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Straw Men: A Former Agent Recounts How the FBI Crushed the Mob in Las Vegas
Straw Men: A Former Agent Recounts How the FBI Crushed the Mob in Las Vegas
by Gary Magnesen
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.57

2.0 out of 5 stars Two starts and only for the Balistrieri part., 9 April 2014
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I bought this book based on the title; mainly as supplementary reading to Nicholas Pileggi’s Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, a book about the mafia’s operation of casinos.

Instead, this book is mostly about Gary Magnesen’s FBI career.

The first part of the book is about the work Magnesen did in Milwaukee. The team he was working with brought down Frank Balistrieri. It is an interesting story in itself, but not what I was looking for.

The Las Vegas part unfortunately plagiarises Pileggi’s book quite openly and in certain points word-for-word. There a few brief conversations with mob enforcer Frank Cullota thrown in, in which no new material is offered. Some other bits are pilfered from Frank Rosenthal’s website (which the author refers to as an “email-site” at some point. Also, the book has its fair share of spelling and grammatical errors).

I was expecting some insights into the key players of mob-influenced Las Vegas from the people who brought them down. Magnesen has supposedly taught “psychology of the criminal mind” at university level. There is precious little of that here. Magnesen went to Las Vegas in 1980 and it seems to me most of the legwork was done by then. The narrative copies large parts from Pileggi's much better effort and often digresses to unrelated incidents and to top it all, Magnesen himself is insufferably judgmental. His insight extends to calling the mafiosos soulless, dead-eyed zombies.

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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Doesn't work with certain Seagate drives, 8 Dec 2013
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Which they don't tell you in the Amazon page, you have to go to the company's website to find out why your drive is not recognised. Anker recommended a firmware upgrade on my hard drive, which I did, with my heart to my mouth. Still the drive was not recognised.

Sold on ebay as my refund period had passed.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 10, 2013 9:47 AM GMT

Lord Jim (Penguin Classics)
Lord Jim (Penguin Classics)
by Joseph Conrad
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.53

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An important part of Conrad's development as a writer., 5 July 2012
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Some say Lord Jim is Conrad's best novel- whether that is true or not, one thing is for sure: it is a top candidate for his most "difficult" novel. The narrative is heavily experimental. The bulk of the novel is narrated in the form of an after dinner reminiscence by Marlow (also the protagonist of Hearts of Darkness, Youth and Chance). Further narrations take place within the main narration which makes for a nested structure. Not an easy structure to penetrate and in many cases the reader is bewildered as to who is actually narrating. Further, Conrad is doing a thing he often did in those early books of his, which is describe things as they happened, rather than as they are happening. It's the technique of a younger author and seems to be almost totally absent in his later works.

There are two main strands in the plot. Firstly, Jim's fall from grace and then his attempt at redemption. The text is, as usual, heavily lyrical with paragraphs instead of sentences- nothing you wouldn't expect from Conrad. Nevertheless, I was fascinated by Lord Jim and its details are fresh in my mind. It seems as if Conrad can make anything come to life and you can actually see the whole setting in your mind's eye. Such is the power of his narrative.

by Irvine Welsh
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.86

7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A bit of a step back for Welshy, ken?, 11 Jun 2012
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This review is from: Skagboys (Hardcover)
"Skagboys" follows Crime, Welsh's 2009 effort. Crime was a pleasant surprise, seeing as it took place in the States, but the character was still a Scotchman confronted by his past (in trademark Welshy fashion). I liked "Crime", I thought it was one of the more original efforts by Welsh and also one of the better ones.

Unfortunately, while "Skagboys" is not that bad itself, it can hardly be called original; indeed it's so close to "Trainspotting" it feels like more of the same. I was led to expect something slightly different, not least from Welsh himself who in his interviews talked about wanting to explore the "supply side of things", meaning the way drugs took a hold of certain parts of Scotland in the 1980s. Well, there's frightfully little of that, just a couple of characters smuggling pure heroin out of a pharmaceutical factory, a few pages in total. The book itself is a bit long, about five hundred seventy pages. While there's rarely a dull moment when reading Welsh, "Trainspotting" and "Porno" were considerably leaner, something which I feel made them better novels.

The main cast are all the known characters from "Trainspotting" and unfortunately, they are mostly the same quantities they were in the original. Renton seems to have been born a cynic, Sick Boy a manipulative pimp, Spud a naive, good-hearted lad, Begbie a total psycho, etc. I thought perhaps (this being a sequel and all) we would see them growing up. This is mostly not the case as "Skagboys" takes place three or four years before Trainspotting, so the main cast are already in their early-twenties. Granted, we see them descend into addiction for the first time but the background behind that seems very thin, especially in Sick Boy's case and none of them seem to go through any major arc. In short, with the possible exception of Renton, we don't really see why they are who they are.

