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The Test: My Autobiography
The Test: My Autobiography
by Brian O'Driscoll
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.95

4.0 out of 5 stars An Easy Test, 10 Mar. 2015
I assume that the vast majority of potential readers of “The Test” will know who Brian O’Driscoll is and what he achieved. If you don’t he’s simply one of the greatest ruby players who ever lived.
He begins with an account of his last game for Leinster, the victory in the 2014 Pro12 Grand Final where he had to go off early after injury. He then goes back to his childhood and works forward in chronological fashion to what I suspect was for him his “real” last game, the win for Ireland in France to seal the Six Nations Championship.
For most of the book I thought that the play that would receive most analysis was his account of how he engineered his first meeting with his future wife but as he recounts in vivid detail those final few minutes in Paris as we – I’m Irish – hung on for dear life it was like being in front of the TV with the outcome still in doubt.
A recurring criticism amongst who have given the book a low rating is that it is boring, that it lacks revelations or recriminations.
Well, may I ask what you expected to see in a Brian O’Driscoll autobiography? Sydney Opera House, perhaps? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically...?
It’s a bit like criticising a vegetarian cookbook for its lack of meat recipes.
What controversies are there to cover? Him being on the receiving end of that spear tackle? Him being dropped for the one and only time in a 15 year career? An opposing team’s ineffectually cheating in “Bloodgate”? The treatment he received at the hands of England in the Grand Slam year? (I was at that match and how he picked himself up time and again I do not know). He covers them all with the class we’ve rightly come to expect of him.
This is a guy with an extraordinary talent who comes from a good family, who married the only girlfriend he ever lived with, who never changed clubs and who never seems to have had a major falling out with a coach or teammate.
The two main revelations in the book are non-rugby related, how he was affected by the unexplained suicide of a close friend and how he spent a night in custody in New York when, needless to say, he’d done nothing wrong.
The book has an index that comes in handy and avoids the need for a glossary of nicknames with such entries as “’Dreamboat’ see Kearney, Dave”.
How to rate the book? Unlike the man himself it’s no five star masterpiece. Through no fault of his own his life lacks “Sturm und Drang”. If I’d no interest in rugby but had been asked to review the book I’d have given it a three. But for fifteen years I, like millions of others, had the pleasure of watching a sporting genius with the heart of a lion, a nice guy who finished first more often than not but who, whether he met with triumph or disaster, treated those two imposters just the same.


Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology through History
Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology through History
by Alfred W. Crosby
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £53.99

3.0 out of 5 stars A Hit? Yes. A Very Palpable Hit? Not Quite., 13 Feb. 2015
‘Throwing Fire’ is a somewhat curious and unusual book by a serious author. In 200 pages it covers such seemingly diverse subjects as throwing spears and the hazards of living in space. But Professor Crosby shows how they are linked.
Crosby takes as his starting point the fact that human beings are by far the best throwers in the animal kingdom. This fact had profound implications for our species for it meant we could kill at a distance.
After an introduction dealing with the implications of the fact that we walk on two feet thus freeing up our hands the book considers four “accelerations”.
The first takes us from the atlatl and bow and arrow through cooking and firestick farming to the trebuchet and Greek fire.
The second deals with gunpowder, cannon and firearms.
The third covers the V-2 and the atomic bomb.
The fourth covers ourselves “throwing” ourselves into outer space.
I had previously read Crosby’s ‘The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society 1250-1600’, a work I would strongly recommend to anyone interested in the question of “Why the West?” or indeed to anyone interested in history in general. While ‘Measure’ reads like the work of a professor ‘Throwing’ reads like the script of a TV documentary. The style is much more informal, almost chatty.
The casual style of writing is matched by a casual style in editing e.g. on page 140 references to 1918 should clearly read 1914 and on page 161 the author mixes up miles and kilometres not once but twice.
I found ‘Throwing Fire’ an interesting and enjoyable read but not a particularly profound one.


Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (California World History Library)
Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (California World History Library)
by David Christian
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars History (Almost) Without Humanity, 11 Feb. 2015
Of all the books I’ve reviewed on Amazon this is the one that I’ve had most difficulty assigning a rating to. Indeed I began a draft review without deciding on my final rating. This isn’t because I don’t have a settled opinion on the merits of the work but rather because (a) I haven’t read anything really comparable to assess it against, and (b), for me, the book falls into two main parts to which I would assign different ratings.
It sets out to combine a natural history of the universe from the Big Bang onwards with what most of us think of as history, i.e. human history. These two main parts of the work are followed by a kind of epilogue – if that’s the correct term – where the author speculates about what might happen in the near and not-so-near future. This I found somewhat out of keeping with the “just the facts” approach earlier in the book.
As far as I can tell the author does a more than adequate job of the covering the non-human part of the work i.e. the first 13.7 billion years but I think the appeal of this book is its attempt to integrate human history into the history of the universe. In a way it is like an Agatha Christie novel. I don’t think many people read them for their character development, sparkling prose or insights into the human condition. They read them to find out whodunit.
Similarly, if one wants a history of the cosmos then a work by a scientist or professional science writer would probably do a better job. But this book includes a world history i.e. a history of humanity since the emergence of our species and – like the Christie reader who judges the book by the twists in and the ingenuity of the plot – so in the end I gave my rating based on the author’s treatment of human history.
The author takes very much a materialist approach with respect to historical development. If you live in a world cover by ice you probably can’t build anything bigger than an igloo. Fair enough in so far as it goes but while I think it goes very far it still only goes so far. There comes a time when human agency matters. Sometimes it matters a lot.
What happened on the road to Damascus matters. What happened in the straights of Salamis matters.
Let me give a couple of examples.
(1) To my mind the outcome of what the Greeks called the Persian Wars was a pivotal event in world history. Try to imagine the world today if the Persians had won at Marathon or Salamis. (“There are very few instances in history when so much was at stake in a single battle. The channel at Salamis was as the eye of the needle through which world history had to pass if the decisive role was to be played not by vast, monarchically ruled empires but by a strange nation composed of small independent cities… one that gave a political voice to broad segments of the population.” Christian Meier, Athens: A Portrait of the City in Its Golden Age). Would democracy have evolved? Would science? Large empires got along without them for centuries. They might be getting away without them still had Miltiades or Themistocles lost.
(2) Societies can choose to reject or embrace change. When Gutenberg developed his printing press it spread like wildfire throughout Latin Christendom. Half a century later it would help fracture that Catholic west by aiding the spread of Protestantism. And, because Protestants were more inclined to read the Bible for themselves rather than have it read to them, this helped increase their level of literacy with knock-on economic effects. Men may have learnt to read the better to save their souls but it affected their understanding of profits as well as of prophets.
But printing was rejected for centuries in the Islamic world. One Westerner who travelled extensively in the Middle East between 1761 on 1767 wrote -
“In Cairo there is at least still a store where the Muhammedans can buy old books. In Baghdad one will not find that sort of thing. If one collects books here, and is neither prepared to copy them oneself nor to let others copy them, one must wait till somebody dies and his books and clothes are carried to the bazar, where they are offered for sale by a crier. A European who wants to buy Arabian, Turkish or Persian manuscripts will find no better opportunity than in Constantinople for here at least there is a sort of bookstore where Christians – at least Oriental Christians – can buy books.” (Carsten Niebuhr, Travels in Arabia and other countries in the East).
The father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, recognized the significance of this when he said –
“Think of the Turkish victory of 1453, the conquest of Constantinople, and its place in the course of world history. That same might and power which…made Istanbul forever the property of the Turkish people, was too weak to overcome the…resistance of the men of law and to receive in Turkey the printing press, which had been invented at about the same time. Three centuries of…hesitation were needed, of effort and energy expended for and against, before antiquated laws and their exponents would permit the entry of printing into our country.”
Try and imagine the world today if the Christian West had rejected printing and the Islamic world had embraced it. If you think it would probably be significantly different then you think human agency matters.
You could point to other instances e.g. the recall of the Mongol armies when they were about to overrun Western Europe due to the death of the khan. They never came back, switching their target instead to the Arab lands.
But these sorts of contingent events don’t get covered in the author’s scheme of things. Humans act pretty much like balls on a billiard table, they move in the direction material forces send them.
Professor Christian is very much of the “California School” of world historians. He is also very much influenced by Marxist thought. As well as Marx, Eric Wolf, Andre Gunder Frank, Stephen Jay Gould, Eric Hobsbawm, Walter Benjamin etc. get referenced.
Now I’ve nothing against these authors being quoted but I feel it would have been better had the author either written an out-and-out Marxist work or else given more time to non-Marxist viewpoints.
An insight into Professor Christian may be given in his comment on page 478 that, “Sadly, the Communist revolutions of the twentieth century suggest that overthrowing capitalism may be an extremely destructive project, and one that is not in any case likely to create societies that are notably egalitarian or ecologically sensitive.”
Running through much of the modern history part of the book is a commentary on the downsides of capitalism without either much of an acknowledgement of its upsides (e.g. antibiotics) or of an outline of an alternative that would be both preferable and realistic.

