Saturday, 29 September 2012

Matt Frei, Only in America

Sometimes all it takes to draw me to a book is a subtitle.  I saw Matt Frei's Only in America: Inside the mind and under the skin of the nation everyone loves to hate and simply couldn't resist.

Quite a mouthful, isn't it?  But it is also a 100% accurate observation of the present reality.  We (in this case, 'we' roughly equals 'Europeans') simply adore bitching about the US.  It is a trendy pastime, if a tad incorrect politically.  Blue jeans have lost their enchanting power, now it's McDonald's, Iraq and monstrous income inequality (to name the first three things I can think of) that spring to mind when America is mentioned.  Admitting as much on a book cover is pleasantly refreshing.

The book itself does not disappoint either.  Only in America is an engaging, mildly amusing and pretty lively picture of the country as seen through the eyes of a resident Brit.  Mind you, Matt Frei is not just any Brit.  As a BBC correspondent, he can get to where you or I could never aspire to enter.  The White House, for example.

Perhaps inevitably, a lot of space is given to studying American political theatre and power struggles that are part of the package.  Not exactly a crowd pleaser as far as subjects go, but Frei has the gift of writing about politics without actually boring the reader to death.  Other topics include the weather (no, don't yawn - hurricanes aren't dull), immigration and philanthropy.  Then there are snapshots of 'ordinary' life as experienced by a foreign resident in Washington DC, father of four.

Despite the provocative subtitle, Only in America actually presents a very kind view of the last superpower standing.  No hatred whatsoever can be detected in Frei's words.  Bewilderment, yes, amazement, sometimes healthy scepticism, but you can tell he kinda likes it there.

One warning - double check any figures.  I'm sure it's just a silly mistake, but on page 158 you can read that United States are home to one-fifth of the global population.  Ouch.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Unfair Trade, Conor Woodman

unfair trade, conor woodman

Have you ever looked at the Fairtrade logo and wondered how fair the deal really is?  I have.  I approach all labels with deep suspicion and Fairtrade is not an exception here.  One reason: how do I know that the lovely PR campaign has some substantial backing in the real world?

The answer is simple:  I don't.  Not without travelling to Africa, Brazil or anywhere where cocoa/coffee/sugar/whatever is produced.  As I obviously can't afford that, I'm expected to trust the labelling organisation to do the checking for me but frankly - in the world of bullshit marketing I'm not likely to rely on honesty of ANY organisation.

Woodman's Unfair Trade originated from similar thoughts, but unlike me, the author could and did travel around the world to see for himself.  Nicaragua.  China.  Laos.  Democratic Republic of Congo.  Afghanistan.  Tanzania.  Cote d'Ivoire.  (How's that for extreme tourism, Mr. Chuck Thompson?  If this remark is unclear to you, dear reader, travel two posts back and all will be revealed :) )

Each of the visited destinations has its own set of social/political/economical problems.  Sure, the pressure for ethically produced goods is more and more visible, customers simply don't want to sponsor robbery and slave labour.  The question remains - can a fair trade logo really relieve poverty, exploitation, dirty dealings?  Or do we just treat is as a conscience tax, an excuse not to care anymore, not to dig deeper?

Unfair Trade provides some interesting information about the inner workings of the Fairtrade certification system.  Ultimately it leaves it to the reader to judge the fairness of the deal.  I, for one, was disturbed, but not really surprised.

Obviously, Woodman's book only skims the surface.  Exploitation of the gap between developed and developing countries is a complex problem and no one could fix (or even present it properly) on two hundred pages.  Still, even this slim volume has the potential to make people stop and think for a while before they fill their weekly basket.  That's better than nothing.

Ultimately, Unfair Trade claims that only the big businesses can make real difference to the grim situation of the Third World producers.  I deeply dislike this conclusion, but I also fear Woodman might be right.  I can't quite see corporations suddenly becoming the guardian angels of social welfare and the whole idea of corporate scraps being thrown to the poor in exchange for glowing PR makes me nauseous, but...  Even scraps can have value for those who have next to nothing, and when you're hungry, you'll take any deal.  Judge it as you will.

