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?

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.