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M. D. Holley (Kent, UK)
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The End of Days
The End of Days
by Jenny Erpenbeck
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.08

2.0 out of 5 stars I have lost the plot!, 20 Feb. 2015
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This review is from: The End of Days (Hardcover)
It almost never happens that I give up on a book. Yet that is what I have just done. This novel has all the ingredients which I would normally like - an East German author, and eastern European perspective, and a highly original and intriguing plot.

Yet I have found it really hard going. To be honest I simply could not follow what was happenning in Book 3. I didn't know who was talking when or exactly where or when it was set.

I quite enjoyed Book 1 , but in Book 2, set in Vienna, I started to feel confused. Book 3 became almost completely baffling.

This is probably all my own fault, but on the other hand if I had found any of the characters true to life or sympathetic in any way then I would have probably persevered.

Sadly I can't recommend this.


Character
Character
by Bordewijk
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Insights into the Dutch character, 19 Feb. 2015
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This review is from: Character (Hardcover)
This novel is really unusual, and perhaps reveals some aspects of the Dutch character.

In some ways it is quite dark, and certainly very austere, but also incredibly inspiring in the way the main character overcomes all the odds.

The description of early twentieth century Rotterdam is very vivid.

The translation into English is not perfect (I had to re read several passages to understand them), but is serviceable.

Recommended, for something different.


The Poet's Tale: Chaucer and the year that made The Canterbury Tales
The Poet's Tale: Chaucer and the year that made The Canterbury Tales
by Paul Strohm
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.19

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Struggles to escape from academic writing style, 19 Feb. 2015
This certainly contains a vivid description of the sounds, sights and smells of fourteenth century London. I especially enjoyed the description of Chaucer's work supervising wool exports. The explanations of the various scams going on in this industry are excellently done.

There are some aspects of this book I found frustrating. Ironically for a book about a great figure in literature, it is not especially well written. I am sure Chaucer himself would have been horrified to encounter such a stuffy and academic text. When I started reading, I had just finished a book by two quantum physicists, yet they proved to be far superior writers of English than Paul Strohm!

So while this book is quite enjoyable, it never reaches its full potential. I was reminded of how some of my weaker school teachers managed to make Shakespeare, or classical music, seem boring, when they could have been instilling a sense of wonder.


Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology
Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology
by Jim Al-Khalili
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.60

5.0 out of 5 stars Popular science at its best, 9 Feb. 2015
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This is astonishingly well written! Quantum mechanics is not an easy subject, but these authors make it so!

Much of the material in here is really cutting edge - so much so that the authors have to leave many questions unanswered, and much remains speculative at this early stage. But it is a joy to be able to read of these exciting developments in a popular science book so close to the moment of discovery.

I especially enjoyed the chapter about smell - fascinating that unlike our other senses small is still not properly understood, and that we are born with a certain portfolio of smells ready 'downloaded' for us to use.

Although the book is primarily about quantum effects in biology, the authors have given a lot of thought to the relationship between the quantum world and the macro world in general. They set out these interconnections in the clearest manner I have ever encountered. In this sense, perhaps this book could even be used as a general guide to quantum mechanics.

It was good to see the authors exercising restraint and avoiding sensationalist claims, while still keeping the book really interesting.

Recommended!


Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You (About This Magnificent Life)
Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You (About This Magnificent Life)
by Kate Gross
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.99

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Smiling through tears, 15 Jan. 2015
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The author's circumstances enabled her to have a vivid, clear vision, in a manner which it is hard for the rest of us to achieve. As a result this book provides some fairly unusual insights. She provides a good example for the rest of us to follow in getting the best out of our circumstances.

I especially enjoyed the closing pages, which are rather humorous. The picture of Kate obsessively making her lists for the Afterwards brought a smile to my face.

Recommended


Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat
Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat
by Philip Lymbery
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.09

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Brash populism damages the cause, 8 Jan. 2015
Let me start by saying that I broadly agreed with this book's conclusions before starting to read it (indeed I go further - I am mostly vegetarian) so Philip Lymbery should be 'preaching to the choir' with me. And yet I found this book to be brash and sensationalist. I am not sure it is helpful to the cause.

The book contains very few arguments to support its case. Instead we get deluged with a very long list of selectively chosen 'facts' (not always accurate) and anecdotal stories. The problem is that it would be easy to blacken the reputation of any human organisation or activity with this type of approach, for all humans make mistakes. The 'facts' selectively presented don't really tell us very much, for better or worse, about factory farming or cheap meat.

Lymbery never acknowledges that there is another side to the argument. The sincerely held beliefs of millions of well educated, considerate people are simply dismissed, as if such people were either brain dead or otherwise completely corrupted by voracious greed. This is a pity, because if the opposing side were fairly presented, then the book could have offered the arguments to support its case.

The book is not well written. It is repetitive and rambling; the use of language careless and self indulgent. Lymbery has a loose tongue which is ever ready to throw out wild statements, yet I suspect many of the assertions have not been checked out (for example, page 201 contains the mind boggling statement that Argentina's economy has 'boomed'). Where figures or science are mentioned, these do not come across in a robust or trustworthy manner.

