Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Michael Kelly, Tales From The Home Farm


Michael Kelly, Tales From The Home Farm

Usually I stick religiously to the reading order of my books.  First acquired, first digested, no argument please.  This is probably the only pedantic tendency in my otherwise messy life :)

Sometimes, though, an Event of Magnitude comes along and even my sacred reading order gets turned upside down.  Yeah, I know, I've been hinting at some big news for weeks now.  Well, today is the day, the curtain is up.

I'm moving!  Not only from one street to the next, I'm uprooting my whole way of life and turning it into something entirely different.  From a cramped, one-bedroom apartment in a busy city centre to a spacious farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.  Yeah!  I'm going to start a garden!  Keep hens!  Get a dog!  Make cheese!  And ten thousand other things...

With all the excitement surrounding the move, my usual reading list gets pretty much kicked aside and substituted with all sorts of Guides to Rural Pursuits.  I'm a city girl, born and bred, and if my experiment is to work, I need to gather as much information as I can.  Normally I would spare my readers any details of the countless how-tos I'm digging through, but sometimes I come across one that is actually worth mentioning.  Like Michael Kelly's Tales From The Home Farm.

A few years ago, Kelly did something similar to what I'm doing right now:  he ditched a corporate job and relocated to the countryside, to live the dream.  Some time into his adventure, he's far on the road to self-sufficiency.  The Home Farm is producing meat, eggs and veggies straight from the garden.  The author shares whatever he managed to learn on the journey - his tips on growing food in Irish climate, keeping chickens and turning pigs into pork are invaluable. 

The book is divided into twelve chapters, one for each month in a year.  I find this arrangement incredibly helpful, especially with each section followed by a brief summary:  what to do, what to sow, what to eat.  I'll probably be photocopying those pages for future reference!

Still, homesteading lore is only a half of Kelly's book.  The rest is filled with musings on sustainability, organic food production and life in general.  'Tales', you see?  This is not a guide or a textbook as such, it's farm-oriented storytelling.  Good storytelling, I hasten to add:  funny, warm, lighthearted, nothing sermon-like.  It's obvious that downshifting has served Mr. Kelly well - passion and contentment shine through every page.

To top it all off, Michael Kelly and I seem to share the same taste in books.  Quite a few titles mentioned in Tales From The Home Farm have been reviewed here, on Bookworm's Cave.  How cool is that?

The book is still worth recommending even if you're not planning to move away from the city lights, .  A word of warning, though:  after reading the tales, you might find that you want to!

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Danny Seraphine and Adam Mitchell, Street Player


Danny Seraphine and Adam Mitchell, Street Player

Despite my recent promises of improvement, Bookworm's Cave is still terribly quiet these days.  There are many causes, some of which are happy and will be revealed soon.  Other reasons for silence are not so great, but today I'm going to get at least one of them behind me, so that it can never haunt me again.  You see, I've been dreading writing this post, for weeks.

I was approached with a request to review Street Player back in...  July.  There, I've said it, the skeleton is out of the closet.  Despite the fact that I'm not getting paid for this and the only thing I receive in exchange is a free pdf of a book that I would never choose otherwise, I still feel terribly embarrassed.  How unprofessional of me!

At first sight, the book did not seem tempting at all.  For many years, Danny Seraphine was a drummer in a world famous band, Chicago, and Street Player is his autobiography.  I'm not particularly keen on musicians' memoirs.  Once you've read one, you've read them all.  From humble beginnings to fame, blah blah blah, sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, rehabs in between and a handful of celebrity names to glamour it all up.  Hardly worthwhile, once you've left the high school.

Despite the initial lack of interest, one evening I sat down with my laptop and opened the Street Player file, just to see what I'm supposed to drudge through.  I started reading and...  after only a couple of pages, I was totally hooked.  It turned out to be a very long evening :)

OK, let's be frank - Street Player does not differ very much from the abovementioned recipe for a musician's autobiography.  Still, it reads like a dream.  It's dynamic, not too pretentious, well-written and engaging.  I suspect this might be attributed to the non-famous co-writer, Adam Mitchell.  I can't be sure, but it smells very much like the kind of team where one side supplies the story plus trademarks and the other writing skills.  Well, if I'm right then Mr. Mitchell is a very decent writer indeed.  One just feels like turning (or, in my case, scrolling down) page after page, just to find out what happens next. 

As to the story...  There are all the usual stages of musical career, but also Chicago mafia (and here I mean the town, not the band), glimpses of Seraphine's personal life, big dramas when band members leave or *gasp* die, even bigger dramas when the author gets kicked out of the group, multi-digit figures, groupies, flying wigs, behind-the-scenes yarns and yes, the appropriate share of celebrities.  Not necessarily in this particular order. 

You may have guessed that the popular music scene is not exactly my pair of shoes.  Never before have I heard of the band Chicago either (although, as it turned out, I AM familiar with some of their tunes).  To tell you the truth, I'm not star-struck.  I don't think I'd like Danny Seraphine much, if we ever met.  Then again, I don't think I quite match Street Player's target market.  If you're a Chicago fan, or young and dreaming of rock'n'roll career, you'll probably love the book.

Uff, I'm done.  I hope this monster of a review will be at least some compensation for my monster of a delay :)

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Bruce Jay Friedman, Even The Rhinos Were Nymphos


Bruce Jay Friedman, Even The Rhinos Were Nymphos

Even The Rhinos Were Nymphos - ain't that a magnificent title?

As it often happens with me, I picked the book for the title alone.  I may not be that interested in sexual habits of megafauna, but I suspected that the publication is not about zoology at all.  Rightly so. 

Basically, the book is a collection of Bruce Jay Friedman's articles published previously in all sorts of Magazines for Boys.  You know the type, Playboy, Esquire and a range of less prominent titles.  Nah, you don't need to run yet - naked ladies (or nympho rhinos, for that matter) feature only occasionally, hardly at all, really.  True, these are distinctly testosterone packed pieces.  Just look at the subject matter:  detectives, drug dealers, pathologists(!), celebrities, supermodels, boxers...  But unless you are a certain very specific type of a girl, the faint-at-the-sight-of-a-mouse-oh-sugar kind, you're likely to enjoy them, whatever your gender.  I did, anyway, and I am most certainly NOT a testosterone packed male. 

Style-wise, the book made me think of Hunter S. Thompson, without drugs and booze (some of you might say that Thompson's writing is ALL about drugs and booze and you might even be right, but...).  Friedman makes use of the same rambling, surrealistic, informal type of storytelling, although I suspect that despite appearance it takes a lot of work to make such a tale tick.  And his do tick, no two ways about it.  They are fun, they are entertaining, they are very readable.  Maybe not exactly High Literature - but I doubt the author ever aimed this way. 

Great toilet read, really.  Which, I hasten to add, is a compliment.

One tiny thing, the articles in Even The Rhinos Were Nymphos are slightly dated.  They span years between 1968 and 1994, so it's been a while since they were hot news, or even particularly relevant.  Still, they were fun to read in 2013 and well, there's the historical value to think of... 

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Susan Sontag, Where The Stress Falls


Susan Sontag, Where The Stress Falls

I've read so many great things about Susan Sontag that I was almost salivating when I finally got hold of a book of her essays.  The revered author, elegantiae arbiter of the literary world, spoken of with reverence by the likes of Nadine Gordimer, and I'll get to read some of her words? Gosh! 

