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T. P. Ang (Singapore)

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Mao: The Unknown Story
Mao: The Unknown Story
by Jon Halliday
Edition: Paperback

19 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Revolutionary book, doubtful claims, 21 Jun. 2006
This review is from: Mao: The Unknown Story (Paperback)
I applaud the authors' efforts in producing a sweeping study of Mao and attempting to uncover many hitherto unknown aspects of his fascinating life. `Facts' surrounding the Long March, such as the famous Luding Bridge heroics, are exposed as being untrue. And claims about the engineered killings of more than 70 million Chinese and the often gruesome nature of their deaths take us to a whole new level of understanding about Mao's megalomania and inhumanity. These chilling revelations are all the more absorbing in an age where we're being made increasingly aware of state-engineered brutality both past and present. Reading this book (and accepting its claims wholesale) will revolutionise the way you think about Mao and such events as the Long March and the `Great Leap Forward'.

Yet the main problem with this book lies precisely in how far we can accept its claims. Many of the books assertions can be criticised for being exaggerated or highly speculative. The book's sources, for one, have been criticised for being unreliable or unverifiable. The historian Philip Short has also contended that the book's one-sided emphasis on Mao obscures the role played by the Communist party in perpetrating the said atrocities.

No specialist of Chinese history myself, I nonetheless found the claims a little too sensational and the writing too overwrought in places. Mao the man comes across as an utterly self-absorbed, power-crazed, pitiless beast whose one-dimensionality seems too much like a caricature at times. As with other similar books I've read, the authors' profound emotional engagement with the subject (ten years of research, interviewing hundreds of eyewitnesses etc.) seems to have gotten in the way of sober analysis.

At over 800 pages long this is not a short book by any measure. But it is written for a general audience and so should be accessible enough to most readers. If the writing doesn't capture you attention, the gripping narrative most certainly will. Just bear in mind the scepticism that book's claims have received from academic circles. Checking these claims against the work of other experts in the field will probably be a good idea; and will most certainly be my next port-of-call.

Nationalism (Oxford Readers)
Nationalism (Oxford Readers)
by John Hutchinson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £27.89

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent summary of Nationalism, 11 Jun. 2006
This book is a reader on nationalism that does an excellent summary - perhaps the best summary around - of all the key developments on thought about nationalism. This is a field that has rapidly expanded over the last few decades and thus profits greatly from this work of synthesis and comparative analysis. One of the great things about the book is its inclusion of extracts from the writings of luminaries in the field, from Joseph Stalin and Max Weber to more recent commentators like Eric Hosbawm and Benedict Anderson.

The book is divided into a number of sections, each with an introduction and a selection of extracts from a number of writers.


Students will find this extremely useful as a general survey of the subject. General readers will also be interested the issues flagged up, which bear immense relevance to contemporary politics, society and culture.

Without doubt, a five-star contribution to the field.

Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England
Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England
by William Cronon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.56

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Want to know how ecology can help us to understand history?, 9 Jun. 2006
This is not so much a book about New England per se as on how ecology should mould our understanding of history. For too long historians have ignored the ecological/environmental dimension to history, especially colonial history; and Cronon's book is one among a number of path-breaking works that serves to redress the balance.

As Cronon convincingly argues, the strength of ecological analysis in writing history lies in its ability to uncover processes and long-term changes which might otherwise remain invisible. Indeed, ecological change is used throughout the book as a window through which to uncover the complex long-term changes wrought by the arrival of the puritans to New England since the seventeenth century. The full impact of European colonisation cannot be understood apart from the new relationship they established with the New England ecosystem though their commoditisation of resources and their involvement in the international capitalist economy, both of which greatly impacted the land and its previous inhabitants, the Indians. These changes were cultural as much as they were simply environmental or economic: the arrival of the pig, for one, was bound in a cultural relationship to, among other things, the fence, the dandelion, and a very special definition of property.

Of course, the book also offers up fascinating insights into the changing New England landscape from 1600 to 1800. It corrects misconceptions about an unchanging primeval forest before the arrival of the Europeans, or of Indians as passive agents in subsequent changes wrought. It also establishes the origins of the environmental problems in the region such as deforestation, soil erosion, and resultant climate changes - the legacy of which we still live with today.

If this book interests you, so should other landmark studies on ecological or environmental history, such as Alfred Crosby's `Ecological Imperialism' or Donald Worster's `Dust Bowl'.

The Twilight Of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World
The Twilight Of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World
by Alister McGrath
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

11 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A history of atheism, 8 Jun. 2006
A great book with a most provocative title. It was indeed the title of the book that first drew my attention to it. And it didn't disappoint.

