Thursday, February 26, 2009

Breaking Even

I read three books last week to even up my finished/acquired counts.

The Tunguska Fireball: Solving One of the Great Mysteries of the 20th Century by Surendra Verma - I've long been aware of this, but a passage in The Ridiculous Race inspired me to finally buy a book about it:

Steve: A Story About How Empty Siberia Is
In 1908, either a meteor, a comet, or an alien spacecraft (scientists are still arguing) exploded over northern Siberia. The blast blew down something like eighty million trees, flattening an area of 830 square miles. This explosion -- the Tunguska event -- was so huge that if it had happened in New York it would've annihilated Manhattan and blown out windows in Boston and Washington. But because it happened in Siberia, nobody paid much attention. No one even bothered trekking to the explosion site for thirteen years. When they got there, they concluded, "Man, good thing this happened in Siberia!" and trekked back home.
That's a loose summary of The Tunguska Fireball. Verma describes the event through firsthand accounts and scientific evidence, and then he examines numerous explanations. The Tunguska event was most likely a meteorite/asteroid or a comet, but over the years it has been attributed to all sorts of scientific phenomena (a mini black hole, an anti-matter rock, and so forth), alien intervention, or man-made experiments. There is no consensus because the known facts don't completely support any of the proposed answers.

The Tunguska Fireball is a fascinating look at an awesome event and the ongoing debate surrounding it. Although theories veer into some weird science such as anti-matter and mirror matter, Verma explains them plainly enough that no physics degree is required. In fact, the book is surprisingly easy to read considering the subject matter. Anyone interested in astronomy, astrophysics, or atmospheric phenomena would enjoy this book. It's easily the best of the three reviewed in this blog entry. Note: I read a hardcover edition; the paperback is titled The Mystery of the Tunguska Fireball.

UFOs, JFK, and Elvis: Conspiracies You Don't Have to be Crazy to Believe by Richard Belzer - The comedian/actor/author loves conspiracy theories (in a nod to Lee Harvey Oswald, his HBO comedy special and his CD are titled Another Lone Nut), and here he conducts an amusing but not dismissive survey of the evidence and what the government wants us to believe. My wife loves this conspiracy stuff, especially when written in a sarcastic or humorous tone (Belzer even gives a shout-out to one of her favorite books, The 60 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time by Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen), so I read this book aloud to her.

The title is somewhat misleading. JFK should come first because Belzer's questions surrounding November 22, 1963 take up slightly more than half of the book. The UFO material ranges from sightings and the Roswell incident to some really "out there" stuff, such as, "The moon is populated by aliens, and we haven't been back since the Apollo missions because we are not welcome." Belzer admits up front that some of these theories are pretty nutty. As for Elvis, the only mention the King gets is when Belzer quotes George H.W. Bush dismissing JFK conspiracies by saying that some people also think Elvis is still alive. Yeah, as if you'd believe anything a former CIA director says about JFK!

Belzer's writing style is entertaining, and UFOs, JFK, and Elvis is a pretty quick read. A lot of weird things happened in Dallas, and it's quite possible that the Warren Commission didn't give us the complete story. On the other hand, it's kind of scary to think that anyone gives credence to some of the more outlandish scenarios in this book. There isn't anything new here for those who have studied a lot of conspiracy stuff, but the humorous presentation makes it fun for those of us who have suspicions but live a bit closer to reality.

Aftermath, Inc.: Cleaning Up After CSI Goes Home by Gil Reavill - I'm not really into the CSI shows or true crime stories, but I read an article about a biohazard clean-up company that piqued my interest. My wife had bought this book but hadn't read it (granted, she's not as bad as I am in that respect), so I checked it out of our overflowing library.

The author tags along with Plainfield, IL-based Aftermath, Inc. and helps out on assorted postmortem clean-up jobs: a murdered family, a shotgun suicide, a corpse that went undiscovered for weeks in July. Reavill is a crime writer, and as such, he structures most tales using the "true crime" formula: introduce someone, draw the reader's interest, and then kill that person in some ghastly fashion. He probably spends as much time telling the stories of the victims as he does describing the clean-up. I consider that a flaw. I wanted to learn about the clean-up business -- if I wanted to read true crime, I'd read true crime.

The book goes further astray toward the end when Reavill meanders off on a navel-gazing tangent: "why does homicide/death interest me as a writer and us as a society." I can't count how many times I thought, Okay, now let's get back to blood spatter and brain pieces. He writes about deaths and murders that occurred when he was a child, which of course have nothing to do with Aftermath, Inc. or cleaning up crime scenes. The author makes much of the book about himself rather than his subject.

Aftermath, Inc. (the company) is based within ten miles of where I grew up. That's good because I could relate to a lot of the stories geographically and bad because my inner fact-checker was always on duty. I cringed when I read, "We left I-90... on the southern edge of Milwaukee." Spotting such obvious errors makes me question the veracity of other facts in the book. On another local note, Reavill writes excessively about the relationship between death and Chicago. John Wayne Gacy, Richard Speck, and H.H. Holmes are fair game, but the Union Stockyards? Sheesh.

Overall, Aftermath, Inc. is an interesting book when it sticks to the subject in the title. I would have enjoyed it much more had Reavill left out the irrelevant, self-centered musings. His editor deserves to be slapped.

Current tally: 18 books finished, 18 books acquired

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