There is another passage that, to me, gives an insight into his mind-set in writing this book. We are told, on page 458, in a section aiming to show that the world has become more violent as it has become more unstable and more unequal that -
“William Eckhardt has roughly calculated that 3.7 million people died in war in the 1500 years up to 1500 CE” The source given is a bulletin on “War-Related Deaths Since 3000BC”. (NB the rest of the text makes it extremely unlikely that this is a typo).
Genghis Khan and Timur the Lame must be spinning in their graves, not to mention Mahmud of Ghazni, Attila the Hun and the supporting cast. Did they massacre in vain?
The armies of Genghis and Timur each accounted for multiples of 3.7 million over the space of a few decades never mind 15 centuries. Or take the An Lushan Revolt. The upper estimate – and I stress it’s very much the upper estimate – is 36 million dead. Some scholars think the real figure was only a third of that. Let’s say it was only one tenth. There’s pretty much your quota used up in one rebellion in one country in 7 years.
Even if the figure is meant to relate to battlefield fatalities only I still think it looks pretty ropey. 3,700,000 dead over 1,500 years works out at an average of 2,467 war related deaths per year. Consider individual battles where we have reasonably good ballpark figures.
In the Teutoburg Forest in 9AD German tribes wiped out three Roman legions plus their auxiliaries, cavalry and camp followers. Badly led as they were and unfavourable as the conditions may have been those Roman soldiers would have taken some Germans with them so there’s about the first decade’s worth used up in one battle over a few days.
Then think of all the rises and falls of empires and civil wars therein over the next millennium and a half and the figure of 3,700,000 dead over 1,500 years seems ridiculously low.
On the same page we are given an estimate of 19.4 million war dead for the 19th century and 53.5 million for World War Two. The latter figure makes it clear that the figures included non-battlefield casualties. Now the bloodiest war of the 19th century was the Taiping Rebellion for which the standard estimate of deaths is 20 million. Its ending overlapped with the start of the Dungan Revolt which accounted for 8 to 12 million. I’m sure there were some people killed outside China in the 19th century so I don’t know what these figures are based on.
Now we all make mistakes and we all probably subscribe to some view that most people would consider odd or unusual but for a person with the resources that Professor Christian had available to him to give credence to such figures suggests to me that there was an agenda at work here. Did he believe them because they would support a worldview that saw get more violent with the rise of capitalism and of income inequality?
This book has its merits but if you’re looking for a history of the world I wouldn’t start here.


