Sunday, 31 March 2013

Terry Pratchett, The Compleat Ankh-Morpork City Guide

Terry Pratchett, The Compleat Ankh-Morpork City Guide

Once more, let's take a short trip to the land of Discworld spin-offs. 

I tend to have mixed feelings towards this ever increasing body of work.  They rarely match novels proper in pure awesomeness, but to the die-hard Discworld fan (me!) they are welcome as something new from the beloved realm.  Additionally, sometimes they are rather good.  I really liked The Science of Discworld, or The Folklore of Discworld, I disliked Where Is My Cow? and The Compleat Ankh-Morpork City Guide is somewhere in between.

First thing you need to know is that it comes with a map.  Not the most beautiful map in the world, but an extremely detailed one, with every lane and alley properly named and located.  As the sticker on the cover informed me, it is also available as an app, which may be of interest to some.

The Guide itself tells you pretty much anything you need to know if you're planning to visit Ankh.  Where to stay.  What to eat.  What to do.  What not to do, if you wish to stay alive.  Where to buy merchandise, both exotic and mundane.  One almost wishes the proud city existed... 

The concept for the book is really interesting.  A large part is presented as pages and pages of classifieds, those little ads which, abhorrent enough in the real world, are pretty tasty on the Discworld.  They are a bit like 'How well do you know Terry Pratchett?' challenge:  all the characters, places and businesses mentioned in the novels are there and it's up to you to recognise them.  I did quite well, I think, although I bet I missed quite a few references anyway.  But hey, no book of Terry Pratchett yields all its secrets if read only once. 

To tell you the truth, I think The Compleat Ankh-Morpork City Guide is a book for having, not for reading.  Visually, it is absolutely stunning and would look fantastic on any shelf.  I'm sure it's fun to keep in on hand to be opened on relevant page when reading any Discworld novel.  As to the reading...  Well, there is not that much of it, for one.  It is not as funny as the usual Pratchett fare either. 

Still, speaking against Sir Terry Pratchett is a blasphemy.  I shall shut up right now, or else my arm will fall off. 

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Elizabeth Abbott, Sugar: A Bittersweet History

Elizabeth Abbott, Sugar: A Bittersweet History

Despite the title of Elizabeth Abbott's book, history of sugar is not sweet, oh no.  It is grim and dark and sad and the author spares no detail in painting the tragic picture. 

Sugar: A Bittersweet History follows the ascendancy of its hero from the long-gone times when it was a treat reserved for royal tables to here and now, when it is increasingly blamed for a range of rampaging diseases.  Most attention, though, is given to all the centuries in between, when sugar trade was the main factor in the rise and fall of sugar slavery. 

Abbott follows the trail of sugar slaves century by century, island by island.  She is only too generous with stories of hardship and cruelty that were a part of life on cane plantations in the West Indies.  The heartbreaking scenes are mixed with cameos from London and elsewhere in Britain, where rich planters came to show off their spoils and secure the dominance of the sugar business.  Despite all their riches, the conscientious citizens soon started to clamour for abolition and after many years of political battles the law was changed accordingly.  Process of freeing slaves was gradual and difficult for all concerned, but eventually the lives of sugar workers improved somehow. 

That's the skeleton of the story.  Abbott fleshed it out with plentiful information, spread across impressive geographical range.  Slavery is the main focus of the book, but such is the nature of the sweet crop. 

Sugar: A Bittersweet History repeatedly made me wonder how much has really changed in the relations between big business, labour and consumers.  Abbott does not make any comparisons, but language and arguments of sugar planters from around 18th century sound oddly familiar.  Sure, we have different 'golden crops' now, different products and different conflicts, but the world is still roughly divided between those who do the work and those who hold the whips... 

Towards the end of the grim book Abbott jumped head-first into rosy optimism.  The last few pages are full of hopeful visions of well-paid workers cultivating sugar cane as a biofuel crop.  I found this ending somewhat unreal and forced, but I'm gloomy by nature.  Perhaps other readers will be convinced. 

Happy end or not, the book is well researched, well written and well worth reading. 

Friday, 22 March 2013

John Naish, Enough

John Naish, Enough

If I were to write a book at this stage of my life, it would be very, very similar to Enough

John Naish attacked all of my favourite bogeymen.  Overeating.  Overwork.  Overstuffing our lives with...  well, stuff.  Overtaxing Earth's resources.  Plus some other phenomena that cannot be conveniently represented by words beginning with over-, but are just as noxious, such as our TV addiction, self-help industry, illusory customer choices and cultural trends compelling us to strive for more, forever more. 

Hundreds of books have been written about each of the abovementioned ills, but rarely one gets across a title that manages to target them all (on less than three hundred pages, too).  Yet, the common denominator is all too easy to spot.  We seem to live under the delusion that growth, in whatever application, can be eternal.  Well, it can't.  There are such things as limits and no amount of wishful thinking can magic them away. 

