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S. Meadows (UK)

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Borders: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Borders: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Alexander C. Diener
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Crossing the borders of different disciplines, 3 Mar. 2014
Having been thoroughly hooked by the Very Short Introductions, this was one that I just happened to glance across while I was browsing. I can’t say that the subject was one that I have ever had a particular interest in, though the fact that a whole book (albeit a brief one) could be devoted to it did somewhat pique my curiosity.

It has to be noted that the book is very modern; so modern, in fact that I fear it may be out of date before too long. So if you’re thinking of reading it, please do so sooner rather than later.

Given that the book is about borders, there is a certain irony that in dealing the subject, the authors have had to traverse a number of disciplines including geography, politics, religion and commerce. Thus, the borders between these disciplines become blurred slightly. Certainly, they are not as firmly delineated as one might think. Yet, that is almost exactly the point of the book. The authors are quick to point out that even though you might pick up a map or an atlas and view borders between nations, or between districts or neighbours on a street, the ink & paper are more rigid than the borders they represent. Disputes occur all the time, some which are more prominent than others.

In discussing this, the authors do of course touch on the thorny issues related to the borders between Israel and Palestine. Here, they do tiptoe around some of the issues, but they are not overlooked entirely or ignored.

In writing this very short review I was trying to think who I would recommend the book to. In truth, I couldn’t think of anyone to whom this would be of particular interest, yet that might seem and unfair denigration. That does not mean that it will not be of interest to anyone. As with any VSI, it’s a quick read so will not take up too much of your time. It also comes armed with a very useful list for further reading, should you be inclined to carry on a new-found interest in the subject.

The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Terry Eagleton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A brief overview, 3 Mar. 2014
I picked this up on the off chance; it’s not a book that had been on my reading list, it was just a chance encounter. I have, however, been intending to catch up with some of Terry Eagleton’s writings, in particular his Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God debate which I have heard positive mumblings about.

From the outset, Eagleton acknowledges the potential difficulties in dealing with such a large subject; he also points out that he might not be the best placed person to answer it, given how he is not a professor of philosophy. However, this does not mean that he is poorly read or ignorant of a great many points of view, as any readers of this work will quickly come to realise.

Instead of trying to go through every major thinker over the last umpteen-thousand years and attempt to distil what they thought, what they got right or what they got wrong, Eagleton states that he is happy to take us on his journey with a light, sometimes frivolous touch. For a VSI, I think this was a very good approach to take, since to attempt to deal in total po-faced seriousness and with all due rigour necessary for a serious academic study would leave any author in great difficulty when trying to squeeze their summary down to 100 or so pages.

Light, though some of the tone may be, Eagleton doesn’t veer away from the darker thinkers, with his summary of the thought of Schopenhauer having the deepest impression on this particular reader. Covering, as he does, an approximate timeline from Aristotle to Julian Baggini, Eagleton does a remarkably good job. That said, those who are wanting to get a list of viewpoints will be a bit frustrated as Eagleton’s take is a bit more sophisticated than that. As a professor of English, his primary concern seems to be semantics. So most of the book is ostensibly a discussion of the word “meaning” and what they may or may not denote. It is within this discussion that he touches upon a variety of viewpoints, religious, non-religious and anti-religious.

This may frustrate some readers, particularly if you are looking for a thorough exposition of a wide variety of viewpoints; there just isn’t enough room for such a study. Rather, take it for what the series is: a very short introduction. There is a reasonable ‘further reading’ list at the back of the book, so you can explore some viewpoints in greater depth.

Eagleton presents things from his own point of view, at times, probably due to brevity, over-simplifying. For example, I noted that he speaks of ‘religion’ but he doesn’t express a particularly nuanced view, to the extent that some generalisations are a little misleading. In terms of what he set out to do, however, he has done an admirable job and I’d happily recommend this to someone who is gently looking at the question of the meaning of life, perhaps to take with them on holiday, to read whilst at the top of the mountain. On second thoughts, given some of the nihilism present therein, maybe taking it to such a peak may not be advised. Maybe read it somewhere where any temptation to follow through with the occasional bleak outlook will be lessened.

