Profile for Frank Bierbrauer > Reviews

Personal Profile

Content by Frank Bierbrauer
Top Reviewer Ranking: 2,824
Helpful Votes: 547

Learn more about Your Profile.

Reviews Written by
Frank Bierbrauer (Manchester, Lancashire, UK)
(REAL NAME)   

Show:  
Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11-17
pixel
The Songlines (Vintage Classics)
The Songlines (Vintage Classics)
by Bruce Chatwin
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A very human book, 1 Dec 2009
This book by Bruce Chatwin is a rare pleasure, written by a man truly interested in all the peoples of the world including their culture, language, arts and metaphysics. This time Chatwin went to Australia to attempt to understand the very complex system of Aboriginal religious structures called songlines. As far as I can see from this book songlines are the connections in song of one part of the country to another part, each practised by the people who live there with neighbours sharing the "song". Not only does this define their religion but it in fact recreates their land as well, a kind of pure ideality in the philosophcal sense.

The first parts of this book concentrate on Chatwin's experiences with the people of outback Australia be they Aboriginal or white. He seems to find truly remarkable people, each unique and even wild in their own way. Typical of Australia, it is full of people from all over the world, such as his friend Arkady of Russian extraction. Chatwin has a fascinating background with his experiences of other cultures often allowing him access to other, more conservative, people who are suspicious of the outsider. Using this technique he breaks down their resistance and writes with compassion and depth of his experiences. Unfortunately, two aspects come to light which I believe are not advantageous to the reading of the book. The first is his tendency to both promote and justify the practise of travelling or the nomadic lifestyle which he himself practises. The second is the habit of filling out the rest of the book with too many quotations from others rather than making use of his experiences with their beauty and uniqueness due to the meeting of people as he travels and the sense of the land which formed the backbone and pure joy of the earlier parts of the book.

Nonetheless an exceptional book and a joy to read. A very human book.


Descent of Spirit : Writings of E. L. Grant Watson
Descent of Spirit : Writings of E. L. Grant Watson
by Grant E. L.; Green, Dorothy (ed) Watson
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful, wondrous, 1 Dec 2009
Elliot Lovegood Grant Watson was one of those rare naturalists/philosophers who didn't lose their wonder when studying the natural world. In a series of short anecdotes and essays Watson brings out exactly this sense of wonder in the everyday organisms such as ants, wasps, beetles and people themselves.

He describes with loving detail and a real sense of the writer who knows how to write, given his talent for writing novels, the life of a butterfly in symbiotic communion with a particular species of ant. He shows how a man brought up in civilisation can become a natural part of the wild environment once he opens his heart, not just his eyes. He tells of life in Fiji with the natives and their peculiar ways, the almost homecoming he experienced during his time with Australian Aborigines. This includes, the contraversial story, "Out There", about the harsh and very real story of a white ranch manager and his association with Aboriginal women. He talks of many places and times with a very wide knowledge not only in a literal sense but also as a man of experience of the natural, wild, places. His description of silence in a deep cavern is remarkable, or the presence of tree roots at a depth of 160 ft is astonishing.

It is an eloquent book, even if it doesn't really, except on one or two occasions, really challenge Darwinian evolutionary dogma as was intended; it is a book of great beauty and in addition to a very few, such as Adolf Portmann's "Animal Forms and Patterns" is not seen much anymore in serious biological circles. Most unfortunate as the hardline mechanistic paradigm holds on tenaciously.

Wonderful, wondrous.


Evolution as a Religion (Routledge Classics)
Evolution as a Religion (Routledge Classics)
by Mary Midgley
Edition: Paperback
Price: 14.35

8 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars She provides a clear headed view, 1 Dec 2009
Mary Midgley, a philosopher, applies her extremely sharp mind to the idea that evolution, as it is expounded in the popular science press by eager biologists, can in some ways be interpreted as a religion. By religion we mean of course the standard ones such as Christianity, Buddhism, Islam etc.

Rather than actually laying out in a strictly defined way the characteristics which make up the religious view, something which is very difficult given the vast differences in the previously mentioned cases, she approaches the subject by analysing some of the typical `literature' in the popular science press on evolution which express their views in a highly dogmatic fashion: for example Richard Dawkins, Edward O. Wilson, Jacques Monod and so on. Gradually she lays bare the inherent faults in each of these texts by noting how not only that in most cases they state views which are not supported by strict science but in fact express metaphysical views which have the ring of science with all of its evidential weight. At times she shows that these opinions portray the same faults as those they wish to get rid of eg: the religious, vitalistic, animistic or metaphysical view.

