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Thoughtful reader (France)

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Executive Orders
Executive Orders
by Tom Clancy
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping - as always, 20 Feb 2014
This review is from: Executive Orders (Paperback)
Tom Clancy is such a successful creator and manager of the multi-layered thriller that you can be sure of a rip-roaring read. This book was no exception. Great reading for a long flight or for lazy afternoons with a good cup of tea.

The Pendulum Years: Britain in the Sixties
The Pendulum Years: Britain in the Sixties
by Bernard Levin
Edition: Paperback

2.0 out of 5 stars So full of himself!, 20 Feb 2014
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I bought this book looking for an analytical retrospective on the decade when I was growing up in Britain. The author appeared to have a good reputation from several reviews and the blurb on the front and back covers was highly favorable, so I had high hopes of an interesting read. What a let-down. Can you imagine 435 pages of someone telling you how stupid a whole nation was during a whole decade?

What starts out as an interesting satirical and mocking tone becomes so unbearable that it was hard to get past the first 50 pages. But I plowed on in search of some redeeming feature. Eventually I learned to read the first sentence of each paragraph and then skip all the turgid detail and self-congratulatory analysis which conveyed the inevitable message: Aren't I clever, weren't they stupid...!"

Despite all the copious research that evidently went into this book, the author manages to overlook (or dismiss) so many significant events or turning-points in the 1960s. For example, he never mentions the introduction of color TV and alternatives to the BBC; TV advertising; the launch of Coronation Street; the amazing creativity of multiple"groups" whose music survives even now; the Moon Landing (dismissed summarily); the persistence of the mini-skirt throughout a long decade and its liberating effect on girls and women aged from 12 to 72; the entry of more and more young women into university; the growth of foreign travel through package holidays; and on a profoundly negative note, the entrenched racism against people of color and immigrants from the Commonwealth; and on and on.

Many times I felt as though the author had muddled up his view of the 60s with the 70s (eg. supposed weekly / monthly changes in fashion). On the contrary there was definitely a 60s look -- see any of the Bond movies for confirmation.

So, all in all, a big waste of time. The author could have delivered his piece in under 100 pages.

Positivity: Groundbreaking Research to Release Your Inner Optimist and Thrive
Positivity: Groundbreaking Research to Release Your Inner Optimist and Thrive
by Barbara Fredrickson
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Me, myself and I, the great scholar, 17 Sep 2013
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I read this book (pub 2009) immediately after Seligman's "Authentic Happiness" (pub 2003) because Fredrickson is widely as a leading contributor in the field of positive psychology. Yet despite all my positive expectations, I must say that this particular book is a huge let-down and vastly inferior to Seligman's work.

As my review title indicates, this book is littered with personal anecdotes and self-congratulation as a scholar, wife and mother. While anecdotes are routine tools in the self-help literature used to bring home a difficult point to a non-expert reader, in Fredrickson's case it appears to be merely an opportunity for more self-revelation which does not add anything to our understanding of the theory under discussion. It only underlines once more the fact that she gained a lot of notoriety early on in an emerging field.

Even worse is the constant name-dropping about 'my brilliant doctoral student' who is now so-and-son at university X or Y. Please! Just quote the experiment without all the reflected glory of having participated in training the researcher. Similarly, the repeated mentions of grants received and awards from foundations leave the reader feeling nauseous. Please, just report the work and its results without all the personal aggrandizement.

Leaving aside the distasteful tone of this book, much of the theory tested in the many experiments reported is NOT NEW. Any innovation lies in regarding the results with a different eye related, of course, to positivity. Thus, for example, the discussion about a colleague's exploration of business teams' social interactions in ch. 7 is described without any acknowledgement of the fact that Interaction Process Analysis (IPA) was developed and published by Bales in 1950. It was already widely used in the 1970s to train MBA students in how to participate in or lead successful business meetings.

Unlike Seligman, Fredrickson does spend some time discussing positivity inside marriage (building on Gottman). I was hopeful of some new insights here but see that Fredrickson falls into the trap of identifying only two simplistic categories of marriage: those that live "happily ever after" or those that "dissolve." Perhaps more engagement with real people through clinical practice of psychology and less time spent in the lab would reveal to the author that this dichotomous categorization is far from depicting the realities of marriage. Thus, I found yet another chapter to be of little value.

