Category Archives: Book Review

Long Way Down

The Long Way Down is the 2nd DVD series/book by Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman.  It follows their journal from the tip of England down to the horn of Africa.  Although ostensibly about motorcycles, it spend much of its time dealing with the social devastation resulting from poverty, tribal conflict, and AIDS.

I watched the DVD series a few years ago, and just finished the book (go Burbank library!) last night.  It’s a short read, about 6 hours or so, depending on your level of child-per-minute interruptions.

The first part of the book is marred by constant kvetching about the fast-paced schedule.  Riding a motorcycle is really demanding, but the constant complaining gets annoying.  Their first trip, the Long Way Around, had a much more flexible schedule, and Ewan and Charlie were able to get more in the spirit of a long-distance trip.

I really have no desire to go through Africa, but their descriptions of the people and scenery were gripping.  It’s amazing how much each country differs geographically.  I suspect that part of it is due to the different country’s developmental level and irrigation engineering, but think that it also shows how divisive different geographical landscapes are to people groups’ development.

Overall, this was a good read, but I would rate it as a distinct second to their original journey.  The faster pace and heavier focus on social issues takes away from the more carefree first film, which focused more on Ewan’s and Charlie’s friendship and the challenge of traveling in desolate areas.

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“On Writing Well” — simplify, lead, and closing

Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” reads like the author took his own advice; it’s short, memorable, and filled with examples of good writing from a zoo of different authors. It took me only around 4-5 hours to read, but someone who already writes well could take much longer to absorb the examples.  Below are a few highlights:

1. Simplify

“Clutter is the disease of American writing.” (p7)

One of the best parts of William Zinsser’s “On Writing” is on pages 9-11, where he shows the a roughly-edited draft of his own chapter.  Seeing the author’s editing reveals that (a) even a major author benefits from editing, and (b) just how can be cut without the reader noticing the lack.  When it comes to writing style, his statement that you must cut down to bone, and then rebuild, seems apt.

2. Opening

“[the lead] must cajole him with freshness or novelty or paradox, or with humor, or with surprise, or with an unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question.  Anything will do along as it nudges his curiosity and tugs at his sleeve.” (p60)

The stuffy format of the academic paper typically leads with a highly-condensed version of the findings, research method, and limitations.  It’s hard to liven up a format so deadly-structured, but the list of possible openers above is as good as any.

3. Closing

“We are most of us still prisoners of the lesson pounded into us by the composition teachers of our youth: that every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end…  This is all right for elementary and high school students…  But if you are going to write good non-fiction, you must wriggle out of [part] III’s dead grip….

“The perfect ending should take the reader slightly be surprise and yet seem exactly right to him.  He didn’t expect the article to end so soon, or so abruptly, or to say what is said.  But he knows it when he sees it.  Like a good lead, it works.” (p70-71)

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