Midgley has the ability to analyse very carefully what is stated and see things the general public could easily skip past in their enthusiasm. This book demolishes all of these pseudoscientific fantasies although its writing style is sometimes heavy going and is not really suited to the lay public. This book is, I believe written more for the interested scientist who has already read some of the foregoing literature and wishes to get a deep analysis of these things to fathom their relevance. This she does does ably although one feels that throughout she does not express a clear and direct point of this analysis but rather a series of essays on several subjects which have some sort of coherent structure. This is the only problem with this book and one feels that no real definite conclusion has been reached.

Nevertheless, Midgley is worth reading for her truly impressive ability to seek out faults which often lie hidden in the material she analyses and are quite subtle and not at all obvious until she points them out. It's good someone has done this to provide a clear head in all the plethora of the popular science literature, which in general, is not up to any sort of serious study of the state of science as it is today. In this case there is no chance one can easily dismiss her analyses as the wafflings of creationists or vitalists.


The Razor's Edge (Vintage Classics)
The Razor's Edge (Vintage Classics)
by W Somerset Maugham
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good in depth portraits and journeys, 1 Dec 2009
Unfortunately, I was somewhat distracted from the unique aspects of the book by the film version starring Bill Murray in one of his few (if at all) serious roles. Murray was excellent as Larry, the main character of the book and his life story attracted me very much being somewhat akin to Maugham's own story eg. he served in World War I as an ambulance driver on the front, as in the film, rather than as an airman, as in the book. I speak of the movie since it had a strong effect on me while reading the book, all of the characters of the book were influenced by the corresponding ones in the film. There were some differences such as I mentioned already and some others such as the character of Gray which was played by a man quite different from the one in the film and Elliot's demise financially in the film is completely different from the book. However, Isabel was very similar in character as was her friend Sophie. Larry's trips all over the world such as India were also different as well as his eventual gain of independence from his books as he burnt them in the film whereas he continued to rely on them in the book. I do believe that it is the film in fact which better portrays what would really have happened in such a journey from Larry's trip into the Himalayas and his meeting of the Guru who says "I've been waiting for you" which is very profound and his curing of the psychological illness of his friend Gray on his return and the obvious detachment of Larry from the world. I always felt that Larry's own development is better portrayed in the film rather than the book, even near the end of the story Larry is still somewhat dependent on his study/books whereas he has relinquished their hold on him in the film and becomes a completely independent soul, just living.

Like an earlier reviewer noted the book is written in a formal way, probably a result of the time it was written in, early 20th Century, and not a result of the author's personality. Maugham's stay in Paris also influenced his style heavily capturing his feelings of living in Paris of the time. Isabel is well portrayed although her character has more depth in the book than the film. Elliot leads more of an empty life in both film and book. Altogether, the book displays how people can live their lives and how very different those lives can e.g. the need for financial security of Isabel, the social acceptance desired by Elliot, Gray's simple devotion to Isabel all fascinating and good in depth portraits.


The Twelve Caesars (Classics)
The Twelve Caesars (Classics)
by Suetonius
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent classic text in the Penguin range, 1 Dec 2009
I agree with another reader in that it is unfortunate we don't have similar biographies of the later Roman emperors such as Hadrian, Trajan and Marcus Aurelius; but here in the book of twelve Caesars Suetonius captures at least some of the various emperor's characters including Julius Caesar, Augustus, Claudius and Vespasian as well as others up to and including Domitian, the last of the twelve. Some histories are quite detailed such as that of Augustus whereas the relatively short reigns of Otho, Galba and Vitellius are quite short by comparison. The interesting thing about this book is the way Suetonius writes about the emperors in the "warts and all" style letting the public know every detail of their, at times, dubious habits and cruelties. No one gets away scott-free not even Augustus. The account is very honest with little held back no matter how crude. The emperors' greatest weaknesses and strengths are laid bare. It is written in a less formal style to that of say Cassius Dio or even of Tacitus and as such is enjoyable by itself. It also brings to mind how similar the Empire was to the lifestyle of today especially when it comes to public servants and government officialdom and responsibility. It is obvious Roman law is carried over to modern versions very easily forming the backbone of later centuries. There are telltale differences such as the incredible power emperor's wielded, especially as regards their ability to execute or defame anyone at will. The collapse of Roman values becomes glaringly obvious as the emperors themselves no longer provide an adequate example to the people. Former titles and honours which meant something in earlier times are progressivley demeaned by emperors such as Nero or Domitian at their worst and upheld by Titus or Vespasian. Yet another excellent classic text in the Penguin range.


