duminică, 25 decembrie 2016

Noapte Instelata

Inspirat de un exercitiu la care am asistat anul trecut la National Gallery, unde un grup de studenti la Imperial College of Music au fost comisionati sa compuna cateva bucati muzicale bazate pe tablouri, am vrut sa creez povesti din tablouri. Impreuna cu Oana am ales tabloul de mai jos. Povestea ei o gasiti aici. Povestea mea, in continuare.


'Hai ma, vino-'ncoace. Ia, stai jos aici. Uite, aici vin eu de obicei. Nu e asa adapost, ca vine tot vantul de pe dealuri, dar mi-am facut aici un culcus, langa boschetele asta. Si-n seara asta oricum e cald afara. Ia uite ce cer curat, cum se vad stelele. Parc-ar fi mai aproape de noi azi. Incalte de s-ar apropia si oamenii de cer... E-he, poate doar din varful bisericii, M-am urcat o data acolo, cand eram mic, sa fi avut 11-12 ani. Cu Gheorghita, care sta colea mai la vale, uite in casa aia din dreapta. Nu prima, a doua. A facut-o cand s-a luat cu Irina. Aia cu acoperisul ala scund si negru. E mica deh, ca n-aveau bani, de unde sa aiba, oameni tineri. Si-apoi Gheorghita s-a luat cu bautura, si mica le-a ramas. Ma, tu stai bine acolo? Stai jos ca nu patesti nimic, pamantul e cald, Nu mai piui ca un apucat ca sculam tot satul.

Asa, si ziceam, ne-am dus sus in cloptnita, si zic eu Eu eram ala de nascocea nastrusniciile, dar Gheorghita mi-o lua inainte cand era vorba sa le facem... Mereu a fost mai puternic ca mine, deh, si c-un an mai mare. Si nu zice Gheorghita al meu nici o vorba, desface franghia de pe clopot, face latz, si hop, pana sus peste cruce. Era cruce buna, de fier, ca ne-a tinut sa ne urcam. Dar cand ajungem sus, amandoi agatzatzi de cruce, ne uitam fermecati la sat cand odata auzim.... crrrr. Am sarit de era sa cadem. zic eu, . Incepe Gheorghitza sa rada de mine, ca ce ma ti-e frica, ca da-l dracu' pe popa... ce ne-a mai blestemat popa cand a aflat... Afurisenii, toata ziua buna ziua la mama la poarta ca sa-i dea bani sa repare crucea de pe biserica, ca ardem toti in iad... Mama, saraca, ce sa-i dea? Femeie singura... Si de-atunci nu-i primea popa Alexandru nici un pomelnic mamei, de se ducea saraca, la sarbatori mari, tocmai peste deal, la Turulung, la biserica. Nu zic, ca mi-am luat si-un perdaf... zicea Maria, vecina, doua case mai incolo. Uite, are lumina aprinsa si-acum baba Maria, saraca... Abia de i se mai tine casa, sa n-o ia la vale, ca-i mai si zic lu' Gheorghita...

Da' stai ma jos ca parca-mi stai in cap. Noroc, zic, ca dupa vreo doi ani a murit si popa Alexandru, afurisit mai era... Primu' din sat care s-a dat cu comunistii cand au venit cu colectivul. Cam p-atunci era, cu vreun an inainte sa-i indoim noi crucea, uite ca se si vede. Uite, apleaca-te aici, daca te uiti la tufa s-apoi la turla bisericii vezi ca e nitel indoita spre spate. Eh, burta lu' Gheorghita a fost acolo. Ce te tot uiti ma la padure? Nu vine nimeni d-acolo, nici lupii nu umbla, asa e de deasa. Cand vin, vin pe-acolo, pe dupa deal, ca p-acolo au tras si soseaua spre oras. Le place si lor, saracii, sa mearga pe sosea ca oamenii. S-apoi vin prin tufe si-ti iau oaia din tinda daca nu esti atent. Pai n-a patit-o mos Iordan, ala de sta peste drum de biserica? Uite-asa, au venit, tiptil-tiptil, vreo 3-4 sa fi fost dupa urme. Nu s-au uitat la a lu' Ilie, nici la a lu' Mitica, astia amandoi betivi, dormeau dusi. Si nici n-au gard cu lastarisul. Mos Iordan si-a tras casa mai la drum, mai aproape de biserica, desi ai lui erau evrei de neam, dupa tac-su mare, veniti de prin Moldova. zicea mos Iordan. Da' au stiut ei, lupii, ca Mos Iordan e mai gospodar si hatz... nici pas nu s-a auzit. Da' nici nu s-au lacomit, ca nu-s lupii ca oamenii, hamesiti. Au luat o oaie, s-au saturat, s-au dus in treaba lor. Nici nu s-a suparat Mos Iordan, a zis ca suflete sunt si ei... ba a mai taiat o oaie si-a chemat tot satul la masa, cica sa-i faca pomana la aia prima. Om bun Mos Iordan, d-asta l-au si luat nenorocitii astia la stuf... Eh, in fine, popa a murit... sa tot fie 15-16 ani de-atunci. A venit asta de-acum, popa Constantin... baiat de treaba. Era tinerel tare cand a venit la noi in sat, daca avea 30 de ani, da' nu cred. Da' baiat destept, a fost in Grecia, a fost de-a facut ceva facultati pe la Roma. Lumea zice ca de-asta cam l-au trimis la noi in sat, ca sa n-ajunga pe la Bucuresti sa faca scandal pe-acolo. Tocmai in capatul astalalt al tarii... Deh, ce sa-i faci, cu neorocitii astia. Da' n-a zis nimic popa Costica, si-a vazut de treaba lui, ce-a mai ras cand i-am zis de ce e crucea indoita. Cu mine rade, pe Gheorghita mereu il cearta cand il vede ca sa lase bautura. zice Gheorghita, si <Il dau dracu' cu biserica lui, n-o cere si-asta bani pe cruce?>

