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G. Bache (Göteborg, Sweden)
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Bitter Glory: Poland and Its Fate 1918 to 1939
Bitter Glory: Poland and Its Fate 1918 to 1939
by Richard M. Watt
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well written and illuminating on an important subject, 1 Dec 2013
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The previous two reviews have described the details fairly well. Watt provides an engaging account of Poland's birth amid a series of wars in the aftermath of WWI, its attempts at parliamentary democracy up until 1926 (when governments replaced each other with alarming regularity), Piłsudskis coup and subsequent dictatorship until his death in 1935 ("authoritarian but not fascist", is Watt's summary), and then the "government of the colonels" up until the destruction of Poland in 1939.

He is sympathetic to Poland and its plight, and the gargantuan tasks facing it on its recreation in 1918, but does not hide from its failings either. His basic viewpoint is that interwar Poland achieved much internally in difficult circumstances (for example in literacy and in land reform), but pursued a foreign policy that was overly aggressive, often unrealistic and generally unwise. Dictator Piłsudski gets off relatively lightly, while Colonel Beck, who was responsible for foreign policy 1935-9, is roundly criticised.

Given that Poland and its fate was a major feature of the Versailles settlement at the end of WWI, and of course the scene of the start of WWII when it was attacked by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, the struggles of this short-lived state is a subject that ought to be better understood than it generally is in the West. This book is an excellent place to start, as it gives a credible and readable account that is free from an obvious axe to grind.


God's Playground A History of Poland: Volume II: 1795 to the Present: 1795 to the Present Vol 2
God's Playground A History of Poland: Volume II: 1795 to the Present: 1795 to the Present Vol 2
by Norman Davies
Edition: Paperback
Price: £34.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good introduction, but feels biased in places, 25 Nov 2013
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This book is, for the most part, fairly easy to read and provides a good introduction to the history of Poland. For the periods I knew nothing about (up to 1918) or not much about (after 1945) I found it useful. For the intervening period where I knew a little already, I found the book a disappointment.

For a start, 1918-39 was the one period under consideration when Poland was actually an independent country and hence had an impact on the wider world, and I felt this period deserved more than the one chapter it got in the book. It also struck me that the book often seemed to assume the reader had prior knowledge. Do you know what the BBWR was? OzON? These concepts are introduced well before they are explained. Do you know where Zaolzie is, and that when Davies refers in passing to its occupation, he is referring to the Polish invasion of Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of the Munich agreement in 1938? If the sins of Józef Beck have been "especially exaggerated", it would be useful to know by whom, and roughly what arguments they advanced, before being presented with Davies' counterarguments.

It feels in several places like Davies has an excessively pro-Polish perspective. This is perhaps natural given that he is married to a Pole and apparently lives there at least partly, but is worth keeping in mind. The book seems to have developed a semi-official status in Poland also, which he is proud to tell the reader about from within its own pages.

While he doesn't shy away from criticising individual Poles and Polish society when he feels it appropriate, in foreign affairs he seems to consistently take Poland's side, sometimes on what seem to me rather flimsy grounds. For example, the wars with the short-lived West Ukrainian republic and Lithuania, where in both cases there was a predominantly Polish city (Lwów and Wilno respectively) surrounded by predominantly non-Polish countryside. Rather than take the opportunity to point out the impossibility of drawing a neat border that respected "the self-determination of peoples", and regret the violent means by which these issues were "solved", he criticises the Ukrainians for "demanding their national rights in full and at once" and the Lithuanians for their "sorry obsession with the city of Wilno, in which hardly any Lithuanians were then living", without reflecting that similar criticisms could easily be levelled at Poland also.

He seems very keen to excuse Józef Beck, who largely determined Poland's foreign policy in the run-up to the Second World War. While it may be true that nothing he did would have made any difference, was invading Czechoslovakia and bullying Lithuania really the best thing to spend Poland's energies on in 1938-9? Davies assures us that this was done to "prevent encirclement by the Germans". I have thought for a while about what this could possibly mean, but am still at a loss. It seems to me that it gravely weakened Poland's international reputation, while making no military difference when the Nazi invasion did arrive a few months later.

As a final point, he has special ire reserved for British liberals, such as David Lloyd George, John Maynard Keynes and E.H. Carr, who had a mostly critical stance towards Poland and its deeds in this period. Rather than offering suggestions of why they might have developed such views, he instead chooses to place their statements about Poland alongside those of Hitler and Stalin, and suggests they should have considered "the company they were keeping". It seems you could do the same e.g. with statements by Churchill and Hitler about Bolshevism, and arrive at similar conclusions. I may consider myself thoroughly opposed to someone, but that doesn't mean I have a moral obligation to disagree with them on every single subject!


