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Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern
Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern
by Simon Winder
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars a bit verbose but entertaining all the same, 12 Nov. 2011
I had read enough European history over the years to be familiar with the central themes of this book. For most of modern history Germany was mainly a patchwork quilt of kingdoms, city states, minor dukedoms etc, all of which were a focal point of powerplays among the other great European civilisations and nation states (France, The Holy Roman Empire, Russia). And it's identity was really forged through centuries of war, pestilence and mayhem mostly caused by local petty dynastic rivalries. What comes through in the book is how Germany's political and cultural heritage was therefore much less homogenous than many of its near neighbours. The author certainly knows the country well and has researched its history and all things Germania extremely thoroughly. There are plenty of interesting insights, especially about the interminable struggles of the medieval period, as well as the religious/political turbulence of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

He also rightly pokes fun at aspects of German culture such as the obsession with monuments and iconography, quaint social habits, leather shorts and stodgy cuisine, while at the same time praising the good things Germany gave to the world: like JS Bach. At the same time, he shows his visible disdain for its nationalistic legacy that spawned master race theories from the likes of Nietsche and Wagner, and other ideologies that eventually led to the Kaiser then Hitler and Germany's abject humiliation twice in the space of thirty years.

All that said, I agree with other reviewers that the book is quite dense and rather verbose in places. I concentrated mainly on the passages dealing with German history and politics and usually skipped across the rather turgid prose describing various castles, festivals and museums.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 21, 2011 9:41 PM GMT


Heritage
Heritage
Price: £4.99

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars It's a grower but it's not a classic, 19 Sept. 2011
This review is from: Heritage (Audio CD)
Having read the cautious press reviews of "Heritage" in advance of its release I knew that I was in for something challenging and quite different from Opeth, yet another album that more or less continued their determined and calculated ascent (or descent depending on your point of view) from their Scanda death metal roots to the more cerebral musical landscapes which they now inhabit alongside their mentor, Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson.

But I was still quite surprised by the direction of the record. Let me be clear, when you listen to a band of this calibre there is always something to enjoy in anything they produce. But you still need to separate their musical artistry, which is undoubtedly impressive, from the overall impact of the record on the ear at first listen. Does the album move, inspire, make you laugh or jump up and down, bathe in its sounds and melodies? Do you listen to it actively or passively?

In this case while there are undoubtedly some fine musical and instrumental sequences, notably on "Slither" and "Folklore", most of it comes across as a sort of prog rock jamming session which seeks to pay tribute in some way to almost every major prog rock act of the past 40 years. It also feels more like a Mikael Akerfeldt experimental solo album with the band just along for the ride.

"Heritage" will probably grow on me and I'll listen to it now and again but, as a devotee of the earlier "Blackwater Park" and "Watershed" records (both of which are modern prog metal classics), I can probably say right now with hand on heart that I will probably never develop any real affection for it in the long run. And I reckon most Opeth fans will agree with me, even those new ones who prefer stroking their chins to banging their heads.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 25, 2011 6:39 PM BST


Hot Sun, Cool Shadow: Savouring the Food, History and Mystery of the Languedoc
Hot Sun, Cool Shadow: Savouring the Food, History and Mystery of the Languedoc
by Angela Murrills
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Joie de vivre on every page, 16 Aug. 2011
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I've just read this wonderful book in advance of a forthcoming visit to the Languedoc region. I chose my holiday primarily because of an interest in medieval history and the Albigensian Crusade. The book touches on those historical themes briefly but it's mainly a joyous celebration of the region's rich and varied cuisine, provincial village and family life. I loved the author's lively and descriptive passages devoted to the meticulous preparation of the Languedoc's mouthwatering dishes - confit de canard, cassoulet etc - and her revealing insights into the cycles of agricultural life in general, the wine, cheeses, fish and game conservation. The narrative includes some useful snippets of trivia too. So, for example, I learned that nicotine was named after a French Ambassador to Spain from the region, a M Nicot, who introduced tobacco to France mainly because he liked its medicinal qualities. And the fabric that subsequently became denim in America was a cloth mixed of white and purple thread that originated in Nimes, hence "de-nimes"


