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Andrew Ross "J. Andrew Ross" (Southern England)
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The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
by Iain Mcgilchrist
Edition: Paperback

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A long march on the left-right brain, 9 Mar. 2011
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Iain McGilchrist has poured his life's work into the capacious frame of this book. Only a thinker who first spent some twenty years getting his case together could have produced so massively buttressed an argument for greater awareness of hemispheric differences between the two halves of our cerebral cortexes. The scientific need for a deeper and more nuanced understanding of our brains' lateralization is clear and acute, and the social pathologies consequent upon our ignoring this key feature of our anatomy are correspondingly important. That said, the investigations brought together in this book can only represent a small start on a huge task.

Dr. McGilchrist is certainly to be congratulated for having made a start. Previous work on this topic has been of variable quality, a fact which becomes alarmingly clear as McGilchrist reviews the panorama of that work. Such contrasts as intuitive versus logical, or emotional versus rational, or even male versus female, hardly do justice to the subtle and often tricky nuances of our hemispheric specialization. In future, any researcher who wishes to do justice to this topic will have to take due account of this fundamental book. In fact, any such researcher will have to start here, for it brackets all that went before.

At first I expected a monograph that in its scope and ambition would essentially update the classic work on the bicameral mind published in 1976 by Julian Jaynes, but Iain McGilchrist takes a rather different tack. Although the depth and the scope of his work invites comparison with Jaynes, who was thinking so far ahead of the empirical work of the time that parts of his classic work now seem almost nutty, McGilchrist has wisely held back from speculating on the evolution of consciousness. Given the cataract of works on consciousness that have appeared in recent decades, this is perhaps only prudent, but it also reflects the fact that hemispheric lateralization cannot really be expected to shed much light either on the physiological question of how the operation of neural networks sustains or creates phenomenal experience or on the psychological question of how the emergence of consciousness can be traced in the cultural evolution of Homo sapiens. However, McGilchrist does not shy away from conjecturally tracing any number of historic cultural impacts back to our differentially lateralized brains.

One reservation is worth emphasizing. This book is not a work of science in the modern data-driven sense. It is much more correctly considered as a work of philosophy in the sense that prevailed a century ago before the logicians took over. Iain McGilchrist is a writer who in comparison with William James or Sigmund Freud is more inclined to cite artistic works that have no scientific credibility in support even of his more scientific claims. For example, he expects his readers to accept that poetic thinkers like Wordsworth or Goethe had insights that we can translate reliably into harder modern terms. I doubt that this translation is possible without controversy, and hesitate to endorse the pursuit of science in such a manner. Gilchrist also writes in a dense and allusive manner that many scientists will find hard to take. The fact that readers of a more reflective disposition will enjoy the style is beside the point. The message of this book, if summarized too sharply, will sound to many scientists like a rant or a jeremiad against modern civilization and its evils. My five stars are intended to persuade such scientists to read the book anyway.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 23, 2011 9:59 AM BST


Teachings of the Christian Mystics
Teachings of the Christian Mystics
by Andrew Harvey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £17.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Reader's Digest for the soul, 26 Dec. 2010
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Andrew Harvey has been a one-man industry in matters mystical. His credentials as a Christian are thin (a gushing book on Jesus - Son of Man: The Mystical Path to Christ - that put me right off) but for this collection it hardly matters. The classics presented here are obvious choices and brief enough for hurried readers who just want a bit of mystic titillation before moving on with their lives. Anyone who wants to engage with the deep thought paraded here will have to go much, much deeper than this anthology, but at least it points them in the right direction. Maybe it's the sort of book to put by the bed instead of a Gideon's Bible, or to put by the loo for people who have about one minute to spare. Think of the volume as Reader's Digest for the soul.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 13, 2011 7:27 PM BST


War Bots: How U.S. Military Robots Are Transforming War in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Future
War Bots: How U.S. Military Robots Are Transforming War in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Future
by David Axe
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Overproduced and disappointing, 26 Dec. 2010
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The topic of this book is intriguing but perhaps it is too early to give it the treatment it deserves. This book shows every sign of having been produced too hastily without sufficiently critical editorial attention. The text is brief and thin and the illustrations are of mixed quality. The layout seems designed to display the weaknesses of this content as lavishly as possible. The whole thing could have been edited down to a good in-depth magazine article for a periodical like Wired. A deeper analysis of the topic that appeals to me (I haven't read it yet) is Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.


The Pacific - The Complete Series (Tin Box Edition) [DVD] [2010]
The Pacific - The Complete Series (Tin Box Edition) [DVD] [2010]
Dvd ~ Joe Mazzello
Offered by MusicnMedia
Price: £14.85

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good history with a very real flavor, 26 Dec. 2010
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The war in the Pacific from 1941 to 1945 can only be sketched in ten hours. This sketch captures the grit, the horror, and the sort of people who became heroes. It misses the grand strategy, many of the set-piece events, the technology, and the whole perspective from the Japanese side. But what it does it does well. It portrays telegenic characters who react believably to the unbelievable horrors of war and it frames a social history that brings the action home to a couch-bound viewer. The production values are superb and this is state-of-the-art historical reconstruction.