Well, there's no denying Sontag's impressive erudition and, yes, elegance.  Her command of language was awesome, as was her ability to create vivid, detailed images - even her non-fiction reads like poetry.  A master of the abstract, she wrote of feelings, impressions, ideas, her mind's eye able to detect whole worlds in a single book, movie or performance. 

With all this greatness, Where The Stress Falls should have swept me off my feet. 

I was bored.

My goodness, didn't the book drag!  It took ages to get through.  My mind kept drifting off every five seconds, words turning into meaningless gibberish every other line.  The reading got easier halfway through the volume, but even in the best moments I wasn't exactly captivated.  Now, is it me being boorish and uncultured, or is Susan Sontag vastly overrated?

Where The Stress Falls is composed of 100% High Culture, capital letters mandatory.  All the Great Arts get their due.  Books (obviously), cinema, photography, theatre, opera, even bloody ballet.  All very exclusive, very noble, very condescending.  Unfortunately, I'm allergic to intellectual snobbism.  High Arts can be fine, Sontag's reviews flawless, but I simply couldn't stand the author's patronising tone.  People With Taste vs The World.  I couldn't stop thinking of those posh vernissages where VIPs stuff their faces with caviar and sigh with delight over a black square on white canvas (with a seven-figure price tag).  Ridiculous only begins to describe it. 

It's faintly possible that I'm simply not mature enough to appreciate Sontag's cultural refinement.  I might get there when I'm around sixty, but I doubt it.  I simply do not wish to take my sensitivities in that direction.

Besides, I hate caviar.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Janine Di Giovanni, The Quick and the Dead


Janine Di Giovanni, The Quick and the Dead

I do like Janine Di Giovanni's reporting style.  She's compassionate without being sentimental, her images vivid but not overly dramatic.  Compared to other books about wars in the former Yugoslavia, hers truly shine.

The Quick and the Dead is a tiny booklet, only 177 pages.  It is fully focused on the infamous siege of Sarajevo.  Between 1992 and 1994, Di Giovanni made repeated trips to the suffering city.  As you can probably imagine, her reports are not too happy.  War doesn't paint beautiful pictures.  Still, stories of ordinary people in exceptional circumstances are very powerful.  Sure, fear and horror were omnipresent, but if you looked hard enough, you could also find defiance, dignity and courage.  The bittersweet mixture, when described by a skilled writer, touches the heart. 

Funny thing, if I were to label The Quick and the Dead as a single genre, I would choose travel writing.  The good travel writing, I hasten to add, like Dervla Murphy's, not some magazine-sponsored holiday-in-the-sun gibberish.  Di Giovanni is an active participant in the events, always on the move from one location to the next.  She shares her worries, fears, heartbreaks, and if the story she's about to relate is somebody else's, she describes where and how she met the source. 

By the way, one of Janine's sources went on to write her own book.  Atka Reid, the author of Goodbye Sarajevo, makes a quick appearance in Di Giovanni's memoir.  As you can see from my review, I don't much value Reid's literary efforts, but at least here's someone confirming her story :)


Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Charles Panati, Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things


Charles Panati, Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things

Things are happening slowly in the Bookworm's Cave these days, for which I apologise.  Life has been hectic recently:  new jobs for me and mine, urgent family matters and a new hobby firing up my imagination.  To add insult to injury, I've hit a patch of really boring books, readable but only just. 

Touch wood, it looks like some free time is coming my way so the days of neglect are probably over now. :)

I wish I could start my outburst of blog activity with a rave, but unfortunately Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things does not merit such kudos.

First and foremost, I absolutely hate titles like Someone's Something.  The author's name is already on the cover, goddamnit, why on Earth would you want to put it there twice?  A bloated ego?  Some misguided marketing advice?  Nah, I'm not buying this, Mr Panati. 

The 'extraordinary' part is somewhat exaggerated, too.  What's so extraordinary about inventing a dishwasher?  A lawn mower?  A hand mixer?  An inventor wants to make some money and tinkers away in his garage until he finds something patent-worthy, end of story.  Where's the amazing part?  Sure, the book contains some good anecdotes, but when it comes to the 'wow factor' it's a definitive oversell.

Most of Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things is focused on modern inventions.  Items of ancient or medieval pedigree are far outnumbered by Victorian/early twentieth century innovations.  I'd prefer it the other way round but ok, that's just one girl's opinion. 

As to reliability - ouch.  I've found a good handful of factual mistakes, some of them pretty glaring, without looking too hard.  NOT a serious source of information, please double check every sentence before passing it on as true. 

If I were to pick one word to best describe Panati's creation, it would be 'tabloidish'.  Gossip, sensation, and lots of verbal photoshop. 

Having said all that, the book doesn't read too bad.  Easy on the brain, it's a bit repetitive but smooth.  I can wholeheartedly recommend it for bathroom literature.  One-sitting-size chapters are simply perfect for the job...

Monday, 2 September 2013

Sarah Gabriel, Eating Pomegranates


Sarah Gabriel, Eating Pomegranates

I wish I had no reason to learn more about breast cancer, but unfortunately that is not the case.  I chose Eating Pomegranates as a gentle introduction to the topic.  You see, I thought it will be one of those 'got cancer, ate wonder food (whatever is currently in fashion), right as rain twenty years on' books. 

Guess what, I was wrong.  Sarah Gabriel's pomegranates are the mythological ones: six grains that sentenced Persephone to spend half her existence in the underground kingdom of Hades.  Accordingly, the book is not about the latest fads in cancer-fighting foods.  It's much heavier than that, dark, almost depressing and painfully realistic. 

The author was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, while still in her forties and with two young children in the house.  The journey from diagnosis through treatment to (hopefully!) health was a nightmare.  Gabriel is honest about her experiences:  there were no pink ribbons and uplifting slogans, only fear, worry and sorrow while family life was crashing down all around her. 

Eating Pomegranates
is not really the best proposition if you want to learn about technicalities of treatment or the illness itself.  Some basic data are there, sure, but this definitely isn't a textbook.  If, on the other hand, you want a peek at the emotional landscape of a cancer patient - bingo.  NOT something a sane person would choose to read for fun but I imagine that women going through similar hell will find plenty of reassurance in Sarah Gabriel's diary.  While happy ending is not exactly the leitmotif, it must be a relief to see that it's ok to be scared, to be sad, to break down under the disease.  After all, heroes crop up only on motivational posters, the rest of us are simply human. 

Friday, 16 August 2013

Diana Wynne Jones, Reflections


Diana Wynne Jones, Reflections

I'm not a great fan of children's literature and I positively hate teenage fiction*.  Why, then, would I choose to read Diana Wynne Jones's Reflections

Because it's an essay collection, that's why.  Ok, maybe not exactly essays, it's a mishmash of various papers, commissioned articles, speeches and the likes, but it feels like an essay collection.  Oh, and it's subtitled On The Magic of Writing.  No aspiring writer could resist THAT, am I right?

