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How Proust Can Change Your Life
How Proust Can Change Your Life
by Alain de Botton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A first class Warm up Act, 4 July 2011
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This book is a tasty appetiser for anyone considering reading a bit of (or a lot of) Proust. Teasing out several themes representative of Proust's refections, De Botton elegantly combines novel excerpts, vignettes from Proust's life, and a perceptive and amusing commentary on both.

We're told how Proust said he would spend his final weeks if given notice of impending doom; how rich, deep, complex and worth savouring he found life; how strongly he advocated continually learning from misfortune.

We learn how vividly he identified fictional characters with real ones; how alert he was to the artistic skill of highlighting what the audience knew but had never articulated; and how passionate he was for originality, hence authenticity, versus imitation and cliché.

De Botton describes Proust's emphatic distinction between the amount of truth to be found in books and the amount to be found in relationships; and his delight in the edification of books in combination with continuing to think for ourselves.

He goes on to illustrate the ways Proust emphasised the importance of appreciating what you have, rather than what you might have; the value of the humble compared to the exalted; the greater reward we find in things we have had to yearn for; and how readily familiarity breeds contempt.

We are left in no doubt that Proust can change our life for the better.


Terror and Liberalism
Terror and Liberalism
by Paul Berman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping background to the war against Al-Quaida, 29 Jun. 2011
This review is from: Terror and Liberalism (Paperback)
The controversies of the Iraq war can distract us from the bigger issue of the global war against Islamic terror. Reading this powerful book (of 2004) refocuses our attention where it needs to be. Berman - a centre-left intellectual, no neo-conservative - is warning us not to be naïve, and to appreciate the reality of totalitarian terror. We must learn from our liberal forbears in the 30's, who underestimated the madness about to engulf them.

He takes us back to the collapse of the enlightenment and the `apocalyptic rebellion' of the early 20th century. In and around two World Wars, he reminds us, marched various totalitarian groups: the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, the Spanish Phalange, the Italian Fascists. These monstrously evil movements all had similar yearnings: Holy Armageddon, the extermination of `corrupt' (ie liberal) societies, creation of a Pure, Authoritarian, Total State. Moslem fundamentalists are the latest such totalitarian regime : Jihad warriors gloriously sacrificing themselves in pursuit of the Pure Islamist State operating under Shariah Law.

He describes the formation and ethos of the Baath party (initially co-opting Mohammed as their leader, until taken over by Saddam Hussein), then the original Muslim Brotherhood (greatly influenced by the Sunni writer Sayyid Qutb). Passionately opposed to the secular liberal societies - even partially religious ones - Qutb taught of the deplorable inattention given by Christianity to the Old Testament, and its inevitable, sinful, decline from the medieval Church-State into an overly materialistic, insufficiently devout, corruptly liberated and democratic mess. And he taught of the `sins' of the Jews: their rejection of Mohammed, their financial dealings, the works of Marx, and Freud. He taught that there's a lot that needs destroying.

This is not, Berman argues, merely the age-old `clash of civilisations' : this is twentieth century ideological warfare. Despite American aid and support given to Muslims in Bosnia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Palestine, and despite the Western education of the footsoldiers of Bin Laden's suicide army, the jihad has grown rapidly around the world. Berman summarises its components. Saddam Hussein's weapons development - and his example in the first Gulf War of effectively withstanding American attack. Mujahadeen victory over Russia in Afghanistan. Khomeini's Iranian revolution. Saudia Arabia's ambiguous role in sponsoring terrorism. Atrocities in Algeria, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Kurdish Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon, Egypt, Israel, and the USA.

Berman's plea - which, as he expounds, George Bush failed to make clearly enough (he ineptly managed to put us Europeans off; we nevetheless foolishly resented the US) - is : this is not just America's war. Nor is this just about pursuing individuals. This is the latest phase of the war of liberty against totalitarian terror. We firstly have to acknowledge the reality of mass pathological movements. We then have to summon the courage to stand up when needed for the principles of liberal society, when they are threatened with extermination.

