Thursday, 11 October 2012

Joanna Blythman, Shopped

joanna blythman shopped

Do you like shopping in supermarkets?  Joanna Blythman doesn't.  Neither do I, so I was looking forward to read Shopped - The Shocking Power of Britain's Supermarkets.

Well, I have read it.  The book is ok, but I expected more.

Blythman starts Shopped on a personal note, confessing her own dissatisfaction with supermarket fare.  The food is bland and unhealthy, there's no real choice and the shopping experience itself is more like a nightmare than like a dream.  Fair enough, I agree totally.  She goes on to discuss all sorts of problems that the rise of supermarkets may have caused - visual impact, environmental damage (all those cars and plastic packaging), sad work conditions of shelf stackers and till operators, manipulative advertising etc., although none of those issues is explored in particular detail.

Blythman's main concern seems to be the decline of independent, small scale retailers.  Minor producers are not able to compete on price and go out of business one by one.  Their experience, care and passion go, too.

According to Shopped, being a supermarket supplier is not a piece of cake either.  She claims producers are hard pressed to supply ever more, for the same or lower prices and woe is you if you happen to be late.  There are extra charges for promotions, samplings etc.  Products are often rejected for dubious reasons or delisted on short notice, with all the financial consequences falling onto the supplier.  Obviously, no supermarket chain would admit as much.  Fair is fair, Blythman gave them some space to express their point of view, but it's obvious that she did it only for propriety's sake.

I would love to live in a world where we could all afford to pay best (=highest) prices for the best product.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  If we can't pay for the best, we buy the not-so-great and second rate is better than nothing.

I wouldn't be so blindly enthusiastic about 'small' producers either.  'Small' doesn't necessary mean 'best', not where I live.  If you want the very best food, grow your own.  Otherwise, you're depending on people who produce food for profit, not for your benefit, whatever size their business happens to be.

My dislike of supermarkets springs from entirely different source and maybe that is why I found Shopped disappointing.  I did pick up some useful information from it nevertheless.  If you're no friend of supermarket culture, give the book a try.  After all, you might be more sympathetic to Blythman's views than to mine.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Muhammad Yunus, Banker to the Poor

muhammad yunus, banker to the poor

In theory, Banker to the Poor is an autobiography of Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank and the man who developed the concept of microcredit.

In reality, it's a 342 page advertising brochure for the Grameen idea.  Oh, ok, it does contain some autobiographical notes, but it's not a book about a man, it's a book about a corporation.

Grameen idea looks lovely when Mr. Yunus presents it.  Empowerment to the poor, horizons growing, hard work, wonderful results, global fame, etc. etc.  The picture is so glossy, that I found myself asking again and again - where's the dirt?

Banker to the Poor reads like a sales pitch:  it's designed to get you to buy the product.  In the world of bullshit advertising, that instantly puts me on alert.  I can see what the author says - but what is he silent about?  Where's the small print?  There's slightly too much sparkle in this picture, too much glitter and gloss.

I still haven't decided whether the idea of microcredit convinced me or not.  I am all for self-employment - in fact, I deeply believe that this is the only way to go if we want a happy, functional society.  On the other hand, words like 'credit is a human right' make my hair stand up in horror.  Credit, a human right?  Enslavement to a bank from the very bottom to the very top of the society?  Shouldn't we instead strive for a world where it is a human right to live and grow and develop without the need to borrow money from anyone?

I respect all the good works of Grameen (and Grameen-like) organisations, but I don't think this is the way to go.

Still, if you want to learn how microcredit works (at least in theory), Banker to the Poor is a good source.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Alwyn Scarth, Vulcan's Fury: Man Against The Volcano

alwyn scarth vulcan's fury

Attention, volcano lovers!  I've got a treat for you.

(I know there are plenty of you out there - today every second Web user is a homegrown volcanologist.  Not that I disapprove...  or don't belong to this club)

I've never met a volcano book that I didn't like (possibly because I haven't read that many volcano books), and Vulcan's Fury is no exception here.  Scarth's proposition may not be brimming with volcanology breakthroughs - well, he's not a volcanologist - but he does a good job when it comes to sieving through the archives.

Ah, yes.  Vulcan's Fury is a bookworm's creation, not a field worker's.  Some would say this casts negative light on the book's merits (Stanley Williams and his Surviving Galeras springs to mind), but I think in this particular case the author is fully excused.  Vulcan's Fury deals mainly with eruptions from remote past, years or even centuries ago, and with the ways they affected people living in their vicinity.

To my eye, the book is a very good primer for volcanology amateurs.  It could be subtitled The Most Famous Volcanic Eruptions of All Times - it describes only the high-impact, high publicity explosions.  I imagine that's partly because sources for obscure events from long ago are hard to come by, but maybe marketing reasons had something to do with the selection, too.  Everyone has heard of Krakatoa or Pinatubo, Vesuvius or Mount St. Helens.  The biggest, the loudest, the most murderous.  A volcanic hall of fame.

Truth to be told, the eruptions are nicely arranged to present the whole spectrum of volcanic risks - from ash to pyroclastic flows, from pure explosive power to killer mudflows etc.  Individual characters (and preferred murder methods) of each fire mountain are beautifully emphasised.  The narrative style is sometimes a bit too dramatic to my liking, but Scarth is innocent of mindless fear mongering so popular with today's media.  Any minor faults that the book might suffer from are offset with fabulous pictures, printed in full colour on high quality paper.  They are relevant, breathtakingly beautiful and quite numerous.

Vulcan's Fury was a pleasure to read and a pleasure to look at.  Highly recommendable.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Gore Vidal, The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal

I'm always on the lookout for new essay collections (new as in 'I haven't spotted them before', not as in 'just released').  I'm totally in love with this literary form and over the years I've sampled quite a few masters.  Nadine Gordimer.  Orhan Pamuk.  Salman Rushdie.  The list goes on, even longer than yesterday because now it also includes Gore Vidal.

Vidal was a prolific essayist (with more than 200 pieces to his name) so The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal should include the best of the best, at least in theory.  I am in no position to compare the editor's - Jay Parini's - selection to the rest of Vidal's works, but as it is, the book reads rather well.  It is divided into two main sections:  literary criticism (mainly American novelists) and political commentary.  I enjoyed them both, despite the fact that I'm not a big fan of fiction in general and American fiction in particular.  That alone tells you something about Vidal's talent.

Gore Vidal's writing is the ultimate proof that you can be impolite or even rude, politically incorrect, direct, eloquent, intelligent AND published.  He obviously wasn't worried about hurting people's feelings and for that alone, I'm almost in love.  Compared to today's 'criticism', full of polite euphemisms and meaningless blah blah, he shines.  Funny thing, I was almost tempted to seek out the books he ranted about.  'Positives only' approach doesn't work for me, but give me a good, intelligent, negative review and I instantly feel like checking if the reviewer was right.

When it comes to political and social commentary, Gore Vidal was witty, passionate, too often spot-on right and thus - quite depressing.  I don't necessary agree with all his views (e.g. that prostitution is ok, because the ladies enjoy their work), but even so his eloquent bitching was a delight to read.  When it comes to strictly political issues - well, I keep hoping that Vidal's opinion about US 'defense' spending and military operations is shared by many, many Americans.  Let's just say that politicians probably didn't like him very much.

Overall, a very decent collection of essays.  Highly recommendable.