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Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia
Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia
by Orlando Figes
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great starting point, inaccurate in places, 13 Feb 2013
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I am Russian. I liked this book for one very simple matter, it is sympathetic towards its subject matter.

Russia is a very different place from Britain, and generally British books about Russia tend to be written either with a view to condemn something or other or, at best from kind of a Marco Polo stance, one of an impressed and bemused outsider. What Figes tries and, in my opinion, for the most part succeeds in doing is to show how Russians view the core of their own history and culture.

The book mostly deals with what happened between mid 1700s and early 1900s. This is not surprising. For Russians, this period is what the Tudors are for the English - it's a period of time when both the modern language and the modern country took shape.

The reason why I'm giving the book four stars rather than five is that a small but significant proportion of the facts is just wrong. We are not talking about matter of opinion stuff - we are talking about easily verifiable things. One thing that lets Figes down quite often is that he doesn't seem to know the language all that well. In some cases he mistranslates/mistransliterates stuff or arrives at odd conclusions.

Still, this book gets a lot more right than wrong. It is well written, and Figes enthusiasm is infectious. If you want to learn what Russia is generally about, this is a good place to start.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 12, 2013 9:43 AM GMT


Nadi on Fencing
Nadi on Fencing
by Aldo Nadi
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.85

3.0 out of 5 stars Arrogant, wordy, dated, but not useless, 8 Feb 2013
This review is from: Nadi on Fencing (Paperback)
This book is intended to be an introduction to foil technique and tactics. Whether it is actually fit for this specific purpose is another question...

Aldo Nadi was unquestionably one of THE fencing greats. At the height of his competitive career fencing was a popular spectator sport, and this guy was in every sense a star - something like a cross between Roger Feder, David Beckham and Bruce Lee. During the Mussolini years, Nadi emigrated to the US, where he coached for at least a couple of decades. Surprisingly, his competitive success didn't translate into coaching success. None of his pupils achieved much outside the domestic US circuit (which, in those days, didn't amount to much). This book gives us a clue as to why: the guy was a too full of himself. The book is wordy, patronising and very inflexible in its approach. Because on Nadi's tendency to insist on just one acceptable solution where there are multiple, the book is technically finicky (not necessarily in a 100% "classical" way) and tactically lopsided.

Another serious criticism is that, for what is essentially a technical manual, this book is very short on pictures. The ones that are there are poorly labelled and not all that helpful (although very cool in an art deco sort of way).

Having said all that, this book is far from useless. It helped me a great deal. It did so in three specific ways:

1) Aldo Nadi was, in his own time, very much a MODERN fencer. His fencing style was pragmatic and innovative. He taught me how a fencer should think.

2) Like a lot of UK fencers, I was getting insufficient and inconsistent coaching from a relatively wide range of people. Nadi helped me see fencing technique as a coherent system rather than a jumble of "moves". I found a complete set of blueprints to work from - outdated and not very well suited to my needs, but precise instructions on how to build a valve radio are worth more than a few rough pointers on how to build an iPod.

3) This book made me focus on technical details. If this book has a central message, it is this: technique is important - get the little things right and the big things will click into place.

4) From the point of view of direct application, not everything in this book works (for me), but a lot of stuff does, and virtually everything can be transposed to pistol grip with minimal alterations.

TO SUM THINGS UP: I didn't like the style of this book - it's too arrogant and verbose. Not even Nadi had all the answers, and his answers certainly weren't the only ones possible. That said, this book is a pretty exhaustive description of one brilliant fencer's technical vocabulary. If you are a complete novice, give this book a wide berth - there's more readable stuff out there. However, if you have finished your beginners' course, bought your own whites and put up a rack for future trophies, this might help you to tidy the terrible mess in your head and teach you some neat tricks. Just don't take every word as Gospel - it's old, and it's just one man's take on things.


The Casual Vacancy
The Casual Vacancy
by J.K. Rowling
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 8.50

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Tolstoy does "Desperate Housewives", 6 Feb 2013
This review is from: The Casual Vacancy (Hardcover)
This is basically "Desperate Housewives" set in a provincial English town. A prominent member of the community dies unexpectedly. His death leads to a chain of events exposing all manner of embarrassing secrets, misunderstandings, and hidden conflicts. It all culminates in a shocking unforeseen tragedy.

In terms of the general feel, this is a meet-and-two-veg kind of book. The language is clear. The timeline is linear. The narrator is 100% reliable. There are no massive surprises. What you see is what you get: a God's eye view of a slightly chaotic but, in the final analysis, understandable and familiar world.

Casual Vacancy kind of reminded me of Anna Karenina. This is not intended as a compliment. I don't like Tolstoy. For starters, he was way too partisan. So is JK Rowling. Anna Karenina was Tolstoy's 800 page ode to a character who is basically him plus a diatribe on anything he did not like (secular liberals, clever women, agricultural machinery...). JK Rowling has skipped the ode and ended up with just 500 pages. Her politics are different, but the preachy feel is the same.