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HTC Wildfire S Battery
Offered by Modern-Tech
Price: £4.59

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Short battery life, 18 Nov. 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: HTC Wildfire S Battery (Accessory)
I bought this as the battery my phone came with had ridiculously short life. Unfortunately, this was no better. Neither battery would ever charge up to 100% and would discharge after around 2 hours of use. So I would have to charge both batteries as much as possible and carry the spare with me, just in order to have enough power to last the day.

Dogmatics in Outline (SCM Classics)
Dogmatics in Outline (SCM Classics)
by Karl Barth
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb summary of theological thought, 14 Oct. 2013
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Anyone who ever looks at theology these days cannot help but notice the shadows of certain figures looming large over them. Arguably, fewer of these are more prominent than Karl Barth. His Church Dogmatics is often cited as one of the greatest works of 20th century theology. It is, however, extremely long and, I might add, rather expensive. So in order to attempt to get to grips with Barth's theology, I have had his Dogmatics in Outline on my radar for some time. In this book, which is comprised of transcripts of lectures he gave in Germany, just after the Second World War, he condenses his magnum opus into a little over 140 pages, going through the Apostles' Creed, phrase by phrase.

Before he begins in earnest, though he gives us an outline of his plan, as well as some very useful discussions on the nature of faith. One must not think, though, that because the book is short that it is straightforward. It's very dense, particularly the early chapters. I think I could re-read the first 30 pages over and over again, get something new out of them every time and yet still not fully grasp the breadth of the vision that Barth was expounding.

As he moves on to look at the various bits of the Apostles' Creed, it does become a bit more accessible. Though that may be because I had, by that time, adjusted my reading to suit the cadences present in the text. In many ways, it is particularly hard for me to summarise what Barth's theology is, because what became clear is how much of an influence he has been on the leaders of the churches I have been a part of. That is, I view my own beliefs as being fairly orthodox and there is very little in this book that is vastly different from the teaching I have largely grown up within baptist, pentecostal and other nonconformist churches. It was then merely a very well-articulated series of sermons in the same vein that I have listened to in each of the last 4 decades.

As I was reading through it, I found myself wondering if his theology was the pinnacle of `pre-critical' thinking. Though there are plenty of theologians before him who have had similar views (I think here of the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther & Calvin), Barth was a contemporary of Bultmann, who is one of the others whose shadow across modern theology cannot be ignored. The other figure I thought of was A.W. Tozer. Though the latter was not as theologically astute as Barth, I sensed a similarity in their approach to, and view of, the bible. Interestingly, though, Barth does not go so far as to make any sort of claim to inerrancy, but he does insist on the bible being front and centre of how we understand the christian faith. Though Bultmann is barely alluded to, there is a distinct air of defiance against Bultmann's school of thinking. For my part, though I would lean towards Barth's point of view, I would pay more attention to biblical criticism than is evidenced here.

Barth warns at the outset that this is meant to be a careful look at what the church should be and be for from the perspective of those who are part of the church. It's not a book I would recommend to a non-christian, that's not the target audience. But for anyone wanting to read a book of pretty solid theology, then this is an excellent place to start.

Thinking in Numbers: How Maths Illuminates Our Lives
Thinking in Numbers: How Maths Illuminates Our Lives
by Daniel Tammet
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.52

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More about the mathematician than the maths, 11 Oct. 2013
This was by no means one of the books that I had ever intended to read. I'd never heard of the author nor had this particular book been recommended to me. I found it whilst perusing the science section. The title alone was good enough to make me take a closer look, after which I thought this was worth paying a little bit of money for.

The book is written as a series of short essays, seemingly distinct and with little to no overall narrative to it. So it's a good book to have lying around that can be picked up, read for 15-20 minutes and put down again.

It covers a variety of topics from Tammet's point of view. It must be noted that Tammet (not his real name, he changed it to `better fit' his identity) is described as a high functioning autistic savant. In short, he's a really clever chap. Now I've come across one or two in my time and have been able to hold my own against them in some intellectual challenges. However, they usually get the upper hand on me and I can't quite emulate their speed or agility of thought, which I admit has been a cause of some chagrin from the age of 17 onwards.

