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P. Webster "Phil W." (Lancashire)
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Empire and Revolution : A Socialist History of the First World War
Empire and Revolution : A Socialist History of the First World War
by Dave Sherry
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars World War One: Imperialist Carnage, 25 July 2014
The government and media have used the commemorations of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War to whip up patriotic feelings and to try to persuade us that WWI was a war that had to be fought in order to defend freedom and civilisation.

This book is a powerful antidote to such nonsense. Dave Sherry shows that the millions who died did so in a war that was brought about by imperialist rivalries between the main capitalist powers.

Capitalism is based on two key features. The first is the extraction of surplus value (profit) from the working class (both manual and white collar workers) by the capitalist class. The second is competition between rival capitalists. The unplanned nature of this competitive production leads to periodic crises, and the economic competition between rival capitalist/imperialist states often spills over into military competition, leading to war.

Sherry points out that this tendency of capitalism to lead to war is as relevant today in 2014 as it was in 1914. Again we are seeing the ruling classes of the big powers jostling for influence (in Ukraine, for example) and creating tensions of the kind which led to world war a hundred years ago.

Sherry also shows that it was mass protest by workers that finally brought the war to an end. When the war started, a few individual pacifists refused to be swept along by the patriotic fervour, but the only organised opposition to it came from a principled minority of the international socialist movement: the Bolsheviks in Russia, and people like Rosa Luxemburg in Germany and John Maclean in Britain. But after years of bloodshed and hardship, millions of workers and soldiers came to support these anti-war revolutionaries. The war was finally brought to an end by revolutions: in Russia in October 1917 and in Germany in November 1918.

I strongly recommend this book. It is powerfully argued, well-written, concise and very relevant.

Phil Webster.


The Sibley Guide to Birds
The Sibley Guide to Birds
by David Allen Sibley
Edition: Flexibound
Price: 22.91

3.0 out of 5 stars Spoiled by colour problems, 6 July 2014
I have had the marvellous first edition of this book for over ten years, and I hastily bought this updated second edition as soon as it came out.

But there are two problems with this new edition. These problems are not with what the author has produced, but with the printing. Firstly, the colours on some of the bird illustrations are too dark. Secondly, the print of much of the text is a sort of faint grey colour instead of black, and also rather small, making it difficult to read.

There has been a lot of discussion about this on the American Amazon website (Amazon.com), and it seems there is the possibility of changes being made when a new print run is produced by the publishers.


The North American Bird Guide (Helm Field Guides)
The North American Bird Guide (Helm Field Guides)
by David Sibley
Edition: Paperback
Price: 25.00

3.0 out of 5 stars Spoiled by colour problems, 6 July 2014
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I have had the marvellous first edition of this book for over ten years, and I hastily bought this updated second edition as soon as it came out.

But there are two problems with this new edition. These problems are not with what the author has produced, but with the printing. Firstly, the colours on some of the bird illustrations are too dark. Secondly, the print of much of the text is a sort of faint grey colour instead of black, and also rather small, making it difficult to read.

There has been a lot of discussion about this on the American Amazon website (Amazon.com), and it seems there is the possibility of changes being made when a new print run is produced by the publishers.


Angelica's Smile (Inspector Montalbano Mysteries)
Angelica's Smile (Inspector Montalbano Mysteries)
Price: 5.31

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointingly Average, 25 Jun 2014
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I’ve loved most of Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano stories, but I’m sad to say that this latest offering is a disappointingly mediocre one. I never thought I’d have to call a Montalbano story “average” – but this one is just that.

There has been an enjoyable formula for these books: Montalbano’s quirky personality; the interplay between him and his team; lots of humour; and the occasional critical social comment from Camilleri’s left-leaning perspective. (In the TV version we also get the beautiful Sicilian scenery.)

Some of the previous Montalbanos have disappointed me, but up to now this has been for a specifically identifiable reason. The mood of “The Age of Doubt” was dismal; “The Treasure Hunt” was spoiled by a distastefully grim scene; and a couple of the books irritated me when Camilleri brought in premonition-type paranormal episodes.

But there is nothing specific that I can point to as spoiling “Angelica’s Smile”. I did miss the usual sprinkling of social comment, which is absent this time. But the real problem is that it has the feeling that Camilleri has become jaded and is just going through the motions. And that made me feel that I too was just going through the motions in reading it.

Also, although the plot itself has never been the most important aspect of the Montalbano books, I thought that the plot here was plodding and predictable.

