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The Essential Rock Discography 1st Edition: v. 1
The Essential Rock Discography 1st Edition: v. 1
by Martin C. Strong
Edition: Hardcover

46 of 47 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not what it was, 30 Dec. 2006
A quick gander at my music collection reveals numerous artists I found through previous versions of this book. It was rightly entitled "Great Rock Discography" thanks to exhaustive track listings, expansive comments and the author's personal scores for albums. This "Essential Rock Discography" is the eighth edition and it retains his distinctive approach whilst making improvements to the overall appearance of the book.

All this is good, but the word "Essential" belies a hatchet job. Over 400 entries have been hacked from the previous edition to create a purer "rock" category. It seems that all remaining Jazz and Blues artists and much of Rap, Dance, Folk and Country have been excised, even if the artist concerned was also a rock musician. Rock and Roll stems from Blues and Country and many artists are influenced by genres outside of rock. So, for me, a more inclusive approach would be appropriate. Pre-Beatles Rock is very poorly represented here and greater emphasis has been placed on keeping things "contemporary" which is not necessarily of great import for music collectors. I fear the only reasoning behind this is the intention to increase the frequency of new editions to generate more income.

Why remove entries for many of the architects of the music we know today? Quite apart from the great blues artists we have also lost Bo Diddley, Dick Dale, Woody Guthrie, the Last Poets, Hank Williams and Duane Eddy all of whom are likely to be more significant than the latest NME-hyped band. And more recent innovators like Aphex Twin, DJ Shadow and Talk Talk are also given the axe. The author seems to have taken a particular dislike to 90's Brits (Cast, Catatonia, Elastica, Lush, Mansun, Ride, Space), to folk rock (Robyn Hitchcock, Fred Neil, Strawbs, Loudon Wainwright III), to progressive rock (Camel, Caravan, Gong, Lindisfarne, Soft Machine) and to pub rock (Brinsley Schwarz, Dr. Feelgood, Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, Graham Parker) despite its importance to British punk. We must also bid farewell to megasellers Asia, Chicago, Phil Collins, Tom Jones, the Dave Matthews Band, George Michael and Styx. Whether one likes them or not, they have been a big deal for many record-buyers.

But the most notable victims are the women. Dozens of significant artists have been exiled including Joan Armatrading, Enya, K.D. Lang, Kirsty MacColl, Alison Moyet, Ms. Dynamite, Stevie Nicks, Sinead O'Connor, Linda Rondstadt, Dusty Springfield and the Shangri-La's. The net effect of all this is to create something akin to the stereotypical white male 40-something CD collection with all the more obvious and British music press-approved artists. Worthy, yes, but also rather sterile.

That said, I don't know of any work in this field which does such a comprehensive job with each artist and would recommend it to those who did not buy a previous edition. If only Canongate could get a team of like-minded amateur discographers to work together and take the pressure off Mr Strong. What we have here is still in a class of its own but it's not what it was.
Comment Comments (9) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 27, 2012 10:47 AM BST

The Financial Times Guide to Investing
The Financial Times Guide to Investing
by Glen Arnold
Edition: Paperback

110 of 111 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent foundation for investment, 11 Oct. 2006
I've long suspected that a bit of effort and intelligence are enough for understanding the main areas of finance and investment. One doesn't actually need to pay "experts" to make your investment decisions for you. The jargon is only something you need to learn, it does not have to present an insurmountable barrier. Before attempting to understand the financial pages or specialist books on trading, I bought this and was not disappointed. Working through it slowly and methodically and then returning to the more complex areas and following up the handy links and references provided, I feel much more confident about this whole area.

This is in no way a "get rich quick" book and actually helps to guide one away from such risky attitudes. Nor does it provide advice on savings accounts or the specific market or company that is best for you. It is an education on the world of finance: the markets, players, companies and instruments involved in the flows of capital which maintain the business world, and much of the economy, around us. It shows how most people (you don't have to be at all wealthy or super-brainy) can get involved in this system and, with a bit of patience and common sense, can significantly benefit from it. Armed with the basics and knowing who to deal with and, equally important, who to ignore, anyone should be able to improve their investment returns having read this.

