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Looking for Prince Charles's Dog
Looking for Prince Charles's Dog
by Clive Hathaway Travis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £19.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A tale of too much "meaning"..., 6 Nov. 2013
Picking up this book is like being accosted by the Ancient Mariner. "He holds him with his glittering eye--/ The Wedding-Guest stood still,/ And listens like a three years' child:/ The Mariner hath his will.// The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:/ He cannot choose but hear;/ And thus spake on that ancient man,/ The bright-eyed Mariner..." (Although Travis is not that old.)
It is a personal account of experiencing years of paranoid schizophrenia, both untreated and treated. The story unfolds inexorably and compellingly, although the reader has no idea where it is going. The real world and the delusional world drift vertiginously in and out of focus. It gives the lie (in Travis' account) to the notion that the world of a person with schizophrenia is "meaningless"; on the contrary, his account in the earlier part of the book is of a world too full of (delusional) meaning. Everything, every word in a headline, every glint of a metallic sign, every musical reference in an advertisement, carries a message. And without any artifice, with a bald but rigid first-person narrative, Travis takes us there.
And it is not all depressing--sometimes he enjoys the new insights into the world vouchsafed by his MTRUTH, a device (he believes) implanted in him by security services in order to monitor and control his behaviour, and some very funny incidents. And it is all illuminated by his encyclopaedic knowledge of later 20th-century music and culture (which I don't share so I missed many of the references).
I won't say I couldn't put it down. Often I was only too relieved to put it down. But I had to pick it up again... This is not just playing with a cliche in book reviews; what Travis conveys so vividly is that hallucinations and delusions and mood swings are not things you can opt into or out of if you are mentally ill. They are there all the time, they are your experience, and you can't stand aside from them. And so it is with this book--when I was not reading it, it haunted me...
The classic literary material on the experience of schizophrenia is buffered and filtered. Apart from the technical literature, "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden" is not just ancient but also clearly "novelised" (and arguably not an account of schizophrenia by a modern definition); "Mary Barnes; a journey through madness" and even "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (which is principally an anti-psychiatry rant) are slanted to favour an ideological perspective... Travis on the other hand has no axe to grind, no angle to argue; he is amazingly non-judgemental about the professionals he encounters, however shadowy their portrayal. He does not blame, although readers might not be so generous in the face of frequent apparent indifference and inflexibility.
It's a weighty book, both literally and figuratively; the format is large and the margins narrow and the main narrative is 474 pages. It does not pretend to be literature, and I'm sure it will attract some critical reviews by people who want to read it as such, but that is not the point. In a sense it is the antithesis of literature. It seeks to remain true to Travis' experience, and if that experience is rambling and picaresque, that is what the book is. If it were more literary, I would have taken an axe to big sections--the account of six months in Africa is fascinating but over-long; the chapters on his exploits in Cornwall and Edinburgh are testimony to Travis' resilience and resourcefulness, despite his illness, but don't at the time add much to our understanding of the whole story, although they make more sense once you get to the end. The style is critical to the experience of reading it. It keeps you off-balance; "Is this actually happening? Is it a delusion?"
Some years ago, I was heavily involved in training for people undertaking statutory duties under the Mental Health Acts. I and my colleagues struggled to find authentic, no-axe-grinding accounts to use as case-studies. Alongside the dispassionate clinical exemplars of the diagnostic manuals which identified "behaviors" and generalised reported "symptoms", we were looking for real, specific, personal experiences. The story Travis tells is exactly that but also much more. I wish it had been available then, and I'm sure that a wide range of readers will find it eye-opening and illuminating now.
(Disclosure: I do know the author, who now contributes to such courses, and I did attend the launch event.)

Counterknowledge: How We Surrendered to Conspiracy Theories, Quack Medicine, Bogus Science and Fake History
Counterknowledge: How We Surrendered to Conspiracy Theories, Quack Medicine, Bogus Science and Fake History
by Damian Thompson
Edition: Paperback

11 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Shooting fish in a barrel, 6 July 2008
Generally I am with Mr R A Davies who gave the book two stars, but perhaps that is a little harsh.

Thompson is quite selective in his choice of targets, and treats them largely the same (despite his repeated points about what is and is not "counterknowledge"). That is, he attempts not only to oppose their arguments and their evidence but also to undermine their motives, and to treat them as charlatans. In most cases that may be legitimate, but not always.

