Saturday, 23 February 2013

Dervla Murphy, Full Tilt

Dervla Murphy, Full Tilt

If you've been visiting Bookworm's Cave frequently, you probably already suspect that I intend to read EVERYTHING by Dervla Murphy. I'm slightly less than halfway there at the moment, with eight books read and reviewed (including today's), one waiting on the shelf and only, ehm, fifteen to go. 

(Now that I did the maths I can see that I'm more like one third there but hush, don't tell anyone)

I embarked upon this quest for one simple reason:  Murphy's books are amazing.  I haven't yet come across an author who would offer such a perfect mixture of readability, sense of humour, vivid conscience, kindness, courage and...  well, I could probably continue with half a page of further praiseworthy qualities but I try to avoid monstrous sentences when I can.  You surely get the picture. 

Living in Ireland helps in the quest.  Having been born and raised in Co. Waterford, Dervla Murphy is a bit of a national treasure and as such is fairly well represented in Irish libraries.  I said 'fairly', because getting hold of all her books will still take some tracking (and perhaps an Amazon purchase or two), but I'll get there in the end.  Howgh!

Full Tilt is the very first of Murphy's travelogues.  She wrote it in 1963, during an epic bicycle journey from Ireland to India.  When I say 'during', I mean it:  the book is mostly a transcript of her diaries, written on the go. 

It was interesting to study the difference between 'early Dervla' and 'mature Dervla'.  Her unmistakable style is there from the very start (not really a surprise).  So are frugality, skillful use of language and 'Irish charm'.  What's missing is a lifetime of experience as a travel writer, visible not in the language itself, but in general attitude.  Full Tilt's journey feels like an adventure of a lifetime, not a way to earn a living.  As I'm well acquainted with Dervla's stories by now, it gave me funny sense of omniscience, as in 'I know how your life will go from now and you don't know it yet...'. 

What else is different?  There's very little politics in Full Tilt, no typical Murphy-esque activism.  At the age of 32, Dervla was already sharply distrustful of the so-called progress and sensitive to injustice, but not yet a fully-fledged activist.  Fair enough.  Such writing, if it's to have any value at all, requires maturity. 

When it comes to the book's structure...  Let's just say that Murphy improved with age.  Full Tilt is marketed as Ireland-India trip, but distance between Ireland and Iran in covered in the first 18 pages, India gets the final 9 and the bulk of the narrative is really given over to Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Not a fault in itself, but I felt somewhat cheated (and this is as far as I'm willing to go in criticising Dervla Murphy).  The story ends abruptly - too abruptly - but it is continued in Murphy's second book, Tibetan Foothold

I'm so looking forward to it!

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Bill Bryson, At Home - A Short History of Private Life

Bill Bryson, At Home - A Short History of Private Life

Today, let me introduce you to Bill Bryson, The Master of Anecdote.  You may have heard of him before - he's written more than twenty books of travel writing, history, language and other things, the most famous being in all likelihood A Short History of Nearly Everything.

At Home - A Short History of Private Life, published in 2010, reads very much like a sequel to the aforementioned title.  This time Bryson refrains from space exploration, focusing instead on domestic environment (and anything that can be even remotely associated with domesticity), but general tone of the book remains the same.  Light, amusing, full of anecdotes, even slightly tabloid-ish (the horrible, the scandalous, the eccentric, you know the drill...), At Home is extremely readable, to say the least. 

Is it trustworthy as a historical source?  To tell you the truth, I'm not sure.  It's obvious that Bryson colours things up for effect, but that alone wouldn't necessary make his stories untrue.  A few spot checks I engaged in while reading At Home generally confirmed Bryson's narrative.  It appears that he sticks to facts, but boosts them up with literary special effects which, depending on your temperament, can be seen as a blessing or a curse.  Science may get stripped of some of her gravitas, but it becomes much more accessible in the process.  I call it a fair deal.

Bryson's particular forte is study of early inventors and Enlightenment-era scientists.  Even a book about home is spiked with stories of eccentric Victorian gentlemen creating new disciplines from scratch.  All sorts of histories - architectural, medical, industrial, culinary - are somehow squeezed between the cellar and the attic.  Chapters are called after various parts of a dwelling but in some cases the narrative gives only a symbolic nod to a particular room before going off to explore something entirely different. 

