Monday, February 8, 2016

Review of Rivers of Gold

Rivers of Gold, The Rise of the Spanish Empire from Columbus to Magellan by Hugh Thomas, 2003. Glossy's rating: 7.5/10.

This is a history of the first 30 years of the Spanish Empire in the Americas. It opens with Ferdinand and Isabella, the monarchs of Aragon and Castile, besieging the last Muslim stronghold in Spain. While doing this they are petitioned by a Genoese sea captain who's sure that he knows the way to the Indies.

Columbus was one of the many dozens of enterprising Genoese mentioned in this book. They seemed to constitute a market-dominant minority in Spain of that time, being especially prominent as bankers and merchants.

The art of the Renaissance was dominated by Florentines, with Venetians far behind and the Genoese almost invisible. I'm guessing that Florentines were less prominent in international commerce than their rivals at least partly because the Arno wasn't navigable from Florence to the sea. Could that be why a greater proportion of their best brains went into the arts? The only noteworthy Florentine in this book is Amerigo Vespucci.

It makes sense that the Genoese would have been more active in the western Mediterranean and that Venetians would have focused on the east.

During the same year that the Spanish monarchs conquered Granada and financed Columbus's voyage they took an important decision with regard to Spain's other market-dominant minority. They decreed that all Spanish Jews had to either convert to Catholicism or leave the country. Thomas reports that three prominent Jewish leaders offered the royal couple 112 million maravedis, more than 50 times the cost of Columbus's trip, to change their minds. It was in vain.

The Jews who accepted Catholicism and stayed were called conversos. They were heavily overrepresented in banking, commerce, government bureaucracy and the church. I was surprised by how many of them fought as conquistadors.

I know that a blogger named Mencius Moldbug claims that leftism was born in 17th century England and that Jews only picked it up from WASPs. Don't get me wrong, I wish that was true myself. But it's not. There was leftism in early 16th century Spain and its leader was a converso named Bartolomé de las Casas.

He railed against Spanish settlers in the Americas, saying that he had "seen the greatest cruelty and inhumanity practiced on the gentle and peace-loving indigenous people, without any reason except for insatiable greed, thirst, and hunger for gold by the conquistadors".

To support these claims he engaged in wild hyperbole: "Here [...], Las Casas first launched his famous propaganda cannonade of figures. He insisted that Bartolomeo Colón had said that there had been 1.1 million Indians in La Española in 1492. But now there were only 12,000. Almost all Las Casas’s statistics were exaggerated, these more than most."

He promoted affirmative action, wishing that "the benefit to the Indians was to be placed ahead of that of the settlers" and that "Indians were not to be punished for wrongdoings in the same way as Spaniards."

He agitated for race mixing in the Americas, dreaming that "in time, Indians and Spaniards would intermarry and so would form a single “republic,” which would become the most peaceful and Christian in the world, “for the sons of one race would marry the daughters of the other.”

Some of Las Casas's opponents in policy debates at court and elsewhere maintained that Indians weren't different from beasts of burden and that, left to themselves, they "would do nothing except drink, dance, and plot." Some brought up the idea "that Aristotle was right that there were laws that proclaimed that white people were superior to those who were black and brown." I don't know if Aristotle actually wrote that.

Thomas calls Las Casas's end of the opinion spectrum humanist, but that's a mistake. Like many others, he petitioned the crown to replace Indian workers in America with African slaves. And when one of Las Casas's enemies accused him of having participated during his time in the Caribbean in exactly the kind of massacres that he now denounced, all Las Casas could answer was that he had reformed - a virtual admission.

Both before and after these debates the crown's official position was that Indians had to be treated with the utmost respect, unless of course they rejected Christianity, in which case they could be attacked, killed and enslaved. Superficially this sounds like modern Western rhetoric - foreigners should be treated well unless they reject feminism, democracy and homosex, in which case war is justified and very much encouraged. The difference is that the Catholicism of 1500 was a much better ideology than feminism, democracy and homosex in the sense that it was more in tune with human nature. It was also a civilizational step up for the Indians.

On the ground in the Americas many Spaniards treated many Indians very cruelly. But contrary to Las Casas's leftist claptrap, the Indians themselves had never been gentle, peace-loving or "free by nature". There was human sacrifice, slavery and epically murderous warfare in Mesoamerica as well as rampant cannibalism in the Caribbean long before the Spaniards showed up. Cortés's conquest of Mexico, for example, was made easier by the alliances he made with the peoples that had been previously subjugated by the Aztec Empire. Some of them saw him as a liberator.

