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M. S. Bowden (Xiamen, China)

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Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions
Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions
by John Gray
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Necessary Heresy, 4 Aug 2006
Gray's book, a collection of essays first published in the New Statesman offers a refreshingly different perspective on issues such as war, the environment, Europe, and Blair's leadership amongst other things. Gray uncompromisingly undermines and exposes the illusions which support liberal ideas and the stranglehold which these ideas have on western society. He is to the liberal establishment as a pin is to a baloon. The author's prose style is sharp and his arguments are delivered in a logical and accessible way.

'Heresies' is broken up into three parts: Part 1 is called 'The Illusion of Progress'. It is in this section that Gray expounds his thoughts on how 'Progress', in a technological sense, does not result in increased peace and stability or requisite 'progress' in human values. The human animal, the author explains, will always be infected by certain dersires, often negative, and 'progress' means only that those who benefit from better technology can pursue their desires with increased efficiency. Thus 'Progress', for Gray, leads to the ability to destroy the human species with nuclear weapons and the destruction of hundreds of other species. The modern faith in progress then, as something which will lead us towards a brighter, better future is horribly delusional.

In section 2 'War, Terrorism, and Iraq', Gray heralds the 'resumption of history' which began with 9/11 and the end of the dream of a peaceful, globalised world. He argues that we are seeing a return to a Westphalian inter-state world in which the competition for scarce resources is becoming ever more fierce. It is in this context that Gray places the US 'War on Terror'. Devastatingly accurate in his views on the debacle in Iraq, the author shatters the illusion that anything good could come from the invasion of that country.

In the third, and final, section 'Politics Without Illusions', Gray addresses issues such as the rise of the Far Right in Europe, the cult of celebrity, and Blair's Premiership. This part of the book does not see Gray at his strongest, however it's subject matter reveals the author's breadth of vision.

Gray is perhaps at his best when denouncing - and not without ample evidence - both market liberalism and Marxism as 'secular religions', whose belief in the possibility of a Utopian future is utterly misplaced. Understandably however, points that Gray makes in one essay are repeated later in others and while this is slightly annoying at times, this does not detract from the value of the book.

'Heresies' is not a book for those who are in need of an optimistic take on the prospects for improving the depressing state into which we humans have flung ourselves with such vigour. It is a candid, logical, and effortlessly elegant attempt to make us aware of the ways in which most people in the West have been deceived into thinking that 'free trade', 'liberal values' and their spread to the rest of the 'uncivilized' world will leave us better off. Even if one does not agree with Gray's arguments - something which is probably common - this collection of essays will encourage debate. Further, it is refreshing and necessary to lend an ear to the arguments of someone who is unafraid to go against the mainstream grain. Heresy is no bad thing.

Vermeer: The Complete Paintings (Basic Art Album)
Vermeer: The Complete Paintings (Basic Art Album)
by Norbert Schneider
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Introduction to Vermeer, 25 July 2006
This book is an excellent buy for anyone who is new to the world of Vermeer and 17th Century Dutch art. The book benefits from a very accessible lay-out and Norbert Schneider supplies numerous thoughtful and interesting insights on the meanings and messages hidden within the artist's paintings.

Upon finishing the book, one is left with a better sense of the significance of Vermeer's work, the intricacies of his art and the various ideas which he intended to portray. My own understanding of Vermeer and of that era in Dutch art was greatly enhanced by this fine book.

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)
by Hunter S. Thompson
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Raw and Hilarious Account of U.S. Politics, 25 July 2006
'Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72' is a fantastic journey through a spectacle which grips the U.S. every four years. It is a journey which in the hands of other authors would be thoroughly boring. But Hunter S. Thompson (HST) succeeds in combining great intelligence and insightful commentary with shocking hilarity and the result is a great book.

'Campaign Trail '72' doesn't have the same constant flow of wacky, laugh-out-loud humour and outrageous anecdotes as some of HST's other works, but then HST wrote this book as part of a year-long assignment to cover the Presidential campaign, not a week-long bender at the Kentucky Derby. In some respects, the length of time over which Thompson was reporting helps reveal a more 'everyday' side to an author who at other times appears to lead a wholly surreal lifestyle. Even the Doctor of Gonzo has down-time and boring days.

HST undoubtedly achieves what he set out to do in December '71. He gives his readers an insider's account of what it's like to cover a Presidential campaign. He reveals some of the underhand and downright corrupt tactics of the candidates and their entourages, the fickle nature of the electorate's support, the decisive role of the media in an election, and the importance of 'perception'. Thompson reports in a way that no one else is capable of reporting. He goes with gut instinct and from page 1 refuses to write from within the journalistic confines of objectivity. He openly supports Democratic candidate George McGovern, and sees Richard Nixon as a great threat to the U.S.A. and the rest of the world. Indeed, on a few occasions, he openly likens Nixon to Hitler; something which no other journalist would dare write, no matter how strongly they felt it.