Friday, 21 September 2012

I Never Knew There Was A Word For It, Adam Jacot de Boinod

adam jacot de boinod, I never knew there was a word for it

Word-lovers are my kind of people.  You know the type: people who are genuinely delighted by digging up a little-known, little-used or merely weird expressions.  Sir Terry Pratchett springs to mind (with his obvious joy in using words like 'sussuration' or 'figgin'), but the world is full of word-o-maniacs of a lesser standing, too.

I Never Knew There Was A Word For It is a book just for them.

Three books, to be precise.  The volume consists of three separate titles bound together:  The Meaning of Tingo, Toujours Tingo and The Wonder of Whiffling.  A bit of a bargain, really.

De Boinod's impressive collection is full of strange words and phrases with even stranger meanings, gathered from numerous languages from around the world (in case of the first two parts) and old/slang English (The Wonder of Whiffling).  Let me give you a few examples (and I'm quoting directly):

kakobijin (Japanese) - the sort of woman who talks incessantly about how she would have been thought of as a stunner if she had lived in a different era, when men's tastes in women were different

Maurerdekoltee (German) - a bricklayer's cleavage (the part of a man's backside you can see when he stoops deeply and his trouser waistband goes down a little bit)

wosdohedan (Dakota, USA) - paths made by squirrels in the grass

As you can see, de Boinod's words are really strange sometimes.

Don't worry about the book's thickness (more than 700 pages) - it looks scary, but in reality it is full of drawings and averages about 15 lines of text per page. :)

I Never Knew There Was A Word For It is not really an exercise in foreign languages - you're unlikely to remember more than three expressions out of the whole brick-like book.  It's more of a statue to the human ingenuity when it comes to inventing words.  You can see how people's environment and lifestyle shapes their language, and also how intermingled languages really are.  A true feast for people of philological persuasion.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Chuck Thompson, To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies and the Art of Extreme Tourism

'If there is such a pastime as extreme tourism, Chuck Thompson is surely its guru'.  What a tempting line to put on a cover, especially if it's backed up by the (presumed) authority of The Boston Globe.  The book in question is called, just as catchily, To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies and the Art of Extreme Tourism.  If I were to sum it up in one word, it would be this:


Don't run yet, the book is not really bad.  It's light and pleasant, quite funny in an undemanding way, readable in the low-gear concentration mode.  A perfect travel companion for a package holiday or a business trip:  conventional enough not to make you feel bad about yourself but slightly more exotic than your destination is likely to be.

Let's face it - To Hellholes and Back to extreme tourism is what I am to the Duchess of Cambridge.  Yes, I'm a dark-haired female of similar age, but I'm missing a few crucial details (like a score of titles, vast pocket money account and a prince for consort) and so does Thompson's book.  Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo, to be precise) surely is a dangerous place, but markedly less so when you're visiting it under a guidance of a $4,000 fixer.  India can be awe-inspiring, but not when you're jumping from one standard tourist attraction to the next in a chauffeured car and if going to Walt Disney World is extreme tourism, then extreme tourists are as common as dirt.  Forgive the venom, but when someone tries to sell me a golden egg and delivers a handful of gold-ish tinsel, I believe I'm entitled to a disappointed rant.

As long as you're not really expecting any hair-raising adventure or sophisticated intellectual pursuits (generous dose of poo jokes is only the most obvious example of Thompson's style), the book is quite digestible.  Mass market title, sure, and it teaches you more about the mind of an American tourist than any particular geographic location but still - edible and fairly entertaining.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Francis Wheen, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions should be read for the title alone, but the delicious catchphrase is not all that's great about the book.  It's opinionated.  It's judgemental.  It's mildly offensive and massively politically incorrect.  In short - it's fabulous.

Francis Wheen takes on contemporary gibberish and sends it packing.  Of course, you might not call his target ideas gibberish at all - the world is full of funny people - but he strikes uncannily close to the mark of my own sociopolitical opinions, so I don't feel offended by his sarcasm.  How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World ridicules and/or questions things like UFO abductions, motivation coaching, murky alternative medicine, post-modernism, doomsday prophecies, religious fanaticism, free market and rhetoric of Thomas Friedman.  Even if none other item of this list could chime in with me, which isn't the case, the last wins me over in an instant.