Perhaps most annoying is the blatant repetition of materials in chs. 9 through 12. Did the author just run out of ideas? Or did the publisher insist on a certain number of pages to be written for the manuscript? How many ways can one explain the same theory or present the same "toolkit?"?

In conclusion, I found this book irritating in the extreme and only granted a 2-star rating in recognition of the scholarly attempt to collate a basis of research in the first half of the book. Fredrickson is most probably at her best writing for scholarly journal publication, certainly not for mass market consumption.

Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realise Your Potential for Lasting Fulfilment
Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realise Your Potential for Lasting Fulfilment
by Martin E. P. Seligman
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.50

3.0 out of 5 stars Serious flaws in basic premises and coverage of topics, 16 Sep 2013
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While I understand Seligman's thesis in this book and find his analysis and argument interesting, I am left wondering if this thesis isn't just a more sophisticated version of the old song: "You've got to accentuate the positive, Eliminate the negative...." Moreover, Seligman's thesis reminds me of the dictum: "Play to your strengths." This is particularly true in his encouragement to maximize happiness via one's signature strengths and achievement of flow. Thus, it is not clear to me what is really new here.

Seligman states clearly that he is not trying to offer advice that will resolve any current mental illness but rather provide options and avenues for increasing current levels of happiness. In doing so, he argues that the past is for naught and that early trauma of any kind should not prevent one from increasing one's present amount and type of happiness. Yet the past is not so easily dismissed, especially when childhood trauma remains heavily imprinted on one's consciousness. So, in this respect, I find Seligman's basic premise to be fragile in the extreme and his subsequent arguments wide open to challenge.

Finally, a major omission is Seligman's choice not to address the negativity imposed on us by others or by our environment. This omission is especially evident in his discussion of married love. This chapter offers little new beyond classic psychology. It was even quite galling to read the simplistic assertion that married life is happier while ever one can maintain the illusion of one's partner's virtues....Yes, of course, but what about the case of long-marrieds who know each other inside out and whose illusions faded long ago? To me this chapter was a cop out, nothing more or less.

Interested readers may also benefit from visiting the website that accompanies the book, in order to participate in the numerous surveys there. In my opinion, the website is worth more than the book itself, in terms of providing useful insights into the foundations of happiness and methods for increasing one's own personal quota.

by Frederick Forsyth
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.39

4.0 out of 5 stars Un-put-down-able, 5 Sep 2013
This review is from: Icon (Paperback)
Having previously read Forsyth's two works, "The Fist of God" and "The Negotiator," I knew I was in for a good story and I was not disappointed. This is a tautly-written thriller with a complex plot that holds the reader's attention without allowing for any respite - hence the title of this review.

Forsyth's knowledge of the inner workings of the former USSR and the global intelligence community is masterful and receives all my admiration. His development of characters is utterly credible and his management of multiple interlocking layers of intrigue is very skilled.

Having said that, I have just two reservations which prevent my rating this book with 5 stars. First, I was surprised that Forsyth felt it necessary to provide an "explanation" in the closing pages of how the plot had been worked out. I had already figured out these details for myself and felt that it was heavy-handed to go into further explanation.

Second, I found it shocking, amid all the carnage and loss of human life entailed by the "battle of Moscow," that Forsyth should calmly allow the "good guy" to admit that he had indirectly brought about the murder of an unsuspecting distant member of the British royal family as part of his plan to overcome a greater evil (the fascist psychopath). This moral bargain left me cold.

Finally, the closing words of the final sentence - ...(sailing) "out towards the lonely sea and the sky" - is such a trite citation that I wondered whether it was a Freudian slip on the part of Forsyth, or whether he truly intended to cite the first line of John Masefield's well-known poem, "Sea Fever." Either way, in my judgment this was a weak conclusion to an otherwise powerful story.

The Singapore Grip
The Singapore Grip
by J.G. Farrell
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thinking about the evils of Empire, 31 Aug 2013
This review is from: The Singapore Grip (Paperback)
I chose to read this book after completing Noel Barber's "Tanamera" and wanting to know more about the fate of Singapore during WW2. It is an excellent complement and I am now looking forward to reading more by Farrell.

The book's title is addressed tangentially at several points in the book, leaving the reader to decide which one(s) might have been the leitmotiv for Farrell. The work is a sweeping view of a complex historical period, recreated through Farrell's masterful blend of fictional characterization with political, military and biographical fact.

