Saturday, 25 May 2013

Nadine Gordimer, Telling Times

Nadine Gordimer, Telling Times

Usually Nadine Gordimer's writing makes me feel inadequate.  I will never be able to write like her, not in a hundred years, not in a millennium.  Sad sigh, and maybe some mild inner resistance next time I'm to pick up a pen and string some words together.  I write my piece anyway, punctured ambition healing with time and a dose of rational thinking:  if all scribblers gave up on realising they can't achieve Nobel-deserving greatness, we would now have very few books indeed. 

This time was different.  Yes, as I struggled through Telling Times, the usual 'I'll never...' did cross my mind but, for the first time, it was followed by the merciless 'nor would I want to'.  This is not to diminish Nadine Gordimer's mastery of words, depth of analysis (whatever is being analysed), fieriness of emotion, erudition etc. etc.  She's got all these, she deserves her Nobel and any other literary praise anyone wants to claim for her.  It's just that suddenly I realised that Gordimer's style of writing is slowly becoming dated.  Not relevant anymore, certainly not relevant to me. 

Why so harsh a verdict?  To answer that, a closer look at Gordimer's range of subjects is necessary.

Apartheid is an ever-present spectre in nearly all of her essays.  To say that, being a thing of the past, it is not relevant anymore would be at best simplistic if not outright stupid.  As a species, we don't seem to learn from our mistakes but if remembering past monstrosities improves our chances of avoiding repetition even slightly, then cultivation of those memories is worthwhile.  No, apartheid's constant presence in Gordimer's writing is not why I question her relevance. 

Nor do I have any misgivings about her (too scarce!) travel pieces.  Inevitably tinged with politics - it appears that activism follows you wherever you go - and rather conservative when it comes to where and how, they are little gems of wordsmithing nevertheless. 

The third major theme in Gordimer's non-fiction is literary theory and here's where my doubts surface.  The reviews, the musings, the analyses are all very learned and impressive ('I'll never...'), but what is their function?  What, when you get right down to it, is the use of literary theory, especially today?  Will it teach writers how to write?  I don't think so.  Will it teach readers how to read?  'What is the poet trying to say?' is a question that could and should be answered only by the poet him/herself.  Anyone else's attempts smack too much of systemic education that manufactures automatons instead of freethinking individuals. 

Or such, at least, is my belief. 

To tell you the truth, I found Telling Times tedious.  I say that with a touch of sadness because I generally consider Gordimer a great writer.  Even in the most 'irrelevant' essays I was able to find fragments full of visionary insight, simply begging to be turned into a motto for some future opus magnum. 

The book's format is not particularly fortunate.  At first, 700+ pages of Nadine Gordimer's non-fiction seems like a literary feast but once you've put a course or two behind you, you realise that the tastes are disappointingly familiar.  If you've read The Essential Gesture and Living in Hope and History (I have!), the disappointment is almost guaranteed.  I don't have the two books on hand to compare the contents in detail, but I'm sure most (if not all) of the material is simply re-printed from earlier collections, with few extras added.  Gordimer is a writer worth re-reading and Telling Times never claims to be fresh and new but... consider yourself warned. 

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Mary M. Luke, Gloriana: The Years of Elizabeth I

Mary M. Luke, Gloriana: The Years of Elizabeth I

The sad thing about historical biographies is that the hero always dies at the end. 

Just imagine:  you follow the life of, in this case, Elizabeth I for seven hundred pages only to see her age and die.  A book with a claim for scholarly accuracy hardly can go any other way. 

I almost felt sad.  Just as well that the author, Mary M. Luke, chose not to dwell on the final years of the great monarch.  None of Elizabeth's biographies that I've read (quite a few by now) treated the subject with any more deliberation.  Perhaps there isn't really that much to tell - the Queen is dead, long live the King.  Maybe, though, various biographers become mildly attached to their heroine too and want to get through the unpleasant necessity as speedily as possible.  Or am I being sentimental?  

