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Paul Bowes (Wales, United Kingdom)
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Dept. of Speculation
Dept. of Speculation
by Jenny Offill
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.08

9 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Another limp exercise in marital strife and self-absorption, 6 Aug. 2014
This review is from: Dept. of Speculation (Hardcover)
I read this short novel, or novella, by an author previously unknown to me, on a recommendation. At such, it was a disappointment. It combines a dumbed-down version of the mosaic narrative style of Renata Adler's 'Speedboat' with featherweight reflections on young love, young motherhood and a marriage turning sour: something that has been done to death almost everywhere, and too often better than here.

Inoffensively competent, but really no better than a speedy summer read for an idle morning at the beach. Look to Adler or Didion for something in the same general style, but with greater intelligence and bigger, sharper teeth.

Death and the Afterlife (The Berkeley Tanner Lectures)
Death and the Afterlife (The Berkeley Tanner Lectures)
by Samuel Scheffler
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How far do human values and the meaning of life depend on our assumption that the lives of others will survive our own deaths?, 22 Jun. 2014
In 'Death and the Afterlife' the philosopher Samuel Scheffler asks an unusual question: to what extent does it matter to the individual human being that humanity itself survives his or her death? Rather than think about 'the afterlife' within a religious or traditional philosophical framework, Scheffler asks us to consider to what extent the value and meaning or our lives are affected by our - largely unconscious - assumption that human life will continue, even if we ourselves will not.

Scheffler approaches this problem by way of two thought experiments. How would we feel about our lives if we knew that mankind was going to be exterminated en masse by an asteroid strike thirty days after our death? And then: how would we feel if we knew that, due to some environmental catastrophe, mass infertility would gradually lead to species extinction as all living human beings enjoyed a full life but died without heirs?

The tentative answers to Scheffler's what-ifs prove to be interesting and not immediately obvious. The book's format divides between Scheffler's original lectures and the responses of his professional peers, who are unanimous in seeing the problem as novel and interesting, but uncertain of its significance, or the validity of Scheffler's own conclusions. A final chapter allows Scheffler to address their caveats without closing the discussion.

The question of how our human sense of meaning and our values are to survive the modern scientific perspective on individual death, species demise and the eventual destruction of the universe has become steadily more urgent, particularly for those of us who cannot fall back on religious belief. Scheffler's book is an interesting one, bringing long-suppressed problems to the surface of consciousness. The second half of the book, in which four of Scheffler's colleagues raise their doubts, is somewhat drier than Scheffler's exposition, but may be particularly interesting to those who wish to see at first hand how contemporary philosophers engage in debate.

Serious philosophy, but accessible to the intelligent general reader.

HeroNeo® String Aktion Spur Ruler Führer Setup Gitarre Mess Fork Bass Gitarrenbauer Tool
HeroNeo® String Aktion Spur Ruler Führer Setup Gitarre Mess Fork Bass Gitarrenbauer Tool
Price: £2.85

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Useful cheap string height gauge, 21 Jun. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Product was as described - a roughly credit card-sized, double-sided stainless steel gauge in imperial and metric. Took sixteen days to arrive from China, but this was acceptable given the very low price. A simple, useful tool.

Free Will: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Free Will: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Price: £4.74

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Highly repetitive and surprisingly unhelpful 'introduction' to the problematic concept of free will., 14 April 2014
Earlier reviewers here have made all the substantial points. This book doesn't really function as an introductory text. It is dryly written and extremely repetitive, which makes it unnecessarily difficult to read, given the relatively straightforward nature of the arguments advanced. If anything, the author's style, if taken by the reader to be typical of philosophical prose, is likely to put the reader off investigating these matters further.

The 'Short Introduction' books are generally excellent, but this is one to avoid.

Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love
Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love
by Simon Blackburn
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.86

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A rather basic and unexciting preliminary amble around contemporary narcissism, 14 April 2014
'Mirror, Mirror' is an examination of narcissism and self-regard. Simon Blackburn looks at the ways in which we conceptualise and talk about self-esteem, and at what point such self-esteem tips over into personal and social pathology. Broadly, he comes to the conclusion that some measure of self-esteem is necessary if we are to esteem others: that we are perfectly capable, if we choose, of identifying justified and unjustified self-regard; and that history demonstrates that ours is far from being, as it is sometimes represented, a uniquely narcissistic culture or age.