Describing how heartened he was by what was achieved (initially) in Afghanistan, and by what was achieved (eventually) in Kosovo, Berman urges the international community to engage, not only militarily, but politically and intellectually, against the totalitarian murderousness of Muslim fundamentalist terror.


After Blair: David Cameron and the Conservative Tradition
After Blair: David Cameron and the Conservative Tradition
by Kieron O'Hara
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Where next?, 27 Jun. 2011
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Amid the raft of books describing the fall of New Labour it is difficult to find someone looking forward with any conviction. Keiron O'Hara provides a thoroughly reasoned view that conservatism forms the best basis for the way ahead.

Distinguishing conservatism from the cynical preference of vested interests, or fear of change, he outlines and defends this non-progressive ideology as it has developed through history. Arising out of Greek Scepticism, it contains elements of moderation and risk-awareness, respect for stability and the wisdom of crowds, and humility.

He distinguishes `conservatism' from `the Conservative party', (and from American 'neo-conservatism').

The book's main achievement in my view is to refute John Gray's argument that Thatcherism destroyed conservatism as a meaningful political stance. To do this, O'Hara first provides an historical context: the influxing liberals of the 1880's formed the basis for the economic right-wing of the Conservative party. It was this group who were effectively the predecessors of Thatcherism. He describes, on the other hand, the substantial conservative tradition of the left-wing of the party. This philosophy, he maintains, cannot be destroyed by events. As society evolves, there are different things which may require conserving.

From this basis he outlines some viable centre-right strategies for the current Conservatives. Tame the reactionary and toxic elements on the right wing of the party; preserve the current mildly eurosceptic consensus; combine the promotion of `Big Society' with acknowledgement of its limits; preserve the widely trusted institution of the NHS; be wary over interventionist foreign policy; maintain environmentalism; reform public services `patiently,quietly and incrementally; tread with great caution through multicultural issues; strengthen the power of parliament.

Written in 2007, this book's assessments are already proving prescient. I found its political arguments to be most robust, and would recommend it wholeheartedly to any confused or bemused centrist voter.


The Penguin History of the Church: Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages
The Penguin History of the Church: Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages
by R. W. Southern
Edition: Paperback
Price: £16.99

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So that's what those cathedrals were for, 15 Jun. 2011
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Visit any European city and you will inevitably be struck by the majesty of its huge cathedral. You might occasionally wonder what they all really represent. Professor Southern's `church history as an aspect of secular history' explains the way in which the medieval church was effectively the state.

He describes how the Roman Church replaced the Roman Empire in Western Europe as the latter declined, and went on to develop in power between the eighth and fourteenth centuries. Capitalising on the regional unity established by the Romans, the papacy was able grow in stature, and by the 12th and 13th century, was the dominant secular force in Europe.

Professor Southern sifts through the documentary evidence cataloguing the activities of popes, cardinals, bishops, monks, and lesser clerics - effectively the politicians, judiciary, police, and workforce of the church.

Running alongside their religious activity ( not examined here) was a strong secular identity. Rulers were coerced, by the threat of excommunication, to maintain the pope's edicts. No war could be declared unless the church first decreed its cause to be sacred. The Pope himself waged war on `unbelievers'. Heresy was a capital offence. Non-Christians such as Jews were denied citizenship. Monks devoted themselves to praying for the souls of prominent landowners, who in return bequeathed swathes of their estates.

The church's influence declined during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as non-religious thought and action gradually separated out and overcame it.

But, by then, those cathedrals were built.


A Journey
A Journey
by Tony Blair
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £25.00

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Valuable insights, 6 Jun. 2011
This review is from: A Journey (Hardcover)
What you get from this book will depend greatly on your opinion of its author. I will state my own position: I was a strong admirer of Tony Blair's leadership. I admired his work on reforming the public sector; and I thought the decision to invade Iraq was controversial, but not necessarily wrong.

