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Geoff Crocker (Bristol UK)
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The Skinning Tree
The Skinning Tree
by Srikumar Sen
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.73

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A powerful exposé of perverse regimes in religious education, 19 April 2014
This review is from: The Skinning Tree (Paperback)
Srikumar Sen’s personal schoolboy memoires are engaging and powerful. He very effectively conveys the story, depicts the context, communicates the feelings and reactions. The sadistic punishment regime of the Catholic brothers shames their religion, and distorts the consciousness of the schoolboys. The tender young Sabby adjusts to live with it, but later recognises its perverse effect on him. The boys manage to develop a close knit social group to survive it. The education itself is shallow. Such regimes were not uncommon, and Sen’s graphic denunciation has moral power.


The Crooked Maid
The Crooked Maid
by Dan Vyleta
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.09

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Thin plot, characters and context, 16 April 2014
This review is from: The Crooked Maid (Paperback)
Dan Vyleta offers a sketch of social devastation in post war Vienna. But this is only a thin context for the plot of his story. The story itself is complex and interwoven. He admits to following Dickens in piling incidents and co-incidents, so much so that the characters and events become difficult to remember and disentangle. They are artificially entangled to a point which stretches credulity and loses the reference point to reality necessary for literature to achieve any social comment. Each character is thinly drawn. You read about their often bizarre actions rather than getting to know them. The eventual denouement is disappointing and fails to do justice to the intensity of the story. Vyleta hints at issues such as the Soviet retention of German prisoners of war after Stalingrad, the traumatic histories of later very settled couples, but these are mentioned only in passing. The attempt at the macabre by the inclusion of crows is unconvincing and pointless. The book is about the plot. The writing does include lots of literary detail, but this feels contrived rather than natural. The book is a construction rather than a work of art. It simply doesn’t go deep enough.

The title is very disconcerting. Should the physical characteristic of a twisted spine be allowed to identify and define a person, and then slyly suggest a moral deficiency? I think not.


Lenin's Kisses
Lenin's Kisses
by Yan Lianke
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Natural community living wins out against mega social structures, 8 April 2014
This review is from: Lenin's Kisses (Paperback)
In the disabled persons' village of Liven, Grandma Mao Zhi is the figure standing for natural local community rural living, unattached to wider national social structures, which she wants to leave. The word `liven' is used to describe a fundamental enlivening process which reaches all aspects of life. Crucially it doesn't depend on capability, and equally naturally fits disability. Lianke contrasts this natural state to alternative social structures of communism and commercialism, and finds them wanting. The general population is gullible and easily manipulated.

Mao Zhi has experienced the horrors of Mao Zedong's China - the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the denunciations, the famine, the smelting of all domestic iron and steel items. In Chief Liu's schemes to make Liven a mega tourist attraction, she sees the equally derisory alternative of capitalist money making. Chief Liu's initial scheme for a performing troupe of disabled people appears to work and starts to generate huge revenues and personal fortunes, until disaster strikes.

In the final reckoning, the community returns to its default natural state. Lianke's critique of social systems, of imposed megalomaniac programmes, of human weaknesses of selfishness and violent tendencies, of prejudice towards those labelled `disabled', is all very powerful. His critical weapon is farce which he deploys to very amusing and devastating effect.


The Goddess Chronicle (Canongate Myths)
The Goddess Chronicle (Canongate Myths)
by Natsuo Kirino
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great primeval myth with a gripping plot, 26 Mar 2014
In a poor ancient Japanese island culture, Natsuo Kirino shows primitive religious power regimes as a specific example of social structures which are inimical to human life. Finding love, freedom and personhood means escaping their male dominated rules, which only a heroic few seek to do, but this in turn forces cycles of betrayal and bitterness which haunt human life from beyond the grave. It’s a gripping plot. Her female goddess dispenses retributive, vindictive death. There is, according to Kirino’s myth, no redeeming grace, no ultimate light.


Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea
Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea
by Barbara Demick
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Moving account of life in North Korea, 18 Mar 2014
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Barbara Demick presents the lives of six defectors from North Korea. The book is fascinating and well researched beyond the interviews with the main characters. She sometimes interprets the North Korean experience from an American perspective, for example in her assumptions about romantic love. Her account is necessarily partial since it relies on defectors who represent a minority view. Nevertheless, the account of ordinary life inside North Korea under the repression of the Kim dynasty is very moving. People are distorted physically, psychologically, emotionally, and socially. One can only hope for their freedom.


The Childhood of Jesus
The Childhood of Jesus
by J M Coetzee
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Surreal story questions reality, 18 Mar 2014
This review is from: The Childhood of Jesus (Paperback)
The young boy David and his adopted guardian Simon arrive as refugees in a strange surreal new world. Provision is very basic, but they survive. David settles with his apparent mother, while Simon works at the docks. David shows signs of autism/Asperger’s syndrome, and constantly challenges the realities he encounters. Coetzee uses this device to question accepted norms and the objectivity of nature, society, and artefacts, ranging through sex, numbers, work, the financial economy etc. Is life as we know it contingent – it could all be otherwise? The story’s characters are the human mix of good hearted and bad. It’s not clear how David represents the Jesus child motif, except in the constant questioning of his elders. It’s an absorbing story, but it doesn’t really lead anywhere intellectually.


