Monday, January 31, 2005

Wolves Eat Dogs - Martin Cruz Smith

Cynical, melancholy Moscow special investigator Arkardy Renko has a serious problem. One of Moscow's newly minted billionaires has taken a fatal plunge off of a twenty-story condominium - suicide or murder? As Renko dryly observes "We prefer suicides. Suicides don't demand work, or drive up the crime rate."

In his fifth book featuring his laconic, down-trodden detective, Martin Cruz Smith is at the top of his game. Wolves Eat Dogs takes Renko, filling his role as Moscow's most dogged and quixotic gumshoe, from the heady environs of the new Russian elite down a twisted, wayward path into a deadly quietly radioactive heart of darkness, the 30-mile Exclusion Zone surrounding Chernobyl.

Tautly written, intriguing and quite frankly offering a more humane glimpse of the Russian pysche then western fiction typically offers, Wolves Eat Dogs is a terrific and unique mystery, with Renko, as ever, leading the reader deeper and deeper into uncharted territory - in this case, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, with its eerie abandoned towns, burgeoning wildlife, icon-thieves, corrupt car parts dealers and obsessive scientests. Smith weaves an involving and immersive mystery with first-rate characters and plotting, in a very unique setting. I highly recommend it!

I would also recommend a look at Renko's earlier adventures - Gorky Park, Polar Star, Red Square, and Havana Bay.

Find out more about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster at Chernobyl Info, Chernobyl: A Nuclear Disaster and the Chernobyl Children's Project International. For a more detailed look at the overall health impact of the disaster ten years after, visit the Nuclear Energy Agency's Chernobyl Assessment page.

Why not take a visit to the Exclusion Zone? Follow along with Elena's motorcycle run through the Zone at Kiddofspeed - Ghost Town. Here are some more photos to check out.

Interestingly enough, due to a dearth of human presence, the Exclusion Zone is rapidly becoming a natural haven for Ukrainian wildlife.

Thinking of playing tourist? Better read this first.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II - Robert Kurson

There is something deeply fascinating yet profoundly unsettling about this book.

It is, among other things, a story of high adventure, obsession and the cold face of imminent death. Shadow Divers is the true story of a group of deep-sea wreck divers who challenge themselves on the thin edge of the survivable, diving more than 200 feet into the cold Atlantic, venturing into twisted wrecks like the Andrea Doria and others, hunting souvenirs, bragging rights and a shivering adrenaline high.

Shadow Divers focuses on John Chatterton and Rich Kohler, who, investigating a mysterious wreck off the New Jersey coast, discover lurking 230 feet below the surface, a ghost from World War II, a sunken German U-Boat lying where none should be. Driven by the challenge of uncovering and identifying the boat, Chatterton and Kohler undertake a seven-year odyssey, diving repeatedly into the chill depths of the sea and into the musty records of World War II to discover the secrets of the wreck.

Deep-sea wreck diving is among the world's most deadly endeavors and the dives on the shadowy U-Boat are no exception. Kurson's vivid prose pulls the reader into the situation and at points is so profoundly tense it is almost impossible to put down. It is, as the expression goes, like watching a train wreck about to happen...terrified fascination and sick amazement are at war in your stomach when you read this book.

Kurson's narrative weaves the lore, dangers, technology and practices of deep-sea wreck diving, with the characters and practioners of the sport, pulling you into the excitement and the when disaster strikes, although not unexpected, it is deeply unsettling, horrifying and vivid.

Similar to Jon Krakauer's book Into Thin Air which recounted the terrifying 1996 disaster on Mount Everest that cost five lives, Shadow Divers left me with a certain empty, morbid and questioning sense of "why?" and a mixed bag of both admiration and head-shaking irritation at the often pointless thrill-seeking.

Overall a definite first-rate book and one of the very best of the year.

Interested in learning more about U-boats? is the place to go. Also check out the terrific Nova documentary and supporting website "Hitlers Lost Sub", for a look at the Shadow Divers' submarine, a virtual tour, maps of other sunken U-boat wrecks and an interactive feature on the chilling dangers of wreck diving.

Here's the website for the Wreck of the Andrea Doria, described by Kurson as "Mount Everest" for wreck divers. If you are wise, you will just stick to reading about the wreck...

Here's the Atocha, for the red-blooded, gold-hunting treasure-enthusiast in your family...

And some last thoughts...

They might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

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Thursday, January 06, 2005

Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life - Ray Harryhausen, Tony Dalton

In the prehistoric days before the advent of a thousand digital channels, DVD's and VCRs, my local television channel would run a Sunday Afternoon Matinee. My brothers and I would sit, enthralled, watching Godzilla stomp Tokyo into smoky rubble, or some slithery beast ooze out of a bog and chase down some hapless passerby, or watch, as some wooden-voiced actor bounded about the screen improbably fighting a dozen skeletal swordsman or a towering bronze statue.

More often then not, we were watching the uniquely detailed work of Ray Harryhausen.

Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life is a glorious, fascinating and fun meander through the life, films and career of one of Hollywood's pioneering special effects masters. Harryhausen's magical beasts and evocative stop-action special effects were a source of inspiration for dozens of today's directors and directly led to the current state-of-the art work of such luminaries as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (although Harryhausen himself notes that despite the exquisite detail of today's computer-generated special efffects, he still prefers models and stop-animation for their "soul").

Harryhausen's highly illustrated book traces his roots in the special effects industry, his mentors Willis O'Brien and George Pal, and the various film influences (King Kong naturally enough)that shaped and impacted his work on such films as Mighty Joe Young, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Valley of the Gwangi, Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Clash of the Titans, and, my personal favorite, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.

An Animated Life is fundamentally a book for a film buff, so temper any expectations of a detailed or seamy insider look at Hollywood in the 50's and 60's. You will however love having the curtain pulled aside on how Harryhausen and his cohorts pulled off much of their cinematic sleight-of-hand. For someone infected with the romance of the pulp films of the era, An Animated Life is a fabulous book but...

If however you really don't care for silver screen derring-do, the deep background on the Rhedosaurus, foul monsterous creatures from the depths or magical mythological beasts.. well, ...what the heck is wrong with you? Get a life.

For a complete round-up of Harryhausen's work, check out the ever dependable Internet Movie DataBase or read the profile at Sci-Fi Masters.

Check out this tribute to Harryhausen (with special guest appearance by He-Man's Skeletor), its just plain...surreal.

Check out this online explanation of Dynamation that gives you a good overview of how Harryhausen brought his intricate creatures to life or visit the Stop-Motion Animation site for some lessons on how you can develop your own stop-motion film.

Now I have to go, my six-year old son and I have to snuggle up, eat popcorn and watch The 7th Voyage of Sinbad... love that cyclops.

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