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Reviews Written by
M. D. Holley (Kent, UK)

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A Little History of Religion (Little Histories)
A Little History of Religion (Little Histories)
by Richard Holloway
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.49

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Bound in a Christian straightjacket, 13 Oct. 2016
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Positive things first - the book is quite open minded and balanced about all religions (quite an achievement) and is very easy to read.

But I am baffled by reviewers who describe this as if it is a wide ranging. It is not. From the first page the author reveals that his thinking is locked tight within a Christian box, and he is barely able to glimpse the outside world. His eleven introductory pages describe religion in a narrow Christian way. It is almost as if he doesn't consider other schools of religious thought as qualifying as religion at all.

Of the rest of the book, a whopping 59% of the text is devoted to Christianity, and a further 8% goes to Islam, which is itself a variant of Christian thought. So all the other religions that ever existed are crammed into the remaining 33%. Buddhism gets just two and a half percent. Mormonism (a minor variant of Christianity) gets more than Taoism.

Given his rigid fixation with Christian thought, he does not really manage to describe what religion is in terms that could apply to all religions. He explicitly dismisses the religion of the native American Indians as 'not really a religion' at all! I would recommend the books (Sapiens and Homo Deus) by Yuval Noah Harari to anyone seeking a broader definition of religion.

Some have said that the author seems critical of Christianity, though for me he seems an apologist for it, in contrast to his treatment of Islam which appears more critical (such lack of even handedness is not helpful in today's world).

He does better in covering non Christian religions, which passages I enjoyed the most. Pity there wasn't more of this!

The book is also marred by some huge factual errors. For example, didn't Akhenaten (rather than Moses or Abraham) discover monotheism? There are lots of minor inaccuracies too, which rather undermined my trust in the text.

If you happen to be bound even more tightly than Richard Holloway in a Christian straight jacket, you might find this mind opening. But otherwise you are likely to be disappointed.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
by Yuval Noah Harari
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.00

19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Genius marred by shallow patches, 1 Oct. 2016
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Harari is a visionary, and probably a genius too. For much of the first half of this book I was astounded by the breathtaking insights, especially in the discussion of what makes humans special, and the development of the idea that humans need 'stories' in order to thrive. Harari here develops the idea that first appeared in Sapiens. He has seen past everyone else. I think his idea deserves to stand alongside the theory of relativity or of gravity. it is really special, and I hope he is still getting credit for it in 100 years' time.

But what a pity that the book as a whole does not maintain this level. I loved Sapiens, and while the first third of the new book outclasses the earlier book (no mean feat), it then proceeds to degenerate into superficial nonsense which is not properly thought through.

Harari's thesis for the second half depends on being able to demolish liberal thought. To do this he needs to prove that there is no such thing as free will. He rehashes material by many other authors (I have read the same books as him, and I do agree that in one sense there is no such thing as free will) but he fails to understand that the concepts of 'free will', or of 'no free will/algorithm' are just models that human brains use to try to understand the world. Each model works pretty well, depending on the circumstances. They are both true at the same time. Try managing or leading a group of people using the model that they have no free will, and you will immediately fail.

In his discussion of algorithms taking over the role of humans he shows himself to be simply gullible in his choice of quotes (for example, the percentage chance that particular jobs can be replaced by a computer). I too believe passionately that many jobs can be better done by machine - for example driverless cars. But Harari loses all sense of proportion in this discussion. It is notable that he lists a large number of other people's (incredibly difficult) jobs which could be replaced by a computer, but does not mention his own!

Where he talks about computers composing music, he shows up his own naivety and complete lack of understanding of music. And throughout this section he forgets that humans prefer to be serviced by other humans, out of choice, even if a machine can do the job better.

There is certainly an interesting discussion to be had about the union of humans and machines. But you won't find it here.

It is a terrible pity that much of this book is so shallow, as it risks undermining Harari's big idea about why humans are special. I wish so much that he could have slowed down, thought longer and harder, and spoken to more friendly advisors, before going into print. I suppose a genius needs to be open minded, with the inevitable consequences. I await Harari's next book with interest!

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals are?
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals are?
by Frans B. M. De Waal
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.99

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Most species are more intelligent than humans in their specialist areas, 10 Sept. 2016
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This opens up a new way of thinking about humans' place in nature. It leads to a sudden realisation that our normal way of thinking is upside down and backwards. This hurt my brain a bit.

It shows how 'intelligence' is a relative concept. There are many different types of intelligence, and each species tends to have the optimal intelligence in specific areas, according to its lifestyle. Most species are more intelligent than humans in their specialist areas.

De Waal has a very relaxed and easy going manner, and the book is easy to read.

If I have one small complaint it is that De Waal spends quite a bit of time discussing people and places from is own career, so that this has some characteristics of a memoir. But I found the science more interesting myself.

The implications of the new way of thinking are so profound that this is quite hard to digest, even for the author. I am sure there is much more to come from this subject as we get more used to the idea.

Highly recommended!

Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain
Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain
by Lucy Jones
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.48

1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very UK focussed, 4 Sept. 2016
I loved the cover. But I was slightly disappointed by this.

The book is not really about foxes. Rather, it is an account of the relationship between foxes and humans specifically in the UK. I learned an enormous amount about fox hunting in the UK, but I am not particularly interested in this. For someone hoping to learn about foxes themselves, this is not really the place to look.

