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Unexpected Lessons in Love
Unexpected Lessons in Love
by Bernardine Bishop
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.43

4.0 out of 5 stars Love comes in many forms and at different times, 13 Sep 2014
Bishop wrote two novels in her early 20s but did not return to her first love fiction until 50 years later, after a career as a teacher and a psychotherapist, during which she married twice and had two chidlren from her first marriage. After her retirement in 2010 because of cancer, she went back to novel writing she day after she was told that her cancer was gone and subsequently penned three works - this being the first. She explained: "I remember the delight at being in control of my own story again". "Unexpected Lessons In Love" was published in January 2013 and Bishop died - the cancer had returned - in July 2013.

Unusually - but obviously shaped by the author's life experiences - two of the main characters in the novel are elderly women, one a former psychotherapist and the other a novelist, who have a colostomy (or stoma) and the work describes frankly the physical and psychological nature of this challenge. Both women find love but in unexpected places - hence the title - but other forms of love are explored as well. There is a telling line in the novel: "... love falls where it falls and, like other rare and precious commodities, it must be appreciated and cherished wherever it is found". As a grandparent of a young child, I especially related to the descriptions of the chief character with her grandchildren: "the most important ansd sustaining joy of her life"

Bishop writes well. Not all the characters are fully delineated, not everything is explained, and the conclusion is open-ended, but this is the nauture of the modern novel.


The Post-Birthday World
The Post-Birthday World
by Lionel Shriver
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.97

4.0 out of 5 stars All choices have consequences, 31 Aug 2014
Lionel Shriver is actually a female American novelist who, as a tomboy aged 15, informally changed her name from Margaret Ann to Lionel. She is best known for her eighth novel "We Need To Talk About Kevin" and "The Post-Birthday World" (2007) is her follow-up work but the first that I have read (my sister bought it for me). It is quite a long novel - almost 500 pages of small type in my paperback edition - but it is an easy and enjoyable read because Shriver is a fine writer, even if given to some flamboyancy of style, and there are essentially only three characters: American illustrator Irina McGovern, her American policy wonk partner Lawrence Trainer, and their British snooker champion friend Ramsey Acton.

"The Post-Birthday World" has an unusual structure. At the end of the first chapter, while Lawrence is on a business trip to Sarajevo, Irina has a dinner with Ramsey to celebrate his birthday and now stands at "the most consequential crossroads of her life". Does she kiss Ramsey and go in one direction or does she show restraint and travel another path? In fact, Shriver enables us to follow both trajectories as, after that scene-setting opening chapter, we have pairs of chapters traversing parallel lives (like the 1998 film "Sliding Doors") over a five-year period (1997-2002). It is artfully done, although rather contrived with one story essentially being the mirror opposite of the other in very detailed particulars. No children are involved which makes the choice facing Irina more open than might otherwise be the case. Inevitably sex is involved and, as a female writer, Shriver has a different take on this with one whole page devoted to the mystery that is the clitoris.

In an author's interview included in my edition of the novel, Shriver describes her novel as "participatory fiction" and asks: "Fully informed of the consequences, you're Irina at the end of that first chapter. Do you kiss the guy or not?" So do you go for "Lawrence's discipline, intellect and self-control" or for "Ramsey's eroticism, spontaneity, and abandon". Irina describes the former as "a fine man" and the latter as "a lovely man". Mr Reliable versus Mr Exciting. Perhaps the characterisations rather verge on caricatures for the sake of clarity, but I know which kind of man I am and I know which kind of woman I have chosen. Many women and most men (I would venture) beyond a certain age will have faced something like this choice and find the novel very telling in its description and dilemma.

So what is the lesson that Shriver wants us to take from the novel? In one of the parallel narratives, Irina writes a chidren's storybook in which the same character has two life stories and, when Ramsey asks her what it means, she explains: "The idea is that you don't have only one destiny ... whichever direction you go, there are going to be upsides and downsides ... There are varying advantages and disadvantages to each competing future".

It is not difficult - and indeed inevitable - to see "The Post-Birthday World" as having autobiographical features. The protagonist Irina is the daughter of Russian immigrants in New York and Shriver studied Russian in the city and uses the language in the novel. Lawrence is a think tank expert on the Northern Ireland conflict and the author lived in Belfast for 12 years. All three main characters live in London where Shriver is now resident. In one scenario, Irina abandons a long-term partner and marries someone who makes a living with his hands as a snooker player and Shriver gave up a partner of many years and married a jazz drummer. But the novel presents two storylines? In a short biography in my edition of the novel, the writer states: "I'm a sucker for ambivalence".