Compared to other books about Elizabeth Tudor, Gloriana: The Years of Elizabeth I holds its ground very well.  It's a massive tome but Mary  M. Luke managed to keep a reader captivated all the way through.  The main events and influences in the queen's reign are beautifully balanced, weaved together into a dynamic narrative that reads almost like a novel. 

Almost, but not quite; it is a history book after all.  The writer's creativity may have coloured some events for effect, some of the queen's reactions might be imagined rather than reported, but overall the book sticks to verifiable facts.  Original documents are often quoted to strengthen debatable statements and if some conjecture is inevitable, it is subtle enough not to irritate. 

Gloriana begins with queen's death (Mary's) and ends with queen's death.  For early years of Elizabeth it is best to turn somewhere else, because this particular book offers only glimpses of her years as a princess.  How about A Crown For Elizabeth by the same author, book two in the trilogy in which Gloriana is the final instalment?  I have not read it, nor the book one, but if I ever come across either, I won't hesitate.  Mary M. Luke had impressive skill in bringing Tudors to life, so I bet that her account of Elizabeth's twisting path to the throne is just as unputdownable as the story of her reign. 

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Micheal Moore, Dude, Where's My Country?

Michael Moore, Dude, Where's My Country?

I confess - I am a sucker for catchy titles.  If you want me to read your book, give it a title that stands out from the crowd and you've got me*.  A title like, for example, Dude, Where's My Country?

Michael Moore is better known for his documentaries (Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine), but he has written a good few books as well.  The books are just like the movies:  verrrry political.  Funny, too, and sparkling with cheeky wit despite - or maybe because of - their language, best described as 'everyday vernacular, uncensored'. 

Dude, Where's My Country?  was published in 2003, when the Iraq invasion was hot news, 9/11 a fresh and painful memory and George W. Bush still in power.  It's full of anti-war, anti-president, anti-republican battle cries.  Read today, it's almost like a history book, but right after publication it must've been a potent motivator to get off the couch and start waving signs on demonstrations. 

I sympathise with most of Moore's sentiments, but after some pages I diagnosed myself with rhetoric poisoning.  I distrust people who tell me how to vote.  Not that I could've obliged - I'm in Europe and US government is none of my business - but the attempt to direct the political actions of anyone makes an author unreliable in my eyes.  Moore is not even particularly subtle about his business:  go and vote. Take your friend, neighbour and dog with you.  Let's get this guy out of office.  Vote for Oprah.  Oh my.  When you dabble in politics, it's difficult (impossible?) not to get smeared with dirt.

Unless you actually live in the US, much of Moore's fiery passion will be wasted on you.  Yeah, sure, everyone likes bitching about America throwing their weight around but as long as they are not trying to actually invade, nobody gives a damn.  That's how I see it, anyway - it's remotely possible that the whole world disagrees and I haven't noticed. 

One aspect of Dude, Where's My Country? is worth attention and praise, wherever you live.  Moore is adamant in his claim that most of US citizens are sane, decent people, even if headlines sometimes make it hard to believe.  Cheers, man, I admit I need the reminder from time to time, and I even feel a twinge of shame when I say so.  No country should be judged by its politicians. 

Oh, and Mike's Quick and Easy Guide to Preventing Future Terrorist Attacks is priceless.  Take heed, America. 

* Unless, of course, your book is a trashy piece of romance.  Or anything for young adults (what sort of genre is that, anyway?).  Or any other literary mistake of the sort.  There are exceptions to every rule.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Brigid Keenan, Diplomatic Baggage

Brigid Keenan, Diplomatic Baggage

Diplomatic Baggage is an autobiography of a diplomat's wife.  Not any particular diplomat's, since the man in question is never mentioned by name (you could probably track him down based on what's in the book, but who would bother?).  It was written, presumably, to make the world aware of the hard lot of trailing ambassadorial spouses.  Those servants, never good enough.  All the dinner parties to host - what a nightmare!  The terrible hardship of being a stay-at-home mum or wife, without worrying how to pay the bills.  The burden of being posted all over the world, expenses paid.  And those houses!  They may have eleven rooms, but the upholstery is all wrong!  My heart bleeds, indeed. 