Luis Suarez: Crossing the Line - My Story
Luis Suarez: Crossing the Line - My Story
Price: £8.55

1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars He Doesnt Quite Sink His Teeth Into It, 28 Jan. 2015
Apologies for the title.
I'm addressing this review at the general reader. Hardcore fans are unlikely to be swayed by someone else's opinion.
In many ways this is an interesting book. While most footballers (auto-)biographies have a ghost writer this has two and in many respects they do a good job.
The book has a somewhat unusual structure in that interspersed within a roughly chronological account of his life and career are mini-chapters dealing with such topics as the difference between English and South American refereeing styles, the impact of money on young players and their families etc. These I found interesting and informative.
Throughout the book the importance to him of his family and particularly of his wife Sofi shines through. Given the troubles hes gotten himself into, one wonders how much more he might have inflicted upon himself without her stabilizing influence.
It is Suarez's accounts of his extraordinary transgressions that should make the book of more than average interest to the general reader. Otherwise you would be left with a routine account of a player with a far from routine talent.
I found his coverage of the handball in the 2010 World Cup perfectly understandable. Its the sort of thing that we should all condemn while admitting that we might have done likewise had we been in his shoes.
An entire chapter is devoted to the Patice Evra incidents (s). Suarez admits to being a biter and a diver but vehemently denies being a racist. Now I haven't read all of the 115 page FA verdict condemning him just extracts but in a 14 page chapter Suarez comes across like a player who's had a penalty awarded against him because the ref got it wrong. His denial seems heartfelt. It may have been a genuine misunderstanding where Suarez's use of the Spanish word for black that begins with N and ends in O was interpreted as being racist but wasn't meant as racist.
Its on the biting incidents where, for me, the book falls down. This behaviour is extraordinary and its something hes done not once but thrice. Eric Cantona's kung fu was more egregious but he only did it once. Suarez is right when he points out that a bite is less dangerous than a career-threatening tackle but a foul tackle is a misapplication of a legitimate, integral part of the game whereas biting is or was until Suarez something totally outside the game altogether. You can have an honest disagreement over whether a given tackle was a foul and people have been hurt in perfectly legitimate tackles but a bite is ipso facto a foul, and a bizarre one at that.
We know Suarez is committed but is he any more committed than Gerrard or Carragher or many others? We know he acts first and thinks later but so did Paul Gascoigne and many others. But none of them bit opponents.
There's something else at work here and what it is were not told. Maybe Suarez himself doesn't know. Or maybe he knows and doesn't want to say.


The Knowledge Web: From Electronic Agents to Stonehenge and Back -- And Other Journeys Through Knowledge
The Knowledge Web: From Electronic Agents to Stonehenge and Back -- And Other Journeys Through Knowledge
by James Burke
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

2.0 out of 5 stars Trivial Connections?, 13 Jan. 2015
I grew up watching James Burke on TV and was, and am, an admirer of his TV shows/books “Connections” and “The Day the Universe Changed”. (“Connections” showed how various scientific discoveries and inventions – often seemingly disparate – built on one another in unexpected ways. “The Day…” covered somewhat similar territory, but in a more linear fashion.)
Unfortunately, “The Knowledge Web” doesn’t add to my admiration of his work. It seems to me to be making connections for the sake of making connections rather than for the sake of making a substantial point.
For those of you unfamiliar with his work I would not recommend this as a starting point but rather “The Day…” or “Connections”.
For those of you familiar with his work I would warn you not to expect too much. “The Knowledge Web” is to “Connections” and “The Day the Universe Changed” as The Godfather Part III is to The Godfather and The Godfather Part II.
For me a minimum requirement for a professionally produced non-fiction work by an experienced author is that it be factually correct as regards non-disputed, establishable facts.
On page 51 we’re told that “On November 20, 1918, at the battle of Cambria, the first use of the tank changed the face of war.” It is common knowledge that WW1 ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 so you would think that someone proofreading it would spot the obvious mistake (it should have read 1917). Furthermore Cambria wasn’t the first use of the tank (it had been in use since September 15, 1916) rather it was its first significant use.
On page 238 we’re told that Charles Lindbergh “…completed the first ever transatlantic crossing…” Burke is a Briton born in Ireland and you would expect him to know that the first ever non-stop transatlantic flight (as opposed to one by flying boat with stops) was by two Britons, Alcock and Brown, who landed in Ireland in 1919. Lindbergh’s was the first by plane from mainland to mainland.
On page 239 we’re told of a German warship that the “Graf Spee …packed the punch of a full-sized battleship and went faster and farther than any cruiser.” This sentence contains three assertions of fact, each of which is incorrect. The Graf Spee carried six 11” guns. A typical battleship of WW2 carried eight to ten 14”, 15” or 16” guns. The three cruisers that fought the Graf Spee in the battle of the River Plate were all faster than her and one had a longer range. These are not difficult facts to ascertain.
There may well be other errors that I, in my ignorance, didn’t spot.