Hard Choices
Hard Choices
by Hillary Rodham Clinton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.00

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative and balanced review of most of the world's trouble spots and problems, 10 Aug 2014
This review is from: Hard Choices (Hardcover)
This is quite a tome: some 600 pages (thankfully no footnotes or end notes). But it covers a lot of ground: the four years (2009-2013) that Hillary Clinton spent as Secretary of State during the first term of the Barack Obama presidency. Her natural abilities, plus a book team of three, ensure that it is well-written, informative and thoughtful, but there are no significant differences of opinion with Obama or criticisms of world leaders because Clinton is keeping her options open for a run at the presidency in 2016. Will she run? She simply states" "I haven't decided yet". I hope she does and I hope she wins. This was my position before reading her memoirs and my view is simply reinforced by reading the book.

When Clinton failed to win the Democratic primary race against Obama, she famously declared: “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it”. When Obama won the presidential contest, she had no interest in becoming Vice-President and every intention of returning to the Senate. Then, when Obama invited her to become Secretary of State, she was “floored”, turned it down, and took two weeks to be persuaded.

Obama kept his promise of access and she reckons she was at the White House more than 700 times during her four years in office. In the book, she mentions very few differences with the White House, perhaps the most important being her wish to arm rebels in the Syrian civil war and Obama's decision not to support this approach. It looks to have been a relationship that quickly developed mutual trust and at the end Obama declared that they had gone from "a team of rivals" to "an unrivalled team". She ended up visiting 112 countries and travelling nearly one million miles with more than 2,000 hours (equivalent to 87 full days) in the air. She claims that, over the years, she had developed the ability to sleep almost anywhere at any time (me too).

She describes Secretary of State as being three roles - the country’s chief diplomat, the president’s principal adviser on foreign policy, and chief executive of a department of 70,000 personnel - and she characterises the nation’s foreign policy are comprised of the 3 Ds – defence, diplomacy and development. She makes the usual distinctions in foreign policy between 'hard power' (military forces in its various forms) and 'soft power' (diplomatic, economic and cultural influences) and advocates an approach of what she calls 'smart power' - the right combination of different elements of hard and/or soft power for each particular situation.

After a couple of introductory chapters, “Hard Choices” does not follow a chronological approach but instead the bulk of the book (some 450 pages) comprises a series of chapters on different countries and regions around the globe: after a general chapter on Asia, specific ones on China, Burma, Afghanistan and Pakistan; then chapters on Europe, Russia, Latin America, and Africa; and, after a general chapter on the Middle East, dedicated chapters on the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, Libya, the 2012 death of the US ambassador in Benghazi, Iran, Syria and Gaza. Only at the end are there a few thematic chapters on global challenges such as climate change, energy and human rights. The book is dotted with some fascinating facts and figures on different countries and issues.

A key feature of the Obama/Clinton partnership was the so-called "pivot strategy", an effort to re-focus American attention more towards Asia and so, in a break from precedent, Clinton's first trip was to Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China with a first ever visit by a US Secretary of State to ASEAN. Understandably she expresses concern about tensions especially in the South and East China Seas where China is increasingly flexing its growing military muscle. Another distinguishing feature of the new administration was an attempt to “reset” relations with Russia and Clinton even presented a mocked-up reset button to Russia’s Foreign Secretary Lavrov. However, the button was labelled ‘peregruzka’ (overcharged) rather than ‘perezagruzka’ (reset) and the effort soon ran into Putin's belligerence.

For anyone interested in international affairs or global politics - like me - this is a really interesting read which takes us through all the major trouble spots of the world, almost all of which - perhaps most notably the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran's nuclear aspirations and the assertiveness of Russia - remain active. In each case, Clinton sets out the historic background to the challenge and then describes her efforts to improve the situation. Although inevitably in a memoir, the account is somewhat self-serving and there is very little in the way of rethinking, it is a sensible and sensitive review which reflects considerable knowledge, commitment and passion for social justice.

The only real expression of a change of view is in relation to a decision before she even ran for the Democratic nomination: the vote to authorise miltary action in Iraq. She writes: "I came to deeply regret giving President Bush the benefit of the doubt on that vote" and "While many were never ging to look past my 2002 vote no matter what I did or said, I should have stated my regret sooner and in the plainest, most direct language possible".

The theme of the book - captured in the title and alluded to many times - is that all decisions in international affairs are complicated and difficult trade-offs of principle and pragmatism. As she puts it: "Keeping America safe, strong and prosperous presents an endless set of choices, many of which come with imperfect information and conflicting imperatives". She refers to "our classic dilemma" and asks" "Should we do business with a leader with whom we disagreed on so many things in the name of advancing core security interests?".

