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Jonathan Clements "muramasa industries" (London)
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The Shanghai Factor
The Shanghai Factor
by Charles McCarry
Edition: Paperback
Price: £1.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Wheels within wheels..., 26 April 2015
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This review is from: The Shanghai Factor (Paperback)
A sleeper agent in deep cover meets a Chinese girl he assumes to be an enemy honeytrap, but who may actually be a passing Chinese girl. This sort of double description applies to most of the characters, in a le Carré-esque series of wheels within wheels, friends turn out to be enemies who are really working for other friends.

There’s some lovely stuff in here about modern tradecraft (McCarry claims to be ex-CIA), and comments like “demonstrative suspicion is out of fashion,” displaying a deep understanding of the way things are in China at the moment. Also some top tips, such as the use of “archaic” punctuation as a clue that the following sentence will be true. If at times, the motivations of the bad guys seemed ludicrously intricate, one only had to wait a chapter to discover that this was yet another bluff. I got to the end still not sure what happened – the actual espionage was going on an entire continent away, in Cairo, while the leading man was busy not-doing anything somewhere else.


Armchair Nation: An intimate history of Britain in front of the TV
Armchair Nation: An intimate history of Britain in front of the TV
by Joe Moran
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.54

5.0 out of 5 stars Bring me sunshine..., 26 April 2015
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Armchair Nation diligently debunks many traditions of lazier writers (the first person to say the f-word on-air, whether or not the sets wobbled on Crossroads), and sifts through the memoirs of many B-list personalities in order to have children’s memories of the early days. Author Moran also leans on Mass Observation, that pre-blog blogging collected by ardent socialist researchers, which is always fascinating.

He is very keen on what we now call Big Data – the implications of seemingly unrelated statistics, such as the power surges on the grid when Coronation Street finished, which is also very interesting, and the reasons for this being a largely UK-specific phenomenon – less channels, less alternate choice of beverage, higher concentrations of population. And reading the book is an incredibly musical experience for me, recalling all sorts of jingles and theme songs – Morecambe and Wise singing “Bring Me Sunshine”; the weekend’s beginning as signified by the LWT logo; Tony Hatch’s strangely mournful theme from Crossroads. A single reference to the “nine-note signature” and I was humming it all the way home.


Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to its Own Past
Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to its Own Past
by Simon Reynolds
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The rift of retro, 26 April 2015
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Retromania is a history of modern pop obsessed with the “rift of retro”, which is to say, the moment in (Reynolds thinks) 1983, when people stopped looking for new things and simply started cannibalising the old. It’s fascinating for me, not only because it’s my own life that I see stretched out for consideration, but also the most exciting elements of cultural studies for me, such as Situationism, and Futurism. Reynolds has some wonderfully Foucauldian approaches, including a section where he writes the history of the “I Love the [decade]ies” TV shows, in which he delves into the changing aims of the programme makers, and observed that the “I Love the Noughties” was so premature that it was actually broadcast in 2008.


The Victoria System
The Victoria System
by Eric Reinhardt
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars la tour abolie, 26 April 2015
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The Victoria System is an incredibly French novel about a socialist architect’s love-affair with a High-Powered Businesswoman. I did think for a while that parts of it were flying over my head, but after a while I determined that the author just wasn’t very good at imparting a sense of place or explaining a plot. Bits of it are an erotic drama. Bits of it are talking-head discourses about the problems of late capitalism. Bits of it are a murder mystery that is barely discussed and never resolved.

Flash-forwards in the middle of the text point at an “ending” where most genre stories would only just be beginning. Supposedly, the whole thing allegorises a stand-off in French politics between the builders of the left and the corporate ram-raiders of the right, as revealed through the story of the building of a giant skyscraper in Paris, which the architect is managing, but is falling behind schedule. He tries to speed things up, while sinister Russian businessmen, who stand to make a killing in punitive payments if their offices are not completed on time, want to bribe him to slow things down.

