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The Pike
The Pike
by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.68

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Italy's renaissance, 27 Jan. 2014
This review is from: The Pike (Paperback)
This is the best biography I have read in recent years. The timeline is unusual but gets to the essence of the character far more quickly than the alternative of working out the nursery years in detail and then losing energy just when the character becomes truly interesting. D'Annunzio himself remains beyond my understanding and despite his many obsessions, it is really only in his final years in virtual exile at Gardone freed of financial worries by the state to build his Vittoriale that there is any predictability in his life. The book gives a fine and unusual view of the developing Italian nation, the need to unite disparate peoples by the shedding of blood in wars that could have been avoided, the shameful waste of compatriots' lives in the doomed assaults on entrenched Austrian troops in the alps, the influence of the distant Versailles Treaty negotiations on the early development of Italian fascism, and the role of form and rhetoric in shaping political function. D'Annunzio was never far from this action, although while the prototypical fascist leader he never endorsed the particular strain practised by Mussolini. The book is highly readable, in fact even exciting towards the end. A very few parts (mainly vernacular sexual terms and references to current technologies) might have been written or omitted to please me better, but those are minor quibbles.


From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia
From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia
by Pankaj Mishra
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

4.0 out of 5 stars East is East,... and never the twain shall meet (?), 18 Aug. 2013
A provocative read, with the key contentions amply proven. 19th century colonisation of Asia by Western powers was motivated primarily by trade, extractive industry and territorial control whereas nation building and independence for the colonised peoples was never a real consideration. This gave rise to deep seated resentment evident to this day. Some Asian nations were more resilient than others: Japan modernised internally by making full use of western advances without conceding much more than trading rights, whereas the Ottoman Empire tried the same path but by that time was already a fragmented country deeply in debt to the European countries.

By the end of the First World War Japan was a democratic country more technically advanced than most European nations and had supported France, Britain and the United States in that war. However when they asked to be treated as racial equals at the Versailles treaty negotiations in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson overruled the majority because of strong opposition from Britain and the United States, an inauspicious start to the League of Nations. Asians resented such views deeply, and many were happy to see their European masters humiliated by the Japanese in the inevitable second world war and trace their existence as independent countries to that time.

The book focuses on the evolving views of a few Asian scholars who concluded that their countries should reject Western progress and look to their Islamic, Hindu or Confucian roots for their futures. I was left wondering just how strong the opposition to modernisation really was, particularly as the populations became increasingly urbanised. Similar scholars today are often well removed from reality and political pragmatism. This could explain the abject failure to gain more than retrospective lip service for their ideas, with the possible exception of modern Islamic Iran, where they do appear to have won out and gained the utopian society they desired (the author notes that the Ayatollahs did restore the Shah's police state soon after).

In the conclusions the author dismisses the intrinsic value of material goods to Asian people. Most Asian people I know seem perfectly happy to have disposable income and enough leisure time to pursue and develop their personal interests- traditional religions remain alive but are put in a new context. This seems no different from what we see in Western 'white' countries and the supposed racial differences, a prominent feature of this book, are almost certain an illusion.

Overall the book was an interesting read, provocative, verging on polemic in places but overall reliable and well researched. I can strongly recommend it to a reader who can make the effort to assess the arguments presented.


Gideon's Spies: The Inside Story of Israel's Legendary Secret Service
Gideon's Spies: The Inside Story of Israel's Legendary Secret Service
by Gordon D. Thomas
Edition: Paperback

49 of 50 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mossad: fact and fantasy, 11 Mar. 2013
The press reviews cited for this book are uniformly positive and I found that the first 450 or so pages were an easy read. At times I did wonder if I had missed something- for example the opening story about Princess Diana seemed to have nothing much to do with Mossad at all, and on other occasions the author laboured the story with description and history to the point where he left the story in mid-air, unresolved. With any book of this kind it would be difficult to tell what is truly true and what has been planted by disaffected parties or is pure fiction. There is no supporting documentation although the author frequently tries to remedy this by citing anonymous personal source in a personal communication - this becomes tedious and contributes little to the credibility. The book is actually 670 pages long, the last 220 pages appearing to be an addendum to an earlier addition. This sections reads as a cut and paste job on a home computer that went straight to press, and was so appallingly written that in the end I followed it for unintended comedy rather than for any serious interest, belief or confidence in its contents. However it was interesting that to read that the new director of Mossad had stood on a canteen desk and asked the agents to eat the brains of their Arab enemies on 11 Sep 2001, a few hours BEFORE the 911 attacks, and a full year before he was appointed to the directorate (Chapter 22). Allegedly he pulled exactly the same stunt as soon as he was appointed to the position, a year later (Chapter 18, p362). Elsewhere the PROMIS software from the 1970s amazes- not only can it decipher any stream of data but it will also guide missiles to the Iranian nuclear facilities. Princess Diana's menstrual cycle also makes a late appearance in the concluding chapters, still without any revealed connection to Mossad.

