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James-philip Harries "none of the above" (france)
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The Oval World: A Global History of Rugby
The Oval World: A Global History of Rugby
by Tony Collins
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars A dry pitch on a muddy history, 5 Jun. 2016
A breezy and easy read. The original rules made for a game that sounds really boring, so wives should count their blessings when husbands contest scrum penalties on the telly. The author is fairly good about the evolution of the rules (sorry, laws), less good on the evolution of tactics.

There are no tables. Lists may be dull, but condensing tour results, law changes, tactical innovations and so on would have freed space for more colourful quotation from contemporary sources. The points system has been fiddled with so often that's it's hard to work out, even for relatively recent matches, if a five point win is a crushing victory or a close match.

The book is unlikely to be superceded as history, however. It is fully comprehensive. Who knew they are so fanatical about the game in Madagascar?


The Curse of the High IQ
The Curse of the High IQ
by Aaron Clarey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.68

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Life's a bitch and then you die., 17 April 2016
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I bought this book on a whim. The academic literature on IQ is so extensive it's best measured by weight not pages, so I was ready for some heavy sociological lifting.

How wrong I was! According to Clarey, there's been no research on how bored, addicted, disruptive or selfish eggheads can be. High IQs, you see, have a special sensibility to boredom and frustration as well as an ability to disregard evidence that us plebs never experience. Despite being an economist and now motivational speaker to other smug mugs, Clarey has contempt for all but STEM subjects. (BTW, the E in stem stands for Engineering.)

But what's this? As the book (mercifully) ends, the reader realises that's it's just an unacknowledged rip off of the most famous speech in literature. (Go on, have a guess!)

I suppose if you're waiting for root canal work this book is worth a skim. Otherwise, the original To Be or not To Be is better, shorter and has fewer typos.


A Message from Martha: The Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and Its Relevance Today
A Message from Martha: The Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and Its Relevance Today
by Mark Avery
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars TOG 40, 7 April 2016
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The book begins informatively enough. The passenger pigeon declined from being the commonest bird on earth (apart, perhaps, from the domestic chicken) to absolute extinction in less than a century, the last bird, called Martha, dying in Cinncinnati zoo, nothwithstanding that the bird was quite easily raised in captivity. This is odd, because most persecuted species find a new lower population density. The passenger pigeon didn't.

And that's nearly all there is to say. So Mark Avery embarks on the dreaded "journey". Apart from finding a few memorials and old nesting sites there is little of interest here. And please Authors, we are really not interested in the quality of the wi fi in Mid-West motels or the breakfast waflles at roadside diners.

After some more irrelevant birding in the US Avery returns to England and has some more conversations with local farmers and conservationists, not about the passenger pigeon.

This book, which could have been an interesting 50 page monograph, is padded out to 300 like an overstuffed duvet. By the end I was ready to shoot Martha myself.

Finally, we get the pathetic fallacy, as Martha addresses the reader directly. This is emetic stuff. My response is the same as Nature's. Adapt or die.


Constant Battles: Why We Fight
Constant Battles: Why We Fight
by Steven Le Blanc
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

4.0 out of 5 stars The scorpion and the frog, 24 Mar. 2016
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Steven Le Blanc takes a sledgehammer to the notion of the Noble Savage. Using a wealth of examples from history and pre-history he argues that warfare is the natural lot of man because man is bad at conserving resources. Resource scarcity, whether provoked by man or climate, fosters competition, which manifests itself in group conflict.

The endless list of gruesome tales proves Le Blanc's point. Indeed, to my mind it overproves it. The sheer cruelty meted out to losers cannot be justified on any metric of deterrence or punishment. Who needs to prove a point once you have massacred a whole tribe?

Mankind's violent history, to judge from the examples, not the argument, of this book, remind me of the tale of the scorpion and the frog. The scorpion hitches a ride to cross the river. Midstream, the scorpion stings. "Why did you do that? Now I will die and you will drown." wails the frog. "Because I'm a scorpion."

If you doubt that man is a scorpion take a look at the successors of Alexander the Great. From minor Macedonian nobility these guys became undisputed rulers of Egypt, Palestine, Persia or similar rich provinces. Yet they continued to battle each other even when they had achieved unparelled wealth and power. These were tough hombres, some of them remained field commanders into their seventies, spurning the decadent luxury their deeds had earned them.

Resource scarcity is an important driver of conflict. But it's not the whole story.


The Confidence Game: The Psychology of the Con and Why We Fall for It Every Time
The Confidence Game: The Psychology of the Con and Why We Fall for It Every Time
by Maria Konnikova
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.39

1 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars One born every minute, 9 Feb. 2016
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The anecdotes of how people get (got) stung by conmen are more interesting than the academic psychology the author uses to "explain" the cons.


