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W. A. Featherby (London, England)
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Three Lives: A Biography of Stefan Zweig
Three Lives: A Biography of Stefan Zweig
by Oliver Matuschek
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 16.00

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not quite up to the mark, 13 Mar 2013
This is a highly competent translation of a sadly flawed work. Stefan Zweig was one of the nicest men ever to live. Unfortunately, little of his character shines through this biography. It fills some of the many gaps left in his own memoirs ('The World of Yesterday') but it eschews any analysis or criticism of his substantial literary output. His fascinating relationship with his second wife, Lotte, is also hardly mentioned; why, for example, did she commit suicide with him? Zweig's legacy in the German and English speaking worlds is ignored. One of the most pivotal collaborations in his professional life - that with Richard Strauss - which ended in disaster for both of them, is skated over. I rather doubt that this book would have found a publisher in England or the United States if it had been about someone from, and written by an author from, one of those countries. Unfortunately, the standard of work by German and, for that matter, French biographers is well below ours.


How England Made the English: From Why We Drive on the Left to Why We Don't Talk to Our Neighbours
How England Made the English: From Why We Drive on the Left to Why We Don't Talk to Our Neighbours
by Harry Mount
Edition: Hardcover

12 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A nostalgia fest, 19 Jun 2012
Harry Mount's book doesn't quite do what it says on the tin; indeed it's more about how the English made England than the other way round. In reality, of course, the character of a territory's inhabitants and the character of the territory they inhabit develop symbiotically - chicken and egg. Every sentence contains an interesting fact which the author sets out schematically but that's about as far as the analysis goes. I was riveted by the book and learned much from it in a pub quiz answers sort of way, but it fell a long way short of explaining England or the English. Indeed, much of the information simply served to show how similar England is to its neighbours, including those on the continent. Like many books of this type (and there are many), this one has an unresolved dilemma at its heart: Mr Mount deprecates the modern and its elbowing-aside of the old but, in the same breath, he has to acknowledge that the charm of the old is in its gentle decay. The trouble is, if there's much more decay, you're left with nothing old to be nostalgic about. Today's modern and brash is tomorrow's old and enchanting. John Ruskin hated the Monsal Head viaduct which we now think of as a beautiful enhancement of the countryside. A good holiday read but not a profound work of geography.


Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe
Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe
by Norman Davies
Edition: Hardcover

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fading echoes, 14 Jun 2012
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Of all historians writing today, Norman Davies is the master of the well-placed anecdote. His beautifully written book follows his works on Europe and `The Isles' but tackles the ghostly shades of extinct states and their fading echoes. There is no scheme or even common thread between the choices of state and, if there is a weakness in the book, that is it. No matter. Davies's idea is original and utterly beguiling; the reader is swept along on a crest of yarn and enthusiastic reminiscence. The learning and research is worn lightly. This work will be remembered more for its value as entertainment than as an opus to be consulted by scholars, but it is thoroughly recommended to the curious and intelligent general reader.


Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class
Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class
by Owen Jones
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

22 of 100 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Keep the Red Flag Flying!, 14 May 2012
If you are politically uncommitted, this book will steer you firmly towards the centre-right and support for the market economy. It's a nave but venomous polemic written by a privileged young Oxford graduate, the son of middle class, publicly-funded, civil servants and lecturers, who is profoundly ignorant about the people he has chosen to champion - as others have pointed out, he draws far too wide a definition of `chavs'. Mr Jones invents chips to put on his shoulder. He is an intolerant Marxist, apparently sympathetic to violent revolution, who manipulates any old regurgitated, pressure-group-filtered factoid to support his diatribe. Many of his assertions are unsourced and all are selective. A self-confessed class-warrior, he falsely chastises others for being just that. He rails against the laws of economics like Canute against the tide: at least Canute knew that the tide would swamp him. He would like to persuade us that `Thatcher' (boo, hiss!) deliberately set out to deindustrialise Britain for no other purpose than to victimise the working class - she did neither. It's all a wicked plot by the stinking rich! He blames `the ruinous economic policies of successive governments', for example, for the demise of the car industry, carefully overlooking that it was the unions that destroyed British Leyland and that Britain now exports record numbers of cars. No solution is offered to any problem except, perhaps, a general Soviet-style levelling down. This book is a worthless rant.
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Richard Strauss: A Musical Life
Richard Strauss: A Musical Life
by Raymond Holden
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 21.25

