Monday, 29 April 2013
As promised, today we'll savour an example of Christian approach to global warming.
The book is called A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming. Once again, the title alone made me choose the book, although frankly, had I noticed in time that it's an example of Christian literature, I would probably let it pass. I value ethics but I also have limited patience for sermons.
The Christian (or at least this particular Christian's) remedy to the changing climate is really very simple: repent, repent, repent. Only the Lord can save the Earth. Yeah, that easy.
Perhaps I'm being unnecessarily cruel, but if not for all the religious exhortations the book would be really interesting. Northcott's social criticism is mostly spot-on (if a little too enthusiastic or simplistic at times). It is not limited to climate either. Consumerism gets its share of fire and brimstone (always a good move in my book), so do inequality, greed and exploitative politics of the West.
Yes, our 'civilised' world is not really too impressive from the ethical point of view. The developed nations' treatment of, well, pretty much everyone else is outrageous. Jungle law rules. Money is the highest good and if a few billions of less fortunate people fall through the cracks, well, that's the price of progress. Nah, you don't need to be religious to spot that things are not exactly ok.
I'd appreciate Northcott suggesting any practical solutions to the ethical problem we're facing but few are forthcoming. Hoping that the whole world will suddenly see the light, invite Christ and return to the times of pastoral bliss is not very realistic. The assumption that 'Christian' equals 'moral' is highly suspicious, too. After all, the country with the highest number of Christ followers also happens to be the worst polluter. Funny how this coincidence escaped Northcott's scrutiny. Not to mention crusades, burning of the witches, religious wars, abusive clergy and other ecclesiastical specialities. I know I'm being nasty again, but the claim that only Christians can behave ethically makes my blood boil. Atheist does not equal immoral, no matter what theologians say.
Northcott does not really attack any other religions, he just conveniently ignores them. Hm? If it's a GLOBAL warming, perhaps we should try to find a global solution to the problem? Or is it forced conversions and religious wars again?
When it comes to readability, A Moral Climate is a bit of a drag, especially when Northcott starts analysing the Bible (proving decisively that with enough verbal gymnastics you can use the Good Book to justify absolutely everything). I can stomach only so much preaching at a time, so quite a few days have passed before I got through it.
Despite its numerous faults, A Moral Climate was still much less odious than Lawson 'reasoning'. Naive, preachy and unrealistic it may be, but at least it's not dismissive of everyone who actually wants to do something to stop the Earth from turning into a noxious desert. Fair enough.
Saturday, 27 April 2013
Once upon a time I thought that global warming is a fairly straightforward affair. Industrial gas emissions are making our planet too warm for comfort, humanity has to either cut down on noxious fuming or fry, end of story. Since our species' record of reasonable behaviour is not too impressive, I tend to be rather gloomy about our prospects, but that's my opinion.
Rummaging through library books I picked up two random titles on the Great Issue and learnt that global warming is not so simple after all. The picture is actually so complex that nothing is known for sure (you know, SURE sure, 100% absolutely certain sure), so everyone can believe whatever they wish. Thus, global warming shifts and mutates into whatever suits the agenda of any particular individual.
Today, we'll review a sceptic's guide to global warming.
The book (or booklet - it's little over one hundred pages) is called An Appeal To Reason: A Cool Look At Global Warning. I admit, the title alone convinced me. I do love reasonable talk!
What a shame that in this particular instance the promise was hardly fulfilled...
In simplified form, Lawson's reasoning goes more or less like this:
A) Global warming is a myth
B) If it proves not to be a myth, it is certainly not anthropogenic
C) Anthropogenic or not, it is likely to be beneficial rather than harmful
D) Even if it is harmful, trying to mitigate its effects is not a logical solution
E) Even if we wanted to choose the mitigation approach, we are not really in the position to do so
F) Let the future generations worry about global warming, because they'll be better off than us anyway
G) If mitigation is unavoidable, there's only one logical thing to do: let's tax everyone on carbon.
All of the above is delivered in an arrogant, judgemental manner. Everyone who does not share Lawson's views is by definition irrational, overreacting and absurd. On the other hand, whoever happens to agree with his theories is automatically assigned 'prominent' status. Rhetoric, rhetoric and once again rhetoric. I'm afraid the only thing it shares with reason is the 'r' at the beginning...