Thomas calls Cortés "the most remarkable of conquistadors", and not just for his martial qualities. He describes his "artful letters" to Charles V as "the only documents still worth reading of the large body of literature created by the conquests." We first meet him when he fails to take advantage of his first opportunity to go to America because "at the last minute he hurt his leg jumping out of the window of a lady in Seville whom he had been trying to seduce."

Cortéz was an Extremaduran, like a wildly disproportionate share of the conquistadors. Why were they so prominent in this endeavor? To start with, the third governor of the Indies was an Extremaduran, and he brought a lot of his people with him. Another hint is given by Thomas when, after describing a bit of wild west-type behavior by the Spaniards - a story of machismo, insubordination and violence - he remarks that "the Caribbean was beginning to seem like Extremadura before the coming of the Catholic Kings."

That epithet refers to the aforementioned Ferdinand and Isabella, who pacified and centralized Spain at the same time that French, English and Russian monarchs pacified and centralized their own realms. The rise of artillery might have been a reason for this continent-wide trend. Petty nobles couldn't hide behind their armor and castle walls any more. But it should be noted that, according to Thomas, guns were less important to the Spanish conquest of the New World than steel swords. The Indians used metals only for decoration, and none of their metals were as hard as steel.

I was surprised to learn that, unlike the French, English and Russian monarchs of the time, Ferdinand and Isabella did not have a capital. Their court constantly moved around the country in the medieval fashion.

Their son Juan was supposed to inherit their throne, but he died in his youth. By the end of his life Ferdinand had to resign himself to the prospect of being succeeded by his foreign grandson Charles.

The world seems to be full of ignoramuses who think that nationalism was invented at the time of the French Revolution. I've even seen the claim that before the 19th century people didn't care if they were ruled by foreigners. As Thomas amply documents, the Spaniards of the 1510s cared.

Physically Charles was roughly half-Spanish, but he did not grow up in Spain and did not know its language when he assumed the throne.

Most of the people he knew and trusted were Flemings, so this is whom he ended up appointing to positions of power in Spain. They effectively became the country's third market-dominant minority after conversos and the Genoese. Stories of them taking money out of the country and disrespecting the locals multiplied.

Spanish representative assemblies petitioned Charles to appoint more Spaniards to high government posts and to only use Spanish tax money for Spanish needs. In addition to Spain he ruled the Netherlands, much of Italy and eventually the Holy Roman Empire. The Cortes (parliament) of Castille asked Charles to only address it in Spanish. While conscious of their regional differences, these people clearly saw themselves as Spaniards and Charles's Flemish friends as foreigners. They did not want Spain to be either a cash cow or one of the gears in his European Empire.

In time these grievances fed an open revolt, which Charles's government had to suppress with violence and concessions. Thomas has written a history of Spain's 20th-century Civil War, so he was especially impressed by how little retribution the winners of the 16th-century one exacted from the losers. There were only about a hundred executions.

Thomas has been criticized for mentioning an enormous amount of people in this book. He lists the merchants who supplied the explorers' ships, telling us where each one was from and what his commercial interests were. He tells us who financed the expeditions, who sat on royal committees and who served in various administrative bodies, often describing these people's personal histories and relationships with each other. Unlike some, I found this mountain of detail illuminating. It slowly gives you an intuitive sense of how things were normally done and what sort of people tended to do them.

The tone is enjoyable - British-professorial and occasionally wry. I never doubted that Thomas knows more about Spanish history than I could ever learn about any subject, and I will probably read more of his books.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Review of T. Pynchon's V.

V. by Thomas Pynchon, 1963. Glossy's score: 1 out of 10.

This is one of the worst books I've ever finished reading - plot-wise, stylistically and in every other sense.

Its sentences aren't structured in a conventional way, but instead of leading you in surprising, interesting directions they make you trip, fall and bump into corners on an excruciating journey to boring and banal conclusions. It's like listening to a dim stutterer or driving over potholes to a party that gets cancelled.

A lot of time is spent on describing the characters' motivations. None are realistic or amusing. Many of the inner voices blur together. Like all boring, small-minded men, Pynchon is into the occult. By analogy with numerology I'll call his obsession with the letter V alphabetology. It's relentless. His attempts at creating a sense of mystery are utterly inept. By the way, for anyone who's curious and masochistic, the worst passages are located at the end of chapter 9.