Like I said, it's not a bad effort (in many places you will laugh your heart out), but it seems a bit of a step back for Welsh. I wonder what he will do from here.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 28, 2013 1:08 PM GMT

Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour
Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour
by Kate Fox
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.79

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Two stars for the effort and the effort only, 5 Jun 2012
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Reading the Amazon reviews of "Watching the English" reveals an interesting trend. The more favourable reviews are from people who didn't take the book so seriously. They were amused by the wit and were pleasantly surprised at seeing long standing English cultural quirks analysed to a degree. The more unfavourable reviewers read the book expecting insights into English culture. In other words, they took it seriously and were disappointed to find a large part of it preoccupied with class stereotypes instead.

In trying to write my own review I wondered: should I evaluate the book as a serious approach to understanding the English (after all it's written by an anthropologist) or as a collection of light-hearted observations? Or perhaps, something in between?

Then I read the back cover. Apparently "Watching the English" has been translated in three different languages: Chinese, Polish and Russian. Two of these countries are emergent world players (no offence to Poland). I can very well see Russians and Chinese, who increasingly find themselves re-defined as world citizens as opposed to relatively isolated peoples, turning into books such as "Watching the English" expecting a comprehensive review of our culture.

So keeping that in mind, I violated the foremost English rule and took Kate Fox's project in earnest.

You'd be surprised to learn that Fox is not the only one to have attempted such an effort. Jeremy Paxman came before her with his excellent 1999 offering "The English". Paxman's book casts a heavy shadow on Fox's, indeed Paxman is mentioned twice on the very first page of "Watching the English" and in regular intervals after that. But whereas Paxman revealed himself in his writing as a keen thinker whose intellectual calibre shone through in his book, Fox can make no such claim. "Watching the English" is, essentially, one long collection of pop-anthropology observations not in any way, shape or form backed by evidence or benefited by some sort of peer review. The bit about peer review may be a high expectation on my part- alas; I thought anthropology was a science, but after "Watching the English" I am not so sure.

Fox has tried hard to lend a heavyweight veneer to her project- unforunately, the way she went about it was to fill it to the brim (four hundred pages) with otherwise lightweight (and light-hearted) anecdotes (and for the most part they are just that, anecdotes) on English culture.

To the book's credit, Fox goes some way in examining the pre-eminent English characteristics: Awkwardness, obsessions with privacy, DIY etc. In the process, she invents her own terms, as she thinks a serious researcher should do, for example, "social dis-ease" and "Eeyorishness"(if this sounds weird it's because it's a reference to the character "Winnie the Pooh").

Further to the book's credit, Fox writes with an easy, amusing, at times effortless style. She can very funny too, especially when describing the lengths she had to go to conduct her research. At the same time, one cannot help but notice how Fox involves personal details in her writing, like the numerous digressions about her father, her travels, her studies and lest we get the wrong idea about her class background, her brain surgeon fiancée with the Oxford education and the furnishings of her home. Funny, I don't remember Paxman doing the same. A bit of class insecurity, perhaps?

Seeing the onslaught of class stereotyping that follows, perhaps we're on to something here. "Watching the English" is filled with a thousand and one trite, shallow, populist, mundane and utterly generalising stereotypes regarding the supposed habits of English social classes. These concern many lifestyle aspects. For example we learn that it is considered low class to include chopped tomatoes in leafy salads, and that upper class people say "loo" instead of toilet. Far from academic analyses, these anecdotes seem lifted from Jilly Cooper novels.

Meanwhile, the real issues remain unexplored. Britain's social make-up started changing after 1997 with the conscious pursuit of multiculturalist policies by Labour. These were bound to muddle class boundaries which were becoming increasingly fluid anyway in the late-20th century. Fox's rigid analyses on what an upper-middle or middle-middle or lower-middle person would eat or wear or drive seem stuck to the 1950s and from what I read on other reviews are eerily reminiscent of Jilly Cooper's novel "Class". Also, why the obsession on such mundane preferences like clothes and brands of tea? Why didn't Fox cover class attitudes towards other races (especially relevant in our de facto multicultural society) or politics? Perhaps Jilly Cooper didn't offer opinion on such weighty issues or perhaps these waters were too deep for Fox?

Actually, therein lies the problem. Cooper's book was meant as a frivolous look into Englishness. With Fox's we are not so sure, because her extensive anthropology credentials are used for marketing purposes and also to lend a degree of authority, which by extension suggests we could expect a degree of depth from her insight. Instead many fantastic opportunities are wasted; for example, why is she not exploring further what she terms the English social "dis-ease". Why is it for example that many Northern European peoples are equally awkward? Why do the English share this trait with them despite their culture being quite distinct in all other aspects?

