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The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu & The Rise of Chinaphobia
The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu & The Rise of Chinaphobia
by Christopher Frayling
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.96

6 of 10 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A superficial and disjointed meander: promise and topic not delivered, 26 Dec. 2014
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This is a dreadful mish mash of a book. What is presumably the core thesis - the rise of Chinaphobia - even in a particular British context, cannot be addressed via trying to look at the purely social medium of images and stereotypes projected via, or surrounding, Fu Manchu stories. "Chinaphobia" means different things - as well as different experiences - to different people. It is also a diverse topic. To try to derive anything worthwhile by extrapolating from a very narrow and specific case study to the general is pretty much a fool's errand as well as analytically fairly indefensible.

Frayling has magnified his own problems by further conflating "Chinaphobia" with another cultural phenomenon: "the Yellow Peril". And not clearly establishing which is which - not that this is necessarily a "complaint" per se, because the point is that trying to discern differences and specifically the consequences of such differences is a fairly pointless task.

The UK census of 1911 established that there were only 1,319 Chinese in all of England and Wales: of those 480 were classified as "foreign seamen" (i.e. in a job where they were not even resident in the UK for prolonged periods of time). Only 247 of that 1,319 were living in London. In the Limehouse area known as "Chinatown" there were maybe 50-60 Chinese.

This is the sort of subject matter that could be dealt with satisfactorily in a packed one-hour lecture; or "50 page" article; or at oral-level, make up an interesting serious, if somewhat superficial, conversation at dinner. But there is nothing like enough "meat" in this to sustain a 370 page book.

Perhaps those fundamental problems underlie why Frayling has subsequently lost his way here.

"Chinaphobia in the West" oft repeated as the topic, is itself not addressed for the simple reasons that: 1) when on topic (not often) this is mostly a study of late Victorian and Edwardian times, with a spill over into the 1920s and 1930s; 2) it is predominantly even then focussed on the British island experience and attitudes. Even then within that the focus is on London. The US experience barely rates a few intermittent paragraphs; this is not irrelevant as the population of Chinese in the US dwarfed that of the UK equivalents. Its proportional impact being even greater still due to the concentration in certain areas, such as California. European experiences get a no comment.

Frayling cannot have it both ways: if he wants, as he does, to talk about the "impact on Western culture" - Western, not UK, culture - then he needs to provide Western non-UK examples, evidence and analysis.

There is little-no analysis of what, if anything, was the practical impact of this supposed phenomenon. What were the political consequences? How did it affect international relations? What about trade? Immigration policy (gets a few sentences)? A handful of "riots", glorified street scuffles, in 2-3 streets in Limehouse on a handful of what?

Surely the 1950s-60s in the West was the height of Chinaphobia? There is a "Chinaphobia" of a new sort in play now in 2015. Isn't it worth making some attempt to link the earlier period with the latter? But the latter period gets no mention and certainly no analysis.

Beyond all that Frayling cannot make his mind up about what he's writing about. Large excerpts of this are in substance a sort-of very light-weight biography of Sax Rohmer, mostly distilled from interviews with Rohmer's (then elderly) wife in the 1970s. (Indeed this leaves the reader with the suspicion that what has really prompted this book, is that 35 years later Frayling has remembered that he has all this Rohmer material "lying about" in his files, and...)

There is a huge - huge - amount of padding and overdone diversion in the text. Long excerpts quoted from the books, or some stage play; quite a few sections, in particular the last 1/5 of so of the book, are synopses of a story or film plot. No particular consequences are drawn from this. It is also rather repetitive.

The last 1/5 or thereabouts telescopes a very spotty and superficial catalogue of maybe 30 years from the late 30s to early 60s into a blow-by-blow listing of books, plays or films (e.g. the Charlie Chan series through to the 1950-60s classic British Christopher Lee revivals). This is broadly done with again no analysis of "so what"? or "why"?

