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Choose Your Weapons: The British Foreign Secretary - 200 Years of Argument, Success and Failure
Choose Your Weapons: The British Foreign Secretary - 200 Years of Argument, Success and Failure
by Douglas Hurd
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 20.67

15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars DUEL IN THE SETTING SUN, 4 April 2010
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Douglas Hurd's "Choose Your Weapons," written with the help of Edward Young, is a sweeping review of British foreign policy and its architects from the Napoleonic wars to Suez. The book is worth reading for its history and for its observations by a man eminently qualified to make them. However, it falls somewhat short against the inevitable benchmark of Roy Jenkins' "The Chancellors," published in 1998, in both the quality of its writing and its insight into human nature.

"Choose Your Weapons" begins with the duel between Castlereagh and Canning on Putney Heath in 1809. Their physical contest stands as a metaphor for the tension between the multilateralist diplomacy favored by the former and the more interventionalist, nationalistic policies advocated by the latter - a theme that has run through all of British (and for that matter, US) foreign policy ever since. It also illustrates the importance of personality in determining national direction. Hurd observes that the right path can seldom be deduced simply from objective analysis of the facts: "that intelligent people have occupied both aisles of .... the argument suggests more clearly then any essay the limits of reason in foreign policy. "

Of the eleven foreign secretaries covered by the book, Hurd - true to his own personality - reveals a preference for Castlereagh, Salisbury and Bevin and a certain disapproval of the more flamboyant Palmerston and Disraeli. He is quite forgiving of Grey, who arguably let Great Britain drift unnecessarily into the Great War, he bolsters Austen Chamberlain's reputation as an early critic of Appeasement and he shares posterity's disappointment in the superficially promising Anthony Eden. Several themes, other than the Castlereagh-Canning dichotomy, run through the history: the relationship between Prime Ministers and their Foreign Secretaries (Hurd believes that the PM should be more of a senior colleague than a boss, though many PMs did not agree), the increasing professionalism of the Foreign Office, the influence of public opinion (which even Salisbury, no natural democrat, took very much to heart), the importance of concepts of national honour and prestige even up to the present day, the inadequacy of strategies based narrowly on notions of the balance of power, and the evolution of the Atlantic relationship even as Britain's great power status waned.

While the book formally concludes in the Fifties, it makes some relatively subtle but clear comments on more recent events. Tony Blair is chastised for misusing the "doctrine of humanitarian intervention," cynically "flinging " it into the "pile of words" he used to justify the war in Iraq. Gordon Brown is compared to Eden in that his failings as Prime Minister have come in the domain over which he presided for years prior to his accession to the top spot - perhaps for the same reason "relying too exclusively on his own judgement, he ignored the warnings and expressions of dissent that were plentiful in the lower reaches of Government." President Obama's situation is compared to that of Salisbury: "none of the dangers confronting the United States can be overcome by the asset in which she is still unmatched, namely the massive use of military force."

Looking to the future, Hurd believes that a "Fourth Settlement" is needed (following those which concluded the Napoleonic and the two World Wars) in which new frameworks and institutions embracing a wider set of issues and giving due weight to China and India are created. Inevitably, only the US has the influence to initiate this future, but Britain has a role in which its "values and character" can help define an "intelligent middle way."

"Choose Your Weapons" is a worthwhile book, but it falls short of what it might have been. Its writing is choppy, alternating between formality and colloquialism and intermixing successful epigrams with clichés. Its balance between multiple biography and pure history is uneven, with personality frequently swamped by a torrent of facts. Its Hurdian insights and wisdom often seem pasted on rather than emerging naturally from the work, and it has a disappointing dearth of entertaining and penetrating anecdotes about its subjects.


The Privileges
The Privileges
by Jonathan Dee
Edition: Hardcover

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars THEY HAVE MORE MONEY, 2 April 2010
This review is from: The Privileges (Hardcover)
Jonathan Dee's fifth novel, "the Privileges" is an elegantly written, intelligent but still accessible tale of the rise and rise of a golden couple in New York in the period just preceding the current financial crisis.