There is still probably just about enough to make the book worth reading for Montalbano fans. We get Montalbano’s endearingly odd behaviour as usual, and there is an amusing episode of jealousy involving Livia, as well as the regular comic scenes with Catarella. But don’t expect the high quality of the best Montalbanos. I hope we aren’t witnessing the sad decline of a once-great series.

Phil Webster.


RSPB Handbook of British Birds
RSPB Handbook of British Birds
by Peter Holden
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More than just an identification guide, 29 April 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I have used several different bird books over the years, but in my opinion this is by far the best single book for birdwatchers. I know that many birders rate other books, such as the Collins Bird Guide, more highly as identification guides. But this book is perfectly adequate for identifying birds in most circumstances, and it has the advantage of being much more than just an identification guide.

As well as excellent illustrations and details on identification, voice, habitat and habits, there are sections for each bird on its food, breeding behaviour, distribution, movements, migration, population and conservation. So if you want to know something about the lives of the birds you are identifying and enjoying, then this is the book for you.

Of course this book only covers British birds, whereas the Collins Guide covers all European birds. But the Collins Guide has the big disadvantage of having maps which are far too small, whereas the maps in this RSPB Handbook are excellent. (There is a distribution map for each species on the same page as the illustrations and text for that species.)

Finally, there is the question of whether it is worth buying this new fourth edition if you already have the third edition, which was published four years ago in 2010. The main changes are in the updating of the distribution maps and the population statistics. There are not a lot of changes other than this, but for me it was worth buying the new edition for this up-to-date information.

Phil Webster.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 21, 2014 5:27 PM BST


The Case of the Buried Clock (Perry Mason Series Book 22)
The Case of the Buried Clock (Perry Mason Series Book 22)
Price: 3.71

3.0 out of 5 stars Weaker than the usual Perry Mason, 20 Mar 2014
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Perry Mason stories are amongst my favourites when it comes to light, escapist reading. I have read a lot of them and I have found that most are very good, a few are really excellent, and just a few are disappointing.

Unfortunately, I consider this book to be one of those few disappointing ones. The plot is over-elaborate and unconvincing, and there is only a little bit of the fast-paced and brilliant courtroom dialogue that is the most enjoyable feature of most of the stories.

I fear that if someone read this as their first Perry Mason, it might put them off reading others, which would be a real shame. Read Perry Mason, but perhaps not this one!

Phil Webster.


A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
Price: 0.51

22 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Secretly Serving Stalin, 9 Mar 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This enjoyable and informative book gives us an insight into the life of Kim Philby and the dark corridors of the secret world he inhabited. During and after the Second World War Philby was employed by Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6), but was all the time secretly working for the Russian secret service, which had recruited him in the 1930s.

Macintyre knows how to write a good book about the workings of the secret services, as is shown by his previous forays, "Agent Zigzag", "Operation Mincemeat" and "Double Cross". This book matches them: the narrative flows rapidly, pulling the reader along with it.

Macintyre focuses not just on Philby's deceit of SIS, but also on his deceit of his friends. He does this by telling the parallel stories of Philby and of his friend and colleague in SIS, Nicholas Elliot. Philby and Elliot came from similar privileged backgrounds, but whereas Elliot stayed loyal to the British state and ruling class, Philby threw in his lot with Stalin.

For me, what makes Philby interesting is that he was motivated by political principles. He genuinely believed that by spying for the USSR he was advancing the cause of a fairer and more peaceful world. Like many others in the 1930s he could see that capitalism was a system based on exploitation and inequality, a system which was dragging the world into economic crisis and war, and a system which had given birth to the monstrosity of fascism. (We see similar developments today.)

But what Macintyre does not make clear is that the Russian state that Philby decided to serve had moved a long way from genuine Marxism. The 1917 Russian Revolution, led by Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks, had been a genuine workers' revolution, with working people exercising power through the "soviets" (elected workers' councils). But by the late 1920s any remnants of the gains and democracy of the revolution had been destroyed by Stalin and the bureaucratic ruling class that had usurped power and turned Russia into a state capitalist tyranny.

Philby's tragedy is that he dedicated his life to a totalitarian state which called itself socialist, but which was just as exploitive a system as the one in the West. Perhaps there was some excuse in the early 1930s for Philby being unaware of the true nature of the USSR, but he stuck loyally by the Stalinist regime even when its crimes could not be ignored, right up to his death in 1988. (Whereas genuine Marxists had long been advocating the slogan of "Neither Washington Nor Moscow But International Socialism", and pointing out that "The Free World is not really free and the Communist World is not really communist".)