Reflections
are pleasant enough.  Wynne Jones was a graceful wordsmith, her stories are easy to read whatever the subject.  Pieces collected in this particular volume are most definitely not meant for children.  They are more serious than that, concerned mostly with theory of children literature and changes in publishing business throughout decades.  There's also a lot of musings on the process of writing itself, and a handful of tips for other writers, potential or not.  Serious matters are illustrated with delightfully quirky anecdotes, mostly from Diana's childhood (about, for example, tiny Diana's inability to distinguish between Germans and germs...  Set in wartime England, the cameo is hilarious). 

Wynne Jones surely wielded some kind of magic:  for a good while after reading Reflections, I actually felt like tracking down some of her books and immersing myself in kid's lit.  Me!  The urge quickly passed - I've limited myself to watching Japanese cartoon adaptation of Howl's Moving Castle - but I still might end up with Diana's book sometime in the future. 

One (unfortunately massive) flaw of Reflections is the book's repetitiveness.  You start delighted, but when anecdotes are repeated again and again, the enchantment breaks.  Some later chapters are simple re-writes of the previous ones and while Wynne Jones usually talked sense, I wouldn't sign up for hearing it once (twice, thrice...) more.  Obviously some issues (such as writer's freedom) bothered her more than others.  I suspect the publisher is to blame, pressing for a book when there's no sufficient material to fill it.  See, the pieces are perfectly fine if you keep in mind they were to be delivered singly, one paper per one audience.  Collected, well... 

Cut the volume to half the size, please.  It might work then. 


*I suspect that deteriorating quality of YA lit has something to do with general dumbing down of society - it's just that I'm not sure which is the cause and which is the effect...

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Richard Dawkins, The Magic of Reality


Richard Dawkins, The Magic of Reality

Some books don't appear too gripping at first sight.  Usually the first impression holds;  the book may be tossed aside after a few pages if it proves completely unreadable, or it may be dutifully struggled through with more discipline than enjoyment.  Sometimes, though, an exception happens.  A book, seemingly unremarkable, turns out to be amazing.

To tell you the truth, when I first saw Richard Dawkins's The Magic of Reality, I was not impressed.  Stuff for kiddies, I thought.  Possibly gibberish.  Possibly boring or outright silly. 

I was wrong, on all counts.  Well, ok, it is suitable for bright kids, but that doesn't mean that adults won't enjoy it. 

The Magic of Reality is a beautifully illustrated primer in sciences.  It explains the very basics:  how evolution works, why seasons change, what are things built of, how rainbows form and many, many other phenomena.  Nothing too advanced - a smart ten year old shouldn't have any problems in comprehending the book.  A reasonably educated adult is not likely to find much new knowledge here, but you never know.  I, for example, have finally learned how astrophysicists find out what distant stars are made of.  I had always thought that scientists' claims are somewhat dubious;  after all, we can barely see faraway galaxies, so how can they be so sure about their composition?  I'm not dubious anymore, I've learned the trick, or at least the theory - as will you if you read the book. 

Illustrations are another praiseworthy aspect of The Magic of Reality.  They are beautiful, unconventional, sometimes bizarre, very artsy.  Science turned into a fairy tale - brilliant!

I particularly loved Dawkins's treatment of Christianity and other leading religions.  He often tells mythological stories to show how people explained natural phenomena before the advent of science and he throws Christian myths into the same drawer as Indian or African tribal stories.  There's a strong message there, probably not much to the believers' liking:  it's all fiction.  Moreover, with clear and logical explanations, it's difficult not to see how RIDICULOUS it is to believe e.g. that someone could turn water into wine (without any yeast or fruit, that is.  And some time.  Everyone could manage THAT).  It's not that Dawkins is disrespectful, oh no.  It's just that he absolutely refuses to give religion the reverence that is so common in more politically correct (or sales oriented - there's no point in pissing off potential customers) publications. 

In short, I expected nothing much and ended up with a delightful book.  Such surprises I could definitely use more of!

Monday, 12 August 2013

Chris Patten, What Next?


Chris Patten, What Next?

Twenty first century, being so young, is a great source of inspiration for writers.  Depending on our age, we are fairly likely to see a good part of it and with the world changing faster than ever the question 'what next?' is pretty much inevitable.  So inevitable, in fact, that Chris Patten used it as a title for his book of predictions for near future.

When I say 'predictions', I don't mean anything like scrying or gazing into a crystal sphere.  Oh no, Chris Patten is an educated man, with a career of responsible, high-level jobs to his name (e.g. he was the last governor of Hong Kong), he wouldn't have anything to do with the superstitious.  His predictions are 'learned', more or less supported by facts, and, on the whole, pretty reasonable.  He's surely very accurate when it comes to enumerating dangers that might be in store for us.  Yes, What Next? is a pretty scary book.

What should we be afraid of, then?  Let me see.  Nuclear war.  Arms proliferation.  Terrorism.  Deadly pandemic.  Oil running out.  Water wars.  All those, and more, are closely analysed by the author, together with themes such as drug abuse, poverty and globalisation.  Whatever else can be said about What Next?, it is definitely packed with information. 

While most of Patten's ideas seem reasonable, I suspect that when it comes to political views he's as far from mine as possible, or nearly there*.  The Economy (capital letter intended) is the king, with Bigger Picture and Efficiency its close attendants.  Usually, if confronted with a 'politically suspicious' (from my point of view) book, I would start fuming somewhere around the page 20, but not this time.  Patten has an extraordinary gift of presenting his views calmly and sensibly, to the effect that I don't feel like throwing eggs in his direction even if I don't agree with him very often. 

Patten also happens to be a decent writer.  Even if global economy and politics are not exactly in the thrill and adventure department, he manages to hold reader's attention throughout all of the book's 400+ pages.

Despite the author's relative optimism as to our prospects, I'm not convinced that the future looks bright.  Admittedly, I'm a gloomy little creature so my view might be somewhat skewed.  True or not, if you read What Next? you'll be better equipped to judge for yourself. 


* I'm working on a new concept called 'Tom Friedman test of political orientation'.  Friedman, a New York Times columnist, is a very talented writer whose political position I absolutely despise.  He's often quoted or mentioned by other non-fiction writers and for some reason he tends to evoke pretty extreme emotions:  people either love him or hate him.  Patten, for example, seems to like him very much.  Tell me what you think of Tom Friedman and I'll tell you who you are...

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

John Simpson, The Wars Against Saddam


John Simpson, The Wars Against Saddam

Checking back through my old posts I notice that I positively raved about John Simpson's Not Quite World's End.  I can't remember the book too well now, but it must have left quite an impression because I chose The Wars Against Saddam on the strength of the author's name alone.  This time around I'm not so unconditionally enchanted, but I'm not disappointed either. 

One look at the title, combined with the knowledge that Simpson is a BBC journalist, gives you quite a good idea what sort of book this might be.  If I were to label it more precisely, I would say: war reporting, combined with elements of travelogue and political commentary.  A decent combination, at least for my tastes. 

Scores of authors worldwide really should thank Saddam Hussein for providing such a rich source of material.  Not only did he wage three massive wars (Iran-Iraq, First and Second Gulf War), but he was also kind enough to play the villain with a flair worthy of Anthony Hopkins.  Whatever else you can say about the guy, you have to admit that he caught the world's attention and held it (even if the Western propagandists did their best to help).  I bet a huge number of journalists have made a lifelong career out of reporting Saddam's misbehaviour and John Simpson is one of them. 

