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Zone of Crisis: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq
Zone of Crisis: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq
by Amin Saikal
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £25.00

4.0 out of 5 stars A concise but very informed examination of four of the most troubled nations in geo-politics, 28 Mar. 2015
Amin Saikal is an Afghan-born scholar of international affairs who is Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University. He has written a study of four West Asian countries that are adjacent to one another and rarely out of the headlines, what he calls "a volatile, uncertain and unpredictable zone, with serious implications for changing world order". He is an immensely knowledgeable observer with a balanced and insightful view of events and he writes clearly although a little academically in tone. Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, he has little original to say about how to sort out the chronic messes that he describes.

Afghanistan and Pakistan are predominately Sunni states, while Iraq and Iran have a Shia majority population (the only such countries in the world except for tiny Bahrain and secular Azerbaijan). Afghanistan and Iraq have suffered recent invasions by predominately American and British military forces, while Pakistan and Iran have 'only' faced drone attacks and economic sanctions respectively. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq have some of the veneers of a democracy, but their political institutions are massively flawed, while Iran - the most stable of the states examined - has its own version of elective power that is counterbalanced by a more powerful theocratic elite.

In his commendably short but nevertheless informative book, Saikal has four long chapters and, in the case of each nation, he sets out the complicated mosaic of ethnic groups and a brief account of the recent historical legacy, he examines the current governance and economic performance, he explores the country's position in international relationships, and finally he attempts a look at the way forward.

So, for Afghanistan, Saikal explains how the Taliban and their supporters largely come from the Ghilzai part of the Pashtun community, while former President Karzai and most of his cohort belong to the Durrani segment of the Pashtuns, so that "the conflict within Aghanistan since 2001 has been essentially an intra-Pashtun one". He is scathing of Karzai insisting: "His approach and policies gave rise to politics of patronage, corruption and inefficiency in both the civilian and military spheres at all levels." But he is equally critical of the Americans: "the Bush administration failed to draw up a comprehensive and coherent programme of reconstruction for Afghanistan. The approach that it adopted was piecemeal, poorly coordinated and badly implemented." In this chaotic state, opium cultivation has continued to expand, so that "Afghanistan has for all practical purposes become, once again, a narco-state."

Akthough Pakistan of course has its own chapter, Saikal notes that "Developments in the two countries have been so intertwined that some analysts and policymakers have opted to lump them together under the joint designation, 'Af-Pak'." But Pakistan has its own ethnic mix with the largest groups (in order) being the Punjabis (who back the Pakistan Muslim League political party), the Sindhis (who support the Pakistan People's Party), the Pathans as the Pashtuns are called here (responsible for a Taliban insurgency), and the Baluchis (supporting another insurgency). Political power has oscillated between the PML, the PPP, and the military with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) always massively influential. This is a nation that spends around one quarter of government revenue on defence (which includes a nuclear arsenal) but less than 2% on education and under 1% on health.

Iran is less socially fragmented than Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq, with a substantial majority of Iranians being of Persian ethnicity, which has enabled it - unlike the other countries - to have a clear national identity as opposed to the tribal, sectarian or religious identities to which the citizens of the other states adhere. Also, since the Ayatollah Khomeini seized contol of the revolution of 1978-79, the country has had a unique political system that Saikal characterises as an uneasy and fluctuating balance between the 'sovereignty of God' (as expressed through the fundamentalist Shia leaders with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as their shock troops) and the 'sovereignity of the people' (as represented by the elected president and parliament). Saikal sees some hopeful signs following the recent election of President Rouhani.

It is in the case of Iraq that Saikal is at his bitterest about American policy in the zone of crisis following the occupation of the country from 2003-2011. He opines that "Washington's misreading and underestimation of Iraq's complexity boggles the mind" and writes "The United States, as the leading occupying force, could neither fully grasp the complexity of the Iraqi situation, nor put in motion an appropriate and effective post-invasion strategy of political reform, governance and reconstruction for the country." But, of course, Iraqis do not escape his criticisms. We are all very familiar with the divisions and conflicts between the Shias in the south, the Sunnis in the centre, and the Kurds in the north, but Saikal highlights further cleavages between secularists/semi-secularists and Islamists and between centralists and regionalists. He is damning of the leadership of al-Maliki who he insists "has increasingly acted like a dictator, cementing patronage and nepotism as hallmarks of Iraqi governance."