The book itself portrays Blair in ways that are good, bad, and indifferent.

The good: I found Blair's account of Iraq well worth reading. I also found very interesting his depiction of the politics of implementing (with great conviction), a social democratic reform programme. Other valuable insights are his informative observations about the difficulties of European politics, and his pessimism over the future of the left, `after' social democracy. On all these matters I felt Blair came over as authentic and plausible.

The indifferent: Notable of course is his relationship with Gordon Brown , slightly to his left. This was initially demanding, then dysfunctional, and finally broken down. Blair describes how towards the end he became distinctly (I would say over-)confident, and virtually stopped listening or attempting to negotiate a consensus. Also noteworthy is his depiction of how he effectively drifted to the right in the later stages, while becoming at the same time less liberal.

The bad: The first lay in the descriptions of peoples' motivations. Blair recurrently reveals a lack of depth and sophistication in his understanding of human psychology. For example, he repeatedly describes a like of `passionate' people - IMHO naively overrating overassertiveness, seemingly oblivious to its cost.

Secondly, for all his capacity to thoroughly understand situations, Blair's described motivations often seem somewhat hot headed. This takes various forms, from moral fervour and over-certainty ('I just wanted to know: what is the right thing?')to powerlust. This leads him in turn to justify some instances of dishonesty He reveals how he expected, but did not disclose this to allies, the use of ground troops in Kosovo; at one point he refers to the concept of sticking to a manifesto pledge as `absurd'; he still fails to give a convincing account of the Bernie Eccleston saga.) He portrays himself as more aggressive and less likeable than the image he conveyed while in post. He scathingly synonimises `liberal' with `wet' ; arrogantly dimisses in retrospect the pandemic flu scare as hype; he even manages to sound racist and sexist at times.

Lastly, for such a brilliant and polished political performer, it's a real shock that he has written the book so badly . It's as though, once he'd decided to donate the royalties to charity, he de-prioritised the project, writing it at night, and then skimping on the use of an editor.

Read the book - it has to be a key part of anyone's retrospective on the Blair decade. You'll learn more about both his strengths and his weaknesses.


Making Happy People: The nature of happiness and its origins in childhood
Making Happy People: The nature of happiness and its origins in childhood
by Paul Martin
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Happy talk, 2 Jun. 2011
`Happiness' does not come naturally to human beings, adapted as we are for survival rather than enjoyment. The trick nature plays on us is ensuring we take anything good for granted, and hence continue to strive and toil.

Faced with this, we can take various approaches to `happiness'. Pursue it half-heartedly or whole-heartedly ; enjoy it if it happens ; or even disregard it. When it occurs, it will bring with it some biological benefits; but how much we desire those again can vary.

Whatever its place in our lives, identifying the causes of happiness is of interest. Paul Martin, a behavioural biologist turned science writer, has trawled through the evidence, partly as what he sees as a duty of parenthood.

The `re-framing treadmill' affects some desires more sharply than others: once we're freed from poverty, wealth seems particularly unable to satisfy; as does fame. Conversely, we adjust to serious illness and disability generally more readily than we might fear.

Some satisfactions endure : friendships; marriage; being absorbed in `worthwhile' activities; taking exercise, and being lucky enough to be `physically attractive'.
Some adversities last: it takes a while to recover from divorce, or from divorcing parents.

Some habits seem worthwhile : sociability, playfulness, engaging in leisure, being `in the moment', being reasonably optimistic, liking yourself enough,. Some habits don't pay off so well: materialism, working long hours, watching TV, being excessively optimistic, liking yourself too much.

Other bits of evidence are quoted, which would encourage us to: keep a sense of humour , protect some autonomy, acquire an all-round education, live in Western Europe or the USA, believe in a god, meditate, and get enough sleep.

For parents to note: a certain amount of discipline is good ; too much praise can be bad.

All in all, as an addition to the `pop-psychology of happiness' shelf, I thought this was a better-than-average read.