Reading The Wars Against Saddam so soon after Robert Fisk's massive The Great War of Civilisation was a bit of an anticlimax.  On its own, Simpson's book is really tasty:  witty, balanced, evocative.  Compared to Fisk's fiery diatribe, it comes across as somewhat mild.  It might be a lifetime training in 'objective' journalism, but Simpson avoids too strong opinions and hardly ever points a finger.  He definitely couldn't be accused of taking sides, and maybe this really is what journalism is all about, but it felt slightly toothless.  It might be a question of perspective - blame Fisk - but if I received a lasting injury from trigger-happy American troops, I wouldn't be so goddamn polite about this!  (Possibly I'm being bloodthirsty and irrational here while John Simpson is behaving like a mature, balanced gentleman.  Could be...).  I have a feeling - mind you, it's only a feeling - that he chose to conceal a lot of what he witnessed, for elegance's sake.  Or, perhaps, for politics' sake.  Would the BBC kick him out were he more drastic, I wonder? 

(I feel inclined to say here that it's ok, I wouldn't like to be kicked out of the BBC either.  Or is it...?)

Anyway, The Wars Against Saddam is a decent read.  Simpson knows how to write and a lifetime spent on the front line cannot but force you to become an expert in international power struggles.  An eyewitness's view adds colour to his reporting.  He's been there, he's seen it, now he gives the world his professionally polished version of what happened. 

Good enough for me.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Robert Calderisi, The Trouble With Africa


Robert Calderisi, The Trouble With Africa

As promised, today we'll take a look at another book trying to answer the question:  what's wrong with Africa?

Robert Calderisi has enjoyed a long career in senior positions in the World Bank.  His explanation of Africa's predicament couldn't possibly be further from Giles Bolton's (see yesterday's post).  In fact, the two gentlemen agree only on one thing:  foreign aid does not work.

So, according to Calderisi, who's the culprit?  Simple answer:  Africa.  Corrupted leaders steal the money.  Tribal traditions foster corruption and inefficiency.  People on the continent look for foreign scapegoats to blame for all the ills instead of getting to work and fixing their own problems. 

The West, if you happen to wonder, has been only a beneficial influence in African history.  I can't resist quoting a few snippets here...  [Slavery's] impact on Africa's general population is also difficult to establish.  But not everyone agrees that the damage was profound or permanent.  How smooth!  It's not that Calderisi himself would ever be so cold-hearted, but some people...  Anyway, it's important to remember that (and here I'm quoting again) most of the slaves descendants in the Western hemisphere lead better lives than their distant cousins on the other side of the Atlantic.  It almost makes you want to volunteer for shackles, doesn't it?  When it comes to colonialism, well...  One does not need to defend colonialism to recognise that some criticisms of it are grossly exaggerated.  Tell that to the half of Congolese population exterminated by the adventures of the Belgian king Leopold.  Holy shit, even Hitler managed to kill off only one fifth of Poland's people!  Or am I, perhaps, exaggerating?

(I am.  But I simply can't resist hyperbole)

Forgive the venom, but such statements truly boil my blood.  Yeah, sure, Africa is corrupted, but the West is definitely not such a fairy godmother that Mr. Calderisi claims it to be.

What's the author's recipe for dealing with the African pickle?  Simple.  Cut the aid.  Don't pour money into hopeless ventures.  Give to those who obediently follow World Bank's orders and to make sure nobody steps out of the line, send in an army of 'international observers' (because more Westerners would be interested in  'consulting' in the tropics funded by aid money, perhaps?).  If I believed that the World Bank is such a benevolent institution, I would probably agree it's a great idea.  Unfortunately, I don't.  I'll refrain from saying anything more.  Enough venom has been spilled. 

When it comes to literary values, Calderisi holds his ground, more or less.  The narrative is smooth and it reads well.  Frequent 'odes to self' (oh, I worked so hard and the villagers loved me so!) jar, but with a bit of effort they can be seen as comic relief.  I guess fans of capitalism and global corporate takeover will enjoy The Trouble With Africa very much.  As to the rest of us...  Well, it's important to listen to the other side's arguments too. 

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Giles Bolton, Poor Story


Giles Bolton, Poor Story

What's wrong with Africa?

There are hundreds of answers to this question, depending on who do you wish to blame.  Greedy corporations.  Corrupted African officials.  Inborn laziness and lack of initiative.  Unfortunate environmental conditions.  The list goes on (and on and on...).

I've recently chanced on two books 'explaining' African poverty problem from two quite different perspectives.  Giles Bolton, the author of the first publication, has spent couple of years working as an aid official in Kenya and Rwanda before taking a break to write up his observations and consider his options for the future.  The second book...  ah, but for that you'll need to wait until the next post is published.  Coming soon, I promise!

Bolton's conclusion is, unsurprisingly, that aid doesn't work, at least not in its present form.  The facts remain indisputable:  Africa is the only part of the world that over the last few decades has been steadily getting poorer, despite billions of aid-dollars pumped into the ailing continent.  Why?  While Bolton acknowledges corruption as a factor, the main culprits according to his view are insufficient aid funds and unfair trade arrangements.  He's quite good with providing specific data on various nations' aid expenditure (usually falling well short of self-declared aims) and all sorts of trade-related statistics. 

The main message is more or less this:  the West forces Africa to compete on a drastically uneven playing field.  I don't necessarily agree with all the notions in Poor Story, but overall I found Bolton's arguments convincing.  Hypocrisy, greed, empty promises - yes, that does sound like the Western so-called civilisation as I know it.  Only one of the author's statements really irked me.  The evil multinational corporation, he's saying, is a myth.  Corporations are not evil, they are simply amoral.  Ouch.  An amoeba can be amoral, or a hurricane, not being conscious whether they do good or evil.  Corporations most certainly do not fall into this category.  They know what they are doing - presumably - and should be held accountable for any damage they cause.

Otherwise, Poor Story is a really decent publication.  Despite all the statistics, the book is 100% accessible, written in plain - sometimes even chatty - language, full of anecdotes and little side-stories to lighten the mood.  It does leave slightly bad taste in the mouth (descriptions of human perfidy usually do) but that's not the author's fault. 

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Dervla Murphy, Race To The Finish?


Dervla Murphy, Race To The Finish?

Unusually for Dervla Murphy, Race To The Finish? is not about travelling.  This time her activist's soul prevailed so the book is entirely about the Big Issue, i.e. nuclear energy. 

Unsurprisingly, Dervla is firmly anti-nuke.  To her, potential hazards far outweigh potential benefits and Race To The Finish? is pretty much a collection of arguments to support this belief.  The narrative is passionate;  not as fanatical as it could have been, but fiery nevertheless.  Well, it's only logical.  We're talking nukes here, the technology with a potential to make our planet uninhabitable.  NOT feeling strongly about such matters would be at least ignorant (although the first word that came to my mind here was 'pathological'). 

Clearly, Race To The Finish? was not written with an eye for a spot in the global literary canon.  The book is full of time-sensitive data and since it was published in 1981 it now reads more like a history than call to arms.  I strongly suspect that writing this particular piece was purely an act of conscience on Dervla's part - a phenomenon to admire, if only for its rarity value. 

