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Hande Z (Singapore)
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The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom
The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom
by John Gray
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Yours freely, 24 April 2015
Can we imagine ourselves as having less freedom than a marionette doll or a puppet? John Gray does. His idea he tells us, is not new but one that has existed since the time of the Gnostics. Gray examines the idea -- our human idea of the freedom of the will. His book is published about the same time as two other equally enthralling books about freedom and free will -- James Miles' 'The Free Will delusion', and Julian Baggini's 'Freedom Regained'. Miles' book is detailed, scholarly, and advances his own belief that the world is deterministic, that is, we do not really have free will. Baggini covers the subject in a broader sweep, and written in a style that is more accessible than Miles, and although he largely agrees with Miles that we do not really have free will as most people understand free will to be, he holds the hope that in spite of our condition and circumstances, we can work ourselves into a position from which we might have some form of determination of our own lives. Baggini presents his account by examining the idea of freedom from the perspectives of diverse people including geneticists, artists, addicts, psychopaths, and dissidents.

Gray, like Baggini, examines freedom from a vastly different root source from Miles. He questions the very idea of freedom and the value humans attach to it. He reminds us that we might, upon reflection, more truly wish for freedom from choice instead of having a freedom of choice. After all, thinkers and religious teachers through the ages have postulated that our consciousness stands in the way 'between the mechanical motions of the flesh and the freedom of the spirit'. Hence, transcending consciousness is viewed as a great meditative and religious feat.

Gray examines what modernity and technology is doing to us and warns that the idea that the planet might strike back in the manner of James Lovelock's Gaia, with no ability or know-how to respond from humans because we have no idea how this planet's system truly works. We might strive to control ourselves, and the planet, but Gray fears that we cannot, for he believes that '"humanity" is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything'.


The Dark Net
The Dark Net
by Jamie Bartlett
Edition: Paperback

1.0 out of 5 stars Nothing much. It's all dark., 22 April 2015
This review is from: The Dark Net (Paperback)
This book does not tell us much that we do not already know. The one big theme is that the internet contains all kinds of material for all kinds of purposes, many of which are illegal, and that the creators of such websites are clever people using technology that was invented years ago for military purposes but now in the hands of the public. The author's background is not known. He tells us about all the offensive sites that he has visited just to tell us that there are there. The creators of such sites are difficult to trace because they use 'onion routers', that is, the go through so many layers that no one can find the origin of the sites.


Death and the Afterlife (The Berkeley Tanner Lectures)
Death and the Afterlife (The Berkeley Tanner Lectures)
by Samuel Scheffler
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.99

5.0 out of 5 stars For ever, 19 April 2015
Do we measure our life and value it only by what we experience and expect to experience? Do we feel the loss of life only because we miss being around, either with our friends or by ourselves? Thus Scheffler poses apt question that make us ponder what really matters to us on the assumption that we have no afterlife to distract us. These are questions that compels us to assess the difference between a thing of value and a valuable thing. We are led to ponder what the incentives are for people to want to give up their lives for others.

Several other contributors including Harry Frankfurt and Susan Wolf comment on Scheffler's work and Scheffler, in turn, presents his rejoinder to those comments.


Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will
Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will
by Julian Baggini
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.49

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Free thoughts, 12 April 2015
Julian Baggini (`JG') begins by acknowledging that advances `in neuroscience has put wind into the sails of those who would deny free will' and elsewhere in the book he demolishes conventional (but outdated and flawed) arguments in favour of free will. Yet he asks, `So is the game really up for free will?' He does not think so.

In his usual clarity JG has written an excellent book that explains the arguments in favour of free will and also the traditional arguments against them, taking into account the advancement in science (neuroscience and genetics especially) - scientists has shown that our body determines our action a fraction ahead of our thought, or, as JG puts it, `when we make some choices, the conscious self is the last to know'.

But JG examines the gaps in science and by brilliantly excising the indefensible arguments of free will, he crafts a version of free will which he holds must exist. He says, for example, those who claim that we have the free will to believe in the existence of God demolish their own premise by holding the premise that God is omniscient. If He were, it means that He knows the future and what we would be doing. Nothing therefore is free because everything is determined before hand (otherwise God would not be omniscient).

By taking into account our conscious self's ability to mould character, and thus determining, with our experience and rationality, that we have the option to do otherwise `in the future', we retain a freedom that is worthy of its name. His argument relies on autonomy and responsibility while accepting the things we cannot change. It is not that he has not taken into account the indelible marks of life-changing events, but he claims that we can act freely in spite of them.

Has he re-defined free will as is generally understood or has he explained it in a way that no one else has? His theory does not, of course, prove that our beliefs are true, but that we can choose our beliefs freely. This will be an excellent companion to James Miles' recently published `The Free Will Delusion' (2015 Matador − which is an excellent companion to JG's book).


