Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Roger Took, Running with Reindeer

roger took, running with reindeer

Arriving at library fifteen minutes before closing time, one is destined to leave with a pretty random crop of books.  I grabbed Running with Reindeer - Encounters in Russian Lapland when sprinting by the history section, expecting some mixture of ethnography, anthropology and yes, history, served in a dry academic sauce.  I got top class travel writing instead.  What a pleasant surprise!

Running with Reindeer has everything that really good travel writing is supposed to have.  Exotic location.  A lot of ground covered.  High definition portraits of quirky characters encountered on the road.  Tons of background information on politics, history, ecology, geography and any other -athys and -ogies you can wish for.  A touch of adventure, a sprinkling of opinion.  Wonderful!

Russian Lapland is not exactly a land most people would be familiar with, nor is it the easiest one to travel.  As everywhere, traditions of the indigenous people in the area are disappearing fast.  Bureaucracy and living off the land nomadic style, do not exactly go together.  People who used to literally run with their reindeer can now be found in high rise concrete blocks.  Not all of them, not yet.  But I have the unpleasant feeling that a few decades from now Saami way of life could be truly a thing of the past, fully belonging to the history shelf.  We are not too good in conserving ecological diversity, especially if it cannot be milked for money.

I'm not trying to say that the 'good old nomadic ways' translate unconditionally to 'heaven full of pastoral beauty'.  It's quite likely that after a week of such a bucolic bliss I would run off screaming.  Yet, it's hard to read Took's account of wilderness being transformed by civilisation and not to feel some sadness.

One minor fault, springing mainly from my personal preferences, not objective judgement.  My mind tends to drift when assaulted with too much landscape.  Topography is fine when you have to actually travel through it, but to a reader's (mine!) mind, all those valleys and knolls and hills and lakes and other features are pretty meaningless.  If there are too many of them, my brain automatically gets into neutral gear.  You must have some landscape in a travel writing book, but in Running with Reindeer I detected too much of it for my liking.

On all other fronts, the book is fantastic.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Norman Davies, God's Playground, Vol. I

norman davies, god's playground

I like Norman Davies.  I really do.  So, when I saw the first volume of his God's Playground - A History of Poland, I didn't hesitate long.

I vaguely remember the book causing a stir in Polish academic press when it was republished shortly before I moved to Ireland.  I can't recall any details, but the discussion was lively enough for the title to firmly lodge in my brain.  I was on the lookout ever since.

Veni (to the library), vidi (on the shelf), legi (doesn't sound as fancy as Caesar's famous quip, but means 'I read').

I started to fume and froth right at the preface.  Written for the original edition in 1979, it was full of irritating remarks about Poles being unable to accept objective scholarship.  Oh, all right, Davies didn't use exactly those words but the message was clear - we are so in love with our version of national history that we throw a fit if anyone dares not to express absolute adoration of Polish heroism.  Arrrgh.

Sure, Polish nation does include total nutters who will swear that white is black and black is white as long as it fits their political agenda.  But generally speaking, we are fairly sane.  I didn't find God's Playground objectionable at all (preface aside).  It's a reasonably balanced view of Polish history, set against the background of European development.  I wouldn't say it's the ultimate book on the subject, but seen as 'a history' it is a really good title:  readable, comprehensive and full of interesting trivia.

I am deeply fascinated by how nation's own (any nation's, not only Poland's) history compares to an 'international version' (if such a thing exists at all) and here I had a chance to study the phenomenon in depth.  Davies is not half as blasphemous as he seemed to have thought in 1979.  His view of history (at least up until 1795, when this volume ends) pretty much agrees with what I was taught at school.  It is focused somewhat more on relations between Poland and other European states rather than on internal affairs, but that's an advantage, not a fault.  Inevitably, it is entirely innocent of any patriotic propaganda, but again - that's a huge bonus.  Jingoism is not what I look for in a history book.

Actually, Davies seems rather kindly disposed towards Poland.  I was honestly enchanted by his surgeon metaphor employed when he was writing about partitions of the country in the 18-th century (read the book if you want to learn more, I wouldn't want to spoil the fun).  He translates pieces of Polish Renaissance poetry himself, with some skill, and generally appears passionate about his subject.  Result:  sound research presented as highly readable book.  Can you ask for more?

(On the second thought - yes, you can.  Editor/proofreader/whoever was responsible for the final manuscript should be banned from practising his trade.  God's Playground, at least my edition, is full of little typos, misspellings and the likes, both in foreign and English words.  Ouch!)

Monday, 26 November 2012

Robert Lacey, Great Tales From English History

robert lacey, great tales from english hstory

It appears that I have gone on a gentle British history binge.  Not that I think that British history is more worthy than any other, or more interesting.  It's just that British history happens to be the one I'm most familiar with*, so when I read books from that shelf I often have a chance to go 'a-ha!', which gives me a nice, smug sense of being knowledgeable.  Or at least reasonably well educated.

Great Tales From English History provided plenty of opportunities for feeling smug.  No fancy scholarship and twisted details, just basic, most high-profile events, described in rather dramatised way.  A good primer for anyone just beginning their adventures in the historyland.  I would say teenagers are the perfect target market here, but the author claims the book was written for adults.  This got me slightly worried - is the history knowledge of general population really that bad?  Then I thought of all the scientific brains out there and breathed a sigh of relief.  If you know how to design an engine, or cook up a cancer cure, you can be forgiven for not knowing a thing about Battle of Hastings... probably.

The book itself looks pretty substantial, but it's an illusion.  Actual stories take up only 220 pages, with heavy-duty paper and hardcover binding providing the 'thick' impression.  English History screams from the cover in block letters, even though it's the Tales bit that really should be accentuated.  When it comes to scholarship, Lacey does not make any groundbreaking discoveries.  His book is well-researched and, as far as I can tell, free of serious factual mistakes, but it would not impress any historian.  It's tales that matter here, coloured for dramatic effect and extremely readable.  History is full of damn good stories and Lacey makes good use of the available material.

Fair enough.  If you want someone to fall in love with the science of history, give them a good yarn first.  Great Tales From English History have the potential to hook a reader for life.

*well, almost.  I know a thing or two about the history of my native Poland as well, but there are few books written in English about that.  Since 'few' does not mean 'none whatsoever' do check back in a day or so - there's a Polish history book (Polish as in 'Polish history, not 'Polish language), a pretty good one, waiting in line to be reviewed by the Bookworm.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Terry Pratchett, Jacqueline Simpson, The Folklore of Discworld

terry pratchett, jacqueline simpson, the folklore of discworld

If there was such a thing as Pratchettology, I would've surely earned a Ph.D. by now.  I pretty much worship the guy.  I fall asleep to the sound of Discworld audiobooks almost every night.  I can quote whole passages from memory and I still laugh at the jokes, even if I've heard them a hundred times.