If nuclear energy looked dangerous in 1981, how much worse does it appear today?  The Three Mile Island accident features largely in Murphy's book, but at the time of writing Chernobyl and Fukushima were still far in the future - not to mention a probable range of smaller scale 'mishaps' that the public was never told about.  If Dervla was to write a sequel today, how much scarier would it be?

To tell you the truth, while I much appreciate the author's adding ideological three pennies to the debate, I still prefer her travel writing.  Acidic rants about social ills read much better when they are set in exotic scenery :)  Anyway, Race To The Finish?  is full of figures, names, dry statistics etc.  I understand the 'boring' part was necessary for the book to achieve its purpose but still... 

On the other hand, the scientific minds out there might enjoy it more as it is. 

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Lisa Tillinger Johansen, Fast Food Vindication


Lisa Tillinger Johansen, Fast Food Vindication

I've been interested in nutrition-related issues for quite a while now (as you can see here and here and here).  Usually I go for critiques.  I don't like fast food - or any processed food.  I think the stuff is harmful, positively dangerous, and that corporations behind food production should be locked up wholesale.  Still, I try to be a fair-minded creature and when I spotted Fast Food Vindication by Lisa Tillinger Johansen, I decided to give it a try.  Let's hear the other side of the argument.  Let's listen to the devil's advocate. 

The book contains a few sensible notions.  Yes, nobody force-feeds customers of fast food chains (although manipulative advertising COULD be counted as a factor...).  True, healthy lifestyle includes physical activity and junk food vendors are not responsible for our lack of exercise.  Sure, in the end we decide what and where to eat and if we don't like what's being served, we can simply avoid the offending establishments.  Agreed. 

Yet.. 

Too much of Fast Food Vindication sounds like a propaganda brochure.  American dream, humble-beginnings-to-success, quality, inspiring stories, charitable works, blah blah blah.  I'm not buying it.  In fact, certain paragraphs in the book made me positively froth with rage, especially bits about employment practices and social responsibility.   Whatever can be said to defend McJobs, I worked at one once upon a time and NOTHING can vindicate the blasted soul-killers in my eye.  Nothing.

The author argues her case using arguments that sometimes verge on ridiculous.  You could, she says, go to a McDonald's and choose a healthier dessert, such as apple slices, which clock only 15 calories.  Apple slices!  Apple slices!  Who on Earth goes to a restaurant, ANY restaurant, to have an apple???  Congratulations, Mrs Tillinger Johansen, that's realistic indeed. 

As a 'healthy drink option', she suggests sweetener-laced teas and coffees or diet coke.  Now, if you're curious as to what aspartame can do for you, I can only refer you to this article, or any of countless others available online.  Let me put it like this:  if my nutritionist suggested substituting sugar with sweetener (other than stevia, which seems to be ok but alas!  not available in fast food land as far as I'm aware), I would terminate our relationship instantly. 

Fast Food Vindication contains lots of tables with calorie values comparing fast food fare and sit-down restaurants menus, stressing the fact that the latter can be far more fattening than the former.  Sure, home cooking can be calorie-laden, too.  Junk food is not good for you, no matter where you eat it.  Still, that doesn't mean that fast food joints are ok.  Even if they happen to sell apples alongside other stuff. 

While a lot was said about personal responsibility (something I wholeheartedly agree with), I found no mention of fast food's influence on our eating habits or of negative effects of processed foods.  A serious omission, I believe, but it would make the case so much harder to defend...

I much prefer Michael Pollan's attitude to nutrition ('Eat food.  Mostly plants.  Not too much of it') rather than Tillinger Johansen's scrupulous calorie counting.  I don't see obsessing about serving sizes (which are, frankly, ridiculous) as healthy.  I don't call requests for labelling every scrap of food realistic. 

Verdict:  vindication not successful. 

Monday, 15 July 2013

Dervla Murphy, Muddling Through in Madagascar


Dervla Murphy, Muddling Through in Madagascar

I had been hunting for Dervla Murphy's Muddling Through in Madagascar for a very long time.  After visiting all local and not-so-local libraries, I eventually had to place a special order for the elusive volume and wait until it gets dug out from some warehouse who-knows-where. 

Not surprisingly, the book proved well worth the effort. 

I don't think I've ever seen a travel book about Madagascar - up until now, anyway.  The country definitely counts as 'an exotic location'.  The very sound of the name conjures images of tropics and adventure.  Murphy's travelogue only confirms this effect.  Sure as hell, Madagascar is a strange country.  While some things may have changed since 1985 (when Muddling Through in Madagascar was first released), I'm sure it remained as charming and baffling until today. 

A few aspects of Malagasy life stay in memory after reading Dervla's travel diary.  Laid-back, friendly and stress-free people.  Fauna (mainly the lemurs, of course) and flora, which you can in vain look for anywhere else on Earth.  Wretched state of the country's road network:  some of the Murphies' (once again, Rachel Murphy got on the road with her Mum) transportation crusades can only be described as surreal.  Mind-blowingly complex language.  Dangerous spirits - and I mean it in more ways than one, all of which will become clear once you read the book. 

Few anti-Western rants are included in this particular title, which is very unlike Dervla.  Possibly that's because of her hope that due to specifics of Malagasy character and culture, the country might prove relatively immune to the so-called blessings of civilisation.  It would be interesting to find out whether the author's feelings proved true - if you happen to know, please leave me a note! 

Otherwise, I've already run out of superlatives to describe Dervla Murphy's writing.  As far as I'm concerned, it's flawless.  Praise does not get higher than that. 

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Dervla Murphy, Eight Feet In The Andes


Dervla Murphy, Eight Feet In The Andes

I'm nearly at the end of my Dervla Murphy odyssey.  I almost feel sad - one wishes for brilliant writers to write hundreds of books instead of merely a handful.  On the other hand, if quality were to be compromised for the sake of quantity...  Nah, it's probably best as it is.

Today we'll talk Eight Feet In The Andes.  First published in 1983, it is the story of the Murphies' 1,200 mile trek through the Peruvian puna (grassy highland).  Plural form is intended, as on this trip Dervla was once again accompanied by her small daughter, whose tenth birthday was celebrated on the road.  A characterful mula (female mule), Juana, completed the company ('eight feet' - get it?), carrying the ladies' gear.

The book has everything that one might expect from a Dervla Murphy travelogue:  colourful encounters with the locals, snapshots of glorious landscapes and exotic wildlife plus a fair share of adventures, all generously seasoned with the author's refreshing honesty.  Add a few rants about Western civilisation (spot-on, as always) and a handful of historical references from the times of conquistadors and the picture is pretty much complete.

Some would probably say that travelling 'a la Murphy' is too insane to contemplate.  We are so used to modern comforts that few of us would dare to forgo them for weeks or even months (a disability of sorts, I'm sorry to say).  However, Dervla's joy on being on the move and far from civilisation is so obvious, so CONTAGIOUS, that I started to itch for a rucksack and a good pair of walking shoes.  No, I'm not likely to book my tickets to Peru just yet (I only wish I could...), but perhaps a short trek through Connemara?  Money-hungry Ireland does not encourage camping wild these days (you wouldn't believe the frequency of NO CAMPING signs), but it's healthy to break some rules now and again. 