With great effort I managed to finish all four hundred pages, even though they felt two hundred too many. I found myself staring at the references list, which was only one page long (Paxman's went for several pages). Of course, these included the Jilly Cooper book mentioned above, Paxman's "The English", but also, surprisingly, two previous efforts by Kate Fox herself and one of her father's.

It's a shame because as I've mentioned in the beginning, "Watching the English" has been translated in three languages already. I would have liked a higher quality mainstream effort to represent English culture aboard.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 31, 2013 2:19 PM BST

The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' and Other Stories (Penguin Classics)
The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' and Other Stories (Penguin Classics)
by Joseph Conrad
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Prime Conrad, 4 Feb 2012
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"The Narcissus" was the third published writing of Conrad's- in this volume it is paired with a number of his short stories- however the short stories are taken from various periods of his writing career, thusly the style differs drastically in parts. The prose is heavier in earlier writings- as Conrad became more confident in telling a story the prose is scaled back and made more accessible. Below I'm giving a brief summary and critique of each story in the book. Note that my copy of the book contains two additional stories, in contrast to what is written in Amazon's book description.

**The Narcissus**
This unfortunately titled novella (published as `Children of the Sea' in America) is the main story of the collection and a milestone in Conrad's writing, in that it was written after his first two novels, but differs in both style, and more dramatically, in subject matter. This is Conrad's first attempt to put down to paper the experiences of a lifetime spent at sea.

The story is about the "Narcissus", a ship bound from Bombay to London. Conrad weaves real life characters with the aptitude of a maestro- the sailors are so believable they almost jump out of the page. From the old-hand Singleton, a man for whom ship and sea are the only things around which his lopsided existence revolves, to Donkin the fast-talking, lazy, agitating, rapacious, East-End sponger, to Jimmy the black man of the title for whom the reader cannot make his mind up until the end- is he really ill or is he pretending in order to slack off? The crew come to despise Jimmy, because they think he's acting, yet strangely, they found themselves orbiting around him.

Stylistically, this is naturally (for Conrad is Conrad and here he becomes Conrad to the extreme), a difficult read. The reader needs to constantly pay attention lest important events coated in convoluted yet beautiful language, slip by. The verbosity is remarkable. Have your dictionary close at hand. There is extensive use of nautical terms for which there is a relevant appendix in the end, which needs to be studied carefully.

The end result is satisfying and makes for a fascinating read. A novella which requires a sound investment on the part of the reader, but which makes up for it having made him or her a richer person.

**Youth: A narrative**
Written by Conrad upon reaching middle age, this is a narrative by a seaman called "Marlow", who recounts his episodic trips with aboard the "Judea" carrying coal to the east. Not one of my favourite stories, since I couldn't find very much other than a collection of horrors of the life at sea that any old sailor of the time must have endured.

**The Secret Sharer**
A tremendous psychological tale of the life at sea, "The Secret Sharer" is Conrad at his very best. The plot is a variation of the classic literature device, the "doppelganger" which is a person who is the "double" of the protagonist. In this case, the protagonist is a young captain on his first command and the "double" is the chief mate of another ship who run away having killed another crew member for insolence during a storm. The captain takes in the chief mate after being the only person to witness him climbing the ropes up during a quiet night and must now hide him from the rest of the crew, within the very tight confines of his cabin. A masterful tale of doubt, torment, guilt, escape, sanctuary and release.

**The Lagoon**
One of the first things that Conrad ever wrote, the Lagoon revolves around the settings and themes of his first two novels: the Malay islands, passion, betrayal, crushed dreams, white men and natives, jungle, boats, etc. A remarkable piece of early writing, the prose shows that Conrad emerged as an unmatched wordsmith right from the very beginning.

**An Outpost of Progress**
Perhaps the most acclaimed of Conrad's short stories (certainly one of the best in this book), "An Outpost of Progress" is a marvel of meaning and symbolism. Written in 1986, very early in Conrad's writing career, this undertaking is drastically different from Conrad's early style, which sees the prose becoming very accessible, in order for full focus to be given to the storytelling. And the storytelling is just sublime. Within hardly more than twenty pages, Conrad masterfully uncovers the greed and futility of colonialism- the story concerns two Belgians given charge of an insignificant trading post in the Congo- the "outpost" of the title. We see their greediness, the self-serving of their cause, their laziness and their gradual corruption, as they become entangled in a land whose customs they do not understand and cut off from their own "civilization". The conclusion of the story is inevitable. A masterful tale, one that should be taught at schools.

