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Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of…
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Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten

by Kate Brown

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Discovered this title via a review in Shelf Awareness. The premise - or maybe it was really just the title - interested me, but my interest faded and I did not finish the second-to-last or last chapters. The author does make a good point about the neutral, objective third-person voice used in nonfiction writing being somewhat deceptive, as every student of history knows there is no one single objective truth.

Chapter 1: Being There

"Place is primary because it is the experiential fact of our existence." -Robert Sack & J.E. Malpas (4)

Why, in disciplines that aspire to verifiable truth, do scholars sustain the fiction, when researching and writing, that they are not there?
Academics recoil from the first-person narrative, in part, because to confess to being there is to call into doubt one's objectivity and legitimacy. I find this strange because scholars readily admit to one another that there is no unmediated account, that each interpretation of reality is a highly specific and partial way of organizing the world. (11)

...I have been attentive to people who appear to be unreliable narrators, because it is the stifled voices, the words left unsaid, that haunt most societies. (16)

Chapter 2: The Panama Hotel, Japanese America, and the Irrepressible Past

The basement of the Panama Hotel contains things that could not be stuffed into two suitcases....This mountain of family property speaks to how deprivation of such abstractions as citizenship and freedom is accompanied by forfeiture of concrete things - possessions, homes, jobs - which in turn strips people of other abstractions. Divested of books, they lose part of their knowledge... (24)

Chapter 3: History (Im)Possible in the Chernobyl Zone

I use the unreliable narrator to point out the highly subjective qualities of historical research, which creates provisional truths about the past - truths that are certain to change....Literary critiques study narrative voice in fiction, but the invented qualities of nonfiction narrators are usually left unquestioned. (45)

Chapter 4: Bodily Secrets

An interview is a negotiation. Both the interviewer and the subject have something they want to get out of it. (63)

This splintering of body and environment into discrete fields, historian Linda Nash notes, "made it difficult to draw connections between environmental change and changes in human health." ...[Chronic Radiation Syndrome] never became a diagnosis in American medical tradition largely because it would never hold up in court....Most [American] researchers just didn't think that way. (72-72)

Chapter 5: Sacred Space in a Sullied Garden

We [physician, ethnographer, historian] no longer watched from on high or a distance, and that gave us access to insights we did not have before. Judgment and verdict transformed into understanding and a suspension of disbelief. (94)

Chapter 6: Gridded Lives

Comparisons can be fruitful. They can also be misleading or overtly political. Anything can be compared to anything. It is a trick of historians to juxtapose historic eras or regimes to point out similarities or differences and thus win an argument. (102) ( )
  JennyArch | Aug 10, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 022624279X, Hardcover)

“Why are Kazakhstan and Montana the same place?” asks one chapter of Kate Brown’s surprising and unusual journey into the histories of places on the margins, overlooked or erased. It turns out that a ruined mining town in Kazakhstan and Butte, Montana—America’s largest environmental Superfund site—have much more in common than one would think thanks to similarities in climate, hucksterism, and the perseverance of their few hardy inhabitants. Taking readers to these and other unlikely locales, Dispatches from Dystopia delves into the very human and sometimes very fraught ways we come to understand a particular place, its people, and its history.

In Dispatches from Dystopia, Brown wanders the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation, first on the Internet and then in person, to figure out which version—the real or the virtual—is the actual forgery. She also takes us to the basement of a hotel in Seattle to examine the personal possessions left in storage by Japanese-Americans on their way to internment camps in 1942. In Uman, Ukraine, we hide with Brown in a tree in order to witness the annual male-only Rosh Hashanah celebration of Hasidic Jews. In the Russian southern Urals, she speaks with the citizens of the small city of Kyshtym, where invisible radioactive pollutants have mysteriously blighted lives. Finally, Brown returns home to Elgin, Illinois, in the midwestern industrial rust belt to investigate the rise of “rustalgia” and the ways her formative experiences have inspired her obsession with modernist wastelands.
 
Dispatches from Dystopia powerfully and movingly narrates the histories of locales that have been silenced, broken, or contaminated. In telling these previously unknown stories, Brown examines the making and unmaking of place, and the lives of the people who remain in the fragile landscapes that are left behind.

(retrieved from Amazon Wed, 08 Jul 2015 17:25:51 -0400)

Why are Kazakhstan and Montana the same place? asks the opening chapter of Kate Brown's surprising and unusual journey into the histories of places on the margins, overlooked or erased. In turns out that a ruined mining town in Kazakhstan and Butte, Montana -- America's largest environmental Superfund site -- have much more in common than one would think thanks to similarities in climate, hucksterism, and the perseverance of their few hardy inhabitants. Taking readers to these and other unlikely locales, Dispatches from Dystopia delves into the very human and sometimes very fraught ways we come to understand a particular place, its people, and its history. In Dispatches from Dystopia, Brown wanders the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation, first on the Internet and then in person, to figure out which version -- the real or the virtual -- was the actual forgery. She also takes us to the basement of a hotel in Seattle to examine the personal possessions left in storage by Japanese-Americans on their way to internment camps in 1942. In Uman, Ukraine, we hide with Brown in a tree in order to witness the male-only annual Rosh Hashanah celebration of Hasidic Jews. In the Russian southern Urals, she speaks with the citizens of the small city of Kyshtym, where invisible radioactive pollutants have mysteriously blighted lives. Finally, Brown returns home to Elgin, Illinois, in the midwestern industrial rust belt to investigate the rise of rustalgia and how her formative experiences have inspired her obsession with modernist wastelands. Dispatches from Dystopia powerfully and movingly narrates the histories of locales that have been silenced, broken, or contaminated. In telling these previously unknown stories, Brown examines the making and unmaking of place, and the lives of the people who remain in the fragile landscapes that are left behind.… (more)

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