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Mr. N. T. Baxter "Neil" (Cambridge, UK)

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Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us
Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us
by Ferdinand Mount
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.99

28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Eclectic, Enlightening and Enjoyable, 8 July 2010
Ferdinand Mount's latest book, a beautifully written account of the striking similarities between the modern and classical ways of life and the contrast with the Christian era in between, is by turns playful and profound.

He divides the book into two sections, the first looking at 'body' which discusses attitudes to bathing, exercise, sex and food, and then moves on to 'mind', where he looks for analogs between Greek and Roman ways of seeing and understanding the world and our own. For me it's the second section that really makes this book stand out. Here we are treated to sections on religion, fame, nature and dialogue, and as you would expect from such weighty subjects, the tone becomes a bit more serious and the linkages more subtle.

I'm a sociologist/psychologist by training, and a history addict by inclination, so I suppose a book like this was always going to pique my interest, but having read it in the space of about 5 days (mostly whilst sitting up late at night with my 3 week old baby girl who is having trouble sleeping) I have to say it is one of the best and most enjoyable books I've read for quite a while. It's very easy to read, despite the weighty topics.

I particularly enjoyed the last couple of chapters, which are quite profound - and, in the end, very funny.

The idea behind the book is something I have thought about before myself, but in relation to the ever more violent 'all in' martial arts that are proving increasingly popular on TV these days and are quickly catching up with the relatively pedestrian boxing in terms of fans and profile - another post-Christian return to Roman sensitivities (or lack of them)? Mr. Mount has done a great job of identifying many other areas where our two cultures meet, despite the intervening two millennia, and makes convincing arguments to suggest the spirits of these two epochs are comparable in many ways - but with one crucial difference.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 11, 2010 8:27 PM BST

Information is Beautiful
Information is Beautiful
by David McCandless
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very Nearly A Great Book, 24 Feb 2010
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a great idea for book, especially for us stat-buffs. There are loads of diagrams, graphical representations and charts - many in original and colourful formats - presenting data from a huge range of subjects.

The author, David McCandless, has, on the whole, done a great job compiling and devising this book, but there are a few problems which undermine it:

1) As others have mentioned, some - quite a few- diagrams are missing captions and labels, rendering them meaningless (e.g. country names missing from a diagram showing relative %age of athiests by country)

2) Some of the data is collected from less than 24 carat sources (eg. small commercial websites). This doesn't mean the information is less 'fun', but it is less representative.

3) Sometimes the more unusual charts need a bit of time in interpretation. We could do with a brief explanation of how to read them sometimes.

Despite these limitations this is a fun book to dip in and out of, and looks very nice (although I would prefer a high gloss paper to the matt that the publisher chose). I'd probably recommend the second print run - there are too many mistakes in this one - just hope the publishers haven't produced too many already!

Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Seven Pillars of Wisdom
by T E Lawrence
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.68

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Idiosyncratic Classic, 18 Feb 2010
This is a book that will transport you a hundred years back in time to the billowing sands of Arabia during the First World War. Early on it's a kind of mish-mash of geography, history and politics but soon moves into a narrative account of Lawrence's adventure as a leading figure in the Arab Revolt. The tale is peppered with philosophical musings and funny generalisations (he seems to think a surly temperament goes with curly hair) and recounts all the major events of the campaign.

The style of writing is sometimes a bit 'choppy' which can be confusing, so I'd suggest opening an atlas to the Arabia page to help make sense of the blizzard of place names and to get an idea of the campaign spatially. There are moments of real genius in the writing too - I loved the section about half way through about a feast under tents in the desert that was beautifully evoked. The sections about the raids on the trains were also excellent. Lawrence practiced the prototype of asymmetric warfare against the Turks, and the chapter where he devises this strategy whilst laid low with fever is striking.

A fitting monument to an paradoxical, eccentric, brilliant but in the end, sad and short life.