Why God Won't Go away
Why God Won't Go away
by Newberg Andrew Md
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Religious experiences on CT scan, 23 May 2011
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This review is from: Why God Won't Go away (Paperback)
Newberg and d'Aquili present the neurophysiological evidence of the brain's `Mysticism Module'. Meditation, prayer, and spiritual experience activate and excite certain identifiable parts of the brain. This would seem the most likely primary basis of religious experience for humans. (Or for Neanderthals - they had their shrines too.)

Leaving aside the thorny question of whether or not God exists, the book suggests that our brains' capacity to experience mystical excitation is a more powerful route to religious belief than is cognitive deduction - which will neither, it seems, produce evidence for God, nor make God `go away'.

A noteworthy 21st century take on religion!


An Intimate History Of Humanity
An Intimate History Of Humanity
by Theodore Zeldin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

9 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An intimate history of Theodore Zeldin's ramblings, 23 May 2011
I picked this book up as it looked really interesting, and was well reviewed on its cover. It presents itself as a series of philosophical musings on human relationships.

However I found it to be absolutely pretentious.

Bogged down in a myriad of anecdotes and interviews, Zeldin - in my view, arrogantly - extrapolates his musings into profound-sounding conclusions.

They are nothing of the sort. He contrives statements which I feel are either meaningless (disguised as mysterious), unfounded (disguised as conclusive), obvious (disguised as insightful), or idiosyncratic (disguised as wise). The overall structure of the book has no cohesion, and nor do the contents of each chapter.

Sorry, I wanted to like it, but I really felt that it was just waffle.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 24, 2015 3:41 AM BST


Prisoners of the Japanese
Prisoners of the Japanese
by Gavan Daws
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping 20th century War History, 7 May 2011
Based mainly on the accounts of US servicemen, Daws recounts the vilest of vile horrors that was the Japanese treatment of prisoners and civilians during the Second World War.
(`dispose of the prisoners as the situation dictates. In any case it is the aim not to allow the escape of a single one, to annihilate them all, and not to leave any traces')

The atrocities are depicted from first hand accounts, and include such obscenities as surgery performed on conscious prisoners, civilians burned alive, hospital patients bayonetted to death, or drowned; babies butchered...... an endless stream of barbaric cruelty.

The book is particularly good at describing the surviving POWs' continued suffering after the war : their great difficulties rehabilitating ; inevitable Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; markedly premature death rates. Their fate was to be neglected by their own governments: next to nothing was done for the soldiers; their abuse was hardly acknowledged,and paltry disability awards were made. For political reasons, recriminations against the Japanese were minimised. The relatively ineffectual War Crimes trials petered out after little retribution. Hirohito was not tried, and notoriously did not apologise.

For all the grimness of the subject, Daws maintains an engaging narrative style and has produced a satisfying and worthwhile history.


Corduroy Mansions
Corduroy Mansions
by Alexander McCall Smith
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scotland Street Revisited, 6 May 2011
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This review is from: Corduroy Mansions (Paperback)
If you loved the `Scotland Street' series, then this is more of the same warm, witty drama from Alexander McCall Smith.

Short, easy episodes involve open, unmalicious characters. William is gentle, slightly ineffectual, but with a firm core. James discovers to his alarm that he may be heterosexual. The hopelessly romantic Terence Moongrove escapes serious harm only by strokes of fortune. Even the rather cold, dry Oedipus Snark is sympathetically portrayed.

Some of the characters are similar to the `Edinburgh' crowd. William reminded me of Matthew's dad (struggling somewhat with his composure, unsettled variously by his girlfriend or by his son). Freddie de la hay the dog echoed the part of Angus' dog Cyril (sensible, reassuring, though at times unreliable).

Therein I felt lay a slight weakness: a feeling of `sequel' - a similar format to the Scotland Street books, without quite the rich commitment they seemed to possess. Also, one or two of the `Corduroy' plot lines are a bit less convincing than those of its predecessor. Overall though, still good fun.


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