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Sarakani (Harrow United Kingdom)

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Behind The Scenes At The Museum
Behind The Scenes At The Museum
by Kate Atkinson
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £5.59

12 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "East Enders (?)" interleaved with history, 5 Aug. 2007
I would not have chosen this book but we do often choose books by their cover and this was a book that had an interesting title to pick froma pile from my library reading group options.

There is something of the humour - but of the black sort of Adrian Mole about it, every conversation and scene generally has a nuance of the salacious or vulgar about it although the book has its very bright moment. It is in its totality a grim outlook on the prison of British family life subject to wars, personal failings and a lack of education of affluence. Accurate and moving though it may be the characters - all of them, come across as victims except perhaps the protagonist's elder sister.

Ruby Lennox begins the story from her conception, describing her tiny feet inside her mother at a stage of life when she would have been devoid of them. Each chapter is interleaved with a restrospective chapter examining the lives of the family from the past, usually centered around an artefact of sentimental importance at a later date and how it entered the family circuit as a specimen of some emotional value - e.g., a rabbit's foot, a button, a silver locket. Although written in the first person, Ruby has a supernatural knowledge of her past family history and the intricacies of all the personalities surrounding her - even as a baby, so it is effectively a third person book.

Ruby's mother Bunty comes across as a woman who was never loved properly and cannot love her children. This book reveals a great deal about life in Britain and the attitudes people had - particularly women - the way they did not like shop brought food and had to make their own as a sign of good housewifery. Bunty's husband George is clearly disatisfied by his wife but seems a steady father. The family are in charge of a pet shop and later a pharmacy of sorts after the pet shop tragically burns down through carelessness.

Poignant chapters include those about the first world war and the way it erased a generation of fine men in harrowing circumstances - certainly within this family - and aslo aspects of the blitz and the upheavals of the second world war. About women who lost their sweethearts, never to get them back and had to make second choices of which Bunty was also one.

The social communities described centre around alcohol, pubs, shopkeepers, relatives and parties and events like the coronation - all in all it is a sort of stereotypical British landscape something like the BBC soap East Enders with the constant shananigans especially of maritial infedility, comings of age and individual weaknesses.

The best chapters were on the first world war, a holiday in Whitby where the children are mothered by one of George's lovers. Apart from rosy scenes here, and some interesting history, the narrative of Ruby's own life reads depressingly with gloomy events anticipated, then revisited later with greater details. Details like the pet shop fire or deaths in the family.

The underlying theme of the book for me was splitting. The splitting of Britain and its family by war, death, lack of love, unfulfilled relationships, misunderstandings ... Ruby's life looks promising but she ends up in Edinburgh producing "nut brown" children - and the primordial mother of the story Alice ends up a lost victim incapable of revisiting her abandoned children. Many of the children respond by immigrating including Ruby and her sister Patricia.

This book is probably a pot boiler, useful for social historians and English people may empathise with it - but I don't think the book is complimentary to the English, there is a underlying lack of joy, filled with drink, sex and escapism that haunts the people portrayed. Perhaps this is intentional. There is no particular resolution at the end - and overall it is a depressing book with humour that is often negative and sterotypical.

It was a decent read but not something I would have chosen, or would treasure in my library. Perhaps there are deep underlying lessons and a sort of premonition about what life is really about - a stark lesson than will stir up visions of an other utopia, which the book scarcely guarantees.

The interleaved style of present, past, present, past moving temporally forwards is I think an interesting device and this is a good example of an interlieaved sandwich story - a bit like the Time traveller's wife.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Penguin Modern Classics)
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not just a novel - a survival manual, 8 July 2007
You find yourself in a freezing Siberian work camp on limited, disgusting food and conditions and a regime that gives you barely any relaxation but pain day in day out - how would you survive? So gripping did I find this book (versions differ, the earlier versions were less explicit than the unexpurgated text that forms the basis of post 60s editions) that I did not ge off my train on time and ended up in a freezing station having to get back home. It's enough to make anyone give up, but Denisovich (Sukhov or Shukov) does not. Shukov is his surname is a survivor who measures and calculates his survival strategy to a T and has almost become instutionalised into his gulag camp. Would he be happy to win his freedom? By the end of the book this question remains moot as Shukov knows freedom is not a reality, merely survival.

Counting bowls of food and getting himself extra rations through the back door. Knowing how to deal tactfully with his superiors. There is a tragi comic aspect to this short, undivided script that rings out in a matter of fact highly descriptive scenario from an author who apparently did time in a gulag.

Stalin was a cold monster and the victims try to cope. Interestingly I sometimes feel my life almost as restrictive as one negotiates ones limited student stipend to make it stretch in colourful ways ... or our lives could so easily get so tough. All the more reason to work hard and be kind to neighbours in the rat race - and perhaps this book will guide you about trancending your ratty nature if you feel that rat race it is.

A classic book, worth reading to get into educated circles.