If there are no posts over the next couple of days, you'll know where I am... :)

Friday, 12 July 2013

Alice Roberts, The Incredible Human Journey


Alice Roberts, The Incredible Human Journey

Do you get jealous of writers from time to time, or is it just me? 

I don't mean the glamour of being an author, nor the joy of working from a quiet study with no boss and no clients to pamper (on second thought, I MIGHT be somewhat jealous of the latter...). 

Books like Alice Roberts' The Incredible Human Journey are guaranteed to turn me vivid green with envy.  Wow, what a way to make a living!  Travelling around the world, expenses paid, entertainments organised?  Where can I volunteer?  Yes, you are obliged to churn out a piece of writing afterwards, but after such a mega-trek I wouldn't lack inspiration I'm sure. 

Roberts started her journey in Africa - just like our great-great-great-many-times-great grandfather (according to the prevalent theory, anyway).  She followed homo sapiens all over the world, visiting countless countries on most continents.  Fun!!  True, her sightseeing was mostly limited to archaeological digs and museums, but she did manage to sample activities as exotic as reindeer herding or rafting on open ocean. 

The Incredible Human Journey is a strange mixture of anthropology, archaeology, genetics,  palaeontology and travel writing.  The travelogue is used as a framework to tell the story of how human beings colonised our planet thousands years ago and how modern scientists, reclaiming knowledge from ancient fossils, pieced scraps of information together to form a convincing picture of our past.  Sure, they didn't manage to convince everyone.  When it comes to human evolution, the world is full of conflicting theories and Roberts recounts an impressive number of them (somewhat tediously, if I am to be frank). 

As far as I can tell, the book is only a spin off from a TV series made by BBC.  I bet all the travelling and fun activities worked great on the screen.  In the book, I'm not so sure.  I'd rather see either more travel writing (adventure travel, yay!) or none of it (just get on with educating, please...). 

Possibly I'm just being picky (or jealous!).

Right here right now I'm inclined to say that The Incredible Human Journey is pleasant and fairly entertaining but nowhere near life-changing or exceptional. 

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?


Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal

Why be happy when you could be normal?

A great question - if asked with a huge, sarcastic wink.  An intriguing, eye-catching choice if used as a book title...

I confess I chose the volume for the phrase alone, but the fact that it was written by Jeanette Winterson was a welcome bonus. 

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is Winterson's autobiography, focusing mainly on her relationship with adopted mother and search for the biological one.  The book is labelled as 'lesbian literature' (by Amazon at least) although I have some doubts as to the suitability of this classification.  Yes, the author happens to be homosexual and does not avoid sexuality in her writings.  Yes, she does wonder if her childhood experiences influenced her future sexual orientation.  That's pretty much as far as she goes on gay issues.  Otherwise, the book is about human-to-human relationships and search for happiness. 

To my eye, Winterson's household was pretty dreadful.  I guess today her experiences would count as childhood abuse.  Mentally unstable, fanatically religious mother is the main character in the tale.  I find it easy to believe that such a relationship shaped the daughter for life, not always in positive way.  Still - this is a happy end story, more or less.  Demons of the past can be exorcised, to a degree. 

I usually enjoy Winterson's highly poetic, dreamy style.  She's a talented writer and if you fancy soul searching and excavating the depths of human mind, you'll probably like it too.  Winterson's writing is definitely not conventional, neither are her life choices.  There's plenty of darkness in her words, touches of madness and quite a lot of heartbreak, but light and joy and excitement are present as well - very lifelike.  The message, at the end, is hopeful:  mind heals itself. 

Oh, and a warning:  watch out for those, who want to 'normalise' you by force.  The damage might be hard to undo. 

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Susan Cain, Quiet


Susan Cain, Quiet

Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

If you've landed here, on a bookish blog, chances are that you belong to the former - like me - and you will most likely love Susan Cain's Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

Introverts are numerous - depending on the study you read, they constitute from one third to a half of all people.  They are neither social misfits nor murderous loners, despite the popular culture which sometimes presents them as such.  In fact, introverts are sociable (although they prefer deeper connections to superficial chitchat), creative, often extremely talented.  They can, in right circumstances, be stunningly effective leaders or successful professionals. 

Do I sound as if I were defending introverts?  Perhaps, but that's only because these days introverts need defending.  Popular image of success seems to be composed of extrovert qualities.  Outgoing.  Confident.  Forceful.  Loud.  Fearless. Comfortable in the spotlight.  That's what you need to be to get anywhere in today's fast-paced, pitiless, efficient world. 

Or do you?

Cain lists a whole bunch of people who achieved extraordinary things in professional life despite being, as she calls it, 'card-carrying introverts'.  It appears that silence has its own power.  The main message of Quiet is simple:  dear introvert, please stop apologising for who you are and start enjoying your gift.  Utilising our natural strengths is much better strategy than forced participation in the game that is not really ours.  Modern research - helpfully presented in the book - claims that introversion is a physiological trait, present in human population for very good evolutionary reasons. 

Even if you, an introvert, find yourself in a situation calling for extrovert qualities that would normally leave you drained and unhappy, there are strategies to minimise the damage.  While Quiet is not exactly a self-help book, it does list quite a few helpful suggestions. 

Extroverts, too, might find Quiet interesting, especially if they share home or office with a silent dreamer.  After all, we can all learn from each other. 

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Sebastian Seung, Connectome


Sebastian Seung, Connectome

If you happen to be interested in brain science then Sebastian Seung's Connectome is a book for you.

While the title might sound a bit mystifying (but don't worry, you will know what a connectome is by the time you finish reading this review), the subtitle says it all:  How The Brain's Wiring Makes Us Who We Are.

By now pretty much everyone has at least basic knowledge of what the genome is and scientists have mostly cracked the code.  Connectome is similar, but instead of mapping our DNA, it represents the total of our brain's wiring.  Bad news:  we are at the very early stage of discovering its secrets.  Every single brain is built of billions of neurons, each neuron connects to many other cells and recording the whole network is far beyond our computing power at present.  Good news:  we'll probably get there eventually and once we do, amazing things will become possible.

Curing diseases like Alzheimer's or schizophrenia would be only the first step in harnessing the connectome's potential.  Scientists suspect that once we crack the code we'll be able to read and record people's memories, or even - in a sci-fi like scenario - to upload our selves into a network beyond the constraints of a body.

Yes, a lot of Connectome's contents sound like science fiction but let's not forget that today's reality is yesterday's fantasy.  Seung goes quite far into the future.  He realistically predicts that even small advances in connectomics will take decades.  We don't have the technology to see the connectome yet, much less to understand it.  But in a hundred years from now...

If it all sounds like rocket science, don't worry.  Connectome is written for absolute amateurs, with even basic ideas explained from scratch.  Things do get a little complicated eventually, but they never reach levels of complexity that a bright teenager wouldn't manage.  Fancy theories are translated into everyday language and clarified by pictures.  In addition, Seung makes all that science sound like fun.  I almost regretted that I didn't choose neurology for my career...

Reading Connectome may not be enough to turn one into a neurosurgeon, but it will certainly help readers to pick up some basic knowledge of how the brain works.  The book is light enough to be labelled as 'entertainment' and if you can still learn a thing or two in the process, I call it a very good deal.