Each of the main characters is explored in depth and Farrell has a unique way of entering each character's head to explore ideas and beliefs, without dislocating the continuity of the narrative. In this way, we gain a multifaceted view of ideas about societal models, colonialism, war, and personal survival.

The language of the book is beautifully manipulated with vivid descriptions of natural vistas, gripping depiction of military maneuvers, lively dialogue, and heart-rending descriptions of suffering caused not only by war by also poverty, disease, and exploitation.

It is a testament to Farrell's creative abilities that his characters seemed so real to me that I found it very hard to like anything about the "business class" of self-made men who were running Singapore before the invasion in the belief that "greed is good." This is indeed an ugly vision of British Empire and colonial life, with all its ridiculous rites and routines, snobbery and elitism.

In contrast, the main character Matthew, heir to one of these business fortunes, voices many thoughts and concerns about the need for a better world, or at least a more humane basis for society than the colonial model. His nemesis, his late father's partner Walter is so blinkered about business that he reaches the point of putting his own life in danger while bewailing the loss of his assets.

Interestingly, none of the female characters in this novel is appealing, being largely sketched in rather than fully developed.

My one major concern about this work is the very last chapter which I find specious and a disservice to all that goes before. Farrell plays with the reader by intruding into the narrative --- as he allowed himself to do once, about half-way through the book. Given Farrell's immense writing talents, I can only assume that "writer's ego" got the better of him in these two cases.

For me, the final chapter spoils the reader's "willing suspension of disbelief." Farrell's satirical turns of phrase work much more effectively to convey his true point of view than the moralistic closing observation about the inevitability of exploitation by humankind. Nevertheless, my 4-star rating reflects how much I enjoyed the book (until the last two pages).

by William Boyd
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars Living in a parallel universe, 18 Aug 2013
This review is from: Armadillo (Paperback)
I chose to read this novel because I have been very impressed with other works by this author. His fluency in the manipulation of language is superb, and his ability to create "real-life" characters is extraordinary. I was not disappointed with Armadillo.

That said, this is a very strange work and many readers will doubtless become discouraged with the tone of disconnection from reality which pervades the work: hence my review title about living in a parallel universe. Much remains unexplained, requiring the reader to accept a situation where there is no all-knowing narrator who puts everything in perspective. Thus we see life through the eyes of a character who himself cannot fully grasp the significance of what happens to him nor the meaning of words and actions by those people with whom he has contact on a daily basis. In this sense, the work has a very existential atmosphere.

The meaning of the title (and the rather odd image on the front cover copy - a man with his end in a box) only becomes clear at the close of the novel. Thus the metaphor of the armadillo and the theme of antique-collecting are eventually successfully merged by Boyd, and one marvels at his ability to play with symbolic meaning.

Built into the novel is a well-written "who dunnit?" set in the heart of London's business world. This story represents the main string of reality, as lived by the protagonist, and is more or less resolved toward the end of the novel but, typical of the rest, not entirely.

Then there is the "love interest" as the protagonist becomes involved with a woman who remains persistently unwilling to commit. Right up to the end, we are not sure of the outcome. The fact that she keeps changing her appearance is disconcerting in itself, making it hard to delineate her character and temperament, even though our hero is smitten at first sight.

In this novel Boyd takes on the weighty issue of personal identity which is examined in the context of work and family, friendship, neighbors, and acquaintances. In the context of family, national and cultural identities are explored with the protagonist as a third-generation immigrant born in Britain. Typical of this type of identity, he has lost fluency in the original mother tongue, making him unable to understand conversations between his mother and grandmother. The picture of three generations of an East European family making their respective ways in life in London is beautifully drawn with immense attention to details of family interactions.

Little by little, the protagonist's own life story emerges and we discover that identity has been a major source of suffering and stress in his life. It is heart-warming that Boyd finally allows this character to become reconciled with himself at the close.

The picture that Boyd paints of contemporary business life in London among successful professionals reveals a worrying specter of emptiness that this lifestyle brings with it. The fragility of business ethics and the willingness to flirt with criminality reminded me of those individuals in Wall Street who precipitated the 2008 global financial crisis, leading me to wonder how and why such empty lives and callous behavior can be remedied? What is missing?

Finally, I have to acknowledge the many small literary pleasures on every page. Simile is used to create fabulous word-pictures, and simple description of the constantly-changing British weather is tied masterfully to its effect on mood.