Never Let Me Go
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Edition: Paperback

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good read - best seen as an allegory, 23 May 2007
This review is from: Never Let Me Go (Paperback)
So many people cottoned on to the fact that this book was about transplants and live human organ donors - but this book is not science fiction - and I did not really take the notion of clones carrying organs for their counterparts (possibly). As fiction it wears a bit thin. White Europeans would probably not stand similar people carrying organs for them, ready to be slaughtered from time to time as "donors" - the slavery analogy is not quite the same ... and there would be enough rebels and dissenters from donors and real people for this scenario to wash. But then the author does not reveal much and this is the beauty, a great deal of it has to be written by our imagination.

The prose is disarmingly simple and feminine and the first person goes into great depth about her school. The character of Ruth dominates - but so many of these children did not know what awaited them. Really English, this book sums up a grey despair that assails all of us.

In a Gurdjieffian paradigm of a "twisted" alternative Britain I can identify with the love, the care and the horror of existence depicted in this book. The inevitability of disasters that await and the way no one seems to care. If it's us, we should be looked after but if its them - they have no rights. Just think about tuna fish in the sea - who cares about them to do anything - just sandwiches - that's what tuna are for. Similarly, I don't think we care about people in industrial situations who slave to make our heaven for us - not to mention all kinds of farm animals kept in poor conditions. Those in comfort could not care less as long as they can maintain their status. Such an allegory is this book with its own grey lustre, details, emotions, dealing with people who's natures we can never be sure about.

Well written, somewhat gripping with a dramatic conclusion - a sort of Agatha Christie summary and explanation of the hidden depths of this convoluted yet intergrated novel. Written in code - a series of childish incidents that sound so significant. Whole lives stretching out, with their flowers, their details - all compressed in a short, soft volume. Read with pleasure.

Squirrels: The Animal Answer Guide (The Animal Answer Guides: Q&A for the Curious Naturalist)
Squirrels: The Animal Answer Guide (The Animal Answer Guides: Q&A for the Curious Naturalist)
by Richard W. Thorington Jr.
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.29

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An extensive overview, 1 May 2007
Few mammalogical books deal with families of mammals leaving aside charismatic groups like cats and primates. Well, the squirrels have had the light beamed at them, and they are the stars of this compact, easily digested volume all abou the squirrels of the world. There have been a few other books on squirrels in the past, dealing with all known species with an accent on few. Not many books even venture into matters dealing with tropical or flying squirrels.

I enjoyed reading this book and noted its extensive list of known species, decent illustrations and overview of the group as a whole. Sadly there is still a great deal that we don't know.

This book is pitched at the non specialist non paleontologist and I would have liked to have seen more on squirrel phylogeny and paleontology. I hope this book leads to more illustrated works on this intelligent, perky family of mammals which I happen to study. They do represent keystone (charismatic, well recognised) mammals and deserve better coverage.

My Sister's Keeper
My Sister's Keeper
by Jodi Picoult
Edition: Paperback

4 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It's less predictable than meets the eye, 30 Mar. 2007
This review is from: My Sister's Keeper (Paperback)
The best sentence in this book: "Her hair is longer now, and fine lines bracket her mouth, parentheses around a lifetime of words I was not around to hear." Following on from the tradition of Niffenegger where a husband and wife team narrate in the first person, the main characters in this book all narrate in the first person. There are seven protagonists, seven vantages though it's pretty clear they did not write down their stuff at a later date, more a first person narrative for each. In an interesting breakdown, the book compartmentalizes itself as day's of the week and runs through approximately two weeks. About four chapters beging with "It's raining" - then giving each persona's perspective.

Picoult is a plot driven author rather than an events driven author. Nouns gather up and generate the structure of her objectives, her characters and their disjunctions rather than forming the elements of an observational description - or perhaps to be fair, the heart of the book is the plot with lots of observation to bring it to life.

There are quite a few cliffhangers which I found mildly gripping, before the book gave way to lists of medical jargon again and again.

I have to admit, this would not have been my choice of book - it's about family and love. Would you donate one of your organs to your brother or sister? I think this book will definitely help resolve the issue.

Replete with medical jargon about leukemia, two sisters are joined - donor and recipient - eventually, one of them may have to die because she is dependent on her sister for survival.

It involves a family of a firefighter father, a determined mother, a wayward brother, the sisters, hospitals, a lawyer and his ex girlfriend. There is a lawsuit and the drama that this involves. The sort of drama that authors love to make up but seasoned readers can somewhat see through (if it's not sex and violence, the drama of a court is set to attract readers attentions).

The book is certainly interesting and Picoult is a master story teller. I found it a little too commercial and the characters were too upright, too nice to believe - as is the story. Real life is smoothed over a though its injustices are poignantly revealed - if sweetened, sometimes with saccharine.

A memorable start and close with a meandering, potboiler centre. Some will enjoy reading this and the choices it forces you to confront. Inspirational and educational but a bit on the long side.

All is Change: The 2000-year Journey of Buddhism to the West
All is Change: The 2000-year Journey of Buddhism to the West
by Lawrence Sutin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.80

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A sweeping but no generalisation, 19 Dec. 2006
This easy to read book has got to be the most comprehensive book to date on the connection between Buddhism and the Occident in a span of 2400 years. My main two criticisms to begin with is that I don't think the cover is very nice and secondly, Sutin does not pay much attention to the Buddha's latest birth dates (concluded by scholars) - but everything else is a meticulous, balanced expose that is sharp, subtle and vast in scale.

