Sunday, 27 January 2013

Daniel Everett, Don't Sleep There Are Snakes

Daniel Everett, Don't Sleep There Are Snakes

Don't Sleep There Are Snakes - it's been a while since I saw a title as vibrant as this.  Does the book  match the title's greatness?  Not really. 

The publication is a curious mixture of ethnography and linguistics, with a modest amount of travel memoir thrown in for good measure.  Everett has spent most of his professional life in Amazonian jungle, learning about culture and language of a tiny Indian tribe, the Pirahas.  Initially, he was there as a missionary, trying to convert his hosts.  Curiously enough, he ended up losing faith, when confronted with Piraha's unshakable lack of belief in things that cannot be seen or heard. 

Don't Sleep There Are Snakes is divided into two parts.  The first describes Everett's life among the Pirahas, the other consists of hard core linguistics, meaning little or nothing to ordinary mortals.  Life in the Amazonian jungle is fascinating by definition.  Stories about anacondas, tarantulas and the like grab the reader's attention and hold it fast, Pirahas sound like a colourful bunch.  Unfortunately, if the first half of the book reads like a dream, the rest is an exhausting trek through a swamp. 

It's not that I doubt Everett's academic credentials.  He probably knows what he's talking about, but I can't imagine how his linguistic theories could be of any interest to the general public.  Perhaps the book is meant for linguistics graduates?  I have a feeling that the author tried to please both target audiences, the professionals and the rest, and the effect is somewhat messy. 

Still, Don't Sleep There Are Snakes is worth reading, if only for the first part.  If you happen to be big on linguistics, you might even enjoy it all.

Monday, 21 January 2013

J.E. Neale, Queen Elizabeth I

J.E. Neale, Queen Elizabeth I

Hunting down and reading books about Elizabeth I has become a minor hobby of mine.  On each trip to the library, I dutifully check history and biography shelves, looking for anything on the famous queen.  Sometimes my spoils don't look too promising.  J.E. Neale's Queen Elizabeth I did not look promising at all.  First published in 1933, current edition with a distinct 'Penguin classics' look*, it does not offer literary ecstasy at first sight.  Oh well, I sighed, a dedicated reviewer should be ready for some sacrifices, right?

Not right at all!  The book turned out to be the best of Elizabeth's biographies I have read so far, and I've read quite a few. 

Queen Elizabeth I reads like a thriller (ok, ok, I am exaggerating, but only slightly).  You really want to know what happens next.  All the dash and romance of Gloriana's age is incorporated into the narrative and yet, this is top class academic history, not some shady historical fiction.  Complex issues of court and international politics are explained, sources quoted, scientific doubts expressed.  Elizabeth's life is analysed from cradle to grave.  Everything you can ask for from a good biography of a famous monarch is there.

Sure, like all historians, Neale wrote his version of history.  He gallantly defended Her Royal Majesty from any charges other scholars may have made against her - the picture he painted is invariably positive.  The effect is quite charming, but you may wish to compare his account with some less benign biographies, just to see where others disagree. 

Otherwise, Queen Elizabeth I is flawless. 

*Don't get me wrong here, I have nothing against Penguin classics, but they are not exactly books you stay up all night for, are they? 

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Doris Lessing, African Laughter - Four Visits to Zimbabwe

Doris Lessing, African Laughter

I read African Laughter - Four Visits to Zimbabwe no more than a week after finishing Dervla Murphy's The Ukimwi Road.  At first, it was impossible to resist comparing the two: the same area, the same time frame (give or take a decade), even the lady writers represent the same generation - more or less.  Initially, I judged Murphy's version of reporting far superior (and if forced to make the comparison again, I'd stick to this verdict) but a hundred or so pages into Lessing's book I cancelled the contest.  Similar at first sight, the two perspectives are simply too different to compete. 

While Murphy only passes through the countries she describes, Doris Lessing has personal ties with Zimbabwe.  This is where she grew up, where some of her family remained and from where she was banished for political reasons for many years.  Her 'four visits' could be labelled as 'return from exile', even if short-termed and accomplished in instalments.  Because of all this, African Laughter is first and foremost a memoir.  Sure, some elements of travel writing are present, and you can learn quite a few things about Zimbabwe as it was in the '80s, but you get to know Doris Lessing far better than the country she's visiting. 