It's no surprise then that The Folklore of Discworld is not a novelty to me.  I read it for the first time some three years ago, when it was still brand new (well, new-ish.  Libraries do take their time when it comes to buying fresh releases), and, no need to add, the book seduced me instantly.  Folklore is another one of my tiny obsessions, so getting the two together was like Christmas coming early.

When I re-read The Folklore of Discworld recently, I was just as enchanted.

The book was not written by Pratchett alone.  Jacqueline Simpson, an acclaimed British folklorist is listed as a co-author.  In effect, the book is not exactly a classic Discworld novel.  More, it should probably be classified as non-fiction.  The basic idea is simple enough.  Discworld is full of magical creatures and customs that inevitably have their equivalent on our Earth.  The book explores those connections.

Ultimately, it is a fun way to learn more about our own folklore.  Discworld elements, although sparkling with pure Pratchettesque wit and sense of humour, are generally variations on material already covered in the novels.  Even so, The Folklore of Discworld is extremely readable and can be considered a treat even for (or especially for) die-hard Pratchett fans.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Philip Wilkinson, The British Monarchy for Dummies

philip wilkinson, the british monarchy for dummies

Ah, the famous 'for Dummies' series.  I've always avoided it like the plague, but something tempted me to pick The British Monarchy for Dummies on my last library trip and I was pleasantly surprised.

Sure, it is written in REALLY simple English.  Sure, it is full of tiresome repetitions (in case you didn't want to wreck your brain with reading the whole book) and Philip Wilkinson, the author, is guilty of a factual error or two (I spotted two, but it's possible that the editors are to blame, because the mistakes were rather silly), but overall, it was actually fun to read.  Especially compared with high-flying, snobbish prose of A.L. Rowse from the previous position on my reading list.

Whatever else can be said about The British Monarchy for Dummies, it sure as hell makes the maze of kings, queens and other royal personages pretty navigable.  It explains clearly who is who, attaches some colourful anecdotes (not necessarily true, but it doesn't claim them as such and good yarns are great help to memory) and it is not above a joke or two, or at least some not-exactly-respectful language.

Three hundred pages do not provide a lot of space for covering such a vast subject, so out of necessity the narrative is rather sketchy.  Fair enough, if you are not too well accustomed with British monarchy and want to ingest some basic information (because of being a teenage student, for example).

Fun to read and a very good starting point to discovering all the secrets that the annals of British royalty hold.

Friday, 16 November 2012

A.L. Rowse, The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Life of The Society

a.l. rowse, the elizabethan renaissance

Once upon a time, I planned to write an article about Elizabeth I.  You can go about a plan like this in two ways - either you can read the appropriate page on Wikipedia, change the wording and thus become a totally legal copycat, or you can do it the hard way - get as many books on the subject as you can and put them to proper use.  Needless to say, I chose the second option, as you can see here and here and here.  Oh, and in today's post, too.

As far as I know, A.L. Rowse was a pretty famous historian.  This is the first book by his pen that I've ever read, but I'm familiar with the name, even though I can't exactly pinpoint how and why.

The book itself is not exactly about Elizabeth I, although the famous queen pops up on its pages often enough.  As the title suggests and the subtitle confirms (The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Life of The Society), it's about the times of Elizabeth, about life and social stuff and general reality during her reign.

As promised, so delivered.  There are chapters on food and drink, on customs, beliefs, social divisions, even on sex and witchcraft.  They all seem to be well-researched, too, with proper sources quoted (often in the text itself) and lengthy bibliography attached.  All good, but...

I found the book tedious.  It's full of names, both geographical and personal, which mean nothing to someone not in love with British topography or peerage - and when I say full, I mean it.  I'm sure there are people who would consider this a tremendous advantage, and confirmation of the book's scholarly merits but, how should I put it...  It's not exactly a page turner.  It has its moments, but overall - blah.

One exception:  The Elizabethan Renaissance is generously spiked with Rowse's personal remarks and these are absolutely precious.  Not that I agree with his views - he appears to have been an arrogant, snobbish bastard - but I'm charmed by his delivery.  SO politically incorrect.  SO sermon-like.  SO funny.

Oh, my intended article about Elizabeth never materialised, nor is it ever likely to.  I wrote a Squidoo page instead, collecting the reviews of all the Elizabeth-centred books I have got hold of so far.  You can view it here and if it catches your interest, check back now and again - I'll be adding to it slowly but surely.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Noam Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects

noam chomsky hopes and prospects

I first heard of Noam Chomsky when someone (I can't recall who, sorry) called him 'probably the most often quoted living person in the world'.  Then I saw him speaking in a quite decent documentary, ReGeneration, and speaking with sense, too.  When I saw a book of his essays, Hopes and Prospects, the next step was obvious.

My oh my, how I agree with the guy on political issues.  He's pretty much no bullshit about power politics of today - a rare phenomenon in our politically correct world.  One would wish actual politicians spoke like this but then 'politician' and 'truth telling' are mutually exclusive in definition, so...

If you ever wondered who rules the world, read Hopes and Prospects (and no, it's not about the Illuminati).  I'm not sure if the book allows for much hope -  I, for one, was more depressed than elated after reading it - but it shows some rays of light at least.  We COULD live in a better world.  One can only hope that one day we will.

Just to clarify - Hopes and Prospects is not exactly an example of sparking storytelling.  It is not a literary masterpiece.  It's a book on international politics, in its social and economical aspect but politics nevertheless.  It's sensible, even wise, articulate and embellished with wonderfully acerbic wit (which, I'm guessing, is Chomsky's trademark), so if you're looking for a light entertainment, you should probably avoid it.

If you're seeking a smart commentary on the world we live in, go for it.  You won't be disappointed.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Living To Tell The Tale

gabriel garcia marquez living to tell the tale

I am a big fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez so I looked forward to reading his autobiography - Living to Tell the Tale.  I thought the tale of someone who wrote 100 Years of Solitude must be absolutely, jaw-droppingly fascinating.

To put it bluntly - it wasn't.  What a disappointment.

I got stuck on the book for more than two weeks (one look at my blog will tell you that this is REALLY long in my case) because I kept getting bored after a few pages.  Since the volume is more than four hundred pages long, that meant a lot of reading breaks, and progressively less appetite to pick the book up again.

It's not that Living to Tell the Tale is a bad book.  It's typical Marquez when it comes to writing style - flowery, colourful, touched here and there with supernatural.  If this was my first encounter with the Nobel-winning author, I would probably be delighted.  Unfortunately, compared to his other writings, this is weak stuff.  Living to Tell the Tale is oppressively more 'realistic' than 'magical'.