America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder
America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder
by Bret Stephens
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £24.00

2.0 out of 5 stars Halt! Who goes everywhere?, 9 April 2015
Stephens writes, and one supposes, believes, that America invaded Iraq 'to put on notice other would-be Saddams that, after 9/11, we had a low tolerance for flagrant challenges to global order', citing a speech by Hilary Clinton as authority. Stephens does not think that the Iraq war was itself a mistake, but 'the confusion of its aims...it wasn't the overreliance on force that led to near fiasco; it was the timid application of force in the face of an enemy that knew only the logic of force'.

Stephens begins by reminding his readers of the birth of the Marshall Plan after the sunset of the British Empire, and from that year - 1947 - on, America became the world's policeman, a role, it seems to Stephens, that was destined to be filled by America - permanently. That is how he ends his book - by a hawkish call for America to 'again start deploying forces globally in large numbers'. He says that the government must understand that 'the world's policeman needs a global presence'. He is particularly indignant that America (Obama) has embraced a 'policy of nonjudgmentalism in a world that still looks to America as a beacon of freedom'.

Stephens conducts an array of faults in America's competitors such as China, Russia, and India, and concludes that these countries are not as great as some (e.g. Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum) and gets excited by the fact that rich Russians are visiting America and Chinese are sending their children to American schools. Thus he concludes that 'Declinists will always be able to point to visible evidence of everything that's wrong with the United States as evidence that our best days are behind us. But America's future lies, as it always has, in things unseen and persons unknown'.

This book will be loved by the hawks (Republican and Democrats) but everyone else will be astounded for varying reasons. Some by the uninhibited ambition and arrogance that cry for a pushy, bullying America; and others by the fear that America might take Stephens seriously.


China's Coming War with Asia
China's Coming War with Asia
by Jonathan Holslag
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Is anything inevitable, 6 April 2015
Holslag freely and quickly admits that the title of his book is alarmist but he explains that in spite of his doubts, he believes that are causes for concern and the chosen title seems to him to best serve those concerns. The author's misgivings about the rise of China as an economic and military power are based on fears that the rest of Asia will be adversely affected. He gives a valuable and fact-laden account of China's rise and the implications that this will have on China's Asian neighbours.

Holslag has not given a convincing account as to why China's rise bodes ill for Asia, and in this context, the title may be read as some not only to be alarmist but also mischievous. That is only the title; the rest of Holslag's book is analytical and provocative although there are parts in which the reader might be unsure whether he is mixing short term with long term predictions. China today is not the communist nation it was, nor is America the same freedom-loving capitalist nation today that it was before. And as Holslag noted, 'China is seeking security through power and power to enhance its security'. It is hard to argue that these objectives are different from America's.

The author makes it clear that he is not a China-basher or taking the position that the dangers ahead for Asia is to be blamed on China. The broad question one needs to be clear about is whether China is indeed a danger to Asia? This book, well written as it is, might distract the reader from the context of China's actions, for China's actions are complex because they are partly action and partly reaction. It has constantly to stay alert to the actions of America in Asia, and then respond to that. The ancillary question is therefore, would China behave differently without an American presence in Asia? This question itself will admit of very sharp debate. But it is an important question. If China becomes an economic and political model that Asia can aspire to, then the American quest for the 'containment' of communism weakens.

From another viewpoint, should China be a model for the rest of Asia, then why not the world? Will America countenance China's circling Canada and Mexico to spread the virtues of its system? What seems to be lacking from Holslag's book are the principles that the world should accept as universal in that they apply to China as they would to America - or any other country (Is Putin listening?).


Faith: Essays From Believers, Agnostics, and Atheists
Faith: Essays From Believers, Agnostics, and Atheists
by Victoria Zackeim
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Something for everyone (or nothing for anyone)?, 5 April 2015
This book is a compilation of personal essays by people of different faiths (and different versions of the same faith) as well as people who have no belief in any kind of supernatural being. The writers ask different questions and provide their own answers. Pam Houston asks, 'If there is a God, why would s(he) waste all her time making hell?' She concludes her story declaring her faith in a God (although she cannot tell if God is male or female).

Barbara Graham discusses her faith in Mother Meera. Barbara Abercrombie searched for God and found him everywhere. Caroline Leavitt understands quantum physics describes how illness moved her to believe in a greater force out there although her belief in this force does not include a heaven or hell 'or a God with beard who judges'.