Da' nu e asa, popa Costel ma ajuta mereu. Uite ia, acuma are lumina stinsa. Nu la el acasa... unde te uiti ma? Ti-am zis ca nu e nici un lup in padure ca e prea deasa? Las-o dracu de farfurie ca e bine ascunsa, n-o vede nimeni. Cine s-o vada dupa tufis? Tot satul merge la lucru pe deal, in partea aia, ce-ti tot zic? Si mergem maine la popa, o sti el ce sa faca cu tine ca parca esti picat din cer.

Asa, si ziceam, acolo, in casa aia cu tigle rosii sta popa, a fost a popii Alexandru si cred ca si dinainte, de cand ma stiu eu e acolo casa popii... Da' in biserica zic, cand e liniste in sat, popa Costica tine lumina aprinsa in clopotnita. Ma duc pe la el, bem o tuica, mai vorbim... Acuma e stinsa, ca cica misuna militienii prin sat ca ulii. Ca d-asta si umblam p-aici, ca dincolo peste deal mi-e sa nu dau de ei. Nu prea am zis asta la multa lume, da' cu cine-ai a vorbi tu? Mama, saraca, i-a dus cu vorba cand au venit pe la noi cu colectivul prima data. Ca femeie singura, ca tata a murit in razboi sa le apere lor pieile... Au mai venit odata in '53, da' de data asta s-a bagat si popa Costica ca e femeie si ca eu n-am varsta cum prevede legea. Ne-a ajutat mult popa Costica. Eu eram mare de-acuma, aveam 17 ani, da' tot pe vorba lui mergeam. Cand au venit anu alalalt n-am mai mers pe vorba lu' popa Costica, i-am dat dracu' pe toti, si pe Stalin, si pe Hrusciov si pe Dej. Scandal mare... in fine, dupa ce s-a dus mama nici ca mi-a mai pasat... Faceti ma ce vreti, da' eu nu semnez nimic. Trebuie sa se duca dracu' si Dej... si uite ca s-a dus. De-atunci tot vorbesc cu popa sa vedem cum om face, poate sa mergem la tribunal la Satu Mare sa ne lase astia in pace. Ehe, ce-ar fi vrut Mitica, seful de post sa ma duca la Sighet. Asta e altu' decat Mitica betivanu' de sta langa biserica, sta la Turulung. Da' ce, m-a mai vazut la fatza de cand am ingropat-o pe mama? I-am si zis, sa ma ia atunci sa-i fie cu pacat si s-a speriat prostu'... De-asta zic, de tine nu stiu, da' stam aici pana dimineata, cand s-o lumina o sti popa Costica ce sa faca si cu tine. Pai nu zic toti popii asa, ca stiu cum sa ajungi la cer?'


Atunci a tunat. N-a facut zgomot asa mult, da' cum era liniste, nu s-auzeau decat greierii, am zis ca s-a spart cerul. Si-am simtit asa o arsura intre coaste.... Asta mic, imediat, nici nu stiu cum naiba... piu, piu, a sarit in farfurie si puf... Am apucat sa vad doar norul de praf in urma lui, si-asa, ca o urma pe cer cand s-a dus... unde s-o fi dus. 'Mergi ma Ionica, mergi ca p-aici nu e de stat', m-am gandit. Ce sa mai fug, ca de-acuma era gata. Erau mai multi, ca nu venea Mitica miltianul singur, prea e fricos. Inca una, tot acolo, in umar. M-am tarat doi pasi mai sus, mai afara din tufis sa ma mai uit o data la sat. 'Astia aici ma lasa' ma gandii. Eh, macar sa ma manace lupii, vorba lui Mos Iordan, suflete sunt si ei. Si cum ma uitam asa la sat, parca vad ca incep sa se invarta stelele, si sa se infoiasca asa, ca o gaina pe oua. Eh, m-or chema, sau cine stie. L-am simtit pe Mitica militianul cum s-a apropiat dupa mers. 'Ma!', zice. Da' n-am vrut sa ma uit la el. Am vrut asta sa fie ultimul lucru pe care-l mai vad pe pamantul asta: satul nostru cu biserica de i-am indoit noi crucea, si stelele infoiate ca si cum m-ar astepta Dumnezeu... si dunga de fum cum a plecat Ionica asta micu', cu farfuria lui cu tot, de unde o fi venit el in seara asta... Am simtit ca-s toti in jurul meu, si mi-am simtit si spatele, ud tot de la sange. Atat am mai zis: “Va fut muma-n cur!

sâmbătă, 17 decembrie 2016

Two-speed Europe

Wayne Visser - The World Guide to Sustainable Enterprise: Volume 3 - Europe, Greenleaf Publishing, Sheffield, 2015

After taking the best part of a year to get through the first 3 volumes of this tetralogy, I feel obliged to admit this is a difficult lecture when approached as regular literature. Its utility is indisputable, but it works a lot more as a ready reference book rather than a lecture to be done in a few sittings. I will therefore reiterate when I said in the review of the first volume, that it would work more as a website (whose need is, I think, increasingly acute) than the static and prone to redundancy format of a book.