In the book's defence, it is an autobiography and you don't get too imaginative when writing non-fiction (at least I believe you shouldn't).  Fair enough.  But even if we forget magical realism and it's charms, Living to Tell the Tale still leaves much to be desired.  I admire autobiographies which tell me something about an author's inner life, about his motivations, feelings, events that shaped him.  I like to have the subject brought to life.  Here, I feel as if I've just read Marquez's CV.  The narrative is full of names which probably mean nothing to the reader, unless you're really interested in history of Colombian media development.  We get to know newspaper editors, journalists, aspiring writers and poets, politicians etc.  I do understand why this crowd was important in Marquez's professional progress, but why would it interest me?

Childhood stories are better, family yarns are quite delicious but overall - not the best book I've ever read.  Completely unremarkable.

Feel free to disagree :)

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Joanna Blythman, Shopped

joanna blythman shopped

Do you like shopping in supermarkets?  Joanna Blythman doesn't.  Neither do I, so I was looking forward to read Shopped - The Shocking Power of Britain's Supermarkets.

Well, I have read it.  The book is ok, but I expected more.

Blythman starts Shopped on a personal note, confessing her own dissatisfaction with supermarket fare.  The food is bland and unhealthy, there's no real choice and the shopping experience itself is more like a nightmare than like a dream.  Fair enough, I agree totally.  She goes on to discuss all sorts of problems that the rise of supermarkets may have caused - visual impact, environmental damage (all those cars and plastic packaging), sad work conditions of shelf stackers and till operators, manipulative advertising etc., although none of those issues is explored in particular detail.

Blythman's main concern seems to be the decline of independent, small scale retailers.  Minor producers are not able to compete on price and go out of business one by one.  Their experience, care and passion go, too.

According to Shopped, being a supermarket supplier is not a piece of cake either.  She claims producers are hard pressed to supply ever more, for the same or lower prices and woe is you if you happen to be late.  There are extra charges for promotions, samplings etc.  Products are often rejected for dubious reasons or delisted on short notice, with all the financial consequences falling onto the supplier.  Obviously, no supermarket chain would admit as much.  Fair is fair, Blythman gave them some space to express their point of view, but it's obvious that she did it only for propriety's sake.

I would love to live in a world where we could all afford to pay best (=highest) prices for the best product.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  If we can't pay for the best, we buy the not-so-great and second rate is better than nothing.

I wouldn't be so blindly enthusiastic about 'small' producers either.  'Small' doesn't necessary mean 'best', not where I live.  If you want the very best food, grow your own.  Otherwise, you're depending on people who produce food for profit, not for your benefit, whatever size their business happens to be.

My dislike of supermarkets springs from entirely different source and maybe that is why I found Shopped disappointing.  I did pick up some useful information from it nevertheless.  If you're no friend of supermarket culture, give the book a try.  After all, you might be more sympathetic to Blythman's views than to mine.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Muhammad Yunus, Banker to the Poor

muhammad yunus, banker to the poor

In theory, Banker to the Poor is an autobiography of Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank and the man who developed the concept of microcredit.

In reality, it's a 342 page advertising brochure for the Grameen idea.  Oh, ok, it does contain some autobiographical notes, but it's not a book about a man, it's a book about a corporation.

Grameen idea looks lovely when Mr. Yunus presents it.  Empowerment to the poor, horizons growing, hard work, wonderful results, global fame, etc. etc.  The picture is so glossy, that I found myself asking again and again - where's the dirt?

Banker to the Poor reads like a sales pitch:  it's designed to get you to buy the product.  In the world of bullshit advertising, that instantly puts me on alert.  I can see what the author says - but what is he silent about?  Where's the small print?  There's slightly too much sparkle in this picture, too much glitter and gloss.

I still haven't decided whether the idea of microcredit convinced me or not.  I am all for self-employment - in fact, I deeply believe that this is the only way to go if we want a happy, functional society.  On the other hand, words like 'credit is a human right' make my hair stand up in horror.  Credit, a human right?  Enslavement to a bank from the very bottom to the very top of the society?  Shouldn't we instead strive for a world where it is a human right to live and grow and develop without the need to borrow money from anyone?

I respect all the good works of Grameen (and Grameen-like) organisations, but I don't think this is the way to go.

Still, if you want to learn how microcredit works (at least in theory), Banker to the Poor is a good source.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Alwyn Scarth, Vulcan's Fury: Man Against The Volcano

alwyn scarth vulcan's fury

Attention, volcano lovers!  I've got a treat for you.

(I know there are plenty of you out there - today every second Web user is a homegrown volcanologist.  Not that I disapprove...  or don't belong to this club)

I've never met a volcano book that I didn't like (possibly because I haven't read that many volcano books), and Vulcan's Fury is no exception here.  Scarth's proposition may not be brimming with volcanology breakthroughs - well, he's not a volcanologist - but he does a good job when it comes to sieving through the archives.

Ah, yes.  Vulcan's Fury is a bookworm's creation, not a field worker's.  Some would say this casts negative light on the book's merits (Stanley Williams and his Surviving Galeras springs to mind), but I think in this particular case the author is fully excused.  Vulcan's Fury deals mainly with eruptions from remote past, years or even centuries ago, and with the ways they affected people living in their vicinity.

To my eye, the book is a very good primer for volcanology amateurs.  It could be subtitled The Most Famous Volcanic Eruptions of All Times - it describes only the high-impact, high publicity explosions.  I imagine that's partly because sources for obscure events from long ago are hard to come by, but maybe marketing reasons had something to do with the selection, too.  Everyone has heard of Krakatoa or Pinatubo, Vesuvius or Mount St. Helens.  The biggest, the loudest, the most murderous.  A volcanic hall of fame.

Truth to be told, the eruptions are nicely arranged to present the whole spectrum of volcanic risks - from ash to pyroclastic flows, from pure explosive power to killer mudflows etc.  Individual characters (and preferred murder methods) of each fire mountain are beautifully emphasised.  The narrative style is sometimes a bit too dramatic to my liking, but Scarth is innocent of mindless fear mongering so popular with today's media.  Any minor faults that the book might suffer from are offset with fabulous pictures, printed in full colour on high quality paper.  They are relevant, breathtakingly beautiful and quite numerous.

Vulcan's Fury was a pleasure to read and a pleasure to look at.  Highly recommendable.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Gore Vidal, The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal

I'm always on the lookout for new essay collections (new as in 'I haven't spotted them before', not as in 'just released').  I'm totally in love with this literary form and over the years I've sampled quite a few masters.  Nadine Gordimer.  Orhan Pamuk.  Salman Rushdie.  The list goes on, even longer than yesterday because now it also includes Gore Vidal.