To add insult to injury, Lawson's figures are highly selective and his moral stance is definitely not cool. Developing countries afflicted by disasters because of our emissions? Screw them, we'll give them some aid money for flood defences while enjoying longer summer. Future generations condemned to life on a polluted, dangerous planet? Yes, well, but we are important, too, so let's focus on our comfort here and now, shall we?
About the only thing that Lawson gets right is his assessment of likelihood of global cooperation when it comes to fighting the global warming; to wit, it is extremely unlikely. The main culprits (no name calling, but YOU know who they are...) do not feel inclined to acknowledge responsibility, the future offenders don't mind offending as long as it boosts their economies and everyone prefers power struggles to collaboration.
Welcome to the planet Earth. Enjoy while it lasts...
PS. In the next post, we'll take a look at the Christian view of global warming. Check back in a day or two if you're curious.
Thursday, 25 April 2013
Ryanland is a story of one man's quest to explore the charms of low-cost flying. Philip Nolan travelled everywhere the Ryanair budget airline would take him (at the time of writing) and turned his experiences into an amusing travel memoir.
Whatever else can be said about Ryanair, it sure as hell is cheap. Nolan's odyssey, consisting of 61 flights, set him back by 2,064.29 euro. He visited 18 countries (if my calculations are correct), staying in quality hotels, sampling local cuisine and visiting Irish pubs.
The book is undeniably funny. At times I laughed despite myself, and felt guilty afterwards - Nolan's sense of humour is not exactly of the noblest kind. At least his writing skills are up to scratch. Let's be frank: airport-pub-hotel-airport routine is not a good example of adventure travel and turning it into a readable story required talent.
That's as much praise as I can force myself to utter, because to tell you the truth, I found Ryanland extremely irritating. The author's patronising attitude is nauseating, and some of his boorish comments simply left me speechless. I wouldn't bat an eyelid if he used all the four-letter words a dictionary can supply, but I can't stomach people who think money gives them right to look down on the rest of the world. To prove my point, I particularly recommend Nolan's comments on visiting the Basque country or crossing the Slovakian border. One almost feels happy that Ireland got hit by financial crisis...
Speaking of finance, Dervla Murphy would probably travel halfway through the world on what Nolan spends on food and accommodation during one evening. Budget travel? I don't think so. Not with hotel bills averaging over 100 euro, with high points of almost three times as much. My goodness, I'd rather sleep rough for a week than pay three hundred quid for a room!
Then again, Ryanland was definitely not written for the likes of me, no matter how many air miles I have clocked with the infamous airline. Frequent references to tabloid celebrities would suggest that Nolan's target audience are people who, to use the author's own words, 'are just a tad more preoccupied with Manchester United, getting laid and figuring out ways to buy a 50-inch plasma telly'.
Somehow I'm proud of NOT belonging to this group.
Wednesday, 24 April 2013
The abundance of verse on the introductory pages of Travels With The Flea provoked me to angry muttering 'Is it possible to be born in Wales (or, as is the case here, to adopt Wales as the country of residence) and NOT become a bard? I almost gave up on the book there and then, the reason being, I don't do poetry. I just don't, that's the end of it.
In the end, I persevered, and I'm quite happy about this, although were it up to me, the book would lose maybe half of its volume. Starting with Travels With The Flea, which, beside being the title of the collection is also the longest essay included: a VERY poetic report from the author's walking tours of his adopted country.
Nah. Rid the book of all that is Welsh and you'll get first-class collection of travel writing essays. I loved Perrin's reports from India, US, Cuba, Bolivia, Spain, even - something I hitherto thought impossible - from the Arctic regions of Canada. I share many of his opinions and out of four other travel writers he writes about, two are present on my shelf right at this very moment (Dervla Murphy, for one - what an unexpected bonus! I nearly screamed in delight on discovering this particular piece). Perrin has an eye for tasty detail and the mental pictures he creates are sharp, powerful, fascinating.
Then he starts writing about Wales and it all gets poetical...