Just like the first two volumes, the regional division is debatable: there is a clear and very necessary distinction between the sub-Saharan Africa and the MENA region in the first volume, but the second groups under the label of Central, Eastern and Southern Asia countries as diverse as Kazakhstan and Japan. A fairer division would have been probably the ex-Soviet space, SE Asia (the Sino-Indian space) and Australia, New Zealand and Oceania, though in the actual book Kazakhstan would be the sole representative of the first region.

Europe is a bit more straight-forward, at least at first sight: despite a number of people and organizations fighting against it, the two-speed Europe is still visible, and the unofficial border between the West and Eastern Europe still runs largely along the same line as Churchill's Iron Curtain. On one hand we've got the countries that have known a steady and sustained economic development after WWII, whereas on the other the former Communist countries only started their path to a free market economy in the early 90s, hindered by high levels of corruption and the need to completely reform the economical system.

At a closer look, we can run further divisions: Scandinavia, for instance, is well ahead in terms of economic development, human development and other indexes, measurable or subjectively determined, while some of the Southern European countries have been recently plagued by cases of corruption or bad management (such as Italy or Greece). In the East, countries tend to take economical leaps forward once they join the European structures, mostly the European Union, which causes countries like Albania or Serbia to fall behind economically. And if you want further distinctions within these almost arbitrarily determined sub-regions, that's also possible. But for the sake of functionality, let's stick to Western Europe and Eastern Europe.

Overall, the narrative on Europe seems to be much more consistent than on other continents, due probably to geographical closeness and historical communication links between countries/regions and despite the cultural differences. A big part of this is the European Union: encompassing 28 countries, the EU is a very peculiar construct that, the more time passes, the more it makes its member countries to look and act like one. And all the countries in Europe are either part of the EU, aspiring to be part of it or close partners in one form or another (EEA, Schengen space).

And the narrative seems to be that Europe is more or less at the forefront of human and economical development and environmental consciousness, Whilst it is obviously subjected to various challenges at regional, country or country-bloc level, it is in Europe we encounter the countries that top the Human Development Index, some of the most developed economies in the world, the most advanced legislative framework in terms of protecting human rights and the most progressive environmental consciousness. The book only snapshots the state of sustainability, development and human rights in the countries analyzed and does not attempt an analysis or an explanation for this state, though I am sure there are plenty of academic papers on the subject.

There are a lot of interesting snippets in the book, obviously, a lot of policies that work in some countries which can be transplanted in others and a wide range of case studies with companies to be used either as examples or as partners.

For instance, Denmark is measuring a notion called 'power distance', defined as 'the extent to which the lower ranking individuals of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally'. Another interesting bit in Denmark is Specialisterne, 'the world's first IT company with an affirmative business model built around the special skills of people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD)'.

A very interesting case is Greenland, where the environmental conditions are clearly hostile and the entire state policy is steered towards growing its ~56.000 people past the subsistence threshold. Therefore Anne Mette Christiansen of Centre for CSR Denmark , the writer of the chapter on Greenland, is actually advocating FOR mining and exploitation fossil fuels. Not what one would expect from a supposed environmentalist, but this says a lot about what local context means.

And, for all the environmental talk, we can find from the book that 'solid fuels such as coal make up 81% of primary energy production in Poland.' Still a lot of work to do in the sustainability & responsibility field in some places, such as Nestle, which is given as an example of a responsible company despite a former CEO of declaring that access to water is not a basic human right. Do you want more? There is more. UBS is apparently another responsible company, even though it has maintained an organizational environment that produced people like Kweku Adoboli. Come on, Switzerland, get a grip!

So yeah, this is where we are. We have to take the good with the bad, I suppose, and the book only provides a state-of-the-art and not a blue print. The blue print needs to be created by all of us. I suggest we start by pretending 2016 never existed.

joi, 8 decembrie 2016

These Aren't the Champions

Tottenham Hotspurs - CSKA Moscova 3 - 1 (Alli '38 '77, Kane '45+1 - Dzagoev '33), Champions League 2016/17 Matchday 6, Wembley Arena, London, 2016-12-07

Wembley a parut o arena prea mare si prea maiestuoasa aseara pentru miza meciului din ultima etapa a fazei grupelor de Champions League de anul acesta, in care Tottenham Hotspurs i-au primit pe rusii de la CSKA Moscova intr-un meci in care miza era doar calificarea in Europa League de pe locul 3 al grupei.

Spurs au avut un parcurs relativ slab anul asta in ccompetitie, chiar si pentru standardele lor, iar infrangerea de acasa 0-1 cu Leverkusen insemna ca nu mai au nici macar sanse teoretice sa se califice in faza urmatoare. Iar pentru a se mentine pe locul 3 era suficient sa nu piarda. Si n-au pierdut, chiar daca oaspetii au fost primii care a deschis scorul, in minutul 33, dupa un contraatac din 3 pase la capatul caruia decarul Alan Dzagoev a trimis mingea pe langa Lloris.

Golul a venit impotriva cursului jocului, pentru ca Spurs au atacat din primul minut avand minim trei mari ocazii de gol in primul sfert de ora: Alli a indreptat cu capul o centrare putin pe langa poarta dupa 7 minute de joc, in timp ce Son si apoi Eriksen l-au luat la tinta pe portarul lui CSKA, Igor Akinfeev.