Weirdly, in this book with its overt left wing agenda, nature beats nurture hands down. People only change in response to cataclysmic events and even then grudgingly and in fairly marginal ways. Goodies stay good, baddies stay bad... Perhaps this is inevitable in a book which is basically a 500 page account of what happens in a small town over three weeks or so. Which raises another point: the story isn't really big enough or intricate enough to justify that kind of bulk.

There is another reason I don't like Tolstoy: most of his characters are stereotypes - a woman ruled by her passions, a self-centred young turner of heads (later a selfish middle-aged businessman), a well meaning but dim husband, a society schemer, a profligate bon-vivant, a long-suffering wife, an upright country gentleman, and so on. It's a play of masks - everybody does what they are supposed to do. But then one of the reasons Tolstoy *was* a great writer is that he was observant and conscientious enough to turn these hackneyed cardboard cutouts back into people. The same is, in my opinion, true here. The cast might as well have come from Little Britain: a socially inept teacher, an overbearing Asian mother, a psychopathic neanderthal father, a self-obsessed too-cool-for-school teenager, a permanently randy middle-aged buxom blonde, and more in a similar vein... And yet what you end up with is a lot more than a hammy soap.

FINAL VERDICT: The big question was, can JK Rowling do proper grown-up writing? For me, the answer is "No". She is a fantastic children's writer, and that's the mode she seems to be stuck in. Her world is too black-and-white, and her characters are too static and unambiguous. Because this is such a political book, it arouses a great deal of passion on both sides of the argument, which is why you get so many one star and five star reviews. Going on literary merit alone, Casual Vacancy is some way short of a masterpiece, but it is also far from rubbish - three and a half stars is about right. My guess is that, with its moral certainties, left wing politics, and plenty of swearing, this book will play well with teen readers. Fundamentalist Guardian readers will also love it. Conversely, hardcore conservatives will loathe it.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 12, 2013 3:24 PM GMT


Swashbuckling: a Step-by-Step Guide to the Art of Stage Combat and Theatrical Swordplay
Swashbuckling: a Step-by-Step Guide to the Art of Stage Combat and Theatrical Swordplay
by Richard J. Lane
Edition: Paperback

2.0 out of 5 stars Lacklustre..., 19 Jun 2011
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I bought this book together with 'Fight Direction for Stage and Screen' by Bill Hobbs (the guy who direct the swordfights in 'The Duellists', 'Rob Roy', 'Dangerous Liasons' and much else). Frankly, this is not in the same league.

This is Renaissance faire stuff. It rehashes a few well worn myths about "what it was really like", waxes on a bit about the mysteries of the sword, and makes some nebulous observations about what makes good theatre (on the level of a mediocre school essay). Surprisingly, there's a whole chapter on warming up - this is probably the most useful part of the book, but go to any decent martial arts club, and you'll learn all the same exercises within the first 20 minutes... In theory, I should have been the perfect target audience: I am, a fencer, a historical swordsmanship enthusiast, and a big fan of swashbuckling movies. Yet I found this book disappointing on all counts. It just lacks any kind of credibility. If you want to dress up in a doublet and role-play for a weekend, this book is adequate. For anything more than that it isn't. I've been lucky enough to have hung out with real-life stuntmen specialising in historical combat. This isn't the real deal.


The Master and Margarita
The Master and Margarita
by Mikhail Bulgakov
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars great book, great translation, 24 Feb 2011
This book has got to be one of the best in any language... A man in Stalin's Moscow writes a novel about Jesus. Satan turns up with a retinue of demons, among whom is a giant gun-totin' cat. Much havoc ensues. Pigs fly, choirs of bureauctrats sing folk songs, and lovers find happiness (sort of).

Social satire? Fantasy? Historical fiction? Religious fable? Romantic comedy? Existential tragedy? Yes. ...ish. It's a tough one to classify: a lot of labels fit it, but none quite describes all of it... Basically, if you want to know what Russian literature is about but can't be bothered to wade through the 19th century classics, read this - it distils much of what is best about it: the big questions, the sweeping romance, the darkly absurd and phantasmagoric sense of humour. You want "the Russian soul" - it's all there.

The book was first published in Russia in the early 70s and gained cult status pretty much immediately. These days it is very much part of the unofficial Russian canon, and many expressions have entered everyday language. What's it like to actually read? Well, despite having at least three or four core plot lines, this is a pretty tight piece of writing and, as Russian novels go, a comparatively short one - 384 pages. As far as the language goes - hats off to the translators! Bulgakov's language is dense, elaborate, and highly ideomatic. It's hard to translate, and there are plenty of crap translations about.This translation is the best one I've seen for getting across the unique music and atmosphere of the Russian original. That said, the original does expect a bit of an effort on the reader's part - but it's worth it. It really is one of those books where you get out what you put in.

