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T. West (England)
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The Hell of It All
The Hell of It All
by Charlie Brooker
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.08

5.0 out of 5 stars Pugnacious and Hilarious - Brooker at his best., 16 Jun. 2011
This review is from: The Hell of It All (Hardcover)
This collection of Brooker's musings on culture expands from his critique of television and is far broader in the spectrum of artefacts held up to his obsidian glare, such as Las Vegas, in which he concurs with A.A. Gill's assessment of it being loud, hollow and forced, 'like a permanent New Year's Eve'. This is one of the tacky blots in an otherwise illuminating journey across the American West, and enthused praise in other ventures is given where he feels it due, so that he's not overly concerned with playing the curmudgeon as he usually is. This is amply demonstrated when writing on his favoured media format, computer games, and what a convincing case he builds for their emerging global dominance, while employing devastating counters to the hysterical luddite panic from 'dying' media, such as print news. This is a side to his journalism that I nowadays welcome more than the hilarious eviscerations of junk TV, because he writes with conviction and a deep knowledge that demonstrates his intelligence. Here. Newswipe Brooker emerges in full force.

That's not to say that he's not witty in his deconstructions, because this new collection shows a playful sense of self-awareness that the column appears in the Guardian, and frequently acknowledges and subverts the persona of the typical Guardian reader, which is always funny, such as the pedantry and self righteousness of many Comment is Free posters on his columns.

It is still the visual imagery created by his gifted use of language that draws many, and it is by turns grotesque, surreal, hallucinatory and sometimes, at the risk of sounding a ponce, elegiac, particularly his musings on his own sense of pointlessness, which prompted a slew of replies, all representing different sides to humanity, from the concerned to the flippant to the nasty. Perhaps it was a wryly constructed experiment, just to see what kind of people read his copy.

The crosshairs fall on the usual targets once again, the media's celebration of ignorance and mediocrity, the hypocrisy of the Daily Mail and the mob mentality of its readers, the vacuousness of magazines such as Heat and Tatler, the bizarre levels of unreality that occur on reality shows, the swaggering idiots on The Apprentice, the superficiality of certain modern tribes, and the general dumbing down of news and documentaries. Even allies in the war on nonsense get a ribbing: Richard Dawkins is compared to Professor Yaffle, and later, when describing Inside Nature's Giants, Brooker is surprised that Dawkins manages to enthuse about evolution without once telling us that 'organised religion is a bastard'.

It is irreverent to a point; I do feel that he still plays to the readership of the Guardian a few times too often -an obsequious article about how women are just great and men are stupid feels totally false, but that is largely offset by playfulness in other articles, more so than earlier editions, so that can almost be forgiven.

Overall, a lucid and lurid account of how British culture is coping with the post-millennial limbo.


Slime
Slime
by John Halkin
Edition: Paperback

2.0 out of 5 stars Amusing, if highly implausible, pulp horror, 10 Jun. 2011
This review is from: Slime (Paperback)
Okay, first of all where's the thumbnail for the cover?

Perhaps I should scan it just to show people what they're missing: a reasonably well-endowed topless female model, seemingly screaming and covered in green stringy gloop, except for her chest.
An apt cover for this work, as it frequently lingers on the female body in description and action far more than the males. It's just too bad the action is so unbelievable, that most of the time you're grinning to yourself.

In case you're not put off by this, the slime in question is the signature trait -a slippery and luminous mucal discharge - from the story's antagonists, Jellyfish. This was one of the first horror novels I ever read (worryingly leant to me by grandparents, but perhaps they wanted to frighten me away from reading).
I was also interested in marine invertebrates (still am to a lesser extent)and back then I devoured it within a few nights. After recently re-reading it, i've noticed a little more about the story than just the dishwater-thin characterisation, clunky exposition and pop-science.

It has a bleak cold-war edge to it recalling, for me, the feeling I got from Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes, but brought forward a generation. The characters are mostly creative, scientific or military types living in Thatcher's Britain, and the picture of coastal life painted by Halkin is farily grim before the Jellyfish make their presence felt amongst the protagonists, who are mostly unhappy with their lives, careers and relationships. It also reads a little like a biological version of the apocalyptic terror of Brother In The Land. Something truly terrifying happening to an already bleak Yorkshire town. I would say the prose is as accessible, but the fear generated by the latter book was very real.