"The Privileges" begins with a finely crafted - though perhaps two long in a 250 page book - 32 page portrait of Adam and Cynthia Morey's wedding on a sweltering day in Pittsburgh and traces their story until their children, April and Jonas, reach early adulthood. The Moreys are certain in their love for one other and in their destiny. Adam advances effortlessly through the Master of the Universe phases from investment banking to private equity to founding his own spectacularly successful hedge fund. The symptoms of growing mega-wealth are dropped casually into the narrative through references to "the jet," the "weekend chef", the 23rd anniversary party for which Adam hires the entire New York Public Library, and the Foundation. Eventually the Moreys have so much money that they need "to hire people just to help them figure out how to give it away."

Dee maintains narrative momentum throughout. He achieves this less through plot architecture than through a series of well wrought set pieces ranging from the wedding scene through the visit to the legendary boss's country home, the gala charity event, the death of a parent, the drug-induced car crash and so on. These are portrayed with remorseless insight and sharp prose but never descend into satire. Then there is the added spice of insider trading. Adam indulges in this just because he can, even though he makes much more money through his legitimate activities. His crime hangs over their lives, but when he confesses to Cynthia, she reinforces rather than rebukes him: " You are a man, Adam. You are a man among men. " It is just a shortcut to their destiny.

Dee has a gift for capturing sharp insights into character, as when Cynthia, on discovering that the young Jonas has a liking for the " Nate the Great" books, goes out and buys him all the remaining thirteen editions in one go, oblivious to the concept that it is the acquiring, not the owning which constitutes the joy of collecting.

This is not a morality tale. Dee is neutral regarding the workings of the esoteric financial markets: "Money was its own system, its own language, its own governing principle." The action takes place before the meltdown and there is no come-uppance. Nor is it a voyage of self-discovery. With the partial exception of Jonas, the Moreys have no hinterland, no interests beyond themselves, their workouts and their money. Even their own families, relatively normal people, they hold in contempt. Few readers would choose to swap places with the Moreys, despite their health and their wealth. This, I think, is Dee's point.


The First Rule
The First Rule
by Robert Crais
Edition: Hardcover

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars BABY FORMULA, 29 Mar 2010
This review is from: The First Rule (Hardcover)
"The First Rule" is a successful, formulaic thriller written with Robert Crais' usual elegance and skill.

Joe Pike began life as sidekick to Crais' main series hero, L.A. gumshoe, Elvis Cole, playing Hawk to Cole's Spenser. Pike may be known from his appearance: sleeveless sweatshirt, twin red arrow tattoos on his biceps, perpetual sunglasses, and a bristle of firearms. He is a cyborg warrior. His central processor knows neither fear nor doubt. It is hardwired with a code of natural justice that does not always coincide with the law. In any given situation, Pike can only do one thing. Unlike Cole, he is not a developed character. He is a vehicle for relentless, linear, cathartic and violent action in the mode of Jack Reacher or the Terminator.

"The First Rule" - the title apparently refers to the Russian mafia's code of conduct, which must be true as one couldn't make this up - is a conventional tale of revenge. One of Pike's retired army buddies and his family are brutally murdered by home invaders somehow linked with Serbian gangsters. Pike assembles a predictable band of avenging angels and through a combination of classic detective work, orchestrated by Cole, and enhanced interrogation techniques, tracks down and deals with the killers. In the process, he rescues a stolen baby. His tin heart softens. Perhaps the old cyborg's biological clock is kicking in.

Predictable and formulaic? Absolutely. Entertaining page-turner? You bet!


Truth
Truth
by Peter Temple
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 10.84

47 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars AND BEAUTY, 29 Mar 2010
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This review is from: Truth (Hardcover)
"Truth" is a superior police thriller set in Melbourne, Victoria. Plot, character, setting and style reinforce one another brilliantly to make a rich, dark and satisfying whole.

