Sunday, 29 April 2012

Thomas Friedman, Longitudes & Attitudes

thomas friedman longitudes & attitudes

It's been a long time since a book made me this angry.

Thomas Friedman is a columnist for New York Times.  Longitudes & Attitudes is a collection of his columns written between December 2000 and July 2002, followed by a 'diary' concerning the same period (re-telling the same stories and actually re-using the very same phrases).  You've guessed it - it's a 'before, during and after' commentary on 9/11.

I picked the book because the cover won me over.  Exploring the world after September 11, it said.  A widely travelled author, who won the Pulitzer Prize not once, but three times.  Wow, I thought.  That'll be something.

I suppose I imagined this 'something' to go along the lines of Ryszard Kapuscinski's or Jan Morris's travelogues, with faint political undertones.  What I got instead was a 380-page long volume of propaganda.  Ouch.

I'm going to force myself NOT to go into the details of what I've read.  Get the book yourself, read it, think it through.  I'm just too angry, still, and I don't want this review to turn into a fierce political debate.  Let me tell you more about my reactions instead.

I can't remember another book that would inflame me so much.  There was a second when I seriously considered buying a copy, rearranging it with tape and scissors and sending it back to Mr. Friedman to show him how often, as I perceived it, he contradicts his own words.  I felt like arguing with almost every second statement in the book.  I used a lot of ugly language when describing bits of Longitudes & Attitudes to my partner, so much that he actually told me to put it down and stop shouting.  True, I am easily inflamed.  I am also allergic to arrogance, self-righteousness and using rhetorical tricks to shape public opinion.  Is that bad?

Mr. Friedman often complained how other nations don't like America.  Well, if all the Americans see the world as he does (which I'm convinced is not true, hopefully/thankfully), dislike is a rather obvious reaction.

When Friedman is not talking politics, he's actually quite readable - colourful language, interesting anecdotes, focused storytelling etc.  I respect the strength of his opinions, in some twisted way I even appreciate his ability to make me this mad.  He made me go and check figures re WTC casualties vs Afghanistan war casualties, he ignited my curiosity, fair play to him.

Unfortunately, the idea that people like him shape (or reflect?  That is the question!) the opinions of the most powerful nation on Earth makes me scared shitless.

End of rant for today.  Promise to pick my books more carefully in the future.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett, The Myth of the American Superhero

john shelton lawrence and robert jewett the myth of the american superhero

Superheroes sell like fresh bread rolls.  They draw thousands to movie theatres.  They provoke scores of admiring 'oohs' and 'aaahs'.  They inspire...  even if this inspiration usually translates to buying a t-shirt.  Oh my, we love superheroes.  After all, they are so cool.  So strong.  So righteous.  So often saving the world.  What would we do without them? 

Lawrence and Jewett take a good look at your average hero model and they analyse it to bits.  And well, let me put it like this - they are definitely not buying into the myth.  The American superhero gets quite a trashing.  No icon is safe - not Chuck Norris, not Steven Seagal, not even Luke Skywalker.  They are all exposed as a modern version of mythological heroes:  invincible, fascinating and - totally unreal.  Not only that.  The authors seem to be worried that our superheroes are completely undemocratic, even if we live in a so-called democratic society.  That's a hell of criticism to pour onto poor old Hollywood creations. 

If you're detecting a slightly mocking tone in my words, you're quite right.  Somehow I can't be completely serious when Star Trek and Jaws get analysed by academics, with all the vocabulary and high style proper to this group.  I mean - they are just stories, right?  No one sees them as more than phantasmagoriae, figments of somebody's imagination, right?  Right?  (Please tell me that I am right, otherwise I will be seriously worried)  Sending Rambo to a shrink is slightly too much for my tastes.

Otherwise, the book is totally readable.  It's a decent selection of cinematographic reviews written from the psychoanalytic angle.  In places impossible not to agree with.  In other places irritating but hey - what isn't?  Truly, The Myth of the American Superhero is worth reading.  If only to watch the heroes fall from their pedestals.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Zlatko Dizdarevic, Sarajevo - A War Journal

zlatko dizdarevic sarajevo - a war journal

As promised, here's another look at literature written from besieged Sarajevo. 