The blurb says he has a PhD in the sociology of religion from LSE (presumably supervised by David Martin?). I would have expected that someone who had worked in that very nuanced area, which poses interesting questions about the validity of knowledge, to have been able to distinguish between positions better than he does. Take complementary medicine (CAM) as an example. He is very rude about it, relying heavily on one of its severest critics. That's fine (and I tend to agree with him).

However, he extends his condemnation beyond the science to the business, including pharmacists in Boots who refuse to assert that a product on sale is useless. This is not the same world. Placebo is a potent treatment, not entirely reliant on conscious belief but upheld by it (Evans D [2004] Placebo London; HarperCollins). The discourse has shifted, but Thompson has stuck with his positivism.

And it does not help that he castigates some proponents as "batty". Assertions like that are sloppy playground name-calling; they detract from his very sound analyses in many areas.

Pity; I heard him on "Start the Week". I was looking forward to reading the book, and to a sociologist's eye on these phenomena. All I found was some predictable debunking of fairly obvious targets.

Read Francis Wheen's "How Mumbo-Jumbo conquered the World" instead.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 27, 2014 9:33 AM GMT

Towards a Comprehensive Theory of Human Learning (Lifelong Learning and the Learning Society)
Towards a Comprehensive Theory of Human Learning (Lifelong Learning and the Learning Society)
by Peter Jarvis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £23.99

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars This book needed to be written, but not read., 23 Mar. 2008
Exasperating! I bought this book partly on the strength of Jarvis' reputation and finding his previous work perceptive and useful. However, my experience was of climbing an unrelenting (although not particularly demanding) slope, with no apparent rewarding view at the end.
Jarvis sets out to provide a "comprehensive" "theory" of human learning. I have deliberately punctuated those words separately. It is exclusively theoretical; there may have been one or two references to practice in passing, but if so, I missed them. So the whole account is several feet above the ground. Only in the second part (a mere quarter of the book) do "conventional" learning theories get a look in. Until then, the discourse is basically philosophical (not a problem in itself, of course).
A "comprehensive" account is more of a problem, in several ways;
* trivially it is not comprehensive in the sense of covering all the relevant ideas,
* more important, it attempts to unite a range of different theories stemming from different positions and leading to different conclusions, some of which are not compatible, within the framework of Jarvis' own model of learning. In this sense the book has the air of tying up loose ends.
* And it poses the question, "why"?
Why is this necessary? It reifies the theories; it treats them as important in their own right (although largely holds off from critiquing them until part 2) rather than asking what they are for. I can understand that Jarvis might want to do this. Indeed perhaps it needed to be done. But very few people need to read it.
I was left with two impressions;
* I annotated the book as if I were a student looking for quotes to put in an essay, until I caught myself at it. Why was I becoming a surface learner in reading it?
* My recurring image, as I struggled to remember what I read the day before, was of trying to fill a bath without putting the plug in. The lack of connection with the real world, the absence of any illustrative material, meant that it sady never really connected with me. (But I went through the bibliography; I've read and found useful at least half of what Jarvis refers to. So what happened to it?)
Sorry! Get it from a library before you think of buying your own copy.

The Craftsman
The Craftsman
by Richard Sennett
Edition: Hardcover

99 of 107 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Less than the sum of its parts--but what parts!, 7 Mar. 2008
This review is from: The Craftsman (Hardcover)
I really wanted to like this book more than I did in the end. I had heard Sennett talking about it on Radio 4 ("Thinking Allowed" 6 February) and was fascinated. It is a topic which usually is only addressed in passing, but worthy of a serious treatment of its own. I started to read with enthusiasm, but eventually it became harder and harder work and I almost gave up.
It has to be said that the parts are fascinating, and Sennett the musician and even the cook are as much in evidence as Sennett the sociologist; substantial sections stand alone as engaging examples of original and stimulating reflection and insight. And one cannot deny the amazing range of Sennett's erudition, the disciplines over which he ranges, the forms of craft about which he writes. (Strangely, the discipline to which he pays least attention is the substantial body of psychological research on skill acquisition.) But the result is sprawling and disorientating; his attempts to summarise chapters and stages in the argument just draw attention to the problem of fitting them all together. Perhaps it would have made more sense to publish as a collection of essays without any attempt to impose an overall structure.
Although Sennett can hark back to Homer and Hesiod, and more recently to Ruskin and Morris, he is to the best of my knowledge effectively inventing the modern study of craft as a discipline. So he is not writing within a tradition; he does not have prior work with which to argue, and even the methodology of study is vague.
Incidentally, although I have nowhere near the range of scholarship that Sennett displays, there are places where he deals with writers with whom I am quite familiar, and I did not always recognise his treatment of their ideas. And although he acknowledges assistance with proof-reading, there is a substantial number of errors. There are just eighteen pages of notes and no separate bibliography; given that no reader is likely to match Sennett's range of background reading, it would have been useful to trace more material back to its source.
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 19, 2013 4:50 PM GMT