Christine Kehl O'Hagan's faith is Catholicism and she tells how she sensed God after one of her sons died although she tried to 'lose her faith' for a brief period. Aviva Layton gives an account of death in her essay entitled, 'Poof!' She quotes Julian Barnes' writing that 'Death is just nature doing its stuff'. Jacquelyn Mitchard shares her views as to why she is a 'good, God-fearing atheist' and Malachy McCourt comes upfront telling us that her essay is 'an antireligion rant'.

Perhaps Victoria Zackheim, the editor of the book, is telling the reader, 'Everyone has his own idea of God and death, and the universe - what's yours?' And invites him to put his own thoughts down in the same way these essayists did.


Coffee Nerd: How to Have Your Coffee and Drink It Too
Coffee Nerd: How to Have Your Coffee and Drink It Too
by Ruth Brown
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

5.0 out of 5 stars Caffeine's greatest high, 4 April 2015
This is simply the best book on coffee available. It is true that it does not have nice photographs that some other books might have, but the information in this 198-page book is incredible because it seems comprehensive, and is also lucidly and humorously written. It begins with the history of coffee drinking, and then takes the reader to the different types of coffee. Although the two main types are Arabica and the Robusta, there are many variant arising from climate and soil. Yes, you can read about the fascinating 'kopi luwak too - but it also tells you what real 's***ty' coffee is.

Then there is a chapter on brewing, the types of brew - including why Europeans don't drink café latte (not 'latte' as non-Europeans might refer to them) after breakfast. The chapters on how coffee is roasted; how to select the right cup; and how to find a good coffee shop, are also very informative . There are clear descriptions of 'Chemex', French Press, Hario V60, and how the Japanese took over 'siphon' coffee from the Germans and made it famous.

There is virtually nothing about coffee that cannot be found in this book, and one is left astounded how all that information can be found in such a small book (13cm x 19 cm or 5.5 in x 7 in).


The Fifth Gospel
The Fifth Gospel
by Ian Caldwell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £7.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fifth star well deserved, 29 Mar. 2015
This review is from: The Fifth Gospel (Hardcover)
One reviewer suggest, with all good intentions, that we should not compare this book with `The Da Vinci Code'. I think that it is only by comparing this with the latter that we can truly appreciate that this book, though based on the Catholic Church and its history, is different in all other aspects and is extremely well written. The suspense that runs throughout the book at every page is not released until the very last paragraph.

The story concerns the intended exhibition of a lost gospel, but the curator, Ugolino, stumbles on a secret that sheds light on a controversial Christian relic - the Shroud of Turin. The secret that the last Gospel held will change one's understanding and perception of the Shroud but it also threatens the dream of the Pope (John Paul) in reuniting the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Then one night, a week before the opening of the exhibition, Ugolino was found dead in the grounds of the Vatican City, with a bullet through his head. Who killed Ugolino; and why was he killed?

Caldwell weaves a thoroughly spell-binding intrigue with several suspects and twists and turns that ensures that the reader does not put the book down. Many intriguing questions arise in the plot. First, did the Shroud of Turin belong originally to the Eastern Orthodox Church or the Roman Catholic Church? Secondly, was the carbon-dating that revealed the Shroud to be a fake, accurate? Thirdly, if not, does the Shroud carry a true image of Jesus the Christ? Fourthly, why are the four Gospels contradicting each other in so many material aspects, and why is the Gospel of John so distinct from the other three? Finally, given the background of the events since 33 C.E. had the writers of the Gospels taken liberty to rewrite some of the history regarding Jesus, or recorded parts of the narrative in error? Caldwell makes one think through each of these questions through a novel that is evidently well-researched.


Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey
Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey
by Marie Mutsuki Mockett
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.99

4.0 out of 5 stars No pausing, 20 Mar. 2015
Marie Mockett's mother is Japanese. Her Father, an American, died in 2009, three years before the tsunami struck Japan in March 2011. Her Japanese grandfather had died a couple of months earlier. In the aftermath of the tsunami, Mockett travelled to Japan with her eighteen-month old son and her mother to attend to the sale of her grandfather's house and the ceremony for the burial of her grandfather's bones. The journey took her not only to Japan but to several different Buddhist temples and made her appreciate her Japanese heritage which she had not fully understood or appreciated until then even though her paternal grandmother had sent her to Japan many times when she was a child. Mockett learns, at the age of forty, what it means to be Japanese, and why Buddhism has such great influence in Japan. This is a book not only of a foreigner examining the Japanese, but also of the Japanese examining a foreigner.

Mockett explains many Japanese customs and the differences between different Buddhist temples, and her book is a great illumination of the homogeneous Japanese society and why the rest of the world often do not understand Japan. Visiting Japan for the funeral ritual of Obon had an uplifting effect on the author. Not that it made her 'sadness had shrunk, or that her happiness had grown' as she explains, instead, she now sees her 'own sadness in the context of everyone's grief'.


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