43. Visit Sunny Chernobyl by Andrew Blackwell

Published in 2012 by Rodale Books.

“The reason I find myself beating the same thematic horse on every continent isn’t that the polluted places of the world aren’t polluted. It’s that I love them. I love the ruined places for all the ways they aren’t ruined.”

If Andrew Blackwell’s book were a boy you used to date, he’d be the cardigan-clad loner who’d nick your dad’s best weed and keep you up all night with hot, intellectual discourse. He’s not necessarily the one you want for homecoming, but God, how you’d like to travel the world in his post-anarchic company.

And travel the world you will, in Visit Sunny Chernobyl. Oh, the places you’ll go!

♦ Northern Alberta, to check out some oil sands mining;
♦ Port Arthur, Texas, where the oil craze had its inception;
♦ Sailing towards, and around, the North Pacific Ocean’s trash vortex;
♦ The Amazon, where they do bad things to trees;
♦ Guiyu and Linfen in Southern China, where computers go to die;
♦ Trailing the course of the Yamuna, India’s largest tributary of the Ganges —
♦ and, of course, Chernobyl.

Why? Before Blackwell’s official pollution-tourism peregrinations kicked off, he took a three-day tour of Kanpur, in India. While poking through its toxins, he felt that ineffable je ne sais quoiness, a sense of inverted beauty pyramids, and of how commodification is altering the earth. This sparked, if you will, a wildfire of curiosity. Blackwell wanted to take a different sort of trip — think, less Sandals resorts, more salmonella. Amp up the scum, peer into the fetid abyss, see what we’ve done and how much fun we’ve had doing it: the concept alone is a brilliant inversion of leisure ethics, but I suppose my biggest qualm, pre-reading, was how well this smashing concept could bear out.

It bears out, chiefly because Blackwell is good company on the page. Just self-deprecating enough, perceptive, and disposed to listen to the stories of others, his eco-disaster yarns spin the reader into the journey, instead of leaving her on the sidelines. You’re there, in the thick of it, breathing in the filth, wading through the plastic, listening for telltale radioactive beeps that keep time with your heart. You are implicit in the wreckage (and, ironically, you are, which you know already.)

For the most part, the writer shies away from political spillage and proselytization. What’s gratifying is a distinct lack of punch-pulling about po-correctness: witness Blackwell’s take on Yellowstone’s dismantling of the human element, for example.

“Native Americans were excluded from Yellowstone at its creation. Though people had been present in the area that was to become the park for thousands of years, native American practices of hunting and planned burning were anathema to a view of nature as sacrosant from human involvement. […] The creation of Yellowstone formalized the idea that human beings have no place in a protected wilderness — unless they are tourists.”

Blackwell shines at this good-guy acerbic commentary: the shots he takes against various Big Bads make for hilarious, “Oh man I just snorted in public while reading this” moments. That said, there is a slick sense of… overcompensation, at times, in the distribution of chuckles and the peppering of narrative with cutesy, charming pop culture references. The non-fiction is made easy for us, turning the genre bewilderingly trendy and urbane, a regular jaunt through diseased playscapes and rotting carousels, but (and yes, this sounds poisonously bitchy) sometimes it seems too easy. I wouldn’t have minded suffering a little more.

What the book isn’t is a definitive guide. Readers will be disappointed if they come away from its chapters expecting a top-tier education in radiation, or the history of deforestation in South America. Where Blackwell excels is dismantling the academia around these and other bodies of knowledge. His walkthroughs of pollution tourism basics reflect his desire not to offend unschooled minds: sympathetically, the reader has her hand held and guided through the gritty specifics of how oil can plummet out of the earth, of how keyboards can be stripped to their basic, valuable components.