Which, depending on your point of view, can be a good or a bad thing.  I started off expecting a travel writing piece, so I was somewhat disappointed, but Lessing's writing style did a lot to soothe my pain.  Sure, it's chaotic, and guilty of some very original punctuation (two colons in one sentence?), but it is also mature, elegant and full of perceptive observations about human nature.  Definitely not fluff.

Only halfway through the book I found out about Lessing being a Nobel prize recipient.  Quite a surprise!  While pleasant, her writing is not exactly Nobel-level, not in my book.  On the other hand, I probably should stay such judgements until I sample some more of Lessing's bibliography.  After all, African Laughter is only a tiny fraction of her literary accomplishments. 

I'm looking forward to trying some more. 

Friday, 18 January 2013

Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms - The History of Half-Forgotten Europe

Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms - The History of Half-Forgotten Europe

Vanished Kingdoms sounds more like a title of a fairy tale than a history book.  And yet, this is how Norman Davies decided to call his recent (2011) study of European past. 

States rise and fall, such is their nature.  Some hang around for centuries, others expire after weeks or even days, but inevitably - what comes up must come down.  Davies gathered 15 examples to prove this theory.  To his credit, he didn't go for the most obvious ones.  It is more than likely that most people have no idea that some of his 'vanished kingdoms' even existed. 

Each state is described in such a broad context that all the chapters taken together give the reader quite a comprehensive view of general European history, from the fall of Roman Empire almost to the end of the twentieth century.  Geographically, focus shifts from the British Isles, through Mediterranean, to Central and Eastern Europe.  The last area is Davies's particular speciality (he's published a few interesting books on history of Poland), so you can expect quite a balanced approach to the continent's history.  It's a treat, really, because few Western historians bother to go East in their studies. 

When it comes to pure readability, Norman Davies as usually scores high.  While not exactly frivolous, his style of writing is light and engaging.  He has an amazing ability to un-twist and clarify even quite complex historical issues, so readers have a chance to ingest amazing amount of information without wreaking their brains. 

Despite its size (740 pages of text proper), Vanished Kingdoms doesn't really tell you everything there is to tell about the subject.  Too many states, too many centuries.  For those craving further information, there are over fifty pages of notes on sources and relevant publications. 

In short, if you're looking for scientifically sound European history from original perspective, this is it. 

Monday, 14 January 2013

Dervla Murphy, The Ukimwi Road - From Kenya to Zimbabwe

Dervla Murphy, The Ukimwi Road

Let me skip all the introductions and get straight to open-mouthed admiration.  Dervla Murphy is the greatest travel writer that I've ever come across and each of her books passing my way only confirms it.  This time I managed to get hold of The Ukimwi Road, a travel memoir from Africa. 

Travelling through wilderness by bicycle is Murphy's trademark.  For this book, she pedalled through Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.  Imagine that!  I am more than thirty years younger than she was at the time of the trip and I wouldn't dare to even contemplate such an enterprise... 

Physical endurance and ability to survive in difficult environment are not Murphy's only enviable traits.  She can write, there's no doubt about it.  Her accounts of people encountered on the road are masterful, full of colour and exotic flavour.  Often a generous serving of food for thought is thrown into the bargain.  Even landscape descriptions, my least favourite aspect of any travel writing, are evocative enough to enjoy when Dervla Murphy is spinning her tales. 

Still, The Ukimwi Road is not only about pretty sights and quirky locals.  'Ukimwi' in Swahili means AIDS.  Willy-nilly, as there's no escaping evidence of the illness in the areas she travelled through, Murphy's African journey turned into an AIDS chronicle.  I am impressed by how she tackled the subject - with kindness and compassion, but without fundraiser-like hypocrisy.  Murphy rarely uses emotion-evoking vocabulary in her stories.  She just tell readers of what she sees, as she sees it, and this is usually enough to feel shattered by the dark side of reality. 

Speaking of fundraisers, don't they get a lashing in The Ukimwi Road!  I am very much against charity institutions - anyone who begs for money for starving children and then pays himself a few hundred thousand euros/dollars in salary deserves to be lynched in my book.  If Murphy is to be believed (and I can't see why not), recipients of charitable aid are just as aware of this ugly dissonance, and they don't like it more than I do.  For details, read the book.  I admit I have copied quite a few quotes for future reference.