Rick Steadman's sketches provide another interesting angle on the campaign and complement HST's writing excellently. The author also offers up a few timeless maxims on the nature of politics, which will strike a chord with anyone who lives in a Western 'Democracy'. In all, despite the fact that some of the detail in this book may seem mundane and dated to a present-day reader, most of HST's writing is timeless and one gets an overall sense that U.S. politics don't appear to have changed much since '72. Post-election, Thompson considers running for the office of Senator in Colorado; after reading this book, he certainly would have had my vote.

Fathers and Sons
Fathers and Sons
by Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev
Edition: Paperback

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 19th Century Russian Classic, 17 July 2006
This review is from: Fathers and Sons (Paperback)
'Fathers and Sons' is arguably Turgenev's greatest work. It is very accessible to the reader, and excellently written. Turgenev is renowned for his masterful ability to construct realistic dialogues and this novel does not disappoint in this respect. But 'Fathers and Sons' is also a novel of ideas and Turgenev analyses some of the ideas and sentiments which were later to have such an important influence on Russian society.

This novel follows Bazarov, a self-proclaimed nihilist, and his friend and pupil Arkady Nikolayevich Kirsanov as they return from their studies in Petersburg to the province in which their fathers reside. The tale is tangled with arguments and discussions about politics and philosophy, and of course it is also complicated by a heavy dose of love. As another reviewer has mentioned, the author's treatment of nihilism as a philosophy is particularly interesting and enlightening.

Turgenev is adept, as other reviewers have noted, at accurately describing different emotions and even at evoking those emotions in his readers; something of which precious few writers are capable. The subject of love, both romantic and mat/paternal, is dealt with extremely skilfully by the author and betrays the understanding of someone who has undoubtedly been exposed to those feelings himself.

'Fathers and Sons' then, leaves the reader with the sense that he/she has participated as a quiet observer in Bazarov and Arkady's journeys, and that Turgenev has enabled one to better appreciate love and the relationship between father and son, amongst other things. This is a book that deserves to be read, appreciated, and pondered over long after it has been closed. It's core relevance has not been diminished by the century-and-a-half since it was written.

Notes from the Underground (Dover Thrift Editions)
Notes from the Underground (Dover Thrift Editions)
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Edition: Paperback
Price: 2.65

29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Which is better - cheap happiness or exalted suffering?", 14 Mar 2006
‘Notes From The Underground’ is a formidable work of philosophy and of psychology, not to mention its worth as a novel. In the space of around one hundred pages, Dostoyevsky manages to expound theories on reason, alienation, suffering, and human inaction. The book’s importance and influence on generations of writers cannot be over-emphasised; Sartre and Camus are only two examples of people who have been directly influenced by this book.
The book is presented in two parts. Part one ‘Underground’ is written in the form of the nameless narrator’s rambling thoughts on reason and his claim that throughout history, human actions have been anything but influenced by reason. Underground Man’s charge is that man values most the freedom to choose to act in opposition to reason’s dictates. Dostoyevsky’s critique of reason then, although it demands attention and is somewhat difficult to follow, sets the philosophical foundations for the rest of the book.
Part two ‘A Propos of the Wet Snow’ is much easier to read, as the narrator recounts three episodes which happened when he was fifteen years younger and working as a civil servant in St. Petersburg. The first considers an incident in which an army officer insults him and goes on to detail Underground Man’s subsequent internal anguish at his inability to commit an act of retribution. The second episode takes place at a farewell dinner for an acquaintance named Zverkov. The narrator is utterly disgusted with the company in which he finds himself but despite this, he is unable – even though he desires it - to make them realise this. The third episode details Underground Man’s brief, painful and emotional relationship with a prostitute.
Dostoyevsky is refreshing in this book thanks not only to his incredibly powerful prose, but also for the intense but subtle way in which the stories reflect and indeed embody his philosophical theories. This dark and pessimistic portrayal of the nature of man may not sit very comfortably with many readers, however the ideas expressed in ‘Notes From The Underground’ are as relevant and worthy of deliberation now as I am sure they were in 1864.
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Stick Out Your Tongue
Stick Out Your Tongue
by Ma Jian
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 9.33

