Friday, 31 August 2012

Stanley Williams, Surviving Galeras

stanley williams surviving galeras

On January 14, 1993 a Colombian volcano, Galeras, erupted.  Nothing major, just a little 'hiccup'.  It would have passed completely unnoticed if not for one tragic detail:  a group of scientists was gathering data on the top of the volcano at that very moment.  Six of them (plus three tourists) died.  Others escaped with their life but suffered grave injuries.  Surviving Galeras, written by an eyewitness, tells the story in detail.

The book has caused some controversy.  It has been published alongside another title, No Apparent Danger by Victoria Bruce, which tells exactly the same story but from a different perspective.  In short - some say that Stanley Williams was responsible for the Galeras tragedy.  Williams himself, obviously, claims otherwise.

For the record - I was not aware of this 'book battle' at the time of reading Surviving Galeras.  I found the book quite interesting - after all, what a story! - but not mind-blowing when it comes to pure writing skill.  I noted how courteous Williams was when speaking of his colleagues involved in the accident.  How he carefully quoted other survivors' versions of events.  How - well, I guess the right word here is 'humble' - he was about the whole affair.

Then I read reviews pointing to his 'huge ego' and thought: wtf?

I don't know who, if anyone, is guilty of the Galeras tragedy.  I do know that I did not detect this 'ego' in Surviving Galeras.  I did detect a very good story, written in a competent, if a tad too politically correct, manner.

I'm not a big fan of health and safety regulations.  If you're worried about your health and safety, do not climb an active volcano, that's all there is to it.  The volcanologists who died that day knew what a volcano can do and still decided to go through with the trip.  Claiming otherwise does not do a great service to their memory.

Well, think what you will.  The book is good, either way.

For propriety's sake I should probably add that the book was co-authored by Fen Montaigne.  He didn't make it onto the cover of my edition, so he's not going into my post's title either.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Salman Rushdie, Step Across This Line

salman rushdie step across this line

Due to unpleasant events some time ago, probably everyone in the world knows who Salman Rushdie is.  If you don't (well, you might be too young or have lived under a rock for last two decades), google up Satanic Verses.  Or fatwa.

I've read a few of Rushdie's novels years ago and I remember kinda liking him, but not really understanding what the fuss is about.  In my 100% secular head I still don't.  There is, though, one thing I had not known about Salman Rushdie until I read Step Across This Line - he is a superb essayist.

I love essays and other short non-fiction writings and I've become a bit of a connoisseur in this field.  I know how to recognise great essays as opposed to mediocre ones.

As I was reading Step Across This Line, I kept muttering to myself:  damn, he's good.

The book is a hodgepodge of mixed non-fiction pieces written between 1992 and 2002.  There are essays 'proper' - about life, freedom and other serious stuff, but also about plain old rock'n'roll.  There are columns re-printed from various newspapers, concerning mainly political and social events.  There is also a collection of open letter style publications from the worst fatwa times - my least favourite part.

I do understand why Rushdie might want to see Iran sanctioned to death, I really do.  I would probably feel the same in his place.  Still, reading all those pages full of hatred and battle calls was not pleasant.  I admit Rushdie was a target of outrageous persecution, but I would not like to see the whole country punished for this, so I couldn't applaud his activism.  The writer is entitled to his anger, to voicing it, too, but I'm glad no trigger-happy politician rallied to his call.

Anger or no anger, the book is delicious.  It seems that even fury is digestible when served by a top class writer.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Judy Jones, William Wilson, An Incomplete Education

judy jones william wilson an incomplete education

I am always alert when people tell me what I should or shouldn't do.  An Incomplete Education is subtitled 3,684 Things You Should Have Learned but Probably Didn't.  I have to confess I picked the book with half-serious thought in my mind:  I DARE YOU.

I also thought it quite possible that after a quick leaf-through I'll laugh or get furious and leave the book unread.

I shouldn't have worried.

If you dismiss the usual cover hype and approach An Incomplete Education like a not-too-passionate trivia lover would, you'll be delighted.  I was.  As unlikely as it is after such a high-sounding title, An Incomplete Education is a total page turner, all six hundred and then some of them.

At first sight it does look a bit like a textbook, and it is organised like one.  Table of contents resembles weekly schedule from high school with chapters titled American Studies, Art History, Economics, Literature etc.  Don't run, I'm through with the worst part.  Formal structure aside, the book does not take the Education so seriously.  Yes, it does want the reader to learn a thing or two, but knowledge is to be acquired through fun, not through torture.  It might not be full of groundbreaking discoveries or top quality scholarship, but at least it makes you interested in what you read.  Very well done!

Two words of warning, just to be fair.

1.  The book was written with the American reader in mind, by American writers.  Remember this when you're reading the 'Political Sciences' chapter.

2.  Jones and Wilson use the seasoning of their opinion quite freely.  It does make the dish book tastier, just remember that it's ok not too agree with them.  Opinions are not facts.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Thomas Friedman, The World Is Flat

thomas friedman the world is flat

Let me start today's review by quoting, almost to a word, what my partner said when he saw Friedman's The World Is Flat on my reading list:

'You're nuts.  You know the guy drives you up the wall, you know you'll be cussing the sky blue and I know you will be pestering me with fragments followed by your angry commentary.  Why on Earth do you want to read this book at all?'

There might have been a few unpublishable words, too.