The different kinds of investment are concisely explained and the limitations of some of the more hyped areas become obvious. Some of the mystery of futures trading is resolved, and one can follow-up pointers if interested in any particular area. The terminology used by companies in their financial reports and by the professionals who analyse them starts to become clear and all this jargon is explained again in the invaluable glossary at the back of the book, a place I kept referring to.

What emerges is the way money from savers and investors is used by Banks, Insurance companies and Pension funds to provide funds for new companies, established companies and companies wanting to expand and, as the author points out, how this wealth-creation is not just a good thing for individuals, but for society as a whole. I've already started to notice mistakes in the media, for example a recent TV drama's misunderstanding of the way hedge funds work and one sometimes gets the impression that there is only a dog-eat-dog mentality and little control over what happens in the markets. Undoubtedly there are problems and excesses but, getting closer to the subject and learning how it actually operates, can help to remove the prejudices and misunderstandings some people have about finance and about capitalism.

One fact alone has made this purchase a good one. I realised, when reading the section on pooled investments, that I had lost money on "With-profits policies" thanks to persuasive financial advisers and their commissions from insurance companies. That little piece of education has saved me hundreds of pounds in the future and makes this book a high-return investment in itself.

The Possibility of an Island
The Possibility of an Island
by Michel Houellebecq
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I feel nothing now, 10 Oct. 2006
Michel Houellebecq has brought together his long-running obsessions into something which is possibly more representative of his outlook than previous works, one that can seem full of despair to the casual reader and then only largely despairing to the more attentive reader. Sex, youth, new-age cults and the impossiblity of humankind finding any long-lasting solution to its problems are whipped around a fairly weak narrative which flip-flops between the now and the far future. The misanthrope Daniel, a famous stand-up comic, loses much of his sense of humour - just as Houellebecq appears to have reduced and altered the humour from his previous works - and gets himself wrapped up in a religio-scientific cult (partly based on the real-life Raelians and its founder, whom Houellebecq apparently paid a visit) with important consequences for the evolution of the human into a continually-cloned neohuman future preparing for the end.

The link from the comedian to the neohumans, via the cult, appears a bit daft but the accounts from the future, narrated by descendant clones of Daniel, are intriguing and ultimately quite beautiful. The present-day narrative of Daniel's largely soulless existence, which interleaves with the clone stories, is typical Houellebecq and overlong. The obsession with sexual encounters, the continual sexual references to teenage girls, the dismal view on children and the constant toothache of his world-weary take on other people can become rather oppressive. But, somehow, out of all this, as with his previous works, to a greater or lesser extent, there emerges something of seeming significance. And yet... is it really?

His first novel 'Whatever' was an amusing tale of cultural vapidity and the sexual quest of an IT professional (as the author had been in a previous incarnation). 'Atomised' seems to me to have been an earlier attempt at the current novel, with more humour, better prose (possibly thanks to a different translator) and less fat. 'Platform' was a prescient tale of sexual tourism and Islamic terrorism which left virtually no mark on me and 'Lanzarote' (which I have yet to read) is apparently an earlier attempt at 'Platform'.

Clearly a lot of thought lies behind Houellebecq's works. He constructs a good sense of certain feelings, as though welding scientific research regarding emotions and urges onto his story. He takes a jaded former-Marxist's standpoint on present-day sociological phenomena and free-market economics and injects what appears to be ideas from continental philosophy to provide what must be a unique worldview for current novelists. But, having seen a BBC documentary on the man some years ago, I can't help but make linkages between his work and his personality. He appeared cut-off from comfortable contact with other people and entirely emotionally dependent on his partner. Hence, perhaps, the somewhat irritating references to the "possibility of love" in the novel and on its cover. So it seems the author does have one feeling he is happy with. But the hopeless love for a much younger, selfish woman (the fate of his protagonist in this novel), the affection for a reliable companion in the shape of a dog (which his clones feel), and the love one might feel in the form of compassion for fellow humans are all quite different things. It appears the author has little or none of the latter, and especially not for children.