I have nothing at all against Wales. I bet it's a great little country, with beautiful landscapes and resilient people and any other graces you wish to claim for it. I'm just not madly in love with Wales. This might change if I ever get to visit the place, but so far it has completely failed to raise my passion or curiosity. I simply found myself unable to share Perrin's enthusiasm, especially when he waxes lyrical on the beauty of nature and quotes his beloved bardic verses.
I dutifully, and entirely without pleasure, read the 100+ pages of the massive Welsh-themed essay, just in case Perrin was out to surprise me but no, it was just as unmoving as I expected. Had the copy actually belonged to me, I would have torn out the offending pages despite my general reverence for printed word, the operation resulting in almost flawless collection of travel essays. As it is, well...
Of course, if you happen to love Wales or poetry or both, you're very likely to love Travels With The Flea unconditionally.
Monday, 22 April 2013
I pride myself on being reasonably well versed in the Mediterranean history. After all, I am a proud holder of a university degree in Mediterranean culture. While completely useless in real life, the course included pretty extensive study of the past events in the relevant areas. That explains my smugness when, browsing the history section in my library, I chose David Abulafia's The Great Sea to accompany me home. Smugness as in: 'C'mon. Tell me something I don't know'.
I got my wish. Abulafia 'told' me many things I had been previously unaware of and my smugness evaporated sometime before the chapter three. Fair enough. I enjoy having my ego punctured if the puncturer is talking any sense.
Some of the gaps in my education stem from the fact that I left the university in 2006. Lots of new research has been conducted in my field since then, plenty of new material evidence has been brought to the surface (in some cases, e.g. wrecks of Minoian sea-going vessels, the statement can be taken literally). Seen in this way, The Great Sea was a valuable refresher course, as it is pretty up to date.
Seen in any other light, it still remains a very good book about history of the Mediterranean Sea.
'Sea' is the keyword here. It may seem obvious, but most of history books of that type focus on the broader Mediterranean region rather than the body of water between Europe and Africa itself. Sure, you cannot write a history of the sea without mentioning what's happening on its shores, but Abulafia is more disciplined than most in limiting his story to port cities and marine traffic.
Chronologically, the book starts as far back as 22,000 BC and goes all the way to 2010, which pretty much equals the sum of our knowledge of history of the region. Each major civilisation that thrived on the Mediterranean shores is given its due. Abulafia divides this massive amount of time into five periods and those, in turn, are dissected into chapters along the geographic/ethnic lines. Despite the subtitle A Human History of the Mediterranean, the main (and recurrent) motifs in the book are trade and war. Still, both have been dramatically influencing human existence since time immemorial, so I guess the phrase is fitting.
I found The Great Sea slightly monotonous towards the end, but this might be due to my own preference for ancient history. Otherwise, it's as readable a historical narrative as it is possible to get.
Sunday, 21 April 2013
If I hadn't read 50 Years of Europe - An Album, I would have loved Contact!. As it is, I feel somewhat cheated. But let me explain.
Contact! is a collection of literary snapshots collected by Jan Morris during her long and impressive life as a travel writer. My goodness, that woman has been to everywhere! Pieces gathered in this volume are pretty short, half a page, a page at most. They document fleeting moments, tiny interactions of which the Welsh author must have collected thousands in her journeys.
Why oh why, then, she's recycling material already published elsewhere?
Reading Contact!, I was haunted by a powerful sense of deja vu. I've read those stories before - in the abovementioned collection. Not all of them, sure. Some, maybe most, are lovely and fresh. Yet, if I actually had bought the book (once again, library proved to be my friend), I would've felt taken for a ride.
This tiny mishap aside, the book is quite delicious. As the title suggests, it is focused on people that Morris encountered on the road, all over the world. Not necessarily friends, often strangers, observed, eavesdropped on, imagined. Yes, Morris's imagination is a potent ingredient in this mixture. A single image is enough to start the story off, and the rest is the author's creation. If Contact! is a book of pictures, then they are heavily photoshopped.
