Saturday, 30 June 2012

Dervla Murphy, Through Siberia By Accident

dervla murphy through siberia by accident

The more books by Dervla Murphy I read, the more I like her.

Although Through Siberia By Accident almost lacks the 'Murphy trademark' - a bicycle - it still is a wonderful piece of storytelling.  It's a delightful mixture of travel memoir and social manifesto, generously spiced with background information on places visited.  Focused mainly on ordinary people and natural beauty, it can hardly fail to spark some wanderlust in the heart of even the most sedentary reader.

I, for one, immediately started dreaming of visiting Siberia one day.  It seems that it can still boast of huge unspoiled and underpopulated spaces, so I would love to experience this while it's still possible.  I probably wouldn't be as brave as Ms Murphy and wouldn't go alone, but even so, Siberia has officially made it to my own private 'Top Destinations' list.

I entertained a little fantasy when reading Through Siberia By Accident.  If I ever managed to arrive at Dervla Murphy's doorstep (after all, we live on the same, if large-ish, island), would she be willing to show me the photographs taken during her trips?   Judging by the stories, those pics must be something worth looking at.  I call not including them in the book a minor cruelty :).

When it comes to social/economical/political issues, Ms Murphy is wonderfully opinionated.  I consider this one of her most endearing characteristics, especially that her opinions are often heart-warmingly similar to mine.  Anti-militarism?  Yes, please.  Anti-commercialism?  Anytime!  Protecting natural resources from industrial invasion?  I'm in.  TV-free lifestyle?  I've never owned a TV set in my life.  I don't want to bore you with too long a list, it is enough to say that I could probably agree with most of her sentiments.

More books by Dervla Murphy coming soon.


Thursday, 28 June 2012

Daniel Rirdan, The Blueprint - Averting Global Collapse

daniel rirdan the blueprint - averting global collapse

With the environmental issues looming ever larger on our horizon, I was very happy to dig deeper into the matter with Daniel Rirdan's The Blueprint - Averting Global Collapse.

This brand new (released less than a week ago) book is one big warning bell.  It examines environmental dangers one by one, draws conclusions, mostly tragic, and (a novelty!) suggests solutions.  Overall it really is a blueprint for a new, beautiful if slightly utopian society, which aims at conserving the Earth while treating the humanity as humanely as possible.

The Blueprint is divided into two parts: the first presents 'stressors', the other, much longer, looks at 'mitigation'.  Basically, it is a comprehensive plan for total transformation of our world.  Rirdan proposes new energy sources, means of transportation, production patterns, political systems, food creation methods, moral attitudes you name it.  As the global collapse seems imminent, the plan is to be implemented immediately and maybe - but only maybe - we'll be able to avert the disaster.

I will consider the book via its technological and social aspects.

As far as the tech part is concerned, The Blueprint is fantastic.  When I had no idea that half of the technologies described even existed, Rirdan weaved them into structures that actually appear workable.  One can tell that designing such a plan took an amazing amount of research, creative thinking and attention to detail.  If you ask me, the finished plan deserves serious consideration, especially now that we really are in a tight corner.

When it comes to the social aspect, we are on a shakier ground, with the ideas ranging from unlikely to impossible.  All of our history points to one conclusion - as a species, we are real scum.  I can't visualise us suddenly turning into a pretty decent, socially responsible, happily cooperating global family.  World government?  Removal of the profit incentive without the removal of money?  Worldwide general elections?  Worldwide, radical revolution without resulting to violence?  No can do.

Don't get me wrong, I totally agree with Rirdan's moral stance and his criticism of the existing political and economical status quo.  In fact, his condemnation of money-based reality is the best worded piece of social criticism I have seen in long time.  Yet, I can see two basic problems which make his solutions unworkable.  One - the level of international cooperation required for implementation of his plan is light years away from where we are now.  We are not that globalised, I doubt if within a thousand years we will be.  Two - appealing to the better instincts of humanity has low or non-existent chance of succeeding.  Let's think up a plan based on selfish (but not necessarily monetary) gain and tangible benefits to each individual and it might just work.

