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Hande Z (Singapore)
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Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life
Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life
by Professor William Deresiewicz
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.53

5.0 out of 5 stars Learning to think, 28 Sep 2014
The coming generations of students face a twin danger. First, digital technology is altering the way they think even without them knowing it (See Susan Greenfield's 'Mind Change', Rider Books 2014). Secondly, they go to school and university/college not realising that the system of education has changed from the time of their grandparents and parents, from one of education to one of amassing credentials and resumes. They are taught, insidiously, not to take risks but to do what everyone else is doing and the difference is that they have to try and do it better than everyone else.

Deresiewicz sees the downward spiral that this kind of system causes to one's creative mind. He traces the history of the change and identifies the issues that need to be addressed before the education system can once again turn students from excellent sheep to human beings.


Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence
Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence
by Karen Armstrong
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.00

15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Birth of violence, 25 Sep 2014
Armstrong returns to history and religion with, one might say, a vengeance. In this new contemporary perspective on the co-mingling of those two ancient disciplines, Armstrong challenges the perceived view that religion is the cause of violence in history. This basic objective may be the subject of semantic debate as to what counts as a major war and whether the author misses the point if one can show that many wars have a strong connection to religion. Squabbling over these issues will detract from the otherwise impressive and enthralling account of the role that religion played in the history of major conflicts throughout the world.

Armstrong holds the view that man is not inherently war-like, and that hunter-gatherers had neither time nor organisation to wage war because an army is needed to wage a war, and hunter-gatherers, she says, have neither time nor resources to raise armies. Wars arose only after human society turned agrarian. Armstrong embarks on a world tour beginning with India, explaining how violence inherent in early Indian religion was subsequently brought under control by the renouncers of violence. She expanded her account into ancient China to emphasise that the influence of Confucius and Mozi in reining the violent excesses of the Chinese warrior kings.

Armstrong then sweeps from the Far East to the Middle-East and examines the role of religion and politics according to Jesus, and from there, to the Byzantine Empire, the cradle of religious wars. Before proceeding to that most famous of religious military campaigns known as `The Crusades', Armstrong digresses to explain the `Muslim Dilemma' - how might Islamic justice be achieved in a belligerent, imperial state? This might be contrasted with the Hebrew dilemma that Armstrong discusses in an earlier chapter. She believes that Yahweh, the Israelite god wanted his people to leave the agrarian state but it was not possible. Thus the Israelite state grew imperial, leading to the violence as described in the Hebrew Bible (which, as Armstrong reminds us, was heavily revised with new material by seventh century reformers).

Armstrong then works towards the more contemporary accounts of the intersection between violence and religion - the return of fundamentalism and `Global Jihad'. And that takes us to the end of the book in breath-taking fashion before concluding that although religion is like the weather, and `does lots of different things', it is not correct to say that it has `a single, unchanging and inherently violent essence.'


Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less
Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less
by Joseph McCormack
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.05

5.0 out of 5 stars K.I.S.S. in brief, 24 Sep 2014
The Twitter generation has no patience to read `War and Peace'. In short, people have shorter time span for long memos, long speeches, long meetings etc. Hold on, there are different matters that must not be confused for each other. Impatience and attention deficit disorder are problems that require solutions. In this regard, readers might find Michael Harris' book, 'The End of Absence', a useful follow-up to this one by McCormack. Brevity in our action and work is not the true solution here. Brevity is a virtue promoted by McCormack in this book because being brief makes us more effective people at work. It helps us more socially adept because brevity promotes clarity.

After addressing (briefly) the importance and usefulness of being brief, McCormack provides some useful methods that help create a discipline for brevity. He explains that there is no need to panic over the 140-character squeeze imposed by Twitter because 'the ideal level of engagement is even lower'. Describing the sins of long and useless (tautology?) meetings, McCormack suggests ways to overcome this time-consuming activity that will help the reader acquire a decisiveness in knowing when and where to be brief.


In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise
In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise
by George Prochnik
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.72

3.0 out of 5 stars Hush...there's a decibel in the room, 14 Sep 2014
To some, this book may seem like making a great deal of noise over the virtues of silence. Although this book might have been more effective if it had been edited down to an essay, there may be something in the patience required to gradually absorb the details and anecdotes Prochnik expresses in his book.

The plot, so to speak, is simple - the world is growing noisier and we are being distracted and rendered less effective by the constant noise all around us throughout the day. He points to research that indicates that unnecessary background noise affects the young in their effort to learn language. This failure to learn the language effectively is one of the causes of increasing numbers of autistic children in modern times.

Physical soundproofing is getting more effective (and more expensive) but we can learn, less expensively, to block noise, and maintain a healthy diet of sound each day. Prochnik recommends that we learn to experience the quiet of the Zen garden and the Japanese tea ceremony which require silence and thereby, help one to appreciate the value of noiseless thinking.


You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom
You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom
by Nick Cohen
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars Never mind the label, 14 Sep 2014
As one reads through this book, he is likely to forget whatever label he might have stuck on others or on himself. This book was written with a force of persuasion through the indignities inflicted by man on each other ('man' here includes women - both as oppressor and victim). Cohen tells the story of Hirsi Ali and her long journey from childhood to adulthood in Somalia and Europe, finding deep prejudice against her for her gender and her religion. The same goes with the story of one of India's most talented artists, Maqbool Fida Husain, who at age 94, finally renounced his citizenship because Hindu politicians made use of his art and his name to create political opportunities for themselves.

