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Mr. N. Foale "electronic word" (Devon, UK)
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The Golden Door: Letters to America
The Golden Door: Letters to America
by A.A. Gill
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.63

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Land of God and Gold, 28 Sep 2012
Beautifully written as ever, but what do we learn from Gill's America? We learn that he has a family connection, emigrants that he stayed with in his youth and is still in touch with today. We learn that he has a Smith and Wesson revolver on his writing desk, symbolic of that great and terrible nation. And, we learn that he always loves New York because he once loved in New York.

This is no massacre, as his The Angry Island was on the English. But, neither does he shy away from America's faults: he snipes at its belligerence and its inequality.

America was once a blank slate. It was where a clapped out Europe spilled out to forge a new nation, where no hidebound preexisting order would block an individual from 'making it'. From the first tough frontiersmen to the Pilgrim Father refugees to the waves of economic immigrants, America is a land in flux. Gill points out that the future culture of America is being shaped and will be increasingly shaped by its Asian and Latin American immigrants. Probably, change from this quarter will shape the wider world's future too.

The book's subtitle inverts the title of Alistair Cooke's famous series of radio essays. We read interesting connections and learn more about Gill's place amongst columnists. It is Cooke who introduces Vintage Mencken, his selection of H.L. Mencken, America's finest ever columnist. Gill notes that essayists divide between Montaigne's restraint and Mencken's pyrotechnics. Montaigne meanders while Mencken goes for the jugular. Cooke is in the former camp. Gill, in the latter camp, describes Mencken's rise and fall; he focuses on Mencken's career-peak report of the Deep South's Scopes trial, where Darwin battled God for admittance to the school system.

As usual with Gill we see with fresh eyes. We Europeans and Americans are now much the same: Europe has learnt from America, while America has spent that mass human capital which it took from Europe. Gill expects that his transatlantic family correspondence will die with him and his generation. One great experiment is over, and a new adventure just beginning. Modernisation, shaped first by Europe and then by America, will continue to transform the wider world. Consider Asia's emergence; think of China. Again we, who once dominated, will wail and wow at new ways of thinking and behaving. And again we in Europe, but also in America this time, will have change forced upon us.


On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
by William Zinsser
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars The Writer's Friend, 9 Sep 2012
This is the most useful book that I have found on the writing craft-- particularly, for me, because of its focus on non-fiction articles. It is an informal The Elements of Style, and I read it ever more closely, each time my inner critic strikes. Focussed chapters guide you through the perils and pleasures of genres such as travel, humour and criticism.

The author emphasises the difference between clarity and style. Clarity--through grammar, punctuation and the elimination of clutter --is the art of making things easy for the reader. With a grasp of clarity, you must then have the confidence to include what you want to say in the way you want to say it: your unique voice, the essence of style. It is a relief to hear that you must write for yourself. There is no market to satisfy, just men and women eager to read something fresh and original.

However, there is one time when you should initially keep your voice on a short leash, and that is when you return from a trip. Before you write your travel article, first rein in your puppyish over-enthusiasm about your exploits. Otherwise, you will bore your reader, just as you bore your friends and family. Calm yourself and, with a documentary-makers eye, retrace your explorations. Select only the most significant details, those that the reader most likely does not know or is least likely to guess about the place. Only then should you describe these details in your own voice, all the while guarding against the platitudes of 'travalese' where everything is "roseate," "wondrous," "fabled".

The author gives two more essential tips. First, think diligently and be absolutely clear about what you want to say, then find your own vivid language and images to express that point. Second, each and every non-fiction article should leave the reader with one, and only one, over-arching and provocative idea. On this last point, permit me to re-emphasise: Writing Well is the best-friend you never knew you had.


Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything
Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything
by David Bellos
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Translate This, 8 Sep 2012
David Bellos directs the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton. In this book, he describes how translation makes international bodies like the European Union and the United Nations possible at all. He describes the unequal status of languages: translation UP is towards a language of greater prestige, and translation DOWN is towards the smaller vernacular group. The global book world is a solar structure:

"With its all powerful English sun, major planets called French and German, outer elliptical rings where Russian occasionally crosses the path of Spanish and Italian, and its myriad distant satellites no weightier than stardust..."

Yet, the author dispels the myth that languages can contain thoughts so subtle that they cannot be translated into other languages. On the contrary, all human languages are equivalent, just with different emphases. That worry dealt with, the field of translation is probed in detail. For example: how to approach the translation of humour and poetry, translating speech versus literary texts, and more.

More profoundly, consider that if you want to check you really understand something, that translation is a key test. Can you see through to the meaning and express the same point appropriately well in another language? I can think of no better way to prove that you really get something. Thus, we cut through the obfuscation of linguistics. For one thing there is no Universal Grammar. Neither is language a code: Google Translate, which scavenges the flotsam and jetsam of the web to find the most likely translation, works; Artificial Intelligence, with it's disembodied parsing, doesn't work.