Although Blackburn is a professional philosopher, he makes clear at the outset that the book is not intended to be an academic study of its subject: rather, a looser discussion around the issues. In fact, it was at its best for me when driven by strong emotion: the author's despair at the implications of the "because you're worth it" slogan - originally, and revealingly, "because I'm worth it" - and his anger in the face of the 'klepto-parasites' who infest the higher reaches of banking, industry and politics, their greed fuelled by apparently inexhaustible arrogance, their selfishness rotting necessary social values.

At other times, the argument becomes rather dry. A lengthy divagation through Milton's 'Paradise Lost' takes a long time to make some rather simple points. In fact, the book's central weakness is that nothing really new is advanced. The arguments, though for the most part clearly communicated, are unsurprising and curiously unilluminating. In a sense, an all-out polemic might have made for a better book.

'Mirror, Mirror' may serve usefully to bring things into focus for a reader who has never given much consideration to these issues. Others will want to look elsewhere for stronger meat.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 10, 2014 12:29 PM BST

The Insufferable Gaucho
The Insufferable Gaucho
by Roberto Bolaño
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.99

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Short measure and minor interest, 17 Feb. 2014
Almost nothing that the late Roberto Bolaño wrote is without interest, but the barrel is now being scraped. The reader of this short volume is offered five short stories and two brief essays. Both of the latter give the impression of being semi-improvised speeches rather than considered work. Bolaño's distinctive voice comes over strongly. The stories - one of which is an 'homage' to Borges' famous story 'In the South', another to Kafka's 'Josephine the Mouse Singer' - are merely competent exercises. Only in the opening story, 'Jim' - a three page fragment - do we encounter Bolaño at something like full strength.

Recommended only to the Bolaño completist, who may still feel short-changed. Readers new to the author should not start here.

The Dig
The Dig
by Cynan Jones
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A novel of masculinity in crisis, 16 Feb. 2014
This review is from: The Dig (Hardcover)
'The Dig' is Cynan Jones' second novel, and the first published by Granta, his earlier writing being published by the Welsh press Seren. Jones' excellence has been a known quantity in Wales for some time; now the author is receiving the national attention he deserved but hardly received for 'The Long Dry' and his first novel, 'Everything I Found On the Beach'. Does 'The Dig' justify his move to a larger publisher? With minor reservations, the answer is 'yes'.

Jones' real subject, as in his first novel, is modern masculinity and the relation between man and place. He is the rare contemporary writer who is accurate and unapologetic about the character of ordinary maleness, an unfashionable subject now for decades. This makes his voice refreshing among his contemporaries, although his subject is an old one. His two novels speak directly concerning the difficult situation of men in a society that seems to have diminishingly little use for male virtues and masculine values, but continues to lay on them burdens of expectation stemming from traditional male roles that now exist only on the ragged economic fringes of modern Britain.

In 'The Dig' Jones offers linked portraits of men struggling with what it is to be a man. The farmer Daniel, having lost his wife to an accident, is trying to cope alone with his grief and with the inhuman demands of lambing season. The unnamed 'big man', a loner involved in illegal hunting and pitting of badgers, seems at first Daniel's polar opposite: a focus for the dark, destructive forces of rurality, as Daniel is a nurturer. But this is not a simple antithesis. It is the strength of this short, intense novel that Jones binds these two intensely realised men together in a way that allows the reader at last to see that each in his way is a victim of forces more powerful than individuals; forces that are in the process of corrupting the succeeding generation even as the older men go down.

The book has been reviewed as though it were transparently the best thing that Jones has written. I would qualify this only by saying that 'The Dig' is no more impressive than the largely ignored 'Everything I Found On the Beach', which treats many of the same themes from a different angle.

'The Dig' is a powerful vision that occasionally teeters on the edge of melodrama. In general, Jones has created a way of describing things and people that is as straightforward as a mattock, but that has the exact fitness for purpose of any well-made tool. The result is an hallucinatory existential clarity in which quite ordinary things are seen as though for the first time. (Comparisons with Hemingway's early short stories are not entirely misplaced, though Jones lacks the American's sentimentality.) Occasionally, the pressure of feeling behind the words drives them past their limits, and the reader feels a twinge of uneasiness; but Jones always pulls us back from the lip of empty lyricism into the concrete world of his characters, in which smell, touch and hearing are almost more important than sight, and certainly more important than speech.

Because Jones is writing about a world – the small agricultural communities of West Wales – of which most readers will have no direct experience, and a way of life that has been foreign to most British people for generations, there will be a temptation to dismiss this writing as a provincial oddity; fascinating in its exotic detail, perhaps, but ultimately of no relevance to our overwhelmingly urban and thoroughly mediated lives. That temptation should be resisted. Jones is a sophisticated writer and a powerful stylist. He has chosen to attack head-on contemporary themes that others have ignored, and to deal without ironic distance with ungovernable and even unavowable emotions. In this and his other writings he demonstrates also an admirable concision that contrasts markedly with the flabby excesses of much modern fiction. This is a short book with no wasted words.