Sarajevo - A War Journal is on some deep level the very same story - a tragedy of living in a bombarded city.  But it is written for a very different public than Goodbye Sarajevo's.  From what I gathered, it was originally published in a periodical column for a Sarajevan newspaper, during the time of conflict.  Well, you can guess this much after reading the book - regular length of chapters and rather strong propaganda notes give some hints here.  Still - I liked it. 

Dizdarevic's book is not nice.  His opinions are not nice, kind, polite, just the opposite.  He expresses hatred, rage, helplessness, cynicism - not pretty, but completely believable in circumstances.  He's being venomous, hurtful, intolerant, definitely unlikeable from time to time.  That's why he also appears authentic.  Somehow, I don't expect people living through a tragedy to be likeable.  Why on Earth should they be? 

Personally, I found Dizdarevic's barbed, opinionated style of reporting rather refreshing.  I still don't consider his account the ultimate truth, but I doubt I would label anyone's version as such.  I can say that Sarajevo - A War Journal is mature, well-written and very moving at times, with its strange mixture of despairing cynicism and rough kindness. 

Not life-changing, but definitely worth reading.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Robert C. Davis and Beth Lindsmith, Renaissance People

robert c. davis and beth lindsmith renaissance people

This brick-like book has caught my eye a few times before I actually picked it up from the library shelf.  Apparently, it's a popular one, because I kept finding it atop of the other books.  At first I resisted.  I am only mildly interested in the history of the Renaissance, and the book seemed rather boring, 'educate yourself' type anyway.  Eventually I gave up, checked it out and was once again proven how misleading a first impression can be. 

Renaissance People is NOT boring.  It is well written, beautifully illustrated and, well, educational in the non-invasive, non-irritating way.  It presents about a hundred of short biographies - two to three pages of text each.  I was particularly impressed by the selection:  apart from the obvious bunch of writers, painters and thinkers we get an acrobat, a courtesan, some actors, even a celebrity chef! 

Each biography presents a person from birth to death and is generously laced with anecdotes and fancy highlights throughout.  Pictures take roughly as much space as text - and what pictures!  Quality of my edition was breathtaking - thick, heavy, pleasant-to-touch paper, lifelike colours and impressive detail.  The whole book feels like a medieval manuscript on your lap, with its weight and bulkiness. 

A historian would probably be bored by Renaissance People - due to the book's format, the biographies are rather sketchy - but for the rest of the world, the book is definitely worth recommending.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Atka Reid and Hana Schofield, Goodbye Sarajevo

atka reid and hana schofield goodbye sarajevo

Can a non-fiction war story be overwhelmingly cheesy and pulp-fiction-type sentimental?  Oh yes. 

I have to stop myself from being too venomous - after all, criticising authors with war experience is such a faux pas, isn't it? - but sugariness of Goodbye Sarajevo released all the ugly instincts within my soul. 

I've read quite a few war journals, and most of them were a literary equivalent of a kick into the head.  Asne Seierstad is a good example here.  As unpleasant as it sounds, wars provide stories that stand on their own.  Stories that don't need sentimental enhancements.  Goodbye Sarajevo reads like a romance.  A modern day Gone with the Wind, perhaps, on less monumental scale.  It has the same glue-the-reader-in ability - but so do soap operas.  Emotions, the way they are described, feel fake and overloaded, manufactured, I felt, in order to rescue the otherwise weakish story.  Because, if you compare this book's story to other war accounts, it appears a picnic.  An account of 'what-might-have-happened-but-did-not'.  A story of one damn lucky family, considering the circumstances. 

The only thing that saves it are... jokes.  Jokes about exploding shells, exchanged in the bread queue, or similar.  That feels real.  Oh, and the frequent use of the f-word.  The authors are rather good in describing day-to-day affairs in the besieged city, but when it comes to emotional complexity or politics...  well, I'd rather not say.  Keeping the venom in check, remember?

I've targeted another book written from besieged Sarajevo and it's on my reading list now.  I'll review it here as soon as I'm finished, just to have something to compare Goodbye Sarajevo to.  Check back in another week or so :).

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Dava Sobel, Galileo's Daughter

dava sobel galileo's daughter

You have surely heard of Galileo Galilei.  You know, the Italian scientists who was among the first to claim that the Earth moves around the Sun, not the other way round?  And got in deep trouble with church authorities for such cheekiness?  I bet you know him. 

But did you know he had three illegitimate children, two of which ended up as nuns?  That he liked sugared citrons?  Enjoyed gardening?  Suffered from ill health for most of his life?  Galileo's Daughter is full of such tasty details. 