The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy)
The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy)
by Lawrence Vogel
Edition: Paperback
Price: 26.39

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Superb at times, original at others, 1 Dec 2009
Hans Jonas, previously a pupil of Heidegger, in the main departs from his mentor's work and reaches out in rather sophisticated and at times obscure writing, into the depths of the deeply thinking man's way of understanding "The Phenomenon of Life". Much like the other reviewer I agree with them concerning Jonas's deeply insightful essays on the philosophy of organism and mind, which he categorically states must be aspects of the one philosophy of life. Jonas's essays are in general quite brilliant with snippets of real insight that tower above the ordinary and yet it is written so that this occurs as part of the process of discovery which seems to be going on as he writes.

His first essay considers the development or rather alteration in the philosophy of being extending from ancient Greek times into the modern era: animism, and the remarkable instance of thinking of life as at one time the natural mode of being followed by the idea that death is the natural mode instead or that life is a preparation for it. Dualism is considered as the fundamental barrier underlying the comprehension of life although idealism leads to problems no less troubling than say materialism or mechanism.

In the second essay he looks at the fundamental aspects of philosophical Darwinism with its final application of mechanism to the biological realm which for so long eluded the mechanists. Descartes started the trend with his machine-like approach to animals. The third essay considers the meaning of metabolism using James Jeans's, God as a mathematician quote to initiate the discussion. He notes that a living being is one that is never the same from one moment to the next "perpetual self-renewal through process". As another reviewer mentioned his fourth essay "To Move and to Feel: on the animal soul" is probably the most illuminating in the book. He considers what differs from animal to plant i.e. motility, perception and emotion. the ability to move using the evidence of perception leads to the idea of freedom, however how emotion is related to the above is less obvious althgough Jonas makes it so by simply stating that movement in pursuit or flight must necessarily lead to emotion because of its satisfaction or lack thereof. Plants possess immediacy in life between environment and the organism; animals are more separated than this being required to treat the environment as different from them to some degree at least.

Next, he analyses the ideas of cybernetics and some differences between machines and organisms noting that machines act by feedback mechanisms whereas an organism is "concerned in existing", this applies also to society where the cybernetic idea of information is empty. In the sixth essay he looks at perception through the senses: sight, hearing and touch in the main and how and why they vary in importance to man. He alludes as to why and how concepts such as space and time arise through the function of the senses themselves rather than being free constructions of the mind. This leads directly into the seventh essay on the difference between man and animal i.e. through the concept of image making rather than language or symbols. Again, as a previous reviewer notes, the later essays lack in depth, once he enters the realm of theology Jonas tends to outline his own beliefs rather than analysing them in depth as was done in his earlier essays; again the relationship between Gnosticism and modern thought bears fruit in contrast to the writing on Heidegger and theology.

All together a brilliant style with difficult writing. In contrast to the usual length of time needed to read a book this took considerably longer just to comprehend. Well worth getting, superb at times, original at others.


Time and Free Will: an Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness
Time and Free Will: an Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness
by Bergson
Edition: Paperback

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How is the idea of time related to free will, 1 Dec 2009
Bergson's works are always inspirational and the remarkable thing is that he doesn't assume anything, he always explains what is needed unlike the standard treatises on philosophy by other philosophers. It is never that much of an effort to read Bergson and as such it makes his works far more accessible than usual for a philosopher, probably one of the reasons he was all the rage in the early 20th Century; people can actually understand what he was talking about. What is the reason for this? I think much of it has to do with his unwillingness to separate his insights into distinct pieces as is the norm in philosophy. His essays tend to flow along nicely without being stuck in difficult terminology which must be remembered as you progress, anything such as the word duration which has a special significance in Bergson work becomes part of the flow of the essay rather than being in any way special it is always reinforced through the dialogue. Another interesting aspect is his lack of references to others, possibly a result of the French way of Education which encourages self reliance and expression as much as possible.

