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Reviews Written by
Geoff Crocker (Bristol UK)

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The Prophets of Eternal Fjord
The Prophets of Eternal Fjord
by Kim Leine Rasmussen
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

5.0 out of 5 stars An absorbing epic, 11 Jan. 2017
In the 18th century Danish colony of Greenland, recounted through the life story of missionary Morten Falck, nature is harsh and unremitting, both on land and at sea. Life is short and driven by basic needs for shelter, food and sex. Disease, death and misfortune are rampant.

Human society reflects this in the coloniser’s cruel abuse of the native Inuit Greenlander. Glimmers of hope, love, and rational Enlightenment struggle to break through, but are more often extinguished. The charismatic community led by Habakuk and Maria offers an alternative, but is soon crushed. The fatal judicial whipping of Didrik from the community by the young Danish officer Rasmus Bjerg, who volunteers for the task to avenge the anger of his personal humiliation, is a Christ motif in the story. In similar imagery, fire destroys both the native community’s dwelling, and Copenhagen itself.

Kim Leine’s magnificent, richly imaginative, absorbing tale paints a bleak, dire portrait of the primitive human condition pitted against nature in the raw. One longs for a redemptive possibility, but they all close off. Martin Aitken’s excellent translation is seamless.


Waking Lions
Waking Lions
by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great thriller with deep social and human comment, 1 Jan. 2017
This review is from: Waking Lions (Paperback)
‘Waking Lions’ strengths are

1 Interesting social comment on the little publicised issue of marginalised illegal immigrants in Israeli society
2 Dealing with moral dilemma, not only the major dilemma of Eitan Green’s response to the hit and run accident, but frequent deep observation and examination of the factors behind our moral and behavioural dispositions
3 Character study – readers can readily identify with each character vividly portrayed. Eitan Green is recognisably pliable, Liat blissfully and surprisingly unaware. Sirkit is majestic, living by determined cunning, untroubled by ethic, desperate to survive, utterly pragmatic, but also capable of growing roses
4 Its suspense as a thriller

The corresponding weakness is the implausibility of the plot which is too often more contrived than natural, leading to non-credible situations. But this is a small price to pay for the study of human nature Ayelet Gundat-Goshen offers.


The Book of Dhaka: A City in Short Fiction (Reading the City)
The Book of Dhaka: A City in Short Fiction (Reading the City)
by Akhteruzzaman Elias
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

5.0 out of 5 stars Chronicles of despair, 26 Dec. 2016
Charming, moving and shocking, this anthology makes a major addition to the literature of contemporary Bangladesh, (see also Neamat Imam’s ‘The Black Coat’). Political opposition is brutally suppressed, university professors and medical students are horrifically tortured and murdered, a promising student becomes a thug, the desperate poor become heroin traffickers, family life and love relationships are blighted. Blissful love exists only in the imagination; prostitution is the reality. The memory of the fight for freedom from Pakistan is honoured and remains a strong motif, but its outcome is a circle of despair.


Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting
Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting
by Shannon Vallor
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £23.69

5.0 out of 5 stars A compelling call for contemporary virtue, 15 Dec. 2016
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Shannon Vallor’s essay on technology and virtue succeeds in several dimensions. Her well-crafted writing is professionally academic, with each component of her argument richly informed from existing thought and literature. It is at the same time culturally relevant, demonstrating wide discerning awareness of contemporary attitudes and issues in the zeitgeist. And it is genuinely thoughtful, comprehensively discussing thesis and antithesis in each case.

Vallor admirably invests immensely in a task of harmonising Aristotelian, Confucian and Buddhist ethics to generate a criterion of virtue against which to test technology. This is heavy work and almost a standalone exercise. It’s not clear why she excludes Christianity and Islam in her synthesis, since they represent a widespread paradigm, Christian virtue being well expressed, for example, in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. It’s also surprising that she omits mention of other contemporary philosophers of virtue such as André Comte-Sponville (‘A Short Treatise on the Great Virtues’) and Susan Neiman (‘Moral Clarity’), who are surely fellow-travellers.

It’s also not clear what Vallor derives from this synthesis. Is she proposing i) that various strands of ethics derive from some shared source ‘Q’, or ii) that ethics are objective? Vallor doesn’t ask how a supposed ethical synthesis will address major technologies such as GM crops, stem cell research, or climate change, or how it explains major ethical differentials eg between European and American cultures on issues like capital punishment, gun control, and abortion. This section is intensive, valuable to those interested in the rather esoteric synthesis proposed, but can be skipped to get to Vallor’s core message.

‘Technomoral’ wisdom is then applied to four technologies ; social media, surveillance, robotics, and human enhancement. On social media, Vallor approaches the moralising aunt, agonising over social media addiction and lack of courtesy by the young generation in its use over shared meals. But she offers a majestic swoop on surveillance technology in her claim that truth as virtue is mediated by a wider set of virtues (p192). She questions the loss of human agency in the application of robotics to care. She appears to define human enhancement as embodied technology, rather than the enhancing technologies for example of glasses and binoculars, but thoroughly discusses its merits and dangers.