**The Informer**
Another piece where Conrad fully displays his remarkable verbosity along with his instantly recognisable prose, the Informer does not have anything to do with the sea but is rather a testing ground of sorts for themes and narrative styles that Conrad would utilise in "The Secret Agent".

**The Idiots**
A relatively short piece, this was written during Conrad's honeymoon in France and some of the characters were probably inspired by what he saw there. It's a relatively simple (by Conrad's standards) tale of a rural family in a traditional provincial setting. They place their hopes on the arrival of strong and hearty children who will help with the farmwork, however, they turn out to be imbeciles.

**Il Conde**
Another short story, this is based on an anecdote related to Conrad about a certain character (a nobleman of the times) and a curious event that happened to him.

**The Duel**
The final story in this collection is also one of the best. The subject matter is utterly fascinating. It is about two French Hussars (cavalry officers) in the time of the Napoleonic wars, who develop a grudge and fight a number of duels for much of the next twenty years, even after they advance in ranks. The language is more accessible than previous stories here and the reader also gets treated through a description of France in the time of Napoleon. A nearly flawless work, although I thought the subject matter was very much suited for a full novel.

One Day
One Day
by David Nicholls
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.95

10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Two stars, and only because I had a laugh here and there, 15 Jan 2012
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This review is from: One Day (Paperback)
It's quite possible to classify peoples' reactions to this book based on whether they read the Daily Mail or not.

If you're an avid reader of said "newspaper", spending your lunch time at work perusing its website while eating at your desk, you will more than likely find One Day to be a brilliant novel, you will laugh at all the jokes, you'll respond to the emotional arcs and you will cry near the end.

If the Daily Mail is something like a guilty secret for you, something that you glance over for a few minutes at a time, for maybe a few times a week, just to marvel at its decadence- a sort of circus show for generation nothingness, then you will find this book good in parts, terribly forced in others, ridiculously unrealistic in general. You'll forget reading it in six months' time.

If you wouldn't be caught dead reading the Daily Mail, you're more than likely to put this book down after a few pages.

For those of you who don't know what the Daily Mail is, let me use another reference point. From the perspective of someone who has read a few hundred books, and more classic than contemporary novels, this book is for the most part a seething mess of stereotypical drivel with the only specks of originality coming from the levity and the jokes.

On the other hand, if you read books to sort of "wind-down" after a tiring day at work, or if chick-lit is the most represented genre in your library... this might quite possibly be the book for you.

"Em and Dex", "Dex and Em"... the diminutives of the two protagonists' names, the combination of which sounds like an advertisement for a limescale remover- this first impression is fitting since the characters are fraught with so many clichés that they look like cartoons at times. Both of them are attractive (quite naturally), Dex is tall and dashing (of course) and Em has big boobs (there you go). Dex is an obnoxious womanizer from a well-off background who spends a fair deal of the book drinking and doing drugs and Em is a thoughtful, intelligent woman from modest beginnings who spends a fair deal of the book being hopelessly in love with Dex. Do these characters sound as if they could be in any old chick-lit book or what?

The relationship between them is forced and unlikely- they start out by exchanging flirtatious banter, sometimes argumentative, often sarcastic which is the usual way in which Brits flirt- unfortunately, we find them doing the same thing ten and fifteen years later. With few exceptions (like when they have a real fight) it is the only mode of communication. Leaving that aside, however, I just can't see where the compulsion lies for Em to want Dex so much- we hardly see a single exchange between them where they connect in an empathic way or where one seems to complete the other, which is something you'd expect in people who are so different. You can see an intelligent and independent woman like Em longing for an incorrigible mess like Dex for a few months, perhaps a year or two... but not across decades. The author just cannot "sell" this. Women like Em have a line of men stretching across the block waiting to date them, and they definitely don't wait for men like Dex to screw every living, breathing thing with two legs and then marry them, unless there are very good internal reasons involved, reasons which seem to lie out of the author's ability to conceive.

*Warning: Spoilers below*

Supporting characters are made out of cardboard- they exist to carry the protagonists and nothing more. Hence, Emma's parents are there to give her a Yorkshire, working class background and we learn nothing else about them for the duration. Similarly, Dex's mother is mostly there for her to die, so we can feel sympathy for Dex (since the author clearly couldn't bestow even the slightest redeeming qualities to him and had to rely on external devices such as this), his father is there as a supporting pillar and his "mate" is there to eventually run off with Dex's wife so that Dex can finally become available for Emma and the plot to continue to its natural chick-lit progression.

You see the term "chick-lit" used a few times so far in this review even though I wasn't sure if it would be a wholly descriptive term until near the end of the book, where Em, totally out of the blue, is killed off in an accident (of course this is after she's already been with Dex for a few years). Far from serving any meaningful purpose, this twist is thoroughly unpleasant, probably stolen from somewhere (that city of angels movie) and seems as if it was tacked on after the plot was stuck and all other avenues were exhausted.