According to Naish, our brains are the main culprit here.  As a species, we evolved in pretty tough environment and we needed the insatiable curiosity and greed to simply survive.  Unfortunately, the arrival of consumer society progressed quicker than evolution and we didn't have enough time to adapt.  Our brains still want more of everything, while the most logical step in our drowning-in-trash circumstances is to say enough, loud and clear. 

Why?  If the vision of carbonised planet doesn't persuade you right away, take the trouble of reading Enough.  Naish lists tens of reasons why we really should reconsider our craving for more of everything, and these are very compelling reasons. 

Enough's worthy message is delivered in readable language.  Naish stays human in his appeals, somehow managing to avoid preaching and boring the reader to death.  He talks about ordinary things, situations that most of us will find familiar, generously peppering them with jokes and chatty commentary. 

If you decide to practise enoughism, the book supplies copious advice.  Tips, tricks, suggestions, inspirations, it's all there so you can design your own pick'n'mix of planet-saving strategies.  As the author himself suggests, choose what works best for you. 

I am tempted to end this review with some grim prognosis for the future but I'm sure you've heard it all.  Write your own 'reform or else' speech if you wish, I'll just leave you with a promise that Enough is a really tasty and wise piece of social criticism.  Enough said.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Dervla Murphy, On a Shoestring to Coorg

Dervla Murphy, On a Shoestring to Coorg

I am happy to announce that I am one book further on my quest to read everything Dervla Murphy has ever published.  Having enthusiastically ticked off another title, I'm already planning library excursions to hunt for the rest.  Wish me luck!

In the meantime, let's talk On a Shoestring to Coorg.

This is one of Murphy's earlier travelogues.  First published in 1976, two years after the actual journey, it takes Dervla - and the reader alongside - to India.  She's accompanied by Rachel, her (then) five year old daughter.  Both ladies wander around on minimum budget, explore whatever their fancy dictates, meet locals people of all sorts, battle minor injuries and generally take as much fun out of their adventure as it is physically possible. 

Some people may be outraged by Dervla's taking such a small child along on a rough journey, especially today when parents become increasingly paranoid about the safety of their offspring.  The fact that Rachel survived (and immensely enjoyed) the trip is the author's best defence.  Dervla did make some concessions to her daughter's tender age.  She ditched her preferred means of locomotion (bicycle or pack animal) in favour of public motor transport and shortened the daily miles quota to suit abilities of a child.  Even so, some parts of the memoir have potential to raise hair on heads of parental responsibility freaks. 

On the upside, all children around five are a goldmine of funny sayings and Rachel is no exception here.  Dervla is generous in sharing her daughter's running commentary on the trip, which adds a lot of charm to the text's already plentiful graces.  I'll refrain from quoting - read the book! - but some laughs are guaranteed. 

On all other fronts, On a Shoestring to Coorg is a typical Dervla Murphy book, off-the-beaten-track travel of the best sort.  Levels of her hallmark activism are still low (not a bonus in my book, but some readers might find it a relief), so it's a pure travelogue, with only a handful of history/social sciences data thrown into the bargain. 

Dynamic, thought-provoking and extremely readable - that's Dervla Murphy for you. 

Gimme more, anytime. 

Monday, 18 March 2013

Michael Moss, Salt Sugar Fat

Michael Moss, Salt Sugar Fat

Processed foods are increasingly singled out as the main culprit in the global obesity epidemic.  Food manufacturers pursue profit at any cost, waists grow, diabetes rates reach the all-time high. 

Producers produce, consumers consume, but once in a while someone publishes a book intended to question our eating habits.  Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation immediately springs to mind, or Michael Pollen's The Omnivore's Dilemma.  This year, Michael Moss's Salt Sugar Fat proudly joins the selective club. 

The very title tells us a lot about Moss's strategy in challenging the processed food industry.  His notion is simple.  We eat too much salt.  Too much sugar.  Too much fat.  Overabundance of those three ingredients quite visibly makes us sick.  Unfortunately, the same unholy trio is also responsible for making our food taste great.  The heavier, the sweeter, the saltier it is, the more we like it.  The more of it we buy - and food manufacturers want us to buy more, always more. 

Moss digs deep into processed food industry to expose all the tricks compelling us to eat high-calorie products.  He provides tons of data on food science, marketing strategies, government regulations (lack of, usually), sales figures, health statistics, interviews with food corporation executives, you name it.  Salt Sugar Fat is a goldmine for food research reference.  As is usually the case in this type of publication, pretty much every sentence is documented.  Food industry employs expensive lawyers which, I'm guessing, is the main reason for such scrupulosity.  It does, however, enhance the book's reliability and makes further exploration that much easier. 

Even with all the safeguards in place, Moss's wording is very careful.  Salt Sugar Fat is not an all-out crusade against processed foods, not obviously so.  Yes, the dangers of overdose of each targeted ingredient are outlined in detail, but so are the efforts of major companies to minimize the negative impact (whether apparent or real).  We are introduced to numerous 'good guys' in the food industry and shown amazing science facilities dedicated to making food not only tastier, but also healthier.  We are told how devastating any limits on salt, sugar, fat would be for the end product.  Sure, criticism of greedy corporations is there, but it is offset with their efforts to make it all better. 