To be fair, Wheen probably uses a lot of rhetorical tricks himself.  I kind-of believe in the quality of data he supplies, but I'm sure he remained silent about any potential counter-arguments.  Oh well.  No book can be considered the truth revealed and if I'm to listen to propaganda (unavoidable in our merry PR reality), I'd rather take something gutsy and no-nonsense than tasteless pap that's served elsewhere.

You might want to avoid the book if you strongly believe in dogmatic religion of any sort, New Age remedies, inevitability of capitalism rampant, the absolute American hegemony or creationism.  You probably should avoid it if you can be easily depressed.  How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World is witty and funny, but it is not a happy book.  After all, mumbo-jumbo seemingly does rule the world and it's hard not to draw grim conclusions if you're a rational, thinking creature.  Some parts of Wheen's volume scared me shitless, some merely made me hope that I'll never find myself geographically near particular varieties of madness.  Hardly any made me look into the future with optimism and enthusiasm.  See me sigh.

Depressing or not, the book is great.  Three hundred and something pages of venomous rant against stupidity and woolly thinking.  You can give me one of those anytime.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Michael Moran, A Country in the Moon

I was born, raised and educated in Poland, so there's not much any foreign travel writer could teach me about the place.  I read books like Michael Moran's A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search for the Heart of Poland for reasons different than most of the English-speaking audience.  I don't want to learn about Poland, I want to study an outsider's perception of Poland.  Inevitably, I mentally warn each author:  I know what you're talking about, so you better watch out...

Some writings about Poland drive me up the wall.  Poland is NOT all about the Pope.  Poland is NOT all vigorously Catholic, nor is it unanimously jubilant about the free market.  Not all Polish women are blondes and we're not as fond of cavalry charges against tanks as the rumour would have us - in fact, there are hardly any horses left on Polish fields.

Compared to all the rubbish written about Poland and the Poles in the foreign media, A Country in the Moon actually looks good.  Moran has lived in Poland for many years and took time to get properly acquainted with the country, its history, customs and character.  He explores Polish literature, music, architecture, cinema, politics, traditions, sounding really sympathetic and appreciative most of the time.  He did not make a single spelling mistake in Polish place names and phrases - an accomplishment that none other foreign writer about Poland (that I know of) managed to achieve.  Overall - a friendly and well research account of how Poland once was.

Oh yes.  There's not much of contemporary Poland in A Country in the Moon, and what's there doesn't really match what I remember.  The book is full of dusty anecdotes about Polish nobility from years ago, of glorious past of sparkling carriages and romantic poets.  Sure, that's part of our heritage, the picture it paints is mightily enchanting and deserves better publicity, but does it represent the country as it is now?

No way.

Still, Moran's book reads well, is accurate in its intended scope and has some potential to improve Poland's image on the international stage.  Good enough for me.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Anita Thompson (ed.), Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson

anita thompson, interviews with hunter s. thompson: ancient gonzo wisdom

Hunter S. Thompson was the man behind Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Rum Diary.  I've seen only the latter and have read neither, but the guy was enough of an icon to somehow create a shelf for himself in my crowded mind.  I chanced upon a book of interviews with him and thought - well, why not?

I still have some homework to do before I can pass the final judgement (please, see me wink.  I'm not THAT autocratic), but after over four hundred pages of Thompson interrogated, I'm pretty close to asking - what's all the fuss about?

Yes, he was courageous to present no-bullshit attitude as often as he did.  He was wonderfully politically incorrect, agreed.  He expressed some sentiments with which I wholeheartedly agree and which are terribly unpopular in our profit-obsessed reality.  It's great that he managed to squeeze fame and livelihood out of getting high and expressing honest opinions - this trick takes a lot of guts and gets increasingly rare.  But only a particular kind of person could call this 'wisdom'.  Not me, sorry.  Subtitling the book Ancient Gonzo Wisdom irks, even if taken with a pinch of salt.

Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson read rather well, despite being subjected to some awful editing.  Anita Thompson is surely supremely qualified to talk about Hunter, having married the man a few years before his death, but I doubt her editorial qualifications.  The collection is full of typos, irritating linguistic mishaps and the same questions (and answers!) repeated ad infinitum.  Such a nightmarish treatment didn't manage to kill the book, not entirely, but knowing that it could have been so, so much better hurts.

Lack of editing skills aside, I am not a fan of people who make brisk trade selling mementos of dead relatives.  How ghoulish can one get?  I can't help thinking of Amy Winehouse's father publishing her biography in less than a year since the girl died.  It's disgusting enough when done by paparazzi, but family making money of a corpse?  Sick stuff.

Back to Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson.  If the book was shortened to about half the length, purged of spelling mistakes and repetitions and maybe glued up into some sort of a monster interview with Hunter, it would be superb.  As it is, it's digestible but only just.

If your admiration for Thompson is moderate or non-existent, approach with care.  

Friday, 14 September 2012

Mala Sen, Death by Fire

mala sen death by fire

Death by fire is called sati in India (some prefer to spell the word suttee).  It is a very old custom, reaching back in time almost to the beginning of our era.  Illegal since 1829, it still makes headlines from time to time - or, as in this case, becomes a subject for a book.

I should probably clarify that not all cases of dying in flames qualify as sati.  Accidents don't count, neither do political protests.  Sati is deeply ritualistic and is committed by recent widows by jumping into the funereal pyre of their husbands.  In theory it is a completely voluntary act, arising out of deep religious feelings and devotion to the deceased.  In reality - well...

Mala Sen's Death by Fire paints a chilling picture.  Widows, sometimes as young as 18, are still being burned in India (most recent sati that the Wikipedia knows of was committed in 2008).  It is not altogether certain whether they consciously choose incineration or make the decision under social/economic pressure.  Death by Fire does not directly answer this question, but it strongly suggests the latter option.

Apparently, being a woman in India is not a happy experience in many cases.  The subtitle of Sen's book really says it all:  Sati, Dowry Death and Female Infanticide in modern India.  Girls are considered financial burden, to be avoided if necessary.  Obviously this doesn't hold true for all Indian families, but let's just say that the weight of tradition generally does not look favourably at girl power.  Things are changing, but, if Sen is to be believed, they aren't changing fast enough.

Truth to be told, Death by Fire does not impress with the amount of raw data.  It focuses on one case (sati of Roop Kanwar, 1987) with only a handful other examples thrown in here and there. I couldn't help observing rather sourly that with the way the book is composed, one learns more about technicalities (and difficulties!) of doing research in India than about female oppression.  We are told where the author went, what she ate and who she spoke with but reliable figures are harder to come by.

Well, the book might lack in scientific discipline but it is gripping nevertheless.  I approached it with some doubt, but sailed through the volume effortlessly.  I actually found it difficult to put down - a pleasant surprise.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Jan Morris, Heaven's Command

jan morris heaven's command

I have mixed feelings about Jan Morris.  She is a giant of travel writing, with a whole bookshelf of titles to herself.  Somehow though, her prose, while undeniably beautiful, usually leaves me unexcited.  Just...  not my pair of shoes.  Too poetic, too sentimental, too intimate perhaps.  I far prefer Dervla Murphy's mischievous political incorrectness, but - I keep hoping.  Now and again I pick yet another of Morris's books, to see if my mind can be changed.  Nothing much to lose - I might end up unmoved again, but writing skill is writing skill and it never hurts to sample some.  

Heaven's Command almost did the trick.  Of all the books by Jan Morris I've read so far, this is my favourite.  Sure, the nostalgic, poetic style is as present as ever, but in this particular case it fits the subject so well that I simply can't complain.  Perhaps romantically-tinted narration is the best possible tool to use when explaining the Victorian era.

Heaven's Command is a volume one of Pax Britannica trilogy, a history of the British Empire.  I know nothing about the other two titles, but they're very likely to end up on my reading table eventually.  Not tomorrow, perhaps - Heaven's Command does not leave you with a 'to be continued' feeling, no pressure to complete the picture with further reading.  