Further, the author describes Emma's death in such a cold manner in the last paragraph that you cannot help but wonder if you're somehow reading another book all of the sudden- was that really necessary or is Nicholls such an inept writer that he thought a tragic twist close to the end of a novel that is generally so desperate to make you laugh would add a hint of depth? Reading other comments, I see this choice ruined many a person's impression of the book.

*End of Spoiler*

This is an oppressive book in many parts- the protagonists are always seen through the context of what they should be doing at their age. Being true stereotypes it seems their age (which changes in every chapter, thus trying to create an illusion of following real characters along the path of life, alas, if only you could pull it off David Nichols) is their prime defining characteristic; they often suffer criticism, sometimes from others, often from their own selves for not doing, thinking or living what people their age "should".

This is also a comic book in many parts- I found myself laughing out loud in places- and some of the witticisms are such that you want to write them down so you can use them (something that the author admits in the acknowledgements that he did himself, pilfering his mates' wit). Humour and sharp wit can go on forever and in this case, they do- the author knows this and projected it by writing a character into the book who is a failed stand-up comedian, someone who is always "on".

When the author goes "off", the result is a tragicomedy of sorts, so that this unfortunate book which tries so hard to be funny at times, is given a tragic tinge in the end, which makes for a tragic attempt at writing, perhaps something originally intended as a screenplay, which wouldn't be surprising given that a movie eventually came out of this with Nichols adapting the original material.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 2, 2012 12:02 PM GMT

A History of Britain, Vol 1: At the Edge of the World: 3000BC-AD1603
A History of Britain, Vol 1: At the Edge of the World: 3000BC-AD1603
by Simon Schama CBE
Edition: Hardcover

7 of 14 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Uneven, flawed, incomplete, ultimately a mediocre piece, 14 Jan 2012
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After the smashing success of the television series, someone at the BBC must have thought it wise to follow through with a written accompaniment. The author mentions in the preface that the History of Britain book series is supposed to stand on its own. I'll be explaining precisely why this isn't the case, at least concerning this first instalment.

Assuming one manages to read though the abstruse, extremely convoluted preface (typical of an academic, one would have thought), a rather dubious beginning is waiting: the author praises the British weather, especially the mildness. Schama himself mentions in the preface that he hadn't been in Britain in 20 years. Presumably, he has forgotten a lot about the weather here - its dominant feature is not its mildness, but the almost ridiculous unpredictability.

One reads on about prehistoric Britain which is explored in an interesting section regarding Orkney islands. However, in the relatively modest amount of time it takes to read about seventy pages into the book, one sees huge swaths of history covered in just a few paragraphs, which is to say that by page 70 we have already reached 1066. There is very little concerning British tribes in Celtic Britain, perhaps the peoples closest to what one could term "native" Britons. Roman Britain leaves a lot to be desired too. Almost all of this early chapter is focused on the Norman invasion. And while one cannot help but admire the vivid writing, especially concerning battle scenes, or the exploration of the socio-economic changes that were brought about Anglo-Saxon and Norman conquests, one also cannot help but notice that the Viking/Danish conquests are largely glossed over.

By this time it becomes apparent that the book focuses on England, rather than Britain- Scotland and Wales are conspicuously absent in these early chapters. We only have a chance to glance at Wales before it's conquered and colonised by Edward Longshanks. Scotland is only seen through the efforts of the English to conquer her as well, never mind that she has a rich list of monarchs of her own.

These omissions are curious in a book heavily marketed as "A History of Britain" and detract a bit from its value, in my opinion. One the one hand, Schama goes into a lot of trouble arguing that Britain is a happy conglomeration of different ethnicities (he does this throughout the series)- on the other what he wrote in this first volume here is definitely an Anglo-centric view of British History. I find this to be an immense contradiction. You could argue that Britain is Anglo-centric- but does that justify not even paying rudimentary attention to the histories of the other cultures?

What I found to be a slightly redeeming point was the author's expansion on the effects of the Black Death and how it shaped the society and economics of the time.

As one continues reading, however, it is striking how some events and people are overemphasised at the expense of others. The most famous of monarchs are predictably enough, greatly elaborated upon- it is convenient for the author to use the dramatics of their reigns in his attempt to tell a story- others, however, are almost completely glossed over, such as Henry I. Henry V and Elizabeth I occupy dozens of pages whereas events like the Wars of the Roses and the Hundred Years' War barely get a paragraph's mention, with the former denounced as the "bloody bickering of overgrown schoolboys". Focusing on Elizabeth's hysterics and Ann Boleyn's turbulent life at the expense of even touching upon the nature of a war that shaped Britain's attitude towards France for the following centuries gives the book an unfortunate, sensational tinge.