O infrangere unui adversar mai slab cotat, cu multe accidentari si probleme de vestiar ar fi fost rusinoasa si greu de digerat pentru cei 60 de mii de fani prezenti pe stadion, Numai ca Lilywhites au reusit sa egaleze dupa 5 minute printr-un lob spectaculos al lui Alli din marginea careului. Ambele goluri si-au avut originea in pozitii suspecte de off-side. N-a mai fost cazul cu al treilea gol, inscris in prelungirile primei reprize de  un Harry Kane nemarcat, caruia i-a revenit misiunea de a trimite in poarta goala o centrare inteligenta a lui Danny Rose, care a suntat intreaga aparare moscovita.

Chiar daca gazdele au intrat la pauza cu avantaj de un gol, povestea meciului ar fi putut fi cu totul alta daca sutul lui Georgi Milanov cu doua minute inainte de pauza ar fi reusit sa-l pacaleasca pe Lloris.

A doua repriza a aratat insa superioritatea fizica a londonezilor, care au continuat sa atace in acelasi ritm, dar cu mai mult calm si prin actiuni mai elaborate. De partea cealalta, oaspetii au inceput sa resimta ritmul meciului, iar contraatacurile s-au rarit si au devenit mai putin periculoase. De altfel, in repriza a doua nu avem de notat in dreptul moscovitilor decat o ocazie a lui Lacina Traore, care a receptionat o minge in careu, dar prea sus pentru a o putea indrepta eficient spre poarta. Tottenham in schimb a trecut de mai multe ori pe langa golul 3, Harry Kane ratand cel putin 3 mari ocazii de a inscrie. Kane a trebuit sa se multumeasca cu o pasa de gol pentru al treilea gol care a venit pana la urma in minutul 77, dar tot cu Dele Alli la finalizare, si ajutat usor de picioarul lui Akinfeev, care n-a reusit sa retina o minge sutata puternic de la aproximativ 8 metri. Dele Alli a fost de altfel omul meciului intr-o seara in care Pochettino a ales sa foloseasca cea mai buna formula pe care o are la dispozitie, cu doar 4 zile inaintea vizitei pe Old Trafford.

Dupa al treilea gol CSKA Moscova nu a parut sa mai ridice vreun fel de pretentii de a obtine ceva din acest meci, cu atat mai mult cu cat antrenorul Slutsky a trebuit sa scoata din teren titulari de baza pe fond de oboseala. In acest timp, Pochettino si-a permis luxul de a-i oferi 10 minute de fotbal in Champions League tanarului Josh Onomah, care l-a inlocuit pe Harry Kane in minutul 82.

Va fi, asadar, Europa League pentru Spurs, in timp ce CSKA Moscova paraseste competitiile europene si va avea nevoie de un nou antrenor, dupa ce clubul a anuntat ca intalnirea de pe Wembley a fost ultima in care Leonid Slutsky s-a aflat la carma echipei de pe locul 3 din Rusia.

Tragerea la sorti pentru saisprezecimile Europa League va avea loc luni la ora 11 CET la Nyon.

luni, 10 octombrie 2016

Acquire Acquitania

S.J.A. Turney - Marius' Mules IX: Pax Gallica, Victrix Books, 2016

"I am Marcus Falerius Fronto, former Legatus of the Tenth Legion. The governor knows me well." "As do all, by reputation, sir" smiled the optio.

Whenever I write a review of one of Simon's books I am wary of a potential bias. I am honored and humbled that I can call Simon my friend and as such I am aware of a potential conflict of interest. But then I remember that it was the quality of the writing that caused our encounter in the first place. And if one reads the first ever review of one of Simon's books that I've written it's easy to notice where my fascination with Marius' Mules books originated and how it evolved. Besides, I am probably his harshest critic (bar the occasional Amazon hater). I judge pretty much any book I read by a rather high standard and try to see how they culd stand next to the great classics of the universal literature. And I do believe that in this rarefied air of books being read by multiple generations, the saga of the Falerii has its place. Tall order, I know, but so far the only elements missing for this to happen are time and luck.

Needless to say, I am now awaiting each new MM book with an eagerness I did not think possible. Like the previous ones, I have devoured this new Fronto adventure and I shall read it again, together with the rest of the series, once Fronto will be consigned to history. 15 books, says Simon, though I am hoping for a monumental arch over time to encompass the minutiae of the two centuries between MM and the Praetorian series.

Pax Gallica takes us the furthest South we have ever accompanied Fronto, from the North-Western Acquitania through the Pyrenees all the way to Tarraco. There are a few obvious challenges in the writing of this book and Simon confesses to them in the Author's Note: first of all, Caesar's diaries have stopped being helpful. Simon was complaining about their lack of action in the 8th book of De Bello Gallico whereas I thought - and rightly so - the siege of Uxellodunum together with some of Aulus Hirtius' fascination with Caesar would provide enough material for a book. They certainly provide a lot more than the complete silence surrounding 50 BC. But when resources are lacking imagination comes into play and luckily Simon's got an abundance of that. He creates the opportunity to delve once more into a section of Fronto's past still unexplored and in the process he closes some loose threads of the plot that have long been floating in the air. It is, at least partly, an origin story, but occasioned by the chronological flow of the action, and a different type of origin story from Hades' Gate (MM5), for instance. It is, in a way, a classical gimmick of writers of series: once the external demons are defeated, the demons inside the hero surface. In a way, this happens to Fronto at the end of his Acquitanian campaign and obviously, we will feel even more connected to him once these are defeated.