A clear gleam of beauty is often twined into the twisted maw of darkness: this is true about as much in fiction as it is reality. This uneasy yet fascinating duality is a concept Blackwell mines thoroughly on his travels. “There is a kind of destruction that has beauty in its weapon,” he comments, listening to an Amazonian landowner’s awed description of masses of forestland, burning unchecked into the night. The author links this awe to the manner in which refinery flares were described to him, during his time in Port Arthur, Texas.

Gratifyingly, Blackwell moves a step beyond simple enumeration of these beautiful, catastrophic developments; he pushes the reader’s gaze towards the imaginary scale where beauty is demarcated, asking her to consider its ourobourosian structure. “The beauty or ugliness of a place didn’t have that much to do with what it looked like,” Blackwell says, when given a curious eyewitness account of a Canadian tar sands mining site. He expands on this thought:

“Beauty depends on what we think is right. How else could we have come to think that unnatural objects like cities or farms or open roads were beautiful? That’s what I wanted to see. The rind of beauty that must exist in every uncared-for corner of the world.”

Visit Sunny Chernobyl probably won’t make you see recycling in a new light. I doubt it’ll strike up some nascent passion for greenhouse architecture, or Greenpeace enlisting. Maybe that’s because this doughty traveller’s guide isn’t sponsored by preventative psychology. It’s not saying, “We should save the Earth before we ruin it.” Oh no. It’s intoning, “Hey, we’ve already ruined the Earth. Vast tracts of her, in fact. But it turns out the Earth gets the last laugh, always. She’s indomitable; we’re plastic-addled specks.” Prospecting for information and rippling semaphores of grace, with our hazmat suits on: this might be something we do more and more enthusiastically as we mark out our days.

27. Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So by Mark Vonnegut

Published in 2010 by Delacorte Press.

“I’m getting better again, taking medication, doing my very best to be a good patient, but then out of the blue, the chain-link fence that surrounds the hospital pulls me toward it, wraps around me, and is going to crush me. […] At some point in there I try to tell my father that I’m feeling better, and he says that he wouldn’t nominate me as Mr. Mental Health quite yet. I want to ask him if he is in the running or just one of the judges.”

I’m fully prepared to be wrong here, but I suspect that high on the lists of why people gravitate towards reading memoir is because they anticipate a certain unflinchingness in articulation. They expect, oft-erroneously, that if a person’s got the testicular/cervical fortitude to put themselves out in the limelight, then, by gad, they’re going to write with moxy, with aplomb, with some brass! I’m pleased to report that Mark Vonnegut’s got all three. Even though I’ve not yet read anything by his famous father, I was hesitant, approaching this title. You know full well how the children of illustrious creatives often balk from the wide circles of fame their parents cast. If they do venture into productive waters of their own, they typically embody one of the following traits:

1. They offer work that is painfully, ludicrously derivative—but this is forgiveable, and less egregious than—
2. the fact that they just as easily feign ignorance of their parents’ existence, shunning the specific styles of their mothers and fathers.

Shunning is all well and good, but shunning for reasons that are petulantly emotive rather than deliberately stylistic—well, that smacks of danger, to me… the danger of potentially good art being obscured by the long, long arm of familial resentment. It’s important to note that Vonnegut doesn’t write with cloying sycophancy or feigned apathy about Kurt, when he writes of him. In this way, I suppose people who turn to Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So to glean more of Vonnegut Senior’s inner workings would be most put out. I respectfully posit that they’re looking in entirely the wrong place. This is Mark’s story, after all. Readers like myself, who’ve not had the benefit of reading his previous book, The Eden Express, will likely be relieved to know that this second offering stands heartily on its own—though, doubtless, if you enjoyed this one, as I did, you’ll want to seek out the first.