One Hit Wonderland
One Hit Wonderland
by Tony Hawks
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Simon Cowell and a hat-shaped cake, 24 Nov. 2014
This review is from: One Hit Wonderland (Paperback)
Tony Hawks is an English humourist who is perhaps best known for making bizarre bets. His first, in 1997, was that he could hitch hiking around Ireland in a month, bringing an admittedly-small fridge. This was followed by a bet that he could beat every member of the Moldovan team at tennis, not the Moldovan tennis team but the Moldovan soccer team.
This volume has Hawks - who reached No.5 in the Uk charts back in the eighties as part of Morris Minor and the Majors - trying to have a hit somewhere, anywhere within 2 years.
Having tried and failed from Nashville to the Netherlands via the Sudan he was on the verge of giving up until a pre-fame Simon Cowell told him he was too ugly to make it. Cowell didn't agree to eat his hat if Hawks succeeded but he did agree to eat a hat-shaped cake. That set Hawks off to Albania with two knights of the realm, one of whom had had his last hit before Hawks had been born.
Did Hawks have a hit?
Did Cowell eat a hat?
While I preferred Round Ireland with a Fridge, One Hit is a pleasant if unexceptional read.


Diderot (Past Masters)
Diderot (Past Masters)
by Peter France
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Not Encyclopaedic - But Very Informative, 19 Nov. 2014
This review is from: Diderot (Past Masters) (Paperback)
This book is party of the Oxford University Presses “Past Master” that predated its “Very Short Introduction” series and fulfilled the same sort of function.
Prior to reading this book all I knew about Diderot was that he was the principal editor of and chief contributor to the Encyclopédie and I was aware of the apparently apocryphal tale of his encounter with Euler. (The latter doesn’t merit a mention in this book). I didn’t know, for instance, that this Jesuit-educated arch-atheist had a brother who was a priest.
The author, wisely in my opinion, concentrates less on his contributions to the Encyclopédie and more on his other wide-ranging works and on Diderot’s not entirely satisfactory search for his own holy trinity, the truth, the good and the beautiful.
At the start of the book the author opines that, if Diderot was a master, then he was a master without a masterpiece. At the end of his clear and, as far as I can tell, fair assessment of his subject’s works he concludes that even Diderot wasn’t a past master he was a supremely interesting one.


The First World War: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
The First World War: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Michael Howard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