There are also quite a few good old fashioned sieges. None on such a grand scale as the great battle of Alesia, but strategy is strategy irrespective of the numbers. Beyond the enjoyment I took from reading about the mountain sieges, I am fascinated with Simon's ability to bring something new to each and every single one of them. And he is masterful at using the terrain as an important differentiation from one siege to another. It would be oh so easy for MM to be one long series of sieges: this one just like the next, this city just like the next one. Instead, I have now a notion about each and every individual Gallic oppidum and should I ever need to, I can take a pick from a number of ways of capturing one taking into account the strategic objectives of the campaign, terrain, numbers, equipment and skill of the opposing armies.

Now, it is imminent that such a long series would be uneven; some of the books will be better than others. For whoever feels the need for such trivia, I would say Pax Gallica ranks somewhere in-between. As far as I'm concerned, it's quite hard to equal the magnificent MM7, that sees off the great Gallic revolt and the hugely important battle of Alesia. But beyond that, the quality of a particular book is down to individual taste more than anything and some readers might even enjoy the moral dilemmas Fronto faces in Tarraco to the monumental deployment in front of the most famous oppidum in history.

Here's one, not exactly the most important, but relevant for how far Fronto came from the days of fighting the Helvetii: '[The Longinus Villa] would be a better place to bring up the kids while we're banned from Rome and Italia. Rural, with a beach and plenty of land. Not like the villa above Masilia, which is a little more suburban.'

And to wrap up this review, a few more quotes to justify how Simon's books have just as much quality in style as they do in content:

'it was in the nature of arrogant men to forget favours owed but cling to debts unpaid'

'Only the Romans would send a descendant of a love goddess to lead a war.'

'You could go mad yourself trying to ascribe meaning to the actions of the insane'


vineri, 1 aprilie 2016

Shariah-based CSR


The four volumes of The World Guide to Sustainable Enterprise are a continuation of The World Guide to CSR, published 5 years before. A continuation, not a sequel, as the two books are part of the same ambitious project: creating a ready-reference compendium of the most responsible economic entities all around the world for the use of sustainability practitioners.

Without having read The World Guide to CSR, I can confidently say that the sustainable enterprise guide is a much larger work in size, scope and ambition. The need for this updated and upgraded work was obvious to the author and it also seems evident for everyone involved in the field: it is not just an expansion of the size (the four volumes encompass 101 countries as opposed to the CSR's guide 58), but it is also a necessary review of a very fast changing field. For the sake of comparison, it's like a better picture of the same individual 5 years later.

The shift in the title, from CSR to sustainable enterprise, is a subtle, yet important one: practitioners of the field have noticed that CSR understood as investment of part of the profits in charity projects, as a mostly unwanted add-on tacked on top of the business-as-usual chase for share value maximization is just a highly inefficient corporate white washing. Going the full length in social responsibility means striving to eliminate the negative impact of the business and sometimes even tackling and finding solution to existent social and environmental issues. The second shift is the dropping of the C for corporate as social responsibility is not the exclusive domain of corporations, but a matter that concerns everyone. In business terms, solutions for sustainability can be found at the SME level as well as corporate, and often the small business level proves to be more fertile when it comes to turning social and environmental issues into business opportunities. 'We want to showcase companies and projects that are bringing disruptive solutions to our global challenges, rather than code-compliance or incremental change.' says Wayne Visser in the introduction to the book, and we are soon to find out that, while 'disruptive solutions' are possible in corporate environments (like SABMiller plc did with the sorghum beer in Uganda), large companies are rather slow to adapt and changes are incremental rather than revolutionary.

The project is valuable and salutary and it should be acknowledged by any sustainability practitioner. The only doubt I have about it is that the book format is the most appropriate one: things are moving at a fast pace in sustainability and whilst a book can be a great snapshot , an excellent state-of-the-art, it cannot capture the fluid nature of the changes in this field. To my mind, an online portal would make much more sense: it can be constantly updated, it can be permanently expanded and in today's highly digitized world it can also be much more accessible for a greater number of people. I'm not aware of any similar initiative in the online, but I feel it would be most welcome.

Past the general considerations about the four-volume work, I do have another objection specific to this first volume addressing Africa and the Middle East: despite their geographical closeness, the two regions are so vastly different in culture, social issues and economic development that treating them together in alphabetical order paints a very heterogeneous picture. Lebanon and Lesotho have as little in common as do Saudi Arabia and Senegal. Separating the countries by region rather than by letter would have provided the reader with a much more consistent picture of the regional issues and developments.

The main conclusion to be drawn from the sub-Saharan Africa's country profiles is an optimistic one: the narrative on Africa is changing. The continent is no longer torn by endless civil wars and genocides, human rights infringements have dropped substantially. Clearly, much work is still to be done: there is still widespread corruption, a significant percentage of the population are still living under the poverty line, access to water is still difficult for millions of people throughout the continent and while the low average age of the population is cause for optimism, low access to education and a very acute skills gap are hindering economic development.