Parting Shots
Parting Shots
by Matthew Parris
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars A selection of fine writing and astute commentary, 7 Aug. 2011
This review is from: Parting Shots (Hardcover)
I enjoyed this volume of diplomatic despatches and especially the additional commentary in parenthesis from editors Matthew Parris and Andrew Bryson. While some letters reveal their authors to be slightly pompous and inclined toward self-justification, you can't really fault their eloquence with a pen. The most significant and insightful letters are from the more legendary Ambassadors of the last 40 years like Nicholas Henderson, Anthony Parsons, David Hannay, Peter Jay and David Gore-Booth (his valedictory was smothered in vinegar and served up as a farewell raspberry to his boss Robin Cook). Others are slightly personal epistles dealing with everything from changes in conditions of service, indiscretions about host regimes and at times rather subjective, self-opinionated advice for Ministers about righting the wrongs of the world, for example Ivor Roberts' humorous polemic against the (New Labour inspired) culture of measurement obsessed management and its incompatibility with the complexities of modern diplomacy, cheekily entitled "Bxxl Sxxt Bingo". I particularly enjoyed the candid descriptions of national characteristics and although these observations were recorded decades ago, some still hold a great deal of validity today. Like the High Commissioner to Pakistan who wrote in 1979 "Pakistanis are not only short of real friends in the world but also proud and touchy, a pretty awful combination". Or the High Commissioner to Nigeria who wrote in 1969 "Africans as a whole are not only averse to cutting off their nose to spite their face; they regard the operation as a triumph of cosmetic surgery". Or the Ambassador to Libya who once wrote "I hope there will be a better future for Libya than a perpetuation of Qadhafi's rule. He is too egocentric and erratic ever to make a benevolent dictator". That was written in 1974! Another example of the longevities and complexities that bedevil international affairs is provided by the analysis from our man in Jordan in 1975 who closed his letter with some advice about the Palestine question "...the world would do well to encourage a greater precision in the use of language. Arabs are worse than most people at linguistic flatulence, at not bothering to define their terms". And then he quotes Lewis Carroll's conversation between Humpty Dumpty and Alice: "when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less".


Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea
Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea
by Barbara Demick
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.49

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars North Korea: An Orwellian nightmare, 26 July 2011
I had little foreknowledge about the internal situation in North Korea before reading this book, which is an impressive piece of journalism. The writer describes a series of human experiences told by North Korean defectors from various walks of life. The abject failure of Kim Il Sung's brand of totalitarianism is laid bare: the famines and social deprivation, the ruthless suppression of free thought, the systematic brainwashing of children and society in general, the xenophobia, paranoia and ludicrous economic mismanagement. The book draws in the reader and holds the attention because it is not simply an intellectual polemic against the North Korean regime. These are vivid stories of teenage romances and student life, personal obsessions about keeping one's place in a hierarchical militaristic society, the extreme economic pressures on family life and the dogged courage of those finally compelled to escape to the West. The narrative is, of course, packed with anecdotes about the impact of the 1990s famine on ordinary people, eating weeds and bark off the trees, the chronic malnourishment, deterioriating healthcare, poverty and degradation in a country that still has the resources to manufacture and test nuclear weapons.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 23, 2011 1:21 PM BST


Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 (Peoples Trilogy 1)
Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 (Peoples Trilogy 1)
by Frank Dikötter
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Maoist hell on earth, 17 July 2011
As a student of international affairs and modern history I approached this book with a reasonable knowledge base of 20th century totalitarian dictatorship, Communism and its various sub-ideologies. I have also read widely over the years about the two world wars, the Soviet Union's gulags and the Nazi Holocaust. But Dikotter's book still shocked me, because it was such a relentless narrative of human misery and degradation on a breath taking scale. It takes this sort of penetrative analytical research of official archives and anecdotal evidence to deal effectively with those who would seek to excuse or explain away the excesses of Mao Tse Tung's brutal oppression and murder of millions. The book is cleverly structured around themes: the ludicrous utopian visions that Mao imposed on the country, the various economic drivers of the "Great Leap Forward", its impact on the social and cultural life of rural and urban China and the scale of the horrors inflicted on the Chinese people from babies to the elderly; corruption, starvation, disease, torture and genocide. One searing passage towards the end of the book affected me quite profoundly: it describes the extent of the hunger that prompted thousands of peasants on the verge of insanity to eat mud and die horribly of stomach ailments as a result. Basically, it stands to become one of the saddest books about the 20th century ever published.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 13, 2011 3:07 PM BST