The jellyfish themselves are an aggressive species that not only propel themselves through water to attack prey, but also over land. I don't know if Halkin had known about the light sensitive cells on various Cubozoans, but while the ability to chase prey is not entirely implausible, a few too many details are, such as the moving-across-land deal. The eerie settling of the jellies over the bodies of frantic swimmers is an effective and horrible vision, but many things are taken too far, such as the 'hive mind', the rapid speed at which the very simple creatures digest complex tissue, and their abilities to squirm and flop about out of water, thrash tentacles out at prey and also maintaining a strong grip, suggest creatures much more advanced than any form of cnidarian. But even these enhancements cannot work unless the human prey are immensely accident-prone, and that is what we get here, so much that you begin to laugh. A number of sequences show policemen, soldiers, and the friends of a biologist repeatedly falling and slipping, and succumbing to the slow but relentless creatures, one being an attractive woman whose last thought after having her face smothered by a jelly (after it drops from a shelf) is about the pain in her nipples, just one example of the undercurrents in Halkin's writing of the female form being assimilated into amorphous blobbiness. Dr Freud, you have a patient waiting.

I would say that this is fun if only because it is a trashy B-movie with body horror elements in prose form, and because it was written in 1984, it's possible to make a couple of readings of this text that relate to concerns of the time, firstly that the Jellies have a red star on the dorsal portion of their bells, and clog the North Sea, as well as other bodies of water, threatening the various trades upon which Island Britain depends, and possess a collective mentality, a nod to the looming presence of the USSR, perhaps. Another more substantial subtext is the eighties fascination of bodily disintegration, with the human form mutilated by the digestive enzymes of these creatures. I read it as another expression of the contemporary fear surrounding AIDS, like much similar work in cinema, such as The Fly and The Thing.

I would recommend this to most people who enjoy B-movies, bad dialogue and gore.
It is not very convincing or that well written, but amusing enough for those who already enjoy the genre, British pulp horror, of which it is a fine example. Overall, most people will find the clumsy ineptitude and cliched situations of the human characters too farcical to stomach, but this is never a weighty tome.


God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
by Christopher Hitchens
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A more suitable trajectory than The God Delusion, 12 Oct. 2010
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God is Not Great is a more convincing argument against religion than the God Delusion because it uses philosophy and history rather than science as a basis for argument.

It is not essential that faith and morality meet with the demands of science, but the way religion has been practiced makes such faith and morality hard to reconcile with the evident truths of philosophy and history, and this is where the book triumphs.

Hitchens creates a climate of indignation that is hard to ignore, and uses numerous examples of cruelty described in the Bible and Koran, as well as other holy texts, and what these scriptures ask of followers, to make the case against a petty, narcissistic tyrant of a God, evidence in itself that these small Gods are constructs designed by men for selfish ends. He makes the revealed nature and horror of the religions speak for themselves, with the most vulnerable of society treated the worst under bloodthirsty zealots.

It is a valuable tool in exposing the man-made terror that has led to the misery of millions, whether they believe in God or not.


Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements
Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements
by John Emsley
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars One of the finest reference works i've ever owned., 12 Oct. 2010
This book is invaluable, even to someone without much formal science training. Although i'm interested in science, chemistry seemed the bridge between Physics and biology that I really didn't know about. This book is a logically presented, well-written, comprehensive guide to every element, with proportional amounts of information given to each. the roles of the elements in biological systems, the environment and manufacturing are well-developed, and relevant quantities given, such as how much of each makes up the earth and our tissues, as well as the atomic weights and details about isotopes and radiological properties.

A must have for anyone who wants to know what life and the universe is made of beyond fundamental particles, and that should be everybody.


Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Samir Okasha
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent introduction to a fascinating area of study., 12 Oct. 2010
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This is the first book i've read dedicated to the philosophy of science and it won't be the last, because it has introduced some deeply important questions about fundamental reasoning and what makes science work. It will challenge a lot of preconceptions using well-structured arguments and real world examples, and gives a good account of how science progresses, the thinking behind Popper's ideas of falsification (it turns out not as cut and dry as many think), and introduces Kuhn's groundbreaking theories on scientific progress and Paradigm shifts, offering sustained criticism from logic of both empiricist views and those from Kuhn. There is a quick disclaimer for those who would cite Kuhn's work as giving impetus to cultural relativism, and there are some good examples of philosophical problems in science, such as the notion of absolute space and biological classification. there are also some great arguments for the realist-anti-realist debate, a debate I had not really thought existed.

Personally, I would've liked a little more about Karl Popper's theories, but that is trivial. The book is a short one and does give a good account of how science progressed to this point in the first chapter, which sets the scene nicely.

An excellent read for both scientists and philosophers.


Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Thomas Flynn
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Deceptively hard-going., 12 Oct. 2010
When writing a very short introduction, it would seem prudent to keep the intended audience in mind and try to 'introduce' concepts rather than assume too much prior knowledge. The book fails to do either, and reads like one of the dry, overly-academic and dense works I used to have to chew through as a third year cultural studies student; at least I know of some the concepts Flynn is trying to communicate. Many Laymen will not.

Not only is the prose a chore, but the structure is a little scattershot, and there seems no overarching narrative to the historical progress of the field; we swap between Kierkegaarde, Nietzsche, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Jaspers and Heidegger in a brainstorm that makes the reader think some of this was a mere distraction for the author. Only the final chapter seems logically positioned.

A number of ideas are not explained, and comparisons with contemporary philosophers who were not existentialists, such as Russell and Wittgenstein, are not there to establish a perspective of where continental existentialism sat with regards to the wider picture of philosophy.

The author does manage to set existentialism against structuralist thinking of later French intellectuals, and addresses the seeming paradox of existentialism's social concerns, which at last gives a vantage point from which to analyse the real-world impact of the movement. There is also a good deal of focus on Sartre, perhaps too much where time could've been given to establishing a better narratiive.

I'm more familiar with the structuralists, so i'd hoped that this book would establish a clear precedent for what i'd learnt about in university, alas it is anything but clear.


Feeding Frenzy
Feeding Frenzy
by Will Self
Edition: Paperback
Price: £16.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A hilarious and brilliant account of nineties Britain, 22 Aug. 2010
This review is from: Feeding Frenzy (Paperback)
If you want to know what life in nineties britain was actually like, you need to buy this book.

It collects Self's articles from his various endeavours, including restaurant reviews (including McDonalds), Political and philosophical musings, surreal accounts of sojourns to the Orkneys and many articles on books, art exhibtions, architecture and cinema. It builds up a very dark and idiosyncratic take on nineties Britain that rings especially true in hindsight.

As this was my first foray into the world of Self, I was bowled over by his vocabulary and his ability to create unusual nightmarish visons in the mind of the reader, but any sense of intimidation is tempered and dulled by the frequent hilarity in his analyses and evocations, including an inverse ratio of pulchritude in diners and waiters, where if the waiters and diners are both similar in attractiveness, the food is bound to be awful. You will find numerous departures from reality in even the most functional review; from flies in tweed suits to the 'inundations of glutinous patties' at McDonalds. There are the tangental juxtapositions of high and low culture: the idea of Bertrand Russell force-feeding a Pot Noodle to protege Ludwig Wittgenstein is one notable example.

As expected, cultural references are many, and will be obscure to some, but Self is the last writer who should be expected to appease the casual reader, as a lot of his appeal is, or was, his complex prose and status as an enfant terrible of British literary life, not that he'd necessarily agree, as most interviewers find out when they try to categorise him and his work.

Overall, a very witty, concise and unique collection that paints a revealing picture of a chaotic and unsettled cultural scene in the UK. Just make sure you have a very good dictionary to hand.


Dawn of the Dumb: Dispatches from the Idiotic Frontline
Dawn of the Dumb: Dispatches from the Idiotic Frontline
by Charlie Brooker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Merciless, yet funny, 22 Aug. 2010
This is Brooker's second accumulation of vitriol that he has saved for the exorable nonsense of modern television. His critiques of program content, formats, the undesirables who currently run television and celebrity culture are sharp-tongued eviscerations of all that is shallow and stupid, and when you're talking about British TV over the past few years, there's a lot of room for that.