All in all, The Ukimwi Road is a masterpiece of travel writing.  One of the best (if not THE best) I've ever read.  Highest praise. 

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Adrian Tinniswood, By Permission of Heaven

adrian tinniswood, by permission of heaven

On September 2, 1666, early in the morning, a fire started in Thomas Farriner's bakery, Pudding Lane, London.  Soon it spread and by the time it was extinguished four days later, it had consumed 13,200 houses, 87 churches and numerous public buildings.  If this sounds like something you would like to know more about, get yourself a copy of By Permission of Heaven - The True Story of The Great Fire of London by Adrian Tinniswood.

The book is a detailed study of the disaster.  It includes background information, day-by-day account of the conflagration's progress and description of firefighting efforts, followed by a history of the great city's recovery.  Written in fairly accessible language, it also paints an accurate (as far as I can tell) picture of 17th century Europe - or at least those parts of the continent that are relevant to the story.  The narrative is solidly based on easily identifiable sources, often cited throughout the text. 

When it comes to pure readability, By Permission of Heaven scores 6 out of 10 on my personal scale.  Scholarly notes add to the book's reliability, but unfortunately diminish its literary charms.  Still, Tinniswood managed to keep skillful balance between education and entertainment.  The story is dynamic enough, and generously seasoned with spicy anecdotes.  Not exactly a page-turner, but not a bore either. 

I guess a Londoner would enjoy the book far more than I did.  The fire's spread is described street by street, almost building by building.  To someone only vaguely familiar with London, all those names are pretty much meaningless.  My attention tends to drift off when faced with too much urban topography.  On the other hand - how else could you describe such an event?  With that in mind, the author is officially forgiven. 

Overall, a very decent account of one of the most famous fires in the world history.  Well worth a try. 

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Robert Fossier, The Axe and the Oath - Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages

robert fossier, the aze and the oath - ordinary life in the middle ages

My goodness, it's been a while since I read a history book quite as bad.

The Axe and the Oath is, or promises to be, an account of everyday life of ordinary people in the Middle Ages.  Sounds fantastic, doesn't it?  Wouldn't you like to know what an average Joe did or thought a thousand years ago?  How did all those peasants in the background of Robin Hood stories live, etc. etc.?  I surely would.  The problem is, professor Fossier doesn't really answer the above questions.  In fact, his book provides very little when it comes to solid data, being full of opinions and generalisations instead.  There's even less information on ordinary people, despite multiple promises to the contrary.  I do understand that due to lack of sources it is difficult to write anything definite on the subject, but still...  What is the point of writing a book to tell you that there is actually nothing to tell? 

Even if you want to see The Axe and the Oath as an introduction to medieval studies and follow up with other books, professor Fossier does not make it easy for you.  No bibliography, no notes on sources, no suggested reading, nothing. 

It gets worse.  I found quite a few outrageous factual errors, like a claim that humans are the only mammal species with opposable thumbs (that is why homo sapiens are the most advanced animals out there).  Oh really?  What about chimpanzees?  Gorillas?  Orangutans?  Shouldn't they have produced at least one great civilisation by now?  There's more, but I'll let you to do the error-hunting yourself.  Just remember to double check every piece of information you find in The Axe and the Oath.  

When it comes to translation, it probably could not have been any worse.  There's so much left of the original French that one wonders why the translator bothered at all. 

Despite all the above, The Axe and the Oath actually reads quite smoothly.  If you are able to ignore lack of any scientific solidity, you should be fairly satisfied. 

If you treat your history seriously, avoid at all cost.      

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Jan Morris, 50 Years of Europe - An Album

jan morris, fifty years of europe

Jan Morris is a legend in the world of travel writing, but with 50 Years of Europe - An Album she surpassed even her own excellence.  I read the book open-mouthed, full of admiration for the amount of ground she has covered and the number of stories she's collected.  Mind you, these are only the European stories - how many there would be if she decided to write a global 'album'??? 

The book is composed of tiny snapshots - half a page here, three quarters there.  It may appear slightly chaotic, as she moves freely between countries and periods, but the mini-chapters are in fact thoughtfully arranged.  I don't want to reveal too much, so you'll need to read the book to discover its hidden logic but believe me - it is there :). 