Stephen Villani is Melbourne's Head of Homicide. In this book - which despite the minor reappearance of some characters from the also excellent "The Broken Shore" is standalone rather than part of a series - Villani faces two major cases. In the first, a young woman is found murdered in a VIP apartment in the city's new casino complex; in the second, three thugs are found tortured and murdered in the suburb of Oakleigh. This description does not do justice to Temple's extraordinary weave of sub-plot and sub-sub-plot. "Truth" encompasses politics, business, the media, race, intra-team and inter-team police dynamics, family issues across three generations, adultery, bush fires, technology, corruption and ghosts, both threatening and benign. A story diagram for "Truth" would look like the wiring blueprint for an Airbus A380. Yet, Temple pulls it off. The reader does not get lost but rather is absorbed in a complex and vaguely disturbing world.

Temple does not lose the reader because all the strands are held together in Steve Villani's head. He has a sharp and fluid intelligence and an internal compass that largely keeps him level despite the almost overwhelming accumulation of stresses and events. The rest of the large cast is strong too, ranging from Villani's tough gruff father, through Dove, his aboriginal assistant, and Rose Quirk the mother of a man killed by the police in an earlier case to various examples of Victoria's great and not- so-good.

"Truth's" Australian setting is refreshing, along with its idiom of barbies, sunnies, long blacks (a type of coffee), branchstackers (your guess is as good as mine) and Blind Freddy. It meets the crime book's challenge of finding something new without dragging us into the dreary depths of the Scandinavian soul or the artificial fog of Victorian London. Melbourne, here, is a complete world at once familiar and unfamiliar to the average British or American reader.

Temple writes beautifully. He favors short, tight sentences but does not write down to his readers. This is intelligent prose, with powerful images, flashes of humor and convincing dialogue. There is plenty of torque.

Temple's publishers have made comparisons to Coetze and Wolfe but this is not a novel that aspires to transcend the crime genre. It is satisfied to perfect it.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 25, 2012 5:21 PM GMT


Solar
Solar
by Ian McEwan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 15.59

14 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Light Reading, 24 Mar 2010
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Solar (Hardcover)
With "Solar," Ian McEwan takes on the comic novel as well as the mega topic of anthropogenic climate change. The result is entertaining and at times thought provoking, but it is not wholly successful. McEwan is let down by his central character who is unlikeable and unconvincing.

"Solar" revolves around Michael Beard, whom we are told won a Nobel Prize for physics in 1972 for discovering the "Beard-Einstein Conflation'" a breakthrough in the field of... oh never mind. Beard's story is told in three episodes. The first finds him in 2000 at the age of 53. He is living of his past fame, harvesting seats on commissions and visiting lectureships and serving as part-time chairman of the National Centre for Renewable Energy. He is 15 lbs overweight. His marriage to his fifth wife is falling apart as a result of, unusually, her, rather than his, affair. A bizarre accident involving - with appropriate irony - a polar bear rug presents Beard with the double opportunity to avenge himself on an adversary and steal some intellectual property.

The second episode advances to 2005. Beard is now 35 lbs overweight. He is involved with Melissa, a comforting woman determined to have his baby. He is working frantically to develop "his" new theory of artificial photosynthesis and has become famous all over again.

In the final episode, we reach 2009. Beard, now 65 lbs overweight, is on the brink of the commercial launch of "his" invention at a site in New Mexico. He is also shacked up in a trailer home with a fifty-something waitress named Darlene. The sins and excesses of his past begin to catch up.

"Solar," thankfully, is not a polemic on global warming. Certainly, all the familiar arguments are paraded out, but these are counterbalanced by Beard's shallow agnosticism: "In fact, greenery in general - gardening, country rambles, protest movements, photosynthesis, salads - was not to his taste." The epigraph also gives us a clue that Beard's chronic inability to control his appetites stands as a metaphor for humanity's inability to make short term sacrifices for the longer term good. As for the physics, McEwan scatters references to science like raisins. The novel contains a clever wink at this. We learn that while at Oxford, Beard boned up on Milton as a step in his seduction of a third year English student. He smugly reflects on how easy it was for a physicist to bluff his way through the English major's territory whereas the reverse would be unimaginable. However, McEwan makes a good fist of it here.