I have selected two cases to illustrate my point: Eritrea, where 'President Isaias Afwerki has remained in office since independence in 1991 and the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) is the only political party in Eritrea.' and where, under such an uncontested regime people's empowerment is still just a bed time story, and Rwanda, a country that has made significant progress in terms of ensuring a stable political climate for the economic development to take of but where, however, 'businesses struggle to find skilled workers, with 48% illiteracy and only 5.7% of the population tertiary educated. Malnutrition affects large sections of the population and has detrimental impacts on productivity.' There is little the government can do in terms of investment when 'Tax revenues are limited, since the income of most Rwandans is below the taxable threshold. In fact, 75% of taxes in Rwanda are paid by just 200 taxpayers. (The Economist, 2012)'

The MENA region tells a completely different story. Although just an eclectic a mosaic as the Southern part of Africa and with some countries struggling to get over civil wars (Iraq, Syria) or very recent revolutions (Egypt, Lybia), on average the MENA countries have higher GDPs, stronger governments and tend to rank better on the Human Development Index. The main issues are environmental, with desertification a permanent threat, and shifting the economical paradigm from a heavy reliance on fossil fuels extraction to a diversified and primarily knowledge based economy.

The success story that most appeals to me in this first volume is Jordan, a country roughly half the size of South Carolina, but with a very forward thinking policy:

'According to the UNHCR (2014), approximately 618,420 registered Syrian refugees have settled in Jordan as of November 2014, currently making up over 9% of the Jordanian population. Jordan has a long history of hospitality towards refugees; it also hosts 28,809 Iraqis as of June 2014. Similarly, the UNRWA (2014) reports that the country is currently hosting approximately 2,070,973 registered Palestinian refugees as of January 2014 (of which approximately 370,000 live in camps) making up over 18% of the Jordanian population.
In addition to its commitment to open borders, the Jordanian government decided early on to allow Syrian refugees access to public services, such as health facilities and schools, and subsidies extended to Jordanian citizens, such as those on energy, water, bread and gas.'

While this open border policy must surely put a strain on the country's resources, it also ensures a great payback in the medium and long term: Jordan will benefit from an influx of the most precious resource, the human capital, the one that the European Union seems to be so scared of nowadays, and it will emerge as a beacon of stability and a regional power.

Another quote to appeal to the current European wave of islamophobia comes from Saudi Arabia, about an asset management company: 'SEDCO Capital only had to shift under 1% of its already Shariah-compliant investment to ensure ESG compliance (Environmental Social and Governance). Both, for instance, negatively screen industries such as alcohol, weapons and pornography.' While personally I would dispute the negative screening of alcohol industry and, to some extent, even of commercial pornography, it is interesting to see how close Shariah compliance comes to the Western-centric CSR standards.

Another success story to attract attention is the Lebanese-born Sarah's Bags, and I will close my review with another two quotes, the first one drawn from a very Chomskian perspective of the Iranian company Tam Iran Khodro, and the second one from the author's introduction, summing up his main creed, to which I fully subscribe:

'Companies must identify their role and admit their liabilities towards the society. Financial gains must not be the sole objective of the company and we must invest for the development of the society.' (Tam Iran Khodro)

'We desperately need to reinvent capitalism to help smooth the transition to a low-carbon, more equitable and sustainable society' (Dr. Wayne Visser)

marți, 12 ianuarie 2016

Flawed Characters, Flawless Book

S.J.A. Turney - Praetorian II: The Price of Treason, Mulcahy Books, 2015

One would get tired of keeping hearing how great Simon's books are, how each of them is better than the one before and how it is an unmissable lecture for everyone. Also, over the past year I have come to immensely appreciate and admire Simon not only as a writer, but also as a human being and few things honour me more than being able to call him my friend. or, how he'd put it, 'mate'. So while I'm trying to keep as objective as possible there is an inherent amount of positive bias when writing about his books (although in saying this, and comparing mine to other reviews, I'm probably his harshest critic).

BUT... 

There's no helping it. Honestly, Praetorian II is amazingly great, better than the first of the series, about which I said at the time is his best book yet. I will from now on withhold this title, as his best book is probably, like always, his next one. The objection I had to Marius' Mules series was that it sticks to close to Caesar's diaries, the narrative being thus helped along towards a known ending. To this, he loosened the story around the main historical account and proved his mastery at both creating plots, as well as fleshing out accounts.

Praetorian I was such a great surprise because, while being anchored in a few isolated historically documented facts, it was mainly a work of fiction. An outstanding achievement and a very bold one at that, attacking cliches well established by such a good and famous work as the movie The Gladiator. And here's another cliche for you: Simon constantly sets his own bar very high and he constantly outdoes himself. Yes, Praetorian II is a better book than the first, a gripping lecture that literally kept me awake at night and turning the pages with eagerness, but also with regret that there will probably be more than six months until I will be able to read Praetorian III. A lot of the times, while reading The Price of Treason, I was waiting for a gap, a slowing down of the action, be it end of chapter or whatever, just to be able to put the book down and mind the business of the day.

There's no slowing down of the action. First to last page, poor Rufinus has no time to rest and with him, neither do the readers. If in the first Praetorian Rufinus gets stuck at Hadrian's Villa for quite a while, this second book is all about speed and moving around the empire wherever the interest of the emperor requires it. The emperor, Commodus, makes but a very brief appearance, and that's great. Fictionalizing the lives of great men in history is all good and swell, but only when taking a step back, and having characters from the background of the Roman political life at the forefront of the action we can understand the immensity of the administrative system of the empire, as well as the ways in which individual actions can shape the course of history.

And Rufinus is a great lead. Far from being the perfect smart, strong, witty Bond-esque hero, Rufinus is human, all too human, which makes him even more endearing than Bond. He is clumsy, very naive in some regards, slightly retarded emotionally and not always makes the right decisions. He is driven ahead by a sense of morality and justice, but not all of his decisions are good, he does not always get his way and things do not always go according to his plan, nor does everything works out in the end. A great life lesson here, under the guise of historical fiction. People can be vengeful, can be addicts, can do stupid things. Yet despite all that, they can still be heroes. Just as long as their intentions are good.