This skewed take on the world and his obsessive search for an answer to it all, whilst remaining intent on shocking us and pointing out items of absurd interest along the way, are still of value. Some narrative weakness and virtually no talent for character development should not get in the way of a visit to this author's work, simply because it is interesting. And who else is writing like this today? Will Self is mentioned now and again, but it is to another Englishman I would look for clues. 'Atomised' makes several references to the works of Aldous Huxley and perhaps that is the clue to the title of this novel. Huxley's 'Island' was an attempt at a utopian vision to counter his dystopian dominant work 'Brave New World'. He saw religion working hand-in-hand with science and technology to create the best possible end for humanity, with happiness the objective leading up to that point. The key sections of Houellebecq's novel take place on the island of Lanzarote, a temporary utopia for the Raelian-style cult and a possible utopia later on in the neohuman world.

Houellebecq certainly gets me thinking and entertains to an extent, but I have to confess that I don't feel anything now, having read him. Perhaps that is what he wanted.

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
by Stephen J. Dubner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

9 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Social Analysis for Goldfish brains, 9 Oct. 2006
Some vague awareness of talk about this book and a long train journey ahead were enough to convince me that something might be gained from reading it.

I was not totally disappointed. The prose flows pleasingly for the most part and there are some interesting observations on a variety of cultural phenomena such as cheating sumo wrestlers, impoverished crack dealers and neurotic parents. The restricted approach of a particular economics theory - that of incentives driving our behaviour - works reasonably well at first.

However, the approach is too simplistic and inconclusive. Human behaviour and social phenomena are not so easily explained. For me, the knowledge that we are, to some extent, economic creatures in a world of economic interactions only helps a bit. Economic approaches to understanding behaviour of individuals, yet alone societies, are only one of many inputs to the analysis, as I'm sure the authors would agree. Statistical analysis techniques, such as regression, which is talked about here, are tools for assessing the strength, if any, of correlations between variables. The authors repeatedly state that Levitt has identified corrrelations in data, i.e. indicators that there might be a causal relationship of some kind between two factors such as crime rate and the legalisation of abortion. He has not proved that abortion is the cause of anything. It is an interesting idea and worth expanding upon with a more fulsome analysis which takes into account, amongst other things, a breakdown of the ages of those committing crime in the crime-reduced years and cities of 1990's America. More proof is needed, but then that wouldn't sell many books, particularly in America.

The most startling problem for me is the structure. There is none. The authors admit this and make light of it. But it becomes such a dissatisfying read and I really had to persevere towards the end, through all the repetitive pages listing children's names which cloud out any point that was supposed to emerge, the conclusion to which was "the name isn't likely to make a shard of difference". Oh really? How did you prove that then? This was the most disappointing end to a book I can remember. Why respectable British publications would use words such as "phenomenon", "brilliant", "sensation" and "dazzling" to describe this, I have no idea.

Perhaps the title warns us not to take this as much more than an attempt at publicity, largely by the NY Times journalist, Mr Dubner, riding on the shirt tails of Mr Levitt, a man who himself appears to be riding on the shirt tails of other economists such as his colleague Gary Becker. The title, the "please buy me" cover of the paperback edition, the hopeless ambition of the subtitle "A rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything", are probably all indicative of a culture which needs buzzwords, continual distraction and the idea that we are somehow only motivated by selfish gain.

Having said all that, a popular book which shows people that they can look at what they see in the news and what is going on around them in a slightly different way has got to be of some use. The thoughtful application of economics as one of many tools for understanding what we do is only partially realised by this book.