If I ever met Brigid Keenan, we would hate each other instantly.  She would probably ask me if I'm sure I got the right door (servants' entrance being elsewhere) and I would mutter something about snobs and rich useless people, perhaps even adding a few unpublishable comments.  Yes, I'm uncouth, hardly civilised at all.  I can't even comprehend the tragedy of wearing the wrong jacket to an official function.  The boorish me... 

I know I'm being nasty, but it's the author's own fault.  She asked for it, she really did, mixing complaints about the curtains with stories of Ethiopian famine.  Most of the time, Mrs Keenan appears likeable enough, in the silly, chatty, girlie way but there were moments in the book where my jaw simply dropped and my mind went blank with incomprehension.  Like sending small children to a boarding school on another continent and then wondering what the hell went wrong when they rebelled (a tip - have my parents done something like this, I would not be on speaking terms with them ever again.  And no, I'm not a teenager, thank you very much).  Or stopping the car to help a stranger who collapsed on the street and then refusing to take him to a hospital because... wait for it... he was covered in snot.  My goodness, while such blunders happen to most of us at some stage, writing about this in a book for the whole world to see is either extremely brave or extremely foolish. 

Having said that, I did enjoy Diplomatic Baggage.  It's funny, engaging, chatty in the 'girls gossiping' style, full of well-written anecdotes.  The Keenans' itinerary is indeed impressive:  Ethiopia, Belgium, Trinidad, Bermuda, India, Gambia, Syria, Kazakhstan...  I officially writhe in envy. 

Despite such a colourful bouquet of destinations, I wouldn't really place the book in the 'travel writing' section, like my library did.  It belongs to 'autobiography', maybe 'lifestyle' shelf.  'Travel writing' is what Dervla Murphy does.  Mrs. Keenan... well... I'll just shut up, shall I?

Friday, 10 May 2013

Brian C. Petti, Sister Mercedes and the Temple of Doom

Brian C. Petti, Sister Mercedes and the Temple of Doom

When Brian C. Petti emailed me about reviewing his new ebook, Sister Mercedes and the Temple of Doom, I was pleasantly surprised by him sounding so...  normal.  No bureaucratese, no marketing gibberish, simple human-to-human communication.  I was instantly taken by the book's title, too, and even though it had to wait its turn (did I tell you how pedantic I get when it comes to reading order?), I was looking forward to the moment when I was finally free to check it out. 

Guess what, the moment came and disappointment did not follow. 

Sister Mercedes and the Temple of Doom is a pleasant little booklet (slightly over a hundred pdf pages), composed of posts from Brian's blog, pettiplays.  Undeniably funny, it sparkles with hyperbole and dynamic storytelling.  As blogs tend to be, it is mainly autobiographical, recording joys of bringing up a family and developing writing career while struggling with disabling illness.  The Petti family is instantly likeable, especially when viewed from the author's too-honest-for-his-own-good perspective.  Petti's Life of Brian is messy, chaotic and sometimes overwhelming which makes it also refreshingly believable. 

I found it hard to relate to some of the book's tales.  I have no children, and there's lot of parenting in there.  References to American pop culture are wasted on me altogether and unlike Brian, I don't fancy theater.  Here, lively writing saves the day.  I might not give a drat about the subject matter, but I'll still laugh at the jokes. 

Blogosphere origins of Sister Mercedes and the Temple of Doom are obvious, sometimes irksomely so.  If you called it a blog in a pdf (or kindle or whatever) format, you wouldn't be too far off mark.  In fairness, it never claims to be anything else, so I sincerely hope that it'll bring the author his longed for fortune or at least popularise his plays :)

Steven Mithen, After the Ice

Steven Mithen, After the Ice

If I were to write a very short summary of After the Ice, I would simply quote the subtitle:  A Global Human History 20,000-5,000 BC.  Says it all, really. 