I'm afraid to say I really just could not see the point. Nor frankly, the quality.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 4, 2015 9:34 AM GMT

Roman Iberia
Roman Iberia
by Benedict Lowe
Edition: Paperback
Price: £21.99

1.0 out of 5 stars Squandered Opportunity: Tedious and Misdirected Purely Archaelogical-Academic Text, 11 Mar. 2014
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This review is from: Roman Iberia (Paperback)
Roman and pre-Roman Iberia is an under-explored and fascinating subject. I confess in advance to having an interest in this - thus went for the book.

Major, major, disappointment.

The author points out that this has emerged from a "Ph.D thesis" - sadly without being presumably rewritten so it was "a book" and was:

a) readable to the common man

b) understandable - in its own right

c) organised and laid out with (a) and (b) in mind as objectives

d) suitably synthesising, analytical and thoughtful.

It fails on all 4 counts.

This is a bad PhD thesis presentation to the extent that it is formatted almost even as a scientific report rather than a research text.

It is incredibly plodding; narrative conjoined as just a statement of facts and (irrelevant) details (.."the grape pips in level 2.."); there is little-no background context; almost no summation or collated presentation.

It is a very hard going read and disruptive to any reader-assimilation of what is being said. It has adopted the worst type of academic research presentation whereby footnote references are inserted into the text/sentence.

e.g. "The pottery recovered is of a strongly orientalizing character; red slip plates dated to the second half of the seventh century, carenated bowls, grey ware plates and bowls, Cruz del negro urns, Vuillemont R1 amphoroae (Ramon T, 10 1.1.1) produced from the Phoenician colonies from the second quarter of the eight century to the first half of the seventh century BC and Ramon T, amphorae dated between 675/650 and 575/550 BC (Mayer et al, 2000, 850-1; 2001 181-2; Ramon Torres 1995; 229-31; Arruda 1999, 88-90)".

This is simply dreadful. Exasperating and exhausting trying to wade through all this guff. Sentence after sentence.

Aside from the fact that presumably the vast majority of potential readers of this will have absolutely no idea what he is talking about ("Cruz del negro urns", "Vuillemont R1 amphorae", anyone?).

And this is the layout of "75%" of all the sentences.

This is taken to mind-boggling lengths when discussing later the manufacturing/merchant ID name initial stamps put onto clay vessels - whereby 1 and 1/2 FULL pages are taken up with text laying out examples of what stamps have so far been found. First about a half page then next an entire page.

e.g. a line taken at random reads: "FCCO, COL, COLO,LAA, EVCOH, QL.FC, DFCZS, FIG.CEP,RN.FS, PN.FS". And so it goes on line after line...

Despite being labelled (as above) at "240pp" in fact there is only 168 text pages including the various b/w photos (which are OK) and a half dozen very simple, half-page less size and mostly not very useful maps. Uninformative because they are large scale; but also because the text in its endless scientific detail is replete with references to things that readers will not only not understand but also to geographic places - towns, settlements, villages, manufacturing sites, mines - that they will have no idea of as to to location; not least as no suitable scale map is provided.

I wonder if any editor bothered at all with this? I can only assume, hopefully, not. Otherwise this sort of product is totally inexplicable. Perhaps the editor got as far as about Page 20 and then just waved it all away?

In our 168 pages in total including maps and photos - that does not leave a lot of space to cover "economy, society and culture" inclusive of Phoenician, Carthaginian and through to the end of Roman rule. Thus in fact, unsurprisingly, it is not covered in any meaningful way.

In terms of looking for an informed analytical assessment to get the "feel" for these things up until early Romanisation there are frankly much more useful explanations and summaries in the recent Bernard Miles' "Carthage Must Be Destroyed" and Robin Lane Fox's "Travelling Heroes".

Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts
Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts
by Todd Tarbox
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.51

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A mixed bag, ultimately too shallow, 8 Mar. 2014
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Difficult to be fair in an assessment; but ultimately it is unconvincing, contributes little and is so narrow in impact as to be of highly limited appeal. At best, it would have been a toss up between 2 or 3 stars, eventually I decided 2.