I sensed, also, a subtle background series of references to Gerard de Nerval, and the sense that the narrator was a “prince d’Aquitaine a la tour abolie” like something out of Nerval’s famous poem The Inconsolable (“my only star is dead, and my constellated lute bears the black sun of melancholy”) – not sure the translator spotted that himself, though, so possibly it was clearer in French and there were more references in the text that have been sanded away in the translation process. By the end, it felt less like a novel than three or four abortive attempts to begin one, but even though the central plot elements remained unresolved, the journey itself was worthwhile.


Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan's White Terror
Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan's White Terror
Price: £4.56

5.0 out of 5 stars So there was this one-armed hippy..., 26 April 2015
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Milo Thornberry arrives in Taiwan as a starry-eyed Methodist missionary, who soon stumbles into political activism. Inspired in part by Martin Luther King, who is killed shortly after the author arrives, but also by Reinhold Niebuhr's writings on the unexpected repercussions of Gandhi's "non-violent" protests, he determines that there is no such thing as pacifism, and people really ought to get on and *do* something.

He parses this in resistance to the exhortations to all students of Mandarin not to rock the boat in Taiwan, as there is nowhere else to learn Chinese during the Cultural Revolution, and their teachers don't want them to ruin things for the years that come after them. The main narrative coalesces around Peter Peng, an expert in space law who is under virtual house arrest, and who the Methodists decide to smuggle out of the country. They do this by disguising him as a Japanese hippy, which is quite difficult, because he only has one arm, and they have to mock up a fake one in a sling in order to get him through immigration. The guileless Methodist is dragged away from teaching New Testament Greek in order to forge a passport, while his colleagues embezzle money from a church fund in order to slip money to the impoverished families of political prisoners.

Meanwhile, Peng's secret service tails turn out to be so incompetent that they do not even realise that he has left the country. Instead, they have long since given up round-the-clock surveillance, and have instead been filing fake reports for months, claiming to follow him all over Taipei. Unaware that their quarry has already got on a plane with a guitar and a false arm, they continue to tell their bosses that they are following him on a daily basis, even as Peng is stepping off a plane in Stockholm and claiming political asylum.

Things take on a far broader tone as the book embraces the Taiwanese independence movement, discussing the frantic political machinations in the early 1970s as Nixon, bogged down in Vietnam, authorised the use for the first time of the term "People's Republic of China" in a speech, thereby sending a message to Beijing that he was ready to ditch Taiwan. This immediately sent the government of Taiwan into conniptions, leading not only to the sudden appearance of Chiang Kai-shek's son in New York to argue his case, but also an attempt on his life by Taiwanese independence agitators. I had *never* heard of this, but it seems it happened in between the news stories of the My Lai massacre and the Ohio shootings, so swiftly was relegated to the back pages of American newspapers.

And if that's not enough for you, the author then gets immensely biblical, and begins discussing the Gospel of Mark as a redacted text, suggesting that the historical Jesus was substantially more politically active, but that the completion of the gospel around the time of the Jewish Revolt led Mark to leave out anything that sounded too anti-Roman and/or outright seditious.


The [European] Other in Medieval Arabic Literature and Culture: Ninth-Twelfth Century AD (The New Middle Ages)
The [European] Other in Medieval Arabic Literature and Culture: Ninth-Twelfth Century AD (The New Middle Ages)
by Nizar F. Hermes
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £58.00

5.0 out of 5 stars The Mysterious West, 2 April 2014
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Nizar Hermes challenges the oddly counter-intuitive view among many of his colleagues that the medieval Islamic world was too snooty and preoccupied with itself to pay any attention to the world outside it. He examines Muslim accounts of China and Europe, travellers' diaries and geographical accounts, arguing that decades of post-colonial theory have often left scholars unwilling to consider that the Orient, too, can gaze upon an Other. He rejects the notion that Muslim writers were any less curious, fascinated or, indeed, racist than their European counterparts.