There is a lot of obscure, archaic, technical and foreign vocabulary in this novel. It was all obviously copied from reference books in a naive attempt to convince readers that the author was smart. The use of math and science for this purpose made me feel especially sorry for those disciplines. None of these terms help to advance the plot or make any line funnier or any point clearer.

Pedophilia is many times more common on these pages than it was in any of the settings or periods described. Pynchon's prose annoyed me to such an extent and at such length that I was in no mood to write that off as an artsy affectation. He exhausted my entire stock of generosity in regards to his personal character by p. 100, and there were about 450 more to go.

The implied politics are of the most conformist sort imaginable for the author's time and place - Black jazzmen are cool and Western imperialists are bad. Pynchon flaunts being unconstrained by conventional morality, the need to make sense, realism, the desire to please readers or be understood by them, but the one sacred thing he won't transgress is liberal politics.

As someone who's lived most of his life in New York I was curious about Pynchon's descriptions of it in 1956. He has a bus driver listening to Tchaikovsky on the radio - utterly unthinkable now. The parents of one of the main characters never lock the doors of their apartment on Houston St. - even more shocking. The city was in decline then, which Pynchon implicitly acknowledged in scenes featuring Puerto Ricans, but in some senses this was a decline from higher heights than the ones to which it has since come back.

At one point he claims that the look and feel of the subway during rush hour is much worse than at other times of the day. "Vertical corpses, eyes with no life". This could never have been true. When I started commuting to work many years ago I noticed how much smarter, more alert, more civil, better looking and better dressed rush hour public was compared to the people who ride the subway at other times. I still feel that way.

The least bad portions of the book describe raucous, alcohol-soaked life in the US Navy, where Pynchon once served. The worse the writer, the more sense there is in the "write what you know" advice. A true pro can make aliens, foreigners or even people of the opposite gender sound interesting. A hack can only ever be good at autobiography.

Kingsley Amis used to say that Americans are best at popular culture and terrible at the prestige sort. One of the best prose stylists I know of is Brendon, the guy who used to write about celebrities for the WWTDD site. A brilliant man doing stunningly original things in a commercial medium while pretending to be an ignorant fool - that's very American. It makes me think of the War Nerd, Dave Barry, the actor Jim Carrey (Anglo Canadians are the same way) and many others.

But there's a flip side to this. When they do try to be pretentious, when they write Literature or make art films, or compose art music, it's crap. Which it not always is in Europe, not even now. Why?

I'm guessing it's because there was never any real upper class in America. Fewer people to make you feel socially insecure, less shame in being an ordinary guy. For this or whatever other reason, the best artistic talent in the US goes into commercial work - funny movies, genre literature, standup comedy, etc. Prestige work gets dregs like the author of this book.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Time Pieces

A couple of weeks ago I bought my first mechanical watch, a Sinn 556I. I wore cheap electronic watches in my teens and twenties and started going watchless after I got my first cell phone.






Why would one pay $1,000 for something like this? It's pretty. My mood improves when I look at beautiful things. The hour and minute markers, the hands, the Sinn logo and the leather strap are especially elegant.

The movement is Swiss, but the rest of the watch was made in Germany. It's heavier than you'd think from the pictures and very solidly-built - I love seeing stereotypes confirmed. Here's a video review.

The classiest-looking watch I know of that's cheaper than that is the Orient Bambino. It costs about $150.




The best-looking watches are completely out of my reach though. Here are some pictures of the Patek Philippe 5970:




It costs more than $140,000. Next is the A. Lange & Söhne Datograph for about $100,000:


Here's Vacheron Constantine's Malte Chronograph:



I know what you're thinking: get a fake. A few days ago I made the 10-minute trip from my job in downtown Manhattan to Canal Street, the Western hemisphere's epicenter of fake stuff. The Patek Philippes they sell are beyond terrible. If that was my budget, I would have done better with the Orient Bambino above.    

Here's a cool interview with a Swiss watch industry executive. The decor of his house is mind-boggling. Forget the Van Goghs, look at the chairs, the chandelier, the china in the cupboard. 