There is much here to admire. It is a first hand told tale of a great and enduring 50 year friendship. Told in their own words and what shines through is their obvious great mutual affection and regard. I would defy anyone not to see the poignancy of this and the great life-enhancing worth that such a friendship bestows. It also throws new light for biographers not just on the so far understated friendship but the influence of the Todd school and his years there on Welles. There are quite a few not seen before photos.

It obviously shows up if not a "different" Welles then at least another dimension to Welles. As these are private conversations between long time friends - so Welles is under no pressure to play any contrived role expected from him by the, or in, public.

What emerges that is of interest is glimpses of what Welles was doing in the 1980s. The last 20 years or so of Welles life are usually pretty much a blank - the general view being that it was all rather sad. But the conversations show that Welles was still busy; still running around...

All of that is on the positive side of the balance.

But it is outweighed by the negative.

1) Though undoubtedly the fault of the publisher's marketing (not the author) - this is not a "book". It is a series of transcribed telephone conversations. Almost always without any commentary from the author (Hill's grandson). To portray it as a "book" is seriously misleading. The text of the conversations is also very generously spaced and set out on the page.

2) In that sense - it is very questionable as to value for money and pricing point - what you get for your money. The paperback price is ridiculous. You might get away with it as a Kindle.

3) The content of the conversations is highly variable. Much may mean something to Welles and Hill - but to a third party reader it is either meaningless or rather mundane. There are instances of Welles of course commenting on some aspect of X or Y that will be generally known in his career - but those are few and far between. Some comments say nothing new.

4) Despite the title and marketing spiel this is not a product for film folk, or even for those with a reasonable interest in Welles. This is really a very very precise add-on for those who really, really, are into the whole Welles thing.

So sadly one has to come to the conclusion that if you are not keenly into Welles research there is little here of any purpose. And..even if into the Welles thing, you'd have to be cherry picking through the text.

On balance - just - if only because they cover a wider canvas - the recent Biskind, "My Lunches with Orson Welles" (The conversations with Henry Jaglom) is probably more informative and interesting.

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (Continuum Contemporaries series)
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (Continuum Contemporaries series)
by Matthew Strecher
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Vastly overpriced, dated and grade school-text bookish, 6 Mar. 2014
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The title of the review says it all really.

The subject is only covered from pages 11-91. They are small pages; its a small "book". Its not in fact by any reasonable description a "book"; its an essay. Beyond that, it's as much about Murakami as it is WuBC.

Much more has been written on WuBC since 2001. Those are more worthwhile to chase up.

Not remotely worth the money.

A High Wind in Jamaica [DVD] [1965]
A High Wind in Jamaica [DVD] [1965]
Dvd ~ Anthony Quinn
Offered by ____THE_BEST_ON_DVD____
Price: £5.48

3 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Dismal, 24 Feb. 2014
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Just because something is labelled as a "classic novel" does not save it from being, in fact, mundane trash. That thought should also be doubled-up when the subject in question is a product from long ago. There is a very bad artistic tendency to accept things retrospectively through some sort of rosy haze of misplaced belief and false veneration. "Ohhhh, its a classic you know!"

Transferring novels to screen is always a project fraught with danger; the most obvious is that people who have not read the book can only base evaluations on the film, while those that have read the book inevitably compare film with book and usually unfavourably.

Even in the early 1930s the novel in question was regarded very unevenly with many people just finding it "strange" - as in badly plotted, poorly written and plagued with non-sequiturs. At best it achieved a very limited small "cult" following. That then morphed into something bigger and more benign. As is the case with many "classics" - the hype has travelled further and lasted longer than the negative or more balanced assessment.

This film is a complete mush. It comes across as a muddled and badly acted sub par-Disney children's story (which it was presumably not supposed to be?); neither one thing or another.