This is not a work of Christian apologetics, nor a polemic against Atheists. It is rather a highly readable survey of atheism: its rise and, as McGrath argues, its demise. In the process, the reader is treated to a history of European political thought and religion from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. McGrath explores, among other things, the ideological impact of the French Revolution and the Romantic movement, and the key ideas of philosophers like Feuerbach, Marx, Freud and Nietzsche. He also examines the diminishing appeal of religion (specifically Christianity) over the nineteenth century and its unexpected resurgence a century later. McGrath concludes that atheism's final failure is a failure of imagination, something that religion has been able to recapture from the twentieth century.

One won't necessarily agree with all of McGrath's conclusions. I personally find the connection he draws between atheism and the political violence committed under the Nazi and Soviet regimes slightly tenuous. Athesists may well find his entire premise wholly offensive. Yet his thesis is on the whole well-written, well-argued and supported by an impressive amount of knowledge of the history of ideas over the last two to three centuries. Alister McGrath is of course a highly qualified commentator on the issue, being a professor of historical theology, a prolific author, and an incredibly erudite man. He was once an atheist and is now a conservative evangelical Christian.

This book should interest atheists and theists alike.

The Da Vinci Code (Robert Langdon)
The Da Vinci Code (Robert Langdon)
by Dan Brown
Edition: Paperback

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good piece of pop fiction, but nothing more, 8 Jun. 2006
I am generally for this book, despite disagreeing with a number of its premises. If you're only planning to read it now, then you'd definitely find it over-hyped given the unbelievable amount of publicity it has received. Yet when I first picked it some two years ago, I found it hard to put down.

The Da Vinci Code is a competent piece of fiction - a neat blend of conspiracy theory, suspense and romance that will appeal to a wide variety of tastes (as it has). The characters are typically one-dimensional, as with many pop thrillers of this kind; and the plot, a reinterpretation of the grail legend, is certainly not new. But Dan Brown keeps the reader going with a tight storyline and intelligent puzzles along the way. The puzzles, which are cleverly weaved into the grail conspiracy, are, in my opinion, the chief selling-point of the book and help to raise it above the ordinary thriller.

This being said, the book should be read as fictional, and nothing more. Strange I should be saying this about what is obviously a piece of fiction; yet the religious debates generated by the book sometimes verge on treating it as a non-fictional source. It doesn't help that the book itself gives the impression that it is based on historical fact. What is certain, however, is that some of the 'facts' central to the book, such as the existence of the Priory of Sion or of a bloodline from Jesus, are highly disputable. The book has opened up debates, but it cannot provide answers to them.

If you're expecting the Da Vinci Code to be a literary masterpiece or a piece of well-researched historical fiction, then you'd be sorely disappointed. Read it, however, if you're looking for a good ol' page-turning pop thriller.

The Great Divorce
The Great Divorce
by C. S. Lewis
Edition: Paperback

35 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterpiece, 7 Jun. 2006
This review is from: The Great Divorce (Paperback)
I think this is one of Lewis' very best. He attempts in this work to paint a picture of heaven and hell based on his understanding on Christian theology; and what a picture it turns out to be! I found myself captivated from the beginning with the author's depiction of the confines of hell and its inhabitants, which then become a perfect foil for the soul-lifting glory of heaven that he goes on to describe. What makes the work so powerful is the believability of the picture that is painted, despite its speculative nature and imaginative leaps.

The book has something to offer to everyone. Heaven and hell become platforms from which to probe the depths of human morals and motivations. Every reader will find himself/herself identifying with one or more of the caricatures compelling constructed by the author. The picture of heaven itself and what it represents (read and find out for yourself!) is enough to provoke thoughts about purpose of the earthly life. The fictional nature of the book allows Lewis to convey a Christian message about heaven and hell without coming across as preachy or high-handed.

A masterful combination of Christian theology, vivid imagination and excellent prose. I cannot recommend this book more.

What is History Now?
What is History Now?
by D. Cannadine
Edition: Paperback
Price: £20.00

22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good update on Carr's `What is History?', 7 Jun. 2006
This review is from: What is History Now? (Paperback)
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in keeping up-to-date with the development of History as a discipline in last few decades. The book will never generate academic shockwaves on the scale of E. H. Carr's `What is History?', but it nonetheless gathers together and presents effectively the insights of today's experts on various sub-fields within the discipline.