NEWSPEAK in the 21st Century
NEWSPEAK in the 21st Century
by David Edwards
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.89

12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Book full of Righteous Indignation!, 18 Feb 2010
For the most part this book is a catalogue of what the authors identify as biased reporting. They set their sights on numerous familiar names like Andrew Marr, Gavin Esler and others, and set out to highlight the assumptions inherent in their reports.

The arguments presented are sound in general and point to an institutionalised (and not conspiratorial) bias generated by the fundamentally money driven nature of most media, and the subservience to government of the BBC. Reporters who don't wish to toe the line simply won't 'get on' so the organisations select for 'safe pairs of hands' who will not antagonise their financial or political masters. The authors are particularly scathing of the BBC due to it's self proclaimed neutrality, which they say is a sham.

Most of the evidence is in the shape of individual stories that demonstrate bias through a kind of discourse analysis. There is a little quantitative evidence too in the form of some low volume content analysis, but not a great deal. This is something of a problem from a scholarly point of view as it is hard to determine whether the examples that fill the pages are representative or outliers. However, some of the evidence they marshal is compelling, as are the sometimes revealing responses from the journalists they challenge.

Overall the style of the book is very readable. This is in part due to the sense of passion you get from the authors. They clearly care about their work. However, sometimes this does spill over into a kind of posturing in cases where an email exchange with a journalist is included (there are many of these) and the last word goes to the authors. Reading these, I suppose, is meant to give us a kind of vicarious thrill at reading the authors 'stick one up 'em' - like we might get from writing an angry email to the telephone company that has failed us yet again... I think that if the journalist doesn't reply to a challenge, there is little value in publishing the question - or the full text of the authors' final email that tells the journalist exactly why they are biased and that their publication is the plaything of a rich owner (or whatever). They may be right, but including these unanswered accusations in this way feels a bit like we've been BCCed into an email argument by a friend who wants to show us how clever he is.

Despite this, over all this is a good book that makes a lot of valid points and will certainly make you more cautious about what you read, see or hear on the news. I have to admit, my ears have been pricked-up ever since reading it for evidence of bias on the BBC. Just don't buy this for its objective style!

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
by Alain de Botton
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars A Departure for de Botton, 13 May 2009
As I expected having read the Consolations of Philosophy, the Art of Travel, Status Anxiety and How Proust can Change your Life, I really enjoyed de Botton's latest book. He applies to the world of work a recurring philosophical theme from his earlier works, that we should pay more attention to the minutiae of our daily lives in order to appreciate the beauty and exoticism all around us, and picks over a range of jobs and work processes in order to reveal the beauty, ugliness, tedium and meaning that infuse even the most mundane of jobs.

De Botton's prose is extremely poetic as in previous books, only more so. His observations, whether humourous or depressing, work to create an almost dream-like atmosphere - for me anyway - as he seems to float above his subjects and attempt to observe them as a young child or an alien might. There seems to be a lot of cynicism in his approach sometimes, but I guess it's hard to not to be cynical about a man's apparent devotion to the world of ginger nut biscuit manufacture (they make the biscuits round because the circle is the ancient symbol of femininity and completeness).

I didn't give this book 5 stars because it's actually rather different to his other books, and I prefered the old format. In the past de Botton has analysed and compared the philosophical works of other philosophers and given us really insightful and interested takes on their works, relating them to everyday situations and making them come to life. In this book HE is the philosopher, and the observations, ideas and musings are primarily his own. It's more of a work of one man rather than his previous creations which were synthesises or critiques of one or more of the greats. I really liked the old format and discovered Proust, Epicurus and Montaigne through them, but there's no chance of discovering much more from this book than de Botton's own ideas - as interesting as they are.

So, it's 4 stars for me. Would certainly recommend it, but it's not quite the same kind of thing as his other stuff. This is more of a personal reflection or musing on the meaning and detail of our modern, compartmentalised working lives.

Don't Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle
Don't Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle
by Daniel Everett
Edition: Paperback

115 of 117 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Never Read a Book so Quickly!, 10 Nov 2008
I bought this book on Saturday. It's Monday now and I've just finished it, which for me is very fast indeed, and a reflection on what a fascinating and well written book it is.