A wideness and generosity of range drives the scope of the memoir; it feels like we’re touching base with Vonnegut at various points on his life, that he’s chosen this approach in attempt to round and flesh out the narrative: to show the polyvalency of the paths he’s trod. In addition to sharing the trajectory (if not the specifics, but more on that anon) of his four psychotic breakdowns, the writer presents his childhood days, his memories of Kurt the non-writer (his pre-fame father was, to quote Mark, “the world’s worst car salesman who couldn’t get a job teaching English at Cape Cod Community College.”) We’re also treated to reflections on Mark’s seemingly circuitous path to entering medical school at the age of twenty-eight, glimpses into his family’s mental health (or lack thereof) history, his decision to specialize in paediatrics, humorous anecdotes gleaned from his stint of relief work in Honduras. The overall impression created is less linear than good-humouredly scattered, with the chapters anchored by the author’s own paintings.

What’s particularly illuminating about Vonnegut’s situation is that, as both mental patient and physician, he’s able to speak candidly and forthrightly about either side of the institutional coin. His perspectives on the profession, patient-doctor relationships and medical insurance are wise, modulated by experience rather than any desire of his to sell you something. The insights he proffers on what one might term “behind the scenes” goings-on in the world of health care might not be novel, but it’s refreshing to have them uttered by someone in his specific white coat. Here, he speaks about the nature and classification history of his ailment:

“I was diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia. […] What I had and have is more consistent with what is now called bipolar disorder, which used to be called manic depression. The name change was an effort to get away from the stigma around the diagnosis of manic depression. Good luck. Until we come up with an unequivocal blood test or the equivalent, we’re all blowing smoke and don’t know if what we call schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are one disorder or a dozen.”

It’s especially gratifying to read Vonnegut’s less than flattering opinion of the corporate concerns that undercut the quality and consistency of aid given. In remarking on the shifting behaviours that govern patient-doctor discussion, he reminisces with gratitude on the open, wide-ranged talks he was able to have with his own psychiatrist when his Thorazine dosage was being reduced. In speculating on what that procedure would entail in a present-day setting, his tone is resolutely bald.

“Today, if I was lucky, I’d see a case supervisor monthly and maybe a psychopharmacology nurse every three months. Clinical guidelines would mandate that I be on antipsychotics for at least five years. The medication I was on would be determined by who paid for lunch and what deal was cut between my health insurer and the pharmaceutical industry.”

I didn’t get the impression that the author was trying to earn a battery of enemies in the medical insurance field. He’s not calling out the insurers, the pharmaceutical manufacturers, the impersonal practitioners, because he’s trying to curry favour with readers for his audacity. One senses that Mark Vonnegut’s just speaking his mind, that having lived through his psychotic episodes (which he refers to as “breaks”) made him less susceptible to tolerating perceived injustices: in short, that those very breaks helped build him into a more genuine, candour-driven self.

An anticlimactic area centres on the issue that there is little visceral untangling of the four psychotic breaks themselves. The writer doesn’t shy away from bringing them up, but we’re never allowed a full and inexorable assessment of those specifics. The autobiography opens with the general delineation of Mark’s symptoms: his inability to eat or sleep; the voices that plagued him; his tendency toward self-harm; his heavy sedation. I kept waiting, with bated breath, to be led further down the rabbit hole of an insider’s vivid description of bipolar disorder… but it felt like Mark kept me solidly, perhaps even safely, at the fringes. Maybe this is as much enlightenment as can be reasonably expected, and maybe this is just the way Mark experienced those breaks, too. Still, it’s difficult not to feel stranded on the shore of apprehension, hoping an illuminating wave of prose will sweep us into the churning emotional seas of a world populated by voices in your head. It never happens. Perhaps I ought to be grateful for that, rather than critical.

What will win readers to this artful autobiographical meandering is, ultimately, its ease of voice. The narrative is laden with quotable illuminations on the role of art in assuaging despair, on the combined weight-inspiration of laying claim to a famous father, on the ways in which interludes of madness can wreak havoc on your life and simultaneously transform it to your best advantage. All of these are shared in the writer’s personable, gently self-deprecating style. Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More is a interior journey you can take with the signposts of a life that’s been, by turns, extraordinary and reassuringly simple. If you think of your autobiographical narrator as a companion and cohort in the reading experience, you’d be hard-pressed to find one more earnest and admirably principled than Mark Vonnegut.