I truly admire biographies that present their subjects as blood-and-bone human beings.  Sobel's book is a good example here.  We get a presentation of Galileo's academic achievements, sure, but we also get glimpses of his personal life and a quick look at the general situation in 17th century Italy.  All mixed up to form a dynamic, easy-to-read narrative.  Facts presented in such a colourful way tend to stay in memory far longer than dry, textbook-like lecturing. 

What about the daughter so visibly introduced in the book title?  Oh, she's there all right.  The eldest of Galileo's children, born as Virginia but renamed Maria Celeste once she joined the convent of San Matteo in Arcetri, was a keen letter writer.  Fortunately her letters survived and now they form the core of Sobel's book.  Yes, the book seems to have been written from original sources, which adds scientific reliability to its already plentiful positive features. 

A tiny anti-church rant is in order before I finish this review.  Galileo's Daughter quotes a few letters written by various church authorities about Galileo and his heliocentric theory.  Letters full of outrage and offence taken from his 'erroneous' and 'scandalous' teachings.  Just think - these are the guys who present themselves as infallible, hahaha.  I know some history so it's not new knowledge for me, but reading the actual pompous words of Italian cardinals or somesuch made me open my eyes in bewilderment once again and see ridiculousness of the whole institution with sharper focus. 

I've drawn my conclusions, you draw yours.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Neville Williams, The Life and Times of Elizabeth I

neville williams the life and time of Elisabeth I

I'm becoming an expert on books about queen Elizabeth I.  I'm still considering writing an online article about her (for Squidoo), so I have some rational explanation for this almost-obsession.  By now, selecting an Elizabeth-related book has become an integral part of my library trips.  They still have a few titles left, so if you are into British monarchy, check back now and again - there's more to come.

The Life and Times of Elizabeth I is a very good introduction to the studies of the famous queen.  The book begins with her birth and ends with her death (unlike two other Elizabeth related books I've read and reviewed so far).  It describes all the main events of her reign without going into too much confusing detail - the book is only three hundred pages long so there's not much space for an in-depth analysis.  A serious scholar would probably be disappointed but a beginner - relieved.

I have to admit - I'm not won over by Williams's style of writing.  The data seems correct, the narrative smooth and informative and yet...  I feel that he failed to bring Elizabeth to life.   His version of the queen is too proper for my liking.  OK, but not exceptional.

Only one thing saves the day - pictures.  The Life and Times of Elizabeth I is full of high quality images of the queen, her courtiers, residences, letters and more.  A teenager interested in history would probably love the book. 

As to the older readership - let's just say it is worth remembering that the book is there.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Anna Politkovskaya, A Russian Diary

anna politkovskaya a russian diary

Politkovskaya was a journalist and a human rights activist, strongly opposing the conflict in Chechnya and Putin's 'regime' in general.  She was assassinated in 2006 in rather shadowy circumstances.  Was she killed because of her activism?  It seems to be the popular belief.  Truth to be told, that's what tempted me to read the book.  What information is so scary that you pay with your life for disclosing it? 

A Russian Diary is an extremely political book.  Political as in - party such and such meets with such and such to discuss this or that while the public opinion polls show this or that.  I find politics extremely boring, so the book disappointed me somehow.  Even so, there are enough horror stories to freeze anyone's blood.  Stories of people 'disappeared', tortured, threatened, afraid.  The vision of Russia by Politkowskaya is scary indeed.

One question remains - should we believe her?  I can't give you a definite answer, I'm afraid.  Politkovskaya's writing is very emotive, with plenty of condemning words and ready-made recipes for healing the society.  Although I believe that 'a politician' equals 'liar' (so I should be on her side automatically) I found myself saying - hold on, that's unfair - again and again.  This might be simply the influence of combative language, understandable in circumstances.  Still, if she focused on describing the facts and gave up name-calling, the book would be far more powerful. 

A terrible thought crossed my mind when I was reading A Russian Diary.  What if Politkovskaya's picture of Russia is as real as it gets?  What if Putin really is the second Stalin and the world remains ignorant of this fact only due to his mastery of propaganda?  What if?  I find it quite hard to believe, but a shadow of doubt remains. 

Regardless of how true Politkovskaya's story is, it is easy to see why her death would be convenient to the authorities.  Who is ultimately responsible for the tragic end of her life?  We might never find out.