Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Roger Took, Running with Reindeer

roger took, running with reindeer

Arriving at library fifteen minutes before closing time, one is destined to leave with a pretty random crop of books.  I grabbed Running with Reindeer - Encounters in Russian Lapland when sprinting by the history section, expecting some mixture of ethnography, anthropology and yes, history, served in a dry academic sauce.  I got top class travel writing instead.  What a pleasant surprise!

Running with Reindeer has everything that really good travel writing is supposed to have.  Exotic location.  A lot of ground covered.  High definition portraits of quirky characters encountered on the road.  Tons of background information on politics, history, ecology, geography and any other -athys and -ogies you can wish for.  A touch of adventure, a sprinkling of opinion.  Wonderful!

Russian Lapland is not exactly a land most people would be familiar with, nor is it the easiest one to travel.  As everywhere, traditions of the indigenous people in the area are disappearing fast.  Bureaucracy and living off the land nomadic style, do not exactly go together.  People who used to literally run with their reindeer can now be found in high rise concrete blocks.  Not all of them, not yet.  But I have the unpleasant feeling that a few decades from now Saami way of life could be truly a thing of the past, fully belonging to the history shelf.  We are not too good in conserving ecological diversity, especially if it cannot be milked for money.

I'm not trying to say that the 'good old nomadic ways' translate unconditionally to 'heaven full of pastoral beauty'.  It's quite likely that after a week of such a bucolic bliss I would run off screaming.  Yet, it's hard to read Took's account of wilderness being transformed by civilisation and not to feel some sadness.

One minor fault, springing mainly from my personal preferences, not objective judgement.  My mind tends to drift when assaulted with too much landscape.  Topography is fine when you have to actually travel through it, but to a reader's (mine!) mind, all those valleys and knolls and hills and lakes and other features are pretty meaningless.  If there are too many of them, my brain automatically gets into neutral gear.  You must have some landscape in a travel writing book, but in Running with Reindeer I detected too much of it for my liking.

On all other fronts, the book is fantastic.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Norman Davies, God's Playground, Vol. I

norman davies, god's playground

I like Norman Davies.  I really do.  So, when I saw the first volume of his God's Playground - A History of Poland, I didn't hesitate long.

I vaguely remember the book causing a stir in Polish academic press when it was republished shortly before I moved to Ireland.  I can't recall any details, but the discussion was lively enough for the title to firmly lodge in my brain.  I was on the lookout ever since.

Veni (to the library), vidi (on the shelf), legi (doesn't sound as fancy as Caesar's famous quip, but means 'I read').

I started to fume and froth right at the preface.  Written for the original edition in 1979, it was full of irritating remarks about Poles being unable to accept objective scholarship.  Oh, all right, Davies didn't use exactly those words but the message was clear - we are so in love with our version of national history that we throw a fit if anyone dares not to express absolute adoration of Polish heroism.  Arrrgh.

Sure, Polish nation does include total nutters who will swear that white is black and black is white as long as it fits their political agenda.  But generally speaking, we are fairly sane.  I didn't find God's Playground objectionable at all (preface aside).  It's a reasonably balanced view of Polish history, set against the background of European development.  I wouldn't say it's the ultimate book on the subject, but seen as 'a history' it is a really good title:  readable, comprehensive and full of interesting trivia.

I am deeply fascinated by how nation's own (any nation's, not only Poland's) history compares to an 'international version' (if such a thing exists at all) and here I had a chance to study the phenomenon in depth.  Davies is not half as blasphemous as he seemed to have thought in 1979.  His view of history (at least up until 1795, when this volume ends) pretty much agrees with what I was taught at school.  It is focused somewhat more on relations between Poland and other European states rather than on internal affairs, but that's an advantage, not a fault.  Inevitably, it is entirely innocent of any patriotic propaganda, but again - that's a huge bonus.  Jingoism is not what I look for in a history book.

Actually, Davies seems rather kindly disposed towards Poland.  I was honestly enchanted by his surgeon metaphor employed when he was writing about partitions of the country in the 18-th century (read the book if you want to learn more, I wouldn't want to spoil the fun).  He translates pieces of Polish Renaissance poetry himself, with some skill, and generally appears passionate about his subject.  Result:  sound research presented as highly readable book.  Can you ask for more?

(On the second thought - yes, you can.  Editor/proofreader/whoever was responsible for the final manuscript should be banned from practising his trade.  God's Playground, at least my edition, is full of little typos, misspellings and the likes, both in foreign and English words.  Ouch!)

Monday, 26 November 2012

Robert Lacey, Great Tales From English History

robert lacey, great tales from english hstory

It appears that I have gone on a gentle British history binge.  Not that I think that British history is more worthy than any other, or more interesting.  It's just that British history happens to be the one I'm most familiar with*, so when I read books from that shelf I often have a chance to go 'a-ha!', which gives me a nice, smug sense of being knowledgeable.  Or at least reasonably well educated.