In this work, one of his earliest (1887), Bergson introduces his concept of duration which is less of a concept than a real lived sense that is happening in your life right at this moment. But first he introduces the reader to the intensities of psychic states such as beauty, grace, joy, sorrow, pain etc and how a misinterpretation of real lived experience gives rise to a way of philosophy which separates real duration, as it is experienced, into space-like time, this is also evident in feelings which are modified through the space-like construction of experience. Although this first chapter fails to convince once you proceed onto the construction of the idea of duration you feel on much safer ground, one feels Bergson has seriously studied this phenomenon, not of course just in thought or conceptualisation but, in his own lived experience present at every moment. He goes on to explain the falseness of the spatialisation of time which inevitably leads to the paradoxes of Zeno in ancient days and determinism with its lack of human freedom. He overcomes the usual arguments of determinism by simply just not defining freedom or its prior conditions since this would once again introduce determinism and spatialise duration.

Bergson's work is simply highly insightful of the human condition far more than any dry attempt at it through the usual approaches such as Descarte's or Kant's. He literally lives his work using his own experience to enliven it, I mean literally enliven it, Bergson's work is living in a sense. It is less an argument than a movement through your own feelings and intuitions which then allow you to understand what he is saying, it isn't difficult concepts you can't wrap yourself round. It does occasionally suffer from a lack of clarity wich is an advantage other philosophers have over him but a careful reading will help.

Superb as always.


Walden (Konemann Classics)
Walden (Konemann Classics)
by Henry David Thoreau
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars It stands by itself, 1 Dec 2009
I found myself, overall, agreeing with one of the reviewers when he stated specifically that "Walden" is not a book to be read purely for enjoyment, it is not a thrilling read or even a very deep one in general but then one must remember in which time we live and the style used by Thoreau is one of the mid 19th Century which was prone to the type of writing he uses. Anyone who has read other novels of the time or rather written in that period will find similar styles e.g. James Fenimoore Cooper, Charles Dickens etc. In addition, this is not a novel but rather a retelling of experiences of one man in his own adventure as he would put it.

That is not to say that Thoreau does not illuminate or at times give remarkable insights especially when it came to some of the people he met who had fascinating ways of life e.g. the woodcutter. The book varies from downright mundane and tedious to being very insightful and beautiful. It's amazing how someone can do this as he writes, verging from one extreme to the other. But then it was written from journal notes as he lived his life in the woods over two years experience and during that time a person changes as he adapts to his new way of life. At first its very exciting and new, any new experience is always full of a kind of life shock whether it be painful or joyful, the thinking mind, the mind absorbed in everyday "safe" tasks which define the "normal" life are absent in this new environment which requires new creative energies to survive, after a while this way of life becomes the accepted one and starts to be drained of the vitality it possessed at the beginning as one is fully acclimatised to it and it becomes the norm, after this stage comes the usual safety associated with the walls created to keep life ordinary rather than really being alive. This is hard to do when living in the woods by yourself where you need constant awareness to survive unless its a little too close to civilisation which provides the safety net which Thoreau always had available to him. But still during the period where he was very much alive and aware, life is lived without need for too much unnecessary thought, and this is the place from where insights and great creativity burst forth.

If one wants to know what it is like to be really truly alive in the moment and you are afraid to try it yourself and would rather read about it then try the books "Abstract Wild" by Jack Turner or "Grizzly Years" by Doug Peacock. Am I wrong to criticise Thoreau so much? Yes and no, e.g. Yes:s ee the comments by John Ralston Saul on exactly this aspect of Thoreau's writing, No: look at your own life or mine for example, in each case we do not escape this ordinary life we ourselves create. For the purely lived life expressed in poetry look at the poems by Basho, no clearer or more beautiful expression of life has yet been written. I say written not lived, lived can't be written down in full only a brief glimpse or shadow of it is possible even with Basho.

As regards what is said it often betrays Thoreau's astonishingly well read mind, quotes from the Baghvad Gita or other Hindu texts surprise because in Throeau's day very few people would ever have bothered to read the Indian works, the average American thought his own life and European works to be far superior. Thoreau often quotes Latin, often without reference, and the notes at the end of the book are very helpful. Thoreau's experience becomes the one Americans want to live, at least without being in too much danger, as he would have been in the true wild still available at that time in the lives of say the trappers or mountain men of the Rockies or any native American. As such it is an in-between way of living wild.

So Thoreau's work is definitely worth reading even for only the historical value or the literature it represents. It stands by itself.