Focusing on the writing style and the structure does not help, either. The shoddy, convoluted chronology jumps back and forth between events. Chapter 3 ends with the death of King John and the ascension of the nine year old Henry III. Yet, Chapter 4 "Aliens and Natives" starts the first few paragraphs by examining events a full 70 years after the ascension of Henry III, namely Irish and Scottish rebellions, only to digress by referencing Edward I "Longshanks on the very next paragraph (on account of his being called the "Hammer of the Scots") and then mentions 1776 anecdote of a some people opening his grave to see what his looks like. Thusly go the first few pages of Chapter 4. After that, Schama jumps straight back to what he was writing about in the end of Chapter 3: Henry III. This inconsistent chronology repeats itself in numerous places, makes for some confusing reading and doesn't help the reader retain significant amounts of what they read. The same happens with Chapter Elizabeth which starts with describing events and situations of her middle age (working backwards from there), whereas the previous chapter ended with her ascension.

When coming close the end of the book, it becomes startlingly apparent that Schama tried to write an "accessible" history, which sounds like an amusing paradox. "Accessibility" dictates that a book be mainstream and that means it needs to be short- no one today has the patience to read through the unabridged History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, a short book can at best try to be comprehensive and this one has failed at that, since Schama tried to do in writing what the BBC series did through visuals: that is, tell a story and in doing so sacrificed tremendous detail and thoroughness.

Of course, this isn't the first time that an author approaches an immense historical record by using a storytelling narrative- John Julius Norwich did it with his splendid three-volume history of Byzantium, which covered over 12 centuries of history in an accessible style. But where Norwich restricted his prose and for the most part let the events do the story telling, Schama seems more intent in maintaining the friendly and jocular style which I'm told he uses in the TV-series while also mixing it with the verbosity that marks the academic.

Unfortunately, I am forced to comment on some objectivity issues: why does Schama make references to himself in the book? Why are places and schools qualified with the remark that Schama studied there (yes, I'm referring to Oxford), why is Schama paying due attention to his own kin (the Jews) throughout the book and why does the 1290 expulsion of the Jews from England take a page-and-half where events far more important to the history of Britain are only referenced by name?

A few final remarks on the writing style: the text is not free from typos (which is surprising coming from a book that carries the BBC stamp on it), it also includes a few Americanisms and some sentences are finished with exclamation marks!

To be honest, I wouldn't know to whom to recommend this book. You would expect that an add-on to the TV series would include considerably more detail. Native Brits would know all this already from their school education anyway (well, hopefully). So, they wouldn't find it very edifying either. Foreigners would probably go for something more condensed. I suppose this leaves immigrants to the UK, who would want an introduction of sorts? I can't recommend another one since I haven't read any yet, but I will say instead that this is a mediocre one, for all the reasons listed above.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 23, 2013 6:40 PM GMT

by Greg Egan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.39

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Three stars, 11 Aug 2011
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This review is from: Zendegi (Paperback)
Greg Egan is generally noted and acclaimed for his hard science fiction and more for his short stories than his novels. Zendegi is his newest attempt in more mainstream writing, which means that there is a conscious attempt in creating human characters, a story with emotional arcs, some sociological extrapolations and some more easily accessible science (neural networks and virtual reality instead of hard physics).

Egan has produced at least one similar effort before which, like this one, was preceded by some of his hardest and most technical sci-fi at the time. So, Teranesia, came after writing Diaspora and Distress, two masterpieces that dealt with advanced physics (the former) and advanced AI (the latter). Zendegi comes after Incandescence and Schild's Ladder two efforts of similar focus on fascinating extrapolation to the nth degree but also similar neglect to story and characters.

Hard sci-fi in general is lampooned for its technicality and inattention to classic literature devices and Incandescence in particular drew the scathing review of another novelist (Adam Roberts, who also writes sci-fi, but apparently with less distinction), which Egan took exception to and replied by reviewing the review on his website calling it a hatchet job (I think it sort of was the case, too- also, you can't impose classical literature and stylistic standards on hard science fiction; that would be absurd).

So, Zendegi is here, a significantly more mainstream novel- does it work? Yes and no, with the balance tipping more to the `no' than to the 'yes'. That doesn't mean, however, that it's not a notable effort. I won't describe the story at all, since adequate synopses already exist. Instead, I'll make some comments about what I liked and not liked.

Firstly, there is a well-crafted balance between the scientific elements and the actual plot- the plot is mostly driven by: a) sociological and political factors in earlier chapters and b) the characters themselves in latter chapters.