Despite this gentle tendency to stray off the declared topic, At Home is an entertaining and engaging book.  Bryson proves that history can be fun and for that he can only be applauded.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Madeleine Bunting, Willing Slaves

Madeleine Bunting, Willing Slaves

For most of us, life consists of long hours of work, tired moments at home and sleep, with too short weekends for anything else.  Sometimes we have no choice - a family to feed is a powerful motivator.  Others agree to this madness to be able to afford the latest gadgets and coolest brands.  Whatever the reason, working life eats up more are more of our time and energy, leaving next to nothing for leisure, relationships, hobbies etc.  Madeleine Bunting beautifully charts the development of the 'culture of overwork' in her provocatively called book Willing Slaves

Once upon a time it was enough to show up at work and do your job.  Today you need to give the company your heart and soul, adopt corporate values, express spirit of the brand, go the extra mile, blah blah blah.  People saddled with mortgages become easy victims of corporate bullying.  Managers squeeze extra effort, extra working time and extra commitment from their employees, paying little or nothing in return. 

In consequence, social life of a nation (in this particular case UK) falls apart.  Children suffer neglect by their overworked parents.  Rates of heart attacks and other stress-related conditions soar.  People try to patch up their lives for as long as they can and then they break down. 

According to Bunting, the culture of overwork is taking its toll across all the social strata.  Public or private sector, minimum wage or executive rate, workers are pressed too hard.  Bunting is particularly perceptive when she acknowledges emotional energy drain inherent to modern work structures.  Yes, Willing Slaves is a very apt title to describe the current situation. 

What is to be done? 

To tell you the truth, Bunting's proposed solutions didn't exactly convince me.  She has high hopes for resurrecting trade unions (which can only do so much).  She wants part-time or flexi-time for all workers.  She anticipates goodwill of employers (hm...) and assertiveness of employees.  Sure, all of the above would be very nice, but would such gentle coaxing succeed in changing the work-until-you-drop culture into something livable?  I'm not sure. 

I believe downshifting and self-employment are the only solutions, and those can be implemented only on personal level.  Still, once enough people take the necessary steps to get off the treadmill, they will become a social movement.  Will the greedy businessmen be so eager to exploit workforce if there's no one willing to work for them?  I could probably write an essay here:  today's horrible work ethic is another obsession of mine.  That's not the point of today's post so let's get back to our book.

Willing Slaves is a soberly written account of what does it mean to work these days, as opposed to how things were in the past.  If anything, it is only too mild in its criticism of the prevalent working conditions.  Full of testimonials from ordinary people, it paints a worrying picture of our society.  Bunting does not go for fiery speeches.  She coldly quotes statistics, presents fresh (as fresh as it can be in a book from 2005) research and draws obvious conclusions.  The rat race is killing us. 

Perhaps it is time to reconsider our willingness.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Neal Lawson, All Consuming

Neal Lawson, All Consuming

Bitching about consumerism and its evils is my favourite hobbyhorse.  Small wonder then that I jumped sky-high when I tracked down Neal Lawson's All Consuming.  I kept glancing impatiently at my shelf and raced through other books on my reading list and finally the day arrived... 

The book starts well, with enumerating all the ills of hyper-consumerism culture.  Our environment is groaning under the strain of unsustainable production and unprecedented amounts of garbage.  The inequality gap widens, the poor are exploited more and more, the rich are even more ridiculous with spending their money.  Shopping becomes a hobby, an obsession, an addiction.  Skills disappear, social contacts turn superficial and people marry brands instead of individuals.  Wonders of progress, it appears, have been somewhat overrated. 

So far I agree with Lawson, but when it comes to solutions...  It's funny how often people get the complaining part right, but their ideas for fixing things range from unlikely to impossible.  All Consuming is no different.  There are a few brilliant suggestions (like rationing air miles or taxing luxury goods - the sooner, the better), but some of the large-scale changes proposed by Lawson tend to inspire bitter smile, not action.  Redistributing the wealth?  Sure, why not, as someone permanently broke I'm all for it, but I somehow feel that the rich won't find the idea so appealing.  Other notions are not as outlandish, but unlikely all the same. 

