Andrew Blackwell’s book Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places has come up a few times recently. I wrote an Amazon review for the book when it first came out in 2012 — the only review I’ve written. Here it is:
Visit Sunny Chernobyl: Or, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Polluted Planet.”
I’m a fan of both adventure travel writing and ecological nonfiction, and Visit Sunny Chernobyl is a solid, highly entertaining instance of both. Blackwell doesn’t necessarily claim to be writing either, though — he’s just a tourist who wants to vacation in the world’s most polluted places, and has written the missing travel guide for pollution tourism.
It’s a brilliant conceit. But what makes the book successful is that, while partially tongue-in-cheek, Blackwell is serious. He found something captivating in one of the world’s most polluted cities in India, which contradicted his preconceptions of nature-is-good and pollution-is-gross. That’s not to say that he’s pro-polution. He’s absolutely not. It’s that these places are usually presented as news, or obscured by political agenda, or simply invisible to the rest of the world, and the real world is always richer than any one view. It’s not human vs. nature: everything is far more mixed up than that.
Blackwell gets the story from the people he meets. The world’s most polluted places are usually someone’s home — pollution is, after all, the result of human activity. And as with the best non-fiction writing, the result is compassionate and humanizing, erasing the easy idea of “other.” It turns out that this is the fundamental key in solving any problem.
Blackwell is humorous without being glib, satirical without being dishonest, personal without being self-indulgent, and insightful without being ponderous. He weaves separate trips into one complete narrative, each building on the previous chapter. The book contains an important (and urgent) ecological message, but does so without being preachy. It’s too much fun to read. Highly recommended for anyone.