Vallor’s core call is for a society which harnesses technology to achieve human ‘flourishing’ subject to ethical considerations. This is a laudable aim, and in her closing passages, she shares a similar vision to Susan Neiman, expressing her vision in eloquent moving terms. However, Vallor fails to address two questions which are core to the possibility of her thesis, ie i) whether technology is objective, and ii) whether morality is objective. She shortly states that technology is not objective (p28), but subject to human choice (‘fatalism in emerging technology discourse is patently false’ p194). She doesn’t consider whether ethics are objective in the same sense that mathematics and deductive logic appear to be. Vallor urges us towards an examined life with meaning. Reference to the work of Thaddeus Metz, Susan Wolf, and Erik Wielenberg on meaning in life would be a useful supplement to her clarion call. As Vallor says, we need ‘new institutions, communities, and cultural alliances’ to achieve this goal (p249). The question is what these could be, and who will initiate them? Terry Eagleton wrote in his ‘Reason, Faith and Revolution’, that ‘there has been no human culture to date in which virtue has been predominant’. C Wright Mills famously claimed that ‘might is right’. Let’s hope that Vallor, and all of us who share her vision, can prove both wrong.


Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold (Hogarth Shakespeare)
Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold (Hogarth Shakespeare)
by Margaret Atwood
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Can revenge correct injustice?, 6 Dec. 2016
This is yet more very readable and gripping storytelling from Margaret Atwood. It’s a great combination of retelling of Shakespeare, characterisations of prison life and theatre culture, the hero’s unswerving commitment to art, and the downtrodden seediness of life at the margin.

The core theme is revenge, interpreted as correction of an injustice. The strategy is cunning, patient, risky, clever, effective, and hilarious. Is it a valid hope that all injustices in life could be similarly rectified, or is revenge equally pernicious? Either way, the story is great fun.


Summer Before the Dark: Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, Ostend 1936
Summer Before the Dark: Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, Ostend 1936
by Volker Weidermann
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.08

5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating vignettes and meaningful message, 1 Dec. 2016
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This is a compelling account of the gathering of exiled Jewish writers in 1936 Ostend awaiting the Nazi horror. Volker Weidermann’s portrait is charming, but real in its description of dilettante bourgeois literati society losing the rich pickings of literary success, and facing calamity. The vignettes of Stefan Zweig and Josef Roth are fascinating for readers familiar with their work. Weidermann shows Zweig as virtuous and Roth as decadent. The fraternity of authors is a representative microcosm, suffering the general fate of virtuous decent society as the forces of nationalism overwhelm. 80 years later, liberal democracy is again in retreat.


The Story of a Brief Marriage
The Story of a Brief Marriage
by Anuk Arudpragasam
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.08

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The banality of life and death, 28 Nov. 2016
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Anuk Arudpragasam details the horror of the Sri Lankan army assault on the ‘Tamil Tiger’ strongholds in the north of the country which ended in 2009, for which the international community has accused the Sri Lankan government of war crimes. The ordinary civilian population was subject to indiscriminate shelling. Many died. Dinesh typifies the suffering and struggle for survival, living in the midst of routine, habitual death and mutilation. The population drifts on in hopeless futility. Life, including marriage, continues, but its banality is exposed. Death is expected. Arudpragasam’s writing is often flat and matter of fact, conveying the very ordinary detail of life reduced to mere existence.


Money Machines: Electronic Financial Technologies, Distancing, and Responsibility in Global Finance
Money Machines: Electronic Financial Technologies, Distancing, and Responsibility in Global Finance
by Mark Coeckelbergh
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Great example of philosophy referring to reality, 21 Nov. 2016
Mark Coeckelbergh has made a very welcome contribution to practical philosophy, ie philosophy which considers real issues in the human experience, and works through them thoughtfully. Drawing on Marx, Heidegger, Simmel, Arendt and McLuhan, he develops a claim that globalised money operating across ICT technology networks has led to distancing, abstraction, dematerialisation, objectification, and alienation.

This is phenomenological philosophy of technology, although Coeckelbergh retains a theory-led approach, first discussing Simmel’s ‘The Philosophy of Money’ and McLuhan’s ‘Understanding Media’ at length. He then refers to selected observed phenomena, frequently using the formulation ‘seems to’, which doesn’t create robustly researched empirical positions for challenge. He does claim (p133) that commodity exchange speculation has driven up food prices, but this may be hard to substantiate, as intermediate derivate trading ultimately faces the challenge of prices determined by real supply and demand.

Coeckelbergh’s position is that ICT-money connects, whilst simultaneously distancing. The data is clear that it adds global dimension, but the claim that it reduces local dimension is unproven and offers a good research project. McLuhan suggests that it strengthens the global without weakening the local. Anonymity can be local as well as global.

Money is an abstraction. It represents input resources of land and labour, as well as outputs, commodities, goods, services, and assets. It qualifies people as rich or poor. It creates power relationships, and by its interest rate, determines distributive shares between lender and borrower. It is expressed in price, which contains signals of relative value, technical efficiency of production, and interpersonal distribution of the product. It is a means of exchange and a store of value. But does this abstraction of part of the human experience necessarily imply objectification of the whole human person? We can for example state that there are 7 billion people on earth, without thereby necessarily dehumanising them.