McEwan makes an easy transition to comedy. His signature plot device of the game-changing accident - the mistaken letter in "Atonement," the balloon incident in "Enduring Love", the polar bear rug accident in this book- plays well in comedy. His dialogue is amusing, and there are numerous well-honed and sparkling set pieces, though one of these is lifted (albeit with attribution) from Douglas Adams and another recycles the real life experience of Larry Summers' fatal transgression against feminist correctness. There is wonderful satire, too, of environmentalist luvvies, postmodern critics and American fast food culture among other targets.

The novel's two flaws - which do not render it at all unreadable - are its episodic structure, for the three parts do not fit together seamlessly, and its central protagonist. Beard is not likeable and he is not credible. He is unconvincing as a Nobel laureate, lacking the strength of intellect, character or presence that one would expect. Nor is he compelling as a womanizer - unless Dr K was mistaken and the ultimate aphrodisiac was not his power but his gong. Beard comes from the same cast as some of the characters in Updike, Roth, Amis Père, even Tom Sharpe. Above all, he made me think of David Lodge. Lodge would have created a Beard who was more appealing and more self-insightful. Indeed, I suspect Lodge could have written this novel better than McEwan.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 8, 2010 3:48 PM BST


Split Image: A Jesse Stone Mystery
Split Image: A Jesse Stone Mystery
by Robert B. Parker
Edition: Hardcover

33 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Completion, 12 Mar 2010
Sadly, Robert B parker died at the age of 77 just before the release of "Split Image." Fans may be partially consoled by the knowledge that there are at least one and possibly two Spensers and a Virgil Cole novel still in the publication pipeline, but this is surely the final chapter in the Jesse Stone series.

Stone is the Chief of the 12-officer police force of Paradise, Massachusetts. He arrived at this post following the failure of his two prior careers: his hopes in pro baseball were torpedoed by a shoulder injury; his position in the LAPD Robbery Homicide Division was washed away by alcohol following the collapse of his marriage. He is still haunted by his ex-wife and he occasionally still succumbs to drink. Mainly, though, he is a very good chief. He combines confident authority with human wisdom and a detective's sixth sense.

In "Split Image," Stone faces two cases. The first involves two Boston mob bosses who have "retired" to Paradise. They are married to identical twins and live in identical houses. One of the mobsters and one of the other's bodyguards are murdered and it appears that the sisters have something to do with it. In the second case, Stone helps Boston P.I., Sunny Randall - herself one of Parker's series heroes- investigate the leaving of home of the teenage daughter of a self-important Boston family who appears to have joined a cult. Neither plot is especially strong - stock items lifted out of Parker's repertory trunk - but by now we read Parker more for the dialogue and interplay of characters than for suspense.

"Split Image" includes a virtually valedictory round-up of Parker's characters: all the usual folks from Paradise, plus Sunny Randall, Spike, Rita Fiore, Captain Healey and Susan Silverman from the other series. We are missing Spenser, of course, but Dr Dix sounds rather like him, possibly he is the old dog in disguise.

For most of Parker's career, a large part of the dialogue circles around defining "The Detective" and his code. In this book, there is a greater focus on defining the "happy person," or the "complete person." Both Stone and Sunny achieve breakthroughs in their analysis is this book, and their relationship has become much more serious. Completion at last.

I started reading Robert B Parker when my high school English master handed me a copy of "The Godwulf Manuscript " and said, "Read this. It doesn't matter that it is a crime novel, it is good writing." Parker and Spenser in particular have been part of my life ever since. "Split Image " is far from Parker's best work but, under the circumstances, I think that fellow devotees will understand why I gave it five stars.

P.S. If you have not seen the made for TV movies of Jesse Stone starring Tom Selleck, order the DVDs now. Parker remarked that Selleck, alone of all the actors playing his creations, gets the character just right.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 27, 2011 1:37 PM BST


Border Songs
Border Songs
by Jim Lynch
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 14.03

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE BIRDS IN THE NIGHTTIME, 5 Mar 2010
This review is from: Border Songs (Hardcover)
Jim Lynch's second book, "Border songs" is a whimsical, entertaining and at times touching book. It introduces us to several special worlds, dairy farming,marijuana cultivation, smuggling, border enforcement, bird watching, small town hardiness and autism.