For goodness' sake, even the dog is in a moral grey area. Though loyal, reliable and helpful, Acheron, such an endearing character, is also a hindrance to Rufinus at times, who cannot move entirely free because of him. The dog makes him recognizable, and the fact that Rufinus and Acheron need to support and protect each other creates an even stronger bond between them. Another great life lesson.

I said and I maintain that the Praetorian series is, so far at least, a James Bond of ancient Rome. Only better. For the reasons mentioned above, but for a few others, too. Whilst Rufinus is completely devoted to his duty to the emperor, what happens when the emperor himself is getting things wrong? What happens when the emperor himself is a power thirsty usurper? How will Rufinus get through the year of the five emperors? Will Pertinax be the good guy or the bad guy? How about Severus?

Nevermind emperors though. What of Rufinus' brother, Publius? Will he survive his semi-captivity? Are Rufinus' friends Mercator and Icarion still alive? Will he see them again? Does he have a future with Senova? Oh, yes, I am looking forward to Praetorian III. No least because at least part of the action will take place in Dacia. I'm from there, you know?

Right, I said Bond. Frankly, the speed of the action, the importance of reaching key places in time with key elements also reminded me of Jack Bauer. High level corruption is also an element dealt with better by 24 than by Jan Fleming's hero. Except that, again, Simon does one better than the writers of 24 for not going for the ridiculously absurd strong, smart, moral and self-sacrificing hero. There is no such thing as Jack Bauer in real life. There might as well have been a Rufinus though. There is perfect plausibility in the historical existence and deeds of Rufinus, although there is no proof for it. 

I'd stop here with my review, but I realise I did not mention Vibus Cestius. New guy, but everyone will like him instantly. I mean, not instantly, but from the second when, after revealing layer after layer of disguises of the so-called 'great game' Simon finally tells us who he really is. You'll love Vibius Cestius. The second you understand who he is.

Another habit I've developed is to send an email to Simon after each review of one of his book to discuss typos and inaccuracies in the text. I could not find any in this book, so the email won't be coming. Instead, I want him to have fun on his documentation trip to Dacia. Or, as he describes it in the very last sentence of the book... 'Another gods-forsaken land of barbarians at the periphery of the civilised world.'

Some things never change, I guess. Have fun in Romania, Simon!

joi, 24 decembrie 2015

Nuclear Seven

Ruth Downie, Stephanie Dray, Eliza Knight, Kate Quinn, Vicky Alvear Shecter, Simon James Atkinson Turney, Russell Whitfield - A Year of Ravens: A novel of Boudica's Rebellion (with an Introduction by Ben Kane), 2015

For people who, like me, approached this book from the fanbase of only one of the seven authors (Simon Turney in my case), this is a great way to discover both new authors but also how vast the field of historical fiction is and how much good work is happening in this field. With some of the authors being also very prolific, keeping up with all their novel might also be challenging at times, but I suppose when the water clears everyone picks favourites: favourite authors, favourite historical period.

A Year of Ravens is to me a very novel enterprise, although it looks like the main driving force behind the project, Kate Quinn, has successfully done it before. It also shows how powerful modern communication tools are, as I imagine bringing seven creative minds together in a project so well streamlined and with no glitches or self contradictory information would have been a lot more difficult in a pre-internet age. It is, in some ways, a similar approach to writing TV shows, where characters and the main plot line stays, but style can vary greatly between episodes.

Obviously, the finished product is bigger than the sum of its parts, as the seven authors would borrow ideas, data and inspiration from each other and correct or adjust each other's work while the talent flows freely between the seven of them. Still, it feels slightly less like a novel and slightly more than a collection of short stories. I suppose this is an editorial choice, as the more rigid the main outline is, the more homogeneous the book will feel, while the chapters will very between them proportionally with the freedom the authors are allowed. None of this is a reflection on how enjoyable a read this is, which will always be down to the individual talent. Luckily, Kate Quinn has done a very good job in choosing seven very talented, well-documented and hard working authors. And the process itself, which has always been very transparent on social networks, has been a joy to follow and probably the main thing that convinced me to read the book.

As the subtitle says, this is a novel about Queen Boudica's failed rebellion against the Roman rule of Britannia. The choice of topic is also very smart, as Boudica's uprising is one of those rather abnormal moments in history that don't have a long build up time nor too many far reaching direct consequences. The presence of either of the two would have probably determined some of the authors to write it as a series, rather than a standalone novel. The whole of Boudica's appearance and disappearance from history occurs within a year or so, consequence of a series of very sudden events and very rushed decisions that are not entirely clear to history but that are very well fleshed out in the novel. Same thing could be said about the destruction of Pompeii, Kate Quinn's previous project. What's next, Spartacus?

The boom opens with Stephanie Dray The Queen, a prelude to the Boudica riot seen through the eyes of Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes, of which we only know was a contemporary of Boudica, but not necessarily that they ever seen eye to eye. They do in Stephanie's account, and the story very intelligently links Cartimandua with both Boudica and Catus Decianus, the Roman procurator whose decisions were the most direct cause of the rebellion. How? Well, Stephanie takes an approach that is rather divergent from the orthodox historical line, but no less credible. Very well written, this chapter is also an interesting study in the status, options and opinion of the client-kings of Rome, a status with which Queen Cartimandua has juggled successfully for more than two decades.

