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F Henwood "The bookworm that turned" (London)
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Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy 1905-1953
Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy 1905-1953
by Simon Ings
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.49

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More on the tragedy than the triumph, 14 May 2017
As any student of the Russian Revolution knows, if there was one thing the Bolsheviks claimed to be above all else, it was that their Marxism was 'scientific.' Of course, Marxism is no science but that is besides the point. The Bolsheviks believed it to be as such. Much as they would have denied it, they were idealists. Understanding their ideas and ideals need to be understood in order to understand the Revolution and Soviet history generally.

So, where this book discusses the relationship between science in the Soviet Union and actual practice, then this was when it was at its most rewarding. The first part does just that - and really well - but the second and third parts much less so. As the book progresses, the focus becomes more on narrating the in-fighting between supporters and opponents of Lysenko's quack science. This becomes a bit more tedious not because the Lysenko saga is tedious but but because the book loses its initial focus on the relationship between ideas and practice. I would have liked to have known more about what impact Lysenko's bad ideas actually had in the real world for there was no doubt that Soviet agriculture never recovered from his baleful influence, ultimately contributing to the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself.

I would also have appreciated hearing more about other fields such as physics and the development of the Soviet atomic bomb, We get some of that but don't get much of an explanation as to why Stalin left Soviet physics alone, to the benefit of that discipline, but interfered so much in Soviet biology, to its permanent detriment. There is too much focus on Lysenko and biology, especially in the second and third parts of the book.

The Soviet Union's founding fathers were at once ultra rationalists and ultra romantics. They wanted to do more with science than just explain the world but to change it, by refashioning humanity itself, and science was to be their tool. But, in spite of all their rationalism, they were strongly inspired by home-grown traditions of Russian utopian intellectuals. Western science I suppose seeks to change the world but also to delimit where nature's limits are, what we can and cannot do in pursuit of material progress. Soviet science was distorted by a messianic belief that there were no limits, that science could subvert itself and rewrite its own laws. That said, when it freed itself from such thinking, it did manage to achieve some spectacular accomplishments, such as in space exploration, all the more remarkable, considering the low base from which it started in 1917. In this book, though, we get more of the tragedy and less of the triumph, making this a somewhat one-sided account, despite its subtitle.

This book was akin to being served a piping hot and tasty dish which unexpectedly goes cold before you can finish eating it. It did manage to hold my attention and though and I did finish it. But I felt that it could have been a lot more. So, three stars.

Bosnia's Paralysed Peace
Bosnia's Paralysed Peace
by Christopher Bennett
Edition: Paperback
Price: £16.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Dense but useful study, 14 May 2017
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Although Bosnia's war ended over two decades ago, peace has not brought reconciliation because ethnic affiliation is as strong as ever. Parties therefore coalesce along ethnic lines rather than trying to transcend them by appealing to broader ideological projects which may have cross-ethnic appeal.

The fundamental trap is that people vote for ethnic parties to protect their interests by default. They do so not so much because they want to but because they cannot trust the electorate on the other side not to do so. It is a kind of prisoner's dilemma. The rational option would be to co-operate and vote for parties across ethnic lines but because you don't know if others will do the same on the other side, because you are ignorant of their intentions, then you opt to play it safe in the short term.

This means that since 1995, Bosnia resembles various other 'frozen' post-communist conflicts (e.g. Nagorno-Karabakh) in that we have no meaningful peace, but an extended ceasefire. A renewal of civil war is therefore highly likely. However, history is not necessarily about to repeat itself. Both Serbia and Croatia abandoned their irredentist ambitions a long ago and are highly unlikely to resume their sponsorship of ethnic militias as they did in the 1990s. Still, peace depends on indefinite commitment of the international community to uphold a polity that seems incapable of binding itself together by having its constituent peoples come to some sort of compact. Until this happens, the international community is building castles on the sand.

This is by no means a bad book but it has a strong academic bent which makes it hard going, unless you have a particular, direct interest in the nuts and bolts of building shared political institutions in post-conflict, ethnically divided societies. It is not the work of someone in an ivory tower. It is the product of rigorous, first hand experience on the ground but it is still not an easy read. Amazon's rating system does not allow me to capture such subtleties so the four star rating is a compromise between quality of material and research (5 stars) and readability and accessibility (3). It is probably not suitable for a reader who does not have a deep interest in the subject but it is a useful resource.