Great Tales From English History provided plenty of opportunities for feeling smug.  No fancy scholarship and twisted details, just basic, most high-profile events, described in rather dramatised way.  A good primer for anyone just beginning their adventures in the historyland.  I would say teenagers are the perfect target market here, but the author claims the book was written for adults.  This got me slightly worried - is the history knowledge of general population really that bad?  Then I thought of all the scientific brains out there and breathed a sigh of relief.  If you know how to design an engine, or cook up a cancer cure, you can be forgiven for not knowing a thing about Battle of Hastings... probably.

The book itself looks pretty substantial, but it's an illusion.  Actual stories take up only 220 pages, with heavy-duty paper and hardcover binding providing the 'thick' impression.  English History screams from the cover in block letters, even though it's the Tales bit that really should be accentuated.  When it comes to scholarship, Lacey does not make any groundbreaking discoveries.  His book is well-researched and, as far as I can tell, free of serious factual mistakes, but it would not impress any historian.  It's tales that matter here, coloured for dramatic effect and extremely readable.  History is full of damn good stories and Lacey makes good use of the available material.

Fair enough.  If you want someone to fall in love with the science of history, give them a good yarn first.  Great Tales From English History have the potential to hook a reader for life.

*well, almost.  I know a thing or two about the history of my native Poland as well, but there are few books written in English about that.  Since 'few' does not mean 'none whatsoever' do check back in a day or so - there's a Polish history book (Polish as in 'Polish history, not 'Polish language), a pretty good one, waiting in line to be reviewed by the Bookworm.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Terry Pratchett, Jacqueline Simpson, The Folklore of Discworld

terry pratchett, jacqueline simpson, the folklore of discworld

If there was such a thing as Pratchettology, I would've surely earned a Ph.D. by now.  I pretty much worship the guy.  I fall asleep to the sound of Discworld audiobooks almost every night.  I can quote whole passages from memory and I still laugh at the jokes, even if I've heard them a hundred times.

It's no surprise then that The Folklore of Discworld is not a novelty to me.  I read it for the first time some three years ago, when it was still brand new (well, new-ish.  Libraries do take their time when it comes to buying fresh releases), and, no need to add, the book seduced me instantly.  Folklore is another one of my tiny obsessions, so getting the two together was like Christmas coming early.

When I re-read The Folklore of Discworld recently, I was just as enchanted.

The book was not written by Pratchett alone.  Jacqueline Simpson, an acclaimed British folklorist is listed as a co-author.  In effect, the book is not exactly a classic Discworld novel.  More, it should probably be classified as non-fiction.  The basic idea is simple enough.  Discworld is full of magical creatures and customs that inevitably have their equivalent on our Earth.  The book explores those connections.

Ultimately, it is a fun way to learn more about our own folklore.  Discworld elements, although sparkling with pure Pratchettesque wit and sense of humour, are generally variations on material already covered in the novels.  Even so, The Folklore of Discworld is extremely readable and can be considered a treat even for (or especially for) die-hard Pratchett fans.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Philip Wilkinson, The British Monarchy for Dummies

philip wilkinson, the british monarchy for dummies

Ah, the famous 'for Dummies' series.  I've always avoided it like the plague, but something tempted me to pick The British Monarchy for Dummies on my last library trip and I was pleasantly surprised.

Sure, it is written in REALLY simple English.  Sure, it is full of tiresome repetitions (in case you didn't want to wreck your brain with reading the whole book) and Philip Wilkinson, the author, is guilty of a factual error or two (I spotted two, but it's possible that the editors are to blame, because the mistakes were rather silly), but overall, it was actually fun to read.  Especially compared with high-flying, snobbish prose of A.L. Rowse from the previous position on my reading list.

Whatever else can be said about The British Monarchy for Dummies, it sure as hell makes the maze of kings, queens and other royal personages pretty navigable.  It explains clearly who is who, attaches some colourful anecdotes (not necessarily true, but it doesn't claim them as such and good yarns are great help to memory) and it is not above a joke or two, or at least some not-exactly-respectful language.

Three hundred pages do not provide a lot of space for covering such a vast subject, so out of necessity the narrative is rather sketchy.  Fair enough, if you are not too well accustomed with British monarchy and want to ingest some basic information (because of being a teenage student, for example).

Fun to read and a very good starting point to discovering all the secrets that the annals of British royalty hold.

Friday, 16 November 2012

A.L. Rowse, The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Life of The Society

a.l. rowse, the elizabethan renaissance

Once upon a time, I planned to write an article about Elizabeth I.  You can go about a plan like this in two ways - either you can read the appropriate page on Wikipedia, change the wording and thus become a totally legal copycat, or you can do it the hard way - get as many books on the subject as you can and put them to proper use.  Needless to say, I chose the second option, as you can see here and here and here.  Oh, and in today's post, too.