The God Delusion
The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins
Edition: Hardcover

17 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Creationism is dead, but religion will evolve, 8 Oct. 2006
This review is from: The God Delusion (Hardcover)
This is an excellent book, but I do have a couple of minor problems with the approach and the arguments.

Dawkins touches on, but appears rather uncomfortable with, the theories of modern physics in the section where he makes what he refers to as the central argument of his book, against intelligent design theory. His arguments against ID are as sound as ever. But the more evidence there is for biological evolution, the less secure religious apologists will feel in that area and the likelihood that more effective arguments for religion will be found in the discussions concerning not the origins of life, but of the universe. He admits that Physics has not yet produced a "crane" to match Biology's Darwinism, but then seems to accept the argument that there can't be a God behind our universe as how then would you explain the complexity of that God? Surely, even if one accepts that the vast majority of religious belief is nonsense, it is possible to postulate, even as a scientist, the existence of some kind of being which we can never comprehend? We only have our Universe's natural laws and our own evolved brains to work with, and such a being would exist outside of our universe and operate according to different principles. The universe could be the result of any number of unfathomable causes. He is right that there is no reason to worship a God, but religion does not necessarily involve Gods and he is clearly opposed to religion. This is not to argue on behalf of the current, primitive religions (virtually all of them). However, simplistic logical arguments such as "what created the creator?" rather run against the brilliant point Dawkins himself makes in his closing chapter, that science is useful in widening the necessarily restricted perspective we have on our world. A perspective restrained through evolution to make comprehension of both the microworld of atomic particles and the cosmological world all but impossible. Such abilities would have been an obstacle to the survival of our ancestors on the African plains. How then could we ever comprehend what lay outside of the natural world altogether?

At points Dawkins refers to the possible psychological causes of religious belief and the role of religion as a comforter. I wish he had pulled these together with the above "Burka slit" metaphor for our perception of the world, as both religion and restricted perception are inevitable consequences of the same evolved human brain, and only a small minority can think away from them. The brain evolved to worry about the self, to seek communal approval and to love those close to us, all to aid our persistence. Religion remains a brilliant tool for someone to achieve - in one convenient package - an explanation of our world, a cohesive community and solace through thoughts of an afterlife (the self persisting beyond death). Dawkins steers tentatively around ideas of religion as a by-product of evolution, as he could not countenance the possibility that religion is an evolutionary product which has helped communities and individual genes to persist.

Perhaps, for fear of treading on academic toes or peer humiliation, Dawkins is reticent to speculate much on matters such as physics, psychology or neuroscience. It would be good if he could write a book with other experts, such as a Psychologist, to explore these areas more fully rather than teaching us almost solely from the perspective of Mount Darwin. Or, maybe, Dawkins knows that he can only ever win on the battleground where evolution and religion meet. After all, the cosmological arguments are where the action will be in the not so far future and we should find religion evolving, certainly not disappearing, as a result.

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions
How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions
by Francis Wheen
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.49

21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Strange Confection, 17 Aug. 2006
This is a strange confection and could be viewed as one of three things:

* An amusing, curmudgeonly romp through human folly; in which case it works. But to leave it at that would be underestimating its ambitions.

* A collection of polemical essays based around the theme that enlightenment values are being poisoned by irrationalists of different hues, in which case it largely succeeds.

* A manifesto for re-positioning the Enlightenment attitude at the centre of a progressive approach to managing society, in which case it fails.

Such an expansive stance on what constitutes "Mumbo-Jumbo" could just as easily include the practices and texts of the Church of England (a body Francis Wheen is professedly fond of), or even those suffering from neurotic conditions. Are we not all irrational, at least much of the time? Humans are not perfectible. However unintended, the Enlightenment helped to create the impression that we were.