The Odyssey (Penguin Classics)
The Odyssey (Penguin Classics)
by Homer
Edition: Paperback
Price: 11.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent tale, 1 Dec 2009
As noted on earlier reviews these two, the first "The Iliad", and now "The Odyssey" have become the translations read for pure enjoyment. No longer does one `know' of the classics but never read them, now we read them too. Thankfully, Robert Fagles has produced a translation worthy of the original sense of Homer's great poem. It captures well the suffering and tragedy Odysseus went through in his journey full of trials and tribulations from the great ogre, the Cyclops, to the beautiful Calypso and finally one of his greatest tests, the suitors seeking his wife's approval after 20 years absence from his homeland.

As usual the introduction by Bernard Knox is highly informative and shows real depth of understanding of Homeric poetry, an invaluable aid in the full comprehension of the poem. In addition, the extra maps of the Homeric world as well as a glossary of terms and a section detailing some of the characters in more depth provide an excellent background which may be missing in a non-classical education. Certainly, this is the translation to use when teaching of classic poetry in schools since the child is captivated by the flow of the story and the fast pace which keeps one glued to the book, although not as pacy as The Iliad it is a different sort of story. Unlike the Iliad, which is replete with battles and war, The Odyssey is the story of a journey and is of a different tune. I once tried to read an earlier translation of The Odyssey a few years ago and found it stuffy and staid, this is no longer true of Fagles work. I felt throughout that Fagles kept to the aura of the original even when substituting more modern expressions for the older ones e.g. "holding nothing back" is obviously a modern phrase but it captures what the poem is saying and that is what is important i.e. capturing the poem as a whole. This has been ably achieved. An excellent book.


The Iliad (Penguin Classics)
The Iliad (Penguin Classics)
by Homer
Edition: Paperback

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I am looking forward to his "Odyssey".,, 1 Dec 2009
Almost my first experience of the Iliad by Homer, here translated by Robert Fagles with a simply superb introduction by Bernard Knox who lays the groundwork for the plot and illuminates the characters of the story. The translation itself is excellent although at times some colloquial terms have been used to express the feeling of the original Greek to a modern reader. This did detract but overall it was a translation which held you in all its heat of battle or sorrow for dying men.

We see that even though there are many lines of the poem repeated so as to give a sense of the character involved it never becomes boring or lacking creativity. The battle scenes are brutal as they would be in reality with little held back, especially the fighting of Achilles which is merciless. Somehow the poem expresses both the violence in the battles and the pain of loss by the death of any of the individuals involved. It's the first time I have met this way of storytelling without a solid development of character beforehand. Homer was truly adept at this. I am looking forward to his "Odyssey" all the more.

Something I did notice which stood out strongly and that was the bias inherent in Homer's favouring the Achaeans over the Trojans. Many times we see him speaking of the Achaeans as great in all they did, their stalwartness and courage whereas Trojans were often portrayed as cowardly or when they achieved some feat as lucky or as given the advantage by the Gods. Strangely even though Homer finds something good to say for most of the participants he seems reluctant in the case of Helen who is seen as a prostitute at best, it doesn't seem that there is any attempt at expressing the feelings between Paris and Helen rather their "romance" seems to be a sideline to the real story which is that of Achilles, the beloved of the Gods, his pride, strength and love of war. These criticisms would be irrelevant if one did not get the feeling that the Iliad was written as a kind of historical narrative since of course Troy did exist and its destruction did occur. I found this feeling hard to avoid although I'm sure others do not have this problem.

Many points come across as to the lifestyle and ways of thought of the ancient Greeks: (1) Nothing happens without the Gods intervention or influence in everyday life. The Gods are ever-present sometimes even appearing to people in person, most of the time in disguise. (2) Women themselves were looked on as prizes, eg literally as a prize when Achilles captured Briseis. Their beauty and handicrafts were recognised but that's about it. (3) A man's worth was measured through courage, bravery in war and skills if in peacetime. Riches are secondary. Athletic prowess is essential. Older men are looked on with respect especially for their achievements in the past eg Nestor. (4) Men don't have freedom in their lives, everything is dictated by the Gods or fate. Choices don't seem to exist like they do today. But then even the Gods are under the yoke of fate, it is often noted that it is not a God's fate to die since they are immortal but by saying this they must be under the sway of fate as well.

An excellent story, told I think, as it was intended.


Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11-17