Stagecoach to Tombstone: The Filmgoers' Guide to the Great Westerns
Stagecoach to Tombstone: The Filmgoers' Guide to the Great Westerns
by Howard Hughes
Edition: Paperback

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Saddle up and ride on cowboy, 30 Jun. 2011
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This was a thoroughly enjoyable book for me as a life long fan of the genre. The author selected 27 of the finest westerns, chosen according to how representative they were in terms of theme and plot. I couldn't really argue with most of his main choices: all the big classics are there, like "Shane", "High Noon", "The Searchers", "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and the "Outlaw Josey Wales" etc. Representative lesser known films are covered expertly too such as "Johnny Guitar" (strong female leads), "Ulzana' Raid" (the brutal Apache Wars) and "Vera Cruz" (Mexican Revolution backdrop). The various chapters provide illuminating details about the concepts behind these movies, their production and artistic aspects, with plenty of career background on the Western's finest exponents: John Ford and John Wayne, Howard Hawks, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Randolph Scott, Anthony Mann and James Stewart and Clint Eastwood. It's remarkable just how many other 20th century male Hollywood stars cut their chops in Westerns, including Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Montgomery Clift and Richard Widmark and also showcased some of the finest red neck character actors like Lee van Cleef, Walter Brennan, Jack Elam, Strother Martin and Ben Johnson. The story of the Western goes hand in hand with the history American cinema as an art form that has inspired generations of film goers and practitioners.


Life: Keith Richards
Life: Keith Richards
by Keith Richards
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

4.0 out of 5 stars Destined to be a classic rock'n'roll memoir, 30 Jun. 2011
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This review is from: Life: Keith Richards (Paperback)
As a lifelong Stones fan this book was always going to be an entertaining read. Keith's personal account of the early days and mad swinging Sixties era is particularly engrossing, especially his first hand anecdotes of life as a top drawer attraction for every screaming schoolgirl in the country and the pandemonium of those tours. There is a lot of lurid detail about the late 60s and 70s lifestyle excesses, his nauseous dependence on hard drugs for the best part of a decade, his regrets about Anita Pallenberg, the various bacchanalian US tours and brawls with the Establishment. But set against that background Keith's love for his music and electric guitar blues in particular is clearly the core of the man. He also goes into a quite a lot of detail about his fractious relationship with Jagger during the 80s, the complex politics of the band, and how the Stones transformed themselves into arena touring behemoths in order to survive as a commercially viable attraction. All in all you can't help but regard Keith with due respect, as an authentic rock'n'roll outlaw, devoid of the usual poseur pretentiousness that afflicts so many A list rock stars

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Won't Get Fooled Again (Genuine Jawbone Books)
Won't Get Fooled Again (Genuine Jawbone Books)
by Richie Unterberger
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.95