As far as I know, A.L. Rowse was a pretty famous historian.  This is the first book by his pen that I've ever read, but I'm familiar with the name, even though I can't exactly pinpoint how and why.

The book itself is not exactly about Elizabeth I, although the famous queen pops up on its pages often enough.  As the title suggests and the subtitle confirms (The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Life of The Society), it's about the times of Elizabeth, about life and social stuff and general reality during her reign.

As promised, so delivered.  There are chapters on food and drink, on customs, beliefs, social divisions, even on sex and witchcraft.  They all seem to be well-researched, too, with proper sources quoted (often in the text itself) and lengthy bibliography attached.  All good, but...

I found the book tedious.  It's full of names, both geographical and personal, which mean nothing to someone not in love with British topography or peerage - and when I say full, I mean it.  I'm sure there are people who would consider this a tremendous advantage, and confirmation of the book's scholarly merits but, how should I put it...  It's not exactly a page turner.  It has its moments, but overall - blah.

One exception:  The Elizabethan Renaissance is generously spiked with Rowse's personal remarks and these are absolutely precious.  Not that I agree with his views - he appears to have been an arrogant, snobbish bastard - but I'm charmed by his delivery.  SO politically incorrect.  SO sermon-like.  SO funny.

Oh, my intended article about Elizabeth never materialised, nor is it ever likely to.  I wrote a Squidoo page instead, collecting the reviews of all the Elizabeth-centred books I have got hold of so far.  You can view it here and if it catches your interest, check back now and again - I'll be adding to it slowly but surely.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Noam Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects

noam chomsky hopes and prospects

I first heard of Noam Chomsky when someone (I can't recall who, sorry) called him 'probably the most often quoted living person in the world'.  Then I saw him speaking in a quite decent documentary, ReGeneration, and speaking with sense, too.  When I saw a book of his essays, Hopes and Prospects, the next step was obvious.

My oh my, how I agree with the guy on political issues.  He's pretty much no bullshit about power politics of today - a rare phenomenon in our politically correct world.  One would wish actual politicians spoke like this but then 'politician' and 'truth telling' are mutually exclusive in definition, so...

If you ever wondered who rules the world, read Hopes and Prospects (and no, it's not about the Illuminati).  I'm not sure if the book allows for much hope -  I, for one, was more depressed than elated after reading it - but it shows some rays of light at least.  We COULD live in a better world.  One can only hope that one day we will.

Just to clarify - Hopes and Prospects is not exactly an example of sparking storytelling.  It is not a literary masterpiece.  It's a book on international politics, in its social and economical aspect but politics nevertheless.  It's sensible, even wise, articulate and embellished with wonderfully acerbic wit (which, I'm guessing, is Chomsky's trademark), so if you're looking for a light entertainment, you should probably avoid it.

If you're seeking a smart commentary on the world we live in, go for it.  You won't be disappointed.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Living To Tell The Tale

gabriel garcia marquez living to tell the tale

I am a big fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez so I looked forward to reading his autobiography - Living to Tell the Tale.  I thought the tale of someone who wrote 100 Years of Solitude must be absolutely, jaw-droppingly fascinating.

To put it bluntly - it wasn't.  What a disappointment.

I got stuck on the book for more than two weeks (one look at my blog will tell you that this is REALLY long in my case) because I kept getting bored after a few pages.  Since the volume is more than four hundred pages long, that meant a lot of reading breaks, and progressively less appetite to pick the book up again.

It's not that Living to Tell the Tale is a bad book.  It's typical Marquez when it comes to writing style - flowery, colourful, touched here and there with supernatural.  If this was my first encounter with the Nobel-winning author, I would probably be delighted.  Unfortunately, compared to his other writings, this is weak stuff.  Living to Tell the Tale is oppressively more 'realistic' than 'magical'.

In the book's defence, it is an autobiography and you don't get too imaginative when writing non-fiction (at least I believe you shouldn't).  Fair enough.  But even if we forget magical realism and it's charms, Living to Tell the Tale still leaves much to be desired.  I admire autobiographies which tell me something about an author's inner life, about his motivations, feelings, events that shaped him.  I like to have the subject brought to life.  Here, I feel as if I've just read Marquez's CV.  The narrative is full of names which probably mean nothing to the reader, unless you're really interested in history of Colombian media development.  We get to know newspaper editors, journalists, aspiring writers and poets, politicians etc.  I do understand why this crowd was important in Marquez's professional progress, but why would it interest me?

Childhood stories are better, family yarns are quite delicious but overall - not the best book I've ever read.  Completely unremarkable.

Feel free to disagree :)