With a cast of non-characters and a main girl child protagonist that is completely implausible. Any child who behaved as oddly, rudely and totally self-centred as she did would either have been given a good smacking long ago by her parents or been sent to see the doctor. Or both.

Quinn and Coburn look totally miscast and adrift. Coburn just plays Coburn in a role where he really has little to do or say.

In another guise - think of this as the tedious "The Railway Children" - lost at sea. In fact, everyone looks lost.

Long stretches of vacuous boredom as nothing of the slightest interest, acting quality or consequence occurs.

The cameo 2-minute high billed appearances by Lila Kedrova (who? Oh, she was in "Zorba the Greek"....see below) and Gert Frobe are so inconsequential and out of place as to be verging on the odd.

(Frobe's familiarity to English speaking audiences has a reputation built solely on 4 films made between 1964-69; ostensibly, on 3 typical 1960s big-budget light-zany comedies which played on his corpulence and silly costumes; but in fact entirely on 1 film - "Goldfinger". Lila Kedrova? Even then in the mid 1960s I think the answer would have been - "who?").

What on earth were they thinking when they made this?

The forewarning of what was to come can be seen in the US film trailer - where the best they could come up with for promo headlines was to refer to Quinn's revisiting his (in)famous "Zorba the Greek" performance. A classic slice of historical Hollywood self-indulgence taken way over the limits ham-acting. Cringeworthy.

Hardly surprising that "High Wind in Jamaica" was a complete commercial and critical flop on release (even allowing for the 25 minutes that was cut from it before release to supposedly improve it). A complete bomb. And that MacKendrick (director) subsequently bemoaned the fact he had ever made it. And never discussed it again.

This is not just therefore a product that has "not withstood the test of time" but one that even on its cinematic debut was universally panned and immediately forgotten.

Justly so.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 9, 2014 6:33 PM BST

Edwardian Requiem: A Life of Sir Edward Grey
Edwardian Requiem: A Life of Sir Edward Grey
by Michael Waterhouse
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £25.00

23 of 29 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Puzzling and Pointless, 1 Oct. 2013
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In looking at the inside cover blurb as to who the author is, the first question that would arise, (at least to me) is - how could someone seemingly so busy and not a writer/researcher or historian by trade - find the time to write a "serious" biography of such a large personality as Grey, his life overall and the complicated events of his time?

Of course the obvious answer is - he hasn't. And, oh-dear-me, how he hasn't.

This is at best - at best - the sort of book you would give to a first year undergraduate as a "starter'" so they could get general overview familiarity with who and what. Then you would direct them on to the more competent, organised, serious, informed, informative reading and research.

The "Acknowledgements" is barely 2/3 of a page and refers to 9-10 of the author's friends who helped him out.

Footnotes - totally non-existent. Not a one.

The "Select Bibliography" consists of barely just a 2 page long list of 2nd and 3rd hand sources, perhaps almost half of which are of the "personal memoirs" type written in the 1920s and 1930s. Quite a few of those books cited are furthermore not even really germane to the topic, such as reference to some general book about British foreign policy or Balkan events. EVERY book source cited(or indeed any source) is in the English language. There are no journals, periodicals or newspapers listed.

There is no work in, or reference to, e.g. the Public Records Office in Kew; UK Government papers or files; any person's personal papers; Foreign Office Files; War Office files.

No reference to, or noted use, of (Parliamentary) Hansard; or of any research or library archive.

The book is peppered with "quotations": as X, Y, Z said/wrote/reported... not a single one of these is footnoted or referenced to its source (unless a newspaper, and then no date, page or edition is given or when it is prefaced in the text with "As X says in his autobiography, "......" and is again not accompanied by any specific sourcing or page reference).

Little to be gained by commenting on the worth of the content. Other than to state the obvious - it is of course solely and purely narrative (X did this, then Y did that) rather than analytical, integrated or throwing out new ideas, interpretations or new information. It is also certainly not a critical analysis. Information presented from these weak sources is very rarely challenged or contradicted.