Oh well.  It is very easy to explain.  If by reading a book a reader gets into a conversation with the author, each time I'm reading anything by Thomas Friedman we're having a blazing row.  And when it comes to intellectual matters, there are few things I love more than a blazing row.

I love Friedman's writing style.  I can't help admitting that when it comes to pure writing skill, he's damn, damn good - articulate, colourful, opinionated.  It's just that I completely don't agree with his opinions.  To me, he's just a propagandist for the American power politics, and since I'm neither American nor particularly power-hungry, I just can't tune into the world seen through his eyes.

I don't want to get carried away into politics (and earn a possible lawsuit in the process) so I won't go into any detail as to what exactly made me froth in The World Is Flat.  Let me just say that I wouldn't vote for this party and leave it at that.

Still, the book itself is good.  It's about globalisation, world economy, capitalism, politics and big business.  It's about cheap labour and how it can be used.  It's about technological inventions that were cutting edge when the book was published, but since that means 2005, they aren't so cutting edge anymore.  In the fast changing world of today you can actually consider The World Is Flat a history book, all the more interesting because we've lived through this history.

One more thing - if you can spare the time, have a look at my previous post, a review of 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism.  My reading it right before The World Is Flat was not intentional, but I found contrast between the two enlightening.  It's like comparing two different versions of reality.  A powerful reminder that in politics and economy there is no Truth, there are just Opinions.


Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Ha-Joon Chang, 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism

ha-joon chang 23 they don't tell you about capitalism

This book should be on the 'required reading' list if not at all, then at least at some schools.  Most definitely it should be read by those who actually make the BIG decisions.

23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism.  I checked the book out for the title alone.  I would love someone to tell me all those things they don't tell me about capitalism, politics, big finance and the likes.

I doubt if ordinary people will ever know the really interesting (and infuriating) bits.  Still, the 23 Things presented here are actually quite tasty.

Mr Ha-Joon Chang doesn't really disclose any secrets.  All it takes to come to similar conclusions is a bit of common sense (and, in some cases, extraction of the greed gland).  Still, most of us wouldn't be able to present them in such a coherent way, so well done and thank you to the author.

So, what are the 23 things they don't tell you about capitalism?  Obviously, you need to read the book to learn about them in any detail, but it all boils down to one thing: free market is not good for us.  It is not good for the economy (as current global crisis certifies), it is not good for people (I don't judge the minority who got extremely rich by shady deals worthy of this name), it is not good for the environment and it is not good for our future prospects.  We either curb it or live with the consequences, which are likely to get far more serious than dramatic headlines we're getting today.

I'm not sure if Ha-Joon Chang's recipe for improvement is the best option, but compared to some alternatives, it is actually fairly decent (if a tad too reliant on statistics).

It is definitely preferable to the current state of affairs.

But now we are in the realm of social criticism and I will say nothing more, because this is an obscenity-free (ish) blog.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land

tony judt ill fares the land

It's the second book by Tony Judt I've read and for the second time, I'm disappointed.  I need to either grow into his writing, or not try it again.

Ill fares the land - what a magnificent title!  We all know that the land, understood here as our global village, does not fare well.  I bet each of us could offer a recipe for improvement, and some of them would even be worth hearing.  Frankly, I expected an intelligent rant.  I got a history of political doctrines.  Ouch.

Funny thing, I dismissed the whole book as boring and useless and yet I noted down a few quotes which I judged too wise to forget.  I agree with many of Judt's sentiments.  I wholeheartedly agree that we should bring ethical standards back from the attic and give them a thorough dusting.  I'm all for the idea that we should re-think our definition of 'worth' and stop translating 'value' to 'money'.  I agree with so much of this book on ordinary, human level!

Unfortunately, sentiments are overshadowed by political theory.

I guess there are people who enjoy discussing -isms.  People who believe that an existing system can be an answer to the land's illness.  In Judt's case, it is social democracy that is supposed to cure the malaise.  It could be worse, I guess.  Still, when I read a book, I don't like to feel as if I were attending a pre-election publicity meeting.  Whoever the candidates are.

How about this - let's wave a magic wand and remove predatory instinct from the soul of homo sapiens.  Can't be done?  Then the land will keep on faring ill, whatever -ism you apply as a medicine.

Douglas Palmer, Earth in 100 Groundbreaking Discoveries

douglas palmer earth in 100 groundbreaking discoveries

Our planet is a fascinating subject.  This explains why everybody loves National Geographic.  Earth in 100 Groundbreaking Discoveries often made me think of NG - although published by a different crowd, it is very similar in tone and focus.  No ads, though!

The book presents a mixture of disciplines.  There's some geology, some paleontology, enough astrophysics to explain our planet in cosmic perspective, some anthropology...  Well, let's just say it contains many different -ogies, all united in the purpose of teaching a reader more about the Earth.

All the scientific stuff is presented in approachable manner, suitable for novices.  The book includes some fancy words, but they are all conveniently explained, so you don't need a Ph.D. to enjoy it.  I have to confess I caught myself drifting off from time to time, but my mind is strictly non-technical and does not process experimental science easily.  The book is not to blame.

More praise:  Earth in 100 Groundbreaking Discoveries is a visual masterpiece.  Stunning pictures printed on good quality paper, it is almost an album.

I'm not sure how groundbreaking the discoveries really are, but they surely are up to date.  In most cases, Palmer quotes research from 2010/2011, which is very fresh in this type of publication.

Overall - a tasty serving of science for amateurs.  Worth reading, worth recommending.