We Are Our Brains: From the Womb to Alzheimer's
We Are Our Brains: From the Womb to Alzheimer's
Price: £5.49

4.0 out of 5 stars We are our brains - what else can we be?, 14 May 2017
It’s all in our heads. Where else can it be, other than the brain? The most complex known object in the universe comes under the microscope in an acerbic, opinionated tour by Dutch neuroscientist Dick Swaab. A provocative survey that will irritate left and right alike. There is not much talk here of neuroplasticity or brain malleability. Indeed, Swaab is not all that sure that there is a such a thing as free will. Much of our personality and prospects are formed as the brain develops in the womb. That includes propensity for aggression, your sexual orientation and your prospects generally in life. You are most definitely not born a blank slate and, doubtless leaving himself open to charges of ‘neurosexism’ from the left, he claims that sexual differences are to be found above the neck as well as below it.

If you blanch at this then you should bear in mind that to argue for a strong degree of innateness in human behaviour is not ipso facto reactionary. Social constructivism and a blank slate approach can justify reactionary, illiberal practices: such premises inform Christian 'therapies' seeking to 'cure' homosexuality, therapies that invariably fail. Also, social injustice and oppression affect brain development and hence life chances. If we are talking about fairness, equality of opportunity and the like, then we cannot be indifferent to circumstances which give some brains an unfair head start over others. Innateness does not mean we have to shrug our shoulders and accept unjust social and economic systems.

On top of that, the hang 'em and flog 'em brigade will not like this book all that much. He argues that the age of criminal responsibility really should be raised to one’s mid-20s, as that is the time when the prefrontal cortex, the frontal lobes essential for self-control and curbing impulses. Paedophilia is another form of sexual orientation but many paedophiles do not act out; they should be encouraged to come forward so we can do the necessary research to understand the biological basis of their impulses. But the stigma against feelings, as well as conduct (which we should rightly police) makes this impossible. As for religion, it is a form of hallucination. Moses and Mohammed had their revelations on mountains, probably not a coincidence. Mountaineers have been known to have religious hallucinations.

The book lacks references and a bibliography so one cannot check anything; and I am sure that not all of the numerous assertions made in this book should be taken as the gospel truth. So, as a layman, how plausible is it? I think quite plausible, because those who would have us believe that we are merely the sum of socialisation would have to argue that human brains, unlike any other of the millions and millions of other ' brains that do exist or have existed - cannot be explained without reference to its biology. That would be nothing less than extraordinary. We are in some sense our brains. What else can we be?

The New Wild: Why invasive species will be nature's salvation
The New Wild: Why invasive species will be nature's salvation
by Fred Pearce
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Challenging the dominance of invasion biologists, 14 May 2017
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It’s fair to say that alien species get a bad press. I recall a BBC article on that subject, about Britain’s alien invaders and the article was nothing but negative. The Corporation’s own guidelines on impartiality didn’t apply. These invaders were bad things. End of story. Reading the article left me with the impression that there was no other side of the story. But there is and this is the book tells it.

There are several conventional wisdoms that this book tackles. Invaders reduce biodiversity. Invaders displace native species. Invading species are bad and native ones good. Ecosystems are delicately co-evolved networks and subtracting one native or adding one interloper harms the entire system. That there is – or was – such a thing as pristine nature and that the invaders upset this balance that, once upset, will either take ages to recover or never recover at all.

What Pearce shows is that none of these contentions is true - in all instances. In some cases at least, invaders increase biodiversity. Invaders boost native species. The dichotomy between invader bad and native good is false. Eco-systems are not akin to the collaborative model of co-evolution but a collection of opportunists. Even in in such places that we consider pristine – the rainforests of the equator, the savannahs of Sub-Sahara Africa – bear the fingerprints of human creation.

For Pearce, the conventional wisdoms have held sway for so long because invasion biologists have, like an invading species, driven competing views from the field. But that is changing and there is science to back it up. Pearce champions those researchers who trying to level this academic playing field. In doing this, he can be partisan and partial. But so have the upholders of the established orthodoxy, passing themselves of as detached objectivity that is not wholly justified.

In summary, I for one welcome this book. Despite its sometime sweeping and polemical tone, I think it is much-needed corrective to the doom merchants who have held the microphone for too long. He does not deny that sometimes the conventional wisdom could be right (rats on South Georgia are bad news for the ground-nesting birds of that island) but he introduces shades of grey in an academic field dominated by black-and-white – and the active suppression of alternative points of view. Anyone interested in conservation issues should read it.