Still, she's skillful in adding her modifications. Images that emerge are not vulgar or fake, but tinged with poetic vision. The bite-sized tales from awe-inspiring multitude of destinations blend together into an enchanting mosaic, full of colour, life and eccentricity.
Despite the deja vu, reading Contact! was a pleasure.
Saturday, 20 April 2013
Fiction is a rare guest in the Bookworm's Cave, but I have a soft spot for Joanne Harris and when I saw her name on the 'new buys' rack in my local library, I simply couldn't resist. The thick volume was called Runelight and only back home I realised that it is actually part two of a new series, but it proved ok to read as a standalone title *sigh of relief*.
You may have heard of Joanne Harris. Her Chocolat achieved quite a spectacular success when it was turned into a Hollywood movie starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche. If you ask me, the filmmakers castrated the very decent piece of fiction, as they are prone to do, buy not everyone agrees. Oh well. I still cherish my tattered copy of Chocolat, but I have this funny feeling that it might be the time to re-read it again and perhaps become less enthusiastic. As I'm getting older, I'm less dazzled by bohemian vibes... On the other hand, who knows? Maybe the book will stand the test?
Such deliberations are prompted by my being rather unimpressed by Runelight. Sure, it reads well. So well, in fact, that I missed my usual bedtime by a few hours just to finish it. Yes, definitely a page-turner. Mind you, harlequin romances read well too, but my commentary on their merits is 100% unprintable.
Runelight is not quite as bad, although it lacks the brilliance of Chocolat and that's the book's greatest crime.
The story is set in some once-upon-a-time land, early medieval in appearance, and intensely meddled with by Norse gods. Yep, Odin, Thor, Loki, the whole bunch. Surprisingly, this much overused framework is the book's greatest asset. I'm not sure if I'm comfortable with Fenris the Wolf saying 'dude' all the time, but otherwise the celestials are really well imagined. Brought to Earth and sharply limited in their powers by events described in the book one (Runemarks) they provide decent amount of comic relief and are likable from the fist pages. Lines between hero and villain are pleasantly fuzzy: you're never sure who's going to pull a dirty trick but everyone is sort of decent anyway. Nice.
Add some human (or almost human) heroes to the Asgardians and you'll end up with a crowd too numerous to control. Despite the book's brick-like dimension, the story is so full of protagonists that all this space is barely enough to stitch the story together and not much is left for developing characters. Then again, Runelight is more than slightly fairytale-ish in flavour and you don't expect Little Red Riding Hood to suffer from existential problems, do you?
As to the rest, prophecies, quests, magical creatures and saving the world pretty much complete the picture. If you're searching for some light entertainment, Runelight is very much recommendable. Even if it is a far cry from the deliciousness of Chocolat.
Thursday, 18 April 2013
I'd been trying to track down Dervla Murphy's autobiography for quite a while before I finally spotted it in a not-so-local library a few weeks ago. It spent some time waiting on my shelf (reading books EXACTLY in the order that they were acquired is one of my quirks, possibly the only situation ever when I'm actually being pedantic), but when its turn finally came, I devoured Wheels Within Wheels in one evening.
It is possible that my copy was incomplete - it ended abruptly at page 236, followed only by the evidence of torn pages and back cover - but if I missed anything, I'm sure it wasn't much. The book was designed to record Dervla's life before she became a travel writer and the story took me to the moment when Full Tilt was published.
I had my doubts about an autobiography that ends when the subject's life becomes (from my perspective) really interesting. I still would very much like to one day read volume two, but I concede that Wheels Within Wheels is a pleasant book. Somewhere online (I can't recall exactly where), I stumbled across an interview with Dervla where she admitted that she never planned to publish it - the story was conceived as a gift for her daughter. I find it easy to believe. The memoir is very, very personal, full of insights into Murphy family life (and when I say 'family', I mean it: the book is not only about Dervla, but about the whole clan).
If you ever wondered what sort of upbringing produces travel writers, the book is your answer. Of course, I'm saying this with a huge wink: you can't make a human being according to a standard recipe. But Wheels Within Wheels explains a lot about Dervla and the person she's become. We are all, to a degree, shaped by out early years and Murphy is no exception.