As with all best travel writing, 50 Years of Europe is a mixture of travelogue and autobiography.  Jan Morris looks back at a lifetime of globetrotting (ehm...  Europe-trotting?) and picks the best places and best stories for the readers' enjoyment.  Since in this case we're talking about more than half a century, the collection is pretty impressive. 

Usually, I am quickly tired by Morris's romantic style.  I am aggressively down-to-earth, so her fanciful musings tend to irk me.  Not in this case.  A sudden change of focus in the writing?  Perhaps.  Or maybe I read 50 Years of Europe in a more tolerant frame of mind.  Whichever is correct, this is definitely the best writing by Jan Morris that I've ever come across.  I wonder, would other readers feel the same way?

Friday, 4 January 2013

Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, Jack Cohen, The Science of Discword II - The Globe

the science of discworld the globe, terry pratchett, ian stewart, jack cohen

Take a Discworld novella and mix it with some quantum physics.  Add a dash of anthropology, a pinch of religion, some history, a few grains of astrophysics and lots and lots of light-hearted, humorous commentary.  Oh, and don't forget to season everything with Shakespeare.  Hey presto, you've just created The Science of Discworld II - The Globe

If the above recipe looks like too much hassle (or if you're blown away by the sheer difficulty of the task), don't worry.  Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart  and Jack Cohen have already cooked up the dish for you.  Take it home and enjoy.

If you have a look around this blog, you will know that I am an unconditional Pratchett fan.  I know almost every word of all Discworld novels so getting my hands on one of the spin-offs is a particular joy for me (as in Pratchett + something I haven't read yet = pure delight).  Especially if he teams up with guys like Stewart and Cohen.  It appears that the three gentlemen look at the world in a very similar way.  Result:  The Science of Discworld is very Pratchettesque, although I would hazard a guess that the man himself has actually written only small portion of it. 

I have to confess that my brain panted a little at times, especially when I was reading some of hard core physics chapters.  The Science of Discworld is somewhat heavier than the usual Pratchett fare - probably too difficult for children or young teenagers (unless, of course, he or she is a small genius).  On the other hand, if you're looking to be entertained AND taught a thing or two, I can't imagine a better choice. 

I've just noticed how I'm focusing on the scientific part of the book, completely ignoring Discworld elements.  You deserve a hint or two.

Here be elves.  Time and transworld travel.   Spanish ladies (well, one Spanish lady).  Last but not least - a bunch of meddling wizards from Unseen University which, really, tells it all.

Happy reading!

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Edward Marriott, The Plague Race

Edward Marriott, The Plague Race

The plague is not what it used to be.  Once a monstrous killer, it dispatched thousands and thousands of victims, its first symptoms almost always meaning the death sentence.  Now, easily treatable with antibiotics, it surfaces only in few isolated cases each year.  Even so, it still makes the headlines.  It appears that humanity has not forgotten its great enemy and we still stare with fascinated horror when it strikes. 

What was it exactly that turned a mass murderer into a low-profile troublemaker?  Medicine, of course, but there's more to the story and The Plague Race beautifully explains the details. 

When the plague struck in Hong Kong in 1894, two microbiologists, Alexandre Yersin and Kitasato Shibasaburo, hurried to the danger zone to find source of the disease and the cure.  Mindful of the international fame that awaited the future 'plague conqueror', they chose competition over cooperation.  The 'race' had begun. 

This story provides more than enough material for a decent medical thriller, but Marriott does not stop there.  He incorporates other plague epidemics into his narrative, some of them from centuries ago and some quite recent, turning The Plague Race into a fairly comprehensive study of Yersinia pestis. 

Let me clarify:  The Plague Race is a non-fiction history book, or so the author claims.  It doesn't read like one.  It is full of drama and literary tricks usually used in adventure stories.  Historical characters are turned into clear-cut heroes and villains, there's even a love story shadowed by the plague.  History book?  Hmm....

See, I can't make my mind up whether The Plague Race really deserves to be called non-fiction.  On one hand, it is firmly based on sources (Yersin's diaries, old newspapers etc.) and illustrated with authentic photographs.  On the other, the book is so brightly coloured up for drama that scientific objectivity somehow gets forgotten.  I'm inclined to call it a very well researched historical fiction. 

Whatever its genre, The Plague Race reads like a dream.  It is smooth, fast-paced and full of fascinating trivia that you'll be able to scare/impress your friends with forever after.  Enjoy.