I was particularly (and maybe irrationally) irked by Lawson's constant use of the pronoun 'we'.  We are in love with brands, we get excited by celebrities' lifestyles, we follow fads and fashions...  I don't.  I don't have Ikea recycling bins either, nor I am ever likely to have (this obscure remark will become clear once you've read the book).  I don't identify with his 'we'.  'We' are presented as a mass of brand-obsessed, greedy, snobbish halfwits.  If Lawson is to be believed (and I firmly disagree), the poor don't dream of security and dignity, but luxurious gadgets.  Goodness me, if things are that bad, then a meteorite strike is the only cure.

I think it would be better if people who already shape their lives to resist the onslaught of capitalism rampant were acknowledged and fortified.  More and more individuals make the effort to wean themselves off the materialistic culture.  It's them who really can make the change, and they don't need sermons, they need support. 

Another pet peeve - there is no deterministic link between not being extra social and shopping.  Lawson's vision of the better world is an introvert's hell.  More community life?  Resurrecting the 'public sphere'?  Not everyone enjoys human-to-human interaction.  That doesn't mean that introverts automatically go shopping!  Or shall we force people to socialise against their will?  Happy communities are not created by a decree.

As you can see, All Consuming evoked some fiery emotions in this particular reader.  Good!  It's one of the highest compliments that can be paid to a book.  I don't agree with Lawson's plan for saving the mankind, but I immensely enjoyed food for thought he provided.

Plus, obviously, the more is written about the destructive consumerism, the better.     

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Michael Pollan, In Defence of Food

Michael Pollan, In Defence of Food

'Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants'.

This is the first proper sentence in In Defence of Food, and to be frank, this is where the book could end if you ask me.  Ok, you might add half a page for explaining that by 'food' Michael Pollan means genuine food, not chemical-laced substitutes we are being bombarded with today.  As to the rest...  Superfluous. 

Not that I think that there's anything wrong with the above advice.  Just the opposite - it's probably the best dietary tip you could get.  I just find it funny that the author criticises 'the age of nutritionism', rants about unhealthy obsession with healthy food and follows up with two hundred pages of...  nutrition gossip, dietary advice and history of food science/politics.  True, he does it only to drive his point home, and he's fully aware of his self-contradicting tendencies, but I still think that the rest of the book serves only to dilute his message. 

In Defence of Food
is a skinny volume, barely two hundred pages of large print.  Metaphorically speaking, it is an angry accusatory finger directed at the Western diet. 

There's no escaping the fact that our food kills us (I speak as a Westerner to Westerners, I apologise to - and congratulate! - anyone not belonging to this food tradition).  I don't really need Pollan to report stories of the Aborigines going back into the wild and miraculously shedding their medical conditions to know this much.  It's enough to go outside and look around.  People in the so-called developed world do not look healthy.  Most of them are overweight or worse.  My own health deteriorated fast when I moved from Eastern Europe to Ireland some years ago.  I know people whose knees gave up at the age of 18(!) in protest against the huge weight of bodies they were forced to carry around.  I could probably fill another book with all the horror stories, but so, I'm sure, could you. 

According to Pollan - and I wholeheartedly agree - this sorry state of affairs is all attributable to the industrialisation of food production.  Processed foods are the most profitable, so they get pushed onto gullible masses.  Large scale agriculture leads to nutrient deficiencies in edibles.  People gorge on empty calories and in consequence become both fat and undernourished. 

Well, what is to be done? 

'Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants'...

That's the crux of it.  To find more sensible advice, track down a copy of In Defence of Food and read it.  Thoroughly. 

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Anne Somerset, Elizabeth I

Anne Somerset, Elizabeth I

Here's number 2 on my personal 'the best books about Elizabeth I' list (number one being J.E. Neale's timeless publication). 

Called Elizabeth I (not too original, I admit...), Anne Somerset's biography is the most detailed account of Her Majesty's life that I've come across so far.  The very size of the book is pretty intimidating - more than 700 pages - but don't let that scare you off.  The story is well written, so before you notice you'll be halfway through the brick-like volume. 