Not much was happening on planet Earth then, at least not much by our hyper-speed-information-overload standards.  Agriculture was getting invented, animals domesticated, continents colonised, sea levels fluctuated like a see-saw, but generally speaking, life was pretty straightforward.  Find food, find shelter, don't get killed*.

Steven Mithen is thorough in his examination of the Stone Age world.  His imaginary protagonist, named after a Victorian scholar, John Lubbock, travels in space and time across all the inhabited continents, visiting famous archaeological sites from the chosen period when still in use.  Inevitably, much of the story is pure conjecture, but the imaginary parts are always followed with scholarly arguments in support of the visions.  I'm not in a position to judge scientific reliability of After the Ice, but it looks serious enough.  Any controversial material is heavily footnoted, research properly credited etc. 

Frankly, you need to be really interested in early human history to get through more than a hundred pages of the book without getting somewhat bored.  I, for one, turned the last page with relief.  Mithen tried hard to make After the Ice appealing to the general public, using his imaginary observer to 'write a narrative about human lives rather than a catalogue of archaeological finds'.  Did he succeed?  To my eye, there's still too much catalogue in there, but well done for trying.  Ultimately, the journey still leads from excavation to excavation, although adding the imagined landscapes and lifestyles helped to break the monotony. 

Writing a history of early post-glacial period is problematic in any case.  It's like guessing what's on a huge picture puzzle when you have only two or three pieces to work on.  Despite archaeologists' best efforts, very few artifacts from the past survive to give us any clues as to how the early humans lived.  Just imagine the amount of time between now and even the most recent of Mithen's dates; it's like going back to the Romans and then as far back again, twice.  All that we have to account for such a huge chunk of time is a handful of stone tools and a charred bone or two...  I'm exaggerating, but only slightly. 

Nevertheless, it is fascinating to see where we came from.  Homo sapiens today, with our wars and nation states, computers, lasers and all other toys, started as a humble hunter-gatherer.  I could think of less user-friendly introductions to our past than Mithen's. 

*In my gloomier moments I believe that this sums up the human condition rather nicely, but those who think that owning the latest iphone equals happiness will probably disagree.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Dervla Murphy, South From The Limpopo

Dervla Murphy, South From The Limpopo

Once again, Dervla Murphy.

I'm really getting closer to my self-appointed goal of reading all of her books.  Yay!

South From The Limpopo is one of the more voluminous titles in Dervla's repertoire.  At over four hundred pages, it is about a third longer than her 'standard'.  It is presumptuous to claim to know the writer's mind, but I suspect there are at least two reasons for the book's XL size.  Primo, it describes a three-stage journey (in other words, Dervla kept returning to her destination).  Secundo, South Africa is 1993/94 really was a special place. 

SA's transition from apartheid to democracy (I'm using the word in a very specific sense, which will become clear if you read the book) was doubtlessly one of the more monumental changes in recent history.  Arguably, the universal elections of 1994 could be described as the highest point of the struggle.  Dervla Murphy witnessed the event.  She'd been cycling around the country in months leading to and following the actual voting, too.  What emerges is a fascinating triptych of before-during-after of South African metamorphosis. 

Travelling on a bicycle and preference for low-profile accommodation gives the author unusual perspective (probably the most precious element in ALL of her books).  She mixed with all sorts of people, black, white, coloured, rich, poor, tolerant, fanatic, you name it.  As usually, she's slow to condemn and generous in empathy, but she managed the trick without compromising her integrity.  In the environment as incandescent as that of South Africa AD 1994, this was quite an achievement. 

