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The Handmaid's Tale (Contemporary Classics)
The Handmaid's Tale (Contemporary Classics)
by Margaret Atwood
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Especially relevant today, 6 Dec. 2006
This book stands alongside other dystopian works like Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World as a masterpiece warning of the perils the world faces. Just as Orwell's socialism led him to focus on the dangers he saw in Stalinism, Atwood's feminism has led to this exploration of the dangers of religious extremism. This warning glimpse of a nightmare world where women are valued only for their reproductive role is if anything even more relevant today than when it was written.

The Handmaid's Tale is set in a North American state known as the Republic of Gilead and ruled by Christian fundamentalists. This world is viewed through the eyes of Offred, so called because she is the property `of Fred' and is valued only if she can bear him a child. Atwood's world is constructed out of a mixture of the more extreme proposals currently advocated by different religions. Homosexuals are murdered, as are those who have performed abortions, and children born outside of a proper Christian marriage are confiscated.

Offred's world is a lonely one as, cut off from meaningful human interaction and under constant scrutiny, she focuses on the smallest things for comfort. Meanwhile her memories flash back to her previous life in today's America, and she recounts her fear as things slowly descended into madness. In a prescient warning well ahead of her time, Atwood has envisioned a world where following terrorist attacks, right-wing religious extremists have seized control of America by capitalising on people's fears, and turning fear to hatred of those who don't fit in with the religious agenda.

This thrilling book is not only an interesting read, it is meant as a warning of the dangers Atwood sees facing all of us. In today's world this is a book that should be read by all.

Homage to Catalonia (Penguin Modern Classics)
Homage to Catalonia (Penguin Modern Classics)
by George Orwell
Edition: Paperback

96 of 98 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Simply Brilliant, 6 Dec. 2006
This book is truly essential reading for anyone interested in the Spanish Civil War, or for that matter anyone with an interest in war, Communism, Socialism, Anarchism or in Literature. Orwell's account of the Spanish Civil War is more than just a brilliant account of life in a civil war, it is a first hand account of the horrors of Stalinism, and Orwell's experiences in Spain explain why he later wrote his best known works, 1984 and Animal Farm, to warn of the dangers which he knew so well.

The book starts out recounting Orwell's experiences of arriving in Spain as an eager volunteer wanting to help fight Fascism. He is shocked to discover the disorganisation and inefficiency of the Republican militias. The book then goes on to give a telling account of the boredom of trench warfare, where the naïve Orwell wants to be able to kill at least one Fascist to do his part in the struggle for freedom, but ends up mainly having to contend with lice, rats and the freezing weather.

This alone might make for an interesting read, but the book really comes into its own in the latter chapters, where Orwell describes the struggle going on within the Republican controlled region of Spain. A wounded Orwell returns to Barcelona, where the Stalinists who have seized control of the government turn on their political rivals. Orwell is well placed to describe the May fighting between the Stalinist police who wish to enforce state control and the idealistic anarchists who want to defend their revolutionary gains.

Following the government victory, Orwell's small political party the POUM is made a scapegoat for the fighting and is outlawed. A stunned Orwell is forced to go on the run from the very Republic for which he had been so willing to risk his life. This makes for a damning indictment of totalitarianism that is still capable of gripping and infuriating the reader generations after the events described. Orwell shows that he is one of the finest writers in the English language, and this is probably his finest work, deserving to be read by all.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 29, 2014 11:17 AM GMT

The Palestinian-Arab Minority in Israel, 1948-2000: A Political Study (SUNY Series in Israeli Studies)
The Palestinian-Arab Minority in Israel, 1948-2000: A Political Study (SUNY Series in Israeli Studies)
by As'ad Ghanem
Edition: Paperback
Price: £25.00

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Had the potential to be better, 6 Sept. 2006
This book is on a potentally very interesting and often overlooked topic, the Palesinians who hold Israeli citizenship. However it is poorly edited and is written more like a political science text book than a book for someone generally interested in this topic.

Normally a review would not focus on the editing of a book, but in this case the editing was so bad as to be amusing. It looks like in order to make this book more acceptable to an American audience, the editors of this book systematically replaced contentious terms such as 'Palestine' or 'the Occupied Territories'. However this has changed the meaning of many sentences.

The editors have clearly replaced all uses of the word Palestine with the phrase 'the West Bank and Gaza Strip', even where the author is clearly discussing parts of Palestine other than the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. Similarly the editors have used the same phrase to replace the words 'occupied territories'. This leads to amusing sentences such as one in the section on the Syrian Golan Heights where the book states that Palestinian-Israelis believe that the West Bank and Gaza Strip should be given back to Syria. The author must have originally written that the occupied territories (meaning the Golan Heights, the topic being discussed in that section of the book) should be returned to Syria, but his perfectly sensible sentence has been mangled by the worlds most inept editors.