Back to reality, I also bought a new alarm clock last year. I got tired of my old electronic one and scoured the internet for a better-looking replacement. Everything looked terrible until I searched E-bay for vintage clocks. This is what I ended up buying:


It was made by a German company called Junghans in the 1950s and cost me $250. It's not as accurate as a smart phone and I have to wind it daily, but screw convenience. It's a beautiful thing. They literally don't make any better-looking alarms anymore. Most likely never will. And the old ones are breaking down all the time. Here are some pics of the Junghans clocks I passed on:












Thursday, December 24, 2015

Star Wars

So I finally saw the Star Wars movie. Spoiler alert: it's a dumb fairy tale. And since in terms of plausibility and emotional complexity it was much more like the cartoons I saw as a child than like the sci-fi I read as a teen, that's what I'll compare it to.

Nobody died in Soviet cartoons. I don't remember any female generals or sword fighters in them either, so there was no feminist indoctrination.

I associate lush orchestral scores with Stalinist and immediately post-Stalinist Soviet animation. My generation's favorite cartoons had worse music than that. Finally, adults never watched cartoons when I was small. Which leads me to the question of why I saw Star Wars, the Force Awakens.

I knew I would enjoy making fun of it on this blog. And everyone else was going to see it too. I'm not so bored by humanity yet as to consider that unimportant.

The girl who played Rey was cute. Her love interest wasn't as romantically innocent as Mark Hamill, but no Nigerian ever could be, and his race was obviously a political choice. The guy from Girls did well. The worst casting decision was the Resistance pilot, who I think was supposed to become the Han Solo of his generation. Harrison Ford was so much cooler than that in his prime. He's cooler even now, as an old man.

Finally, C3PO was the only gay... thing in the movie, and he was less prominent in it than in the original, which means that there was less gayness in episode VII than in episode IV, which came out in 1977. I was shocked.

Friday, November 27, 2015

3rd Installment of the Credo Poem

I've written seven more quatrains of my Credo poem. These can be seen below. I've also created a page that shows the entire work in progress, i.e. everything that I've written for it so far. I plan to update that page as I write more quatrains.

Scripture never mentions protons,
Plasma, X-rays, DNA.
Neither does it talk of photons,
Cells or nuclear decay.

No America or Britain
In the Bible or Koran.
Not a word in them was written
About China or Japan.

One could get a slight suspicion
That these books are not the works
Of an all-knowing magician
Or his honest, zealous clerks,

But are rather just collections
Of some ancient tribal lore -
Merely accurate reflections
Of the ignorance of yore.

*

Yet the men who bash religion
Are a bunch of clever fools.
There is much more than a smidgen
Of true wisdom in "Gods"' rules.

Atheism is self-defeating:
Godless people have few kids.
Deadly illnesses are eating
Those who do what "God" forbids.

Faith evolved through countless ages,
Growing in organic ways.
The advice on scripture's pages
Is still useful in our days.

The Credo Poem

I'm writing a long poem in which I'm trying to describe my political and philosophical outlook. So far I only have 21 quatrains, which you can see below. I will add new ones to this page as they come along.

                      1

Holy books are filled with fiction.
Wishful thinking, clumsy lies
And internal contradiction
Make their authors seem unwise.

Whether one God or eleven
Rule their model of the skies,
They treat fate, the Earth and heaven
As if they had ears and eyes.

As if they could understand them.
Answer pleas, forgive mistakes,
Pity, comfort and command them.
Mend their hearts and sooth their aches.

2

Our big brains evolved to give us
A leg up on other men,
So that they don't outlive us
And their genes don't spread again.

So we're good at understanding
Human minds and human acts,
But much worse at comprehending
Random chance and cold, hard facts.

When we scream at our devices,
Tell a keyboard to be damned
Or attribute human vices
To a printer that has jammed

We act much like those believers
Who beg heaven, earth and fate
To deliver them from fevers
Or to set their children straight.

3

Scripture never mentions protons,
Plasma, X-rays, DNA.
Neither does it talk of photons,
Cells or nuclear decay.

No America or Britain
In the Bible or Koran.
Not a word in them was written
About China or Japan.

One could get a slight suspicion
That these books are not the works
Of an all-knowing magician
Or his honest, zealous clerks,

But are rather just collections
Of some ancient tribal lore -
Merely accurate reflections
Of the ignorance of yore.

4

Yet the men who bash religion
Are a bunch of clever fools.
There is much more than a smidgen
Of true wisdom in "Gods"' rules.