Going back to the crux of meaning in human discourse, the author hopes that we apply the gears of thought more mindfully before we open our big mouths (or blogs, I suppose).


Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Price: £4.12

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tiger in your tank, 21 Feb 2012
Amy Chua is the John Duff, Jr. Professor of Law at Yale Law School. Read her World on Fire: How Exporting Free-Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability and Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance to learn about the forces behind ethnic conflict and the history of imperialism, respectively. But read her memoir, Tiger Mother, for sheer joy. Amy describes becoming a second-generation immigrant pushy mum, and how she continued her own tough Chinese-style upbringing on her two American daughters. She is hilarious, and her relentless self-deprecation reminds us that not taking yourself seriously is the healthy flip-side to taking your profession and your studies seriously.

This book's take-home message is to find an approach to life and then expect and get 112% out of it. So live flat out (and then some).

The writing was inspired enough for me to read it in one afternoon. And, if it fights back against Spoilt Rotten: The toxic cult of sentimentality and The Spoilt Generation then praise be. Soft Brit that I am, Amy made me weep: with tenderness at her warrior-like approach to family and love, but also with helpless mirth at her whip-sharp sarcasm.

You'll want a Tiger Mum too.


Captives: Britain, Empire and the World 1600-1850
Captives: Britain, Empire and the World 1600-1850
by Linda Colley
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Redcoats swallowed whole by the pink bits, 15 July 2011
All about the deceptively obvious fact of how massively over-stretched wee-tiny Britain was in forging its vast Empire. Describes how the boundary between Brit and foreigner was on the ground porous indeed. For example in India local sepoys were much depended upon and in some cases were almost mollycoddled compared to their metropolitan redcoat brothers at arms. While reading in these pages touching stories of white captives taken against the encroaching tide of the British Empire we are also reminded that empire is as much a case of soft power, of manouvering and diplomacy, as it is of hard military superiority.

Being held captive or defecting to the other side was often not entirely a bad thing for poor working class lobsterbacks subjected to the harsh discipline and dangers of being British cannon fodder. Captivity in turn enlightened many Brits as they were forced to come to terms with 'the other' after finding themselves deep in the bellies of the very 'beasts' they had been sent to rule. As is still true today ordinary people often found as much, if not more, in common with strange foreigners as they did with their own rulers.

The book starts by describing how, between the 17th and 18th centuries, Barbary pirates were notorious in Britain for taking many white slaves from Atlantic and coastal waters, and even raiding British coastal towns. So much for "Rule Britannia" and its "Britain never-never-never will be slaves". We often were slaves and Brits back then well knew it. Knees knocked.

This book is a fascinating meditation on the profound accommodations to otherness that an over-stretched imperial project inevitably entails. It tells a story considerably less glorious and more challenging than the Hollywood-esque narrative of unassailable British might. Rather, and like Liberty's Exiles, it tells a nuanced tale of the British Empire: kinder and more humane than ho-hum narratives which grind their ideological axes to tell of pure domination by one side over another. As Peoples and Empires also skilfully argues, empire must not be read simply as dominion. More grandly and durably, imperialism is central to the story of the globalising of man's imagination. For example superior technology flowed out of Europe while hot-housed nationalistic concepts flowed back into it from the colonies, first from the Americas and later from the tropical fringes. Here Linda Colley develops sound appreciation of a key backstory to our jet-age's ongoing intermingling of worlds: consider cheap travel, the United Nations, the Web. This book will captivate you.


The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good
The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good
by Matthew Crawford
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Learn a trade, 15 July 2011
While Matthew Crawford professes passion and proficiency in motorcycle maintenance he here demonstrates mastery in the craft of book writing. He persuades you to rely less on digital gadgets, to get out from behind your desk, and head to the workbench instead. He reaffirms our natural intuition that more tactile, practical, outwardly-directed (i.e. less subjective) activities are simply good for us.

Matthew urges us to find employment between the gaps of the postindustrial consumerist economy. In doing so he vaunts the trades, white-van men, for having their heads screwed on right. A mechanic's, plumber's or electrician's work cannot be digitally outsourced - it must be done in-situ and so may be relied upon long-term to provide an income.

Like Shock Of The Old a book to jolt you into fresh understanding of the interplay between our technological and social worlds. In short, digital triumphalism is misplaced. Your analog nature cannot be outsourced.


Conquerors of Time: Exploration and Invention in the Age of Daring
Conquerors of Time: Exploration and Invention in the Age of Daring
by Trevor Fishlock
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars True Grit, 21 April 2011
If, anytime soon, you should find yourself at Heathrow Departures checking your inbox please do take a moment to count your lucky stars. This book will enlighten you as to why. It recounts the history of our species' desire both to communicate instantly and to transport our frail bodies at will. Not that the bodies you meet in the book appear particularly frail - rather they are daring, tough, resourceful.