That is inevitable because unless original and expansive and critical work is being done - which it is not here - then what ends up happening is that the author writes about things already written about. He writes about things where there is at hand easily available and digestible material. So, in effect what the bulk of the book is about is not Grey per se but Grey in the 10 years lead up to WW1 and the opening war years. "The origins of World War 1" - simply because this is where the mass of easy information lies.

However - all this has been done much better elsewhere and before and by professional historians. Even in very recent works (pushed out for the centenary) it is covered and done extensively and comprehensively via consultation of each respective national record. See e.g. McMeekin's " July 1914" or "The Russian Origins of the First World War" or Zuber's "The Real German War Plan, 1904-1914"

What then are we likely to see in this work? Solely in English, focussed on interpretations by Grey, and using 2nd and 3rd hand sources, getting on for perhaps half of which are almost contemporaneous tales and memoirs written in the 1920s and 1930s by people with faulty memories and axes to grind? This is silly. This is of no value.

The weakness of only being able to write about things where there is easy available information can similarly be seen in the last chapter which in only 28 pages covers the last years of Grey's multi-faceted life outside of Government, 1916-1933, as well as supplying a concluding overview. 17 years+review; 28 pages. The author cannot do or is not interested in doing any, serious let alone original, research. He cannot find in the easy accessible or known sources very much on Grey post 1917 - so he just lets that stand. A comparative void. No new digging.

It is also worth adding that, as is also becoming very common with these sorts of books, the line spacing is not single but almost double-spaced. So, the nominal 400 pages, in fact amounts to really little better than 200-220 of (dare I say it?) "proper pages". So, in total, not a lot of text there for what is supposed to be a major new biography of a major player in interesting times and a supposedly fascinating man with many interests and involvements.

It should have been suspect from the start when you can see in the promo review puff-pieces rounded up that: Country Life, History Today, The House Magazine and The Oldie get cited.

How has his got through a publishing committee? Who is the target market for this? What are the sales expectations? But sadly this seems to be what much of publishing is about these days.

Interested parties can find better material Googling the Internet.

For something headlined as "the first biography of Grey in 40 years" - I think we are reasonably entitled to expect something better than a superficial early undergraduate essay.

File it away under "A" for Amateur or possibly "H" for Hobbyist - unsupervised and let loose.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 29, 2015 9:44 AM GMT

The Exile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia
The Exile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia
by Mark Ames
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.53

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Self-Indulgent, Less than Superficial, Hopelessly Outdated, and Irrelevant, 22 May 2013
The book descriptions and supporting blurb are woefully misleading.

You will also note that "95% of the reviews for this "book" here on Amazon (mainly on .com and only 3-4 here on are dated circa year 2000.

In 2013 - this book is hopelessly out of date both in the topics it covers and in its social commentary and expatriate interaction profiles. Even at the time, e.g. 2000, its appeal must have been very limited.

All that this book is, despite claims to the contrary, is just a compilation of articles from "Exile" magazine from the 1990s inter-woven with supporting background about the articles from the authors.

The standard of content is very much what would now be seen as over the top, deliberately provocative, politically incorrect, blogging. Self-indulgent for sure; juvenile; superficial to match. To attach any value to this, other than generating the occasional rye laugh or smile, is an exercise is wishful thinking. Not least as almost all the content is focussed on the personal interactions of the authors with the cast of uninteresting and unamusing, infantile, self-obsessed, dysfunctional sociopath characters that populate the expat community in Russia ( and in fact its not even that as they have a totally Moscow-centric experience) in the 1990s.

Even in 2000 - it would have been the sort of book that you'd give a certain type of person for Xmas. Quick read; then throw away or then give away. Binned.

That this should be being pushed for sale in 2013 is bizarre as well as disgraceful and shameless exploitation.

Count me in as a sucker for buying it.

