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M. D. Holley (Kent, UK)
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Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival
Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival
by David Pilling
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A world apart, 29 Jun. 2015
Here is very readable and enjoyable portrait of contemporary Japan. How fascinating to encounter a society that is so different from the rest of humanity. Pilling uses his journalisitic skills and personal experiences and anecdotes to make this much more than a dry and dusty academic text.

Whilst he obviously has a lot of affection for Japan, he is remarkably even handed, highlighting the negatives as well as the positives, and this tends to give the book credibilty. He is very sure footed on the ecomomic debate, without ever being dogmatic. When encountering a mind set that is so different from our own there is much we can learn. So it is good that the book has a very wide range, from history, to beliefs, politics, the role of men and women and to economics. I especially enjoyed his discussion of Japanese ideas of God, which was very mind broadening.

Two very small criticisms: I felt there was occasionally a little too much weight to the politicians who happened to be prominent during Pilling's years in Japan (readily available material I suppose, but it perhaps unbalances the book). Also, Pilling is on slightly unsteady ground when discussing the lack of Japan's apology for its actions during World War 2. As only one country (Germany) has shown formal remorse, Japan is in relatively good company, and I am not sure how much this unsurprising fact tells us about Japanese society.

I came away from the book with a strong desire to find out more, and to go and visit. Highly recommended!


The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District
The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District
Price: £7.99

2 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The Angry Shepherd, 17 Jun. 2015
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I admire James Rebanks and the work that he does. I bought this book because I wanted to understand more about sheep farming. And indeed this book taught me a lot. It makes one realise how much is going on behind the scenes in the countryside, unseen to the casual visitor. I also was intrigued by the many parallels between the type of work Rebanks does and the world of work in other professions.

Rebanks has an excellent way with words and his descriptions of the lakeland fells are highly evocative.

However I also came away with a rather uncomfortable feeling. It seems that James Rebanks holds me in utter contempt. My crime? By accident of birth I was born in the South of the UK, and even worse my parents were not sheep farmers.

And here is the book's fatal flaw. It is not necessary to condemn as unworthy 99.99 percent of the human population in order to demonstrate the value of a shepherd's life. James Rebanks displays a very unattractive intolerance throughout the book.

And yet were it not for people like us, the 'great unwashed', who would he sell his food products to? How then would his way of life continue?

I think it is rather sad when people fail to respect each other, and feel disappointed that this book has become so popular. We really need to stick together!

Finally it remains for me to comment that while the book is generally well written, it can be a little repetitive at times and might have benefited from better editing to correct the occasional grammatical error.


The Vital Question: Why is life the way it is?
The Vital Question: Why is life the way it is?
by Nick Lane
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Why do we grow old and die?, 30 May 2015
This magnificent book really helped me to understand life much better. Nick Lane was able to hold my interest without ever discussing any life form bigger than an amoeba, which is quite an achievement.

If you want insights into what life actually is, into why we age and die, and on the origins of sex, this is the place to turn. For the first time I feel I properly understand the difference between prokaryotes and eukaryotes. The concept of the three basic families of life (bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes) has finally settled in my mind. And finally, I realise what mitochondria are too. So lots of words and concepts that I had read about before without understanding them have clicked into place.

There are some weaknesses though. Nick Lane does not write about science as well as some. He uses too much jargon for someone with a life outside his field to follow, and there were many passages that I did not understand.

Secondly, he does rather have an obsession with the role of energy in biology. This yields many fascinating insights (like the idea that the energy difference across your cell walls is stronger than a bolt of lightening). And perhaps his obsession is understandable as it seems to be Lane's specialism. However, it leads him to lose balance and to over simplify things. Surely energy considerations alone cannot really explain life, the universe and everything!

Still, a wonderful book and a major step forward in the understanding of life. Highly recommended!