I watched the ten parts soon after watching the ten-part Band Of Brothers: Complete HBO Series (Commemorative 6-Disc Gift Set In Tin Box) [Blu-ray] series covering the American ground war in Europe in 1944 and 1945 in a similarly episodic and character-oriented way. I must say Band of Brothers did it better. It was based on a real unit with consistently real events and characters, and seemed more real to me. The Pacific story, by contrast, seemed to have been dramatized to a formula. But this is a personal reaction and I have no hesitation in recommending both products as a pair for anyone who wants to invest twenty hours in understanding the American war against fascism from the grunt's eye view.


Freedom
Freedom
by Jonathan Franzen
Edition: Hardcover

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Much better than I feared from the hype, 13 Nov. 2010
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This review is from: Freedom (Hardcover)
Franzen has become a really good novelist. His earlier best-seller The Corrections was pretty good, but it was only a proof of promise, as far as I was concerned. I took a long time to get through it because I thought some of it was silly and boring, but it did show the emergence of real talent. Freedom has been so hyped that I was ready to find it as useless as Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. But no, after reading the first 24 pages I realized I was hooked and read the rest at high speed. For me, that's high praise already. I won't bore you with the details - I'll just recommend it.


Hitch 22: A Memoir
Hitch 22: A Memoir
by Christopher Hitchens
Edition: Hardcover

51 of 65 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A scattershot volume that lacks coherence, 6 Aug. 2010
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This review is from: Hitch 22: A Memoir (Hardcover)
The Hitch is a public figure now, so this book will sell whatever I say. But don't expect too much. It's a collection of essays, some quite interesting, some less so, that tend toward autobiography. If, like me, you know some of the protagonists and were there at some of the events, the accounts Hitchens offers can be quite fascinating. But the chapters record a political evolution from naive student Trotskyite to posturing socialite Neoconservative that will grate on you if your views differ from the offered line by so much as a hair.

Given that unwelcome fact, the book has its merits. The book is written with a certain polish and includes some deft phrases. And the cameos of British boarding school life, of Oxford undergraduate demagoguery, of shabby London literary life, and of variously loathsome political and revolutionary figures worldwide, are often sharp and vivid. The energy the Hitch has invested in meeting, like Forrest Gump, all the big names of his time is impressive to behold. But the effect, in the end, is more depressing than inspiring. All that sound and fury has resulted in a scattershot volume that lacks the crafted coherence of a classic.

Hitchens has emphatic views that brook no opposition. As his best friend Martin Amis once said, resistance is futile. With the Hitch it's my way or the highway. In the end, after a mind-numbing recital of famous and infamous events and names of our time interspersed with repeated drum-rolls of self-righteous grandstanding, all leading up to a tedious review of his Jewish roots that exhausts all patience, this reader hit the highway.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 12, 2011 6:50 PM GMT


The Battle of Britain
The Battle of Britain
by James Holland
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £22.50

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A balanced, dramatic, and factually sound history, 3 July 2010
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This review is from: The Battle of Britain (Hardcover)
This is an account of Britain's finest hour that you can safely recommend to history buffs of all kinds, from amateur enthusiasts to university students. Actually, the finest hour here lasts six months, but that's long enough to take the Sceptred Isles from their day of greatest peril when the Nazi forces started their Blitzkrieg in the West to the period when the acute danger of invasion and collapse had receded and the war settled to a relatively sustainable slog. This is also the honeymoon period of Churchill's first six months in command, when he secured his place in the hearts of the English speaking people for all time by saving Europe and the world from its darkest years since the Black Plague. So the bar for this book is high. Only the very best is good enough to sit on the same shelf as so many other accounts, up to Churchill's own official history.
The special ingredients that Holland brings are balance and drama. He emphasizes the experiences of the warriors on both sides, and the reader is encouraged to sympathize with the German pilots and other ranks as well as with the British heroes. As for drama, the clash of Spitfires and Messerschmidts would seem exciting enough without more ado, but to keep the tension high over hundreds of engagements until the strategic picture becomes clear is one of Holland's big achievements. From our position 70 years later, the facts are in and we can be relatively objective, but the challenge of marshalling the facts into a coherent narrative is serious, and Holland has met it.
The book is not perfect. Sometimes the author's grammar runs away with him in the enthusiasm of the chase, and some fine technical detail about aircraft and engine systems could have benefited from deeper research, but these are quibbles. Also, the big picture, where the place of the Battle of Britain alongside the struggle on the Eastern Front or the debate in America over siding with the British Empire deserve some weight, gets short shrift in Holland's account. But this is no shame in a popular history. Holland deserves congratulations for a job well done.


