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The Golem and the Djinni
The Golem and the Djinni
by Helene Wecker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Good idea, but novel too long and writing technique a little invasive., 15 Aug. 2017
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Apparently this book has received plenty of enthusiastic feedback on Amazon.uk. However, I'll be more nuanced I'm afraid. The story certainly is original with the main characters being a female Golem (an artificial being from the Jewish folk culture that obeys a master and might turn dangerous if uncontrolled) and a djinn/jinn, i.e a genie of the Arabic world, in addition to "human" characters evolving in New York round the end of the 19th or early 20th century. The Golem and the Djinni arrived there (separately) from abroad and from another period of time as far as the jinn is concerned.
Their stories gradually prove to be closely linked. The fact those characters are no human beings though they have a human shape and try to act, move, speak in a way that will make them unnoticed in New York, allows the author to question what being human and humane means. That's the aspect of the book I appreciated the most.

The storyline is not linear. Past and present are continually intertwined, with a succession of zooming in on different characters and periods of time. The plaited structure with kinds of camera movements between the characters and moments might seem original, but has become quite frequent nowadays. The writing technique feels a bit invasive and heavy in the present case.

I also wish the editor helped Ms Wecker tighten up her story, editing out excessive details and making things progress a little faster. Too many places in New York are mentioned that are of little relevance to the story, for instance. It could be argued that geographical details make the story sound more "credible", but they just feel heavy to me who don't know New York and don't care about the name of bridges, parks or neighbourhoods. All in all, a good idea, but its treatment hasn't worked for me.

The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolutionary Invention
The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolutionary Invention
by Alexander Monro
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.20

3.0 out of 5 stars Learnt, entertaining, but excessively digressive., 18 Feb. 2017
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I've given the book 3 stars because is well-researched and entertaining but can also be perceived in different ways depending on the reader's expectations.
Those who expect this book to be 1) a systematically and solidly referenced essay 2) focusing mainly on the way paper and paper-making evolved while spreading across Asia as well as westwards to Europe, will be quite disappointed. They'll get (some of) the information, but in a piecemeal fashion.

Paper isn't invented before chapter 5. The book deals mainly with paper's efficiency as a support for the spread and development of doctrines, literature, administration, scientific knowledge, religions, and later also music.
There are a few (longish?) pages on plagiarism between Daoism and Buddhism in Tang China, or detailed explanations about Martin Luther's life and doctrine, for instance, while chapter 7 begins with a lively list of goods sold at one of Chang'an markets in the 8th century before focusing on Bai Juyi, an official and poet. Many subjects are treated with distractive details (ex: the exact dates of 3 successive editions of song anthologies by a Venetian printer between 1500 and 1505 in chapter 15).

This said, what I find a little irritating is also what makes the book fascinating. The Paper Trail is altogether pleasantly written, instructive, generous and ... unexpected.
(This review is based on the book's first print-- Penguin Books, 2014)

Ancient Assyria: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Ancient Assyria: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Karen Radner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative, accessible, pleasant to read, 1 Jan. 2017
This is an excellent overview of Ancient Assyria's history and key cultural and structural characteristics. The book is altogether informative, concise, and very accessible, while being written in a pleasant style, with occasional touches of gentle humour.

We learn about the Assyrian heartland and its growing territory, the tumultuous relationships with some important neighbours such as Babylon, Elam or Egypt. Religion is covered too: cult and temple to god Assur, importance of divination practices, the location of the family tomb and archive underneath the family home.
Are also covered--- among other subjects!--- the use of cuneiform script on tablets and of additional languages and scripts over time, the army's evolution and structure, or the state's organisation with innovations such as a royal communication network with road stations.
A section deals with the carefully planned, ongoing "relocalisation" of the empire's population in a circular scheme, as well as how it was considered (by the rulers at least!). Several Assyrians are portrayed in their homes or doing business, sometimes in far away trading colonies. I found particularly interesting and lively the presentation of a wine import company. Scholars, slaves and eunuchs are mentioned too.

In short, a quite large range of subjects are cleverly introduced in just 112 pages interspersed with a few well chosen black-and-white illustrations.
Unfortunately, the place names on the only map of Assyria (in the 7th century BC) are so small that I couldn't decipher them. More maps would be welcome, esp. if placed adequately where territorial conquests or trading colonies are mentioned rather than at the end, but those choices might depend on the publisher rather than on Pr Radner, and maps can be found on the internet.