As she explains: "The question of nations working together on some issues while clashing on others is part of a classic debate within foreign policy circles" and "Straight up transactional diplomacy isn't always pretty, but often it's necessary". In the end, she insists: "As you've seen throughout this book, there are times when we do have to make difficult compromises. Our challenge is to be clear-eyed about the world as it is while never losing sight of the world as we want it to become".


The Circle
The Circle
by Dave Eggers
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A simple message but a compelling read, 2 July 2014
This review is from: The Circle (Paperback)
I wasn't sure about reading this novel because - at least in my paperback version - it is almost 500 pages of smallish print with no chapters. But it was recommended to me by Jim Knight who chairs the Tinder Foundation - an organisation promoting digital inclusion - on whose Board I sit. In fact, it proved to be an easy and enjoyable read: it is a very dialogue-driven narrative with regular gaps in the text that makes it something of a page-turner. Unusually for as modern novel, it is remarkably focused in character (24 year old Mae Holland) and place (the California campus of the eponymous company).

What George Orwell's "1984" was to the second half of the 20th century, Dave Eggers's "The Circle" is to the early 21st century: a stark warning of the dangers of ubiquitous surveillance and a defence of the notion of personal privacy.

What makes "The Circle" so chillingly credible - although it is clearly a parody and a satire - is that the company it describes seems to be just a combination and extension of the existing corporate behemoths that already astride the Internet and the Web - the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft. And the services that it illustrates seem to be a natural extension of currently evolving technologies - miniature cameras that can be installed any place, tiny drones that can fly anywhere, and wearable technologies that will be with us all the time. In a post-Snowden world, "The Circle" does not appear so much preposterous as prescient.

In the course for the novel, the Circle - "the most influential company in the world" - develops one service after another that increasingly links and exposes information in all its forms, always presenting its innovations as offering a social good (no more child abductions, no more neighbourhood crime, no more political corruption) while step by step stripping away personal freedom and political accountability. So will the Circle be completed - a kind of technological equivalent to the evangelical rapture? If you've read "1984", you won't be too surprised - although the ending is rather sudden and simple.

Eggers is offering us not a prediction but a warning and inviting us really to think of the consequences of the new technologies that enable us to capture, store, connect and access such ever-increasing volumes of public and personal data. It's bound to be made into a film.


Hatchet Job: Love Movies, Hate Critics
Hatchet Job: Love Movies, Hate Critics
by Mark Kermode
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Reads like he speaks, 23 May 2014
I really rate Mark Kermode as a professional film critic: I read his reviews in the "Observer" newspaper, I watch his reviews on BBC television, I follow him on Twitter, and I attended an event at his beloved Phoenix cinema in East Finchley where he spoke about this book. The work is not about films or even film criticism as such but essentially about the role of film critic and one in particular. He is absurdly self deprecating about his persona ("I have a stupid name and a stupid haircut") and overly defensive about his profession ("these days professional film critics are viewed as being on a par with child-molesters and pension-fund embezzlers in the popularity stakes").

Kermode writes like he speaks - a tendency to long, breathless but perfectly-formed sentences full of wit and eudition, so this is an immensely readable work. The book lacks structure - the chapters could have been in any order - and the text has a habit of meandering (several times, he has to resort to a phrase like "anyway, back to ...") , but eventially we always come back to one central message: even in the age of the online, amateur film critic (like me), there is a role for the professional but all critics should identify themselves, the reviews that readers tend to remember are the bad ones, but in the end reviews make little difference to the box office.

"Hatchet Job" tells us something about the odd life of professional film critics. Twice a week, every week, they sit in a darkened room and watch movies that have not yet been released. Kermode reckons that he has averaged 10-12 films a week for the past 25 years, but laments "if you happen to see a couple of good films in any given week, you're doing pretty well". Nevertheless he believes that "watching movies for a living is an insanely privileged existence".

In the course of the book, we learn some things about Kermode: "As a child, my only real friends were movies", as an adolescent his most memorable films were 'Silent Running' and something called simply 'Jememy', and he is "a former student Trot turned wishy-washy bleeding-heart liberal".

Above all, we learn about the movies he loves and loathes respectively. On the affection side, he declares that "I (still) think 'The Exocist' is the greatest movie ever made", he shares the view that 'Casablanca' is "one of the greatest movies ever made", much more controversially he has declared "'The Devils' to be "one of the greatest films ever made", and he admits to being "an unabashed 'Twilight' movie fan". He insists that the assessments of critics and public are not so far apart and I have seen and admired five of his all-time top ten films including such wonderful work as 'Don't Look Now' and 'Pan's Labryinth'.