Sunday, 30 June 2013

Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Emperor


Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Emperor

Ryszard Kapuscinski was one of the most talented Polish writers of the twentieth century.  A journalist by profession, he travelled around the world even back in the days when few Poles were allowed to leave the country.  He passed away in 2007 and left behind a long list of titles, many of which are available in English. 

Until recently, if you asked me what kind of books Kapuscinski wrote, I would instantly answer:  travel writing.  Maybe, but only maybe, I would add - journalism.  I've read quite a few, in Polish, years ago, when I was probably too young to understand what they are about.  Now, just after finishing The Emperor, I know that Kapuscinski was much more than a travel writer.  My own explanation of his style would be long and rambling, let me borrow a term from the writer's Wikipedia page instead:  magic journalism.  A non-fiction equivalent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 

The Emperor tells the story of final years and fall of Haile Selassie, the last autocratic ruler of Ethiopia.  After the revolution, Kapuscinski tracked down survivors from the imperial court and asked them to share their memories.  The book is constructed as a series of tales by those ex-officials, interrupted from time to time by author's own commentary, chronologically relating events in the changing country.  That's the theory, anyway. 

In reality, it's all Kapuscinski only pretending to speak in many voices.  I don't accuse him of inventing the facts, he probably did interview his sources, but I can't possibly believe that he quoted them verbatim.  They all sound too much like one person.  Too much like Kapuscinski himself, in fact.  Usually I would froth at such a use of poetic license but in this case, the procedure actually enriched the book.  The Emperor is not simply a journalistic report, it is a philosophical study of corruption and dictatorship that probably would be just as true for any other autocratic establishment.  Machiavelli meets Swift.  Details may change, but the attitudes, the atmosphere, the smell of rot remain the same. 

It is hard not to suspect Kapuscinski of alluding to communistic Poland, too.  A country where thinking is deemed dangerous?  Where informants are everywhere?  Where those in power constantly backstab each other only to remain at the trough?  The simile is too perfect to be a coincidence.  Polish writers of that era (The Emperor was published in 1978) were masters of double-meaning.  Censorship would not allow any direct criticism of the regime but hey, all that Kapuscinski wrote is history of Ethiopia, right? 

All in all, The Emperor is surprisingly rich and polished book, full of hidden sarcasm and perceptive comments on human nature.  No wonder it can be found on the list of Penguin modern classics. 

Friday, 28 June 2013

Robert Fisk, The Great War For Civilisation


Robert Fisk, The Great War For Civilisation

I first heard of Robert Fisk's The Great War For Civilisation through a youtube book recommendation video by Henry Rollins.  Not that I'm any particular fan of the guy - in fact, I landed on the video page when I tried to find out who he is after someone mentioned his name.  But hey, random books can be fun and the word 'civilisation' in the title usually bodes well.  When I saw Fisk's name on the library shelf, I went for it.  What the hell. 

To tell you the truth, I expected the usual gibberish along the lines of 'us - good, them - bad, bad terrorists'.  My goodness, I couldn't possibly have been further off the mark!  The Great War For Civilisation is the very opposite of propaganda rubbish.  It does concern the East/West conflicts, yes, but it's humanitarian rather than political. 

Robert Fisk has been a Middle East correspondent for decades.  He's based in Lebanon, but travels widely in search of stories.  The Great War For Civilisation is part war reporting and part history, with tiny elements of autobiography and philosophical reflection.  A delicious mixture, especially that Fisk, unlike statesmen of today, appears to be an admirably sane man. 

The book unravels all the twists and turns of recent history of the Middle East.  It explains most of the major conflicts, many of which were witnessed by the author.  Russia-Afghanistan, Iran-Iraq, Israel-Palestine, the infamous 'war on terror' of recent years, they are all there. 

Seen up close, all wars are terrible.  That's the main message of the book, and Fisk's amazing gift of storytelling leaves you with a feeling that you've actually witnessed the atrocities yourself.  The Great War For Civilisation is not a title for the faint-hearted!  The only negative thing that I can say about the book is that after a few hundred pages, I felt physically sick, overwhelmed by all the cruelty and hypocrisy that our species habitually presents.  If there's a villain in The Great War For Civilisation, it is not a 'terrorist', but a politician.  Nauseated, depressed - that's what I was when I read about fat cats turning people into pawns in the struggle for power and oil.  Unbelievable.  Shocking.  And yet...  strangely more convincing than gutless newspaper headlines. 

This is a book that kicks you right in the teeth and leaves you gasping for breath.  THIS is what our world is like.  THIS is what we allowed, and still allow, to happen.  If THIS is civilisation, then I'm ashamed to be a part of it. 


Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels


Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels

Sometimes, when the mood takes me or when I'm totally lacking inspiration on a library hunt, I turn towards the classics. 

I tend to have mixed feelings when it comes to Literature.  Usually the books are at least ok, but...  Let the scholars coo in veneration as much as they want, I still think that some examples of international literary canon are completely unreadable (Ulysses inevitably springs to mind). 

Consequently, I approached Gulliver's Travels with caution.  I had just read somewhere (Nadine Gordimer?  Not sure...) that Swift's satire still remains one of the most entertaining books despite the centuries since its publication, but was the recommendation trustworthy?

Yes! 

To somehow quantify my enjoyment, let me tell you this: Gulliver's Travels was more fun than pirate stories from the previous post.  Feel free to draw your own conclusions. 

Readability aside, the book is still valid in its social observations.  After all, Gulliver's adventures are essentially a satire.  His barbs aimed at governments, aristocrats and justice-free social relations are truly universal.  Not much have changed since 1726... 

Some of Swift's suggestions, disguised as laws and traditions of his imaginary countries, are worth attention.  Imagine a world where public offices are distributed according to moral virtue of candidates (as in Lilliput), not their supposed ability.  What's wrong with ability?  Even if it does actually exist*, it can only lead to greater damages when applied to unethical purposes.  In other words, making sure that a potential manager does not steal is a better policy than confirming that the thief you want to employ is a very skillful thief.  Or how about a public reward and punishment system (Lilliput again)?  As Swift shrewdly noticed, we are very good with the 'punishment' part, but when was the last time when you were tangibly rewarded for being an upstanding citizen? 

Yes, Gulliver's stories are good, but his caustic social criticism is better. 

Do politicians read classics, I wonder?


*which, I'm convinced, is not the case with most of politicians and other high-ranking personages of today


Thursday, 20 June 2013

Jon E. Lewis (ed.), The Mammoth Book of Pirates


Jon E. Lewis, The Mammoth Book of Pirates

Pirates ahoy!

I've been looking for a good book about pirates for quite a while now.  Some time ago, hoping to jump on a gravy train launched by Pirates of The Caribbean, I wrote an article about some of the most famous historical sea bandits (check it out here - it's actually quite good, if I say so myself) and ever since I was looking for titles that would nicely illustrate my story there.  With The Mammoth Book of Pirates I pretty much hit the bull's-eye. 