"Border songs" is set in Blaine, Washington in the Pacific Northwest on a small stretch of the unimaginably long and largely unmarked US-Canadian border. Struggling dairy farmers live uneasily beside "Microsoft millionaires," retired in their thirties, and an increasingly large and increasingly affluent community of "bud" growers and smugglers - old-timers who have succumbed to Mammon, as well as interlopers. Thousands of illegal immigrants of astonishingly diverse origin and smugglers of drugs and arms pore across the boundary -" as thin as a rumor" - barely inconvenienced by the overstretched and largely timid ("Roadie" = retired, on active duty) Border Patrol.

Brandon Vanderkool is a 6ft 8in rookie agent. He is autistic. On the one hand he is a innocent giant , given to strange arm movements, struggling to write reports and to string together sentences ("lock your heads on top of your fingers".... "You laugh when you are beautiful".. and so on) and having to exert all of his mental capability to read the simplest of body language. On the other hand, he is exceptionally gifted - he has an extraordinary affinity for birds, he is an artist of striking genius, and he has a sixth sense for finding smugglers and illegals. Brandon becomes, in the parlance of the BP, a "shiiit magnet," landing record catch after record catch. One day, he runs down a famous alleged terrorist. Blaine is inundated with Feds, congressmen, reporters and "Minutemen" vigilantes who redeploy from the Mexican border. Homeland Security funds wash across the landscape, resulting in motion-controlled cameras, drones, blimps and helicopters. The town's elderly cancer victim is arrested when the residue of his radiotherapy sets off an agent's state-of-the art dirty bomb detector.

In addition to the oddly attractive Brandon, Lynch introduces us to a range of interesting and quirky characters: Norm, Brandon's father whose world is falling apart, Wayne, a cranky, generally stoned, retired Canadian professor whose hobby is to bait his southern neighbors, Madeleine, Wayne's green-fingered (guess her area of horticultural specialty) and drunkish daughter, for whom Brandon harbors a lifelong crush, Dionne, Brandon's tough trainer with a soft heart, Toby a drug kingpin who acts more like a Harvard MBA than a wise guy and Sophie, a mystery woman who lives beyond her means as the town's masseuse. Lynch takes us into all their lives, with wonderfully descriptive prose and a good ear for dialogue. He is especially strong at conveying Brandon's strange perspective on the world.

The novel, however, is indecisive in its key. It cannot decide whether it is a detective story, a social comedy, a wicked satire of current affairs, or a sensitive exploration of a learning disability. It is all these things, but it does not quite integrate them or get the balance right. This is a noticeable flaw but not one that should discourage prospective readers. There are many strong qualities to compensate.


Churchill's Empire: The World that Made Him and the World He Made
Churchill's Empire: The World that Made Him and the World He Made
by Richard Toye
Edition: Hardcover

26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars THE WORLD INSIDE HIS HEAD, 1 Mar 2010
Anthony Storr once observed that Churchill's extraordinary power to inspire and lead his nation during its darkest hour was rooted in the "romantic world of fantasy in which he had his true being." It is virtually certain that Churchill's romantic world was predominantly shaped by his imperial vision and conviction of the special, higher destiny of the "English Speaking Peoples."

In "Churchill's Empire: The World that Made Him and the World He Made," Richard Toye (previously the author of a book on the relationship between Lloyd George and Churchill and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Exeter) traces Churchill's involvement with the British Empire from his boyhood during its apogee to his twilight years during its sunset. Much of the story is well-known: the Young Winston waging and reporting on his "jolly little wars against barbarous peoples," the perennial "subaltern of Hussars" that lived beneath the statesman's skin, the prime minister who affirmed that he had not come to power to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire and then went on to do precisely that. However, Toye for the first time subjects the story to sustained analysis and has written a highly readable account that draws on many new sources - diaries, letters, newspaper articles and unpublished papers.

Toye traces how Churchill's attitudes were shaped by the influence of his prominent father, by his headmaster at Harrow, the Rev'd JEC Weldon, by his reading from Macaulay and Gibbon to such now forgotten tomes as Winwood Reade's "The Martyrdom of Man," by popular culture such as music hall jingoism, and by his early experience as a soldier, war correspondent and Colonial Office minister. He follows their evolution and convolutions through the war and into the necessary acceptance that the Empire's days were waning. Churchill accepted this reality but his underlying views remained remarkably constant and true to the Victorian complexity in which they had their original roots.