Stalin Ate My Homework
Stalin Ate My Homework
by Alexei Sayle
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Amusing and engaging, 23 April 2017
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This review is from: Stalin Ate My Homework (Paperback)
I was a fan of Alexei Sayle's TV shows in the 1990s and so it was natural I would want to learn more about his childhood and the formative role of his parents, who remained unreconstructed communists, who kept the faith in spite of everything, while so many of their sometime colleagues fell away. I did not find him as funny in print as he is on stage or TV. The book does not read the way he sounds, the fast and furious skiffs of his stand-up repartee. The style is more restrained but with enough mordant wit to spice the narrative and keep it interesting. These are the reminiscences of an outsider, of someone who is still drawn to the communist cause out of some temperamental sympathy, as well as his upbringing, but cannot force himself to be a true believer. He has too much scepticism of his own and others' motives for that.

The cool scepticism extends to his portrayal of his parents. There is respect for them but not much in the way of warmth. He talks of his parents with the same detachment as his juvenile revolutionary escapades. Somehow the use of their first names - Molly and Joe - rather than mum' or 'dad' underscores this aloofness. I have known a few people from 'alternative' backgrounds who make a virtue of addressing their parents by their first names rather than conventional expressions of affection. In spite of that, they never seemed to be especially fond of them.

Sayle is a good writer and he his reflections are thoughtful, sensitive and intelligent - and no, it is not fodder for leftie-bashers, as one negative review of this work would have you believe. He is sympathetic to the left but scornful of the pious verities of its utopian posturings - not just confined to the lunatic fringe. That he mostly discusses the left is no surprise: it is what he knew best. Moreover, much of the bite is reserved for the pretensions of his younger self. Like all good comics, he is aware of his own foibles as much as he is of others. He can take the log out of his own eye as well as remove the specks from his brothers.

On a personal level, I warmed to this because I felt I related to his temperamental scepticism about all-encompassing causes. It was a good read and I would recommend it.

Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning
Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning
by Jonah Goldberg
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

3 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Long on invective, short on analysis, 23 April 2017
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In 1964, the US passed the Civil Rights Act, ending decades of de facto apartheid in the United States. Fifty years later, the struggle for racial equality in the United States is hardly over, but who can doubt that this Act represented a milestone, a liberal milestone?

Now consider the Nuremberg Laws in Germany in the 1930s, a keystone in the foundation of the Nazi racial state. You would have to stretch your analytical skills hard, would you not, to bring these two pieces of legislation, and the respective states that sponsored them, under the same rubric?

That's what Goldberg tries to do, with repeated use of syllogism which runs something like this. Nazis did certain things. Liberals also did these things. Hence, liberal fascism. This is a form of syllogistic reasoning that runs like this: I have blue eyes. My neighbour has blue eyes. Therefore, my neighbour is a relative. Or, to take another example, since we are talking about fascism: Hitler was a Nazi. He was also a vegetarian. Therefore, vegetarians are Nazis. Political polemic is replete with this sort of reasoning and so is this book. Its flaws should be obvious.

I should just confine myself to one example, the alleged shared well springs of FDR's New Deal and Nazi Germany. Like Germany in the 1930s, FDR experimented with greater state intervention in the economy and in the society, including an arms build-up and workfare schemes for the unemployed.

There are several problems with this linkage. First is empirical. If you look at the arms build-up in the US during the 30s, it scarcely bears comparison to Germany's during this period. The US entered the war with a scratch force; the mighty war machine it had to build up barely existed at the end of 1941. Neither does FDR's intervention in the economy and society come any near in scope and extent to Nazi Germany's. We are not comparing like with like.

More importantly is that Goldberg's logic can be used against him. If you take two points of overlap between two different regimes, and then conclude they are essentially the same, then this intellectual dirty trick can be turned back on him. If building infrastructure like autobahns is fascist, then Eisenhower's construction of the interstate highways in the 1950s was fascist. If raising welfare spending and increasing government regulation of capitalism is fascist then Richard Nixon welfare spending and establishing bureaucracies like the Environmental Protection Agency was fascist. If an arms build-up is fascist, then Reagan's arms build-up was fascist. Reagan drew parallels between FDR’s New Deal and Nazi Germany’s workfare programmes and insinuated a shared affinity. He overlooked that hostile critics might have drawn links between his own arms build-up and Nazi Germany’s. Goldberg shares Reagan’s blind spot.