On the hate side, he says that 'Heaven's Gate' was "catastrophic" and 'Eyes Wide Shut' "piss poor", he shares the view that 'The Straight Story' was "'Forrest Gump' on a tractor", he was savage about 'Transformers', 'Pirates Of The Caribbean' and 'Sex And The City', and he calls 'Zardoz' "the worst science-fiction movie ever made" and 'The Heretic' "the worst movie ever made" - both directed by John Boorman which leads him to the view that the auteur theory is "utter hooey".

One of the most interesting chapters - which underlines how difficult it is to be right about a movie at first viewing - is the role of focus groups in viewing and commenting upon movies not yet released and possibly not yet finalised. He takes the reader through the evolution of 'Fatal Attraction' which has a very different ending from that intended by the writer or director as a result of audience research. He rightly argues that this kind of approach to film-making would have changed the ending of 'Casablanca' making it an utterly different and inferior film.

In a sense, "Hatchet Job" is a cry of existential angst: "Isn't all criticism - good or bad - just white noise; waffle; static hiss; a distraction from the real business of making films?". He admits: "Whereas once I was stupidly certain about my opinions, age has withered that sense of single-mindednes to the point that I no longer trust myself when it comes to judging movies". At one point, he even pleads "What, in brief, is the blood point?"

Yet, in the end, Kermode is optimistic about the future of professional film criticism: "Despite the culls sweeping through the profession in the twenty-first century, film criticism simply refuses to lie down and die" and "the web has proved a boon rather than a bugbear - despite my frequent moans to the contrary".


Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832
Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832
by Lady Antonia Fraser
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £8.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent read with some contemporary lessons, 26 April 2014
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Too often, people seem to think that a country can be made into a democratic state overnight by simply creating the basic political institutions of established democracies. What they do not appear to appreciate is that democracies can take a long time to nurture and require much more than the establishment of a few institutions or the holding of an election.
Britain is rightly thought of as one of the oldest and most genuine democracies, but it is often forgotten how long it took to evolve that democracy and how hard were the battles along the way. “Perilous Question” is a fine piece of writing by Antonia Fraser who provides a compelling narrative about the watershed battles around the enactment of the Great Reform Bill of 1832, a period from July 1830 to June 1832.
This was a time literally of revolution. The original very bloody French Revolution of 1789 to 1799 still cast a dark shadow and the French had just experienced a Second Revolution in July 1830 when the Bourbon King Charles X was overthrown. In Britain, that same summer, King George IV died and was succeeded by the 64 year old William IV and the country was awash with demonstrations and riots as result of appalling social conditions.
The Whigs – forerunners of the Liberals – were convinced that without Parliamentary Reform there would be some form of revolution with a change of king or even the abolition of the monarchy. In complete contrast, the Tories – forerunners of the Conservatives – believed that Reform would itself be a major step in the encouragement of revolution.
This was the background to the General Election of 1830 that was at the time a legal requirement of a change of monarch. This was a time when there had only just been Catholic Emancipation but Jews were still not allowed to be elected to Parliament.
The British parliamentary system was, to modern sensibilities, a disgrace. Only around 400,000 out of a total population of 16 million – a mere 3% - had the vote (all male and all requiring a property qualification). Hundreds of the 658 seats in the House of Commons were located in “rotten boroughs”, the most extreme example being Old Sarum which had three houses and seven voters but elected two members, while major conurbations like Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield had no representation at all. There was massive corruption over the selection of candidates and the act of voting (there was no secret ballot).
And then there was the absurdity of the House of Lords with its hereditary peers and bishops, not one of whom was elected.
Polling in the 1830 General Election took place over a month but only about a third of seats were contested. In those days, the lifetime of a Parliament was up to seven years. As Fraser explains, the designation of Tories and Whigs was not always clear-cut, but the election resulted in a Tory Government that was likely to be supported by a majority of about 42. The King’s Speech made no mention at all of Parliamentary Reform and the Prime Minister – the redoubtable hero of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington - set himself explicity against any kind of reform. Yet a motion from the Whigs, proposing in very general terms the need for reform, was carried by 29 votes.
This provoked a change of Government with the Whigs assuming power for the first time in a quarter of a century under the leadership of Earl Grey (in those days, all Prime Ministers came from the Lords).
Reform was now on the agenda. In a House of Commons with constituencies of generally two members each, the smallest constituencies would be eliminated and new constituencies created in the towns; other constituencies would remain but have a seat removed; and the franchise would be extended (but only from around 200,000 to 400,000). Universal suffrage, the secret ballot and the lifetime of Parliament were no part of the package.
The new Government made the first attempt to reform Parliament with a Bill introduced in the House of Commons by Lord John Russell on 1 March 1831. The all-important vote on the Second Reading was carried by the narrowest margin possible – a mere one vote. But a month later an amendment moved by the Ultra Tory MP General Isaac Gascoyne – opposition to any reduction in the number of MPs in England & Wales – was carried with a majority of eight and effectively blocked the Bill.
This defeat caused an immediate General Election just eight months after the previous one and in June 1831 the Whigs stormed to victory. A second Reform Bill was introduced in the Commons and this time the majority was a very substantial 136. There were then 40 sittings in Committee that hardly changed the measure at all before it was finally sent to the House of Lords.
Inevitably the Tories mobilised against the Bill and it was defeated by a majority of 41. Those voting against the measure included two Royal Dukes and 21 of the 23 bishops in the Lords. In the face of this constitutional crisis – the elected Commons against the non-elected Lords – the hapless King George IV prorogued (rather than dissolved) Parliament and attempted to persuade the Duke of Wellington to form a Tory Government that would introduce more limited reform.
The country was in revolt and, in the worst of the riots, at Bristol something like 400 were killed. Wellington was not prepared to take on the task and a small group of Tory peers emerged who came to be known as ‘the Waverers’.
So, in December 1831, a third Reform Bill – there were some modifications – was introduced and predictably sailed through the Commons with a majority now of 162.
As the Bill was passed to the Lords, politicians, press and monarch were all forced to consider “the fearful alternative”; that is, the creation by the King of sufficient extra peers to enable the Bill to pass in the Lords. This was regarded by many – certainly the King – as such a constitutional outrage as to be avoided if at all possible and, when the King did contemplate this possibility, he insisted that the permanent character of the House of Lords should be changed as little as possible by finding these extra peers from those due to inherit a peerage eventually, those who had no sons who would inherit their title, and peers from Ireland or Scotland who were existing members of the aristocracy.
In fact, the Bill did obtain a majority on Second Reading in the Lords but by a mere nine votes and it was clear that this was insufficient for the legislation to pass through the Committee Stage. Indeed on 7 May 1831 – known as ‘Crisis Day’ – the government was defeated in Committee with a majority for the Opposition of 45.
At this point, the crisis was so acute that, according to Fraser, ”people talked very openly of civil war” and “there was even talk of a change of dynasty”. In the end, the pressure was too much on the Tories and they backed down allowing the Bill to succeed at Third Reading on 4 June 1832. In fact, very few of them were in the Lords for the crucial vote, Wellington himself being deliberately absent. So the Bill was carried with a majority of 84 but with only around 120 peers actually taking part.
In those days, the monarch would normally attended Parliament for the Royal Assent of a Bill, but King William IV – originally sympathetic to reform but increasingly angered by the pressure on him to create a block of supportive peers – “declined to honour the House of Lords with his presence”.
Fraser’s account of the enactment of the Great Reform Bill tells us very little about the detail of the legislation itself which she clearly judges would be dry matter for most readers. Instead her story revolves around the colourful characters on either side of the debate. No less than six of them would become Prime Minister.
At the time, opponents of the Bill made apocalyptic judgements on its consequences: Wellington pronounced that “the Government of England is destroyed” and the poet William Wordsworth called it “a greater political crime than any other committed in history”.
The new Act was immensely popular in the country and, in the new General Election of January 1833, the Whig majority over the Tories was 276. But the overall size of the electorate only rose from 439,200 in 656,000 – although this was a 49% increase.
For many reform campaigners, the 1832 Act was as much as could be achieved at the same but only one step in a series of struggles to make Parliament much more representative. Further Reform Acts followed in 1867 and 1884. As Fraser puts it: “The Reform Bill was destined to be the first of such, spread forward across the nineteenth century and beyond, 1918 being a significant end date; although women were not fully enfranchised until 1928.” She might have added that 18-21 year olds did not obtain the vote until 1969.
The Great Reform Act of 1832 left the membership of the House of Lords intact. Although there has been some recent reform of the Lords, almost two centuries after the first Reform Act we still have no elected members of the Lords. The road to democracy is long and troubled – and never quite over.


The Casual Vacancy
The Casual Vacancy
by J.K. Rowling
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

3.0 out of 5 stars Not exactly wizard but a thought-provoking read, 5 April 2014
This review is from: The Casual Vacancy (Paperback)
I have not read a word of any of the seven mega-selling "Harry Potter" books written by Rowling, but I was intrigued to check out "The Casual Vacancy", her first novel for adults, and I was pleased that I did. It needs a while to read (it is 568 pages in paperback), takes a while to build, and offers characters that are sometimes veering on caricatures, but this is a novel with something to say that says it in an accessible, unfussy, way.

The title refers to the need for an election to the parish council of the well-heeled West Country town of Pagford where a a bitter dispute is taking place over proposals to reassign resposnibility for The Fields, a local estate, to the larger next door twon of Yarvil. In fact, the election - occasioned by the death of a popular councillor who wanted to keep responsibility for The Fields - is contested by three candidates and brings out prejudice and bitterness not just between the candidates but within their families so that, for Rowling, the contest is merely the catalyst for examining the dynamics between some 20 or so diverse characters.