Can I fault this book? Well, I suppose, Bulgakov is pretty partisan, and there are definitely good guys and bad guys. But then, maybe, in a book where Jesus and Satan turn up, that's to be expected.


Understanding Syntax 2nd Edition (Understanding Language)
Understanding Syntax 2nd Edition (Understanding Language)
by Maggie Tallerman
Edition: Paperback

0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars All round terrible, 31 Mar 2010
I've reviewed this book once before. In retrospect, three stars was way too generous. This is the only book I have ever actually thrown at the wall in disgust.

I've had to deal with a number of different textbooks in a range of subjects (my background is in physical sciences). I can honestly say that this is the worst university level textbook I've ever come across. Everything about it bugs me. It is badly laid out, wordy, poorly illustrated... It dwells needlessly on easy stuff, skims over the difficult stuff, fails to explain terms as they appear, deviates from commonly accepted definitions (remember this is supposed to be an introductory text)... It's true, this book is filled to the brim with examples in every language under the Sun. This feels like an attempt to disguise a burnt roast with extra fancy gravy. I'm afraid, this does not compensate for the poor quality of the actual meat. If examples are all you are after, then buy it. Otherwise, don't.


Rembetiko (Xarhakos)
Rembetiko (Xarhakos)

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Amazing music but not much else, 11 July 2009
This review is from: Rembetiko (Xarhakos) (Audio CD)
This movie appears to have something of a cult following, both in Greece and outside, so what I'm about to say will probably upset a few people: this is a mediocre movie saved by a great soundtrack. The plot has been done to death, much of the acting is in the Middle Eastern soap opera vein, and the whole thing is just too long (two and a half hours) - it aims for a portrait of an epoch but only manages a costume drama.

BUT the music is out of this world. Some of the songs make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. ...Plus Sotiria Leonardou is mighty easy on the eye. For those two reasons, four stars.


The Microwave Way to Software Project Management
The Microwave Way to Software Project Management
by Bas De Baar
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.95

4.0 out of 5 stars short and fun to read - good introduction, 2 Jan 2009
This is basically an introduction to project management. It is not perfect. It could be better edited (the text has a Dutch accent), it could be more attractive, and it could be more rigorous. I still recommend it to anyone looking for an introduction to project management, because it is short, funny(ish), and gives you a rough idea of what is what. It gives you enough to make more serious books less daunting.


Brilliant Project Management: What the Best Project Managers Know, Say and Do
Brilliant Project Management: What the Best Project Managers Know, Say and Do
by Stephen Barker
Edition: Paperback

13 of 19 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant it ain't, 8 Oct 2008
Like most people who buy this sort of book, I had stuff thrust upon me at work and had to quickly swat up on project management. I am big fan of short introductory books like the "for dummies" series. This looked similar, so I bought it.

To say that it's useles would not be fair. It does contain useful advice. Most of it is at the level of rudimentary common sense. If put clearly and succinctly, all of it would probably fit into less than 25 pages. The rest of this book is waffle.

This book is thin on substance and thin on entertainment value. It is singularly mediocre. There are many other books on project management which are both, more rigorous and more readable.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 5, 2012 8:39 AM GMT


The Art of Always Being Right: Thirty Eight Ways to Win When You Are Defeated
The Art of Always Being Right: Thirty Eight Ways to Win When You Are Defeated
by Arthur Schopenhauer
Edition: Hardcover

32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Short, easy to read and extremely useful, 3 Jan 2008
This is, basically, a short primer on rhetorics: how to come off best in arguments, irrespective of whether you are right or wrong. In fact, despite being close to 200 years old, it would quite happily fit into the "Idiot's Guide" series: it is concise, understandable, witty and of great practical use.

In some respects, this book reads a bit like "The Art of War". It is a catalogue of 38 rhetorical "dirty tricks", which include diversion, obfuscation, over-generalisation, mis-categorisation, false syllogism, personal attack etc., with short explanations (from a couple of sentences to 3-4 pages) and illustrative examples. It's all very easy to absorb, and you can easily finish the whole thing in a couple of hours.

There is some argument over whether this book was intended as an out-and-out satire. Undoubtedly, having a dig at the academic establishment was one of the things on Schopenhauer's mind, and much of the book is tongue-in-cheek. This does not make it any less useful. The underlying theme is dead serious: if you cannot recognise and counter-act sophistry and demagoguery, you will end up getting bamboozled into accepting and maybe even endorsing logically unsound arguments - at best losing face, at worst getting conned. This stuff should be taught in schools!
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 14, 2012 2:59 AM BST


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