Vidal was a prolific essayist (with more than 200 pieces to his name) so The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal should include the best of the best, at least in theory.  I am in no position to compare the editor's - Jay Parini's - selection to the rest of Vidal's works, but as it is, the book reads rather well.  It is divided into two main sections:  literary criticism (mainly American novelists) and political commentary.  I enjoyed them both, despite the fact that I'm not a big fan of fiction in general and American fiction in particular.  That alone tells you something about Vidal's talent.

Gore Vidal's writing is the ultimate proof that you can be impolite or even rude, politically incorrect, direct, eloquent, intelligent AND published.  He obviously wasn't worried about hurting people's feelings and for that alone, I'm almost in love.  Compared to today's 'criticism', full of polite euphemisms and meaningless blah blah, he shines.  Funny thing, I was almost tempted to seek out the books he ranted about.  'Positives only' approach doesn't work for me, but give me a good, intelligent, negative review and I instantly feel like checking if the reviewer was right.

When it comes to political and social commentary, Gore Vidal was witty, passionate, too often spot-on right and thus - quite depressing.  I don't necessary agree with all his views (e.g. that prostitution is ok, because the ladies enjoy their work), but even so his eloquent bitching was a delight to read.  When it comes to strictly political issues - well, I keep hoping that Vidal's opinion about US 'defense' spending and military operations is shared by many, many Americans.  Let's just say that politicians probably didn't like him very much.

Overall, a very decent collection of essays.  Highly recommendable.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Matt Frei, Only in America

Sometimes all it takes to draw me to a book is a subtitle.  I saw Matt Frei's Only in America: Inside the mind and under the skin of the nation everyone loves to hate and simply couldn't resist.

Quite a mouthful, isn't it?  But it is also a 100% accurate observation of the present reality.  We (in this case, 'we' roughly equals 'Europeans') simply adore bitching about the US.  It is a trendy pastime, if a tad incorrect politically.  Blue jeans have lost their enchanting power, now it's McDonald's, Iraq and monstrous income inequality (to name the first three things I can think of) that spring to mind when America is mentioned.  Admitting as much on a book cover is pleasantly refreshing.

The book itself does not disappoint either.  Only in America is an engaging, mildly amusing and pretty lively picture of the country as seen through the eyes of a resident Brit.  Mind you, Matt Frei is not just any Brit.  As a BBC correspondent, he can get to where you or I could never aspire to enter.  The White House, for example.

Perhaps inevitably, a lot of space is given to studying American political theatre and power struggles that are part of the package.  Not exactly a crowd pleaser as far as subjects go, but Frei has the gift of writing about politics without actually boring the reader to death.  Other topics include the weather (no, don't yawn - hurricanes aren't dull), immigration and philanthropy.  Then there are snapshots of 'ordinary' life as experienced by a foreign resident in Washington DC, father of four.

Despite the provocative subtitle, Only in America actually presents a very kind view of the last superpower standing.  No hatred whatsoever can be detected in Frei's words.  Bewilderment, yes, amazement, sometimes healthy scepticism, but you can tell he kinda likes it there.

One warning - double check any figures.  I'm sure it's just a silly mistake, but on page 158 you can read that United States are home to one-fifth of the global population.  Ouch.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Unfair Trade, Conor Woodman

unfair trade, conor woodman

Have you ever looked at the Fairtrade logo and wondered how fair the deal really is?  I have.  I approach all labels with deep suspicion and Fairtrade is not an exception here.  One reason: how do I know that the lovely PR campaign has some substantial backing in the real world?

The answer is simple:  I don't.  Not without travelling to Africa, Brazil or anywhere where cocoa/coffee/sugar/whatever is produced.  As I obviously can't afford that, I'm expected to trust the labelling organisation to do the checking for me but frankly - in the world of bullshit marketing I'm not likely to rely on honesty of ANY organisation.

Woodman's Unfair Trade originated from similar thoughts, but unlike me, the author could and did travel around the world to see for himself.  Nicaragua.  China.  Laos.  Democratic Republic of Congo.  Afghanistan.  Tanzania.  Cote d'Ivoire.  (How's that for extreme tourism, Mr. Chuck Thompson?  If this remark is unclear to you, dear reader, travel two posts back and all will be revealed :) )

Each of the visited destinations has its own set of social/political/economical problems.  Sure, the pressure for ethically produced goods is more and more visible, customers simply don't want to sponsor robbery and slave labour.  The question remains - can a fair trade logo really relieve poverty, exploitation, dirty dealings?  Or do we just treat is as a conscience tax, an excuse not to care anymore, not to dig deeper?

Unfair Trade provides some interesting information about the inner workings of the Fairtrade certification system.  Ultimately it leaves it to the reader to judge the fairness of the deal.  I, for one, was disturbed, but not really surprised.

Obviously, Woodman's book only skims the surface.  Exploitation of the gap between developed and developing countries is a complex problem and no one could fix (or even present it properly) on two hundred pages.  Still, even this slim volume has the potential to make people stop and think for a while before they fill their weekly basket.  That's better than nothing.

Ultimately, Unfair Trade claims that only the big businesses can make real difference to the grim situation of the Third World producers.  I deeply dislike this conclusion, but I also fear Woodman might be right.  I can't quite see corporations suddenly becoming the guardian angels of social welfare and the whole idea of corporate scraps being thrown to the poor in exchange for glowing PR makes me nauseous, but...  Even scraps can have value for those who have next to nothing, and when you're hungry, you'll take any deal.  Judge it as you will.

Friday, 21 September 2012

I Never Knew There Was A Word For It, Adam Jacot de Boinod

adam jacot de boinod, I never knew there was a word for it

Word-lovers are my kind of people.  You know the type: people who are genuinely delighted by digging up a little-known, little-used or merely weird expressions.  Sir Terry Pratchett springs to mind (with his obvious joy in using words like 'sussuration' or 'figgin'), but the world is full of word-o-maniacs of a lesser standing, too.

I Never Knew There Was A Word For It is a book just for them.

Three books, to be precise.  The volume consists of three separate titles bound together:  The Meaning of Tingo, Toujours Tingo and The Wonder of Whiffling.  A bit of a bargain, really.

De Boinod's impressive collection is full of strange words and phrases with even stranger meanings, gathered from numerous languages from around the world (in case of the first two parts) and old/slang English (The Wonder of Whiffling).  Let me give you a few examples (and I'm quoting directly):

kakobijin (Japanese) - the sort of woman who talks incessantly about how she would have been thought of as a stunner if she had lived in a different era, when men's tastes in women were different

Maurerdekoltee (German) - a bricklayer's cleavage (the part of a man's backside you can see when he stoops deeply and his trouser waistband goes down a little bit)

wosdohedan (Dakota, USA) - paths made by squirrels in the grass

As you can see, de Boinod's words are really strange sometimes.