In his own autobiography ("My Silent War"), Philby acknowledges that at one point he saw that "much was going badly wrong in the Soviet Union", but he says that he decided to "stick it out, in the confident faith that the principles of the Revolution would outlive the aberration of individuals, however enormous." Sadly, what had gone wrong in the USSR was not just an "aberration", it was a full-scale counter-revolution.

Finally, although it can be entertaining to get a glimpse of the secret world by reading books like Macintyre's, we need to remember that the real world of the secret services is a nasty one. They do not just spy on each other. They spy on (and often persecute) dissenting voices within their own countries, and they conduct dirty tricks such as the toppling of elected governments (as the CIA did in Chile). The secret services on both sides of Philby's "silent war" are villains.

Phil Webster.


The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Anniversary Edition
The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Anniversary Edition
by Charles Darwin
Edition: Paperback
Price: 14.80

4.0 out of 5 stars Darwin on Facial Expressions, 27 Jan 2014
When Charles Darwin in 1859 finally made public his theory of evolution by natural selection in “On the Origin of Species”, he avoided writing about human evolution, except for saying that “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”

But by the early 1870s he felt confident enough to openly discuss the evolution of humans from animals. He did this in “The Descent of Man” (1871) and in this book, “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals” (1872).

In “The Expression of Emotions” Darwin’s main aim was to show that humans are not separate from animals. He shows the origins of human facial expressions in the animal world, and he argues that human expressions are innate and universal (the same in all cultures).

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Darwin’s ideas. But in my view it is not Darwin at his best. It has been pointed out that there are two main weaknesses in the book. Firstly, Darwin focuses mainly on the emotional roots of facial expressions and says too little about the role of expressions in communication.

Secondly, despite having developed the revolutionary (and correct) theory of natural selection as the mechanism for evolutionary change, Darwin mistakenly allowed a subsidiary role for the Lamarckian idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. This book is unfortunately full of examples of this latter idea.

In recent decades the book has also featured in controversies over the so-called “nature versus nurture” debate. Social anthropologist Margaret Mead argued that human facial expressions are learned, not innate, and that they vary from one culture to another. Psychologist Paul Eckman, on the other hand, says that Mead has been proved wrong and that Darwin was correct in saying that human facial expressions are the same in all societies, reflecting their evolutionary and genetic rather than cultural origins.

But even if Ekman is correct on the specific issue of facial expressions, this does not mean that we can explain all other aspects of human behaviour primarily in genetic terms, as biological/genetic determinists claim. Ekman says that both nature and nurture play a part in determining human behaviour, which is clearly true, but he himself actually seems to lean much more towards the “nature” side. In fact he has claimed that “Darwin led the way not only in the biological sciences but in the social sciences as well.” Ekman seems to be using Darwin’s “Expressions” book as a stick with which to beat those who put forward social explanations of human behaviour.

In fact it is not just social scientists who argue that we cannot explain all human behaviour in biological terms. Evolutionary theorists like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin also show that humans have evolved to be creatures which, because of their large brain, are very flexible in their behaviour. The result is that much of our behaviour (though perhaps not our facial expressions) is learned and therefore the result of social factors and interactions.

I am a great fan of Charles Darwin, and Darwin may well have been right about facial expressions being largely innate, but we should not try to use Darwinism to explain our society (and its problems).

Phil Webster.


The Works of Charles Darwin: The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (Collected Works of Charles Darwin)
The Works of Charles Darwin: The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (Collected Works of Charles Darwin)
by Charles Darwin
Edition: Paperback
Price: 15.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Darwin on Facial Expressions, 27 Jan 2014
When Charles Darwin in 1859 finally made public his theory of evolution by natural selection in “On the Origin of Species”, he avoided writing about human evolution, except for saying that “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”

But by the early 1870s he felt confident enough to openly discuss the evolution of humans from animals. He did this in “The Descent of Man” (1871) and in this book, “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals” (1872).

In “The Expression of Emotions” Darwin’s main aim was to show that humans are not separate from animals. He shows the origins of human facial expressions in the animal world, and he argues that human expressions are innate and universal (the same in all cultures).