So it was with some relish, and a little touch of rivalry, that I wanted to get to see the world through such a savant's eyes. In many respects, what I was reading seemed to be the account of a more articulate version of myself, with the only difference that Tammet views numbers as colours. I knew several in the maths department at university who did this, but I always think in terms of `complements' - i.e. what number would you need to add to make a round number? So if someone says 7, I think 3. If they say 83, I think 17.

I probably ought to confess that I finished this review a few weeks after reading the book, so I am relying a little on memory. While reading it, I found it quite fascinating, but a few weeks later the only things that really stick in my mind are the fact that he came from a very large family and a compelling account of his recitation of digits of pi. This last bit was especially impressive as it ran on for thousands of digits and the recitation took several hours to complete.

The book will be of note to anyone interested in maths or to those who are keen in trying to understand how other people tick.

Calvin Klein One Shock Him Eau de Toilette - 100 ml
Calvin Klein One Shock Him Eau de Toilette - 100 ml
Price: £18.95

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It smells nice, 16 Sept. 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Ummmmm.....yeah. Not sure what more you can really say. It's not overly musty; a couple of squirts gives a noticeable, but not overpowering aroma and it lasts for most of the day.

Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir
Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir
by Stanley Hauerwas
Edition: Paperback
Price: £19.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A very thought-provoking insight, 10 Sept. 2013
Stanley Hauerwas is a name I'm not terribly familiar with, though I have seen him mentioned an increasing amount over the last few years. Yet I have still never heard his name mentioned out loud, so I remain unsure how to pronounce his surname. I had not read anything of his previously, though after reading this, I will be endeavouring to read a little more.

This is not a theological tome by any means, the subtitle was what caught me: A theologian's memoir. It seemed fascinating to me to get under the skin of someone who has spent their life studying theology to see what makes them tick, what influences they have had and to see how that has shaped their work. He opens by asking what it means for him to be Stanley Hauerwas.

To answer this question, he goes right back to his childhood in Texas, learning the bricklaying trade under his father's supervision. What may surprise some readers, it certainly surprised me, was that at times Hauerwas opts to maintain authenticity by using the rather coarse language of the building trade. As matter of fact as it might have been, one cannot help but think that Hauerwas encourages the reader to see a little metaphor for his later career as a theologian. In learning the trade, Hauerwas had to work in a time and place when racism was rife. Yet he was working as an equal alongside those who were marginalised, which may well have helped inform his later views. Though the coarse language aside, some of the other turns of phrase made me feel a little uneasy given their racial overtones.

What he doesn't set out to do is to give an itinerary of his life, though the places he visits do form an unobtrusive background. One of the major themes of the book is how Hauerwas dealt with the erratic behaviour of his first wife, all the while developing as an academic. Punctuated by reflective musings, Hannah's Child is a marvellous account of the behind-the-scenes workings of an influential writer and speaker. His love for his son radiates through the book, as does some of the anguish of dealing with psychotic episodes. For much of the book, one may feel overwhelmed looking at the names of writers and other academics that Hauerwas came across and worked with, each having an influence on him in one way or another. One could quite happily put together a reading list to last a few years based on those mentioned.

I cannot recommend this enough to you, whether you are familiar with Hauerwas or, like me, a novice. There is much to prompt one into thinking, not least about the question of what it means to be a christian. But it would not only be to christians that I would recommend this. To those who view religion with a critical eye, this may serve as a helpful insight to see how a theologian works and what it means to the individual.

The Book of Dave: A Revelation of the Recent Past and the Distant Future
The Book of Dave: A Revelation of the Recent Past and the Distant Future
by Will Self
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Not everyone's cup of tea, 9 Sept. 2013
I only managed to read this at the second attempt. First time round, I got a quarter of the way through before giving up, returning to it 2 years later. The main reason will be quickly apparent to anyone who picks it up. The dialogue of the book is spelt phonetically, in a sort of quasi-cockney vernacular, not wholly unlike one would imagine the script looked like for Dick van Dyke's character in Mary Poppins

The story is set in two different eras. The first is a sort of post-apocalyptic world where much of England has been flooded. There are few disparate Isles, each with their own population. Our story focuses on the inhabitants of Ham (which I think is meant to be Hampstead). The other is set in the late 20th and early 21st century, focuses on the life of a London taxi driver, Dave Rudman. Though it is not made explicit in the early part of the text, it may be inferred from it, as well as from this and other reviews you may read, that Dave wrote some words of advice to his son, who he rarely got to see, after a custody battle. These words of advice were found, many years later, after the apocalypse and have formed the basis of a new religion. So in short, it is a satire about both religion and the banality of modern life.