4.0 out of 5 stars Thankfully, Unlike the War Itself, 30 Oct. 2014
Thankfully, unlike the war itself this guide to the First World War is both short and achieves its aims.
It is part of the OUP’s VSI series and anyone familiar with the series should know what to expect.
It begins with an overview of the each of the Great (and not-so-great) European Powers in 1914, their strengths and weaknesses, the hopes and fears. The second chapter covers the outbreak of the war itself.
These are followed by year-by-year chapters on the progress – or lack thereof – of the war together with a chapter on the USA’s entry into the war.
The concluding chapter covers the aftermath of the war and the successes and failures of the various peace treaties.
On the back of the book Hew Strachan, who knows a thing or two about World War One, describes it as “a masterpiece of concision”. This is the third book I’ve read by Michael Howard, each of them short. One, which I would recommend, is “War in European History” and the other is “Clausewitz” another in this series, under the earlier Past Masters heading. Each work is clear – or as clear as one can be about Clausewitz – and concise. Some VSI authors write in what I consider to be an overly academic style for a general audience but I can assure readers that Sir Michael doesn’t fall into that category.
Three minor quibbles. The “front maps” could have been aligned in portrait fashion which would have allowed for more detail as the war tended to be fought East-West rather than North-South. The one slip of the pen I noticed was on page 115 where East Prussia is described as Germany’s “historic heartland”. It was Prussia’s heartland, not Germany’s. Finally he endorses Keynes’ view of Versailles – which is a valid, indeed perhaps the majority, position to hold – but fails to at least mention that there is an alternate view that Keynes got it wrong.
Why four stars for such an excellent book? I’m extremely reluctant to give five stars unless I regard a book as exceptional. Similarly I’d be reluctant to give a one star review. I think there are far too many fives and ones on Amazon. To date I’ve made only 1 five star and no one star review. I start assuming a three and adjust accordingly after I’ve read the book. (Would that there was some way of deleting “reviews” by people who clearly haven’t read the book in question). It would be better if Amazon allowed marks out of ten in which case I’d give this a nine.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 13, 2015 1:55 PM GMT


The Wisdom of the Buddha (New Horizons)
The Wisdom of the Buddha (New Horizons)
by Jean Boisselier
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.95

3.0 out of 5 stars More Winsome Than Wise, 16 Oct. 2014
For the third time in a row I find myself reviewing a book with a somewhat misleading title. As it is a translation of a work titled “La sagesse du Bouddha” it appears to be misleading in two languages. In my opinion “Legends of the Buddha” would have been a more apt title for the book as written.
After a good introductory chapter on the India of the Buddha’s time (and there is ongoing debate as to when that time was with up to a century leeway on the dates of his lifetime) we are told that, “The life of the historical Buddha is indissociable from legend”. Thereafter instead of concentrating on the teachings or wisdom of the Buddha the author gives us a legend-and-god-and-goddess-rich biography of him before a concluding chapter on developments in Buddhism in the centuries immediately after the Buddha’s death.
As is standard with these Thames and Hudson translation from the French publishers Gallimard the main text is followed by a Documents sections and this “From the Buddha to Buddhism” is somewhat more wisdom than legend orientated.
This is followed by a useful Glossary and a Chronology.
Again as is standard with these works the book is lavishly illustrated.
As well as sharing this standard strength from this series it shares a standard weakness. As its maps are not drawn for this specific publication but are rather reproductions from other works they are not particularly helpful in that they show some places not named in the text and leave out some that are included in it.


Nationalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Nationalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Steven Grosby
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

3.0 out of 5 stars Again, Not Quite What It Says On the Tin, 25 Sept. 2014
This is one of the Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction series in which various experts provide a brief introduction to a given topic complete with references and a further reading list.
I read this book immediately after reading Ernest Gellner’s “Nationalism”, published posthumously in 1997. Both are of roughly similar length. Gellner’s book is far narrower in scope, dealing exclusively – apart from some interests comments on Muslim fundamentalism – with European nationalism of the last two centuries, but also contains deeper insights. Given his brief Grosby has to cover more ground in less depth.
Professor Grosby – whom I was not surprised to see is a professor of religion given the wide range of religious references in this book – provides a broad survey of the topic both in terms of time (going back to Genesis, Herodotus etc) and space (covering not just European nationalism but drawing examples from Sri Lanka, Japan etc).
I titled my review of Gellner’s book “Not Quite What It Says On the Tin” because it dealt with only modern European nationalism and I’m titling this review “Again, Not Quite What It Says On the Tin” because while Grosby deals with the question of what is a nation and of what gives rise to nationalist feelings, and does so very well, he doesn’t – as other reviewers have pointed out before me – devote a lot of time to nationalism, which is after all the tile of the book. Had the book been titled something like “What gives rise to Nationalism” I would have given it another star but again it’s not quite what it says on the tin.


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