That Bloody Woman: A Biography of Emily Hobhouse
That Bloody Woman: A Biography of Emily Hobhouse
by John Hall
Edition: Paperback
Price: £17.74

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A well-crafted portrait of an amazing woman, 2 July 2012
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What was it possible to achieve as an enterprising woman 100 years ago? How about this for a CV:

- exposing the British concentration camp system in the Boer War to the wider world (and being forceably deported as a result by the authorities who would much rather keep it a secret)
- co-ordinating and carrying out relief work there, saving many lives in the process
- setting up a network of cloth-making schools in South Africa after the war
- interceding between Gandhi and the authorities in South Africa, helping to end discrimination against Indians
- resolutely opposing the First World War, including arguing against and influencing Gandhi, who was supporting the British war effort at the time
- personally travelling to Germany in an effort to broker peace and nearly being tried for treason as a result
- carrying out extensive relief work in Germany in the aftermath, again saving many lives

John Hall has rescued Emily from obscurity with this sympathetic but warts-and-all biography - he avoids the temptation to portray her as a superhuman saint and she may well have been someone who, in the words of her friend Ruth Fry, was "easier to love from a distance". The book is easy to read, well researched, and deserves a wider audience.


Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea
Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea
by Mark Kurlansky
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Easy read and well argued, 5 Jan 2010
I really enjoyed this book and most people should learn something here. The author traces the history of nonviolent resistance from ancient China up to the world we live in today and supports his arguments well with plenty of examples from history. One major aim is to debunk the "just war", with some focus on the American Civil War (which was not fought to free the slaves) and the Second World War (which was not fought to save the Jews).

What I missed was an examination of whether nonviolence could be an absolute position or whether there exist circumstances where violence is justified. I found myself agreeing with the author on most of the examples he explores but was left with a few unanswered questions. For example, whether internationally-sanctioned military action (e.g. by the UN) could be justified, and whether nonviolence really is hopeless against some opponents, for example those that view you as sub-human. In the Second World War, as the author argues, the Danes successfully rescued their Jewish population from the Nazis by concerted non-violent action but it seems doubtful to me if the Jews themselves would have succeeded doing this without the support of the wider population.


Anti-semitism
Anti-semitism
by Dan Cohn-Sherbok
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Important subject but poor writing, 26 Dec 2009
This review is from: Anti-semitism (Hardcover)
This book attempts to study anti-Semitism from pre-Christian times up until the present day. The author is himself a Jewish rabbi and this is therefore not a dispassionate account of the subject.

That could be forgiven, but the author repeatedly confuses anti-Semitism with criticism of Zionism or criticism of Judaism as a religion, when in a book like this I felt it was essential to keep these strands separate. The latter two may be distasteful to many Jews but are not the same thing as hatred of Jews as people.

Worse still is the fact that the book is not a good piece of writing and seriously needed a good editor. It repeats itself endlessly, some passages felt like the author had simply forgotten he'd already made the same point six pages earlier. While the subject matter meant this was always likely to read as a catalogue of woe, I'd rather have had more of a view into e.g. how Jews fared in the Muslim world than read a thirteenth account of a medieval Christian pogrom.

On the plus side, the book is an eye-opener to the all-pervasive nature of anti-Semitism in Europe over the centuries. But there are probably other books that can provide that.


Bad Science
Bad Science
by Ben Goldacre
Edition: Paperback

141 of 181 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Important and informative, but smug and disorganised, 4 Dec 2008
This review is from: Bad Science (Paperback)
I think this book is important and I'm glad I've read it. I certainly learnt a few things about medicine and the media from it. It's also easy to read and occasionally amusing. Unfortunately, I found the author self-important and smug, and the book's organisation chaotic. (No index!!!)

He has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about "humanities graduates". A very similar paragraph blaming them for many of the ills of media science appears several times in the book, and comes across as a personal prejudice rather than anything he has tried to measure and evaluate.

What's worse, he rails against their assumption that anything they don't understand must be easy to do, and then reveals that he doesn't understand the literary supplement in his newspaper, but it seems to him that the point is to refer to as many Russian authors as possible to show how clever you are. The world could do with more (*mutual*) understanding between the sciences and humanities and this is scarcely the way to build it.

It would be easier to form an overall impression of media health scares if he could separate out and play down hoaxes that have only occurred in the tabloids. The revelation that The Sun and The Daily Mail are economical with the truth when it doesn't suit the story is probably not news to most of the people likely to read the book. I personally am much more worried about the smaller number of cases where the broadsheets get it wrong. However, these are perhaps less easy to make fun of.

