Latest Reading: Before the Fall

It was an eerie coincidence that last night I finished Noah Hawley’s suspense novel “Before the Fall”. This morning I learned of NBA legend Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash. The novel centers around a private plane crash between Martha’s Vineyard and New York. On board the plane was the CEO of a fictional Fox News and his family and friends. The only survivors are a struggling artist and the 4-year old son.

After describing the crash and amazing survival story, the novel gives the back story of the 11 people on board. The story works toward the results of the investigation of the crash. Hawley is an author but more famous as a writer for television, including being a showrunner for the series Fargo and Legion. The book has a cinematic quality to it and I read where it is turning into a movie. Contemplating the cause of the crash assisted me falling asleep.

My takeaway from the novel is the idea of great wealth. Having more money than one can spend in a lifetime brings luxury and comfort, with no material worries. However, it does not bring true happiness and the most important things, such as family relationships (husband-wife, father-daughter, etc.), health, purpose are not enhanced with great wealth. In fact, running a fictional Fox News takes the father away from the family. His wife is a former school teacher 20 years younger than him. I think there is a sweet spot for wealth; to be comfortably upper middle class.

I recommend the book, it is a page-turner and Hawley gives lots of details about psychology, motivations, childhoods, about each of the characters that give depth to the action thriller.

Kobe Bryant, age 41, died in a private helicopter crash along with his daughter and friends. He was on his way to a basketball game. His immense wealth (and bad luck) was the cause of his death as he could afford to fly to the game instead of driving like most people do in metro Los Angeles.

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the Worlds Greatest Nuclear Disaster (Latest Reading)

Over the holiday break I finished Adam Higginbotham’s book on the Chernobyl accident of 1986. Higginbotham is a journalist who writes for prestigious publications such as the Telegraph, New York Times, etc. The book made the New York Times Top 10 Books of 2019 list. His writing is clear and he puts suspense into every chapter and so it was a difficult book to put down. I am now watching HBO’s Chernobyl series to compliment my understanding the accident.

I have been generally pro-nuclear energy, despite this accident, the Fukushima accident in Japan (where I lived for five years) and starting my teaching career in Nevada, where the US federal government was trying to put a nuclear waste storage facility under Yucca Mountain. I am fascinated with nuclear energy and always try to read about or visit nuclear energy plants when the opportunity arises. I like that it is a source of energy that does not contribute to global warming and is so far, the biggest alternative to traditional fossil fuels.

The cause of the accident at Chernobyl was the Soviet government. They did things as cheap as possible and had an unquestioning bureaucratic structure that did not promote a culture of excellence. I felt sorry for the plant workers having to deal with the flimsy and antique equipment and control systems. I am surprised more accidents didn’t happen in the ex-Soviet Union. Doing things on the cheap, especially when it comes to something as large and deadly as a nuclear reactor, is not a good idea.

The book and the HBO series vividly portray the invisible power of radiation. The tragic and horrible consequences of high dosages of radiation on humans and the environment are shocking. It is odd the delay in the effects of radiation and it would be more helpful to avoid it if one could see the deadly rays emitted by radioactive substances.

The delays in evacuation and stopping the exposed core are due to the Soviet system. There seemed to be a lot of fear, resignation and no challenging of authority. I see some of that living here in Uzbekistan, an ex-Soviet republic. It will take a long time for these countries to move past the effects of living under the Soviet system for such a long time. I read recently where with the help of Russia, Uzbekistan will be building a nuclear energy plant in the Navoi region (between Samarkand and Bukhara). I hope they have learned from the mistakes of Chernobyl.

Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan

I finished reading Joanna Lillis’s book, “Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan”. It is an excellent introduction to the country with a bit of history, a section on the government and stories about individual Kazakhs. Her writing style is engaging and she definitely knows the country well.

It makes me want to visit our neighboring country soon. I didn’t realize that Kazakhstan was so large, almost the same size as Argentina. Like Uzbekistan, it was a former Soviet Republic, but sharing such a long border with Russia, it is more influenced by it. When independence came in the early 90s, Kazakhs were a minority. This has changed over the nearly 30 years as a country. Joanna really knows the country well and there are a lot of perspectives in the book. I loved the story about the villagers living near an old uranium mine. It is unfortunate that the world knows Kazakhstan more for the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen than anything else.

Lillis is now a sanctioned journalist in Uzbekistan and I’ll be following her reporting. I highly recommend the book for those interested in Central Asia.

Tim O’Brien “The Things They Carried”

I read O’Brien’s book (The Things They Carried – 1990) of fictional short stories on the Vietnam War because my son Owen’s grade 11 IB English class will be reading it this year. The book is commonly read in high school English classes and is one of the preeminent books of the Vietnam War. I watched the classic Vietnam War movies like Platoon and Apocalypse Now and visited Ho Chi Minh City in June of 2017. I started watching Ken Burn and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War PBS series. (I should watch the entire series.) Tim O’Brien fought in Vietnam and the stories are based on his experiences and what he heard from fellow soldiers. The details of the stories ring true.

O’Brien’s prose flows easily and many of the stories have memorable lines. The short stories make it a good book to read before bed, one does not need to keep track of complex plot lines. He is a bit older than me, but grew up in small town Minnesota and I can relate to his perspective. The title comes from the first story, a description of the physical and emotional things soldiers carry in their backpacks while on patrol.

The book reinforced many of the themes of war literature. Humans are rarely put in life and death situations and this danger forms close bonds between soldiers. Many of the soldiers are just kids, 18 and 19 years old and the differences between small town America and the rainforests of Vietnam are huge. Just the shock of travelling outside the American midwest and placed in south east Asia would be shocking enough, but add a war and I can see why veterans struggle with PTSD. Another theme is the indifference of the “folks back home” felt by returning veterans. The story of Norman Bowker’s drive around the lake while remembering the death of his friend in a mortar attack really emphasized how returning veterans must feel. Sadly, this continues today with soldiers coming back from Iran and Afghanistan.

I also liked the story “On the Rainy River”. The story is set in the summer after the author is drafted and learns he is heading to Vietnam. He wavers between escaping to Canada or reporting to basic training. O’Brien feels he is a coward by not fleeing and living up to the expectations of his family and friends in his small town. Oh, the value of age and perspective. I am curious to see what class discussions and assignments Owen brings home his in English class.