As always, the science here is top notch, the ideas fascinating and the detail not overbearing (I was able to understand everything without resorting to external help. I am not a layman, but not an expert either). I loved the science behind the Human Connectome Project and how they trained neural networks with MRI images, until they hit a roadblock, but also how they worked out of it.

One other example of what I liked: the commercial VR process that grew out of the HCP is put into practice by having the country's most famous footballer's skills mapped onto his virtual counterpart, and the after-effects are quite funny. Also, Egan has changed his style somewhat, there are more humorous incidents and there is an effort to make some characters funny, as well as tragic.

Unfortunately, I have no choice but to gripe about the characters, which is reasonable in this context, because this is presented as a more mainstream science fiction novel. Martin Seymour is actually a benign, dull, well-meaning cardboard cut-out. We are given only two insights into his character. One is in the beginning when he's transferring music from his vinyl to his computer, the other in the end when he's recalling an experience he'd had while covering the war in Afghanistan and this second one is really, not fully capitalised. I think this makes for some severely limited characterisation which is a shame since there are plenty of opportunities to flesh him out (he's been through a revolution, a war, a widowhood, trying to make a living as a foreigner in what is essentially a new country).

Likewise, Nasim has been through some anguish in her own life, since she had to leave Iran while very young and left a dead father there- yet, we hardly learn anything about her either, and in the earlier parts of the book she comes across as sarcastic and cynical (which I suppose is fair, but hardly enough) and in the latter part when aged she is benign, albeit reluctant. I have met Iranians living abroad; they are all very interesting characters and tremendously affected by the situation of their motherland. Some marvellous characterisation opportunities are similarly lost.

At least the characterisation while not inspired is free of platitudes and stereotypes. In this day and age, this counts as a positive.

The one drawback that irked me the most, however, concerns Iran. Egan took a trip there as part of his research. I expected to see more of the tragic history of Iran presented in the book; more on the shameful realpolitik that brought the Shah to the power- and the ironic outcomes of the Islamic revolution which saw the messiahs turn to monsters; more on the social conditions, the economic opportunities, the ethnic tapestry and how all these would play out in a future democracy- instead, we mostly get descriptions of topography and buildings during the riots and a weaving of a classic Persian tale into a scenario for the Zendegi VR system (personally I didn't find this particularly noteworthy, although others may disagree).

As I mentioned before there is some merit on the stylistic aspects of the novel- parts of it, however, remain characteristically dry.

One thing I have discovered about the author is that he worked hard to improve his writing. He was astute in identifying his strengths relatively early on in his professional career and he worked and worked and worked at them until he met with his share of acclaim. I would like to see Egan work on increasing the quality of the sort of writing in Zendegi. He has won the Hugo Award for `Oceanic' (and many other awards also) which was brilliant and not at all hard science fiction. It dealt with religion and in particular the disillusionment of an individual who discovers that core doctrines of his religion are explainable through scientific means. There is nothing to suggest that Egan cannot make the transition to more accessible writing by improving this style and the use of the more classical literature devices.

Beginning Bodybuilding: Real Muscle/Real Fast
Beginning Bodybuilding: Real Muscle/Real Fast
by John R. Little
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.39

29 of 35 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Beginning Bodybuilding? No, not really., 4 May 2011
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I would define as a beginner someone who hasn't touched weights before, has done little cardio and knows little of nutrition. In terms of pure training I think a beginner moves to the intermediate stage after having at least six months to one year of consistent training experience with weights, although in older and more unfit (especially the obese) individuals this can and should be longer.

Going by these definitions, first of all, this book's title is deceptive. Out of 18 chapters, only the first 3 are written for the beginner. The fourth one deals with explaining the role of steroids in bodybuilding (in a disapproving manner), while the fifth one tries to sell you on "Max Contraction training", a pet project of the author and the subject of other books of his (from my understanding of it, I wouldn't recommend that a beginner goes anywhere near it). The rest of the chapters concern more advanced routines that a beginner would not consider until they've had a fair grasp of the basics, which in itself is a task that can take many months and requires wide reading.

Two things gradually become clear:
1) Firstly, this isn't a book for someone beginning bodybuilding, rather it's a piece of work that tries to offer something to everyone, beginner, intermediate and advanced.
2) This is a book written by an erstwhile disciple of Mike Mentzer and as a result, the routines, biases and even the prose in some parts of the book are similar to Mentzer's writing efforts.