Inevitably, South From The Limpopo is darker than the usual Dervla Murphy fare (with the exception of blood-curdling Visiting Rwanda).  South Africa was (is?  I wonder...) a violent, chaotic place and some of the author's anguish is contagious.  Not that she herself was a victim of aggression - despite numerous warnings, she was the focus of only one minor 'incident'.  What she saw is another matter.  Nah, I won't be picking South Africa as my holiday destination any time soon (not that I ever could afford to, haha).  It's funny, usually I'm dead keen on seeing places Murphy writes about but this time...  nope, not a twinge. 

I wonder how much things have changed since 1994. 

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Felicity Lawrence, Not On The Label

Felicity Lawrence, Not On The Label

'Tell me what's on your plate and I'll tell you who you are'.

Judging from our collective plate these days, we are a bunch of bland, gullible, self-destructive individuals with a sadistic streak. 

Bland, because the quest for endless shelf life has rid our food of any taste.  Gullible, because we allow advertisers to persuade us to buy the junk they're selling.  Why self-destructive?  Just check out health statistics when it comes to diet-related ailments.  And 'sadistic' refers to our treatment of people working at the far end of the food chain.  Those who actually produce the stuff that ends up on our plates... 

Felicity Lawrence's Not On The Label is a superb piece of investigative journalism.  Her muckraking exposes numerous shortcomings of our food supply system.  The victims are introduced, the villains named, the solutions suggested. 

Many books have been written about modern food industry.  As I see it, you can go around such an investigation in two ways.  You can speak to the big business, or to its victims.  The first approach may be more impressive, with big names gracing the pages of the book (and probably better dinners served to the investigator).  The resulting account will probably be very coherent and smooth.  After all, the PR people are paid to tell you nice stories.  'We are trying very hard to find solutions and please customers'.  'It's all about efficiency in bringing you the best'.  'Any incidents in our noble quest are unfortunate, but unavoidable'.  That sort of stuff...

Or you can talk to the victims and get a completely different picture, as Lawrence proves.  She interviews a whole range of people on the less lucky end of food supply chain.  Suppliers terrorised by supermarket buyers.  Farmers forced to sell their produce below cost or go out of business.  Migrant workers living in inhuman conditions.  People from environmentally devastated areas, sacrificed on the altar of unsustainable efficiency.  The picture emerging is not funny. 

Did I forget something?  Oh yes, pesticide residues.  Funky additives to processed foods.  Air miles and carbon emissions.  Food deserts.  Plant and animal diseases spread by industrial cultivation.  Excessive (and polluting!) packaging.  Inequality between developed and developing countries.  Food adulteration (you thought horse in your beef steak is so unusual?  Think again).  Good food going to waste for business reasons. 

To summarise, Not On The Label is one angry book.  So it should be. 

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Susan Gregory Thomas, Buy, Buy Baby

Susan Gregory Thomas, Buy, Buy Baby

I'll never tire of reading about evils of marketing.  I hate the advertising business passionately, mainly because only politicians can equal its champions when it comes to the amount of bullshit let loose upon the world. 

Digesting Buy, Buy Baby by Susan Gregory Thomas should be mandatory for all parents.  If I were a dictator, every expecting mother would be given a copy early on, with her progress in reading supervised during medical check-ups.  Parents simply need to know this stuff! 

Statistics concerning advertising to babies and toddlers are scary.  Kids are being popped in front of the TV almost from infancy, despite warnings (e.g. from the American Academy of Pediatrics) that below the age of two they should not watch it AT ALL.  So called 'educational' programmes are generously laced with commercials tailored specifically to appeal to young minds.  Cartoon characters become spokespersons for brands.  The list goes on. 

Were I to write Buy, Buy Baby, the book would be far more virulent.  I am furious at all the business people trying to brainwash kids into becoming consumers before they can develop any defences, and probably wouldn't be able to contain my ire.  Susan Gregory Thomas definitely beats me at anger management.  She sounds rational and composed, no signs of mouth-frothing at all. 