It can get dirtier and more personal than that. Hitler’s Germany criminalised abortion and curbed birth control. These are policy stances that many US Conservatives – like Goldberg – might applaud. Does that make him – them – fascist? He is not and neither are they. My point is, Goldberg’s logic can backfire.

Does this mean that his critique has no merit? Not entirely. It is true that liberals often fail to live up to their principles, censoring others and indulging in heresy-hunting. He can find plenty of examples of those. But hypocrisy does not make one a fascist. Moreover, Goldberg does not seem to to have any principled objection to liberal principles per se – moral equality, the rule of law over the rule of brute force etc. One cannot tell whether it is liberals’ principles he objects to, or to their hypocrisy. He certainly fails to explain an attractive alternative to these principles would look like. At the end of his tirade, he concedes that both liberals and conservatives share certain values that transcend ideological divisions – respect for constitutional principles, for instance. Which then prompts the reader to wonder what he was getting so worked up about.

In summary, Goldberg scores points but fails to offer any plausible model of ‘liberal-fascism’ actually looks like. There is much heat but very little light. It could also do with being shorter – invective pads it out and makes the book much longer than it needs to be. I was not impressed. Two stars.

Your Inner Fish: The amazing discovery of our 375-million-year-old ancestor
Your Inner Fish: The amazing discovery of our 375-million-year-old ancestor
by Neil Shubin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

5.0 out of 5 stars Fish out of water, 23 April 2017
I am writing this review standing up. That is because I find too uncomfortable to sit down, hunched at my dining table. That is the legacy of a body plan laid down long ago, in the waters of a long vanished sea. Fish presumably do not suffer from back problems. This book is about the affinities between us and the natural world. When we go to the zoo, we are looking at captive relatives.

Shubin discovered a bridge species, a fish adapted to live half in the water and half out, an ancestor on its journey out of the water, living around 350 million years ago. From this hook, so to speak, he explores our body plans and its affinities and symmetries with the natural world and our cold-blooded relatives, especially fish and reptiles (the bones of your inner ear are shrunken descendants of the jaw bones of a reptilian ancestor). But, as Shubin reminds us at the close of the book, the links between us and the natural world go far and wide. He might have titled this book - with just as much justice - as 'Your Inner Yeast'.

Shubin does not get into the evolution v creation 'debate'. The facts he presents here speak loud and clear: the species are not immutable and the barriers between them are not fixed. We are fish out of water.

The Beak Of The Finch: Story of Evolution in Our Time
The Beak Of The Finch: Story of Evolution in Our Time
by Jonathan Weiner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Evolution in real time, 23 April 2017
I remember someone writing (probably Richard Dawkins) that studying evolution was akin to a detective studying the scene of a crime. It is about reconstructing what happened, rather than observation the here and now, like most other branches of science. But studying evolution in the here and now, in the flesh, was what Peter and Rosemary Grant did for the the best part of 20 years studying Darwin's celebrated finches on the Galapagos Islands, spending six months of the year undertaking long and arduous field trips, involving great hardship and risk, and then spending most of the rest of their time crunching the numbers back at Princeton. Years of observations showed the development and adaptation of finches, under intense selection pressures, in real time. The famed beaks changed, in response to climatic conditions, almost before the Grants' very own eyes. They demonstrated the speed of adaptation (including the emergence of a hybrid species) occurred much faster than Darwin supposed. Scientific advance and technological innovations elsewhere - advances in the study of molecular biology and the means to detect changes in the birds' DNA - allowed them to see even further, into the gradual transformation of the species themselves. All this is told in a beautifully-written account. Weiner conveys the agonies and ecstasies of scientific study and advance in a brilliant narrative - 20 years of the Grants' Herculean efforts distilled into just over 300 pages. A great read. Recommended for anyone who is interested in evolution and how science is done generally.

The Egyptians: A Radical Story
The Egyptians: A Radical Story
by Jack Shenker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.18

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars We'd all love to see the plan, 31 Mar. 2017
Here is a question. What happened in Egypt in 2011 - when the people overthrew one of the region's most entrenched regimes? Here is another question. Why did it go so wrong? Freedom saw the election of an Islamic fundamentalist party and then its prompt overthrow by the military. In 2011, crowds filled Tahir Square to cheer in freedom. In 2013, they were back, to cheer in the restoration of a dictatorship. What happened? So far, no one has really been able to explain. It's still too early to tell.

