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M. D. Holley (Kent, UK)
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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

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Smiling through tears, 15 Jan. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
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: £10.39

2 of 3 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
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
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

1 of 1 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.


Me Before You
Me Before You
by Jojo Moyes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Complexity through simplicity, 30 Nov. 2014
This review is from: Me Before You (Paperback)
This book shows that it is possible to write in a very simple style, to convey some complex and deep messages, and to be popular at the same time - no small achievement!

Of course it is conventionally romantic and tragic (and why not), but there is much here that is very thought provoking. The twists in the plot are very unexpected too (the general direction is not unexpected, but the route through certainly is).

I particularly like the way Jojo Moyes is able to take opposing positions so very convincingly. She has a very rare talent for being able to put herself completely into the shoes of various disparate characters. There is no stereotypical good versus bad here.

There are many smaller details I admired, but I'll mention just one - the description of Lou's first classical concert was incredibly vivid and reminded me so much of my own first such experience, aged 17.

Producing something of quality in a very simple style is the ultimate challenge. It is much easier to shelter behind complexity. So this is a very impressive achievement.

Highly recommended to readers of every taste.


I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban
I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban
by Malala Yousafzai
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Insightful.clear and moving, 18 Nov. 2014
A wonderfully clear, insightful and well written book. As an author Malala runs rings around many of her more established contemporaries.

This is worth reading in its own right as a very vivid and moving story, which really captures the landscape of the Swat Valley, and of the characters involved.

Listening to her description of the way the Taliban gained popular support quite reminded me of methods and beliefs of certain populist politicians in Europe.

I could not quite agree with all her interpretations of the Qur'an (focus on all the nice parts and pretend the nasty parts don't exist), but her story does demonstrate that we should pay more attention to the silent majority of moderate muslims.

Recommended.


The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being: Evolution and the Making of Us
The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being: Evolution and the Making of Us
by Alice Roberts
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.59

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Audience participation unveils the meaning of life, 18 Nov. 2014
This book is inspirational on so many levels. It really gets you thinking about your own body. I read a lot of it on a long plane trip, and I am sure my neighbours thought I was mad, because Alice Roberts has a way of inducing active participation from her readers. So I found myself waving my finger in front of my face to find my blind spot; seeing how my shoulder blade slides around; squeezing my larynx (and nearly choking); saying eeeh and aaaah out loud to see where my tongue goes.

But the idea that we personally relive evolution in our own journey from a single cell to a fully formed adult is really fruitful, and helped me to understand much better how all forms of life are connected.

The detailed descriptions of how the embryo organises itself, and of the genes that drive this, are breathtaking.

I was continually amazed at the parallels between the developing human and developing fruit flies, worms, dogs and so on.

I think the fact that this is written by a woman who has just had a baby does make a difference, and I am not sure these insights could have quite come from a man. The book is extremely well written and easy to read. The illustrations (by Alice Roberts herself) are very clear.

Thoroughly recommended as one of those rare books that really helps to change one's understanding of life, the universe and everything!


The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall
The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall
by Mary Elise Sarotte
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Reads like a novel, 18 Nov. 2014
This is a thrilling account of the weeks leading up to the opening of the Wall. It is based on the personal experiences of the actual people involved. The voices of both sides - protesters and the authorities, are given equal weight.

The book is extremely well researched, and reads like a novel, with a tremendous build up of waves of tension. It is written with empathy, so that I actually felt quite sorry for the authorities who were grappling with so insurmountable a challenge.

Apart from the fascinating historical story, there are some serious lessons to be learned - that events are driven by local actors and cannot easily be driven by foreign countries; that the course of history is not pre determined and can take very unpredictable and surprising turns; that momentous events can happen by accident.

I have only one minor criticism, and that concerns some of the naive and rather shallow comments in the introductory pages. These comments (e.g. the implication that East Germans abuse their dogs, Russians are rapists, Berlin is uniquely militaristic, communism is inherently evil and so on) betray the fact that the author has been hoodwinked by western mythology. I fear she might have been deceived by East German propaganda too, had she been there at the time. Still, these lapses do not persist after page 11, and do not detract from an otherwise excellent book. To provide some balance in the face of simplistic prejudice, I would suggest to readers 'The Iron Curtain Kid' by Oliver Fritz, which is the best account of life in the DDR that I have found to date.

'The Collapse' is thoroughly recommended.


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