Atheism is self-defeating:
Godless people have few kids.
Deadly illnesses are eating
Those who do what "God" forbids.

Faith evolved through countless ages,
Growing in organic ways.
The advice on scripture's pages
Is still useful in our days.

I wrote the following part first, but I want to put it close to the end of the finished poem, many pages after what you see above.

We could learn to live forever,
Reach the stars, begin afresh.
We could find a way to sever
Our connection to mere flesh.

We could some day figure out
All of Universe's laws.
And then briskly set about
Fixing its most glaring flaws.

We could master all the powers
Men have long ascribed to Gods.
We'll become Gods. Fate is ours!
We can start to set the odds.

                       *

Man is ruled by thieves and liars.
Parasites control his thought.
Mankind's future has no buyers.
All these dreams will come to nought.

Gullibility will never
Be from altruism detached.
Such rich pickings for the clever!
The divine is overmatched.

If the Earth's civilization
Ends up gnawed to death by pests,
Suffers early cancellation,
Fades away without bequests,

There may never be another.
Not just like it, but at all.
Space would be a barren mother
Stricken dumb by our great fall.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Ukrainian Birth Statistics

How much has the Maidan coup and the subsequent war damaged Ukrainian society? The Ukraine's GDP has fallen off a cliff, but that could overstate the extent of the disaster. The Maidan elite is shadier than its predecessors and the amount of lawlessness has gone up under it, so the underground portion of the Ukrainian economy, the kind that's not reflected in most economic statistics, is likely to have grown at the expense of the legal one. 

I think that birth statistics are much more trustworthy than any kind of economic data. I'm sure that almost all births are still recorded in the Ukraine. Their number is sensitive to economic conditions. Births fell precipitously all over the non-Muslim parts of the former USSR in the 1990s. The current economic and political disaster in the Ukraine is similar to that of the 1990s in many ways. So I think that a look at current Ukrainian demographics can shed some light at the severity of the crisis. 

I found official Ukrainian demographic statistics here. They have data up to August of this year. In the table below I compared the number of births in August of 2013, 2014 and 2015 in all the regions of the Ukraine that the junta fully controls. They had data for the two war-torn regions too, but I removed it because it's unlikely to be complete.

Births by Region of the Ukraine

Region Aug 13 Aug 14 Aug 15 2 yr % change
Vinnitsa 1,559 1,414 1,405 -9.9
Volyn 1,412 1,195 1,184 -16.1
Dnepropetrovsk 3,157 3,174 2,792 -11.6
Zhitomir 1,338 1,248 1,138 -14.9
Zakarpatye 1,728 1,591 1,425 -17.5
Zaporozhye 1,677 1,668 1,356 -19.1
Ivano-Frankovsk 1,499 1,427 1,256 -16.2
Kiev (w/o the city) 1,872 1,834 1,714 -8.4
Kirovograd 981 930 781 -20.4
Lvov 2,790 2,630 2,379 -14.7
Nikolayev 1,236 1,209 1,000 -19.1
Odessa 2,723 2,586 2,391 -12.2
Poltava 1,344 1,250 1,177 -12.4
Rovno 1,628 1,501 1,373 -15.7
Sumy 909 914 859 -5.5
Ternopol 1,102 951 895 -18.8
Kharkov 2,412 2,388 2,074 -14.0
Kherson 1,082 1,034 943 -12.8
Khmelnitskiy 1,278 1,228 1,159 -9.3
Cherkasy 1,091 1,064 934 -14.4
Chernovtsy 1,064 1,066 924 -13.2
Chernigov 890 803 809 -9.1
City of Kiev 3,019 2,954 3,017 -0.1




Total: 37,791 36,059 32,985 -12.7

The decline is both broad and serious. 

Most of the children born in August of 2014 must have been conceived at the end of 2013, before the fateful coup. So why would there be fewer of them compared to the number born in August of 2013? Some of the mothers could have moved out of the country or had abortions once the economy tanked. One of the things we're looking at here is emigration. 

Why did births fall the least in Kiev? I'm guessing it's because a lot of the refugees from the war zone settled there. Most of the refugees went to Russia, but some went into the peaceful parts of the Ukraine. It seems plausible that aid to them would be more readily available in the capital. Why did the Sumy region suffer less than most? That I don't know. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

More Verse

A while ago I wrote a little poem about eternity and the fate of civilization, which was quite a departure from my usual poetic topic, puns. I have my pretentious moments, just like everyone else. It later occurred to me that this poem could become a part of a much larger work: a description and justification of all of my political and philosophical beliefs in verse. 'Cause why not? The chance that I will complete this project isn't huge, but here's a newly-minted second part of it, which, if I ever do finish the whole thing, will precede the "first" part by many pages.


