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The Rise and Fall of Communism
The Rise and Fall of Communism
by Archie Brown
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.09

24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extremely well written, interesting and educational, 2 Jun 2010
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I think it can appeal to historians and academics as well as readers who are not normally that much into history. There are references and bibliography and the linguistic and political neutrality of academics, but at the same time the story is accessible, engaging, narrated in good structure and unpretentious language.

Personally, I prefer economic and social histories more than political or institutional ones, and this book is mainly about the latter, but that makes sense considering the top down, authoritarian regimes described. Perhaps it's a small weakness that the economy parts are a bit sparse and also that the author's speciality shows when he talks about his topic (the USSR), the parts on other communist countries go a little bit too quickly. There is some repetition (especially in conclusions, summaries and in the last chapter), perhaps it's not necessary as the history is very well written and allows the reader to make up his own mind. Details like the above are probably inevitable in such an ambitious, wide-ranging book, I couldn't put them down as faults.

About the usual question (in such books) of perceived bias, I can't imagine many people being put off, the author casts a critical eye on communism and explains why elements of totalitarianism/authoritarianism go together with communism. But even if the reader disagrees, the point is not unpleasantly forced, the book focuses on story, not rants or polemics. There's no obvious right wing bias either, the occasional successes of communism are also explained and communism is contrasted to democratic socialism and people on the left like Orwell or Bevan who I thought are portrayed in a flattering light.


An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds
An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds
by Jonathan W. Silvertown
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 19.50

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A bit disappointing and inconsistent, 2 Jun 2010
I'm surprised at the good reviews this book got in the press. It could be a good coffee table book I guess, one can gather all sort of little tidbits. But if you're looking to really understand how plants/seeds work and their evolution, the book is a cumbersome read and it often confuses more than it illuminates. It often mentions biological/physiological terms and processes which are never explained (or sometimes explained much later), and often presupposes more knowledge than most books on evolution I've read (other times it goes to the other extreme and explains in length basic things, there is little consistency). Also, you have poems, quotes, references to Shakespeare who said this or an unknown Chinese philosopher who said that, which are overdone and interrupt the scientific parts.

In most science parts (especially on evolution), the chapters typically contain an assortment of statements which are written as givens in one sentence (say, "seeds evolved from sea to land only once while animals evolved many times"), and there rarely are explanations, references to evidence or further elaboration. I'm not disputing this or other statements, it's just that great pop science books also illustrate the scientific method and explain a few of the observations, deductions or experiments that lead scientists to a consensus. Here it's mostly random facts, no story, method or questioning.

One last (and very minor and personal) gripe, there's a comment: "this is not a long book (who has time for those these days?)". Come on, no matter how one feels about modern life, no free time (or even about people's concentration spans, dumbing down etc, if one wants to take it further), it's hard to deny that there's a big minority of avid readers and lovers of knowledge who are not turned off by large books. Given his science background, the author is probably one of those anyway. Ok, just a harmless comment I guess, but I found it unnecessary, populist and a little patronising. Speaking of size, the book is perhaps shorter than it looks due to relatively large fonts and many pretty drawings.

On a more positive note, it's never easy to popularise a complex topic without under/overdoing it, it needs clear thought, precise language and good structure (like some of Dawkins's evolution books for example, which in my opinion have these traits). I think this book is meant to be an easy popular science book but it tries to be too many things to too many people (in too little space) and it ends up partially successful. Still, it could be a worthwhile read for readers interested in the topic, and I'd rate it at 2.5 stars if I could.


Natural Selection and Social Theory: Selected Papers of Robert Trivers (Evolution and Cognition Series)
Natural Selection and Social Theory: Selected Papers of Robert Trivers (Evolution and Cognition Series)
by Robert Trivers
Edition: Paperback
Price: 29.37

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very enjoyable and not just for specialists, for interested readers and laymen too, 3 April 2010
A book with the title "selected papers" is bound to discourage readers of popular science, which is a shame as this book has a lot to offer to non-specialists (like me). Obviously, as a collection of papers, it can get quite dry and there are occasional pages with maths (albeit quite simple fractions and equations), casual readers will probably skip some, as I did.