This book also contains many tables, graphs and statistics riddled with errors. Percentages often add up to more or less than 100 percent, and it is often difficult to tell what a statistic refers to, or how it was arrived at. All of these editing flaws detract from the book and make it a lot more difficult to appreciate.

The main problem with this book is its politcal science focus. The book is supposed to be a political study on the Palestinian minority in Israel. One would hope that it would therefore focus on the discrimination and persecution suffered by this group, and their struggle for equality. However while these topics are touched on, the main focus of the book is a rather dry study of the voting patterns of Palestinian-Israelis and the policies and fortunes of many minor Israeli political parties which some of the Palestinian community support. I did not find this topic completely pointless, and certainly learned a great deal about Israeli politics, which is why this book gets three stars despite its flaws. However I feel that a chance was wasted. A book on the struggle of a persecuted minority against racism and for social justice would have interested me much more than learning about the role local notables play in mayoral elections. While the book certainly mentions the problems faced by Palestinians living in a state that defines itself as 'the state of the Jewish people', this is unfortunately not the main focus of the book.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 11, 2010 1:59 PM GMT

The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World
The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World
by Avi Shlaim
Edition: Paperback

43 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential Reading for Anyone Interested in the Conflict, 14 Aug. 2006
Books on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict tend to reflect the prejudices of the author more than they show what actually occured. However this book, although not perfect, is the closest thing I have read to a balanced account of the conflict.

This book is a fairly comprehensive diplomatic summary of the conflict that covers the period before the foundation of the state of Israel through to the election of Ehud Barak as Isarel's prime minister. Shlaim is an Israeli-Jew who believes in a two state solution to the conflict, and this comes across in his writing. He criticises both Israel and the Arab states when they squandered opportunities to achieve the solution Shlaim would prefer to see.

There are books which focus on specific aspects of the conflict which are perhaps more useful to understanding the conflict than this, but this is probably the best account currently available which covers the all the Arab-Israeli wars. However while you should definitely read this book, there are a few things which you should be aware of.

This book is primarily a diplomatic history of Israel. This means it goes into great detail on Israel's foreign policy. This means that it can sometimes get bogged down in the details of negotiations. It also means that it focuses more on pre-war and post-war diplomacy more than on the actual wars themselves.

The books main flaw however is that it views the conflict largely based on Israel's viewpoint. Shlaim is sometimes supportive of Israel, and often critical, but his focus is generally Israel. Since this is a diplomatic history, and the Palestinians are without a state, they recieve little attention.

Due, perhaps, to his personal views on the best outcome of the conflict, Shlaim is not as critical as he should be of the Oslo process. He ends the book hopeful about the "peace process" and Barak, though subsequent events have showed this optimism to be misplaced.

However despite these complaints, this book is a must read. No one book is enough to understand the conflict, but this one is as good a starting point as you are likely to find.

Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History
Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History
by Norman G. Finkelstein
Edition: Hardcover

93 of 100 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Well Argued Critique of Israel's Apologists, 14 Aug. 2006
This book sets out to demolish the arguments of some of Israel's most vocal supporters in the United States, and largely suceeds in this task.

The first 85 pages are devoted to those who claim that criticism of Israel is fuelled by anti-Semitism, rather than any action of Israel's. Finkelstein argues that this claim is merely an attempt to deflect criticism from indefensible Israel policies.

However, the main body of the book is devoted to an attack on one man, Alan Dershowitz. Dershowitz is the author of the best selling "The Case for Israel". In his influential book Dershowitz made a number of extremely controversial claims about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Finkelstein's book is devoted to methodically going through these claims and demolishing them. For example Dershowitz implied that Palestinian refugees may have been recent immigrants to Palestine, rather than the native population of the country. Finkelstein shows how all the evidence Dershowitz produces for this claim is essentially plagiarised from the discredited work of Joan Peters.

Unfortunately Finkelstein focuses mainly on showing how Dershowitz has little grasp of the facts of the conflict. It would have been nice if there was also more of a challenge to Dershowitz's arguments. Particularly his repulsive view that collective punishment should be inflicted on Palestinian civilians.

This book comes across as being meticulously researched, as you would expect given that it is an attack on one of the most sucessful lawyers in America. However, it relies almost entirely on Western or Israeli sources to challenge Dershowitz. I couldn't find a single quote from a Palestinian.

Despite being about on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, this book focuses only on Israel. Next to nothing of value is said about the Palestinians or wider Arab world. This is a flaw found in Finkelstein's other books as well.

This book does provide a pretty good summary of Israel's widespread human rights abuses as a challenge to Dershowitz's claims. Other than this however the book will mainly be of interest to those who have already read "The Case for Israel". For those who are familiar with Dershowitz work, this book is a must read, as it shows quite how inaccurate his arguments are. For everyone else who is interested in the wider Palestinian-Israeli conflict there are better books out there, including Finkelstein's last book "Image and Reality of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict".

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