I would also link up the part of the book where he describes the ideal clinical trial and ridicules those who get it wrong with the part where he reveals that all trials are problematic and ridicules those who are too quick to criticise them over minor issues: it would then be easier to form a balanced impression of this subject.
Comment Comments (12) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 18, 2009 2:29 PM GMT


The Century of Warfare [DVD]
The Century of Warfare [DVD]
Dvd ~ The Century of Warfare
Price: £16.50

7 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Slightly old fashioned and lots of military detail, 9 Sep 2008
This review is from: The Century of Warfare [DVD] (DVD)
Disclaimer: I've only watched the first two episodes. But they didn't really make me want to watch the rest of it.

I found some of the explanation and use of language strange and it felt a bit old-fashioned. For example, it was claimed that the Ottoman Empire decayed because of a "lack of Turkish will" and no further comment was offered. The word "races" was frequently used to refer to different ethnic groups within Europe ("The ten races of Austria-Hungary").

There's some nice footage and a lot of focus on movements of troops and the nitty-gritty of warfare. For me this was a disappointment as I hoped for a higher level analysis of why the wars occurred. But if you like that sort of thing then this might well be a good buy.


The God Delusion
The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Everyone should read this - critically, 15 Oct 2007
This review is from: The God Delusion (Paperback)
I enjoyed this book, to the extent of finding it hard to put down. There is something compelling about the style somehow. I did, however, find it a rather uneven collection of arguments, of which some were convincing, some were convincing if you share his assumptions, and others just seemed like Dawkins himself hadn't thought about the subject.

The best part of the book is where he argues that shared ideas of morality do not in fact derive from literal interpretations of religious texts. This is of course an argument that has been made before but Dawkins makes the case especially well.

All the metaphysics kind of left me cold. It strikes me as the sort of thing that convinces you if you already have a basically materialist view of the world to start with. Sure, there might be parallel universes, but there isn't any scientific evidence for them so they have pretty much the same status as God for a strict empiricist.

I disagreed with him most strongly on the role of religion in politics, and particularly political repression. Others (e.g. Terry Eagleton at the London Review of Books) have taken Dawkins to task for his lack of knowledge of theology which I felt was a bit unfair. But I would suggest that if he wishes to insist that much recent repression (e.g that in Northern Ireland) has religion at its root cause then this subject deserves something vaguely resembling a historical analysis.

I don't think a sober historical analysis of (at least) the last 300 years would see religion as a major motivation in wars and other organised killing. Sure, religion is there, but for example colonialism, communism and particularly nationalism have played far more major roles. Religion has at worst entrenched conflicts that existed for other reasons.

The book ends with something of a crusade against the concept of the "Christian child", and argues against instructing children on religious matters. I sympathised to some extent, naturally it's a noble aim to teach children how to think rather than what to think. I do however view it as inevitable that parents' ideas will influence their children to some extent, and I missed a clear message to atheists to whom the argument surely applies equally. I don't find the concept of an "atheist 3-year old" particularly appealing either, and the evidence on richarddawkins.net's parenting forum seems to suggest that many atheists unfortunately do.


The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox: Mending the Gap Between Science and the Humanities
The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox: Mending the Gap Between Science and the Humanities
by Stephen Jay Gould
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An engaging read, if a little disjointed at times, 5 Sep 2007
Maybe the difference between me and the reviewers below is that I hadn't read any of Gould's other work before approaching this one. If this isn't his best then I'm certainly going to be reading more.

It's certainly true that it lacks polish and reads like a first draft. But I felt there were really solid ideas here and found much to agree with.

Gould has an eye for telling details and I found his style to be very readable. He is also well-read in a wide range of subjects, which, as he is quick to highlight in this book, is unfortunately rare among scientists. This means he also has a firm grasp of his subject matter here from many different angles.

And unlike the reviewers below, I found myself firmly agreeing with Gould in his intellectual battle with E.O. Wilson. That the humanities can somehow be "reduced" to science seems to me far-fetched. Gould makes an excellent case for why this is the case: some phenomena are "emergent" and cannot be predicted from analysis of their constituent parts, and many are simply contingent, "one-offs" that do not lend themselves to prediction and repeated analysis.


Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age
Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age
by Paul Graham
Edition: Hardcover

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very diverse - but mostly good stuff, 8 Nov 2006
Paul Graham is clearly a man with opinions. This collection of essays ranges from the trials of being a nerdy teenager (absolutely brilliant) to neo-liberal politics (definitely not my thing) to how to fix spam (interesting) to the merits of various programming languages (in case you're wondering, Lisp is the greatest...)

I'd recommend any programmer to read this book. He has a very different perspective to most modern writers and that's refreshing, though I don't always agree with his conclusions. He also writes very well and it's a good read.

Unfortunately I would guess that large sections of it are off limits to non-programmers: it's hard to buy a book when you're not going to get half of it. Even the supposedly non-techie chapters tend to throw in comments about (for example) static typing here and there.

Chapter 1 is a brilliantly insightful "nerd's eye" view into how secondary school culture works and everyone should read it (particularly anyone with an interest in teenage education).


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