In summary, an uneven and over-long book that could have been improved greatly if it had been proof read.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 21, 2014 3:16 PM BST


Thinking, Fast and Slow
Thinking, Fast and Slow
by Daniel Kahneman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.69

4.0 out of 5 stars Is this the peak of psychological science?, 21 Oct. 2012
As other readers note, the first half of the book is highly readable (in fact, one longish flight) while the style bogs down progressively as the work continues. The experimental approach appears to be overwhelmingly verbal, certainly facilitating output when there are copious US Freshmen willing to be guinea pigs, but overall leaving me with the impression that a lot of the work was trite and possibly culturally/linguistically biased. For example, on the experiences in non-sedated gastroscopy, the core observational tool was the verbal recollection of pain during and after the procedure. The possibility that pain that cannot be recalled is harmful was ignored. Objective measurements (pulse etc etc) could have been made during the experiment, and were being done routinely in the 1990s in rather similar work on humane slaughter, where verbal recollection might have limited utility. If the experiments had the benefit of such inputs, the results and interpretation could well be very different.

Notwithstanding these concerns, the conclusions and general discussion seem to be based on a broader human experience, much of it already well documented such as the absence of statistical training in (most)education systems. The fact that the author's psychologist colleagues could fall into the same traps suggests that their research is formulaic, relying on in-house statisticians rather than any profound understanding of research design. In English many technical words used to describe statistical data are readily confounded with their common meanings- an issue of definition, not of psychology.

Overall the book is a good read and you will come out with a better understanding of how the world of decisions works even if, like me, you doubt the originality and profundity of the author's own insights.


Rihm: Lichtes Spiel; Currier: Time Machines
Rihm: Lichtes Spiel; Currier: Time Machines
Price: £11.77

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars New Violin Classics, 13 Dec. 2011
Anne-Sophie Mutter belongs to a select group of virtuoso performers who have championed the creation of new music for their instrument. In this CD four of her recent commissions are presented in top-notch performances that convey both the approachable musical lines of the works as well as their underlying subtleties. The two orchestral works are scored for a 'Mozart' orchestra which ensures a natural balance between the forces. The short Penderecki work shows the double bass and violin soloists revelling in the interplay between their instruments, perhaps without probing any real musical depths. Incidentally a photograph in the liner notes shows the difference in size of the instruments -and their respective performers- that had caused the composer initial anxiety. Regrettably DGG has not included a biography of the Slovak double bass player Roman Patkolo, but we can look forward to hearing more from him. The other three works have a meditative or contemplative character. Rihm's Lichtes Spiel is a concerto in all but name and to my ears appeared to develop from Bartok, Szymanowski and Berg's seminal concertos from the 1920s and 30s. Sebastian Currier is perhaps not as well known outside the United States as the other composers but has a substantial body of orchestral and chamber works to his credit along with a Grawenmeyer award and the Rome Prize. His work has a melodic appeal and directness that belies the rhythmic complexities of the orchestral writing- it is a revision of the original commission that was regarded as too challenging for the orchestra.

These are works that are appealing at a number of levels and reveal new pleasures on repeated listening: it is likely that one or more will enter the classic performing repertoire.


Atlantic: A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories
Atlantic: A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories
by Simon Winchester
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Enlightening, 13 Dec. 2011
Although some chapters are written better than others, none is less than highly readable and well informed. A subtle layer of humour pervades the work, intentionally I suspect, and for example the extraordinary hydrological institute in Monte Carlo may warrant the attention given to it more for its decadent charm than for its real contribution to oceanographic knowledge. The many footnotes are endlessly fascinating, and the main text often throws a new light on what might be familiar matters, for example quoting the original weather forecast for Hurricane Katrina, which predicted a storm even more cataclysmic than what eventuated.

The overall impression is of an eclectic but thoroughly researched body of information written by a person who truly understands the material and is able to communicate his enthusiasm.


Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life
Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life
by Richard Cohen
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £30.00

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Careless with the facts, 9 Dec. 2011
Prospective purchasers of this book would do well to read the reviews on the Amazon.com site, which appreciate the virtues of the work but do note the unacceptably high number of inaccuracies. I found the same, and even in the first three pages (on the author's ascent of Mt Fuji) I was bemused by the allegedly rapidly fluctuating levels of oxygen (a violation of the second law of thermodynamics on this sacred site?), translating Fuji as 'eternal life' (that's 'banzai' from the war newsreels, 'Fuji' itself may be an Ainu word without any specific Japanese meaning) and a rather loose use of the term 'altitude sickness'. These infelicities do not relate to the main theme, the sun, but they suggest Saturday Supplement journalism rather than the best of non-fiction writing and undermine any confidence I could have in the main argument. As an American reviewer suggests, hold off buying until there is a fully revised second edition. Five stars for presentation and topic, zero for spoiling an otherwise fine work.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 28, 2012 4:07 AM GMT


Contemporary Latin American Literature: Original Selections from the Literary Giants for Intermediate and Advanced Students (NTC's Spanish Readers)
Contemporary Latin American Literature: Original Selections from the Literary Giants for Intermediate and Advanced Students (NTC's Spanish Readers)
by Gladys Varona-Lacey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.99

4.0 out of 5 stars First class selection, 15 Nov. 2011
The selection is probably the most interesting I have encountered in parallel texts and readers and provides a reasonable challenge for someone like myself with only middling reading ability who wishes to improve their reading skills. I would have found the book more useful if it had included more of the vocabulary that I wasn't familiar with- having read Marquez and Llosa in the original Spanish with the help of English translations I found that I already knew half or more of the words in the footer vocabulary lists (making them as much a distraction as an aid) whereas I had not met a similar number of other words, some not in the larger Collins Spanish dictionary. A glossary at the end, or an attempt to standardise vocabulary against words that appear in common Spanish - English or Spanish dictionaries would have increased the value of the book both for reading enjoyment and as a learning tool.

Apart from this concern the compilation is a good single volume introduction to some very fine authors, for example Aguedas, Poniatowska, who are not readily available or expensive in single editions and translations.


Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City
Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City
by Greg Grandin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Transplanted America, 10 Nov. 2011
Henry Ford was a complex man, poorly educated and ridiculed for his political views, whether for peace or for antisemitism, but with a genuine commitment to the welfare of his workers and to the environment. After the first world war British interests had intended to create a monopoly on rubber, but a glut of Asian and Indonesian production put an end to this. Notwithstanding this change in the market, Ford went through with his plans to buy land in the Amazon basin so that his company would be self sufficient.

Because Ford did not trust experts he assigned his own Detroit staff to work out how to farm rubber. Every problem in the Amazon was resolved by solutions tried and tested in Detroit, even to the point of introducing the Amazonian workers to square dancing as a substitute for the alcohol and sex the company had denied them. Although Ford was unreasonable in expecting staff to comply with such edicts, his achievement in education and medical care is still not matched in many parts of the Amazon; in the latter years this was provided even though he must have been aware that the area would never produce commercial quantities of rubber.

As well as being thoroughly researched with extensive footer notes and detail about the historical context, the book is extremely readable and provides a nuanced account of a figure who has often been demonised by history.


The Information
The Information
by James Gleick
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Oh for an editor!, 9 Nov. 2011
This review is from: The Information (Hardcover)
Much of the book makes fascinating reading- pseudo codes in African drumming, lucid accounts of concepts such as computable vs non-computable numbers, Byron's daughter and more. There is a large section on the development of alphabets and dictionaries and Glieck observes that the OED in Murray's edition allows 89 distinct meanings for the word 'make'. It seems a pity that he did not look up the word 'information' at the same time, as besides the normal meaning of knowledge, there are a number of specialised meanings, and the word was even usurped by Shannon in his signalling theory to indicate disorder and randomness: if Shannon had chosen a different term for this concept, Glieck's book would have been very different. 'Information' is also used in molecular biology to indicate encoding, compatible with the normal meaning, and there may be further usages in number theory and quantum physics.

Glieck gives a broad discussion of these different usages although it is not always clear that he realises that the meaning depends on context and that he is writing about disparate topics. This could be the reason that the book is interesting in its parts but to me lacks overall coherence.

An editor might have deleted the end section on the future of Google, Wiki and the internet which risks becoming outdated even before the paperback edition of the book is released- indeed, Wikileaks, also due to pass off into history, shows that relevant knowledge can still be held as closely guarded secrets.


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