If it could get "zero" stars, I'd oblige.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 4, 2013 11:42 PM BST

Kim Il-song's North Korea
Kim Il-song's North Korea
by Helen-Louise Hunter
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £67.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Misleading and Seriously Out of Date, 18 Dec. 2012
A book strictly for North Korea specialists. Certainly, as its reviews and the book-cover blurbs indicate a "unique" study. However what none of them say is; (1) this is strictly a basic socio-economic or sociology-type study; and (2) most tellingly, it may well be "a recently declassified CIA study", but what they are not saying is that this study was written in 1980-81 and not updated for this 1999-2000 book publication release. That's pretty outrageous.

It is a study written in 1980 and is thereby utilising 1970s material. In consequence we have a book about Kim Il-Sung's North Korea of the 1970s. We are reading about conditions in the North Korea of 25+ years ago.

Material content and style presentation is straightforward and "just the facts". Nothing laid out in this book will surprise anyone who is familiar with Communist bloc social control systems. There is no analysis or extrapolation worth mentioning from the socio-economic presentation. Key aspects even within that range e.g. Party-Army-Population relationships are not examined in any analytical way.

This is a quite specific piece set in a quite specific time frame. It is a read only for those with real interest in North Korea. It is, at best, a "background" information source. As one reviewer has alluded to, the only real purpose of any description of conditions and life in the North Korea of the 1970s, is to give us an indication of the seeds of the mismanagement and decline that has subsequently unfolded. The same mixture of issues that have brought down, principally from within, other Communist regimes, in this case merely with a particular North Korean spin to it.

Thus as a book - a very particular snapshot. In its own right, as well as in terms of content.

I would have thought of very very limited appeal. Even to those with an interest in North Korea.

Raymond Chandler: A Mysterious Something in the Light: A Life
Raymond Chandler: A Mysterious Something in the Light: A Life
by Tom Williams
Edition: Hardcover

19 of 32 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Why Bother?, 25 Aug. 2012
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It is not so much that I hate it; more a case of I have no understanding why such a book was commissioned; and why, after the manuscript was submitted, a publisher deemed it worthy of print? I must be living in a world apart from the other reviewers to date - including those from newspapers et al (at least one of which [UK Telegraph] said it "hasn't unearthed anything new"), as I am at a complete loss to understand what there is in this that has not already been said, in depth, by McShane, Hiney in particular (who does an exhaustive and insightful treatment), and Freeman in her tangental but interesting way (she looks at Chandler's long relationship with his wife in specific and more widely with women. And also traces their path through the many homes they lived in).

And that is not including the half-dozen other Chandler books which look specifically at his films, correspondence and letters.

I am also at a loss to understand what there is in this, in its own right, that is worth the read?

Other than browsing through Chandler's letters - used overwhelmingly - and sparingly - as the citations for chapter footnotes - what research - and quite specifically any new or original research - has been done for this? I merely ask because there is no evidence of any. The previous studies on Chandler appear from time to time in the notes. Otherwise, paragraph after paragraph on page after page goes on about Chandler did, said, thought, intended, felt, was motivated by, liked, feared, wished for, without any citation or reference to support the claim. The same old hoary (second hand) tales are trotted out; even the same old well worn oral or literary quotations, whether by people (now long dead) about Chandler or by Chandler himself are dragged out. The Chandler letters used are of course also for the most part the same used by earlier biographers. I say "of course" because those that have some notable content rather than Chandler babbling about paying his phone bills have to be of only limited number.

Down at a nitpick-level - personally I find it strange that a biographer (who when he wrote this book must have been in his late 20s) would refer to his subject, who has been dead for 50 years, in the first person, as if he was a friend or colleague. Thus all throughout Chandler is referred to as "Ray".

The Chandler mine was worked out some time ago now; and that is the way it is.

The reasons for that are plain: Chandler as a writer was around for a relatively short period of time; his milieu was quite specific; his geography was equally specific; he was a very private individual; he was not from a large family, in practice alone by the time he hit middle age; he was not a natural writer given to churning out daily product; he was an alcoholic during almost all of the limited years of his fame. This is not Graham Greene where lies a vast 60-year hinterland of mass production, multi-dimensional, world-wide tracks for biographers to trawl through.