Toye shows us that Churchill's attitude to empire was complex but complex in a way that was not unusual among his contemporaries. The Victorian Mind (which as Nehru pointed out in the Forties, was what Churchill was predominantly possessed of) could combine broad racism (Churchill recurrently referred to "naked savages" and to such things as "slit eyes and pigtails" and spoke of Indians as "a beastly people with a beastly religion") with a remarkable tolerance towards individuals of any race, provided that they were "civilized" and "fitted for it;" it could promote "wicked and brazen exploitation" on the one hand but also proclaim a higher purpose and a true civilizing mission on the other. Churchill firmly believed in this duty to "think imperially" and to pursue "something higher and more vast than one's own national interests." As it became clear that Britain's ability to uphold this destiny was slipping away, Churchill urged it on the United States to which had passed the baton of the English Speaking Peoples despite doing its best under Roosevelt to hasten the end of the empire. Arguably, the English Speaking Peoples was a more important construct for Churchill than the empire per se, including India, which was to occupy so much of his energy.

"Churchill's Empire" contains many anecdotes and vignettes that I had not come upon in prior reading about Churchill. He informs us for example that WSC and Mark Twain- two of the most quotable wits of all time - actually appeared together on stage in New York in 1900, though neither seems to have risen to his personal best in that exchange. He tells us that Winwood Reade's book quotes a description of a slave ship including the words "never was so much suffering condensed into so small a space" - sound familiar? Then there was the bizarre telegram that Churchill dispatched to Eamon de Valera following the news of Pearl Harbor: "Now is your chance. Now or never. A nation once again." We learn of Churchill's concern about immigration trends in 1954: "public opinion won't tolerate it, " and his observation that the type of regime that some were trying to create in the fledgling European Community was very similar to what Britain had created in India a "function of central control including an external element."

Toye's book might have focused more on the importance of the idea of Empire to Churchill and how it fueled his leadership imagination; and he might have dwelt longer on the consequences to today's world of some of Churchill's actions, inactions and decisions in, for example, Palestine, Iraq and the partitioned sub-continent. Nonetheless, it is a fresh analysis and a well-told story with much to recommend it.


The Pregnant Widow
The Pregnant Widow
by Martin Amis
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 15.20

18 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Faux Amis, 22 Feb 2010
This review is from: The Pregnant Widow (Hardcover)
I plunged enthusiastically into this novel encouraged by reports that Martin was back. Alas, not so: "The Pregnant Widow" miscarries. It is worth reading and there are bursts and flashes of brilliant writing, but on the whole it is mishmash. Its central narrative moves at geological pace, its protagonist is wet and uninteresting, its other characters are undeveloped and its wraparound commentary is as pretentious as it is portentous. Amis tries too hard.

"The Pregnant Widow," we learn from the epigraph is not a person but a metaphor for the untidy legacy of the passing of an age, whether an era or a life-stage. In this book, in which Amis returns to the comfort zone of "The Rachel Papers" and "Dead Babies," the era is 1970 and the life stage the early twenties. Keith - "probably the most plebian name there is, don't you think" - Nearing is a second year literature student spending his summer vacation in an Italian castle in the company of bright young things. Keith alternates his time between "work," that is reading the entire canon of the early English novel, and plotting his sexual relationships with three girls. These are Lily, his currently on-again girlfriend who has not quite come to terms with the age of Aquarius, the pneumatic and frequently topless Scheherazade, with whom he becomes obsessed, and the big-arsed, centaurish Gloria Beautyman, who a pronounces herself to be a "cock" and gives him a twenty first birthday present that he never gets over.

The 400 page, often tedious, main narrative is interrupted by a series of "intervals" in which the narrator, who turns out to be Keith's future super-ego (yes, that's what I thought too) pontificates in the Voice of "Experience." At the end, there is a 60 page "coda" in which the narrator fast forwards at two or four year intervals to the present day, providing the reader with many opportunities to spot the pregnant widow and her offspring.