Quite interestingly, the author mentions some sources (archaeological, visual and textual), with occasional stories on how and where they were found or what helped preserve them. She also refers to some 19-20th century archaeologists who excavated Assyrian sites.
A timeline can be found at the end of the book. References ordered by chapters and themes inside the chapters, plus an index make the book usable as a reference. There is also a further reading section (books, websites).

Pilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Pilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Ian Reader
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good introduction, though a bit colourless, 27 Mar. 2016
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All in all, this is a good introduction to the subject, even if the book feels a bit "dutiful ", neat but lacklustre. Perhaps it just lacks a point of view, a tone, something that would have shed a specific light on the subject.

A few examples from around the world are given in Chapter One, to show that beyond the specificities and varying contexts, pilgrimage is a global phenomenon. Chapter Two questions what pilgrimage is, defining its fundamental characteristics.
Some traditional pilgrimages are mentioned in successive chapters (Japanese Shikoku pilgrimage, the Santiago Camino, the hajj, the medieval Canterbury pilgrimage, etc), but new pilgrimage forms and goals are presented too (walking labyrinths painted on the ground, or visiting political sites such as Lenin's tomb in Moscow, or going to Elvis' home in Memphis), particularly in the book's final (and probably most original) chapter, "secular [pilgrimage] sites and contemporary developments".

I also found interesting the sections revealing the age-old relationship between tourism and pilgrimage, and its ancillary effect on local economy. Occasionally, pilgrimage has also been supported by political authorities to promote values (e.g General Franco's regime using the Santiago Camino to promote nationalist Catholicism).
However, I think that even the more innovative parts of the book or those which deal with less obvious points would have benefited from some deeper analysis, while the space given to examples from different traditions feels a bit excessive.

My slight disappointment also comes from remembering Mr Reader's excellent little book "Shinto", which I found livelier. Here it is Shinto - Simple Guide To... (Simple Guides)

Molecules: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Molecules: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Philip Ball
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Good general overview., 4 Feb. 2016
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This is no chemistry book, but a general overview of what molecules are and do, with the author focusing on the molecules of life (biochemistry). There is very little chemistry (no formula, no systematic description of the way atoms combine into molecules or how molecules interact and get modified) even if some processes are explained with references to chemical or physical concepts.

Each chapter covers a function of natural molecules( mostly biological) before showing how scientists try to use those natural characteristics or processes either to try to make artificial molecules or to interact with nature, see modify the natural processes. The book is accessible to the lay reader even if they might find some explanations more difficult, while readers with a more solid scientific education could find those descriptions a bit superficial (well, this is a "very short introduction", isn't?).

Chapter 1 is introductory (what are molecules, what they are made of, their shape and sizes, etc)
Chapter 2: The molecules of life [the cell, DNA, RNA, enzymes, proteins (role, what they are made of, how they are produced from DNA, energy that fuels the process …]
Chapter 3 : materials from molecules [structural molecules in the human body (skin, bone, muscle, hair, nails) and the proteins and enzymes that make them, with a focus on collagen. Spider silk and its hierarchical molecular arrangement that scientists have copied for artificial polymers. The animal/human cell's skeleton with its tubular structure inspiring scientists for carbon pipes)
Chapter 4 : molecules and energy (ATP and ADP molecules that provide energy for biochemical processes, mitochondria, digestion and breathing in animals/humans, photosynthesis in plants. Use of energy-rich molecules for gun powder and dynamite),
Chapter 5: molecular motors (motor proteins that create motion, allow muscle power and cell division, for instance. Optical molecular tweezers created by scientists for molecular manipulation. How motor molecules have inspired research in nanotechnology.
Chapter 6: molecular communication (which molecule in the human body communicates with which, and what they communicate about. Hormones, neurons/axons/synapses and neurotransmitters)
Chapter 7 : molecular information (DNA— different aspects than in chapter 2—molecules that check for errors in DNA replication, or edit off useless elements before replication with scientists finding inspiration in natural editing tools for genetic modifications. Researches in molecular electronic to compensate for the limits of miniaturization of computer hardware).

Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the meaning of life
Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the meaning of life
by Nick Lane
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Insightful, comprehensive, but no introductory book. Printed in quite small fonts, 6 Jan. 2016
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The title "Power, Sex, Suicide" is catching and the subtitle ambitious (Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life), but that's really what the book is about: mitochondria, tiny organelles dealing with energy inside the eukaryotic cells of all the plants, animals, fungi and algae. Starting from their probable origin, the authors explains what Mitochondria do, how they do it, what their presence in the eukaryotic cell has implied for the development of complex life forms with sexual reproduction, and that age and die.
The language is clear, the occasional jargon explained, the style is as lively as this complex and rather technical subject allows.

This is a wonderfully wide-ranging book. Unfortunately, that very quality might be what makes it a trifle too challenging for those who, like me, have little knowledge of general biology. In addition, I found it difficult to extract key ideas from the generous flow of information and from the succession of scientific theories that have proved wrong or incomplete, swept away by new discoveries. In other words, this is probably not the right book to start with.

Even if I finally decided to give up (for now!) because I didn't have the prerequisites to fully enjoy this book, I recommend it to the interested reader who has a better knowledge of biology (and perhaps also chemistry). This book is also an enthusiastic testimony to scientific research being an ongoing process, with temporary certainties leading to further questioning.

Just a note about this specific edition of "Power, Sex, Suicide" (OUP, 2009): the book is printed in very small, tight fonts, with reduced space line. I sometimes had to use my finger not to skip lines. The captions of the (rare) graphics and the occasional footnotes are even smaller. The original 2005 edition might be more reader-friendly.

Buddhism is a Religion: You Can Believe It
Buddhism is a Religion: You Can Believe It
by David Brazier
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An unusual standpoint, interesting in a challenging way. A bit excessive, 19 Aug. 2015
As indicated in the title, the author considers Buddhism a religion and tries to explain his standpoint. This book is also a plea against the way Buddhism has been understood in the West, a "modernist" approach that could endanger the very survival of Buddhism according to Mr Brazier. The author considers Buddhism-- as it has developed in the West--- has been squeezed into rationalistic limits, stripped of some of its fundamental elements (e.g. references to deities, reincarnation, devotional practices, virtually limitless eras, multiple space dimensions, and even the fundamental act of faith that consists in taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha), just because they didn't fit the modern Western vision of the world. The book is an invitation to at least consider the more "exotic" aspects of Buddhism with an open mind.

However, Mr Brazier's argument often lacks nuances and is occasionally supported by elements I find disputable. The author argues that the Buddha was "at ease with the idea of past lives because he remembered past lives" (p. 104), for instance. But couldn't this "ease" simply come from living in Hindu India, where the belief in successive lives was common, a bit like some Western medieval mystic, who expressed their spiritual experiences within a Christian cultural frame, mentioned seeing the Virgin Mary?
Mr Brazier seems to also be convinced that not only Pali texts but also Buddhist texts in Chinese or Tibetan faithfully render the actual teachings of the Buddha (p. 101). The author doesn't seem to consider there might have been some later additions or transformations. His faith is impressive and touching; I just wish it had been better balanced by more intellectual prudence.

Mr Brazier is a priest of Pure Land Buddhism, which is very devotional. Unfortunately, his references sometimes are so closely related to that current that it is difficult to distinguish what belongs to the common ground of all schools of Buddhism. This weakens the general argument (e.g. p. 108--109 , the section entitled "What happens when you die").

Even if the book shows some bias and limits, it invites the Western reader to be open-minded about the aspects of Buddhism that cannot easily be understood because they don't fit into our present rationalistic (and often utilitarian) vision of the world. However challenging they may occasionally be, the author's strong convictions also help to question our own latent or overt beliefs, especially those related to WHAT Buddhism is or isn't, and to become aware of the way we are influenced by the spirit of our time.

The Hanged Man: A Story of Miracle, Memory, and Colonialism in the Middle Ages
The Hanged Man: A Story of Miracle, Memory, and Colonialism in the Middle Ages
by Robert Bartlett
Edition: Paperback
Price: £16.85

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More than what can be inferred from the title and subtitle, 20 Jun. 2014
The book's subtitle reads "A story of Miracle, Memory, and Colonialism in the Middle Ages", but I find it too limited since it doesn't indicate that the book also deals--though indirectly--with historical research, the historian's work. Starting from the investigation by papal commissioners into one of the miracles a candidate saint would have performed, Mr Bartlett actually exemplifies with this book the way historians question their written sources and confront them with what is already known about the context from other sources.