The Manuscript
The Manuscript
by Michael Stephen Fuchs
Edition: Paperback

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Pretentious self-indulgent undergraduate rubbish, 13 Jan. 2008
This review is from: The Manuscript (Paperback)
It is worth noting that one of the 5-star reviewers is acknowledged in the text as the author's aunt. (The name is Sayers; no connection with Dorothy, I assume. Otherwise how are the mighty fallen!)
This is so self-consciously "cool" that it disappears up its own nether orifices.
There are too many story lines to keep track of.
None of the characters is even remotely appealing to command any interest in their fate.
The premise is even more stupid than other conspiracy novels.
I like the good stuff in this genre--otherwise why was I suckered into wasting money on it in the first place?

The Bible: The Biography
The Bible: The Biography
by Karen Armstrong
Edition: Hardcover

37 of 46 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The courage to transcend the old hassles, 6 Jan. 2008
I have just read the preceding reviews and I note with disappointment the polarisation of views they represent, with little reference to the actual content of the book.

Armstrong is trying to stand outside the corpus of texts we have come to call "the Bible" (and note the connotations of that label), and to be quite even-handed (mostly) about the influences and lenses which have affected how it has been viewed. She has particularly sought to avoid the sin of "presentism", i.e. to assume that in the past things looked as they do now.

Where she is less than even-handed is probably in the treatment of "fundamentalism", which she sees as a serious error. I do agree with her on that, and I defer to her scholarship in tracing its roots, but her account of how it arose and its relationship to the Enlightenment is disappointing. On the other hand, that is a story which could well fill many volumes of this size (and indeed, has done).

Nevertheless, Armstrong's major achievement (apart from telling a fascinating story in a highly accessible way) is to examine how any artefact can be read and re-read in different contexts; she is not in thrall to the reputation of a "sacred text", but her analysis only enhances the status of these writings as very special (although not entirely unique) portals to the depths of human experience.

The Roots of Terrorism in Israel and Palestine
The Roots of Terrorism in Israel and Palestine
by Geoffrey Victor Whitfield
Edition: Paperback
Price: £27.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict quite like any other?, 28 Dec. 2007
It could be argued (although Whitfield does not take it so far), that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the root of many inter-communal and international disputes across the world, and much of the terrorism (however understood--Whitfield has a good appendix on that). If not directly behind Islamist agendas, the story of the dispossession of the Palestinians has been press-ganged to support them across the world. Similarly, the image of plucky little Israel fighting to survive despite the massed threat of arab nations committed to its obliteration has leveraged enormous and concrete support, particularly in the USA.

"Iconic" is an over-used term nowadays, but this is an iconic conflict. The current debate is conducted in terms which, were the stakes not so high, might remind one of playground spats. But the hostility between the combatants goes back almost three thousand years to the time of Abraham.

No-one can fix that rift in the 21st century without reference to that history. Not merely as it was, but as it presents itself today. Whitfield sets out to explore what the original "Abrahamic covenant" means to current participants, and to disentangle it from the accretions of history to the present day. He does not present trite solutions, although I was rather encouraged by his cautious optimism in conclusion.

This is a scholarly work, well-informed as far as I can tell by current debate (and meticulously referenced), but it is not merely scholarly. Many of its insights come from live interviews, many conducted by Whitfield himself, with opinion-formers on both (nay, many) sides. And as far as I can tell, Whitfield is truly independent. Like an OT prophet (albeit rather more polite) he castigates all sides; unlike such a prophet (except perhaps Hosea?) he also empathises with where they are coming from.

From additional material in the volume, Whitfield is not only a commentator, but an activist whose use of sport (well, football, actually, but I suppose it counts as a sport) to promote bottom-up interaction and understanding between Israeli and Palestinian young people has earned him an MBE.

And on reflection, it is that bottom-to-top quality (and back again) which makes this book distinctive. Whitfield traces the connections between the experience of Palestinians under the "matrix of control" to biblical tradition and back again.

I've just checked for other reviews. There's just one on the site; it's not a review of the book, it's a tirade against "anti-Zionism". It exemplifies the two-valued approach Whitfield has unpicked, and I fear he is going to find it difficult to get beyond.

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