One thing remains certain - with our current levels of population and environmental pollution we are in serious trouble, headed for something even worse.  As Rirdan himself admits throughout, his plan is only a starting point.  A thought-provoking, multi-faceted proposition for solving problems we desperately need to deal with.  We can work from here.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Noel Malcolm, Bosnia - A Short History

noel malcolm, bosnia - a short history

If Dervla Murphy (see my previous post) was to ever meet up with Noel Malcolm for the purpose of exchanging views on possible solutions to the Balkan conflicts of the '90, I would very much love to witness this discussion.  There's nothing like a good row!

But first things first.

Bosnia - A Short History is precisely what, through the title, it promises to be.  A 271-page (in my edition) narrative of the history of the Bosnian land, with another hundred or so pages of notes and bibliography thrown in for respectability.

While Balkan history itself is extremely confusing (a small piece of land with multiple policies and numerous power-hungry lords guarantees frequent changes of government), Malcolm does his best to explain it as clearly as possible.  A reader without serious interest in this particular area is likely to quickly lose track of names and events, but I blame it on the specifics of the region, not the abilities of the writer.  Even for a casual reader the book is rather pleasant to read - not exactly gripping, but fairly decent.

I am not able to judge historical accuracy of Bosnia - A Short History, but it feels impartial enough to be true (ish) - up until the nineties, that is.  The 1991-1995 war is heavily spiced with 'what should have been done-s' and other pieces of the author's personal judgement.  While I totally don't mind a historian being opinionated (I consider the ability to hold and defend an opinion to be a proof of intelligence), I refuse to accept it as 'history'.

I didn't particularly like Malcolm's interpretation of events either.  Unlike him, I don't believe that wars are ended by giving more guns to everyone.  I also prefer to view a war through personal stories of those involved, not through statistics.

It is funny how a set of events can change depending on who tells the story.  The war according to Dervla Murphy is completely different than the war according to Noel Malcolm (or, I presume, anyone else).  It appears that when it comes to complex events, there is no such a thing as 'the truth', there are just different - sometimes wildly different - versions of the same tale.

Reading two extremely different variants one after the other was a fascinating experience.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Dervla Murphy, Through the Embers of Chaos

dervla murphy through the embers of chaos

I have discovered a new author to add to my 'favourites' list:  Dervla Murphy.  She is unbelievable and I'm looking forward to reading more of her books (one is already lined up on my shelf, come back soon for a review).

I have seen Dervla Murphy mentioned by other travel writers from time to time - Paul Theroux springs to mind - but never got around to checking her out.  You know, so many books, so little time...  I picked Through the Embers of Chaos because it's about the Balkans, not because it's by Dervla, but she's impressed me so much that now I'm prepared to read a book on anything as long as it's by her.  What a colourful person she is!  Just consider the basic idea for the book I'm reviewing today:  cycling through post-war Balkans, at seventy???  She also drinks, smokes, dislikes health & safety regulations and shuns political correctness.  I'm almost in love.

By the end of page 18 of Through the Embers of Chaos I had read three fragments aloud to my partner.  You will understand the significance of this statement when I add that he really doesn't like when I do that, so I pester him only when I come across something truly exceptional.  Murphy's writing is colourful, full of life and raw emotion but without fake sentimentality.  She radiates spirit of adventure that is dangerously contagious - one almost wants to hop on a bike and go exploring.  Her opinions are radical, but full of compassion and humanity - qualities rarely seen in our spineless, materialistic media culture.

Libraries have been written about the recent Balkan conflicts.  I have read quite a few of those publications, trying to make sense of what had happened, but I have to admit Murphy's explanation surprised me (in the positive way).  She voices heavy criticism of NATO and arms-dealing corporations, realpolitik and hypocrisy of the 'international community'.  I couldn't help agreeing with plenty of her accusations.  Perhaps her arguments convinced me, or maybe she aimed too close to my own favourite villains...  Either way, it was good to see the shining armours tarnished a bit.

Truth to be told, Murphy failed to present a convincing alternative solution to the Balkan problems.  It would be welcome after so much criticism.  Still, Through the Embers of Chaos is a fantastic book.