What was a canonisation process about in the early 14th century (and who could be officially considered a saint?) What was the investigators' goal and how did this affect the very questionnaire and the witnesses' answers? How were the linguistic issues addressed since some witnesses spoke English, others French, the surviving hanged man spoke only Welsh and Latin was the written language in which the answers were registered?
What do we know about the candidate saint, a dead bishop of Hereford, from other sources?
What do we know about the witnesses? Do their answers converge and can some of the differences (see discrepancies) in their accounts be explained?
What do we know about death by hanging (from texts and from iconographic sources)?
Since the investigated "miracle" took place in the Welsh Marches at a time the English were gradually conquering and colonising the region, how did the two legal and judicial systems relate to each other?

Let's be clear: those questions (among others) are not dealt with in any dry, systematic way: they underlie a book pleasantly fleshed out with more general information on the society at the time, the political and judicial situation. Valuable details are also given about some religious customs such as the practice of "measuring someone to a saint" (p.8) or about the notaries' manual marks (a stage between wax seals and our present signatures), for instance. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the way time and space were commonly expressed in the early 14th century. It even leads to an unexpected few lines on weapons and city guards when some of the witnesses estimate a distance in terms of crossbow shots.

Some chapters such as that on "Colonial Wales" can feel a trifle longish and too local, particularly to non-British readers. The same is true with what concerns the papal investigators if you are not particularly interested in biographies of medieval ecclesiastics. However, those subjects clearly are relevant to the historical enquiry that underlies "The Hanged Man". The book is pleasantly uncluttered, free from notes: the many references to the sources are given in final notes, clearly gathered by chapters and pages.

The Calligrapher's Bible: 100 Complete Alphabets and How to Draw Them (Artist's Bible)
The Calligrapher's Bible: 100 Complete Alphabets and How to Draw Them (Artist's Bible)
by David Harris
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.00

18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not for beginners. Perhaps as refresher, 2 Jan. 2014
I bought this book after reading lots of enthusiastic reviews on this page, including by customers who seem to be new to calligraphy. Actually, it is more a catalogue of scripts (with the strokes' order) than a teach-yourself-book, let alone one that could be easily used by beginners:
**Even if a sign indicates the letters' height in front of most scripts (though not all), the proportions between height and width would have appeared in a much clearer way if the scripts had been written on a squared background or at least between two horizontal lines.

**The scripts in the book were obviously made using a computer. In my opinion, the letters' extreme regularity and their perfection makes them less instructive than hand-made models with tiny irregularities that would let some of the writing process and movement show.

** Examples of words or phrases would have helped visualise how to space and/or link the letters (which can sometimes have impressive flourishes)

Consequently, think other media exist nowadays that would be much more adequate than a very static book to teach calligraphic scripts to those who can't attend a course in person. This kind of book might then be welcome later in the training, as a refresher.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 17, 2017 7:30 PM GMT

Anglo-Saxon Art: A New History
Anglo-Saxon Art: A New History
by Leslie Webster
Edition: Paperback
Price: £16.20

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very instructive and richly illustrated., 12 Sept. 2013
A great book. Even though she concentrates on Anglo-Saxon arts (esp. metalwork, manuscript decoration, sculpture), Leslie Webster also provides the reader with some useful information on the historical context in which these arts evolved over the 7-century period (5th c. to 1066), integrating and "processing" diverse influences such as Christian motifs once England was Christianized, or Celtic art, or Scandinavian influences in several waves, and even elements from Byzantine or Carolingian art.
The author also relates facets of Anglo-Saxon visual arts to literature in Old English (heroic poetry--mainly Beowulf, The Dream of the Rood, or Bede's style, for instance)
The author occasionally helps the reader to "read" a few illustrated pieces.
I also enjoyed the "afterword", where the author gives a few examples illustrating the long-lasting effect of Anglo-Saxon art on the English culture, literature and visual arts (up to now).

The text is instructive and serious but accessible and virtually jargon-free (in addition, there is a short glossary at the end). The book is printed on high-quality paper and richly illustrated. I find the editing excellent, with efficient cross-referencing between the chapters and clear connections between the numbered illustrations and their descriptions in the text. You never have to chase for a mentioned illustration. Numbered notes relative to sources can be found at the very end of the book, present but unobtrusive. There are also two maps of Anglo-Saxon England, a short bibliography and a useful index.

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