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. 


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.