Sometimes you learn of some bit of history you’ve never heard of that’s so monumental, it’s hard to believe. Incredible how some major events slip by without notice on the world stage of history while others, even more minor, become common knowledge.
The Great Bhola Cyclone of 1970 is one such event that I think falls into the former category. The storm killed half a million people in East Pakistan (the region that’s now Bangladesh), and the aftermath of the tragedy was infinitely worsened by the behavior of corrupt politicians and geopolitical maneuverings: the cyclone hit in November 1970, two weeks before Pakistan was to hold a free and fair election for the first time.
In The Vortex: A True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm, an Unspeakable War, and Liberation (March 29, Ecco), authors Scott Carney and Jason Miklian craft top-notch narrative nonfiction from this complex story of natural disaster crossed with politics. Carney is an investigative journalist and anthropologist with extensive experience in South Asia, and Miklian is a researcher at the Centre for Development and Environment at the University of Oslo. Their backgrounds prove especially effective in telling the myriad threads of the stories here, because issues stemming from catastrophic climate events and the social and political atmosphere of the region all coalesce to terrifying effect and emphasize how interconnectedness all of these issues are.
So there’s a lot going on, but the biggest topic is a harrowing warning about the dangers of climate change — not only from an increased number cyclones or similarly catastrophic natural events, but from the opportunities these can create, given the right social conditions, for genocide or war.
The story is told through the perspectives of multiple figures, including Pakistan’s corrupt, whiskey-loving then-president Yahya Khan (a great friend of Richard Nixon); Jon and Candy Rohde, two American expats in Dacca who organized emergency aid for survivors; and Mohammad Hai, a survivor from Manpura Island, where storm made landfall, who loses nearly his entire family but becomes a revolutionary.
While reading, I felt like I was constantly being hit with some revelation that I can’t believe I didn’t know; and that’s no exaggeration: this is full of jaw-dropping stuff. Maybe it’s naive or uninformed of me to even describe it that way and much of this is more familiar to others better versed in Bengali history. It probably helps to have some background in the politics or history of the region, but the authors are extremely thorough in providing context. And it’s never complex or difficult to follow, although it is information-dense.
My biggest takeaway is that the effects of catastrophic climate change are guaranteed to be farther-reaching than you might imagine, especially if corrupt politicians and warmongers sense opportunity in the devastation. The message is well packaged in a readable, compelling narrative and arrives at a critical moment in how we legislate and behave in terms of climate change. Used or new @ SecondSale.com
Another catastrophic climate event you’re probably more aware of is the fallout from the asteroid that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. In the upcoming The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of Our World (April 26, St. Martin’s), paleontologist Riley Black examines those final moments and the ensuing aftermath after the next centuries.
The asteroid itself of course wasn’t the climate change event (my husband’s favorite T-shirt is one that reads “Dinosaurs didn’t have a space agency”), but the ensuing changes from the massive impact created climate changes that were incompatible with the dinosaurs’ way of life, whether for reasons of temperature, air quality, or the continued existence and quantity needed of their food sources.
Black takes a narrative approach to this topic, in a way that reminded me of Rachel Carson in The Sea Around Us, looking at the events of these days from the perspectives of different dinosaurs, including T-Rex and ankylosaurus. They center this view on the changing world from within Hell Creek, Montana, 66 million years ago during the Cretaceous period. Black paints a vivid picture of exactly how the world looked, felt, and smelled, and sounded at that exact moment, then builds on these elements as they changed, first on the most minute level from the moments when the asteroid hit and gradually expanding further along the timeline.
In an addendum, Black reviews what was speculation on their part and what’s definitively known. They also look at some of the shifts in scientists’ theories around the event that caused the dinosaurs’ extinction and created an opening for the subsequent rise of mammals.
I had some difficulty staying engaged throughout but I think that was personal — the writing is clear and geared towards being understood by a general readership. And I did learn a lot, although without a lot of foundation here I’m not sure how much would be new to other readers. Any new scholarship around this period feels worth reading to me though, since as Black points out several times, events are still disputed among experts and new fossils and information frequently come to light that change our understanding of how things played out and the behaviors of the dinosaurs.
This was really an impressive achievement, to make the scenes so vivid while still weaving in so much comprehensible science. Used or new @ SecondSale.com
I received advance copies of both titles courtesy of their respective publishers for unbiased review.
Those both sound fantastic. Thanks so much for recommending them, and for everything you do here! I just came across your blog maybe 2 months ago, knew I would love it as soon as I read your quote from An American Childhood (one of my favorite books), and it has been SO FUN to read back over your reviews. You’re a wonderful writer and this entire blog is basically half treasure trove, half treasure map. I’ve already read several books based on your recommendations: Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, The Tiger, Jon Ronson’s Lost at Sea, Off the Edge, and this past week, Cultish. And I’ve started The Library Book and The Border. I already owe you a lot 🙂 Just wanted to say hi and thanks!
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I can’t even tell you how happy it made me to read this!! Thank you so much! 🙂 I’m absolutely thrilled that you’ve gotten so many book suggestions here – and always delighted to connect with someone with similar reading interests! I used to be able to write much better and more thorough reviews so I’m really happy you’re enjoying reading through older ones – my brain power/time for review writing has been so low lately and I’m disappointed about it, but it definitely makes me feel better that someone is still getting so much out of it.
Annie Dillard is one of my absolute favorites too, and I just love that quote – it encapsulated so much of what I love about nonfiction and wanted to do with the blog. I’m glad it spoke to you too and let you know you were in the right place 🙂 thank you again for your incredibly kind words and I hope I can keep pointing you towards more good books! 🙂 (and I hope you enjoy The Library Book and The Border – those two are just outstanding!!)
Two interesting ones there. I’d lean more towards the dinosaurs one, although I have some background knowledge there that would move me in that direction.
Wanted to thank you for flagging The Vortex! So many people (in my view, mistakenly) refer to any well written non-fiction book as “narrative non-fiction”, which makes it difficult at times to find gems like The Vortex which really take a “novel” approach to non-fiction books. I love it. Thanks!
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Glad I could point it out to you!! Yes, there’s so much mislabeling of nonfiction for some reason…not everything is narrative (nor needs to be) and not every book is a novel, etc. 🙄 it drives me crazy!
I really want to read The Vortex because I don’t know a thing about this
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It was completely new to me too, and really shocking.