Perhaps it is just journalistic objectivity (which always deserves praise), but I am not sure if in its present form the book serves its avowed purpose.  Reading of all the greasy, sugary deliciousness, I felt an overwhelming urge to go out there and get some junk food, something I normally avoid.  I also got confused as to who is the bad guy in this story.  Because if the executives are trying so hard, whom should I actually blame for the raging obesity epidemic?  If Moss is pointing a finger, he does it very half-heartedly. 

The conclusion of Salt Sugar Fat is simple, true and similar to the findings of Schlosser, Pollen etc.  Only you, dear eater, can save yourself from your diet.  No government will do this for you, no big business will suddenly ditch making money and switch to saving humanity.  Consumer's choices are the only way out of the current food-induced health crisis. 


Saturday, 16 March 2013

Linda Polman, We Did Nothing

Linda Polman, We Did Nothing

It took me a while to figure out what Linda Polman is actually trying to say in her book We Did Nothing.  It was about the UN, ok, that was obvious from the start.  I expected lashes and bitter complaints, which seem to be the usual reaction to this institution's proceedings whenever a conflict flares up, but no, I could detect no obvious criticism.  Not much praise either, but the narrative was clearly organised along the lines of UN involvement in war zones.  Somewhat perplexed, I kept on reading.  I detected faint anti-American notes, but chastising the US power politics did not seem to be the main focus of the book, rather an unavoidable background detail.  Straightforward war reporting then?  True, stories got only more terrible as the book progressed, from besieged UN soldiers in Somalia to heart breaking poverty in Haiti, but I was sure that the author meant to transmit some message, not only series of pictures. 

For four fifth of the book this message was rather vague.  Then I reached the last chapter and everything became crystal clear.  In a way, Polman defends the UN.  She recognises it as an impotent institution, but also violently rebels against expecting miracles from a body that is, by definition, powerless. 

If Polman is to be believed, UN is underfunded and undermanned, and also quite unfree in its actions.  As she puts it, the UN cannot say no if its member states say yes.  Bound by the non-intervention rule, its possibilities are seriously limited when expectations remain high. 

I have my doubts as to the 'underfunded' part, but I find the rest of Polman's arguments quite convincing.  Compared to armed multitudes in war zones (just think of numbers involved in Rwanda genocide in 1994), numbers of UN troops are insignificant.  Yet we expect them to somehow stop the atrocities, defend civilians, provide humanitarian aid and make it all better, without casualties and diplomatic mishaps.  In short, we expect them to work miracles and yet we howl with fury when they fail.  I can see Polman's point.  She definitely offers some food for thought, and the topic is worth further exploration. 

Whatever your stance on the UN, We Did Nothing is worth reading for Polman's writing skill alone.  The book is filled with solid war reporting.  The author lets the events she's describing speak for themselves - no need for emotive vocabulary, your heart will break anyway.  Her account of the Kibeho Masacre, which she witnessed, is the most devastating description of a war tragedy that I've ever come across.  It is absolutely brutal and stomach-turning, but I never thought much of the modern tendency to tailor war reports so that delicate constitutions of the viewing public are not unduly strained.  Well, this particular report upsets, even if your skin is pretty thick.  You have been warned. 

In short, even if at the beginning it is hard to figure out what she's trying to say, Polman's book starts well and gets better with every page. 

Friday, 15 March 2013

Douglas Kennedy, Chasing Mammon

Douglas Kennedy, Chasing Mammon

Travel writing with money-making as a leitmotif?  The very idea intrigued me.  That's why my most recent library hunt yielded, among other titles, Chasing Mammon - Travels in the Pursuit of Money

The formula for the book was simple:  Douglas Kennedy travelled to the world's busiest financial centres and published his observations in a neat (if rather skinny) volume.  The journey starts in New York and ends in London, with visits to Morocco, Sydney, Singapore and Hungary in between. 

When it comes to reporting style, Chasing Mammon is pure travel writing.  Moving from place to place, encounters with colourful locals, reflections on differences and similarities between Home and Away - it's all there.  Storytelling, if not the most inspired I've ever seen, is engaging and smooth. 

Kennedy is not out to ruffle feathers.  His opinions are politely neutral, areas which might spark fiery debate carefully avoided.  Rare judgements are mild and conventional.  I find this somewhat disappointing - compared to (e.g.) combative activism of Dervla Murphy, Kennedy's propriety is simply dull, but I allow for not everyone agreeing with my tastes. 

One major fault:  Chasing Mammon was published in 1992.  Had I noticed it in time, I wouldn't bother reading the book at all.  Financial markets are a topic with an extremely short use-by date.  In a fast changing world of money-making two decades equal eternity.  Still, you may want to check it out for its historical value... 

To tell you the truth, I was not impressed by Kennedy's publication.  The idea was brilliant, the execution unremarkable.  What a shame.