and are still affected by the Chernobyl accident.  The voices were powerful and engaging. I was addicted to the horror and the humanity of the events as described by the people who lived through this.

There is no narration in the story, and yet, maybe because of the collective consciousness of the Soviet people, the stories remain consistent and cohesive. Although interconnected, Alexievich also presents many different perspectives, from the old ladies who refused to leave during the evacuations, to the officials who  made the calls to send people into the plant to put out the fires. The most haunting tale is the memories of a wife whose husband had died from radiation poisoning. The radiation feels like a mysterious evil.

Why?

Alan (my husband) and I were watching The VICE Guide to Travel: Chernobyl, and, of course, nuclear power has been a timely issue since the Fukushiuma nuclear crisis. The show was slightly sensational, but still riveting. I was struck with the idea that there are spaces in the world that have been almost forever changed, as if they were different dimensions now. The movie, and the book are full of images of vacant schools with drawn pictures on the wall, and wild animals living in abandoned houses.

Voices from Chernobyl opened up this world to me. And, if ever I was hesitant about our dependency on nuclear technology, that we don’t understand or have the capacity to totally control, I have definitely been swayed. Not cool.

Another fascinating theme of the book was the patriotism of the people who were ordered by their government to risk their health in order to clean up the disaster and make it better for others. The Russian people knew that they were needed, and that they stood up to the challenge, even when it meant dying of cancer at an early age.  This is crazy stuff!

If you enjoy this sort of thing, then please pick up this book. You will be haunted by it for the rest of your life.

Malcolm Gladwell: Outliers. A book review by Alan Judson

Malcolm Gladwell.  Outliers.

Who would like this book:

-People in business who want to spout of some interesting facts around the photocopier (Hey, speaking of flying, do you know why Korean Air had the most airplane crashes of any other developed nation…)

-Those who like a quick, entertaining, “cultural” studies books

-People who enjoy simple explanations

Malcolm Gladwell, Canada’s own prolific, best-selling author, brings his interpretation of statistics to the masses, in an entertaining format that jumps from Bill Gates’ back pages, to the precise, mathematical equation, explaining why the Beatles became famous.  There aren’t many instances that I can use my hidden superpower (I found in school that I excelled in Statistics, of all things – why couldn’t my secret gift have been an angelic voice!).

A chart of Demetri Martin's - Stats can be funny...

This book is not strictly about stats – or it wouldn’t be a best-seller.  It is about success.  Why are some geniuses successful, while others are working normal or sub-normal jobs?  It is because of their upbringing and situation.

Malcolm’s basic argument is that outliers – statistical jargon for things that fall outside of the usual predictions or mediocrity – are not self-made, but the result of their circumstances.  Bill Gates, for instance, is not a computer business mogul only because of his intelligence, but because he happened to go to a school that had a computer (rare for his time), and happened to have liked computers young, and happened to get free computer time at a local university (also a rare situation), etc., etc.

Geniuses, like Bill Gates, had a series of fortunate events, that perfectly aligned to allow him to be one of the richest men in history.   He is heavily on the side of nurture, rather than nature.  I don’t have a problem with this.  I don’t believe that having a “killing” gene, or a “infidelity” gene determines whether or not a person will murder or cheat.  But, Gladwell takes certain liberties that I don’t agree with…

Fine.  Environment is a huge factor.  But Gladwell kneads outs his examples until he can pin-point the cause of, say, Bill Gates’s success and the success of many successful computer geeks of his era.  He says the perfect time to be born is something like 1954 or 1953.   What is more ludicrous than picking a golden year to be a giant software tycoon, is his proofs.

He gives a list of successful computer giants that were born on, or within, one year of the date.  I say, what about the thousands of successful computer geeks that were born in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s?

Although not all his examples are so absurd, I feel like he was stretching his examples to fit his argument.

Maybe I’m a logic snob, but I wouldn’t recommend this book because he tries to simplify complex concepts.   I appreciate his reaction to the myth of the “self-made man,” but he could have still used entertaining examples, and softened his grand conclusions.

Outliers ≠read.

By the way, if you want to see a really funny mash-up of charts, graphs and humour, watch this Demetri Martin video (I featured his chart, above):

http://www.youtube.com/v/GuOaVRerZLY?fs=1&hl=en_US

Also:

Cool stats website that tallies World Population, Energy Usage, etc., in real time.

http://www.worldometers.info/

Alan