The novel appears to start as something of a black comedy but then becomes more sharply satirical and finally transmutes into a tragedy. This is not a tale in which everyone lives happily ever after: not everyone lives and there is much unhappiness along the way. The language is certainly adult with plenty of aggressive and sexual tirades. The themes are certainly adult too: an exposition of class (and, to a lesser extent, racial) prejudice with references to poverty, prostitution, teenage sex, and drug-taking and instances of bullying, self-harm, child abuse, and rape.

Although Rowling has clearly moved away from children's fiction here, unusually in an adult novel there are as many children's characters and viewpoints as adult ones. Hardly any character though is blameless and the novel can be seen as an examination of different forms of responsibility. Rowling writes well and has a way of capturing some complex feelings such as: "How awful it was, thought Tessa, remembering Fats the toddler, the way tiny ghosts of your living children haunted your heart; they could never know, and would hate it if they did, how their growing was a constant bereavement".


Deep Time
Deep Time
by David Darling
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.36

4.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written but ultimately somewhat mystical, 21 Mar 2014
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This review is from: Deep Time (Paperback)
Originally published in 1989, this book was reprinted in 2013 with no changes at all in spite of subsequent scientific developments (such as recalibration of the age of the universe from 15 billion years to 13.8 billion years). Following a recommendation from a physicist friend, I caught up with the new edition as scientists announced the first clear evidence of the gravitational waves created by the inflation phase of the Big Bang.

Now this may be a short work (159 pages), but the time frame of its narrative could not conceivably be longer, stretching from 10 to the power of minus 35 of a second After Genesis (AG) when the temperature was around 100 trillion trillion degrees to 10 to the power of 100 years AG when the temperature will be essentially Absolute Zero - the deep time of the title. I have read several books of cosmology but none so elegantly written with such beautiful language - Darling himself calls it "a prose poem">.

Less than a second after Time Zero or After Genesis (AG), the temperature was around ten billion degrees and we had the basic components of the entire story of the whole universe: the fundamental particles (protons, neutrons, electrons, positrons, photons, neutrinos, and antineutrinos), the fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force and the weak force), and the conservation rules (total energy before and after a reaction must balance and electric charge must always be conserved). The rest is - literally - history.

The entire narrative of the universe is told as a journey by a sub-atomic particle, a proton, described as "the paladin of this tale" (that is, ‘heroic champion’). After early adventures, the proton enters a star which eventually becomes a supernova turning our proton into an atom of gold. This atom in turn finds its way to a planet which over time gives life to humans and becomes known as Earth before being incorporated into the construction of the Voyager 2 space probe which flies past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune before moving into interstellar space where it sails on and on and on ... Meanwhile our sun becomes a red giant and then a white dwarf, a precursor to the death of all stars and the disintegration of all matter ...

For the most part, "Deep Time" is rooted in the current scientific understanding of cosmologists but, when describing the very beginning and the very end of the universe, Darling becomes highly speculative and even mystical. At one end of the story, he hints that the origin of our universe was the breaking free of a speck from "the great priordial sea of space-time" while, at the opposite 'end' of the tale, he seems to contemplate a Big Crunch, followed by another Big Bang, with the oscillation continuing.

And what are we to make of statements such as: "The unassailable fact is this: under no circumstances can there ever have been a time when time did not exist!" or "Nothing existed 'out there' until it had been consciously observed" or "In Deep Time we shall be as one".


Untangling the Web
Untangling the Web
by Aleks Krotoski
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.09

4.0 out of 5 stars Sense and sensibility about the web, 21 Sep 2013
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This review is from: Untangling the Web (Paperback)
Aleksandra "Aleks" Krotoski is an American academic and journalist who now works in the UK where she lives with Ben Hammersley, another commentator on IT who has recently written "64 Things You Need To Know Now For Then". She is quite unusual in spanning the worlds of both academia and media and the result is that she writes well and bases her material on evidence. I enjoyed her series of columns for the "Observer" newspaper and her BBC series "The Virtual Revolution" and this book is based on her research and her articles and lectures over the previous 13 years. Consequently it covers many aspects of the Internet but has no overarching theme or narrative and it is so sensible in its conclusions that it is not particularly exciting.

The first section - the shortest - is titled "Untangling Me" and contains chapters on how one can play with identity online, how our online presence can live on after our death, and how the web may (or may not) be affecting how we think. Krotoski warns that "every technological innovation introduces new behaviours that are pathologised by anxious people" and she points out that the web has only been around for two decades: "It's way too early to really identify any long-term trends, good or bad".