Don't worry about the book's thickness (more than 700 pages) - it looks scary, but in reality it is full of drawings and averages about 15 lines of text per page. :)

I Never Knew There Was A Word For It is not really an exercise in foreign languages - you're unlikely to remember more than three expressions out of the whole brick-like book.  It's more of a statue to the human ingenuity when it comes to inventing words.  You can see how people's environment and lifestyle shapes their language, and also how intermingled languages really are.  A true feast for people of philological persuasion.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Chuck Thompson, To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies and the Art of Extreme Tourism

'If there is such a pastime as extreme tourism, Chuck Thompson is surely its guru'.  What a tempting line to put on a cover, especially if it's backed up by the (presumed) authority of The Boston Globe.  The book in question is called, just as catchily, To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies and the Art of Extreme Tourism.  If I were to sum it up in one word, it would be this:


Don't run yet, the book is not really bad.  It's light and pleasant, quite funny in an undemanding way, readable in the low-gear concentration mode.  A perfect travel companion for a package holiday or a business trip:  conventional enough not to make you feel bad about yourself but slightly more exotic than your destination is likely to be.

Let's face it - To Hellholes and Back to extreme tourism is what I am to the Duchess of Cambridge.  Yes, I'm a dark-haired female of similar age, but I'm missing a few crucial details (like a score of titles, vast pocket money account and a prince for consort) and so does Thompson's book.  Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo, to be precise) surely is a dangerous place, but markedly less so when you're visiting it under a guidance of a $4,000 fixer.  India can be awe-inspiring, but not when you're jumping from one standard tourist attraction to the next in a chauffeured car and if going to Walt Disney World is extreme tourism, then extreme tourists are as common as dirt.  Forgive the venom, but when someone tries to sell me a golden egg and delivers a handful of gold-ish tinsel, I believe I'm entitled to a disappointed rant.

As long as you're not really expecting any hair-raising adventure or sophisticated intellectual pursuits (generous dose of poo jokes is only the most obvious example of Thompson's style), the book is quite digestible.  Mass market title, sure, and it teaches you more about the mind of an American tourist than any particular geographic location but still - edible and fairly entertaining.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Francis Wheen, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions should be read for the title alone, but the delicious catchphrase is not all that's great about the book.  It's opinionated.  It's judgemental.  It's mildly offensive and massively politically incorrect.  In short - it's fabulous.

Francis Wheen takes on contemporary gibberish and sends it packing.  Of course, you might not call his target ideas gibberish at all - the world is full of funny people - but he strikes uncannily close to the mark of my own sociopolitical opinions, so I don't feel offended by his sarcasm.  How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World ridicules and/or questions things like UFO abductions, motivation coaching, murky alternative medicine, post-modernism, doomsday prophecies, religious fanaticism, free market and rhetoric of Thomas Friedman.  Even if none other item of this list could chime in with me, which isn't the case, the last wins me over in an instant.

To be fair, Wheen probably uses a lot of rhetorical tricks himself.  I kind-of believe in the quality of data he supplies, but I'm sure he remained silent about any potential counter-arguments.  Oh well.  No book can be considered the truth revealed and if I'm to listen to propaganda (unavoidable in our merry PR reality), I'd rather take something gutsy and no-nonsense than tasteless pap that's served elsewhere.

You might want to avoid the book if you strongly believe in dogmatic religion of any sort, New Age remedies, inevitability of capitalism rampant, the absolute American hegemony or creationism.  You probably should avoid it if you can be easily depressed.  How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World is witty and funny, but it is not a happy book.  After all, mumbo-jumbo seemingly does rule the world and it's hard not to draw grim conclusions if you're a rational, thinking creature.  Some parts of Wheen's volume scared me shitless, some merely made me hope that I'll never find myself geographically near particular varieties of madness.  Hardly any made me look into the future with optimism and enthusiasm.  See me sigh.

Depressing or not, the book is great.  Three hundred and something pages of venomous rant against stupidity and woolly thinking.  You can give me one of those anytime.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Michael Moran, A Country in the Moon

I was born, raised and educated in Poland, so there's not much any foreign travel writer could teach me about the place.  I read books like Michael Moran's A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search for the Heart of Poland for reasons different than most of the English-speaking audience.  I don't want to learn about Poland, I want to study an outsider's perception of Poland.  Inevitably, I mentally warn each author:  I know what you're talking about, so you better watch out...

Some writings about Poland drive me up the wall.  Poland is NOT all about the Pope.  Poland is NOT all vigorously Catholic, nor is it unanimously jubilant about the free market.  Not all Polish women are blondes and we're not as fond of cavalry charges against tanks as the rumour would have us - in fact, there are hardly any horses left on Polish fields.

Compared to all the rubbish written about Poland and the Poles in the foreign media, A Country in the Moon actually looks good.  Moran has lived in Poland for many years and took time to get properly acquainted with the country, its history, customs and character.  He explores Polish literature, music, architecture, cinema, politics, traditions, sounding really sympathetic and appreciative most of the time.  He did not make a single spelling mistake in Polish place names and phrases - an accomplishment that none other foreign writer about Poland (that I know of) managed to achieve.  Overall - a friendly and well research account of how Poland once was.

Oh yes.  There's not much of contemporary Poland in A Country in the Moon, and what's there doesn't really match what I remember.  The book is full of dusty anecdotes about Polish nobility from years ago, of glorious past of sparkling carriages and romantic poets.  Sure, that's part of our heritage, the picture it paints is mightily enchanting and deserves better publicity, but does it represent the country as it is now?

No way.

Still, Moran's book reads well, is accurate in its intended scope and has some potential to improve Poland's image on the international stage.  Good enough for me.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Anita Thompson (ed.), Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson

anita thompson, interviews with hunter s. thompson: ancient gonzo wisdom

Hunter S. Thompson was the man behind Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Rum Diary.  I've seen only the latter and have read neither, but the guy was enough of an icon to somehow create a shelf for himself in my crowded mind.  I chanced upon a book of interviews with him and thought - well, why not?

I still have some homework to do before I can pass the final judgement (please, see me wink.  I'm not THAT autocratic), but after over four hundred pages of Thompson interrogated, I'm pretty close to asking - what's all the fuss about?

Yes, he was courageous to present no-bullshit attitude as often as he did.  He was wonderfully politically incorrect, agreed.  He expressed some sentiments with which I wholeheartedly agree and which are terribly unpopular in our profit-obsessed reality.  It's great that he managed to squeeze fame and livelihood out of getting high and expressing honest opinions - this trick takes a lot of guts and gets increasingly rare.  But only a particular kind of person could call this 'wisdom'.  Not me, sorry.  Subtitling the book Ancient Gonzo Wisdom irks, even if taken with a pinch of salt.

Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson read rather well, despite being subjected to some awful editing.  Anita Thompson is surely supremely qualified to talk about Hunter, having married the man a few years before his death, but I doubt her editorial qualifications.  The collection is full of typos, irritating linguistic mishaps and the same questions (and answers!) repeated ad infinitum.  Such a nightmarish treatment didn't manage to kill the book, not entirely, but knowing that it could have been so, so much better hurts.

Lack of editing skills aside, I am not a fan of people who make brisk trade selling mementos of dead relatives.  How ghoulish can one get?  I can't help thinking of Amy Winehouse's father publishing her biography in less than a year since the girl died.  It's disgusting enough when done by paparazzi, but family making money of a corpse?  Sick stuff.

Back to Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson.  If the book was shortened to about half the length, purged of spelling mistakes and repetitions and maybe glued up into some sort of a monster interview with Hunter, it would be superb.  As it is, it's digestible but only just.

If your admiration for Thompson is moderate or non-existent, approach with care.  

Friday, 14 September 2012

Mala Sen, Death by Fire

mala sen death by fire

Death by fire is called sati in India (some prefer to spell the word suttee).  It is a very old custom, reaching back in time almost to the beginning of our era.  Illegal since 1829, it still makes headlines from time to time - or, as in this case, becomes a subject for a book.

I should probably clarify that not all cases of dying in flames qualify as sati.  Accidents don't count, neither do political protests.  Sati is deeply ritualistic and is committed by recent widows by jumping into the funereal pyre of their husbands.  In theory it is a completely voluntary act, arising out of deep religious feelings and devotion to the deceased.  In reality - well...

Mala Sen's Death by Fire paints a chilling picture.  Widows, sometimes as young as 18, are still being burned in India (most recent sati that the Wikipedia knows of was committed in 2008).  It is not altogether certain whether they consciously choose incineration or make the decision under social/economic pressure.  Death by Fire does not directly answer this question, but it strongly suggests the latter option.

Apparently, being a woman in India is not a happy experience in many cases.  The subtitle of Sen's book really says it all:  Sati, Dowry Death and Female Infanticide in modern India.  Girls are considered financial burden, to be avoided if necessary.  Obviously this doesn't hold true for all Indian families, but let's just say that the weight of tradition generally does not look favourably at girl power.  Things are changing, but, if Sen is to be believed, they aren't changing fast enough.

Truth to be told, Death by Fire does not impress with the amount of raw data.  It focuses on one case (sati of Roop Kanwar, 1987) with only a handful other examples thrown in here and there. I couldn't help observing rather sourly that with the way the book is composed, one learns more about technicalities (and difficulties!) of doing research in India than about female oppression.  We are told where the author went, what she ate and who she spoke with but reliable figures are harder to come by.

Well, the book might lack in scientific discipline but it is gripping nevertheless.  I approached it with some doubt, but sailed through the volume effortlessly.  I actually found it difficult to put down - a pleasant surprise.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Jan Morris, Heaven's Command

jan morris heaven's command

I have mixed feelings about Jan Morris.  She is a giant of travel writing, with a whole bookshelf of titles to herself.  Somehow though, her prose, while undeniably beautiful, usually leaves me unexcited.  Just...  not my pair of shoes.  Too poetic, too sentimental, too intimate perhaps.  I far prefer Dervla Murphy's mischievous political incorrectness, but - I keep hoping.  Now and again I pick yet another of Morris's books, to see if my mind can be changed.  Nothing much to lose - I might end up unmoved again, but writing skill is writing skill and it never hurts to sample some.  

Heaven's Command almost did the trick.  Of all the books by Jan Morris I've read so far, this is my favourite.  Sure, the nostalgic, poetic style is as present as ever, but in this particular case it fits the subject so well that I simply can't complain.  Perhaps romantically-tinted narration is the best possible tool to use when explaining the Victorian era.

Heaven's Command is a volume one of Pax Britannica trilogy, a history of the British Empire.  I know nothing about the other two titles, but they're very likely to end up on my reading table eventually.  Not tomorrow, perhaps - Heaven's Command does not leave you with a 'to be continued' feeling, no pressure to complete the picture with further reading.  

The opening book of the trilogy covers almost all of Queen Victoria's reign.  Together with the British troops, a reader roams the Earth from India to Canada, from South Africa to Fiji, from Australia to Hong Kong, with many more exotic stops on the way.  Morris explores politics, ideologies, fashions, digs deep into the meaning of imperialism.  Plenty of heroes from the past, half-mythic by now (at least to a westernised mind) are introduced and brought to life again by anecdotes, colourful yarns, quotes and even gossip.  I'm not in a position to judge how accurate the tales are, but sure as hell they are interesting, with precious ability to fire curiosity and appetite for further study.  

A minor revelation - Jan Morris is far more fun as a historian than as a travel writer (I fully respect your right to be outraged at such a radical judgement).  Perhaps the fact that she's been to pretty much everywhere is what makes her history - global in scope, after all, at least geographically - so enjoyable.  It is quite something to read a historical account footnoted with 'when I was at the site in 19XX, it was still this or that'.  Be sure that Heaven's Command is full of such comments.  

Overall - very agreeable.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation

eric schlosser fast food nation

Straight to the point - Fast Food Nation is the most electrifying book I've read in a good while.  As I wrote elsewhere, I quickly started to ask: where have you been all my life?

Fast food evokes extreme emotions - either you hate it or can't live without it (or, too often, hate it BUT can't live without it).  Schlosser's book has real potential to make the 'haters' party more numerous.  If you don't really care - after all, how dangerous a burger can be? - you might start caring after reading Fast Food Nation.  An eye opener, if I've ever seen one.

I never liked fast food very much so I only had my prejudices confirmed.  This book is full of stories with potential to put you off junk food for life.

It all starts innocently, with tales from the history of the most famous fast food chains.  Oh, there are snapshots of ugly corporate philosophies flashing through from time to time, but you have to really dig into the book to discover the more outrageous stuff.  Advertising consciously aimed at kids.  Conditions in meat processing plants.  Food safety concerns.  Nightmarish treatment of employees.  Health risks.  Funky food additives.  The list goes on and on and on.

Speaking up against fast food industry takes tremendous courage (read the story of McLibel to find out why), and care.  Each statement has to be documented - there are three hundred pages of notes on sources accompanying the actual text.  It's funny, in a bitter way, but it also makes the book more trustworthy.

I would probably trust it even with much less careful research.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Gavin Pretor-Pinney, The Cloudspotter's Guide

gavin pretor-pinney the cloudspotter's guide

Ireland is a cloudspotter's paradise.  The sky throws one breathtaking show after another and you need a heart made of stone not to be amazed by all the beauty.  True, more often than not the celestial entertainment is interrupted by downpour, but at least you get all those pretty rainbows afterwards.  The silver lining, you see?