He does extend his cruel humour to one or too undeserving targets, like the choice of music at the funerals of 'thick people', which I found a little callous.

The majority of this book is a hearty, if not completely healthy, antidote to everything nonsensical in public life, and when he does write about something he likes, the break in cynicism comes as pretty refreshing. You then realise that he's not as half the misery guts he tries to be, athough when his bleak and surreal humour is at its peak he reminds me of another cultural commentator and columnist, Will Self.


Carl Sagan's Cosmos [DVD] [1980]
Carl Sagan's Cosmos [DVD] [1980]
Dvd ~ Carl Sagan
Price: £12.00

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sagan's Magnum Opus, 22 Aug. 2010
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''We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself''

What a wonderful statement, and one of many perceptive and illuminating observations from Sagan who has been acknowledged by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Brian Cox as one of the greatest science educators of all time.

His journey is a 'personal voyage', but manages to include everything that would nourish the curious mind, and can be understood by a large demographic. Every subject is given Sagan's fullest attention, so that we come away with more than just a simple appreciation of universal phenomena, and are armed with details of how things work, and why they work in the manner they do. The opening episode is an exploration of the scale of our known universe, and is followed by the story of how life evolved, possible chemistries of alien life, Special relativity, great scientific discoveries made by the Greeks and Europeans of the enlightenment, and reasons behind the various belief systems that have grown up with us. We are taken to the beginning of time, and are treated to a myriad versions of how everything began, and how it may all end. His specialism of planetary science and passion for the scientific search for alien life is revisited often, but his speculations at sea about the intelligence of whales and dolphins are just as profound, and given our history of butchery toward them, quite moving.

The series is somewhat downbeat towards the end, as Sagan considers humanity's legacy on this planet, and what the future might hold. Considering that the series was made in 1980, this is understandable, and the final episode is a reflection of possible nightmares that may have occured at the time, the spectre of nuclear war being the prominent one. It brings a lump to the throat when Sagan takes a walk along the beach and talks of his dreams about our future, looking us in the eye and confessing that some of them are bad dreams. It is sobering to see an imagined 'Encyclopedia Galactica' report on the fate of humankind in a detached analysis from the safety of a starship, but ultimately, as Sagan says, the choice of whether to sail to the stars or destroy oursleves in a 'paroxysm of global death', is ours.

The updates are Sagan's own thoughts on how scientific endeavour in the field represented by each episode has progressed after ten years since the program was made, and how each has affected society. He was aware that millennial fervour was gathering at the time of his untimely death, and yet once again, we see a threat of potential nuclear holocaust growing because of stubborn and inflexible ideologies, albeit religious rather than political.

With superstitious madness continuing to claim innocent lives, we need people like Carl more than ever. It is quite easy to see why he is lauded by both contemparies like Dawkins and Michio Kaku, and the younger generation such as Cox and Phil Plait. This is because Sagan's message is one for all humankind; We can either understand our universe and prosper from it, or be incinerated because we believe we have divine monopoly on truth, but in the end, we are - all of us - made from star stuff.


Particle Physics: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Particle Physics: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Frank Close
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great introduction, 9 April 2010
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Of this series, this is one of the more lucidly written examples. Prof. Close has a method of drawing you into a fairly informal discussion, but with direct examples to illustrate his points, and obvious authority. His tone is kindly, and reminded me of the way Carl Sagan or Richard Feynman communicated ideas; Methodically, yet elegantly.

The areas key for a basic understanding of the subject are present, and he elaborates on some of the terminology used without losing the reader.

There is only a slight misgiving, in that he strays off course into the realm of speculative string theory and higher dimensions in a rushed manner near the end of the book. This does relate to some of the earlier chapters in a small way (supersymmetry), but limited to two pages, is all too vague so the uninitiated may get confused.

Other than that, it has enlightened me greatly, and along with the VSI to Relativity, gives a nice foundation which can be used to consult more ambitious material.


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