So, what is to be done? Saikal points out that "Neutrality and openness are required of all parties if progress is to be made" (what are the chances of that?). He insists: "political systems must be created to allow for and promote plurality, compromise, moderation and the acceptance of dissent" (he is a fan of the Lebanese model). He suggests revisiting the possibility of a reformist Islamist model (he appears to have in mind Iran under Khatami). In a wider context, he points out the need for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and the Indo-Pakistani contestation of Kashmir. A huge and complex agenda then ...


North Korea: State of Paranoia
North Korea: State of Paranoia
by Paul French
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.69

4.0 out of 5 stars Insightful analysis but not as up-to-date as it should be, 25 Jan. 2015
In the global community, no nation is as closed and inscrutable and unpredictable as North Korea, often called 'the Hermit Kingdom' but officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). This is why I was keen to read French's book. It is a well-written and insightful work, but rather repetitive (it runs to over 400 pages). More seriously, much of the data - and French admits "essentially no reliable statistics have been published by the DPRK since 1965" - is a decade old (especially on the economy on which he writes at length) and the book has the feel of something written 10 years ago and up-dated only minimally.

What the book does tell us is deeply troublimg. Throughout its life-time, the DPRK has been ruled with utter totalitarianism by a succession of three dictators:

Kim Il-sung or Kim 1 or `the Great Leader'- the original dictator who ruled the country from 1948-1994
Kim Jong-il or Kim 2 or `the Dear Leader' - the eldest son of Kim Il-sung who ruled the country from 1994-2011
Kim Jong-un or Kim 3 or the `Great Successor'- the third son of Kim Jong-il and a grandson of Kim Il-sung who has ruled the country since 2011

All of them have followed a peculiar political philosophy called `Juche' said to be Kim Il-sung's "original, brilliant and revolutionary contribution to national and international thought". French describes it as "an indigenous revolutionary doctrine fusing the basic tenets of Marxist-Leninism with elements of Maoism and Confucianism and traditional Korean social systems". The theory is that popular masses are placed in the centre of everything and the leader is the centre of the masses. In practice, it is an attempt to make the nation self-reliant and self-sufficient and involves a policy of `military first' in terms of power and resources.

The reality is that North Korea is desperarely poor and massively dependent on international aid. While it seeks to develop nuclear arsenals, its populace is constantly on the edge of famine. Aid agencies have estimated that up to two million people have died since the mid-1990s because of acute food shortages caused by natural disasters and economic mismanagement. French is clear that no significant political or economic reform is possible within the strict terms of 'Juche' amd observes that "Juche has become, in effect, the state religion and thus major revisions are unlikely".

The last chapter - ironically number 13 - is titled "How will the story end?". French explores a few scenarios - such as mass exodus, economic collapse or military takeover - but concludes" 'It is anyone's guess, however, whether the demise of North Korea will be peaceful or violent, gradual or immediate." Meanwhile North Korea remains what the book's conclusion calls "the world's most dangerous tripwire" with the South Korean capital of Seoul a mere 37 miles away from the DPRK's formidable battery of artillery and missiles.

French repeatedly criticises American policy towards North Korea as being episodic and reactive and there is little sign of that changing. The country which most fears a collapse of the DRPK and is most likely - we hope - to reign in its military escapades and stimulate meaningful economic reform is China.


Gone Girl
Gone Girl
by Gillian Flynn
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A cracking read, 18 Nov. 2014
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This review is from: Gone Girl (Paperback)
I love the title: short, punchy, alliterative. But I don't normally read crime fiction. Then I saw the film of the novel with the screenplay by the author and I knew that I had to read the book. Obviously I already knew the surprises - and there are some great surprises in this narrative - but the twists and turns and clues came so thick and fast in the movie that I really enjoyed spotting and savouring them in the novel.

To enjoy the film or the book - whichever you access first - the less you know about the storyline the better. Let's just say that the plot revolves around the fifth wedding anniversary of an American middle class couple: Nick (34) and Amy (38) Dunne, both writers who have lost their jobs in New York City and moved to Nick's hometown in North Carthage, Missouri. A great deal has changed in their marriage and neither is the person the other once loved so much

In analysing novels, one usually identifies the point of view or narrator and sometimes finds that one has an unreliable narrator. Here we have two narrators and both - in vey different ways - are exceptionally unreliable. At one point, one of them assures the reader: "Don't fret, we'll sort this out: the true and the not true and the might as well be true." This never really proves to be the case - I told you they were both unreliable.

The alternating voices of Nick and Amy are presented in different formats with different timescales but gradually convergence both time-wise and plot-wise to a dramatic finale that is far from being a traditional conclusion. Flynn has artfully constructed a really clever narrative with a richness of interlocking elements and the work is all the smarter for being part crime thriller, part examination of the modern marriage, part expose of the impact of austerity.