36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction
36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction
by Rebecca Goldstein
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A scrumptious feast of mad ideas for obsessives, 9 Jun. 2010
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Rebecca Goldstein is a rare find among novelists: not only a big imagination but also a sharp analytic brain behind the scenes. She writes books that reward serious thought. For anyone who has moral scruples about reading novels during daylight hours this is a huge bonus. The 36 arguments are such delicious hokum, so often trotted out in earnest yet so flimsy, that a lampoon like this book is the only adult response to their emergence in public discourse. And the characters! Don't get me started. I recognized the real-life originals (yes, living, breathing souls) for her cartoon figures and saw them in all their sensual glory as the tale unfolded. On the other hand (ahem), some of the intellectual set-pieces explaining technical details for lamer readers did come over as the day job intruding into what would otherwise have been sweeter indulgences, but then again that touch of astringency is just what my ascetic palate, for one, finds most titillating. Any philosopher whose soul has been hung out long enough to dry will love the impish glee behind the caricatures of pomp and academic circumstance on parade here. The tale also presents a diorama of strangely anachronistic and dysfunctional Judaism in action, but with just the lightness of touch and compassion for its oddity that redeems the social commentary and lets the reader off the judgmental hook. Altogether, any readers who can savor the high life of the mind so scurrilously trashed here will hoot with joy as they read this gem.


Solar
Solar
by Ian McEwan
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Right on the Money, 9 Jun. 2010
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This review is from: Solar (Hardcover)
Ian McEwan is the best British novelist of his generation. And Solar is one of his best works. A comedy about a physicist - that's a hard act to pull off. But he did it, and creditably too. The novel is less dazzling than Martin Amis' Money, but the conception is similar, and I'm sure McEwan sees Solar as a kind of homage to Martin's comic brilliance. In fact, you can read Solar as Money reconstituted in a more craftsmanlike style and with a more substantial and credible central figure. Like Saturday, McEwan's other contender as his second-best novel, there's a lot of solid research behind Solar, which some readers may find too much but I find reassuring. If your conscience says you shouldn't be wasting time reading novels, you can tell yourself that the factual background is worth the lost opportunity to be reading something more worthy. And Solar is often really funny. That's already worth the time spent flipping the pages. Still, Atonement is McEwan's crowning and definitive masterpiece. Solar isn't in that league at all. But it doesn't pretend to be, and it's so much better than most novels out there that five stars are the least it deserves.


The Pregnant Widow
The Pregnant Widow
by Martin Amis
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.99

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A tombstone for eternity, 8 Jun. 2010
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This review is from: The Pregnant Widow (Hardcover)
This is Martin's best novel since The Information. But it's not his best novel. That was Money. The Pregnant Widow is written with a long view, with a view to the reputation in decades and centuries to come. Perhaps it's a begging letter to the Nobel Prize committee. Or a required text for his university course, with the requisite plethora of vaguely scholarly references to more or less classic writings. But an airport novel it's not. That was Yellow Dog, which I bought in its first days as a hardback to read over the Atlantic and felt compelled to hide from the traveler beside me to prevent his seeing the shameful words on the page before me (once I'd read it to the bitter end, I tore up the book and trashed the shreds). By contrast, this new novel is worth sporting on the shelf for a lifetime. It's Martin's best shot yet at classic status. In times to come, when the London trilogy has lost much of its contemporary sizzle, The Pregnant Widow will live on as a challenge for English undergraduates eager to test their exegetical powers on a worthy target. This new novel also deftly overshadows Martin's first three novels, The Rachel Papers (where in effect he channeled the skills of his father Kingsley), Dead Babies (a pulp work that I panned with more zeal than craft in my 1975 Oxford university magazine Isis review of it), and Success (the less said the better), and leaves Martin with an airbrushed but serviceable legacy for posterity. In fact, the 2010 contribution to the collected works is better than all its predecessors in several ways. It's more sober, more craftsmanlike (except for the sometimes oppressively esoteric vocabulary and references), more reflective (despite the profusion of stylistic tics, such as in-sentence repetition, and pet topics, like breast and stature statistics), and more philosophical. Yes, Martin is aging, and it shows. But so are we all, and there are still plenty of readers ready to read a doorstop like this one to recall the embarrassments of their younger years. One detail for gourmet readers - the Ted Hughes story of Narcissus that reappears regularly in the novel as a leitmotif is brilliant, almost so much so that it overshadows the murky sex games in the castle. That, more than any other visible thread in the tapestry, is what will give the book classic status, if indeed it gets it. For Martin's place in history, it also makes the book a suitably impressive tombstone.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 8, 2010 8:19 PM BST


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