I heard the author talking about his travels and studies on BBC Radio 4 and thought his ideas about linguistics were interesting, but when I had a quick look at the book before I bought it I realised it was much more than an work about the theory of language. It's actually a rare combination of exciting adventure story, anthropology AND linguistics. The conclusions Everett reaches after 30 years of living amongst the Piraha people get right to the heart of what makes us who we are as human beings, and provide a fascinating insight into another way of life we would otherwise never have heard of, or at least would understand only superficially.

The first half of the book focuses on the lives of the Piraha (and the experiences of Everett living with them), the second half focuses on the linguistics. This structure works really well and the book is a great fusion of entertainment and information throughout.

Young Stalin
Young Stalin
by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Biography of a Surprising Sympathetic Character..., 24 Sep 2008
This review is from: Young Stalin (Paperback)
I was really surprised by my reaction to this book. Like pretty much any sane person I consider Stalin to be one of the great tyrants of history. A brutal murderer; paranoid, violent and cruel. However, reading the story of his early years I often found myself rooting for him in his struggles with the Tsarist police, brutal teachers and violent father.

He comes across, at least to start with, as a romantic character. He was an excellent writer and poet, and was loyal to his friends and his women. He saw injustice and fought against it with all his strength. But over time his brutal upbringing and his resulting lack of trust in others began to take over. In the end the sympathetic traits are consumed by paranoia and hatred, and this book is a wonderful description of how this transformation happened.

A really exciting story and a brilliant case study in the formative events of a unique criminal psychopathology.

Odysseus Unbound: The Search for Homer's Ithaca
Odysseus Unbound: The Search for Homer's Ithaca
by Robert Bittlestone
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Read it for the adventure, if not the theory, 18 Jun 2008
Bittlestone's theory is, and will always be unproven. It will always be one of many competing theories for the location of Ithaca, but his stands up to scrutiny better than others and sometimes during the reading of this book I found myself close to being convinced. Much work needs to be done though, before Homer's Ithaca is identified as securley as Troy has been.

But setting that aside I give this book 5 stars for it's style, readability and the romance of the tale it tells. The author is very engaging and he constructs his argument layer by layer in a narrative that takes us from his first intuitions on holiday in the Greek islands through meetings with eminent professors and taxi drivers, trips back and forth to Greece and even a trip to a bookshop in Oxford. There is a real sense of his excitement at his discoveries throughout the book, and this makes it a very enjoyable read.

The book is also very well illustrated and laid out. Packed with photos and maps that really add to the experience of following Bittlestone's quest.

Good luck with your theory, Robert!

In Search of the Trojan War [DVD]
In Search of the Trojan War [DVD]
Dvd ~ Michael Wood
Price: £5.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A simple review, 4 Jun 2008
If you are in any way interested in ancient history or if you're just a fan of exciting detective work and mysteries PLEASE buy this DVD.

In my opinion it's simply the best documentary series ever made. I've watched it many times and it never gets old. It's atmospheric, intelligent and deeply satisfying. Despite the fact that it's over 20 years old Michael Wood's conclusions are amazingly close to the most modern interpretations of the evidence for a war at Troy.

Buy it, you won't be disappointed.

The Story of India
The Story of India
by Michael Wood
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.11

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Up to Michael Wood's Usual Standards, 4 Jun 2008
This review is from: The Story of India (Hardcover)
I am an avid history reader, but before I read this book I knew only a rough outline of Indian history - perhaps even that's an exageration! So for me much of this was new and exciting. As usual, Wood's enthusiasm and writing skills make his work a pleasure to read, and also gives a real sense of the place and people.

I particularly enjoyed the first chapter looking at the earliest prehistoric times, especially the section on the fire cults and mantra based rituals that could go back almost as long as mankind has walked the earth. Mind boggling.

India is such a rich, interesting and diverse country that it is far beyond the scope of a single volume to cover everything important in sufficient detail, but as a sweeping overview full of colour and interest this book is a real gem.

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