Holy books are filled with fiction.
Wishful thinking, clumsy lies
And internal contradiction
Make their authors seem unwise.

Whether one God or eleven
Rule their model of the skies,
They treat fate, the Earth and heaven
As if they had ears and eyes.

As if they could understand them.
Answer pleas, forgive mistakes,
Pity, comfort and command them.
Mend their hearts and sooth their aches.

Our big brains evolved to give us
A leg up on other men,
So that they don't outlive us
And their genes don't spread again.

So we're good at understanding
Human minds and human acts,
But much worse at comprehending
Random chance and cold, hard facts.

When we scream at our devices,
Tell a keyboard to be damned
Or attribute human vices
To a printer that has jammed

We act much like those believers
Who beg fate, the Earth and sky
To deliver them from fevers
And to save them when they die.

I'm not as down on religion as these verses imply when taken by themselves. If I continue the poem, I will talk about faith's positive aspects in the next section.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Quick Impressions of the Dem Debate

I've seen suggestions over the last few years that Hillary's health has been failing, that "something happened to her" while she was Secretary of State. Based on the debate I'll note that very few people sound as sharp and energetic at her age as she does. At any age, actually. And I'm saying this as someone who sincerely wishes her to fail. Her tone, style and presentation were spectacular.

I know that Jim Webb wrote a book about being Scots-Irish. The emotional difference between him and Chafee is like a cheap caricature of the Rebel/Yankee difference drawn by a Southerner who's still bitter about the Confederate defeat. Chafee's personality seemed to have been designed with the express purpose of giving the word "harmless" negative connotations.

O'Malley looked phony, sinister and inept. Bernie looked kooky. The general amount of craziness wasn't higher than during the GOP debates though. It was just directed towards different issues. I have no idea what the betting markets say, but I'd put Hillary's chances of winning the presidency at about 60% now.

Friday, October 9, 2015

A Look at One of Svetlana Alexievich's Books

I don't know enough about the hard sciences to judge if the people who get Nobels for them truly deserve them. But literature is usually written for the enjoyment of non-specialists, I speak the language of this year's winner natively and I love good writing, so I decided to check out one of her works.

Of course I know that she got this prize for hating Putin and Lukashenko. But there are lots of writers like this, and some of them are bound to have more talent than others. If in some alternate universe I got a place on the Nobel-giving committee, I'd promote my politics through it as hard as the current members promote theirs. People's lives and the future of civilization depend on the outcome of ideological struggles. But the Nobel is a great brand, and the height of the soap box that it provides partly depends on the quality of the winners. So of all the writers with whom I mostly agree I'd pick the ones with the awesomest style - people like Roissy/Heartiste, Jim Goad, Greg Cochran or the Derb. Is the Nobel organization well-run enough to do that now? That was one of the things I wanted to find out.

By the way, if you think that the authors I mentioned above shouldn't qualify because what they do isn't literature, you should know that the Derb has published novels, while Svetlana Alexievich, this year's winner, has not. She's a journalist instead.

The first book of hers that I found on the Internet for free was about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and is called Chernobyl Prayer (a Chronicle of the Future).

It starts with a vague epigraph: "we're air, we're not land...." That's followed by a quote from a Belorussian newspaper: "Belarus... for the world we are terra incognita, an unknown, unexplored land."

OK, so she aims her writing at the kind of people who need "terra incognita" translated to them. Interesting to know.

"White Russia - this is approximately how the name of our country sounds in the English language."

No, it's not. English speakers don't know that the Bel part of Belarus means "white". I've only read two sentences and there's already a factual inaccuracy.

A few lines down it says that the population of Belarus is still mostly rural. I thought "that can't be true". Checked the Wikipedia - yep, it hasn't been true since 1975. Both of these errors occur in quotes that Alexievich put at the start of her book under the heading "historical reference", so it's clear that she thought that this was accurate info.