The second section is headed "Untangling Us" and features chapters on how online communities confirm our sense of social identity, how the web allows us to explore more freely our sexual identity, how children spend so much time on social networking sites, how friendship is handled online through sites like Facebook, how more and more people are finding partners online, and how the Net facilitates bullying, insults and hate speech. Although technically the web allows us to communicate in new ways with a wider range of people, Krotoski insists that: "online, we're communicating more and more with people like ourselves", a phenomenon she calls "cyberbalkanisation"

The third section - the longest - is "Untangling Society" and comprises chapters on how much privacy we do (or do not) have online and the role of 'Big Data', how the web can be used for campaigning and empowerment, how the web can be used to inform and misinform very quickly, how online medical information allows us to self-diagnose and find support groups, how the web is leading to a blurring of the divide between work and home, how the web is being used to tell billions of stories (even if a lot of them are about cats), and how the web is being accessed by the religous and spiritual. Overwhelmingly Krotoski is positive about the Net but she does warn: " Users continue to populate databases with increasingly valuable personal information that, as commercial property, can be transferred to a new company with a different privacy ethos".

If there is an overall message, it is that so much of what people say about the effects of the web is not supported by evidence and we can still assert our control over the how the web is used and developed: "we seem to forget that the web is a network that is entirely human-produced and primarily created by people who live in a small area of Northern California".


A History of the World
A History of the World
by Andrew Marr
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A heavy book but not a heavy read, 9 Sep 2013
This review is from: A History of the World (Paperback)
Like "A History Of Modern Britain" (2007) by the same author, this large book (it is almost 600 pages) is based on a televsion series (it was broadcast in 2012) and, in both cases, I enjoyed the series before reading the book. Like the previous book, this one consists of a small number of long chapters (there are eight) broken up into a series of mini-essays of typically five or six pages. A history of the world from 70,000 years ago is clearly even more ambitious than a history of one nation over six decades and Marr could easily have overwhelmed the reader with dates & names and facts & figures, trying to cover as much as possible. Instead he is very selective and composes many of his mini-essays in the form of narratives or even stories, using "a kind of history-writing that is currently very unfashionable, the 'great man/great woman' school of history". Marr is a good writer and his approach works well. He shows considerable knowledge and insight, constantly makes cross-references to other historical periods or developments, and is not averse to making his opinions known on such horrors as slavery and colonialisation.

Part One covers the time from humankind's departure from Africa to the early Mediterranean civilisations. Marr describes the rise in agriculture along the great rivers - the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Nile, the Indus, and the Yellow River - before writing about the first European civilisation, the Minoans (around 3600-1160 BC) who, most scholars now believe, were not wiped out by a single cataclysm as previously assumed.

Part Two is what is called "The First Great Age of Empire" from the Assyrians to Alxexander the Great. Underlining that history is not a continuus line of progress, Marr writes that "Around 1000 BC some great disaster or string of disasters hit the eastern Mediterranean, causing a dramatic depopulation". But then we have the Phoenician invention of the alphabet, the development of monotheism by the Jews, and the first multicultural empire of Cyrus the Great, followed by a 200-year experiment with democracy in ancient Athens, followed by the creation of the great empire under the war leader Marr calls "Alexander the ...Quite Good". Meanwhile, over in the east, Buddhism and Confucianism emerged as a result of the teachings of Siddartha and Kongzi respectively.

Part Three covers from 300 BC to around AD 600 and the Classical Empires in China, India and Europe. As Marr explains: "By the time of Jesus's birth, around half the human beings alive on the planet lived under one of two great empires" - Imperial Rome and Han China. The third great empire, which embraced perhaps a quarter of the world's people, was that of Mauryan India. In the case of all these empires but the Roman Empire especially, war was a regular feature and Marr briefly speculates about how history would have been different had the Romans not won the Third Punic War against Carthage and notes that the Roman occupation of Gaul resulted in the disappearance of up to a third of the Gauls which he calls "a slaughter rate that rivals the worst butchers of the twentieth century". Meanhile, in "The Other Quarter", civilisations like the Nazca were emerging in the Americas that were several thousand years behind Eurasia in their development. Marr summarises the consolidation of Christianity throughout Europe and later the astonishingly rapid spread of Islam in the Middle East and North Africa.