Cohen wonders how British law courts would ignore John Stuart Mill's declaration that no one had a right to restrain another except to prevent harm, and blithely rule against defendants who were said to have defamed another even though no harm was proved by the defamation.

This book provides numerous instances in which humans oppress others for no justifiable cause. Do we believe in freedom? That is the question he wants us to answer in our hearts. How do we justify limits to freedom without giving up our own space? We have to think about that.


Why Smart People Hurt: A Guide for the Bright, the Sensitive, and the Creative
Why Smart People Hurt: A Guide for the Bright, the Sensitive, and the Creative
by Eric Maisel
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intelligent people's designs, 12 Aug 2014
This is an interesting book because Maisel is trying to merge Zen and psychology. You need to understand some psychology and Zen to appreciate what Maisel is trying to do. The problem here is that he has not expressed his ideas more clearly and as a result, we see the comments from some reviewers Amazon US saying that he has identified the problem but has no solution. Another attacked him for a being an atheist bigot.

In this book, Maisel's points are as follows: We can deal with unhappiness by thinking more deeply and critically about the things that we value, asking if we truly value those things, and whether we can bring ourselves to do without them. Secondly, thinking is a rational activity but it is not only our rational selves that determine our happiness. Our emotional selves have a big say. We need to adjust our thinking and our feelings so that they harmonise with each other - enter, Zen. The clue is to divest ourselves of the perceived need to find meaning in everything. Some things will always remain a mystery, but we must think critically as to what truly is a mystery and what is simply false.

Those who understand this book will already be living a happy life. Maisel needs to revise this book to help those who struggle to follow his ideas. His reference to 'smart' people might have contributed to some misunderstanding.


Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words
Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words
by Jay Rubin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.69

5.0 out of 5 stars Pauses between notes, 10 Aug 2014
This is an amazingly fascinating 'bio-criticism' - a combination of biography and literary criticism. It is topped by the fact that the author of this bio-criticism was the long-time translator of Haruki's books, Jay Rubin. The life of Haruki is told and at each juncture, relevant portions from Haruki's novels are brought up to show the relationship between fact and fiction in Haruki's life and work. They are so intertwined that only one who knows both subjects as well as Rubin could have pulled it off. Rubin also shows us how Haruki's love for music and the evocation of nostalgia are revealed in recurring themes in Haruki's books.

We are also enlightened by the choice of words Haruki made (in Japanese) and the relevance of his use of 'boku' for 'I' as the narrator. It is not the conventional 'watashi wa'. These are important illuminations which are not apparent in the translated novels. It makes one desire to immediately re-read all the Haruki novels that one had enjoyed through Rubin's translations, knowing that there are gems yet to be discovered.


Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment by Ferguson, Robert A. (2014) Hardcover
Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment by Ferguson, Robert A. (2014) Hardcover
by Robert A. Ferguson
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Burning read, 4 Aug 2014
This is an in-depth exploration of the psyche of the punisher in America. This fascinating book about punishment is not about the competing theories of why we punish or how we should punish. It is about why the urge to punish - and punish so severely. It examines all the institutions that have a role in the punishment regime - from the legislature to the police, the prosecutor, the court, and the prison guard. Ferguson studies the people in these institutions to help the reader understand why the American culture for punishment is so strong, and what can be done so that the punishment of offenders will be fairer and more just.

Ferguson forces the reader to think about the punishment mete dout to offenders more deeply. When the prison guard takes the criminal away after the court has handed down the sentence, the punishment begins for that criminal. But to the rest of the society, that is the end of the story. Do we know what happens after sentence is passed? That is the compelling question that Ferguson tries to answer.


Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion
Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion
by David Zweig
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Fly low, fly steady, 8 July 2014
This is not a book for egomaniacs. It is the opposite - it glorifies those who work hard and stay out of the limelight. It is about a breed of professionals like structural engineer Dennis Poon, a specialist in designing the structural strength of super-high buildings. Most people do not know him whereas they might know the architect. Another example is David Apel who creates fragrances for the big name fragrance houses.

The idea of this book is not just to contrast the two conflicting personality styles, but also to show which the author David Zweig, thinks is the more admirable. He believes that modern culture inclines towards self-promotion and almost everything we do must have a self-promotional angle to them; but this is what reduces the value and quality of what we do.

This is a book in praise of humility and conscientiousness - qualities of professionals.


Buddhaland Brooklyn
Buddhaland Brooklyn
by Richard C. Morais
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Learning to adapt to Western culture and falling in love with a woman, 5 July 2014
This review is from: Buddhaland Brooklyn (Paperback)
A young Japanese boy, Seido,was sent to a Buddhist temple to be trained as a priest. Neither he nor his older brother knew why he was chosen from among the four children in their family. When Seido was in the temple, his family perished in a fire. As a grown man and schooled in Buddhism, Seido was sent to build a temple in Brooklyn. Learning to adapt to Western culture and falling in love with a woman, Seido learnt the meaning of Buddhism in its fullest sense. He also understood a long forgotten event which shed light on the question why he and not his sibling was chosen for priesthood.

This book is at times humourous and amusing, but for the most part it is a tract on the difficult questions of life and the Buddhist way of dealing with them. It deals with the problems ignorance can bring, but knowledge is not necessarily a boon unless one knows how to handle it.


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