The Mirror
The Mirror
by Richard Skinner
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.34

5.0 out of 5 stars A moving study of imagination and consciousness, 11 Mar 2014
This review is from: The Mirror (Paperback)
These two novellas are moving deep studies of consciousness, life and death. The novice nun Oliva's immediate consciousness is of the power play of the diverse personalities of her fellow nuns and the religious authorities, and the effect of this on the living of her own life. The painter holds up a mirror to Oliva. Ottavia chooses freedom but Oliva, weakly or obediently, declines life.

After death, Erik Satie reminisces in an attempt to film his best memory from a rich and varied life. `It is always more enriching to imagine than to experience', Satie concludes (page 313). Richard Skinner develops an amazingly detailed extensive imagining of what Satie might have imagined. The myriad selective ramblings of our own consciousness are similarly the background noise to our living, setting the scene to our lives.


The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies
The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies
by Erik Brynjolfsson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 17.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but incomplete, 5 Mar 2014
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This book updates and amplifies Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s 2012 ‘Race Against the Machine’, but basically conveys the same message and conclusions. Their first 4 chapters are racy and journalistic but somewhat superficial, making broad sweep claims with little justification, and taking several pages to explain the arithmetic power of exponential growth. Ironic that the text on automation includes the typo ‘The authors cite driving a vehicle in traffic as an example of such as task’  (page 18).

Chapter 5 takes us deeper, arguing convincingly that ICT (information and communication technology) is a general purpose technology, and that its combination with other technologies will overcome any apparent ‘productivity paradox’ of ICT slowing productivity growth. Productivity will continue to soar, driven by artificial intelligence and global interpersonal networking. They give lots of interesting examples. They correctly point out that GDP understates economic growth by ignoring the increased consumer surplus of technology driven price reductions, and the abundance of new digital service consumer value. They present the social cost of reduced wages and vastly increased inequality. Their policy recommendations are education, entrepreneurship, and a negative income tax.

They do admit that computers perform less well at tasks like pattern recognition, but dubiously they expect ever more from digitisation which is essentially ‘bottom up’, compared to ‘top down’ analogue human perceptions. Classic cases of this distinction are the human ability to distinguish one person’s face whether they are smiling or scowling, and computer difficulty to translate newspaper headline phrases like ‘Foot heads arms body’ or ‘Canadian left waffles on Falklands’. They don’t address Hubert Dreyfus’s critique of the scope and capability of artificial intelligence. They close their book with a statement that they are not persuaded that technology is deterministic – ‘Technology is not destiny. We shape our destiny’ (page 257) without mentioning the extensive discussion of these issues in the literature on the philosophy of technology. They could have included some discussion of how technology gets or fails to get to market by analysis of its downstream business case, competitive price/performance positioning, and viable value chain. These gaps weaken their discussion.

The economic analysis is also weak. In a thought experiment of a totally automated economy with a machine plugged into the earth to produce the total GDP, there would be no wages. This is an extreme of the present position they present of declining real wages. There would be no demand in the economy rather than the deficient demand we have now. It’s a Keynesian problem. The only solution to this would be the distribution of government vouchers, or a basic, or citizen’s income. Brynjolfsson and McAfee reject basic income proposals on the grounds that this would disincentivise work, but Malcolm Torry’s recent book on citizen income ‘Money for All’ shows this argument to be wrong. Citizen income is the only solution to ultimate pervasive automation.

Geoff Crocker
Author ‘A Managerial Philosophy of Technology : Technology and Humanity in Symbiosis’ Palgrave Macmillan 2012
www dot philosophyoftechnology dot com.


One Night in Winter
One Night in Winter
by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Edition: Paperback
Price: 3.85

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good thriller, 2 Mar 2014
This review is from: One Night in Winter (Paperback)
This is a gripping read. Simon Sebag Montefiore knows how to hold your attention so that you'll want to read the whole book in one sitting. It's great on plot, suspense, and context, though one wonders whether charm can co-exist with the intense horror of the Stalin period. At times it's too light hearted. The two love stories are too slushy. The characters are too thin. As a result, it's not great literature, but it is a good thriller.


The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia
The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia
by Andrei Lankov
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 11.55

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good analytical history but lacks a core diagnostic, 27 Feb 2014
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Andrei Lankov’s history and analysis of North Korea is written in an interesting, accessible and engaging journalistic style. He paints a dire picture of contemporary life there. He offers prognoses for the future of North Korean society, and examines policy options for the rest of the world. Along with other authors on North Korea, he argues that the regime is rational, although in a Machiavellian sense, and the people more content than they were. This rationality is however very domain specific, and neither enlightened nor overall. He elsewhere presents the people as seriously oppressed.

Minor quibbles are that the text is often repetitive, the argument at times goes round in circles, and Lankov uses the cumbersome device of referring to himself as ‘the present author’, and then writing in the third person.

There is good coverage of the Kim dynasty and some of the general population, but insufficient coverage of the elite in between the two. Who are the people who devised Juche philosophy, or the people apparently capable of developing nuclear technology almost independently? Where did they come from, and whence their skills? How does the Kim dynasty interact with this elite? It matters, because it poses the question of whether the regime would simply collapse without the Kims, or whether an extensive power elite really controls the Kims and the country.


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