"Among the causes of demographic decline [in Belarus] radiation takes the first place." Oh come on, even she can't possibly believe that. The quote is from 1996, when all of the non-Muslim parts of the former USSR, even the ones located 10 time zones away from Chernobyl, were suffering huge demographic declines due to the catastrophic impoverishment brought on by the liberal gangsters and thieves whom Alexievich supports. Chernobyl was child's play compared to the human toll of her benefactors' hatred and greed, and I say this as someone who lost his thyroid to Chernobyl-related cancer.

"In the Gomel and Mogilev regions, which suffered the most from the Chernobyl accident, mortality was 20% higher than natality."

Specifically in 1996 deaths outnumbered births in Russia by 59%. 1,304,638 births and 2,082,249 deaths. Russia is huge and the wind after the accident wasn't blowing its way, so it wasn't affected by radiation much. I only got sick from it because 5 years later I, my mom and her sister spent 2 weeks in Chernigov, a Ukrainian city close to Chernobyl. It's where my mom's parents were from, and we still had relatives there. While in Chernigov we must have eaten something that was grown locally that had radiation in it because two of us (my aunt and I) lost our thyroids later.

"Over the last 10 years mortality increased by 23.5%" She's quoting a Belarusian newspaper about Belarus here. Well, in Russia from 1986 to 1994 the number of deaths per year increased by 53.6%. That's not radiation, that's liberalism. And this woman is a liberal.

After a few more paragraphs of history and statistics, all of it quoted from other publications, Alexievich starts her actual reporting with the story of the wife of a fireman who died after helping put out the fire on the day of the accident. The style is exactly like that of my grandma and her friends talking about their long-suffering lives on some park bench back in Moscow. This narrative is recorded as direct speech, so I still haven't encountered Alexievish's Nobel-calibre style at this point.

It's all very sad of course. Women love to hear and tell personal stories like this, but being a nerd I would have rather read interviews with engineers about what actually went wrong and how it could have been avoided.

Throughout this very feminine story I got occasional unintentional glimpses of the magnitude of the containment and evacuation operations that went on in the days after the accident. The organizational capacity of the late Soviet state on display here reminded me of those stories of hurricanes killing thousands in the Dominican Republic but leaving Cuba largely unscathed. A country looted out by Alexievich's liberal friends wouldn't just suffer more accidents than the late USSR, its response to them would also be dozens of times smaller and less efficient. Oh, why am I saying "would"? The modern Ukraine is exactly that kind of a country.

As I read more and more, I'm trying to remember April of 1986 myself. Even in Moscow there was some fear and anxiety. My parents tuned in to the BBC's Russian Service for info. I remember it being said that a particular type of mushroom, often sold at outdoor markets, absorbed radiation more than other kinds of foods.

The woman's story about the illness and death of her firefighter husband and of her infant daughter ends. It was insanely depressing, but all female stories about suffering and loss are like that. Shouldn't Nobel winners be at least unique?

At the start of the next section Alexievich tells us that the Chernobyl accident was "the main event of the 20th century, in spite of all the terrible wars and revolutions for which that century will be remembered". I'm chalking that up to chick logic. A certain quantity of pseudo-profound nonsense follows. I'm finally up against this year's Nobel prize winner's own voice. It's boring and pompous: "Chernobyl is a secret which we will still have to uncover. An unread sign. Perhaps a mystery for the twenty-first century. A challenge to it." Of course she's not talking about anything technical here - it's all hot air.

"The facts were simply not enough anymore, one was drawn to look beyond the facts, to get into the meaning of what was happening." Oh really? The carelessness she showed with the "facts" which she quoted at the start of this book suggests that she's simply bored by them instead.

She says that Chernobyl left everyone confused because throughout the ages the measure of horror was war. "We are in a new history, a history of catastrophes has begun." She is utterly devoid of any sense of historical perspective. Floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, epidemics - never happened. She goes on and on about the revolutionary newness of radiation's invisibility, but viruses have always been invisible too, and much more deadly.

After that there is another interview with a survivor, who compares Chernobyl to the horrors of WWII, which he had seen as a child.

By this time I got an idea of what this book is like - survivors' tales and the author's feelings about them. That's not terrible. I've skimmed through much worse books than that in my life, and lots of them. But it's not the kind of stuff I would have picked if I were a PC liberal on the Nobel Prize committee. There must be thousands of better liberal writers in the Russosphere.

I must say that the reminder that the bad guys are sometimes seriously inefficient offset some of the horror left in me by the book's vivid descriptions of radiation sickness.