Part Four is what is characterised as "The Great Age of Islam" from AD 700 to 1480. While the population of the later Roman Empire was halved by the 'plague of Justian" (bubonic death) and then the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed between a third and half of all Europeans, for many centuries Europe became "a comparative backwater". In contrast, Islam enjoyed a Golden Age of science and discovery and China attracted the admiration of the likes of Marco Polo. On the other hand, Marr points out that during this period African slavery was widely practicised long before the arrival of European colonists and comments: "The Atlantic slave trade could not have happened without a strong previous tradition of slavery, as much part of Muslim history as the slave ships are of Christian history". This was also the age of the Mongol invaders and Marr highlights that: "In just twenty-five years, Genghis Khan conquered more of the earth's surface than the Romans managed in four centuries, creating (however briefly) the biggest land empire in history".

Part Five covers the period 1492-1640 when "Europe erupts in all directions, while the rest of the world struggles on". New ships and global trade led to the Europeans taking over more and more of the rest of the world. Marr is clear than 1492 did not represent the 'discovery' of America but "an invasion" and points out that "The arrival of Europeans, from the viewpoint of its orginal inhabitants, was one of the greatest disasters in history", as the population of the Americas - originally on a par with that of Europe - was reduced by up to 95% by a range of diseases brought by the Europeans. Meanwhile Europe itself was convulsed by the religious arguments and wars of the Reformation led by Martin Luther and other dissenters. This was a time when Russia was taking on the size of modern times, led by the infamous Ivan the Terrible, and European mercantile expansion was started by the Portuguese and Spanish and then followed by the Dutch and English.

Part Six runs from 1609-1796, the time of Englightenment and revolution. The period started with the age of absolute monarchs such as Louis XIV who ruled France for 72 years and Peter the Great who ruled Russia for 43 years, but a new type of constitutional monarchy later developed, led by the 'Glorious Revolution' in Britain in 1688 which Marr insists was actually an invasion by the Dutch. India had its own convulsions with noted leaders like Babur, Ashoka, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb who eventually ruled almost a quarter of the world's people. Over in the Americas, the Thirteen Colonies protested about a tax on tea before winning a war of independence. Down under, the first convict ships arrived in Australia - a journey from Britain of 36 weeks. Then the French Revolution descended into 'the reign of terror' before the arrival of the Napoleonic Empire - "a military dictatorship that would drown half of Europe in blood while choking the other half with gunpowder smoke". More widely, this was the time of the Atlantic slave trade, begun by the Portguese and embraced by the British and others in an atrocity that spanned nearly four centuries and involved an estimated 12.4 million Africans.

Part Seven covers 1800-1918 and the rise of capitalism. Britain was the first nation in the world to have an industrial revolution and Marr suggests that it was not just because the country had large deposits of coal and iron but also due to its market system and inventors. He highlights the resultant growth in the English population: a doubling from 1780 to 1830. But he also draws attention to the human cost: almost a quarter of Victorian Britons died from lung diseases caused by air pollution. Elsewhere there were revolutions of a different kind: 1848 saw political revolutions throughout the Hapsburg Empire as well as in smaller countries like Belgium, Denmark and Switzerland, while in 1856 Czar Alexander II freed the serfs who constituted more than a third of Russians. Over in the United States, the Civil War resulted in some 620,000 soldiers dead, almost as many as the number of Americans killed in every other war fought by that nation. Marr likes to personalise history and he picks out the fateful role of the Prussian bureaucrat Arthur Zimmerman whom he dubbs "the most destructive man of his generation", since Zimmerman was responsible for drawing the United States into the First World War, which in turn led to the ruinous peace treaties that provoked the Second World War, as well as being a key player in the transportation of Lenin into Russia which resulted in the Bolshevik Revolution.

Part Eight is titled "Our Times" and talks us from 1918-2012. Marr notes that the Second World War is seen by some historians "as the second half of a single conflict". It was a conflict that killed perhaps around 70 million people - twice as many of them civilians as soldiers. He quotes the historian Timothy Snyder who has described 'the bloodlands' from central Poland to western Russia where, between 1933-1945, the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some 14 million people, none of whom was a solider on active duty. Later Comminist China suffered under Mao Zedong, "the greatest killer in human history". Inevitably Marr covers the Cold War and the more recent Iraq and Afghan wars ("battlefield successes but strategic failures"), but he also describes such positive developments as the decolonisation of much of Asia and Africa, the creation of the European Union, the economic transformation of China, and the impact of fertilisers, birth control, computers and the Internet.

At one point in his impressive book, Marr asks whether it is unhistorical to compare Cromwell, Napoleon and Stalin and asserts: "Once old authority - however intolerable, deaf to change, sclerotic and contemptible - has been toppled, there is rarely a new order waiting politely in the wings, more rational, more humane, more forward-looking". Such an observation is just as applicable to today's world, whether we are talking about the collapse of Communism in Russia, the 'Arab Spring' in North Africa, or the civil war in Syria. He makes the all-important point that "Democracy, it turns out, is not a system. It is a culture."


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