Judging from the endorsements this book has received, you might think that this book has managed to break new ground and explain this puzzle. It does no such thing. It is mostly an uncritical lionisation of various popular struggles, wrapped up in a thin interpretative package whereby the good people struggle against the bad elites, with the phrase 'neo-liberal' pasted on the mugshots of the bad guys rather too generously for my liking, not because I am a fan of people like the Muslim Brotherhood, the IMF of the ex-dictator Mubarak but because this fails to explain what has happened in Egypt since 2011.

Failure to explain some unpleasant realities is this book's cardinal sin - and which its cheerleaders like Paul Mason, Owen Jones, Noam Chomsky and Pankaj Mishra have failed to pick up. One assumes the reason for that is that the portrayal of Egypt in this book, akin to one endless 1968 style carnival of protest and resistance is much to their taste - if one chooses to overlook some unsettling realities that upset this picture. Because since 2011, the Egyptians have chosen two options that Shenker should deplore - first, a reactionary Islamist government and then its overthrow by a corrupt and brutal gang of brass hats, accompanied by the delirious cheers of ecstatic crowds. Since 2013. the military's position has looked unassailable and the masses have gone silent.

In short, what this book tries to do is to flatten out a complex reality into a morality play - the good masses v the bad ruling class and their international backers like the CIA and IMF and all the usual villains of the left's passion plays. The treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood - lumped in the with bad, neo-liberal elites - is lamentable. Whatever your view of this outfit - I consider it reactionary and regressive - there is no doubt that it is a major indigenous political movement, with the support of millions of ordinary Egyptians. For goodness sake, it won the country's one and so far only fair and free election. How do you account for this? Shenker's answer - ignore and dismiss it. This simply won't do.

Shenker's interpretative theme is something straight out of a radical student rag or a fringe publication like International Socialism. Egypt is a neo-liberal state - one province in a neo-liberal empire, its capital in Washington D.C. The people wanted the overthrow not just of the regime but the whole neo-liberal order. It claims to eschew cliches but instead coins the corniest interpretation of them all, which fails to explain much. Even if he is right, then what? The country's population is growing fast and it is young, with high expectations. The economy needs to grow to meet those expectations. That means knuckling down and getting on with the business of government. Neither Allah nor the revolution is going to deliver the goods. Such realities are not allowed to cloud a starry-eyed narrative that seeks to more to inspire rather than inform.

None of this is to deny the plight of the Egyptian people and the culpability of outsiders in their unhappy history. The International Finance Institutions have propped up a nasty dictatorship and the Americans have armed it. The country was a victim of imperialist aggression in 1956. The foundations of the Suez Canal were laid on the bones of thousands of Egyptian peasants. But there is no doubt that the old, cynical adage - that people get the leaders they deserve - applies in large part to the Egyptians. If you doubt that, then ask yourself this: where are the 'progressive' alternatives? Shenker scans the horizon and he thinks he can see the storm clouds of revolution and an impending deluge. But the storm did not break. It did not happen. Why did it not happen? This book offers no answer. If you want to be inspired, then you might want to read this book. If you want to be informed, then don't bother.

Identity of England
Identity of England
by Robert Colls
Edition: Paperback
Price: £35.49

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars But what is it?, 18 Mar. 2017
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This review is from: Identity of England (Paperback)
This book is almost impossible to review but I will try to give a flavour of its merits.

First of all, it does not actually leave one clearer as to what English identity is. It is more an extended discussion of how it has been understood but also how it has been challenged. It is supported by an astonishing range of references, across politics, law and culture. It discusses not only the orthodox understandings of English identity but also its critics, past and present. The book shows that people as far apart ideologically like Edmund Burke (an Irishman but not as ironic as you might think) and E P Thompson definitely felt that English identity was real. Rather like one can read into the Bible justification for whatever social-political order you wish to see on Earth - liberation theology and divine right inspired by the same text - so the idea of an English identity could be used to justify the existing order or to challenge it. Imperialism and the Equal Opportunities Commission (as it then was) were inspired by similar sources.

There is so much richness of detail here that a summary is all but impossible. Suffice to say, of the four constituent nations of Britain, past and present - the Irish, the Scots, the Welsh and the English, - only the most numerous and supposedly dominant has been the hardest to define. The identities of the Celtic nations were least effaced by British identity. It is perhaps no accident that as British identity weakens, English identity strengthens. For this reason, this book has become more relevant now than it was when first published. It is well worth reading, because this question is not going to become any less vexed, even if it does not offer any easy answers. Read it and find out for yourself.
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