'The Dig' is a genuine and serious achievement. It is unlikely to leave the reader indifferent. I hope it sends many back to Jones' other books, to see what they have missed.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 15, 2014 2:17 PM BST

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto
Reality Hunger: A Manifesto
by David Shields
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A literary polemic fails to convince, 12 Jan. 2014
'Reality Hunger', as its subtitle suggests, is a polemic in which David Shields attempts to define and promote a new, hybrid literary aesthetic. This aesthetic has three principle characteristics. It is inclined to ignore any historical distinctions drawn between fiction and non-fiction. It eschews the traditional engines of plot and character in favour of a concern with ideas; and its preferred formal method is collage, in the light of which it refuses to respect creative 'ownership' of texts and raises plagiarism - redefined variously as 'appropriation', 'repurposing' or 'remixing' - to the status of a duty. The book is itself an example of this aesthetic, being frankly a compendium of unattributed quotations interwoven with the author' musings on their common themes. (Attributions are provided, at the insistence of his publishers' lawyers, in an appendix that the author exhorts the reader not to read.)

It has to be said that there is nothing particularly new in any of this except the absence of shame. Shields seems caught between a frank admission that he is merely justifying and recommending his own chosen methods - which he seems to have arrived at from inability to write or find satisfying fiction of a more conventional type - and a more serious analysis of the genuine formal aesthetic problems that confront the serious writer of contemporary fiction in an age in which competing renditions of a supposedly unmediated 'reality' may seem to have rendered mere fictional 'realism' an irrelevance and a bore. In practice, this seems to amount to the substitution of reality television, long-form journalism and the personal memoir - however untrustworthy - for the plain artifices of literary fiction.

For me, the book works convincingly at neither level, but still might have some value as a lively starting point for discussion; this in spite of its obvious faults of hectoring tone and repetitiveness, and the author's curiously mediaeval belief that the mere piling up of 'authorities' somehow lends weight to a thin argument. This is a book that believes itself to be far more innovative and daring than is actually the case.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 25, 2014 4:14 PM BST

Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All
Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All
by Laird Barron
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More high-quality horror, 6 Jan. 2014
This is the third collection of stories from Laird Barron. It maintains the high standards that he set with 'The Imago Sequence' and 'Occultation'.

Barron is one of the few writers working in modern horror who has managed to transcend his influences. Although he is working broadly within the Lovecraftian tradition, Barron stands out from the hordes of pasticheurs as a powerful and literate stylist who is well on his way to developing his own fully-realised fictional world. Some of the stories here feature recurring characters and motifs, and Barron has a grasp of the grimier side of American history, which lends his fictions an unusual and convincing depth of detail. These are not simple penny shockers.

Evil in Barron's stories is recognisably human in origin, rooted in the old sins of lust, greed and cruelty. His protagonists are often violent or criminally inclined; all the more disturbing, then, when their tendencies bring hard men up against less familiar forms of harm.

I greatly enjoyed this book, and look forward to its successor. Recommended to anybody who enjoys literate modern horror.

Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imagination
Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imagination
by Otto Dov Kulka
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A child survivor of Auschwitz reflects, 29 Dec. 2013
The author of 'Landscapes...', now a distinguished eighty-year-old historian, was a child inmate of Auschwitz-Birkenau from September 1943. His parents were also imprisoned there: his father survived; his mother did not. 'Landscapes...' is the record of his attempt to come to terms with his experience, which has pursued him through waking and dreaming for nearly seventy years.

Kulka subsequently revisited Auschwitz, but until recently had rigorously segregated his personal experience from his professional work as an historian of the Holocaust. Reading 'Landscapes...' one can see why. Compiled in sections over a long period of time, and drawing together taped personal reflections, diary entries, accounts of dreams, the poems of others, and a brief academic article, this is less a unified text than the shattered record of repeated attempts to grasp the ungraspable. The accompanying photographs, for the most part, speak most eloquently of what they cannot represent.

Nonetheless, by organising his disparate texts around the recurring image of Auschwitz as a 'Metropolis of Death' whose law cannot be escaped even when it lies in literal ruins, Kulka - for whom Kafka's paradoxical 'Before the Law' is a touchstone - has produced a powerful and personal testament that goes well beyond a simple account of the facts.

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