The chapter on GM crops is absolutely hopeless. Humans have eaten GM food for thousands of years. The only innovation is the method of genetic modification. A GM crop can be good or bad. And GM crops have little to do with compassion for animals, so what is this section doing in the book in the first place?

In the end this brash populism may be counter productive, for we need to be honest and admit that improving animal welfare will be difficult, costly and painful. The picture Lymbery paints - that it is really easy to improve matters, is simply misleading.

Finally, some good points. I did learn a little about modern farming, and I found the analysis of food labelling useful, so that I can be more aware of how the food I eat is produced.


Waking Up
Waking Up
by Sam Harris
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Gets you thinking about your brain, 28 Dec. 2014
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This review is from: Waking Up (Paperback)
There seems to be a trend of secularists reclaiming the good parts of religion, while leaving the bad bits behind. Why should religious people claim sole ownership of spirituality, after all? Sam Harris is here following in the footsteps of Alain de Botton (Religion for Atheists).

Compared to Alain de Botton, Sam Harris' focus is much more narrow, with meditation (in the eastern tradition) being virtually the sole subject of the book. On the other hand, Harris brings a rigorous scientific approach to bear, so much of the book covers technical considerations of consiousness and the workings of the brain.

I found all this very interesting, not having had exposure to Buddist style meditation before.

But it all seems a little narrow. As I read, I realised that my brain does not work the same way as Harris' brain (unlike him, I do not think in words, via an inner conversation). Nor do I 'suffer' from mental restlessness in the way he describes. So while meditation might be an ideal form of spirituality for him, other people may repsond more to other forms - perhaps music or ritual or something else. This is the weakness of the book - Harris fails to acknowledge that the spirituality he describes is the one that suits him, and that other people's brains may work differently.

Still, it has opened up new possibilities for me, and as always Sam Harris writes beautifully.


Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
by Reza Aslan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fresh, unconditioned, viewpoint, 26 Dec. 2014
Aslan is an outstanding writer! For example, his description of a day at the temple is wondrous - it would be worth the price of the book for this passage alone.

It is probably impossible now to reconstruct the real Jesus with any accurancy. The information to do so simply does not exist. However, Reza Aslan probably has a better chance of success than most - because he was not brought up from a small child in a Christian environment. For those of us who were, we can read the texts but we don't understand, because our conditioning prevents us from seeing clearly.

Much of what Aslan tells us is based on the historical context of first century Palestine, and this approach yields many insights. I suppose one could argue that Aslan sometimes pushes and pulls at the evidence to make it fit his 'zealot' argument. But then again, most books about any subject do the same.

I recommend this book to all. It's not perfect, but at the very least it is always thought provoking and will enhance the understanding of any reader (except those whose minds are bolted firmly shut).


Why Evolution is True
Why Evolution is True
by Jerry A. Coyne
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well written summary, 26 Dec. 2014
This review is from: Why Evolution is True (Paperback)
This is a well written and easy to digest summary of the evidence for evolution. It achieves its aims elegantly.

Just a couple of comments. The first chapter is written in a way that is seemingly calculated to put off even the most wavering creationist. I wonder how many creationists have actually managed to read the whole book? This is a pity. One wonders if the frist chapter could be re written, with the help of a flesh and blood ex creationist, to lure in rather than to repel, its target audience.

At the conclusion, Coyne expresses the opinion that evolution has no implications, either good or bad, for society at large. It just 'is', he says. I don't agree. Social darwinism inspired some pretty horrible behaviour in the twentieth century. On the other hand, in the twenty first century, an appreciation of how inter connected all life is helps inspire the environmental movement. Finally an understanding of why humans behave the way they do can help construct a more moral society.

Recommended


Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary at War, 1914-1918
Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary at War, 1914-1918
by Alexander Watson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.40

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The missing pieces of the jigsaw, 24 Dec. 2014
I've always found it quite hard to understand the century I was born into, and this is not helped by a constant flood of misleading, cliché ridden and selective information in books and TV documentaries. It is regrettable that nearly every one amongst the avalanche of World War One books released this year serves to perpetuate the confusion.

In contrast this book is like a breath of fresh air, for it provides some of the missing pieces of the jigsaw. The Eastern European perspective is such an important part of the story, and that's what we get here. And the book has one incredibly rare and precious characteristic - it does not take sides.

The neutral stance enables the reader to have some sympathy with the German and Austrian perspective in 1914. But ironically it emphasises the stupid recklessness of some of the actions taken by both Governments later on.

A nice feature is that the author has researched a huge amount of material in the original language (I assume he is completely fluent in German). The inclusion of contemporary newspaper reports, for example, really helps to understand the mind set of the protagonists. It is good too that this is not a military history - most of it focuses on the impact of the war on society at large.

The book is not perfect. It is not very well written, and the author never really gets his arms round his material. So the book is rather jumbled and rambling. It takes quite an effort to finish. One could easily imagine other books covering this material much more eloquently. However, those other books do not yet exist, so I am giving Watson four stars for his invaluable service in uncovering this important material in English.


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