No book of this nature can hope to be comprehesive. I expect the author had to leave about the same volume of stuff as the book itself, out of it. He has effectively squeezed in so much. It is very much as a work a successor to Buddha and the Sahibs by Charles Allen that aims to be more comprehensive. So much is marshalled in and the most poignant passages from all sources are quoted. The book itself is highly quotable:

"For all the growing availability of Orientalist knowledge, it remained the unquestioned prerogative of European philosophers to interpret Eastern religions according to their own preconceptions and fantasies. In no country did this preocess take on more vivid and epochal form than in Germany ..."

Just tell that to your German friends will you.

What's clear is that most of Buddhism went to the West via Western thinkers thanks to the meddlesome misunderstandings of missionaries as well as lovers of Oriental Wisdom from the West who discovered the wonders of India. Sutin marks the destructive effects of missionary activity on native cultures casually - the fate of Buddhism in the East is not his perogative.

He remains goal oriented and totally comprehensive. Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, Zen, hippies, psychotherapy and the Dalai Lama. Practically nothing of worth is excluded - nothing has past his beady observation.

I think this book is a triumph, a placeholder to an evolving unknown of a contact of the Orient and Asia that almost threatens to overwhelm the Occidental intellectual millieu. But Buddhism has always been a delicate influence, like a silk cloth brushing against a cheek. I don't think it has ever had missionary pretentions like Christianity, and this is precisely what the book, between the lines reveals, about the entry of Buddhism through a back door to a receptive, uneasy, Eurocentric audience.

The Dharma will probably survive the West as the author pointedly concludes.

A wonderful gift and this is likely to command a discerning, growing audience. Mindblowing scope, deftly summarised

An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices (Introduction to Religion)
An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices (Introduction to Religion)
by Peter Harvey
Edition: Paperback

20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A balanced perspective, 16 Nov. 2006
Most books available on Buddhism on bookshelves at the popular level leave a great deal to be desired. Either they are written by people who have had no contact with Buddhism, culturally or by practice (or at best very little practice of the wrong sort) thus taking a literalist approach to translated Buddhist scripts or they are too specialist, providing a view of Buddhism based on only one school or a narrow emphasis, often hawking for influence.

Professor Harvey has both contacted Buddhism culturally and continues to make an honest attempt to put Buddhism into practice. An introduction to Buddhism is one of the best overall introductions to this vast subject now available, superseding equivalent good books which are by now up to 50 years too old. Harvey combines scholarship including a knowledge of Pali and Sanskrit along with sensitivity to the contexts in which the various scriptures can be seen.

In the forest of competing books out now, this one can be recommended without reservation.

The Foundations of Buddhism (OPUS)
The Foundations of Buddhism (OPUS)
by Rupert Gethin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A solid introduction - especially to older Buddhism and its later evolution, 16 Nov. 2006
There are many books on Buddhism but few do it justice. Peter Harvey's An Introduction to Buddhism and Lance Cousins' article in A New Hanbook of Living Religions by Penguin represent some of the best overviews available in print in English.

This book ranks at about the same level. It starts with the discovery of some of the bones of the historical Buddha and is enlighteningly sceptical about how much we can really know and state about the sources and the history of Buddhism. But it is written with feeling and provides an in depth study of major concepts and Buddhist cosmology.

Dr Gethin practices Buddhist meditation and has written a very academic tome on the 37 factors of enlightenment. He writes with an open authority and this book "cannot be faulted".

The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-71
The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-71
by Alistair Horne
Edition: Paperback

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quelle gripping stuff!, 16 Nov. 2006
This book is a masterpiece of historical literature and it is a shame that it is not easily available in print. The tape may be as good though I hope it is not abridged.

Beginning with the Paris exhibition in 1865 the book paints the magnificence of the 2nd Empire under the aegis of that motto "enrichez vous!" - but reveals its crumbling exterior and intrigues. How wonderful Paris has always been and how much blood has also been spilt in it.

The first section deals with the siege of Paris and the second with the commune as an aftermath.

Bismark, German military superiority, eating cats and elephants, the Parisians, balloon messages, the winners and losers, the political upstarts and setting, 20,000 shot like dogs in the end; - facts, opinions, feelings all combined in an impressive array of letters, diary entries, accounts all fused into a coherent and compelling account.

The work could not be put down with lessons for today.
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Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (Penguin Modern Classics)
Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (Penguin Modern Classics)
by T.E. Lawrence
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.68

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An explosive piece of prose, 16 Nov. 2006
Whatever the truth of his account, (see the numerous Lawrence biographies - the more critical the better) this book is brilliantly worded.

An orchestra of prose produced by a sharp English mind. The text is so poised, sharp and simply pulls you into Lawrences analysis of affiars stressing his judgement and also his regal vanity.

One of the most powerful reads of the 20th C. The English is hard to beat - a wonder of prose. If you like that style, try T. E. Lawrence's translation of the Odyssey as well.

I wish I could memorise much of this book - a controlled explosive account.

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