The cover of my edition recommended the book as, among other qualities, funny. That just seals my general (low) opinion about blurb writers. Wheels Within Wheels is honest, unconventional, down-to-earth, beautifully written, but NOT funny. The story of Dervla Murphy's early years is anything but funny. Sure, she tells it in a detached, light-hearted way but even so it is obvious that she was no stranger to suffering, nor was her family.
In a way, the book is also a historical source. Between the lines it tells a lot about Ireland in the early twentieth century. I found the picture fascinating, possibly because I live in the country today, but I dare say it will be of some interest to anyone interested in the green island's past.
I still hope that one day I'll be able to read part two of this extraordinary biopic.
Wednesday, 17 April 2013
Cameroon With Egbert must be among my favourite Dervla Murphy books. Despite my oft-repeated preference for her later, more politicised titles, I really enjoyed the story of Murphies' African adventure.
For clarity's sake, let me quickly explain that the plural in the previous sentence is due to the author being accompanied by Rachel, her daughter (this time - eighteen) and the mysterious Egbert completing the roll call of the little team is their pack horse, acquired on the way.
'Adventure' is surely the keyword for anyone approaching Cameroon With Egbert. The Murphies' journey was quite full of various little (or not so little) dramas. Malaria. Getting arrested. Indecent proposals made at gunpoint. That is only the beginning of a long list of 'situations' that Misses Murphy managed to get themselves into. What a contrast to 'civilised' travel, when immaculate travellers swank smoothly between one four star hotel and the next, sampling local cuisine in the best-reputed restaurants and meeting local, suitably Westernised, aristocracy! To tell you the truth, I much prefer rough and tough style of the Murphy clan. At least the idea of adventure retains some authenticity...
On pages of the book, Cameroon appears a vibrant and friendly country, but no country described by Dervla Murphy ever appears otherwise. I wonder, is it the case of the beauty in the eye of the beholder? Please do not misunderstand me - I'm not trying to accuse Cameroon of unloveliness. I'm just under the impression that some writers, like some photographers, are able to beautify the object of their work, no matter what it looks like to ordinary mortals. Would I see Cameroon as Dervla saw it? I doubt it. I'm a much gloomier, more cynical person (and this remark should persuade you that I'm not bemoaning any faults of Cameroon, but rather inadequacy of my own sight).
The book contains an unexpected bonus. In 1986, volcanic lake Nyos exploded with toxic gas (mainly carbon dioxide), killing almost two thousand people and countless animals. Dervla and Rachel's wanderings took them to the site of the tragedy eight months after the event. Before (unwittingly) getting in trouble with local authorities, they managed to witness the obliterated villages and the lake itself. The account of the spooky atmosphere around the tragedy-stricken area is powerful and Dervla's encounters with the survivors are truly heartbreaking. Disasters are far more shattering when seen up close rather than through the safe (but sterile) medium of statistics and press reports.
I'm still wondering if there is another travel writer quite as unique as Dervla Murphy. I'm quite certain that never, in no genre, have I stumbled across an author with integrity as tremendous as hers. One cannot suppress a sad sigh... Is it just me, or the world is really much poorer with so few people of her kind around?
Thursday, 11 April 2013
One Foot in Laos is one of the 'mature' Dervla Murphy books. First published in 1999, it is far more political than her early travel memoirs. Some may find this off-putting, I consider it a welcome improvement. If you browse through recent posts on this blog you will notice that I am in the position to judge - I've been immersed in the Dervla Murphy world for quite a while now.
This is not to say that her earlier books are below par, oh no. It's just that, like wine, Dervla's writing improves with age. Consciousness, political or otherwise, tends to grow as the years go by.
Laos in the late '90s as seen through Dervla Murphy's eyes was an enchanting land, with friendly people and stunning natural beauty. Unfortunately, shadows are also present in this picture and the author doesn't attempt to hide any of them, just the opposite.
UXO, or unexploded ordnance, must surely be named the greatest menace of the country. Laos has the unwelcome distinction of being the most heavily bombed country in the world (in proportion to its population). Plenty of the bombs that rained on the country during the Vietnam War failed to explode. Those grim 'souvenirs' maim and kill even today. Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme's website confirms figures quoted by Dervla in the book, and these are truly heartbreaking statistics. Even more heartbreaking are Dervla's descriptions of her encounters with UXO victims. No, One Foot in Laos is not exactly a cheering reading matter.