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Darwin’s ideas. But in my view it is not Darwin at his best. It has been pointed out that there are two main weaknesses in the book. Firstly, Darwin focuses mainly on the emotional roots of facial expressions and says too little about the role of expressions in communication.

Secondly, despite having developed the revolutionary (and correct) theory of natural selection as the mechanism for evolutionary change, Darwin mistakenly allowed a subsidiary role for the Lamarckian idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. This book is unfortunately full of examples of this latter idea.

In recent decades the book has also featured in controversies over the so-called “nature versus nurture” debate. Social anthropologist Margaret Mead argued that human facial expressions are learned, not innate, and that they vary from one culture to another. Psychologist Paul Eckman, on the other hand, says that Mead has been proved wrong and that Darwin was correct in saying that human facial expressions are the same in all societies, reflecting their evolutionary and genetic rather than cultural origins.

But even if Ekman is correct on the specific issue of facial expressions, this does not mean that we can explain all other aspects of human behaviour primarily in genetic terms, as biological/genetic determinists claim. Ekman says that both nature and nurture play a part in determining human behaviour, which is clearly true, but he himself actually seems to lean much more towards the “nature” side. In fact he has claimed that “Darwin led the way not only in the biological sciences but in the social sciences as well.” Ekman seems to be using Darwin’s “Expressions” book as a stick with which to beat those who put forward social explanations of human behaviour.

In fact it is not just social scientists who argue that we cannot explain all human behaviour in biological terms. Evolutionary theorists like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin also show that humans have evolved to be creatures which, because of their large brain, are very flexible in their behaviour. The result is that much of our behaviour (though perhaps not our facial expressions) is learned and therefore the result of social factors and interactions.

I am a great fan of Charles Darwin, and Darwin may well have been right about facial expressions being largely innate, but we should not try to use Darwinism to explain our society (and its problems).

Phil Webster.


The Expression Of The Emotions In Man And Animals
The Expression Of The Emotions In Man And Animals
by Charles Darwin
Edition: Paperback
Price: 11.80

4.0 out of 5 stars Darwin on Facial Expressions, 26 Jan 2014
When Charles Darwin in 1859 finally made public his theory of evolution by natural selection in "On the Origin of Species", he avoided writing about human evolution, except for saying that "Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history."

But by the early 1870s he felt confident enough to openly discuss the evolution of humans from animals. He did this in "The Descent of Man" (1871) and in this book, "The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals" (1872).

In "The Expression of Emotions" Darwin's main aim was to show that humans are not separate from animals. He shows the origins of human facial expressions in the animal world, and he argues that human expressions are innate and universal (the same in all cultures).

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Darwin's ideas. But in my view it is not Darwin at his best. It has been pointed out that there are two main weaknesses in the book. Firstly, Darwin focuses mainly on the emotional roots of facial expressions and says too little about the role of expressions in communication.

Secondly, despite having developed the revolutionary (and correct) theory of natural selection as the mechanism for evolutionary change, Darwin mistakenly allowed a subsidiary role for the Lamarckian idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. This book is unfortunately full of examples of this latter idea.

In recent decades the book has also featured in controversies over the so-called "nature versus nurture" debate. Social anthropologist Margaret Mead argued that human facial expressions are learned, not innate, and that they vary from one culture to another. Psychologist Paul Eckman, on the other hand, says that Mead has been proved wrong and that Darwin was correct in saying that human facial expressions are the same in all societies, reflecting their evolutionary and genetic rather than cultural origins.

But even if Ekman is correct on the specific issue of facial expressions, this does not mean that we can explain all other aspects of human behaviour primarily in genetic terms, as biological/genetic determinists claim. Ekman says that both nature and nurture play a part in determining human behaviour, which is clearly true, but he himself actually seems to lean much more towards the "nature" side. In fact he has claimed that "Darwin led the way not only in the biological sciences but in the social sciences as well." Ekman seems to be using Darwin's "Expressions" book as a stick with which to beat those who put forward social explanations of human behaviour.

In fact it is not just social scientists who argue that we cannot explain all human behaviour in biological terms. Evolutionary theorists like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin also show that humans have evolved to be creatures which, because of their large brain, are very flexible in their behaviour. The result is that much of our behaviour (though perhaps not our facial expressions) is learned and therefore the result of social factors and interactions.

I am a great fan of Charles Darwin, and Darwin may well have been right about facial expressions being largely innate, but we should not try to use Darwinism to explain our society (and its problems).

Phil Webster.


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