'Everything Is Ugly. Wish You Were Here'

Winnipeg Free Press, August 25, 2012 | Go to article overview

'Everything Is Ugly. Wish You Were Here'


The best parts of this engaging travel memoir relate not to places but to people who live in some of the globe's most befouled locales.

A bright, friendly Alberta oil sands worker welcomes the author, an American journalist, into his home and asks: "So, are we raping the planet?"

A Texas oil refinery employee casually admits he knows he's "gonna get some kind of cancer," and says his co-workers share that expectation about themselves.

"Coin collectors" (who collect much more than coins) wade in India's filthy Yamuna River, philosophical about what they must endure to earn a living.

In Ukraine, the tour guides who take people to the site of a great nuclear meltdown seem unbothered by the high radiation levels and attend a disco at night.

Visit Sunny Chernobyl is the first book by Andrew Blackwell, a journalist, filmmaker and self-described "eco-friendly liberal" who lives in New York.

His aim isn't just to entertain us with stories about places far more polluted than our patch of the Canadian Prairies, though he does that very well.

No, he's also testifying to the adaptability of people and nature -- how they will make the most of even very bad situations.

Moreover, he's saying we should learn to appreciate even the parts of our world that are, to conventional thinking, the ugliest. It's a sadly narrow esthetic that loves only the prettiest.

Indeed, Blackwell contends in the concluding pages that "to chase after the beautiful and the pristine (is) to abandon most of the world."

Besides, he sees good things in each of the polluted destinations.

"I love the ruined places for all the ways they aren't ruined," he writes. "Does somebody live there? Does somebody work there? Does somebody miss it when they leave?"

He got the idea for this book a few years ago, when he happened upon Kanpur, India.

Kanpur is a big city, with a population in the millions, but it isn't mentioned in travel guidebooks. …

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