The pace of the book is somewhat slow, with even the timelines of each story being non-linear, somewhat echoing One Hundred Years of Solitude. The other book that I could not escape analogy with was The Handmaid's Tale, as the back story which provides the backdrop is only slowly revealed, almost necessitating a re-read just so that you get the background first and then the `real' plot second. But Self is content to muddle the two up. It just about works. Just.

But what's all about, really? Well, once you dig through the language and some of the more turgid passages, there are a couple of worthwhile stories to be discovered. One of these stories is that which looks at the nature of religious fundamentalism. The future society has based its rules on a single book that was discovered, regardless of its origins. It has developed its own traditions based not on anything truthful, but of the rantings of a mentally disturbed man on the wrong side of a bitter custody battle. Yet when he was better, he wrote a second book, recanting much of what said before. So what happens when this second book is later discovered, once the traditions of the first have been entrenched? Well, you can probably have a guess, but I'll let you have a read.

The other story is a critique of modern life in working class London. Or at least, how Self envisions the working class. At the time Self was writing this, Fathers For Justice were frequently in the news for their public stunts dressed as superheroes as they fought for equal rights when it came to custody of their children. The book follows the failed relationship that Dave has which ends up with him joining a Fathers For Justice type group (though it is not named as such, it is unmistakable) trying to get to know the Lost Boy and give him some fatherly advice.

As indicated above, it's by no means an easy book to get into. But once there, just how good or bad is it? Well, I'm glad I read it, though I don't think it's everyone's cup of tea, especially if you're offended by coarse language. If the idea of a London-centric post-apocalyptic world based on the rantings of a taxi driver appeals to you, then go right ahead.

Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity, and the Things We Made Up
Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity, and the Things We Made Up
by Francis Chan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.09

16 of 23 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An exercise in how not to do theology, 6 Sept. 2013
I read this in the hope of understanding a little more about the theology of hell. I would assume that's probably why you're reading this review. The book is predominantly written by Francis Chan, as is stated fairly early on. Preston Sprinkle did some more of the research that went into the book, but Chan's voice is the one that dominates the narrative.

The opening of the book is an odd mixture of both the sound and the conservative. The authors seem cautious about embracing tradition for the sake of tradition, yet they also seem to make quite a lot of unjustified assumptions, such as biblical infallibility. What also emerges fairly early on is that this is largely, though not wholly, a reaction against Rob Bell's Love Wins. At the time of writing this review, I have not read Bell's piece, though I might recommend that you read that first.

The authors start out, then, by looking at the idea of universalism. They quickly come to the conclusion (if they hadn't already reached it before starting) that universalism is not an idea consistent with christian theology. However, they play a sleight of hand here, by use of the following piece of flawed logic:

A) Universalism stands in opposition to the traditionalist idea of hell as physical place of eternal torment and punishment.
B) Universalism is false.
C) Therefore the correct picture is that hell is a physical place of eternal torment and punishment.

Anyone who has studied logic will be able to tell you from the above statements that A & B, even if proved correct, do not logically lead to C. The authors seem to ignore this however and proceed onwards down what I think is a path that keeps good biblical study in sight, but at arm's length. I was then left reading the rest of the book thinking to myself, "you haven't dealt with X properly and you've ignored Y."

For instance, one of the aspects of a study of hell I was looking for was the use of certain terms. While their look at Gehenna is very interesting and threw in an angle I was previously unaware of (namely, that the earliest reference to it being a rubbish dump wasn't until AD/CE 1200). Yet they all too quickly jump, without reasoning, to interpret Gehenna as hell. Yet the treatment of Sheol is so brief it is shoddy, whilst Abaddon and Hades barely get a look in, particularly with the latter's link to Greek mythology being ignored entirely.

The tone of the book is incredibly patronising at times. Here's just an example: "How can I believe these passages yet sit here silently? I know some of you have faced this same conflict. Even as you're reading this, there are probably people within a few feet of you who may also be going to hell. What will you do? It could be that the Lord wants you to put the book down." With such annoying passages as that littering the book, I certainly couldn't recommend it to any non-christian friends. I would also hesitate to recommend it to any christian friends as it is far from a detailed, thoughtful exegesis on a highly important topic.