It is one of the best novels that I have read for sheer pulling power, as Flynn breaks the near 500-page text into bite-sized sections that one wishes to devour at pace, contriving to end many of the sections with a teasing line that urges you to press on.


War: What is it good for?: The role of conflict in civilisation, from primates to robots
War: What is it good for?: The role of conflict in civilisation, from primates to robots
by Ian Morris
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A sweeping view of history that offers much for contemplation, 19 Oct. 2014
I went to a meeting at the British House of Commons where Professor Ian Morris set out the main themes of his book and this encouraged me to buy and read it. Morris grew up in Britain and studied at Birmingham and Cambridge Universities before moving to the University of Chicago in 1987 and on to Stanford University in 1995. He is now Jean and Rebecca Willard Professor of Classics and a Fellow of the Archaeology Center at Stanford University.

The title of this, his third, book is taken from the opening words of a song from Edwin Starr in 1969. It is quite a long work: a main text of almost 400 pages with another 70 pages of notes, further reading, and bibliography. But the historical scope is enormous - the entire history of humankind with a speculative look forward as far as the 2050s - and Morris has a certain narrative flair, so it is a fascinating read.

For all its scope, the book can be summarised in four claims:

1. War has created larger and safer communities.
2. War seems to have been the only way to create such bigger societies.
3. War has been responsible for making more prosperous societies.
4. War is now in the process of putting itself out of business.

Expanding on these themes, Morris acknowledged that war is one of the greatest human evils. It has ruined livelihoods, provoked unspeakable atrocities and left countless millions dead. It has caused economic chaos and widespread deprivation, and the misery it generates poisons foreign policy for future generations. Yet, in his view, there is a case to be made that it is thanks to war that we live longer and more comfortable lives than ever before.

Most of the book is a run through the history of humankind through the prism of war. He explains how humans migrated from east Africa to the Fertile Crescent in the Lucky Latitudes where agriculture could develop before sea transport around the Mediterraean enabled the first empires to be created. Progress went into reverse when the horsemen of the steppes devastated the Eurasian empires before later the sea nations of western Europe colonised much of the globe. He summarises the main step changes in warfare as respectively fortifications and seiges, metal arms and armour, discipline, chariots, massed iron-armed infantry, cavalry, guns, battleships, tanks, aircraft, and nuclear weapons.

He estimates that, in the Stone Age, between 10-20% of people died a violent death; that, at the time of ancient empires in the late first millennium BC, this figure was down to 2-5%; that, in what he calls the age of steepe migrations from 200-1400 AD, the rate of violent death rose to 5-10% in Eurasia; that, in the 20th century — despite its two world wars, atomic bombs, and multiple genocides — the rate plummeted to only 1-2%; and that, averaged over the world as a whole, today violence kills a mere 0.7%. Of course, these figures are only estimates since there are no reliable statistics before 1500 AD, but he is convinced that the orders of magnitude are broadly correct and demonstrate that overall the world has never been more peaceful. As he puts it: "the evidence of archaeology, anthropology. history, and evolutionary biology seems conclusive".

He acknowledges that, at the height of the Cold War, we had the capacity through nuclear weapons to destroy humankind but he points out that, since a peak number of nuclear warheads in 1986 of more than 70,000, the number has been cut back dramatically (one estimate is a current total of 16,300).

This analysis poses many questions. Is war then in fact a good thing? Without war, would we never have built the nation-states which now keep us relatively safe from random acts of violence, and which have given us previously unimaginable wealth? Is war perhaps the only human invention that has allowed us to construct peaceful societies? And yet, if we continue waging war with ever-more deadly weaponry, are we running a risk of destroying everything we have achieved?

Morris's conclusion is a controversial one. He supports the notion of the USA as a "globocop" and argues that the best option for the world over the coming decades is to support and bolster the strength of America so that it can continue effectively in this role, even as its economic decline continues remorselessly. He argues that "the next forty years promise to be the most dangerous in history" but believes that, if we can survive this uniquely challenging period, "the computerization of everything" will effectively render war obsolete. Optimistically he asserts: "We are beginning to play the endgame of death". If only ...


Unexpected Lessons in Love
Unexpected Lessons in Love
by Bernardine Bishop
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Love comes in many forms and at different times, 13 Sept. 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: £8.99

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: £10.00

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: £7.19

12 of 14 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: £18.95

1 of 2 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.


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