Continuing on, despite the strong condemnation of steroids in the fourth chapter, the book is replete with pictures of professional bodybuilders displaying training form, the same individuals whom the author informed us earlier on are amongst the heaviest users of said substances. By the way, proper form is everything (the author has that right) but if you think that you will learn it by watching two-dimensional pictures of juiced bodybuilders holding the weight at the start and end position... you've got another thing coming. Instead, the only other role that these images (that also take about a fourth of the book, incidentally) could serve would be to somehow convince you that by espousing the author's principles, you would attain the look of a professional bodybuilder. Which, unless you consider steroids (and even if you do), is simply preposterous.

Every few chapters the author proposes new training routines (as you supposedly advance in your training) most of who repeat some of the same exercises. The exercises repeated in new routines still get the full description copied and pasted from the previous chapters. Thusly, the barbell squat's description is tiresomely and redundantly repeated throughout the book a number of times. Same with the stiff-legged deadlift, the press, the bench press, etc. About 80% of the book consists of describing exercises, most of them being isolation exercises which, again, are not relevant to the beginner. As a beginner, you will start mainly with compound exercises (more on this at the end) in order to build core body strength (and with that will come muscle mass if you do them appropriately) and only one or two isolation exercises for a total of 5-6 exercises per workout. This is common knowledge, do your own research to verify or ask a trainer at your local gym. Isolation movements become most relevant only when you've got a year or more of consistent training (not one month on, two months off, consistent as in consistent) under your belt, at which point you move into the intermediate stage.

However, my main objection concerning this book is the pathetic chapter on nutrition (chapter 16). It is inexcusable to write such a chapter on nutrition and put it in a book and then market this book to beginners. Characteristically, it is only 5 pages long and is merely a condensed version of Mentzer's out of print and hard to find (and rightly so) Heavy Duty Nutrition. Even one of the main examples from this previous book is carried over verbatim, the one that claims that since a pound of fat contains 3,500 calories, if you adjusted your calories at deficit of 500 per day, at the end of one week you'd have lost a pound of fat, a tenet that takes no consideration of basic physiological factors like metabolic slowdown, CNS output and muscle catabolism.

For example, if you're already lean but have fat trouble spots that you want to reduce through diet and adjust your calories accordingly, your body could very well provide these 500 calories to itself by breaking down your muscle and not your fatty tissue. Also, the longer you diet the more likely it will be for this to take place- these are the very basics of dieting. You will need to know these before you start training or you risk turning your efforts into spinning wheels (then you'll risk making minimal or no progress, grow frustrated and discouraged and most likely quit).

Even so, numerous other factors are simply unaccounted for: how old is the trainee? How long have they been training for? Are they male or female? What type of training do they do? How often? All these factors taken together play a serious role in changing your body composition and addressing them is conspicuously absent here, even though you would expect exactly such an approach in a book that is marketed as "beginning bodybuilding".

In fact, the author takes a simplistic approach to dieting in general and claims that high protein is not needed to build muscle, a claim amongst many other claims in this book that flies in the face of many decades of physiological research and which you are expected to take on the writer's authority since no science references are provided. In actuality, muscle is composed of proteins. If you're not ingesting these through your diet in the first place, what exactly will your body use and by what mechanism in order to build muscle? This book holds a slightly disdaining outlook to dieting: you just need to train like a man! (the author is a gym owner and not a nutritionist which explains a lot of the above).

Of cardio little mention at all is made in this book. The same of stretching and warming up (crucial to the older trainee). Which by now should have been predictable.

All in all, "Beginning Bodybuilding" is a mediocre and deceptive effort, mostly irrelevant and amiss of crucial information to the beginner and in major parts simply a regurgitation of Mike Mentzer's doctrines (even Mentzer's biases come through: the author clearly takes a few digs at Arnold Schwarzenegger's training. For more information see: Mr Olympia 1980). As I wrote in the beginning of this review it is only the first three chapters that are relevant to the beginner and that is by no means a reason to buy "Beginning Bodybuilding" because that information is already available for free online, in various different places.

"Starting Strength" or "Practical Programming for Strength Training" by Lon Kilgore and Mark Rippetoe are much more respectable starting points, in terms of training. Note that programs in these books concern strength training but can also be adjusted for bodybuilding. In any case, as a beginner in either you will need to start training with mainly a few compound exercises, like the squat, the deadlift, the bench press, the shoulder press, the chin up, etc (this is what Little writes in the first three chapters).
If you also grab a hold of the DVD which shows Rippetoe teaching proper training form to his students (alternatively you could use YouTube), you will benefit immensely more than having read a description of text and watched a couple of images of jacked-up bodybuilders holding barbells, regardless of whether you go for bodybuilding or strength training.

In terms of nutrition, physiologist Lyle McDonald's website is replete with starting and advanced reference points in terms of articles that are clear, well written, categorized by goal and most importantly they provide scientific references, so that if you want to verify the author's statements and assess his conclusions you can do just that.
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