When it comes to the size, this volume is indeed substantial (although if you want to see a real monster of a book, come back in a week or two:  I'm currently digesting a true Leviathan of the literary world and I'll review it here once I'm done).  Its 400+ pages are filled with factual accounts of pirate adventures, written by witnesses, pirate hunters or even, in few cases, pirates themselves.  We're talking the 'golden age of piracy' here, 16th-18th centuries, but there's no need to fear the old-fashioned language;  whether the editor smoothed the narratives out or English of three hundred years ago is not as scary as it sounds, the stories are actually quite readable.  Well, ok, storytelling talent varies from tale to tale but the majority is very good. 

The eyewitness accounts are enriched with bits and pieces of information from other sources.  There are pirate songs and poems (even one by Byron, he of the Romantic greatness), excerpts from marine law concerning sea banditry, definitions of different piratical terms and other knowledge scraps of the sort.  All in all, it is a fairly reliable and rich treasure chest of pirate lore.

Admittedly, real life pirates were far less glamorous than their Hollywood images.  No big surprise there...  If you're looking for a Jack Sparrow, you'll be better off sticking to the movies.  If, on the other hand, you happen to be interested in flesh and bone individuals who actually roamed the seas many years ago and inspired the cinematic productions, then The Mammoth Book of Pirates should leave you satisfied. 

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Dervla Murphy, In Ethiopia With a Mule


Dervla Murphy, In Ethiopia With a Mule

I seem to have a thing about Ethiopia recently.  Wherever I turn, there it is.  Feature article on my favourite news website.  Bumper sticker declaring someone's love for the place.  Books, chosen randomly but inevitably converging on the African nation.  The Prester Quest, reviewed recently.  Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Emperor (review coming soon!).  Dervla Murphy's In Ethiopia With a Mule

I almost feel stalked (can one be stalked by a country, I wonder?). 

And yes, we're talking Dervla Murphy today.  Again! 

In Ethiopia With a Mule is a diary of her first African journey - at least the first she wrote about - undertaken in 1966.  Those were the days of emperor Haile Sellasie, he of the Rastafari fame.  Eritrea was still a part of the country.  I'm mentioning this only because some of the terrain that Dervla journeyed through is not Ethiopian anymore. 

Murphy's courageous attitude is visible from the first pages of the book.  Despite numerous warnings about bandit activity on the chosen route, she kept evading any official escort as often as she could, convinced that a retinue would negatively impact on her relations with local populace.  A few minor and one major incidents did take place.  Dervla's description of the 'serious' encounter with thieves sounds pretty innocent right after the fact, but she often referred to this situation later in life as one of the few really dangerous ones that she faced. 

Bandits aside, Ethiopia in the sixties was a demanding country.  Rough terrain, maps bad or non-existent, little food and water, extremes of temperature and insect life turning night time into hell.  To balance it all, it also offered unequalled natural beauty, kind hospitality of the Ethiopians, blissful solitude and physical challenges, both of which Dervla greatly appreciates. 

As usually, Murphy's unique blend of compassion, common sense and thirst for adventure translate to flawless travel writing. 



Friday, 14 June 2013

Dervla Murphy, The Waiting Land - A Spell in Nepal


Dervla Murphy, The Waiting Land - A Spell in Nepal

In 1965 Dervla Murphy spent seven months in Nepal, a mountainous kingdom in the Himalayas.  The record of her adventures was published soon afterwards as The Waiting Land - A Spell in Nepal.

Quite a spell!  Visions conjured by Murphy's pen are enchanting indeed.  Festivals brimming with colours.  Majestic mountains and exotic wildlife.  The Nepalese, with their curious traditions and habits.  Joys and sorrows of rough travel through a country that only a few years previous had begun its journey towards modernity. 

Once again (see Tibetan Foothold) Tibet and Tibetans feature largely in the book.  Major part of Dervla's stay was spent working in a Tibetan refugee camp.  The mixture of nationalities one encounters in The Waiting Land is actually quite dazzling:  various indigenous tribes are spiced with the citizens of China, India and divers 'first world' countries.  There is no one like Dervla Murphy to observe the quirks and peculiarities of mixing cultures so anyone interested in sociology is in for quite a treat. 

The book does read a bit like a history textbook.  No, don't run, I don't mean to say that it's full of boring academese, The Waiting Land is totally readable.  It's just that plenty of water has passed under the bridge since 1965 and a lot has changed in Nepal.  It's not a kingdom anymore, to name the first shift springing to mind, but I'm sure the transformation goes much deeper.  Dervla provides a good amount of background information AD 1965, so if you happen to know something about Nepal as it is today (I don't!), you'll be able to appreciate the difference. 

To tell you the truth, I'm slowly running out of ideas for creative and original praising of Murphy's writing.  Perhaps the best way to communicate my admiration is this:  The Waiting Land is the 17th book of the author that I've read recently and I still haven't had enough.  One can hardly expect more. 




Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Dervla Murphy, Tibetan Foothold


Dervla Murphy, Tibetan Foothold

Some time ago I realised that I had got as far as I could get on my own in the quest to track all Dervla Murphy books.  It was time to enlist a librarian's help. 

Most librarians in my local book source are sweet, friendly and helpful, but one or two individuals can only be described as intimidating.  Just my luck that I chanced upon a gentleman of the latter kind when I finally got down to serious hunting business...  It took some courage and no small amount of patience, but Dervla Murphy is worth surviving any amount of grumpiness.  To be fair, I got my books and quickly, too - yipee!

I'm working through the list chronologically, so the three titles I've checked out so far are all from the sixties.  Today's book, Tibetan Foothold, was published directly after Murphy's debut, Full Tilt, and it is really the second chapter of the same journey. 

Let me explain.  After the famous cycling expedition from Ireland to India, Dervla found herself in Delhi with much time to spare and the weather too hot to cycle.  She needed somewhere to bunk over until colder part of the year and she chose to fill the gap by doing some volunteer charity work.  Those days India was swarming with refugees from Tibet and Dervla was sent to a nursery for Tibetan children in Dharamsala. 

In contrast to other Murphy travel memoirs, Tibetan Foothold is almost stationary.  Sure, the itching feet took the tireless adventurer on quick treks whenever she could get away from care giving duties, but most of the book was written in the nursery where she worked.  That doesn't mean that the result is in any way inferior to other titles in Dervla's bibliography.  Just the opposite:  it is as fascinating as her most daring expeditions.  Clearly it is the case of beauty in the eye of a beholder...  or huge, huge writing talent.

I couldn't shake the feeling that Dharamsala experiences influenced Dervla for life.  The girl full tilting from Europe to Asia was curious and eager for an adventure, but only in Tibetan Foothold one can observe the emergence of humanitarian activism that became Murphy's trademark later on.  Of course, you'd need to ask the author herself to see if I'm right, but of one thing I am sure:  Dervla Murphy's conscience was alive and kicking almost from the beginning of her writing career.  This is probably the single most vivid detail distinguishing her from other writers:  she cares.  I'm usually sceptical when I stumble against too loudly expressed compassion, but in this case I am convinced.  Murphy is simply too human, too real in her reactions to possibly fake it.  She gets angry, muddles things, doubts, makes mistakes - in short, she's as far from pink-bubblegum-perfect as it is possible to be.  I'm convinced. 

Then again, I've been under a spell since the first encounter with Dervla. 

Two more titles coming soon.