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dark and Kafkaesque...albeit too brief!, 8 Mar 2006
This review is from: Stick Out Your Tongue (Hardcover)
'Stick Out Your Tongue' is a welcome and thoroughly enjoyable new edition to the list of Ma Jian's books which have been translated into English. A collection of short stories relating to the author's travels in Tibet, the book could easily be read as a continuation of 'Red Dust'. At the same time the often bizarre events which Ma Jian recounts and the dark humour which permeates his writing is very familiar to anyone who has read 'The Noodle Maker'.
From the very first short story, 'Stick Out Your Tongue' attempts to grapple with the disturbing events which Ma Jian encountered during his time in Tibet. The reader is exposed to sky burials, affairs, the harshness of the plateaux, folklore, and the nastier rituals of Tibetan Buddhism. Through this mixture of fiction and fact, fantasy and reality, Ma Jian creates an image of Tibet that shatters the manufactured Western notion of a land of purity, peace and tranquillity. In short, Ma Jian evokes in the reader a sense that Tibetans possess no less humanity - and all the negative qualities associated with it - than any other nation.
In the afterword to this short (90 page) volume, Ma Jian provides us with an extremely interesting insight into the furore which the publication and subsequent banning of 'Stick Out Your Tongue' created in the People's Republic of China in 1987. The work was banned due to its shedding too a harsh light on the everyday life of socialist Tibet. The light that Ma Jian casts is indeed anything but positive, but this is not a critique of socialism, or of Chinese rule in Tibet. All of the stories deal exclusively with Tibetans, their traditions, culture, and religion as seen through the eyes of a Han Chinese. One thing that can be said for sure after reading Ma Jian's stories is that socialism is only conspicuous by its absence.
For anyone looking for a short introduction to Ma Jian's work, this book serves as an excellent and accessible read. Alternatively, if 'Red Dust' or 'The Noodle Maker' hit the right spot, 'Stick Out Your Tongue' will only do the same. This book is a great volume from one of modern China's most influential and exciting authors.

Ludmila's Broken English
Ludmila's Broken English
by DBC Pierre
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 8.18

7 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ludmila's Broken English: DBC Pierre's Stunning Originality, 3 Mar 2006
Is this a novel which tries to explore the inherently fake and shallow nature of the internet? Is it a wry criticism on the privatisation of Britain’s National Health Service? Is it a savage look at the sex-crazed, Viagra-induced insanity which seems to be enveloping us? Or is it just a hilarious, stunningly original, and linguistically wild tale of separated Siamese twins and a family in some forlorn corner of the Caucasus? I’m more inclined to put myself firmly in the latter camp, although that’s not to say that the novel doesn’t address all of the above issues in Dirty But Clean’s own special way.
We follow Blair and Bunny Heath as they are unleashed upon an unsuspecting world outside their care home after being separated from one another, whilst at the Eastern frontier of the European continent, a dysfunctional family attempts to eek out a living in the face of flying bullets, crashing mortars, and drunken neighbours. Outrageously funny and interesting stories in themselves, as their respective threads become irresistibly intertwined the reader is treated to the darkest depths of DBC Pierre’s deep and dark imagination.
‘Ludmila’s Broken English’ is an exceptional book. From the word go, DBC Pierre pushes the boundaries of literary English and demolishes so much of the conservative and staid language which prevails in so many writers’ works. The author did this so well in ‘Vernon God Little’ that he won the Man Booker Prize. Here, his writing is both more accomplished and confident, while at the same time he somehow manages to avoid any hint of linguistic cliché. One gets a sense that DBC relishes each piece of dialogue between the characters as another opportunity to flex his literary muscles and pull the linguistic equivalent of a moony at establishment writers.
The writing in this book is perhaps at its most original whenever Ludmila’s family members open their mouths. Rather than giving them an English voice, DBC prefers to translate literally into English whatever they say. For example, they don’t go mad, but ‘lose their cuckoos’. The reader is exposed to an entirely new set of vocabulary with which his characters insult one another. Which leads us to the last main point that should be made about ‘Ludmila’s Broken English’: some of the characters in this book – Bunny, Ludmila and Olga – must be amongst the most memorable this reviewer has come across in an incredibly long time.
With ‘Ludmila’s Broken English’ DBC Pierre has produced an astoundingly good novel, which surpasses ‘Vernon God Little’ in its daring language and hilarity. The sole criticism that could be levelled at the book is that as the plot reaches its crescendo, the author’s linguistic ingenuity seems to become slightly sidetracked, but this in no way detracts from the book. The only question which remains is whether DBC will be in the running for another Man Booker Prize? I mean to say, it wouldn’t surprise this reader.

