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The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace for the First World War
The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace for the First World War
by Professor Margaret MacMillan
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great description but analysis?, 23 Jan. 2014
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This is a very informative and well researched volume. In terms of understanding how the first World War came about I found that while strong on description it lacked adequate analysis. The concluding pages suggest that we should look above all to the personalities of the leaders in order to understand how it was not possible to avoid the war. I know grand theory is no longer sustainable, but an analysis at the level of personalities is surely equally outdated?
What came out well come the volume was the inadequacy of the imperial leaders in Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary. All autocrats and all incompetent. I had not understood before the failures in governance, and that surely provides an analytic dimension to explore?
I also thought that while a crucial eye was well cast on the German, Russian and Austria-Hungary imperial ambitions, the author's eye was not equally critical of the imperial ambitions of the British. It is fair to say that Macmillan brings out the German wish for its place in the imperial sun. But the British manoeuvring 1900-1914 was not surely just the innocent response to the aggrandisement of others but also to the defence perhaps expansion of its own imperial ambitions?

Zoo Time
Zoo Time
Price: £5.03

13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Who's bored?, 11 Oct. 2012
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This review is from: Zoo Time (Kindle Edition)
I don't think Howard Jacobson is interested in his own novel. The lengthy narrative feels as if he is bored. It's not just the reader who is tempted to say if you have read one Jacobson novel you have read them all. It feels as if the author has come to the same conclusion. It's about a Jewish man, in England, as are all his novels. Who talks about sex all the time, and who seeks to be 'transgressive' , to shock or amuse the reader by the outrageousness of his appetite and behaviour. As do all his protagonists. And it relentlessly tries be funny with a succession of one liners and wisecracks, that he takes very seriously. He foresees every possible criticism of his main character Guy as a man and a novelist, as a way it seems to deflect criticism he has met of himself. The whole narrative is driven by a sneer: spite, contempt and scorn for the stupid reader. Overall Jacobson seems bored with his own voice, bored by the novel as a form, and thus by his own livelihood, and bored by the great majority of people around him. He's desperate. It's Edwina Currie out of Bernard Manning. Jacobson thinks the joke is on his reader. I think the joke is on him.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 2, 2013 12:44 PM BST

The Casual Vacancy
The Casual Vacancy
by J. K. Rowling
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.00

349 of 390 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Did Harry Potter go to boarding school?, 9 Oct. 2012
This review is from: The Casual Vacancy (Hardcover)
The casual vacancy.

I may be unusual amongst reviewers of J.K.Rowling's latest book in that I have never read a Harry Potter story, not being drawn to the celebration of public schools, nor to fantasy stories of wizards and dragons (nor to Tolkien, Wagner, or model railways, but that's another story).

Here we have a further iteration of the English village novel, but in this version not a celebration of the genre, nor of the people or their manners. It is more a full frontal assault on the complacency, hypocrisy , selfishness, narrow-mindedness and sheer unpleasantness of the great majority of the inhabitants of Pagford, somewhere not far from Bristol. I have to confess that for long parts of this book I asked myself the question 'why bother?' Why does the author bother to skewer these people so relentlessly, what animus drives her to spend so much time and effort revealing their nastiness as if we didn't recognise it already? Settling scores? And if so, do we need to be there?

But, and there is a but, JKR brings forward some characters who are rarely encountered, and insists we notice them. Most notable is Krystal, school age daughter of a drug addict, resident of a 'sink estate' as other people in the village would term it, foul mouthed, sexually promiscuous, and the carer of her 3 year old brother. She is both brave and desperately in need of affection. Krystal is one of a range of teenage characters who JKR is able to present persuasively, as if from the inside. Others include Sukhinder, a self-harming Sikh girl, from the only Asian family in the village; Andrew whose crush on Gaia is brought to life with complete conviction, and who brings back vivid memories for the non-teenage reader; Gaia herself, exiled from London by her single parent mother's move from Hackney, privileged by good looks but enraged by her mother's unpleasant boyfriend; and 'Fats', whose lacerating wit covers his unhappy home and hatred of his father. The families that these young people live in are mercilessly exposed by JKR as nests of mutual dislike, infidelity, backstabbing and cruelty. Did Harry Potter go to boarding school? No wonder.

And of the adults only Val the social worker, Parminder the doctor and just possibly Colin the teacher with OCD come out, despite severe personal challenges, as having any sympathetic treatment at all.

There is a problem with the sympathetic treatment, and of its more dominant opposite, contempt. Rowling's authorial presence dominates the narrative, imposing moral judgement, left and right. The narrative is manipulated like a children's story to deliver punishment to the wicked, and then to the innocent as well. Grimness is all. JKR is a moralist who has not yet wholly learned to reveal rather than instruct. At the same time, while most of us walk away from the pain of others- it challenges our own wellbeing and threatens to make demands - JKR walks towards it.

By the end of the book this reader did care, in particular about the children for whom JKR has a special insight, and for the poor, who are so completely p******d on by the comfortably off. There is a wellspring of compassion in this author that is welcome in the world of contemporary fiction. While JKR has joined the super-rich in terms of wealth, she has not joined them in terms of attitude. She does not have to write, unlike in her earlier days as a single parent living on benefits, and is brave to set out after Harry Potter to stake a new claim. I hope she does so again, as she has something to tell us.

Alan Tait
October 2012
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 6, 2012 9:27 PM GMT

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