Next up is Ria's story, a slave girl who's the illegitimate daughter of King Prasutagus, and what the build-up to the rebellion looks like through her eyes. Although I like the idea of giving voice to a slave, something that only very seldom happens, I'm not entirely sure what Ria's story actually brings to the table. She is never central to the story, her interference with the grand political developments is minimal and her final exit from the stage seems slightly artificial. And needless to say, she is entirely fictional. We do understand what the status of slaves was, why being a woman slave sucked even more and the many ways in which slaves were fucked over and shat upon, but all this is hardly new. And hardly central to Boudica's story.

Russell Whitfield's The Tribune is the only chapter written entirely from a Roman point of view. I've seen some of the previous reviewers complaining about the language, but I suspect none of those reviewers ever served in the military. To me the chapter felt perfectly accurate, in line with the language, mentality and habits of first century Roman patricians and it can stand alone as a great coming of age story.

Vicky Shecter's The Druid brings to the fore a decision that has been rather detrimental to the cohesion of the novel: the dual perspective. Three of the seven authors use it, so we have 10, rather than seven subjective point of views on the events. That being said, Vicky does a great job at it, showing how detrimental misunderstood cultural differences can be and how silly it all looks from outside. She's got a great story of a forced interaction between two enemies and a very sudden death, which melt together to form a very good read.

Being familiar with Simon's work, I know he's fascinated with the process of cultural assimilation at an individual level. This is exactly what happens in his chapter with Andecarus, son of a famous Iceni warrior growing up as a hostage in a Roman household. The cultural clash, the internal conflict, the choices the individual has to make and the differences between what the heart and the mind dictates, it's all there. And more importantly, this is a story of redemption, of going back to a alleged ideal life that turns out to actually not be so ideal, and a story about making the right choices.

And, as the coordinator of the project, Kate Quinn has saved the best for last. In The Warrior she tells the story through the eyes of Duro, my favourite character and the one I can identify with the most. Unlike some others, Duro benefits from not having to face any moral dilemmas. His system of values has long been set and he only needs to fulfil his destiny. Incidentally, this involves a lot of spectacular fighting, which Duro proves to be very good at. Kate might argue that he is a lot of the times taken out of his comfort zone, but as with Valeria, his counterpart, Duro is way too set in his ways to react anyway else than the way he always has: obey the Gods, obey the Kings, and fight your way through all the rests. Replace Kings with Husband and you pretty much get Valeria.

The aftermath of the rebellion gives Eliza Knight the difficult task of drawing the story to an end that would preferably not be along the lines of "Rome was victorious". Not a lot of originality in that. Of course Rome was victorious, but what of the Iceni? So Eliza sets to make up a completely original story of whatever might have happened to Boudica and her daughters after the battle of Wattling Street. And she does it very well, with the main thing to take from her final chapter being how the dynamic between two very different siblings works and how everyone has got some undiscovered strengths that only come about in times of duress.

There's also an epilogue to round up the novel and bring about a rather poetical resolution for the future of Britannia. Cartimandua makes a short reappearance and links back with Boudica's story, providing an antithesis to the feisty Iceni queen and leaving the reader with one of the recurrent questions in history: live in fear or die in pain?

All in all, a great novel based on a very good story and some brilliant writing, some of which I've sampled below:

"If I would not be universally loved, I must still be feared"
"You were only betrayed by the predictability of my enemies."
"My reputation is nothing when weighed against the good of my people."
says Stephanie Dray through the mouth of Cartimandua in a lesson of tribal politics. While Decianus' domestic trouble provide the humour:

"How was it that women could simultaneously give a litany of specific instructions as though admonishing a simple-minded child and then imply that only by obeying them completely could one live up to the standard of masculinity they had just eviscerated?"

"He looked at me as if I had promised him a honeycomb and handed him a wasp's nest." (Ruth Downie)

"We cannot shape the destiny of the empire from the army [...]
  We cannot manifest the destiny of the empire without the army [...].
"one should count each day as a separate life. All of us make mistakes, Agricola. That's what being an adult is all about. Being a man is bearing them, learning from them, and moving on."
"Well, to make the sculpture, it starts out as nothing. In fact, it is ugly. A piece of lump. But when the right man comes along with the right tools, he makes the lump something beautiful and wonderful. So it is here in Cambria. Paulinus is the man, Cambria the rock. To make it a beautiful thing, as in the rest of Britannia, he must first break the rock. Much of the rock will be wasted. Much of the rock will be dust. But when the job is done... it will be good."
some stoic philosophy from Russ Whitfield, very able in providing it in the field on the military too:

"Naso nodded and glanced al Calvus' body: 'We used to joke that this was the only way I'd get a fucking promotion. It was funny at the time, I suppose.'
'Carry on' was all Agricola had to say."
"Arms observe no bounds, nor can the wrath of the sword, once drawn, be easily checked or stayed; war delights in blood."

"If a babe was left and found alive the next morning, then the child was meant for greatness. If a babe was found dead, the gods had not accepted it - and woe to the mother of such a child, for her fate was never certain."
"Before the sun rose, the world turned gray. Was this when spirits walked the earth? Was this when death would come to claim those the gods had chosen?" (Eliza Knight)

"It all begins and ends with ravens. Ravens, who have seen all the great tragedies of the world unfold, and whose cry is eternal." (Stephanie Dray)

"It's one of the great joys of writing historical fiction, wondering more about the characters and less about the deeds of these long past lives" (Russ Whitfield)