Highly recommendable.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Daniel Snowman (editor), Past Masters - The Best of History Today

daniel snowman past masters - the best of history today

Picking books at random has its good and bad sides, but with Past Masters - The Best of History Today I hit the bullseye.  A thoroughly delicious book.

I was drawn by the title - I do like to explore (and, in the privacy of my own head, condemn) power structures now and in the past.  Only back at home I discovered that Past Masters in not a monography, but an anthology.  As the subtitle explains, it is composed of pieces published in History Today magazine over last fifty years (counting back from the year 2001 when the book was published).

This is my first encounter with History Today, but after devouring Past Masters and a quick look at their website (I instantly fell in love with the crossword puzzle competition), I can honestly say - I want the subscription.  Right now it is outside my financial reach, but one day I'll get it and that's a promise.  I am not a huge fan of magazines in general (to put it mildly), so this is a huge compliment for HT editors.

I digress, back to the book.

Give me an essay collection and I'll be grateful.  Give me a good history book - likewise.  Give me a volume of well-written, history-related essays and I'll be instantly catapulted to the seventh heaven.  It took me some twenty pages of Past Masters to realise I'm in for a literary feast and no disappointment followed.  The book is diversified, with each essay touching on a different history issue and between antiquity and now there are plenty subjects to choose from.  Historians tend to be a colourful lot and one can see how much passion went into researching and writing all the articles.  Most topics are approached from rather unusual angles, so don't expect standard textbook fare.  Instead, feel free to expect food for thought and fuel for imagination.

I found Past Masters unbelievably inspiring. Every second chapter made me itch for some more knowledge on the discussed matter.  Even if I don't really do much historical research in my writing adventures, I felt like writing more, learning more.  I love books that fire my brain in this way.  It might be my own personal fancy or it might be a sign of the book's greatness.  You decide.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Nadine Gordimer, The Pickup

nadine gordimer the pickup

Strange book, strange ending.  I actually said this out loud right after I finished The Pickup.

I wanted to read some of Nadine Gordimer's fiction for quite a while.  I love her essays (as you can see for yourself here and here), I respect and admire her writing style.  What convinced me, though, was Gordimer's claim that her novels contain more truth than her non-fiction.  A proud claim, almost a dare.  I just couldn't resist.

The Pickup didn't shatter my world.  It did not provide a life changing revelation, it didn't even make it to my list of the best books of all times.  I doubt if a year from now I'll be able to recall any details.  Still - it is a damn good book.  Definitely not fluff.

A well-connected South African girl meets a guy, an illegal immigrant who soon is on his way to deportation.  In a rather dramatic twist, she decides to follow him to his homeland, a desert village in an unnamed Islamic country.  A clash of cultures provides background to musings on life, love, values, society and the usual 'what it's all about' questions.  Read the book if you want to find out how the story ends.

The tale would do with a more clearly defined ending, but somehow one feels that here the story is not so important.  I'm convinced the plot is just an excuse to philosophy - and I take my hat off to Gordimer for precisely this reason.  Stories, I think, tend to be banal, questions about the human condition are universal.

The Pickup is a language feast, but I've learnt to expect this when reaching for any Gordimer's book.  Kind of poetic, but not quite, with a note of melancholy and metaphysical heaviness but without pseudo-scholar linguistic parades.  Just the right balance between descriptions, action and the inner workings of characters' minds.  Still, there's one thing that stands out even more.

I've read quite a few books about the Arab culture written by Westerners, Western women in particular.  They all read like horror stories - traumas, slavery, lack of freedom, male dictatorship, you know the drill.  The Pickup is the very first instance where being a Western woman married to a Muslim is not presented as a nightmare.  More, in an astonishing role reversal, it is the Islamic male that feels trapped and unhappy within his culture, while the Western woman fits right in.  I was halfway through the book before I realised this, but to me, it is the most profound contribution that this piece of writing brings.  If we want to do away with the demons of the  East-West conflicted culture clash, we could start with producing more books like this one.