Not Forgetting The Whale
Not Forgetting The Whale
by John Ironmonger
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.39

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful read, very original and quite quirky, 9 May 2015
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A wonderful read, very original and quite quirky. Plenty of humour too, and refreshing that we meet a cast of of nice (if flawed) characters along the way - just like real life.

The author brings some deep insights into the state of our world in a very gentle and un preachy way. A lot of research must have gone into this.

Until about nine tenths of the way through I was thinking this was a five star book, but I found the ending just a little too saccharine and Hollywoodesque for my tastes. Still, the truth is I really enjoyed nearly all of it.

Recommended!


Triumph of Seeds
Triumph of Seeds
by Thor Hanson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and wide ranging, 9 May 2015
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This review is from: Triumph of Seeds (Hardcover)
This is outstanding! Don't be misled by the somewhat unassuming title. This is wide ranging, informative, full of humour and very readable.

We learn the amazing story of the seed of an extinct type of fig found in the ruins of Masada, which blossomed into a tree after nearly 2000 years of dormancy. About how the seed (bean) of coffee unlocked the enlightenment. Why rats can gnaw through concrete. And how to kill a spy with a poison umbrella, laced with seed extract.

On the way we have insights into the nature of life (in what sense was the 2000 year old fig seed alive - did it have any ongoing metabolic processes all that time?). We learn a lot about symbiotic co-evolution. Have seeds domesticated humans in the way that they have manipulated many other species? There is the intrguing tale of why seeds contain active ingredients like caffeine. Why do peppers taste hot, and why do all other animals find pepper unpleasant to eat but humans love it?

Hanson has a very original mind, and he is very well read. Throughout he demonstrates wonderful powers of story telling.

Highly recommended


Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now
Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now
by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.91

8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Uncompromising is not always the quickest way to go, 27 April 2015
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This is very powerful stuff, and much of it is along the right lines. It feels really good to read, and gives quite a buzz. But I can't help thinking that some of the author's rhetoric, while being wildly popular with people like me (see the adoring and sometimes smug Amazon reviews already submitted by westerners) may actually be counterproductive.

I fully agree that the violence comes directly from Qu'ran itself. Those western politicians who state otherwise are not being completely truthful. But sometimes, in politics and in conflict resolution, the best way to achieve your goal is indeed to step around the truth.

The author is consistently wrong about one thing: she repeatedly portrays Islam as somehow uniquely flawed compared to other religions. I was raised as a fundamentalist Christian and, based on my own experience, there is no area where Islam is more repressive, violent or extreme than the Christianity of the Bible. In fact the similarities between fundamentalist Islam of the author's own upbringing, and the fundamentalist Christianity of mine, were astonishing to me. By mistakenly portraying Islam as somehow uniquely different, the author is in danger of misdiagnosing the problem.

Once we acknowledge that Islam and Christianity (in their original forms) just about match each other in their attitudes to intolerance and violence, we can start looking for solutions. We can test peaceable Chistian organisations (say, the Chuch of England) against the author's five theses. We would find that the theses fail this test, as peaceable Christians have not, in fact, acknowledged openly that the Bible is full of intolerance and violence, or that Jesus' sayings should not be taken seriously. Instead we have a kind of collective delusion, where Christians falsely imagine their Bible to be full of love and benign attitudes. Main stream Christianity has moved so far away from the Bible that it is barely recognisable, and even the word 'Christian' has come to mean behaviour which is the opposite of that set out in the sacred text. The modern Christian position may not be rigorously coherent from an intellectual point of view, but the coexistence of the Church of England and a secular liberal society actually works!

Surely, rather than uncompromising head-on confrontation, with public recantations of the type Hirsi Ali recommends, we need a reformation that gently buries the nasty parts, allowing adherents of the religion to save face and quietly turn Islam into something completely different. Just like the process that happened with Christianity.