Even assuming someone could miraculously come across a bundle of long lost letters, or some interview, or some old papers - what possible difference to anything could that make, either in general or in any way such it could not be dealt with in some 10 page article in a literary magazine or internet blog? As no such new material has come to light, what is there to substantiate an entire new biography? Especially as the Freeman book (which did turn up some new aspects, even if somewhat debatable) is barely a few years old and the Hiney is still in (re)print.

All in all a forgone conclusion.

This is Mr Williams' first book. Hopefully his second is better - and has a purpose.

Strictly for Chandler aficionados who feel compelled out of loyalty to keep a collection and even then only if you could get it at a cheap paperback price.

For those new to Chandler - get the much better Hiney biography. Then try the Freeman.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 21, 2014 3:55 PM GMT

Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power
Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power
by Steve Coll
Edition: Hardcover

66 of 82 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing, 2 Aug. 2012
If you knew nothing about the oil business and international politics - then this might be a starter book for you. Otherwise, forget it. This is a sub-Vanity Fair stylistic compilation of themeless unconnected selected tales and vignettes involving Exxon Mobil and more specifically, chosen handfuls of its personnel. There is, barring passing comment, no serious or lengthy, or most importantly, integrated, analysis of Exxon and what it is about and how it may or may not be shaping global oil.

I say "Vanity Fair", as it is written, as sadly increasingly most such books are these days, in the journo-creates-atmosphere style by conveying "place" and "character" while pretending that the writer was there.

If text such as "It was a grey rainy November day when Jim "the shark" Macaulay got into his regulation Exxon hire car to drive...He was a long term Exxon employee widely held in high regard for his skills at..." appeals to you, then this book is for you. Otherwise - dreadful.

Have you ever noticed how in all these sorts of books ALL the staff introduced are always really really experienced, bright, perceptive, hard working, seem to have extraordinary skills that somehow no-one else has. NOBODY at management level is ever out of their depth, dumb, deceitful, slow, not very capable or bright, unwilling to take responsibility or make a decision, over-promoted, sycophantic or just "average"...

For sure given his reputation the author can get access to the organisation first hand and to senior management; he has conducted various interviews. His funding has allowed him to interview people in different countries. But all that has then happened is that these interviews have been dressed up and strung together. There is little-no serious core to this book nor coherence. Entities such as Exxon are huge multi-dimensional concerns; any attempt to come to terms with them thus requires knowledge and input on multi-dimensional topics and levels. That also takes anyone a long time to do; it is a sustained undertaking. It is a complicated endeavor. If that is not being done - by someone with the qualifiications to do it - what you get, at very best, is the blind man and the elephant parable.

What has been presented here is a quickie knock off book. The "obvious" and old worn out topics - where thus material is easily accessible and already known - Exxon Valdez, peak oil arguments, oil and environment and NGO conflicts, oil and corruption in the 3rd World, are all trotted out. And if that was not bad enough are mostly all then given the fairly superficial treatment.

What of course - and it is deliberate technique - this style of sourcing information through interview projects to the reader, is that somehow the veil is being lifted and you are getting the "insider gen"; the stuff that has never been revealed before and so forth. The ultimate insider track view on some topic or other. Of course none of that is true, per se. Nor invariably in practice. What invariably you get are blandness, inanities and summations of the already known and deducible (even if no Exxon official has ever commented on X or Y before, we can make intelligent guesses as to what their view will be, we don't need implied "expose" face to face talks for that).

Coll's main first book, "Taking Getty Oil", was significantly better than this.

Sadly one can only suspect that what is going on here is that Coll is on autopilot now, living off, and dining out, on the perceived success of "Ghost Wars" and "The Bin Ladens" and has slipped into journo mode where he now writes superficial dross that is underpinned by little serious thought (or objective) and no coherent research.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 21, 2012 10:12 PM GMT

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