Environmental damage is another blight threatening Lao land. Forests are fast disappearing, to emerge again as furniture in wealthier countries. Numerous dams, planned or already in operation are negatively impacting lives of millions. In accordance with her trademark conservationism, Dervla Murphy rages against the destructive development projects with enough passion to convert many readers back to green lifestyles.
While humanitarian/environmental activism takes up a lot of space in One Foot in Laos, there's certainly plenty of it left for descriptions of culture, customs, cuisine (quite exotic) of Lao people and colourful adventures of a certain Irish traveller.
A gem of enlightened travel writing.
Sunday, 7 April 2013
Among the many reasons why I love Dervla Murphy is this one: she's the most effortless geography teacher I have ever come across.
Do you know where the Baltistan is? I do, now, but if you asked me a week ago, I would reply with a perplexed stare. Baltistan? Isn't it somewhere around the Baltic Sea?
(No, actually I knew that it's nowhere near the Baltic, I was born in Poland and I'm familiar with the geography of the region. Still, I think the resemblance of the two place names is uncanny, worthy of a further investigation to establish if it's a coincidence).
The Baltistan is, in fact, a mountainous region in Northern Pakistan, consisting mainly of habitable valleys between the Karakoram peaks. It is a pretty inhospitable terrain, with little vegetation and extremely cold winters. Into one such winter, 1974/5, Dervla Murphy and her (then) six year old daughter, Rachel, went pony-trekking.
Temperatures falling more than thirty degrees below zero. Scarce food, spartan accommodation. Mountainous, precipice-hugging tracks with a tendency to disappear. Rock avalanches falling across the aforementioned tracks. These are only some of the hazards that winter in Baltistan can offer.
I'm sure all parents will read Where the Indus is Young with fascinated horror. These days children are reared in ultra-protective environments and Baltistan is anything but. It is probably a good idea to stress here that both mother and daughter survived their adventure without any major injuries. Even though they did not wash or change clothing for three months... Yeah, that's another shocking (to a Western mind) aspect of their journey. I guess freezing temperatures blunt one's yearning for hygiene. Personally, I was completely not surprised to hear that such a spell of 'dirty living' did no harm, but I do know people who faint at the very thought of bacteria. They probably shouldn't read this book...
Everyone else - please do not hesitate to reach for it when you have a chance, especially if you appreciate travel writing of the very best sort.
Saturday, 6 April 2013
I guess it is time to officially announce Dervla Murphy month on Bookworm's Cave. My recent library hunt has yielded five (5!! Yessss!) of her books and due to sheer brilliance of her writing I am unlikely to reach for anything else until I'm done with those.
The series starts with A Place Apart, a book that is somewhat different from the usual Murphy fare. For one, she doesn't travel far to reach her destination. No long distance flights, no gruelling train journeys, just a quick hop across the border. Yep, A Place Apart is Northern Ireland.
Today Northern Ireland conjures up few dramatic images but back in the 1978, when A Place Apart was first published, the situation was quite different. The Troubles are usually described as a conflict between Ulster Catholics and Protestants, but it was much more complicated than that. Despite her self-professed dislike of politics, Dervla Murphy does a lot to explain all the facets and factions involved. Still, she does it in her own way, focusing on humans rather than organisations and institutions.
Murphy's compassion and humanitarianism are, as usually, awe-inspiring. Despite the violence and fear, she reaches past the scary facades and treats all her interlocutors like human beings. She took care to meet up with people from all sides of the barrier (and you might be surprised to find out that there were more than two) and to listen to their stories, whatever her personal feelings on the subject. She does not hide her own opinions, but expresses them in contrast (not 'instead of') the ones she's not agreeing with.
A Place Apart is a courageous book. It took courage to cycle around the troubled country, to seek out people of all faiths and political alignments and to relate their stories. It took integrity to express her own, often critical, opinions without condemning others.
Once again, hats off for Dervla Murphy.