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Most disappointing, 13 April 2012
I regret that this is a most disappointing book. It consists of a superficial, outline biography of the composer interspersed with statistics about his conducting commitments. There is very little about his conducting style, and what there is is sometimes inaccurate. For example, Strauss was a minimalist conductor as Dr Holden says, but not always: there is plenty of evidence of a much more expansionist and expressionist style in his early career - see, for example, 'Richard Strauss' by Kurt Wilhelm; and Romain Rolland's remark in 1898 that, when conducting Beethoven, "his great body twisted askew as if struck by both hemiplegia and St Vitus's dance at the same time, his fists clenched and distorted, knock-kneed, tapping with his foot on the dais". The 'Product Description' promises that the book "throws new light on Strauss' ... disputed role during the Third Reich". Unfortunately it does no such thing: it deals with this important decade and a half of Strauss's later life in just six pages with no attempt at judgment or conclusion. There is no new evidence. The text is only 162 pages. It is followed by numerous lengthy appendices which are mainly just lists of conducting engagements of virtually no use to contemporary interest or scholarship. The prose style often lets the author down. I could not recommend this book to anyone unless they needed, but lacked other access to, highly specialist details about Strauss's performing career. There is no list of his works.


You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom
You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom
by Nick Cohen
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.09

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Freedom of speech under threat?, 7 Mar 2012
Nick Cohen continues to do stout service to British politics, journalism and public life. Not only is he an unflagging enemy of censorship and illiberalism, he exposes the double standards of the left in its self-serving and often racist selection of what it does and does not condemn and approve of, and he does so as a man of the left himself. His exposé of the left's contortions during the Salmon Rushdie affair is sabre-sharp. He has written another valuable, entertaining, thoughtful and highly readable book. For these reasons, five stars.

The book is not flawless, however. Mr Cohen sets up several straw men. Take the Simon Singh / chiropractic libel proceedings, for example. On the basis of scant evidence, Mr Cohen lays into the judiciary for, he says, cosying up to claimants in libel cases: he slams it for supposedly encouraging big-hitters such as corporations and pressure groups to use libel tourism to suppress free speech and the truth. Descending to the particular, he cites the first-instance judgment of Mr Justice Eady in Simon Singh's case as an example of the approach of judges generally. He then suggests that the Court of Appeal's reversal of that judgment was unusual and against the trend, almost an aberration. In fact, all the higher court did was restate the common law of England which Mr Justice Eady had misunderstood and hence misapplied. The chiropractors, as an indirect result, bit the dust. Far from being the enemy of unfettered debate and free speech, the higher judiciary proved to be their promoter and guardian. He has also missed the biggest potential threat to free speech in this country at the moment: the Leveson Inquiry. There must be many uncongenial forces smugly delighted that the illegal abuses against Charlotte Church and the Dowler family are being manipulated to justify demands for muzzles on the free press.

Mr Cohen also stretches his arguments to breaking point by repeatedly shifting his gaze back and forth between the minor blemishes on the face of free speech in the western democracies and the suppurating carbuncles thereon in various tyrannies around the world. Although he expressly denies that he is comparing the two, the impression he leaves is that these are points on a scale, and that our freedom of speech is under ubiquitous threat. This is not helpful, not least because the sources of illiberalism in each are different: in the former, the rich and their corporations; in the latter, self-perpetuating elites who have seized supreme political power.

That said, this engaging book is an important contribution to a necessary debate.