The opening book of the trilogy covers almost all of Queen Victoria's reign.  Together with the British troops, a reader roams the Earth from India to Canada, from South Africa to Fiji, from Australia to Hong Kong, with many more exotic stops on the way.  Morris explores politics, ideologies, fashions, digs deep into the meaning of imperialism.  Plenty of heroes from the past, half-mythic by now (at least to a westernised mind) are introduced and brought to life again by anecdotes, colourful yarns, quotes and even gossip.  I'm not in a position to judge how accurate the tales are, but sure as hell they are interesting, with precious ability to fire curiosity and appetite for further study.  

A minor revelation - Jan Morris is far more fun as a historian than as a travel writer (I fully respect your right to be outraged at such a radical judgement).  Perhaps the fact that she's been to pretty much everywhere is what makes her history - global in scope, after all, at least geographically - so enjoyable.  It is quite something to read a historical account footnoted with 'when I was at the site in 19XX, it was still this or that'.  Be sure that Heaven's Command is full of such comments.  

Overall - very agreeable.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation

eric schlosser fast food nation

Straight to the point - Fast Food Nation is the most electrifying book I've read in a good while.  As I wrote elsewhere, I quickly started to ask: where have you been all my life?

Fast food evokes extreme emotions - either you hate it or can't live without it (or, too often, hate it BUT can't live without it).  Schlosser's book has real potential to make the 'haters' party more numerous.  If you don't really care - after all, how dangerous a burger can be? - you might start caring after reading Fast Food Nation.  An eye opener, if I've ever seen one.

I never liked fast food very much so I only had my prejudices confirmed.  This book is full of stories with potential to put you off junk food for life.

It all starts innocently, with tales from the history of the most famous fast food chains.  Oh, there are snapshots of ugly corporate philosophies flashing through from time to time, but you have to really dig into the book to discover the more outrageous stuff.  Advertising consciously aimed at kids.  Conditions in meat processing plants.  Food safety concerns.  Nightmarish treatment of employees.  Health risks.  Funky food additives.  The list goes on and on and on.

Speaking up against fast food industry takes tremendous courage (read the story of McLibel to find out why), and care.  Each statement has to be documented - there are three hundred pages of notes on sources accompanying the actual text.  It's funny, in a bitter way, but it also makes the book more trustworthy.

I would probably trust it even with much less careful research.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Gavin Pretor-Pinney, The Cloudspotter's Guide

gavin pretor-pinney the cloudspotter's guide

Ireland is a cloudspotter's paradise.  The sky throws one breathtaking show after another and you need a heart made of stone not to be amazed by all the beauty.  True, more often than not the celestial entertainment is interrupted by downpour, but at least you get all those pretty rainbows afterwards.  The silver lining, you see?

It is no wonder then that I happily jumped when I spotted The Cloudspotter's Guide on the library shelf.  I've always wanted to be able to make sense of all the cloudy confusion above and here was a book promising to teach me just that.  Yay!

My enthusiasm dampened slightly somewhere halfway through the volume.  Let's just say I'm still not an expert cloudspotter.  I'm better than I used to be, sure, but I hoped for more.  The Cloudspotter's Guide would mightily benefit from changing the picture:text ratio.  More images, Mr Pretor-Pinney, please!  Clouds are not easily revealed through verbal descriptions and a reader can't help feeling confused by all the layers and Latin names.

To give credit where it's due, the author tries his best.  He's filling the chapters with little cloud-related stories from history, mythology and folklore.  He's really good in explaining physical processes governing the weather so that everyone could understand them.  He goes further than the basic 'cloudology' and explores rainbows, halo effects, precipitation types (you thought rain, snow and hail are all there is?  Wrong!).  He seasons his narrative with quirky but likable sense of humour and illustrates it with all sorts of not-exactly-serious diagrams and drawings.  Overall - The Cloudspotter's Guide is a really pleasant little book, even if it cannot turn you into a meteorologist overnight.