A book which tries to be several things inevitably lacks structure and takes strange detours. There are some outstanding essays attempting to escape the confines Wheen has imposed and there is a manifesto bubbling away beneath, barely able to make its voice heard above the noise of vented spleen and of the more obvious targets being hit. At least a couple of his bÍte-noires, namely homeopathy and post-modernism, have been worked in exactly the same manner, using precisely the same information, by other writers. Given the relatively tiny space assigned to Wheenish texts compared to gibberish ones in our book shops, this should not present a problem but dropping these items altogether, or finding a new angle, might have made the work a more distinctive one.

From the start Wheen hoists the standard for the attitude and values of the Enlightenment. There is nothing to be ashamed of here. It does matter that the best way of discovering truths about the natural world, mankind and how to run society is under attack. And Wheen is there to defend it.

Perhaps the key point of the book, the place Wheen leads us via his strange zig-zag path, is the stance taken by so-called progressives following 9/11. The shockwaves and ensuing analysis resulted in absurd positions for numerous commentators. Wheen concentrates largely on the left-wingers effectively aligning themselves with Islamist extremists despite the obvious incongruities, simply because they were their enemy's enemy. He considers their arguments from the 1979 Iranian revolution to the current terrorist attacks, and concludes that they are inconsistent and yet consistently morally unprincipled. At last the anti-American brigade has a force which has some effect on the West, even if it is anti-democratic, misogynistic, homophobic, nihilistic and downright murderous. Even if it stands against everything they previously stood for, they just can't bring themselves to condemn it. Like the excuses made for Stalin and Mao in the past and Noam Chomsky's refusal to denounce any regime regarded as anti-American, even that of Pol Pot.

Wheen then wheels out an argument from Christopher Hitchens, that there is a strong moral obligation to undo previous harm by removing anti-democratic regimes, as a counter to the moral failures of the 20th Century. He points out the tendency for people to take polar positions, thus partially realising the simpleton theory peddled in The Clash of Civilizations. Islamist and realist alike condemn people to a simple label and all that entails in terms of abuse. This monolithic approach is challenged by the history of cross-cultural pollination; the things you see in any particular culture were not necessarily rooted there in some homogenous growth-bag. The misinterpretation of both their religion and their history by modern Islamist scholars leads Wheen back to the Enlightenment's religious pluralism and the fact that America has preserved its "religious imagination" despite of, or thanks to, its constitution. The Enlightenment's love of truth is challenged by those who have learned nothing from experience, namely the succession of offenders paraded before us in books such as this one. And he feels that all these people, the new-age gurus, the peddlers of management-speak, the twisters of truth and the terminally greedy, would consign us to darkness.

A key flaw in this closing and over-arching argument is that bombing a country towards democracy flouts the same Enlightenment values (not least the right to life and freedom from fear) which Wheen espouses. The Hitchens-supported actions of the US and UK are not carried solely or even largely in the name of Enlightenment values. They are ignoring the lessons of history and the complexity of political conflict at layers beneath that of the state. Not only is Wheen arguing against his own recommendations (learn from history, don't treat people like monolithic groups, avoid bipolar simplicity), he is ignoring the fact that the predictions made by John Gray, a man he lambasts mercilessly in this book, are proving to be accurate; notably those concerning civil war in Iraq.

What seems to be missing here is an attempt to extend the 18th Century Enlightenment attitude and values into the future and to emphasise the "universal" side of what is held to be true; i.e. a global system of justice. What is the use to the rest of humankind if less than 5% are part of the Enlightenment's "most flourishing offshoot", America? Using this to whip the rest of us towards democracy and human rights is not only a contradiction but is largely interpreted as imperialism and therefore creates further problems. There is nothing to be gained and much to lose from impatiently attacking regimes we don't like. The current sense of urgency only comes from a US administration trying to exploit its restricted window of opportunity to further strengthen American dominance. Global justice based on international law and democratic institutions will take many generations to build. But it would be the ultimate achievement of the values and attitudes Wheen clearly admires so much. It is a shame he stopped well before he could reach that point.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 11, 2010 10:40 AM GMT

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