The range of papers is quite wide and some are more traditionally scientific than others, you have for example one on social insects full of evidence and testable predictions, and on the other hand one on self-deception which can sometimes come across as a philosophical opinion piece (or just common sense), expressed in scientific language. Finally, there are longish autobiographical introductions explaining how the author came to write the article, personal thoughts and criticisms, and a summary of developments on the topic after the article the written.

The "more scientific" papers are very enjoyable, and full of interesting ideas, they may appeal to laymen who've read a few books on evolution or readers with little background to science (who can also get acquainted with the cold and lucid prose of academic papers. The topics are inviting and accessible).

The "less scientific" pieces and especially the intros were even more enjoyable for me. Trivers is too intelligent and self-aware to fall into the trap of verbosity and pseudoscience (in the case of the psychological pieces) or self-indulgence (in the autobiographical parts). Even in the most personal parts, he always engages with the world, puts his situation into a wider frame lucidly and unemotively, and uses his experience to understand the world and provide insights on how science (and scientific mindsets) work, what it takes to do proper research and how humans and other animals are evolved to behave. The writing in the intros is also full of mischief, empathy, humour and quiet self-deprecation. (Perhaps I should say that I have disliked autobiographical parts in almost all the books I've read, and especially science.)

Finally, for those not acquainted with Trivers' work, the theme in all the papers is conflict (within the individual, within family members, etc), when it arises, and the practical cost/benefit to everything in life, it's all as far from escapism as reading can get, more than your average book on evolution.


Alistair Cooke's America [DVD]
Alistair Cooke's America [DVD]
Dvd ~ Alistair Cooke
Price: 15.00

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great documentary, first episode not representative, 2 April 2010
For those who may happen to see the first episode and decide against watching the rest, the beginning gives the wrong impression. The episode is a collection of slightly disconnected personal vignettes (we see A. Cooke playing the piano, showing us his office, providing personal anecdotes etc). I assume that he or the producers wanted to make a nice introduction or warm the audience, I don't think it's needed or worked very well.

The remaining episodes are extremely enjoyable and educational, it is a straightforward history of the US. The "personal history" element (as the documentary is titled in some other editions/retailers) never becomes distracting or steals the limelight, it's only occasional brief sentences/opinions on why a character or a part of the history was deemed important. Alistair Cooke is a great presenter and the style is predictably a bit old fashioned, but it suits the material very well.

There are some small off-putting parts. It's the type of delivery and history you expect from a serving diplomat or an establishment man, it's suave, softened, complacent, patrician and conservative. At one point, A. Cooke compares his discomfort witnessing segregation to Americans wincing when hearing that Brits send their children to boarding schools (the point being, it's the same, people accept their societies' norms. Even if true to a certain extent, not the best way to make the point). John Brown is portrayed as a maniac (ok, historians and parts of American society are divided on this, one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter, etc etc, but the label is given too easily here with no elaboration). Also, many parts (especially about slavery, civil war, etc) are regularly phrased in the language "The negro remained [...], he was now [...]". Don't know if it's the "negro", the male gender, or the singular that annoys more (in fairness the same language is sometimes used for "the white man", "the cowboy" etc), but I believe even in the time this was made, such language was considered to have somewhat unpleasant undertones.

Having said that, good documentaries are rare, and this one has a lot to offer, I can't bring myself to deduct any stars for the above.


Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth
Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth
by Christos H. Papadimitriou
Edition: Paperback
Price: 11.89

16 of 27 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Self-indulgent and all over the place, 17 Feb 2010
I'd like to give a good review, it's obvious a lot of work has gone into the book, but there are so many faults with it.

As another reviewer pointed out, this book falls between its aims. Want a book with a reasonably accurate overview of B. Russell's life? The biographical elements are dramatised and inaccurate. Want a book that discusses B. Russel's ideas and their relevance to science? You get superficial one liners.