PS Or perhaps the process is not yet fully complete with Christianity - let's see how long before I get attacked by Christians for this review ;)
Comment Comments (13) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 30, 2015 9:49 PM BST


Sony SRS-X7 Wireless Speaker with NFC and Bluetooth - Black
Sony SRS-X7 Wireless Speaker with NFC and Bluetooth - Black
Price: £159.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Dreadful sound, 26 April 2015
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I bought this after giving up on my Sonos, because the Sonos would not play my high resolution FLAC files.

It was easy to set up, both on bluetooth and via wi fi to the computer. It is reliable; the battery works well and it is portable. It plays every file type I can throw at it.

But the sound is extremely lifeless and flat. I have had two cheaper Sony speaker docks in the past and they both dramatically outperformed the SRS-X7. The sound is certainly much poorer that the Sonos. I am even wondering if my example might be defective.

Either way I am going to have to buy yet another speaker dock. let's hope it's third time lucky!


Words Without Music
Words Without Music
by Philip Glass
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.90

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Humility personified, 25 April 2015
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I just couldn't put this down, and it ended all too quickly. Glass is an excellent writer of words.

Philip Glass is a very intriguing character. He must be one of the most determined of people. How else would he keep at it without any success until his early forties, living in virtual poverty, dismissed by the musical establishment and by his own parents, driving taxis and allowing his wife to work as a cleaner? He must have had huge self belief in the face of adversity.

And yet he emerges from the pages of this book as as the polar opposite of a Mahler or a Wagner - no huge ego or self obsessed bahaviour, but deep humility and an openness to collaborate with and be directed by others. Throughout, Glass is rather understated and modest in his writing.

I found it all incredibly inspiring, and an excellent example to follow - who of us has to work so hard and wait so long for recognition in our chosen field?

Through the book we meet an impressive cast of interesting people, places and ideas. Glass's discussion of music, and the connection between music and image, is also very insightful.

My only wish is that he had gone on longer and spent more time on recent years (most of the book is taken up with his years of struggle). But that's becuase I can't get enough of him.

Recommended!


The Buried Giant
The Buried Giant
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.00

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Less is more, 19 April 2015
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This review is from: The Buried Giant (Hardcover)
It was wonderful to enjoy the sheer craftmanship of Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel. Here is a true professional at work! There is not a word out of place.

Ishiguro has chosen a very straightforward, even childlike, way of writing, yet paradoxically the message is deep, and the characters spend most of the novel in a state of some confusion.

All of the characters come across as likeable and honest, yet terrible things happen under their watch.

There are no 'goodies' and 'baddies' as such, but there are certainly two sides fighting against each other.

Everything is superficially very wholesome, yet the outcomes are not happy ones - the ending is deeply moving and intensely sad.

It is a fantasy, but has echoes throughout of very real problems in the contemporry world.

I thoroughly enjoyed this highly original and gripping book. It is one of the best novels I have ever read. Ishiguro shows that profundity does not need to hide behind complexity, and that less is more.

Recommended!


Play It Again: An Amateur Against The Impossible
Play It Again: An Amateur Against The Impossible
by Alan Rusbridger
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars The book that has it all, 13 April 2015
I am not a Guardian fan but I really enjoyed spending time in Alan Rusbridger's company. He seems a very nice bloke, with a lot of humility. And he's got some really insightful ideas about life, and about the role of professionals and amateurs in contemporary life. What an inspirational work!

This is one of those rare books that has everything - it tells the story of an impossible battle against the odds; it is a diary; it includes some incredible politics (especially the News International story); we meet a cast of wonderful characters (from Condoleezza Rice to Murray Perahia to Gaddafi's son) and it has a lot to say about music.

The inclusion of the full score at the end was a good choice. I listened to the Chopin Ballade several times (I didn't know it before) so that it became the sound track to my life during the week I read the book.

But most of all this book is an inspiration. If Alan Rusbridger can do it, with his hectic life, then any of us can. There can be no one with a more demanding job than he. So I have booked my first piano lesson already. Wish me luck!


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