I was, anyway. 

Elizabeth I follows the queen's life from cradle to grave.  Somerset is fairly conservative in her version of history.  All the main events are described, political twists and turns demystified, major players at court presented and analysed.  While there are no surprises or groundbreaking discoveries, the 'usual stuff' is covered competently and in detail.  Somerset makes good use of sources available and although she sometimes presumes to know the queen's very mind (a capital crime in a historian), her account is overall well-balanced and convincing. 

Happily, the author knows that life (even royal life) is not all about politics - substantial sections of the book are given over to the study of Elizabeth's wardrobe, household and leisure activities.  I'm usually as far from a fashionista as it is possible to be, but I found description of Her Majesty's dresses and jewellery quite fascinating.  Elizabeth may have claimed to have a heart of a king but she was first and foremost a woman. 

The hunt for more books about the famous queen is still on. 

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Dervla Murphy, Visiting Rwanda

Dervla Murphy, Visiting Rwanda

Visiting Rwanda is by far the grimmest of Dervla Murphy's books I have read so far.  No wonder, since it describes a journey to a sad country in sad times.

In 1994 almost a million Rwandans died in a blood bath later called 'the Rwandan genocide'.  The extreme cruelty of perpetrators shocked and outraged the whole world, but the 'international community' proved unable (or unwilling?) to stop the tragedy.  Despite millions of aid money flowing into the country, two years after the slaughter Rwanda was still a shattered place. 

Even fearless Dervla Murphy had to make some concessions to the unstable situation in the war-ravaged land.  Forget the bike, on this journey she aimed at hiking, but because of the dangerous vibes in the air (and proximity of deadly incidents involving foreigners) even this had to be toned down to limited forays in NGO vehicles or other supposedly secure ventures.  Despite the precautions and her respectable age, Dervla had quite a few unpleasant adventures with desperate or simply vicious individuals.  Her kindness and empathy didn't help much - she was painfully aware that some people met along the way may have been war criminals.  Everyone's tolerance has limits. 

I don't feel qualified to explain the twisted politics of Rwandan conflicts.  Even after reading Visiting Rwanda I'm not sure if I understand exactly what happened.  Murphy spares no hard words when it comes to condemning both the perpetrators of the genocide and the impotence of the 'international community'.  The UN is specifically singled out as the object of her criticism (you, dear reader, be the judge whether deservedly or not), and the 'aid-people' get their usual share of harsh comments.  Political deliberations are accompanied by general contemplating of human nature, perhaps inevitable in the circumstances. 

Overall, you'll find very little of 'the cheerful Dervla' in Visiting Rwanda.  Considering the background of her journey, this is not in the least surprising.  The book itself is, of course, of the highest quality, but there is no denying its unsettling effect. 

Homo sapiens is not as laudable a species as he believes himself to be. 

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Dervla Murphy, Silverland

Dervla Murphy, Silverland

Each time I track a previously unread book by Dervla Murphy in my library, I dance for joy.  By now, I've learnt to expect a guaranteed literary feast, with both aesthetic and intellectual cravings satisfied.  Silverland is no exception.

(And I have another of Dervla's books waiting in line, so check back soon!)

A follow up to Through Siberia By Accident, Silverland is a chronicle of Dervla's second journey to Far Russia.  Taught by experience or maybe humbled by vast distances and nature's ferocity in Siberia, the Irish babushka switched from her preferred bike to slow-going railway.  I, for one, don't feel disappointed by this change;  whatever the means of locomotion, Dervla's gift for observation and compelling writing remains the same. 

Siberia is fascinating (of course), but by now I've decided that my favourite part of Dervla's writing - in any of her books - is social criticism.  Her political incorrectness is refreshing, all the more for its scarcity in today's world of mediocrity and playing it safe. 

So who gets it this time?  Most anger is directed against the usual culprits - power politics, cynical economic institutions, environmental destruction, consumerism and capitalism rampant.  There's a long tirade against funereal industry (what's wrong with that?  Well, read the book.  Dervla provides information, not only propaganda), and a wonderfully biting remark on kitschy Paddy's Day celebrations (that's something, coming from an Irishwoman). 