To be sure, there is much vintage Amis here, the riffs and the repetitions, the cutting insights, the repetitions. There is much vintage Amis here. There is a 4ft 10in Italian count who is the hooker in the Il Furiosi pack. Keith is described as occupying "that much-disputed territory between 5ft 6 in and 5ft 7in." Lily is summed up by her packing, which she "subedits" and which is her "art form. Her finished suitcase was a finished jigsaw; she brought the same precision to bear on a picnic basket. even her beach bag looked like a Japanese garden. This was her nature."

Amis tries too hard. "Fiction," Keith reflects is "kitchen sink," and the kitchen sink is thrown in here. There are the autobiographic echoes (guess who spent his summer vacation in a Mediterranean castle), the characters à clef (can it be true that Gloria is based on Tina Brown? Wow!), the echoes of the early novels and the non-fiction, too copious literary and classical allusions (Jane Austen is virtually a character in the novel), an annoying number of etymological explanations, laments about aging (does Amis not realize that sixty is the new fifty?), grumpy-old-man swipes at political correctness and politically correct dragging in of Islamic themes. And, since there are references to "Larkinland," we can only speculate that they really effed him up, his mum and dad.

Amis is like a great musician who has lost his ear but can still perform by reading every single note from the sheet music. He touches the right keys but the alpha sparkle is gone.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 4, 2010 9:06 PM GMT


The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures
The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures
by Nicholas Wade
Edition: Hardcover

12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Wired For God, 9 Feb 2010
Nicholas Wade's "The Faith Instinct" begins promisingly but fizzles out, its argument unproven. It is lucidly written and contains several thought-provoking passages, but it is also padded with whole sections of pop-science banalities.

Wade is a science journalist (New York Times, Nature and Science magazines), not a scientific researcher. He draws on evidence from a broad range of fields, including archeology, sociology, anthropology, biology, neurology, religious scholarship and so on, to build his argument.

Wade argues that since a) religion has been a universal facet of human society for at least 50,000 years and b) religion enhances the survival of societies through building "emotional commitment to the common good" and reinforcing behavioral patterns around such things as planting crops, then c) religion is "written into our neural circuitry" and that it is an "adaptive behavior" which was advanced through natural selection. Neither a) nor b) is an original observation, and Wade is unable to deliver conclusive evidence for c). Science has not, at least yet, established either specific genes or a specific region of the brain associated with religion. He is thus forced to concede that "in the absence of direct evidence about.... genes...(the argument) can only be assessed indirectly." Also, Wade's case rests on theories of group selection, which are not accepted by mainstream evolutionists.

As Wade's main argument runs out of steam, he adds chapters on such things as the marketplace of religion, the ecology of religion, religion and warfare, religion and nation and the future of religion. These chapters are superficial and not particularly original; they contain some interesting snippets but do nothing to clinch his argument. Throughout, he focuses on the group or societal aspects of religion and not on the individual experience of faith or encounter with the spiritual.

There is one area in which Wade recaptures the reader's interest and pokes a stick into an anthill. He takes a wide swing at the" three great monotheisms" and the discrepancies between scriptural versions of history and those developed through historical and archeological research. Christianity escapes only slightly dented, but Judaism takes a direct hit: historically, he pronounces, there was "no exodus from Egypt.... no conquest of the promised land." In other words, there was no Passover. As for Islam, Wade draws heavily on a revisionist school of scholarship (conducted mainly, it seems, by academics with Israeli or German sounding names, some of them wisely pseudonymous) which asserts that there is very little objective evidence for Koranic versions of history: "As for Mohammed, there is a strange paucity of independent historical evidence about his life; some scholars doubt whether he lived in the Hijaz, where Islamic texts locate him, and a few wonder if he lived at all."

Wade justifies these fascinating diversions (I at least am interested in learning more) in the context of his thesis by citing them as examples of how religions mould their narratives to serve societal ends and enhance group survival. Could be, and one is tempted to draw parallels, in light of recent scandals, to our current "secular religion" of climatology. In any case, I recommend that Wade not publish a cartoon version of this "alternative hypothesis about Islam."
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 11, 2011 7:41 AM BST


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