A free electronic copy of this novel was provided by the Random House Publishing Group (Delacorte Press imprint) for review, through NetGalley. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own, and are not influenced by their generous gift of gratuitous literature.

5. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

Published in 2001. This Edition: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2003.

Winner of the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, 2002.

Shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Prize, 2002.

“My God, I am the wrong colour. The way I am burned by the sun, scorched by stinging sand, prickled by heat. The way my skin erupts in miniature volcanoes of protest in the presence of tsetse flies, mosquitoes, ticks. The way I stand out against the khaki bush like a large marshmallow to a gook with a gun. White. African. White-African.

“But what are you?” I am asked over and over again.

“Where are you from originally?” “

How does one adequately, or aptly, summarize the telling of someone’s life by their own voice—especially when their life continues to be a work in progress?

This is the living life story of Alexandra ‘Bobo’ Fuller, her family, her country, herself, growing up in it, learning to survive, respect and fear it, and understanding her own love for her Africa.

Alexandra’s life in Africa began when she was two, transported from mild-pastured England by her parents along with older, improbably beautiful sister Vanessa. She learns, early, what it is like to straddle identities, as surely as she learns how to wield a shotgun, take a careful pee, rustle and herd cattle, defend herself against obvious and unspoken dangers.

Alexandra Fuller is the author of this uncompromising, tough narrative, but it is Bobo’s story we learn, Bobo’s thoughts, her vulnerability and her resolute toughness swaddled together beneath the blistering heat of Rhodesian, Zambian, Malawian, Zimbabwean sun.

Fuller turns a beautiful phrase, somewhat unexpectedly. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight seems, at the outset, like a tale suited for economy, for spare, flinty syllables and arid landscapes. There is no surfeit of that, but hard images are rendered, in Fuller’s prose, with touching elegance, with the generous, sensual touch of an artist’s brush, the sharpness of cartographic vision.

This novel is eminently two things before most others. It is the story of a remarkable childhood, adolescence, coming of age: a bildungsroman that would lose no sheen standing next to Great Expectations on a bookshelf. It feels like nothing so much as a sepia-toned movie, relentlessly and unforgivingly shot at the regular pace of growing up, but without the possibility of retakes. Lions, tigers and bears—oh my, indeed.

It is also the book most writers feel uncomfortably in their stomachs, and the one most of them never write. This is the origin story of the story-originator… the thousand and one family secrets in varying degrees of cleanliness. Here, amassed, told unflinchingly, are the Fuller family’s long list of bêtes noires. There is sexual harrassment, unabashed racism, weakness for drink, isolation and an aversion to demonstrative love. There is death, sorrow, and guilt that eats itself up in a neverending cycle… guilt linked to death, which, from the way Fuller recounts it, seems easily like it might just be the worst goddamned kind.

Black and white photographs of Bobo, her family, their farm, and other key figures in her life intersperse the chapters, often heralding their beginnings, on occasion tucked in unexpectedly between the painful, or hilarious recollections, and there is hilarity aplenty in Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. Certain sections made me put the book down to laugh, uproariously, shrieking to the ceiling.

We Trinidadians like to say that laugh and cry does live in the same house. Perhaps there is a similar saying in Rhodesia-now-Zimbabwe, or perhaps Fuller knows what the best writers know… that in sharing one’s life in print, it is hard to sift sadness out of mirth, glee out of gloom.

As with all the books I love best, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is not an easy read. Would it be so memorable if it were? It might… for all the laughter and the tears contained in Fuller’s African house.

“In those days, I explored the ranch as if I were capable of owning its secrets, as if its heat and isolation and hostility were embraceable friends. I covered the hot, sharp, thorny ground of the ranch on horseback, foot and bicycle, ignorant of her secrets and fearless of her taboos, as if these ancient, native constraints did not apply to me.”