The book is a goldmine of information about child development research.  If it has been done, it is probably mentioned here, together with details on the institution that carried it out.  It's a precious resource, because too many baby products claim 'educational' status, when no actual study confirms it.  Whatever works to trap the tired parent into parting with cash... 

If you're wondering if Teletubbies are good for your baby, read this book.  If you're curious if the new expensive blinking toy can actually teach your child anything, read this book.  If you're tired of temper tantrums in the toy isle, read this book. 

If you want to be a responsible parent - READ THIS BOOK. 

Friday, 3 May 2013

Terry Pratchett, A Blink of the Screen

Terry Pratchett, A Blink of the Screen

I tend to buy Terry Pratchett's books on sight.  In most cases, I am also well aware where and when they can be sighted, anticipating each release with itchy impatience.  I knew of A Blink of the Screen long before it hit the shelves sometime last autumn and yet I let this one pass.

To tell you the truth and despite all the adoration I have for the author, I thought the book was a typical money-spinner. You know, re-hashed material that you've already read somewhere else, new fancy cover and high price tag.  To a degree, it's true.  The stories are not new, oh no, but still A Blink of the Screen was a pleasure to read, for three reasons. 

One, Pratchett is simply a damn good writer, ok?  I consider him a first-class wordsmith, unable of releasing bad literature on people.

Two, pictures.  Glorious, full-colour inserts full of illustrations by Josh Kirby (he of the original Discworld book covers).

Three, little introductory notes from Pratchett accompanying each story.  Priceless! 

The book is divided into two sections, Discworld and non-Discworld. To my astonishment I enjoyed the latter more.  Well, ok, maybe it's not that surprising, I have read most of the Discworld stuff before, I think every Pratchett fan has.  It's just that I usually lose interest as soon as the author gets off his trademark creation, and this time my attention remained fixed on the text.  Must be due to point one on the list above...

I still wouldn't buy the book (lucky me, with a few well-stocked libraries nearby), but I'm guessing that the collectors among Pratchett fans would, happily.  After all, it's a lifetime's worth of short stories.  Handy to have them collected in one pretty volume.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

John Ross, Orwell's Cough

John Ross, Orwell's Cough

I kinda had a feeling that the book will be good.  It looked...  different.  Nice edition, hardcover, with some typographical tricks to make at least parts of it look like an old-style newspaper column.

Let me introduce you to Orwell's Cough.  It proved even better than I expected.

The idea for the book is simple:  what illnesses did great writers of world literature suffer from?  What, in the end, killed them?

When it comes to choosing his 'patients', John Ross goes all the way due classics.  Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, the Brontes, Melville, Yeats, Joyce, Orwell (obviously...) and a few more.  The result?  Curious and delicious mixture of medicine, eng lit and history. 

It appears that studying maladies of the illustrious people of the past is a lively field.  Theories are ten a penny, ranging from sensible to outright ridiculous and Ross helpfully quotes many of them before advancing his own.  He enriches the mixture with a generous helping of - let's be frank - celebrity gossip (only here the celebrities are known for some great writing as opposed to, for example, being born or wearing no underwear). 

I don't particularly like doctors (neither, it appears, did many of the writers mentioned in the book) nor, to be honest, am I very keen on classic literature, so I was surprised to discover how much I actually enjoyed Orwell's Cough.  The answer to this conundrum lies probably in Ross's writing skill.  His narrative sparkles.  It's vivid, dynamic and full of tasty details, from gross to spicy.  I'd recommend the book for a teaching aid, as a bait to get students to read the classics.  Only, perhaps, we should talk slightly older students here, those who are allowed to know what syphilis is...  

I'm not sure if Ross's diagnoses are always spot-on.  As I said, there's a lot of disagreement on those matters in the scientific circles, especially that sources of information get fewer the further in time you go.  Nevertheless, Orwell's Cough is a fascinating book:  funny, readable and with the potential to teach readers a thing or two.