The ultimate epistemic and ethical challenge for all abstractions is whether they credibly refer back to reality. Mathematics is an abstraction, but after diving through calculations, formulae, negative numbers, complex numbers, etc., the conclusions do consistently re-calibrate against reality. Money also has to refer. Historically it did this by support from gold reserves, or more recently by the sale of government bonds. But ultimately money has to refer to the real output of the economy, to the goods and services it can be used to purchase. Otherwise it collapses. This means that abstraction is not necessarily a problem, and does not necessarily imply alienation.

Coeckelbergh takes the view that technology is not deterministic, which he needs to advocate system change by human agency. He doesn’t wholly justify this position on a major question in the philosophy of technology, but since artefacts combine human agency and nature’s objectivity, then it’s a fair assumption.

His concern for Aristotelian responsibility in financial technology is valid and virtuous, and depends not only on epistemic and control parameters being in place, but also an agreed ethical framework. However he does not say how any actor in any system can possibly know the consequences of any action for all possible victims. For anything all of us do, the epistemic constraint is in fact severe, and the ability to control outcomes very limited. Added to these we need a moral framework. Coeckelbergh does not say how this is derived and agreed. Nor does he say how democratisation of financial technologies could be achieved.

A useful adjunct to Coeckelbergh’s work would be the economics literature on the philosophy of money, particularly Keynes, whose liquidity preference theory showed how involuntary unemployment could only uniquely arise in a money economy, giving money immediate social implication. Equally, assumptions of balanced monetary budgets drive socially divisive austerity policy. Not all economies are monetised. Money played a much diminished role in the planned Soviet Union economy, and in the Russian barter economy of the late 1900s. It would be an interesting research project to analyse whether these economies exhibited less distancing?

Coeckelbergh reviews a number of alternative and new financial technologies such as barter, LETS, Bitcoin, time banks and microcredit. Some of these like barter, cash or vouchers may reduce distancing by forcing local and physical exchange, although even local ICT can create total distancing. Money can be a means of exchange, a store of value, or both. Some new alternatives like Bitcoin are primarily a store of value, requiring only trust as its authentication. But a new money technology as a means of exchange is more problematic, since it must refer to output in the economy it serves. A major emission from a new money technology would simply drive massive inflation if it did not liaise with existing money, and jointly refer to output. Proponents of new money technology have not addressed this major issue, which can often invalidate the proposal.

The book clearly stirs debate as intended, and is a valuable resource for philosophers interested in a philosophy which refers.


All the Kremlin's Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin
All the Kremlin's Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin
by Mikhail Zygar
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.90

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Russia as a feudal state, 6 Nov. 2016
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Mikhail Zygar’s ‘All the Kremlin’s Men’ is a very readable informative account throwing light on the murky question of who works around Putin in governing Russia.

What becomes clear is that Russia remains a feudal state where leadership is by the king’s fiat, rather than by the logic and reasoned argument of modernity. Power is grasped for its own sake, rather than for any meaningful national agenda. The regime is devoid of any other purpose. Its only raison d’être is to perpetuate itself, which is why it has to rely on myths of international conspiracy against it. Status, power, and image are everything; content, function, and logic rate nothing. As Zygar cites its leaders as acknowledging, the internal result in terms of the Russian economy and social well-being is negligible because there is no such political manifesto in place. Skirmishes in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria are all you get to sustain the regime’s credibility. Underpinning this, Zygar traces the emergence of a supposed alternative to western liberal ethics presented in terms of Count Sergey Uvarov’s historic formulation of ‘orthodoxy, autocracy, nationality’ (p279).

Zygar’s account is sadly reminiscent of Osip Mandelstam’s critique of the leadership of his day which he describes as

‘Fawning half men for him to play with
They whinny purr or whine
As he prates and points a finger
One by one forging his laws’

As Rodric Braithwaite, former UK ambassador to Moscow, points out in his ‘Moscow 1941’, Stalin at one point fully expected to be deposed by those surrounding him. Zygar says that Putin at least once expected the same. It’s perfectly possible to do, and requires no violence.

If today’s Russian intelligentsia, who are as intelligent, aware and capable as their counterparts in the rest of the world, haven’t got the guts to stop this and replace Putin by non-violent means, then they deserve what they get – an authoritarian corrupt feudal state.


All for Nothing
All for Nothing
by Walter Kempowski
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A depressing account of humanity, 27 Oct. 2016
This review is from: All for Nothing (Paperback)
In a slow matter of fact style, reminiscent of the realism of Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, Walter Kempowski describes behaviour and interactions in east German society after 12 years under Nazi regime now facing imminent retributive Russian invasion in 1945. Life is mundane. People live by their obsessions, privileges and prejudices, their self-awareness expressed in repeated trivial mantras.

But as events force them into action, cynical self-preservation drives them to disregard and denounce others. This is already the norm towards foreigners and strangers, but soon includes those close to them. Shocking events become commonplace. Destruction and death are pervasive. Kempowski only allows one final unlikely twist to seem redemptive.


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