One more thing - a review on the cover claims that The Pickup is a modern Romeo and Juliet story.  This is the ultimate proof that being a reviewer for The Times doesn't mean you're always right.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Neil Gaiman, American Gods

neil gaiman american gods

Ah, the power of recommendation!  I picked Neil Gaiman's book only because I knew he used to work with Terry Pratchett - and if you do anything with Terry Pratchett, I will...  Ok, perhaps not actually worship you, but you'll have my attention even before you start talking.

I don't read much fiction, but during my last library trip I was in mood for something entertaining and not too challenging.  It happens, ok? ;)

American Gods was a good choice.  Gaiman himself describes the book as 'odd' and I can't help agreeing.  It's a strange mixture of fantasy, thriller, crime and comedy, weird but pleasant.  The plot does not exactly overwhelms with surprises (or perhaps I am really difficult to surprise), but the story is dynamic and written so well, that putting the book down is hardly possible.  A word 'page-turner' springs to mind, perfect for long queues in nasty places or boring journeys.

The idea is simple - all the immigrants flocking to America in their millions over the centuries must have dragged their gods along.  It appears that being a god in the modern era is not so easy.  No blood sacrifices.  No worshippers.  In some cases, not enough belief to survive...  New deities spring up with the ascent of new technologies and conflict between them and the old-timers seems imminent.  Puny mortals get caught in this mess and survive...  or not.

Overall, American Gods is a highly enjoyable piece of adult fiction.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

David Burnie (chief editor), Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide to the World's Wildlife

david burnie animal: the definitive visual guide to the world's wildlife

Here's the proof that solid knowledge possesses some weight - Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide to the World's Wildlife weights more than three kilogrammes.  Imagine that!

Visually, it is indeed a magnificent album.  I'm not sure if it's definitive, but it's definitely beautiful.  Pictures are amazing, and even if it contained not a single word, it would still be worth leafing through and admiring.  It does contain words though, plenty of them.  Over 2000 species are described, ranging from large carnivores through birds, frogs, corals to tiniest mites.  All good, but...

Let's just say that if you don't have serious interest in biology, Animal is not a volume I would recommend you to read.  It is full of information and interesting trivia, but overall it reads like a biology textbook, high school level.  A fantastic idea for a student, but not something most people would choose to devour in their free time.  Animal descriptions, in particular, are repetitive and full of dry data (length, weight, habitat etc.), so the risk of getting sleepy after a few pages is quite serious.  What irked me most were the descriptions of an animal's look - right next to its picture.  What's the point???

I might sound critical, but truth to be told, I believe this is a bit of a self-inflicted injury.  I think Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide to the World's Wildlife was never meant to be read for leisure.  It is just what it promises to be - a guide, a resource, to be consulted when you're searching for specific information.  In this context, it totally delivers and I have to say that if I had been learning my high school biology from this album instead of a rather drab, monochrome textbook I would have probably liked it much more.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Various authors, Great Tours and Detours

various authors great tours and detours

I love travel writing.  I love anthologies.  Great Tours and Detours is introduced (on the cover) as 'Modern Grand Tours in the company of some of the world's greatest writers'.  Can you see me salivating?  Guess again.  This is the worst travel book I have ever read.

As I understand, the book is a collection of articles printed previously in The New York Times.  Perhaps logically, NYT supplied most of the authors ('world's greatest authors'?  I don't think so.  Let's not mix mass media with literature, shall we?).  Well, Great Tours and Detours certainly reads like a string of magazine travel features, complete with - and this is probably my biggest pain - hotel addresses, price lists and museum opening hours.  What is perfectly suitable for a newspaper becomes absurd when published in hardback. Hint:  the book came out in 1986.  You wouldn't get too far today if you based your travelling budget on its tips.

With a few notable exceptions (e.g. Jan Morris ), the articles are rather uninspiring.  Target customer: a loaded tourist with conventional tastes.  The editors (A. M. Rosenthal and Arthur Gelb) call it sophistication, I call it snobbism.  Let me put it like this:  I'll never understand people who, when asked to describe a country, write about its fancy hotels.

Verdict:  Great Tours and Detours is a travel guide, very pleasant one, but outdated by some three decades.  It is not a book of travel writing, howgh.