It is no wonder then that I happily jumped when I spotted The Cloudspotter's Guide on the library shelf.  I've always wanted to be able to make sense of all the cloudy confusion above and here was a book promising to teach me just that.  Yay!

My enthusiasm dampened slightly somewhere halfway through the volume.  Let's just say I'm still not an expert cloudspotter.  I'm better than I used to be, sure, but I hoped for more.  The Cloudspotter's Guide would mightily benefit from changing the picture:text ratio.  More images, Mr Pretor-Pinney, please!  Clouds are not easily revealed through verbal descriptions and a reader can't help feeling confused by all the layers and Latin names.

To give credit where it's due, the author tries his best.  He's filling the chapters with little cloud-related stories from history, mythology and folklore.  He's really good in explaining physical processes governing the weather so that everyone could understand them.  He goes further than the basic 'cloudology' and explores rainbows, halo effects, precipitation types (you thought rain, snow and hail are all there is?  Wrong!).  He seasons his narrative with quirky but likable sense of humour and illustrates it with all sorts of not-exactly-serious diagrams and drawings.  Overall - The Cloudspotter's Guide is a really pleasant little book, even if it cannot turn you into a meteorologist overnight.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Stanley Williams, Surviving Galeras

stanley williams surviving galeras

On January 14, 1993 a Colombian volcano, Galeras, erupted.  Nothing major, just a little 'hiccup'.  It would have passed completely unnoticed if not for one tragic detail:  a group of scientists was gathering data on the top of the volcano at that very moment.  Six of them (plus three tourists) died.  Others escaped with their life but suffered grave injuries.  Surviving Galeras, written by an eyewitness, tells the story in detail.

The book has caused some controversy.  It has been published alongside another title, No Apparent Danger by Victoria Bruce, which tells exactly the same story but from a different perspective.  In short - some say that Stanley Williams was responsible for the Galeras tragedy.  Williams himself, obviously, claims otherwise.

For the record - I was not aware of this 'book battle' at the time of reading Surviving Galeras.  I found the book quite interesting - after all, what a story! - but not mind-blowing when it comes to pure writing skill.  I noted how courteous Williams was when speaking of his colleagues involved in the accident.  How he carefully quoted other survivors' versions of events.  How - well, I guess the right word here is 'humble' - he was about the whole affair.

Then I read reviews pointing to his 'huge ego' and thought: wtf?

I don't know who, if anyone, is guilty of the Galeras tragedy.  I do know that I did not detect this 'ego' in Surviving Galeras.  I did detect a very good story, written in a competent, if a tad too politically correct, manner.

I'm not a big fan of health and safety regulations.  If you're worried about your health and safety, do not climb an active volcano, that's all there is to it.  The volcanologists who died that day knew what a volcano can do and still decided to go through with the trip.  Claiming otherwise does not do a great service to their memory.

Well, think what you will.  The book is good, either way.

For propriety's sake I should probably add that the book was co-authored by Fen Montaigne.  He didn't make it onto the cover of my edition, so he's not going into my post's title either.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Salman Rushdie, Step Across This Line

salman rushdie step across this line

Due to unpleasant events some time ago, probably everyone in the world knows who Salman Rushdie is.  If you don't (well, you might be too young or have lived under a rock for last two decades), google up Satanic Verses.  Or fatwa.

I've read a few of Rushdie's novels years ago and I remember kinda liking him, but not really understanding what the fuss is about.  In my 100% secular head I still don't.  There is, though, one thing I had not known about Salman Rushdie until I read Step Across This Line - he is a superb essayist.

I love essays and other short non-fiction writings and I've become a bit of a connoisseur in this field.  I know how to recognise great essays as opposed to mediocre ones.

As I was reading Step Across This Line, I kept muttering to myself:  damn, he's good.

The book is a hodgepodge of mixed non-fiction pieces written between 1992 and 2002.  There are essays 'proper' - about life, freedom and other serious stuff, but also about plain old rock'n'roll.  There are columns re-printed from various newspapers, concerning mainly political and social events.  There is also a collection of open letter style publications from the worst fatwa times - my least favourite part.

I do understand why Rushdie might want to see Iran sanctioned to death, I really do.  I would probably feel the same in his place.  Still, reading all those pages full of hatred and battle calls was not pleasant.  I admit Rushdie was a target of outrageous persecution, but I would not like to see the whole country punished for this, so I couldn't applaud his activism.  The writer is entitled to his anger, to voicing it, too, but I'm glad no trigger-happy politician rallied to his call.

Anger or no anger, the book is delicious.  It seems that even fury is digestible when served by a top class writer.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Judy Jones, William Wilson, An Incomplete Education

judy jones william wilson an incomplete education

I am always alert when people tell me what I should or shouldn't do.  An Incomplete Education is subtitled 3,684 Things You Should Have Learned but Probably Didn't.  I have to confess I picked the book with half-serious thought in my mind:  I DARE YOU.

I also thought it quite possible that after a quick leaf-through I'll laugh or get furious and leave the book unread.

I shouldn't have worried.

If you dismiss the usual cover hype and approach An Incomplete Education like a not-too-passionate trivia lover would, you'll be delighted.  I was.  As unlikely as it is after such a high-sounding title, An Incomplete Education is a total page turner, all six hundred and then some of them.

At first sight it does look a bit like a textbook, and it is organised like one.  Table of contents resembles weekly schedule from high school with chapters titled American Studies, Art History, Economics, Literature etc.  Don't run, I'm through with the worst part.  Formal structure aside, the book does not take the Education so seriously.  Yes, it does want the reader to learn a thing or two, but knowledge is to be acquired through fun, not through torture.  It might not be full of groundbreaking discoveries or top quality scholarship, but at least it makes you interested in what you read.  Very well done!

Two words of warning, just to be fair.

1.  The book was written with the American reader in mind, by American writers.  Remember this when you're reading the 'Political Sciences' chapter.

2.  Jones and Wilson use the seasoning of their opinion quite freely.  It does make the dish book tastier, just remember that it's ok not too agree with them.  Opinions are not facts.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Thomas Friedman, The World Is Flat

thomas friedman the world is flat

Let me start today's review by quoting, almost to a word, what my partner said when he saw Friedman's The World Is Flat on my reading list:

'You're nuts.  You know the guy drives you up the wall, you know you'll be cussing the sky blue and I know you will be pestering me with fragments followed by your angry commentary.  Why on Earth do you want to read this book at all?'

There might have been a few unpublishable words, too.

Oh well.  It is very easy to explain.  If by reading a book a reader gets into a conversation with the author, each time I'm reading anything by Thomas Friedman we're having a blazing row.  And when it comes to intellectual matters, there are few things I love more than a blazing row.