As one might expect from an adaptation of a PhD, there is an element of academic throat-clearing over the use of terms such as "occidentalism" and "medieval", and an unfortunate fetish for parenthetical insertions in titles, leading to such monstrosities as "Be(yond)fore Orientalism". But once he gets this out of his system, Hermes argues persuasively about the various attitudes of the Muslim world to "Romans" and "Franks," the influence of Greek geographers on Muslim maps, and the appeal of European-sourced slaves. His book is rich with translations not only from geographers, but also from poets and balladeers, bragging about their victories against the Crusaders, or in one weird case, singing Saracen praises about the pomp and pageantry of Christian festivals. Commendably, Hermes is prepared to have fun with his texts and his sources, noting moments of humour or idiocy, both among his primary sources and among those secondary texts that miss the point or refuse to acknowledge what is right in front of them. His book functions well as a companion to Amin Maalouf's The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, and a prelude to Giancarlo Casale's Ottoman Age of Exploration, which similarly challenges the prevailing view of Islam as hidebound and blinkered.


Enchanted by Lohans: Osvald Siren's Journey into Chinese Art
Enchanted by Lohans: Osvald Siren's Journey into Chinese Art
by Minna Torma
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £30.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Unexpected treasure about a forgotten Finn, 30 Mar. 2014
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I was led to this book by a Finnish newspaper article fished from a trash can, but very glad I stumbled upon it. Between 1918 and 1935, Osvald Siren was the prime mover in the investigation and transmission of Chinese art. Back in Stockholm, he was responsible for much of the early 20th century's approaches and attitudes towards Chinese art and antiquities. Minna Torma's book is particularly keen on the historiography of Siren's work, "the story he told himself about himself" if you like, and offers insightful analyses of the changing versions of iconic moments in his career, such as his meeting with the Last Emperor, Aising Gioro Puyi. Bears interesting comparison with similar China experiences by the likes of Paul Pelliot and CGE Mannerheim.


Japan Since 1945: From Postwar to Post-Bubble
Japan Since 1945: From Postwar to Post-Bubble
by Timothy S. George
Edition: Paperback
Price: £21.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars plenty to chew on, 30 Mar. 2014
All academic collections are uneven, and Japan Since 1945 faces the additional handicap of being forced to cover the "boring" bit of modern Japanese history, all too often written off as policy statements and occasional recessions. Instead, it offers provocative accounts of all sorts of interesting areas, including the favouring of anti-samurai narratives rather than anti-fascist narratives during the Occupation, the history of the Minamata court case, and the little-discussed tale of America's attempts to foster an Okinawan independence movement.


Far China Station: The U.S. Navy in Asian Waters, 1800-1898
Far China Station: The U.S. Navy in Asian Waters, 1800-1898
by Robert Erwin Johnson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £17.95

4.0 out of 5 stars flying the flag, 30 Mar. 2014
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A fascinating background book, investigating the structure beneath those sudden appearances of American gunboats in Asian waters in the 19th century, Far China Station offers some intriguing insights into the politics at work, such as Commodore Matthew Perry's desperate attempt to cobble together a flotilla sufficient to scare the Japanese, even though half his boilers didn't work. Although relatively light in swashbuckling detail (one wishes, perhaps, for more on the Americans in the Boshin War, or details of the brave landing party that somehow rescued Chinese prisoners without needing to fire a shot), Johnson's study is rich with archival footnotes pointing the interested researcher at the locations of those all-important musty old logs and journals.


The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory (Weatherhead Books on Asia)
The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory (Weatherhead Books on Asia)
by Lydia Liu
Edition: Paperback
Price: £20.50

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Game-changer, 30 Mar. 2014
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He-Yin Zhen's writings on patriarchy, on the etymology of oppression, and on the historiography of women's position in Chinese society, are incredibly ahead of their time. The translations in this volume seamlessly read as if she was writing only yesterday rather than a century ago, rich with provocative assertions about everything from the origins of patronymic surnames to biases in women's education. It's difficult to imagine any course on Chinese women's studies that is not going to put this volume right at the top of the mandatory reading list, and many of its ideas deserve a wider readership in history and sociology. One might question the extent to which the translators have massaged the text -- they do admit to adding subheadings, and many of these seem anachronistically rooted in the cant of modern gender studies. However, these editorial decisions are no stranger than previous authors' addition of chapter titles or paragraph breaks to the works of Mencius or Confucius, and do not detract from the ardent and inspiring work of He-Yin Zhen herself.


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