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A book for devoted fans of the Who's golden era, 20 April 2011
This is a very engrossing account of what I regard as The Who's golden era. In the wake of "Tommy's global success around 1969/70 the band, especially Pete Townshend, were clearly at a crossroads personally and artistically. The writer, a rock historian of some pedigree, examines and clarifies what lay behind Townshend's "Lifehouse" rock opera concept (a visual, musical and cinematic depiction of the spirituality and power behind rock music), how those around him found it all rather obtuse and how both band politics and the technological limitations of the time meant that it never came off and had to be shelved in favour of laying down Townshend's best Lifehouse inspired compositions for a conventional album release in 1971 "Who's Next" - arguably, alongside "Tommy", their finest work. The writer draws from his exceptionally well researched source material, mostly contemporary interviews with the rock press and recollections of band members and their immediate circle, to set out the whole fascinating story. And there are plenty of curiosities highlighted throughout, for example why "Pure and Easy" was not included in "Who's Next" even though its lyrics were central to the Lifehouse idea, a decision that Townshend appears now to regret. And why "My Wife" ended up on the album when it bore no relation to LH and why Entwhistle didn't reserve it for his (rather poorly received) solo album at the time. I was rather amused by some of Daltrey's quotes from old interviews, for example when he was asked by Rolling Stone about "Who's Next" scaling back on LH: "..Who's Next holds up much better [than Tommy] but nobody wanted to take it seriously because it was just nine songs and not some great thing about a bloody spastic".
The second half of the book covers the conception and delivery of Townshend's other career rock opera masterpiece "Quadrophenia" which although a fine record also fell far short of the band's expectations. In a particularly interesting chapter the author recalls the rather mixed critical reaction at the time, partly because the Mod storyline didn't translate that well for the US market and because the live shows were handicapped with technical problems in getting across Quad's more ambitious soundscapes. Indeed, towards the end of that particular tour only 4 Quad songs made it onto the live set, including the historic concert at Charlton Athletic in 1974. All this happened when Townshend was drinking a lot of brandy, Moon had a hit a career high as hotel wrecker par excellence and Daltrey was using his fists a lot backstage, on one celebrated occasion putting Townshend in hospital after being smacked with a guitar. It was interesting to learn that Daltrey has never liked the echo on Quad's vocal mix and believed that you could only listen properly to the album with headphones on. The book is peppered with quotes from those involved in the record who argued that it was devoid of catchy hooks, that the Mod story behind Townshend's songs was actually a bit flat and that it was more his solo album than one from The Who as a group (ie quite the opposite of "Tommy" on all three counts). I enjoyed Townshend's 1994 quote to Q magazine when he explained how he needed to put across some rather frail emotional concepts associated with Quad's central character "Jimmy" to a band with The Who's power and intensity: "however poignantly I put the thing together, however direct, however right, however honest and true it was, I then had to hand it to this XXXXing war machine and it would be churned out like Wall's pork sausages".


England's Dreaming
England's Dreaming
by Jon Savage
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars This is the Bible of English Punk Rock, 17 April 2011
This review is from: England's Dreaming (Paperback)
This book deserves every one of the accolades it was awarded at the time. It is a meticulously researched and lucidly written account of the genesis, development and ultimate demise of the late 70s "punk rock" movement spearheaded by The Sex Pistols, a group of working class urchins from London, and their street hustler manager Malcolm McLaren. The casual reader will be more interested in the narratives dealing with McLaren's activities on the avant garde fringe of the sex fetish/fashion industry and the Pistols' rise from a bunch of talentless roughnecks hanging around London's pub rock scene to global notoriety as purveyors of snarling 2 chord nihilism, social antagonism and aggression.
Savage presents near definitive accounts of the early bust ups with law enforcement, the Bill Grundy show expletives episode (which made the Pistols tabloid fodder for the next 2 years), EMI's dumping of the band (which actually hurt the company more than the band), the controversy over "God Save The Queen" (the true No 1 record in the country during Jubilee week in 1977), the chaotic tours, mutual loathing of John Lydon and McLaren and the demise of Sid Vicious from a vulnerable, impressionable teenager to a self-destructive manic depressive hooked for life on hard drugs to the extent that one morning in October 1978 he finds himself charged with knifing his junkie girlfriend in the stomach after a row about their latest smack deal.
However, I was most interested in Savage's eloquent passages about the historical and cultural context of the Pistols and punk rock generally. Early in the book he talks about how post-war mass consumer enfranchisement was exposed as a sham by the 1970s and how the country's social life had degenerated into warring factions. This was the cradle where punk was born. On the Pistols' music he observes that at a time "when songs generally dealt with the pop archetypes of escape or love, they threw up a series of insults and rejections, couched in a new pop language that was tersely allusive yet recognizable as everyday speech". Later he argues that the band were "the last gasp of youth as a single unifying force", that they "reasserted the primacy of pop as the divining rod of the times at the very moment when they predicted its loss of power in the 1980s, weakened by power politics, cynicism and demographics" and that they "said "No" so forcefully the world had been forced to listen". And on that theme he concludes his wonderfully intelligent book writing thus "History is made by those who say "No" and Punk's utopian heresies remain its gift to the world".


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