I love Friedman's writing style.  I can't help admitting that when it comes to pure writing skill, he's damn, damn good - articulate, colourful, opinionated.  It's just that I completely don't agree with his opinions.  To me, he's just a propagandist for the American power politics, and since I'm neither American nor particularly power-hungry, I just can't tune into the world seen through his eyes.

I don't want to get carried away into politics (and earn a possible lawsuit in the process) so I won't go into any detail as to what exactly made me froth in The World Is Flat.  Let me just say that I wouldn't vote for this party and leave it at that.

Still, the book itself is good.  It's about globalisation, world economy, capitalism, politics and big business.  It's about cheap labour and how it can be used.  It's about technological inventions that were cutting edge when the book was published, but since that means 2005, they aren't so cutting edge anymore.  In the fast changing world of today you can actually consider The World Is Flat a history book, all the more interesting because we've lived through this history.

One more thing - if you can spare the time, have a look at my previous post, a review of 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism.  My reading it right before The World Is Flat was not intentional, but I found contrast between the two enlightening.  It's like comparing two different versions of reality.  A powerful reminder that in politics and economy there is no Truth, there are just Opinions.


Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Ha-Joon Chang, 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism

ha-joon chang 23 they don't tell you about capitalism

This book should be on the 'required reading' list if not at all, then at least at some schools.  Most definitely it should be read by those who actually make the BIG decisions.

23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism.  I checked the book out for the title alone.  I would love someone to tell me all those things they don't tell me about capitalism, politics, big finance and the likes.

I doubt if ordinary people will ever know the really interesting (and infuriating) bits.  Still, the 23 Things presented here are actually quite tasty.

Mr Ha-Joon Chang doesn't really disclose any secrets.  All it takes to come to similar conclusions is a bit of common sense (and, in some cases, extraction of the greed gland).  Still, most of us wouldn't be able to present them in such a coherent way, so well done and thank you to the author.

So, what are the 23 things they don't tell you about capitalism?  Obviously, you need to read the book to learn about them in any detail, but it all boils down to one thing: free market is not good for us.  It is not good for the economy (as current global crisis certifies), it is not good for people (I don't judge the minority who got extremely rich by shady deals worthy of this name), it is not good for the environment and it is not good for our future prospects.  We either curb it or live with the consequences, which are likely to get far more serious than dramatic headlines we're getting today.

I'm not sure if Ha-Joon Chang's recipe for improvement is the best option, but compared to some alternatives, it is actually fairly decent (if a tad too reliant on statistics).

It is definitely preferable to the current state of affairs.

But now we are in the realm of social criticism and I will say nothing more, because this is an obscenity-free (ish) blog.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land

tony judt ill fares the land

It's the second book by Tony Judt I've read and for the second time, I'm disappointed.  I need to either grow into his writing, or not try it again.

Ill fares the land - what a magnificent title!  We all know that the land, understood here as our global village, does not fare well.  I bet each of us could offer a recipe for improvement, and some of them would even be worth hearing.  Frankly, I expected an intelligent rant.  I got a history of political doctrines.  Ouch.

Funny thing, I dismissed the whole book as boring and useless and yet I noted down a few quotes which I judged too wise to forget.  I agree with many of Judt's sentiments.  I wholeheartedly agree that we should bring ethical standards back from the attic and give them a thorough dusting.  I'm all for the idea that we should re-think our definition of 'worth' and stop translating 'value' to 'money'.  I agree with so much of this book on ordinary, human level!

Unfortunately, sentiments are overshadowed by political theory.

I guess there are people who enjoy discussing -isms.  People who believe that an existing system can be an answer to the land's illness.  In Judt's case, it is social democracy that is supposed to cure the malaise.  It could be worse, I guess.  Still, when I read a book, I don't like to feel as if I were attending a pre-election publicity meeting.  Whoever the candidates are.

How about this - let's wave a magic wand and remove predatory instinct from the soul of homo sapiens.  Can't be done?  Then the land will keep on faring ill, whatever -ism you apply as a medicine.

Douglas Palmer, Earth in 100 Groundbreaking Discoveries

douglas palmer earth in 100 groundbreaking discoveries

Our planet is a fascinating subject.  This explains why everybody loves National Geographic.  Earth in 100 Groundbreaking Discoveries often made me think of NG - although published by a different crowd, it is very similar in tone and focus.  No ads, though!

The book presents a mixture of disciplines.  There's some geology, some paleontology, enough astrophysics to explain our planet in cosmic perspective, some anthropology...  Well, let's just say it contains many different -ogies, all united in the purpose of teaching a reader more about the Earth.

All the scientific stuff is presented in approachable manner, suitable for novices.  The book includes some fancy words, but they are all conveniently explained, so you don't need a Ph.D. to enjoy it.  I have to confess I caught myself drifting off from time to time, but my mind is strictly non-technical and does not process experimental science easily.  The book is not to blame.

More praise:  Earth in 100 Groundbreaking Discoveries is a visual masterpiece.  Stunning pictures printed on good quality paper, it is almost an album.

I'm not sure how groundbreaking the discoveries really are, but they surely are up to date.  In most cases, Palmer quotes research from 2010/2011, which is very fresh in this type of publication.

Overall - a tasty serving of science for amateurs.  Worth reading, worth recommending.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Tony Connelly, Don't Mention the Wars

tony connelly don't mention the wars

Stereotyping is just as entertaining as it is dangerous.  We all do it, consciously or not.  Some people use it for furthering ugly agendas - politicians would be the most obvious example.  Others, those with love for political correctness, claim it should be forbidden altogether - as if that was at all possible!

I bet that by now I managed to conjure a few unpleasant associations in your head, but stereotyping is not all ugly and Don't Mention the Wars is a proof.

The book is subtitled A journey through European stereotypes and this is exactly what it is.  Not all the countries got invited, only Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Poland.  Each chapter consists of a historical sketch and a handful of trivia organised around a central leitmotif.

Let me be frank - Don't Mention the Wars is one, big, colourful yarn.  It's extremely readable, engaging and as entertaining as a book can be.  I wasn't bored for a second and greedily turned page after page, devouring the book in a few hours.  A fantastic read!  Only...  don't believe anything it says.

I kind of suspected exaggeration here and there, but only when I got to the final chapter on Poland, my home country, I could really judge the information with any certainty.  Factual or spelling mistakes happen here and there, but I can forgive that easily.  What did piss me off was the skewed emphasis, a tiny fragment taken from the nation's reality and blown out of any proportions.  Example?  You would never say this after reading Don't Mention the Wars, but Poland is full of people who don't give a damn about the Pope.  I bet other nationalities could give their own examples here.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not condemning the book.  I stand by my claim that it is a charming page turner, light-hearted and entertaining.  Just please remember - this is a book about stereotypes, not about reality.