I am always impressed by her courage to speak up.  Inevitably, some people will be outraged to see their lifestyles condemned.  She doesn't seem to mind - what needs to be said gets said.  Good!  Under our cultural imperative to be 'nice', we often forget that ugly deeds need to be exposed and condemned, not ignored. 

In short, Silverland gets 10 out of 10 on my personal 'good books' scale and an enthusiastic recommendation. 

Monday, 4 February 2013

James Gleick, Chaos - The Amazing Science of The Unpredictable

James Gleick, Chaos - The Amazing Science of The Unpredictable

If you yearn to exercise your brain a little, here's a cool way to do it:  it is called Chaos - The Amazing Science of The Unpredictable.  The book is full of complex physics and mathematics, but after you get through it, you'll know what chaoticians do, what a strange attractor is and what's the story with all that fuss about fractals.  I call it a fair deal.

You may find reading Chaos somewhat easier if you are technically minded.  As a humanist, I found Gleick's book heavily ovetaxing my neurons, although the author visibly did all he could to ease the pain.  He did much to bring his 'heroes' (read: chaos scientists throughout the twentieth century) to life, embellishing them with all the little quirks and peculiarities that make book characters stand out in a reader's memory.  He translated all the chaos-related discoveries from scientific to human and generally demystified the discipline as much as it is possible without becoming trivial.  Thumbs up, all the way, but the book is still challenging for soft science types. 

Not that the challenge cannot be overcome. 

Chapters are organised chronologically, from the first, tentative forays into chaotic territory all the way to today, when chaos as a science is not only recognised, but also trendy.  It is interesting to meet all the individuals who went against the established rules of their academic fields and searched for ordered patterns in the midst of apparent randomness.  If Gleick is to be believed, looking for chaos took some guts once upon a time! 

Even if you're not a fan of rebellious scholars, chaotic sciences are quite fascinating.  Some compare them to relativity and quantum physics in importance so maybe it's good to pick up the basics, even if it makes kicking brain into a higher gear unavoidable.

I, for one, finished it with a feeling that little mathematics from time to time won't kill me. 

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Robert Knapp, Invisible Romans

Robert Knapp, Invisible Romans

Did you know that the ancient Romans had superpowers?  What else would you call their ability to become invisible? 

No, but seriously, Invisible Romans is not about X-men-like qualities that subjects of the Empire exhibited.  Some social groups are invisible indeed, but only to us and only because of the nature of sources available. 

Our knowledge of the ancient world is based mainly upon surviving literature.  Today everyone can be a writer but two thousands years ago things were somewhat different.  Few people were literate.  Even fewer could afford to forgo work and compose verses (on second thought, maybe today is not so much different).  The outcome is easy to see - we have lots of sources on great personages of the age, commanders, politicians, aristocrats etc., but nothing or next to nothing on everyone else. 

The idea for Knapp's book was to ignore the usual 'aristocratic' texts and to collect all the sources that give us a glimpse of lower social orders.  Thus, he describes lives of thieves and prostitutes, gladiators and soldiers, the poor, slaves and freedmen.  Anyone not fitting these categories is grouped in all-encompassing chapters on 'ordinary men' and 'ordinary women'.  Invisible become visible again. 

Knapp's sources are quite fascinating.  Grave inscriptions.  Papyri fragments.  Dream interpretation textbook.  Astrological compendium.  A few 'classical' texts were used as well, but only if they showed any of the 'invisibles'. 

One could argue that the list of sources used is rather short, but Knapp certainly squeezed them to the last drop.  Each statement is followed by detailed references, quotes from ancient authors are frequent and substantial.  For someone interested in further study, the road is clearly marked. 

Truth to be told, Invisible Romans is not exactly a page-turner.  There's nothing wrong with the book, not as such, but it's too conservative to my tastes.  If I were to describe it in one word, it would be 'proper'.  Proper citations, proper attitudes, proper structure - all as it should be, but nothing to surprise or amaze or raise any sort of more vivid emotions.  Very fine scholarship, little flair.  Which is fair enough in a book from this genre.  Conventional but sensible research is always better than thrilling gibberish.