The book begins with a general introduction by Richard Evans (author of `In Defence of History') on `What is History? - Now', followed by chapters by other historians discussing Social, Political, Religious, Cultural, Gender, Intellectual and Imperial History. The discussions are on the whole balanced, well-argued and served up in manageable chapter portions. I found the book extremely helpful as a historiographical overview both as a history undergraduate and graduate student.

Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya
Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya
by Caroline Elkins
Edition: Paperback

5 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent but slightly sensationalised historical work, 7 Jun. 2006
This book is without a doubt an invaluable addition to our current knowledge on British rule in Kenya at the end of Empire. I salute the author for the years of painstaking research done in Kenya, piecing together the largely untold story of the hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu peoples that suffered and perished during the British colonial emergency. This is a story that will capture the attention not just of Britons and Kenyans but of anyone interested in the dark underbelly of European colonialism that has only began to be increasingly exposed relatively recently.

Indeed, Elkins' work lends weight to a growing body of scholarship today aimed at sharpening the focus on the gritty realities surrounding British rule over her Afro-Asian `dependent empire'. The high-handed and brutal enforcement of British authority on colonial Kenya is all the more striking for occurring in the 1950s, at a time when British imperial power was supposedly on the decline and decolonisation in Africa well underway.

The book also brings to light an episode in Kenyan history that the country has largely chosen to forget in the wake of her independence. The Mau Mau revolt, liberation movement as it was, deeply divided the country; but sufficient time has passed since the event to allow for more sober analysis. Elkins' book is timely for revisiting this obscured episode in Kenya's past at a time when it still resides within the living memory of eyewitnesses and survivors, but is also distanced enough from actual events so as not to excite unhealthy tensions.

Those who criticise the book for being repetitious miss the point. Whilst there are books out there designed to deliver the sharp and occasional insight, there are also others, like this one, that set out to hammer home a single point with maximum force. Elkins' profuse descriptions of the graphic horror of the situation in Kenya work to good effect as the reader is confronted with atrocity upon atrocity and plight upon plight suffered by the hapless Kikuyu. A most compelling read.

I find myself giving this book only 4 stars out of 5, however, precisely because of its single-mindedness in bludgeoning home to the reader the plight of the Kikuyu. In the process, Elkins sacrifices more balance in her account, which could have paid greater attention to the dehumanising atrocities committed by the Mau Mau themselves, or to the inter-tribal vendettas that ran rife alongside British oppression. Elkins' one-sidedness is perhaps inevitable considering her having spent years sharing in the past sufferings of the many Kenyans she interviewed. Nonetheless, her vivid descriptions verge on the mildly sensational at points, and some stats appear slightly inflated.

The book is on the whole an excellent piece of historical research and writing, and I would highly recommend it.

The Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus
The Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus
by Lee Strobel
Edition: Paperback

62 of 68 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Accessible but slightly simplistic, 24 May 2006
I would highly recommend this book to anyone exploring Christian apologetics for the first time. It is a compellingly written and easily readable defence of Christian claims about Jesus Christ. Strobel tackles the subject from about every conceivable angle by investigating everything from the geography of the New Testament to the events surrounding Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. It is on this latter point that the book builds is case most strongly, providing credible arguments for a rational basis for believing in the resurrection.

The book's structure is both its strength and its weakness. The author assumes the role of detective as he jets around America meeting and interviewing experts on the various aspects of the case he investigates. The cross-examinations that take place are recounted to the reader and make for more lively reading than a traditional narative. The interviews are also cleverly interspersed with the little anecdotes that tie in with the unfolding argument. However, the question-and-answer format tends to leave gaps in the arguments and gives the overall case a disjointed feel. Also, arguments tend to get simplified because they are related in the form of a dialogue.

On the whole, the book is well-written and accessible, but slightly simplistic, and can serve as a good starting-point from which to explore the case for Christ further.
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Church History in Plain Language (Nelson's Plain Language)
Church History in Plain Language (Nelson's Plain Language)
by Bruce Shelley
Edition: Paperback

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great overview of the history of the Church, 24 May 2006
A great book for anyone looking for an accessible introduction to the history of the Church. Shelley masters over two millennia's worth of material and relates it in bite-sized chunks that even an absolute beginner to this subject will find easy to digest. The lively and yet succinct prose masks the amount of detail that the book manages to convey and the amount of research that must have gone into it.

It is worth noting that the author Bruce Shelley, who is a Senior Professor of Church History and Historical Theology, is also an evangelical Christian. The book might therefore be considered partisan in that way. Nonetheless, I feel that the various debates within the discipline have been treated fairly.

I found the book extremely helpful as a general overview on the subject and as a springboard onto more in-depth studies on specific topics. The book will also be useful as a `textbook' for church history courses at churches.

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