Before I Go To Sleep
Before I Go To Sleep
Price: 2.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Unforgettable, 12 Feb 2012
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We have a new talent amongst us with this new author. At the risk of uttering a cliché, I could not put this book down and stayed up half the night (a very cold night, at that) to finish it. (I would have been miffed if the Kindle battery had not held out but, as always, it did.) Christine, the heroine, is suffering an unusual form of amnesia which wipes her memory clean every night when she goes to sleep. She has to build a store of artificial memories by keeping a journal, assisted by her treating psychologist. To say much more would be a spoiler. The narrative is tight and obeys the classic rules of drama: few but well-drawn characters, unity of place and unity of action. There has to be some willing suspension of disbelief but, on nearly every page, you both speculate how Christine can cope and how you, the reader, would behave if similarly afflicted. About two-thirds of the way through, the plot quickens and hurtles towards a tense denouement, though the postscript is a bit of a collapsed soufflé. Christine is convincingly enough drawn for you to want to shout `look behind you' as the threats to her well-being and, eventually, life, accumulate.


Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain
Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain
by Edith Sheffer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 18.17

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Along and across the frontier, 4 Feb 2012
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Professor Sheffer has written a valuable monograph about the inner German frontier from the perspective of the people who lived either side of one short stretch of it and the teeming thousands who crossed it. This is a new way of looking at a fascinating but tragic episode in European history, and avoids the usual focus on Berlin and the Wall. The research is impressive and the book is packed with statistics. There are many new insights. Unfortunately, the author's style tends to be stilted, despite her best efforts every now and again to be aphoristic, making her book a heavyish read. Also, her use of anecdotes to humanise the points she is making is often rather flat. For human stories, see Anthony Bailey's 1983 book, 'Along the Edge of the Forest'. This reader could also have done with better maps (a surprising failing for the OUP - I kept having to use Google maps) and more detailed descriptions of the frontier itself. But these are minor points set against the valuable contribution Professor Sheffer has made to modern German history.


The Berlin Crossing
The Berlin Crossing
Price: 3.95

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A good read with errors, 13 Jan 2012
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I so wanted to enjoy this book but I cannot share all the enthusiams fellow reviewers evidently have for it. The novel is a 'good read', well-written and well-paced, but not hugely original or inventive. Mr Brophy knows Germany and I suspect has enjoyed 'The Lives of Others' and 'Goodbye Mr Lenin'. There are some annoying anachronisms in the book, however. At the risk of being pedantic: the Romans did not settle as far north as Bad Saarow; Erich Honecker was never head of the Stasi; the News of the World did not display bare breasts in 1962; pocket-sized asthma inhalers were not generally available in 1962; the slang word is Schwanz, not Schwann!; middle managers in East German factories did not serve coffee in cafetieres in 1962 (indeed, you would have been lucky to get any sort of coffee in East Germany then). I can't help thinking that a Forsyth or a Harris would have researched such errors out of his writing.


The Society Of Others
The Society Of Others
by William Nicholson
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Am I dreaming?, 13 Jan 2012
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This review is from: The Society Of Others (Paperback)
I read this because a columnist on The Daily Telegraph over Christmas wrote how much she likes Nicholson, and I was in for a surprise, if not a shock. I was also looking for a mental palate cleanser to start the New Year! Having travelled extensively in the formerly communist countries of eastern Europe in the 1980's, I recognised the society Nicholson describes, save that they were so controlled that those countries had no significant terrorism or armed resistance. The strange journey our unnamed hero is taken on (only the passive is appropriate to describe what happens to him; he seems to will nothing) is merely a device to describe his rebirth ('reincarnation' is a word that appears frequently in the book) from adolescence and cynical dependency to adulthood and principled self-sufficiency. The unnamed subject (hero would not be the right word) falls into the care of a series of individuals all of whom have a very different relationship to the state and 'the society of others' but all of whom seem, altruistically, to have his best interests at heart. The point is that no person is an island; indeed, we are all on an unstoppable voyage at the mercy of the winds. Of course, Nicholson does not mean us to take the adventure seriously or literally: we could pinch ourselves and wake from his dreamlike or nightmarish world in an instant, but somehow we don't want to. On top of all this, this is a page-turner. I have to dock the novel just one star because, like other reviewers, I found the ending a touch weak.


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