The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science: Costa Winner 2015
The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science: Costa Winner 2015
by Andrea Wulf
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Who was the man all those things were named after?, 9 Feb. 2016
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A good account of a giant of nineteenth century science. Humbolt combined an enormous range of interests with a meticulous eye for detail.

Humbolt regarded nature as essentially cyclical, which is why he missed Darwin's and Wallace's great insight. The author maybe overeggs his influence on later science, but that is forgiveable in a book which restores a great scientist to the pantheon.


This is London: Life and Death in the World City
This is London: Life and Death in the World City
by Ben Judah
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.90

4 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Puts the UGH in the London boros, 9 Feb. 2016
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Judah has visited and talked to the inhabitants of the worst parts of London. Catford, Edmonton, Park Lane, Belgravia, White City, Neasden, Plaistow; the author cannot be faulted for his diligence in turning over the stones and letting them speak.

But, oh, the style:
"They trundle on to the playground swings on Shepherd's Bush Common,where heavy traffic spins round a dystopian mockery of an English country green. Flanked on one side by a bad-breath Edwardian parade of craggy roofs and sooty gothic lintels, where over the grass... four enormous council estates sulk like milk cartons..."

The book seems to be trying to outdo Martin Amis, and is (of course) the worse for it.

Apart from the dollops of local colour I doubt Londoners will be much surprised by this account. They read the newspapers, appreciate the Nigerian nurses, litter pickers on the underground, and so forth.

Where the book would be useful is for aspiring migrants, who would learn:
1. It is always raining, or has recently rained. (Judah's a great one for the pathetic fallacy.)
2. You need a strong network to help you find your feet.
3. Having no English or valuable skills is disastrous.
4. Overstaying a student visa, or being illegal means you will be exploited. Forget minimum wage.
5. Even people from your own community will rip you off.
6. Drugs are everywhere, and can lead to your death.

Most migrants fail, and many want to return home. Someone should help them.


Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe
Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe
by Simon Winder
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Great bores of Mittel Europa, 6 May 2015
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The Hapsburgs were the most successful family of the second millennium. Through strategic marriage they acquired vast territories, most of them indefensible wastelands. This is the history of the slightly less worse branch, the Austrian one.

To preserve this inheritance they routinely married their cousins, with predictable results. One empress called the emperor "uncle" throughout their happy and fruitful marriage because ... er ... he was.

Not surprisingly the duty to provide an heir hangs heavy, and the only juicy sex scandal is ignored. The author bimbles around dusty museums and mad, crazy, demented architecture (adjectives used far too often - where are the pictures?) but in the end it doesn't work, Whatever the dementedness, craziness, etc the truth cannot be hid. The Hapsburgs were a strikingly dull lot. Parade ground martinet follows Catholic bigot and vice versa over centuries and they all seem much of a muchness.

Simon Winder has had a heroic stab at making this book interesting, and has bravely omitted biography of the even duller emperors. But I challenge any future reader to finish this very long book without a sigh of relief.


Londongrad: From Russia with Cash;The Inside Story of the Oligarchs
Londongrad: From Russia with Cash;The Inside Story of the Oligarchs
by Mark Hollingsworth
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.83

3.0 out of 5 stars The Russians are coming...to hide their money, 2 May 2015
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A cuttings job, and now a bit out of date. Quite interesting though.


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: £13.24

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From Houndsditch to Canterbury, 2 May 2015
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My favourite book of the year so far. We know quite a lot about Chaucer the not very successful, not very corrupt, not very senior clerk. We wouldn't bother to know about him if he had not been a brilliant poet who revolutionised both poetry and narrative.

Strohm constructs the bridge between the King's man bureaucrat and the poet. Before losing his job, Chaucer wrote, but probably for a small private audience, and his works would not have survived. Chaucer's London is brilliantly evoked, so that we can almost see and hear the sights and sounds of Richard II's London. We are spared the smells but can imagine them; Chaucer had a tiny "grace and favour" home above a gate to the city, next to a ditch which was variously cess pit or stream where people threw dead dogs.

After losing his job Chaucer ditched the moralising authorial voice of official literature and gave the common people a voice. This act of ventriloquism is the beginning of great English literature.

Two small criticisms.
Generations of schoolchildren have been introduced to Chaucer via the Nun's Priest's Tale. It's not the best (and not a patch on the Miller's Tale if you're a schoolboy). Do children still have to start here?
Modern poetic translations of Chaucer (even Coghill) are pretty poor. If you give, in prose, the gist of what Chaucer is saying and then let the reader get on with reading the poetry the meaning is surprisingly easy to grasp, and you get the poetics. Chaucer's English is not that far from our own.

It would be too much to claim Chaucer as the father of modernity, English poetry, and all the other claims made for him. But his small brick in the wall made the rest - later poets, and indoor plumbing - possible.

A great read.


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