Take one William Wills (from Totnes, Devon - where I safely sit) whose cousin Harry had only recently died exploring the Arctic. William Wills was a surveyor with 'a longing desire' to explore Australia. He joined an expedition led by Robert Burke and together in 1861, these two were the first to cross Australia from South to North. With a determination that runs through this book the two men finally prevailed. Yet, sadly, too frail their bodies ultimately proved: Australia's parched interior claimed both their lives during their return journey south. Yet the knowledge they gained opened up the Australian interior for all that came after.

Said expedition of Burke and Wills is but one example of the countless personal sacrifices made in humanity's collective campaign to open up the world. The book's story is one of railroads and cables, of empire and quest, of industry and trade. It faces down those who would sniff and sneer at modernity. It impels us to remember that back in the age of the Clipper Ship and the Pony Express technology such as jet travel, the Web, and mobile phones would have universally astounded.

Paid for by public subscription just a few years after said explorer's demise, the Wills Monument still dominates the Totnes Plains. This book whisks you back to an age that revered such grit and determination. Chapter after chapter and tale after tale will arouse the dauntless Livingstone in you, your iron-willed inner-Brunel.


The Fetish Room: The Education of a Naturalist
The Fetish Room: The Education of a Naturalist
by Rudi Rotthier
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.17

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Something nasty in the woodshed, 7 April 2011
As in Stalin Ate My Homework, another recently published biography of an estimable British eccentric, Redmond O'Hanlon's character has been formed in no small part by impossible parents. However Redmond, like Alexei, never entirely rejects them. This despite the fact that while he is at college they visit only to burn his beloved books. So we understand when he says he has to pretend he has no parents in order to be able to write at all. We also learn how he writes at night - when books 'come alive'.

This book is a treat for we the O'Hanlon tribe. Rudi Rotthier is skillful and sympathetic to O'Hanlon, both the man and the voice. We learn about Redmond's upbringing as we are whisked with the bewhiskered one on a chaotic trip across Southern England to visit sites of his life: his father's vicarage, Marlborough College, Avebury, Salisbury, the Times Literary Supplement offices in London. Hearing aids are lost, a dental plate tested by pub grub, a biblical flood of wine and pints of Old Tripp are downed. A camera film is loaded but never used. Thankfully we are spared none of Redmond's spurious yet splendid tall tales and theories. He makes us aware that we have only really scratched the surface of knowledge. The world is swarming with ideas to be tested, discoveries out there.

Darwin symbolises Redmond's split with the ideas of his vicar father and our trip ends with a visit to the great man's home - now, according to Redmond, feeling like a museum rather than the house it still felt within living memory. Oddly though we get just a single name check of another O'Hanlon hero, Joseph Conrad. Hopefully this primary omission is fortunate; there's plenty more of dear old Redso to be chipped away at yet.


Reality Hunger: A Manifesto
Reality Hunger: A Manifesto
by David Shields
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Death to the (19th Century) Novel, 6 April 2011
If you habitually pick up short stories only to think "not short enough guv" then this book is probably for you too. It argues that we should jettison the dead forms of the novel: the creaking plot, the unbelievable characters, the implausibly imagined worlds. In the style of the original then:

This book might be subtitled "Against Artificiality".

There are no facts, only art. What actually happened is only raw material - what the writer makes of what happens is all that matters.

[ Cut to the bone. Confess. Connect with the reader. ]

Dovetails with The Age of the Infovore: Succeeding in the Information Economy. We are all autistic now: creativity is through cut-up, through collage. Sampling in music is DEFINITELY PROGRESS.

[ Who controls the danger ? ]

Memoir is writing's future (THINK travelogue that forgets where it is OR instruction manual that forgets its purpose).

Once upon a time there will be readers who don't care what imaginative writing is called and will read it for its passion, its force of intellect, its formal originality.

Steal, appropriate, and plagiarize. We all own it anyway, always have. Reality cannot be copyrighted.

Allow your piece to find its own unique form. AND TRUST. Leave the reader with work to do...


Imperium
Imperium
by Ryszard Kapuscinski
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Against the tyrrany of the fact: against tyrrany in fact, 25 Mar 2011
This review is from: Imperium (Paperback)
Perhaps his best book because it is about the Soviet-Bloc, his home-land, and hence about himself.

There is a contemporary hoo-hah about the journalistic accuracy of Kapuscinki's body of work. In particular Timothy Garton Ash in Facts are Subversive has ccriticised Kapuscinki. Even James Hamilton-Paterson has touched upon similar criticism. But to criticise Kapuscinski for his literary style is to ignore that he wrote under the perilous Soviet eye. Absolutely his work should be read heavily dolloped as allegory - as critique through literary means.

At one point in this book Soviet customs officers neurotically sift through a huge pile of buttons. What can they possibly expect to find, wonders the author. The way in which authoritarian governments waste peoples lives, jolts from the page.


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