This book for some reason reminded me of the movie Amelie. Aesthetically, the authors have taken the best 3 places of Athens and sanitised them to the point that the city has become a fantasy land, a quaint picturesque town. The creators (who feature heavily in the story) come across as cute stereotypes as well, you have the French woman who is arty, 'speaks' with a French accent while Georges Brassens is playing on the background, and that's not enough, there's an asterisk when she appears which refers to the footnote "Annie is French!".

The story takes place in a world devoid of ugliness or poverty, and separated from economics, society, technology etc. Yes, the creators try hard to squeeze as many historical (or other) facts as they can into the story, but the result is forced, shallow and pretentious, especially when they try to name drop as many famous people as they can, not just from the fields of maths/logic but also from literature, poetry and history ("P. Shelley said [...]", X said that, etc). Not even clever quotes or witty aphorisms that fit the story, it's superficial one liners summarising the person's whole work/philosophy in a cliche.

When it comes to the few times when a word is used with some relevance to philosophy or logic, the supposed high-browness breaks down. One of the creators interrupts B. Russel's story when the word tautology is used and there's a page of patronising, self-indulgent discussion between the creators along the lines of "Does it get too technical? We know that tautology is [so and so] but will the average reader understand this? What is a common reader?", "Ooh... What complicated questions... Let's return to the story once more". (Should say, not actual quotes, I'm paraphrasing).
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 14, 2010 1:48 AM GMT


One, Two, Three...Infinity: Facts and Speculations of Science (Dover Books on Mathematics)
One, Two, Three...Infinity: Facts and Speculations of Science (Dover Books on Mathematics)
by George Gamow
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.74

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great intro to physics, 27 Dec 2009
Seems that this book inspired many young people (of the not so young past) to find out more about science or become scientists and I can see why, it's well written, well organised and very informative.

Science books get old fast, yet I read this 60 years after its first publication and I find it better than other more modern books in similar topics.

The style may be a bit dated, and some theories have been proven wrong (i.e. the shape of the universe) but topics on relativity, quantum physics, non-euclidean geometry, apparatuses and major physics experiments are explained in a simple manner yet without insulting the intelligence of the reader.

The basic mathematics/calculus/statistics/geometry in the book always tie with issues in physics and how the universe works. Some parts may need a bit of concentration and re-reading but no previous knowledge is assumed.


Palestine
Palestine
by Edward W. Said
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.49

15 of 20 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Could have been much better, 14 Dec 2009
This review is from: Palestine (Paperback)
I was looking forward to reading this, I love the concept of comic journalism that the writer tries to create, and I would like to read more comic books on serious topics in that style.

Yet, I didn't enjoy the book. As another reviewer mentioned, it is too autobiographical. Not in terms of personal revelations but of trivial everyday things and self-conscious dialogues which lead to the recurrent theme of "oh my god, how challenging, things are not black and white, what they show us in the west is only part of the truth". It's not that I disagree with this theme (and if anything, I probably share many of the author's biases), it's just that the moral is given too crudely, as if the author was a naive American teenager returning from his first trip abroad and saying it all to his innocent and slightly nerdy friends.

The language contributes to that too, too many words wasted (especially in an artform which relies on the economy and succinctness of words). A couple of examples... On Israeli women being admitted in the army: "takes the edge off for an aesthete like me and as an international jetsetter with an opportunity -if not a mandate- to compare such things I would place Israeli women way high in the global hot looks sweepstakes". On a smoking young soldier immediately after: "and what about the boys? oh la la!! He's doing a 'welcome to marlborough country', even I am pressing my legs together!". On a middle age woman photographing above Israeli soldier: "betcha she's never had beefcake like this on her Fuji color".

Generally, I found the history parts incomplete and sparse, the personal travel stories predictable and uninteresting, and the lighthearted, "fun" parts (like the above excerpt) unfunny and juvenile. In fairness, I know basic stuff about the conflict and peoples and I take for granted some of the things that the author tries to express, perhaps I'm not in the right target group.


Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value
Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value
by James F. English
Edition: Paperback
Price: 18.27

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Well researched but wordy, tiring and not that insightful, 12 Nov 2009
It's an eloquent, well written and well researched book but ultimately it descends into the standard cliched formula that people/academics doing topics like media/cultural/gender studies adopt. That is, long semantic discussions and attempts to (re)define everyday words which have pretty concrete or common sense definitions in the first place, pretentious references to all the predictable people like Bourdieu or Derrida, tiring and abstract parts on culture and symbolism, etc. And all that in chapters starting with a supposedly meaningful quote from Pearl Jam or other popular culture icon. There is little more to add to what any observant TV viewer or newspaper reader has understood about awards and prizes.

Ok, it's obvious I don't enjoy that type of book and perhaps I'm biased (and I should say I couldn't read more than half), but this could have been a good book if it just narrated a rough history of awards with memorable or interesting moments and consequences, without the intellectual aspirations. Alternatively, it could have gone the other way, and analyse the economy of prestige properly (i.e. funding of awards institutions, tickets and public support, income changes of winners or losers, correlations of exposure and sales, job offers and contracts, money value of prizes, inheritance issues, journalistic or media industry connections and tit-for-tat favours/disfavours, etc etc). Needless to say, the little there is of all that concrete stuff is buried in the abstract talking and unnecessary words.


Strange Brotherhood
Strange Brotherhood
Offered by marxwax
Price: 11.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The start of the decline?, 21 Jan 2009
This review is from: Strange Brotherhood (Audio CD)
I'm a fan of the NMA and I've listened to all their albums. But for me the band lost its edge during the long gap between "Hopeless Causes" and "Strange Brotherhood" and I'm surprised it hasn't been mentioned on reviews here and other sites.

I think the band had reached a dead end after 5-6 (great) albums of the same passionate dark folk-rock-punk. The problem is that all the experiments they've done since (from brass sections here to the indie rock of "High") don't work as well, the changes sound a bit forced and are not that distinctive. Also, although I love the voice of Justin Sullivan, it can occasionally come across as stylised, like a better/grown up version of the 20 year old "sensitive songwriter" routine which is what (commercial/corporate) indie seems to be about lately.

Don't get me wrong, this is still much better than the majority of music releases.


The City: Inside the Great Expectation Machine (Financial Times Series)
The City: Inside the Great Expectation Machine (Financial Times Series)
by Tony Golding
Edition: Paperback
Price: 14.71

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Plain bad, 3 Feb 2008
I'm the only person so far with a negative review but I found this book plain bad.

The author gives some insight here and there but generally is all over the place. He may explain in length a very basic concept while taking for granted a more advanced one in the next page. And when you don't expect it, 4 chapters later he may devote a paragraph on it (or not). Also, he falls into the trap of many "insider" authors, using business-speak and unable to explain the markets in a practical and down to earth manner (not even if you have a background in economics/finance or a reasonable understanding of the markets).

For those wondering why the book is so expensive, it's in glossy shiny paper, the pages (all 270 of them) are unnecessarily shiny and thick, and the font sparse. There are fancy (admittedly not flamboyant) patterns that mark the chapters and page numbers in each page. There are also boxes on the right copying/highlighting a sentence from the page (all these normally make a book cheap in my opinion), and unnecessary tables with lists such as "what do organisations look for in an employee? 1: knowledge of the market, 2: phone skills" etc, with ratings of importance next to each entry according to research. Seriously, what insight can this give about how the city really works?

I might be a pedant but I'm also annoyed with parts like "this book will show" while the exact next sentence begins with "we will also discuss". There's only one author, he should stick with the third person, or use "I" or "we". Whatever the choice, he should at least do it consistently.

The book might be useful to people in the city who are looking for specific nuggets of info about specific topics. For intellectually curious readers who are looking for a flowing, informative, well written and structured book, it's useless.


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