In writing what seemed to be a study with a pre-determined conclusion, the authors overlook or skim over many a passage that might put a dent in their point of view. For example, when they look at Romans 9, they completely overlook Paul's use of the word apoleia, meaning destruction. Instead, they carry on with the "eternal punishment" line. In fact the whole idea of annihilationism is rather lost in this book. It gets a brief mention, with the authors acknowledging that there are quite a few mentions of destruction, but these are dismissed by then going, "Oh, look over here. Here's one passage that fits in with our worldview, so let's focus on this one."

It is very telling that the authors only refer only to conservative writers, paying little no attention to voices that detracted from their own view. Yet I suppose that leads fittingly to my conclusion on this book. If you want to investigate the theology of hell then this is essential reading insofar as it is a good example of one line of thinking, but it is far from being an holistic or thorough account. It is an ideal example of an appeal to tradition masquerading as a biblical study; a thoroughly conservative eisegesis.
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The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone
The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone
by Kate Pickett
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.69

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Proceed with caution: interesting, though not compelling, 4 Sept. 2013
To review this book requires some caution. The subtitle, Why Equality is Better for Everyone, is quite provocative and almost any reader will come to this with a pre-formed opinion as to whether this is a true or a false assertion, depending on your political viewpoint. This seems to be borne out by many of the review posted already. So, with that word of caution made, what did I make of the book?

The first thing that strikes you about The Spirit Level is the abundance of scatter graphs. If you don't like these, then this book will annoy you. The authors have drawn together multiple studies (all of which are referenced) to demonstrate a number of different factors that are affected by inequality in society.

But how might one measure `inequality'? Though an intuitive concept, it seems like a hard one to make empirical - a bit like `justice' or `faithfulness'. This is done by looking at the difference between the top 20% of incomes and the lowest 20% (presumably including those with no income, though this is not stated explicitly). The opening thesis is that in economically developed countries, economic growth has reached the limits of what can improve living standards. So by looking at 1st world countries (excluding tax havens) they look at how different epidemiological measures change with differing levels of income inequality within that given society. As well as looking at a list of roughly 23 countries (not all had data available for all measures), they also looked at the 50 states that make up the USA.

The text is basically a commentary and expansion on the scatter graphs, each of which has a line of best fit. What I noticed is how tentative some of them were. The samples included a lot of outliers, making the correlation far from convincing in some specific graphs. In others, the correlation was much stronger.

At the start of the text, the authors make the very correct point that correlation doesn't imply causation; surely the mantra of any statistician. However, about 2/3rds of the way through, the book changes tone. It turns away from the giving of the evidence that developed societies with greater income inequality tend to have more social problems into a discussion on causality. This, however, was a bit a hand-wavey exercise. Though it makes for interesting reading, I don't think the authors did the best job that they could have done and I am yet to be convinced of the causality argument, depending as it does on supposition and broad generalisations.

However, they carry on regardless, working on the basis of that correlation does correspond to causation. The remainder of the book is a sort of sketch manifesto on how to make society more equal. They are quick to rule out changes in legislation on the basis that any incoming government which is in favour of greater inequality could easily reverse any progress made. Instead they propose employee ownership of companies. The idea then is that executives' pay would be easier to cap to a sensible multiple of either the lowest or the average wage of the employees. As interesting as this idea is, it does seem to operate on the level of a single company wholly operating in a single jurisdiction. Of course, most large companies are multinationals, with employees spread across the globe, being paid different rates and in different currencies. I think they were too quick to rule out progressive measures such a more equitable tax system or a maximum wage, but that's just my view.

It's well worth a read, whether or not you agree with the general premise. I don't think they made the best case that they could. The end section where they respond to some of their critics is a little weak. That's not to say the direction they're headed in is wrong. I think there is an abundance of evidence presented to show that societies that have greater income equality do have more desirable qualities. I think it would be a total nonsense to argue for greater inequality, though there may be many less empirical ways of thinking of inequality which the authors have not considered.

This is not the answer to the problems in developed countries, but it is a step in the correct direction.

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