Officers and Gentlemen (Penguin Modern Classics)
Officers and Gentlemen (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Evelyn Waugh
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Second Volume, 5 Feb 2006
First published in 1955, ‘Officers and Gentlemen’ is the second volume in the ‘Sword of Honour’ Trilogy. The book is somewhat more fast-paced and exciting than its prequel, ‘Men at Arms’, and as such makes for an excellent read. The reader follows the novel’s hero, Guy Crouchback, as he returns to the Halberdier barracks following his escapades in Africa. Guy is then posted to the Isle of Mugg in Scotland, where he joins the newly formed Commandos. The brigade is then shipped off to Egypt, and eventually ends up in Crete where they attempt, in vain, to defend the island from a German attack. ‘Officers and Gentlemen’ ends with Guy having come full circle when he arrives once more at the Halberdier barracks almost one year exactly after he left.

The prose in ‘Officers and Gentlemen’ is as excellent as one would expect from a Waugh novel, and one finds oneself unable to stop reading at some points in the story thanks to Waugh’s ability to nurture the reader’s interest. The book’s characters are also exceptionally well constructed and it is a delight to stumble across such eccentric individuals as Doctor Glendening-Rees, an expert in survival techniques who makes a troop of Commando volunteers eat seaweed for a week, and Mugg, the explosives-obsessed Scottish laird.

Waugh’s writing in this book is by no means confined to well-structured prose and memorable characters. Indeed, through Guy Crouchback one is exposed to cynical observation of the often ill-organised army, and to descriptions of the abandonment of Crete which conjure up Apocalypse Now-like images of tired, frightened soldiers caught in the chaos of retreat. ‘Officers and Gentlemen’ also expands on the themes which Waugh hints at in ‘Men at Arms’; those of the virtues of paternalist hierarchy and of tradition. Guy Crouchback’s belief that these virtues still exist is obviously put under great strain by his experiences in Crete and by the alliance between Russia and Britain. An awareness of these themes gives ‘Officers and Gentlemen’ an extra dimension.
‘Officers and Gentlemen’ is a very good read. Not only does it offer us an insight into the life of an army officer in war time Britain, but Waugh’s humour and gift for producing beautiful prose make this a superb second volume in the ‘Sword of Honour’ Trilogy.

The Heart Of A Dog (Vintage Classics)
The Heart Of A Dog (Vintage Classics)
by Mikhail Bulgakov
Edition: Paperback

46 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Absurd Masterpiece, 20 Jan 2006
Completed by Bulgakov in 1925, this short story remained unpublished in the Soviet Union for almost sixty years. When it finally appeared on Soviet bookshelves in 1987 it became an instant hit and is arguably seen as on of the author’s most hard-hitting novels. Not for nothing did Stalin’s censors deem this book too sensitive for publication.
‘The Heart of a Dog’ is the absurd story of a stray dog, who is taken in from the streets by a well-known, well-off Professor named Philip Philipovich Preobrazhensky in order that he may attempt a groundbreaking operation; the transplantation of human testicles and pituitary gland into the dog. The operation is successful; however the Professor has produced an intolerable being which resembles a human of revolutionary sentiment with a dog-like penchant for chasing cats.
The story is enjoyable in and of itself, and one must congratulate Bulgakov for his imagination and inventiveness – forced upon him by the oppressive intellectual climate of his time - in thinking up such a tale. In addition, It is very easy to read and interesting for its portrayal of the atmosphere in a bourgeois household in 1920s Moscow. There are also a number of other levels to the book and various interpretations of what Bulgakov’s true message was. It is worth noting, for example, that Professor Preobrazhensky’s name is a derivative of the Slavic word for ‘transfiguration’, and the book is ostensibly about failed attempts to improve upon human nature. Thus, Bulgakov may be seen to be either ridiculing Soviet attempts to create communist supermen or attacking science’s interference with nature. Finally, another interpretation of the story sees it as a parable of the 1917 Revolution in which things were set into motion which became almost uncontrollable.
‘The Heart of a Dog’ is a classic story of great intellectual value, which deserves to be read and which is immensely enjoyable for its absurdity, humour, and political message(s).

Men at Arms (Penguin Modern Classics)
Men at Arms (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Evelyn Waugh
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.99

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An immensely enjoyable example of masterful prose., 19 Jan 2006
'Men at Arms' is a book which is a pleasure to read, and one is kept company by Waugh's sumptuous prose and exceptionally good characterisations throughout the book. There can be little doubt, that when Waugh wrote this work, he could claim to be one of the foremost masters of English prose of his time. Waugh's effortlessly rich and varied vocabulary helps to make an otherwise rather dull tale come to life.
Waugh achieves what so few writers are able to achieve; the effect of making one feel that one is there, present, beside the main character throughout the book.
One criticism which may be levelled at 'Men at Arms' is that it seems slightly unfinished. The last chapter ends as though tempting the reader with clues as to what is going to happen next. It is perhaps best, in light of this, to read 'Men at Arms' as part of the 'The Sword of Honour Trilogy'. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who appreciates the beauty of the English language in the hands of masters like Waugh.

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