The only thing that remains in doubt for me are the interspersed writings, like a diary or journal, on a variety of themes which interrupt the basic narrative but present some internal continuity of their own. No reference at all is made to explain or justify these reflections. However it is noteworthy that when the protagonist gets himself in a real fix, one of the items he takes with him is this journal. I need to think about this further, in order to form an opinion of its significance and role in the novel....

All in all, a great (and seriously disconcerting) read!

A Time to Die
A Time to Die
by Wilbur Smith
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars A strong man and his woman walk across Africa, 8 Aug 2013
This review is from: A Time to Die (Paperback)
For readers familiar with this author, it will be no surprise to encounter more bigger-than-life characters who achieve amazing feats of physical endurance. Here we have a scion of Smith's South African Courtney family, Sean, who redeems his infamous youth by working as a safari guide for millionaire tourists in East Africa.

Sean's encounter with a fiery young American woman has all Smith's usual misogynistic flavor, quickly transformed into an intense physical relationship of the type, me-Tarzan, she-Jane, where the bright-young-thing becomes an adoring help-meet.

Leaving aside the unrealistic valor, physical endurance, and super intelligence of the protagonist and his love interest, I enjoyed Smith's highly detailed descriptions of many African landscapes and local tribal lifestyles. I also found illuminating the detailed analyses of the African fight for independence from former colonial powers. Smith does his homework on the details, and his power to evoke vivid scenery remains untarnished.

This novel contains some graphic violence which is not for the faint of heart. Otherwise, it's a great read.

Tanamera (Hodder Great Reads)
Tanamera (Hodder Great Reads)
by Noel Barber
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Lifestyles of the rich in Singapore, 26 July 2013
I recognized the author's name from his other work, A Woman of Cairo, so that fact together with my interest in 1930s Singapore motivated me to read this novel. I am glad I did because the writing and detailed survey of historical events are excellent and the storyline and character development are convincing at all times.

To me, it is a sign of gifted writing when I can actively like or dislike a character as though s/he is a real person. Barber's writing brings to life the attitudes and lifestyles of the colonial upper crust in a way that is both alluring and disgusting as he reveals their self indulgence, racial prejudices, and generally pointless social whirl.

It is also a testament to Barber's skill in character development that we can believe utterly in the transformation of a social butterfly into a wartime volunteer who suffers great physical hardship in order to "do the right thing" - a nice case of noblesse oblige.

Barber's insights into the operations of family firms is very interesting as they lay bare the inordinate challenges that parents lay down for their children, expecting the next generation to fulfill their own personal ambitions once more. How many children nowadays rise to this challenge, preferring instead to find their own way in life? Although it can be said, of course, that if one is born into a millionaire lifestyle, it's probably easier just to accept what one is given, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel by starting out on a new track.

I liked this work and will look forward to reading more works by Barber.

Any Human Heart
Any Human Heart
by William Boyd
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars Me, myself and I, 26 July 2013
This review is from: Any Human Heart (Paperback)
I came across this novel by accident and as I recognized the name of the author decided to give it a go. It has proved to be addictive reading and a book that I shall keep in my library. Yet the grand irony is that the protagonist is (to my mind) a thoroughly unlikable character. It is a testament to the power of William Boyd's writing that he is able to hold our attention and interest through almost 500 pages, despite recounting the life of an obnoxious narcissist, Stuart Mountstuart. The depth of my dislike for this character shows how "real" he has become in my mind through the words of this gifted writer.

I also greatly appreciate the vast store of knowledge conveyed by the author about writers and artists of the 20th century. I have learned a lot about the artistic world of this last century.

Another remarkable feature is that towards the end of the novel, as the speaker is aging, Boyd captures with great fidelity the changes in attitude and values that failing health brings with it. Thus the novel reaches a reasonable and rather beautiful conclusion as Mountstuart savors the small beauties of this life.

Just one observation - the front and back covers of my edition take an odd perspective of the protagonist, as though he were some sort of hero and a significant contributor to the literary world. On the contrary, this person was a social freeloader of the worst sort and a minor "scribbler" despite his chosen epitaph of "writer." This character knew little at all of altruistic love and never met a female whom he didn't evaluate as a potential conquest. Hard to like, so I say "Well done, Mr. Boyd," because I couldn't put down the novel, regardless.

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