I will give the author credit for being extremely even handed and empathetic in the way she handles the UK's fox hunting debate. The book is also well written and easy to read. Although with hindsight the title does give some clue as to the possible content, I was misled by it as fox hunting is just not something I think about much.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 4, 2016 10:36 PM BST

Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria's Great Merchant City
Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria's Great Merchant City
by Philip Mansel
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.58

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Rushed?, 4 Sept. 2016
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The best thing about this book is the beautiful cover.

The subject is extremely timely. However I could not get past the feeling that the book has been rushed out to make it available while the subject is in the news. Much of the book comprises earlier travellers' accounts of Aleppo, which the author has merely collected. The introduction gives a very brief and high level history, but again it is relatively superficial.

It is clear that this has been a very cosmopolitan and sophisticated city through nearly all it's life. And this makes the current state of affairs doubly sad. But this is far from the ideal book to cover the subject.

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins
What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins
by Jonathan Balcombe
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brave new world, 3 Sept. 2016
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This is a superb book, with a huge quantity of cutting edge information which is new to science and therefore has not yet entered the consciousness of the everyday person.

The first realisation is that the diversity of fish life is phenonemal - much greater than land based vertebrates. So a single book can barely start to cover the subject. The second revelation is that we know very, very little about the lives of fish. The third revelation is that almost everything we think we do know about fish is completely wrong. Goldfish have memories stretching over years (not 5 seconds as we are normally told). Fish feel pain just like any other animal. And they have relationships, politics and hierarchies. They have surprising levels of intelligence (more than humans in some areas). And they are conscious.

The descriptions of these weird and wonderful creatures and their lifesyles is endlessly fascinating. I was particularly intrigued to learn about the various senses which are available to some fish (like being able to detect electric fields for example). There is apparently much more out there than the five senses we learned about in school!

I thoroughly recommend this book which will open the reader's eyes to a whole new world of living things.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 13, 2016 8:18 PM BST

Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century
Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century
by Gideon Rachman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.60

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The bigger picture, 3 Sept. 2016
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This book is beautifully written, and as result is a very easy and informative read.

It provides an excellent high level perspective, placing current events in the overall sweep of time through the last five centuries. It also roves freely across the globe, examining the rise of China from every geographic point of view.

The author maintains a good sense of balance, and is neither over pessimistic about the west nor too optimistic about China. The chapter about the continuing benefits to the west of the rule of law is very informative.

I would have liked to have had just a little bit more about China itself (as the majority of the book is about other countries and their reaction to China). I also felt the material in the chapters on the Middle East had to be pushed and pulled around a bit to make it fit the overall thesis of the book.

But overall this is a very timely and thought provoking book. At a time when many politicians are occupied with petty and time wasting preoccupations (like the UK's obsession with changing its relationship with Europe), it is good to be reminded of the bigger picture.

Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind over Body
Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind over Body
by Jo Marchant
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.88

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mind broadening, 19 July 2016
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Extremely well written and accessible, this book is very mind broadening.

While subjects like hypnosis, meditation and religion are covered here, the reader can be assured that this is a rigorous and solid scientific approach. There is no new age mumbo jumbo and there are no wishy washy claims in sight.

The author establishes beyond doubt the numerous links between mind and body. It is also rather disappointing to hear about the pressures to push research in the direction of medication, which offers better financial return but does not always make sense for the patient.

If I have one tiny criticism it would be that the chapter on religion points out all the plus points but does not highlight the negative ones. If you compared health outcomes of the religious states in the US and compared them with health outcomes in the more secular states I suspect the secular states would fare better overall.

But overall this is a milestone book, written with journalistic flair by a solid scientist, and it deserves the widest possible circulation.

The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins
The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins
by Hal Whitehead
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars Knotty writing, 23 Jun. 2016
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Sad to say this is a really knotty read. The authors have done wonderful research into whales, but they are not good writers. A lot of this reads like a dull scientific paper, and seriously lacks creativity and imagination. It was hard work!

There is a another problem. In the past, the scientific establishment believed, for entirely emotional reasons, that animals were non conscious machines following instinct, and therefore have no culture. The authors go flat out to disprove this thesis. That may be interesting for any remaining individuals who cling to the old school, but for the rest of us it is a bit like being given a rigorous step by step proof that the earth is not flat. I suppose the case needed to be made (otherwise the authors wouldn't have made it), but it does reduce the attractiveness of this book.

So overall, while this contains some fascinating information about whale culture (I especially enjoyed the section on whale song), this is a disappointing book. I hope that a professional writer - a science journalist perhaps - will pick up the material and give us a really excellent book on the subject.

The Summer Before the War
The Summer Before the War
by Helen Simonson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Will make even the hardest heart cry, 5 Jun. 2016
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This is a wonderful novel from every point of view. Helen Simonson is a master.

The 580 pages whizzed by, feeling more like a brief 200 pages.

The book has everything: it is very funny; poignant (it made me cry, and that hasn’t happened to me in the last 50 novels I read); it conjours the time and place so well; the dialogue is excellent and often feels like a play; the novel is well plotted and unpredictable; everything is beautifully restrained and understated throughout; there is an excellent sense of dramatic timing.

I loved the way the war just appears casually out of the blue, and the author resists the temptation to describe the build up. This reflects what people actually experienced. Her restraint shows in the way the idyllic Sussex summer life continues pretty much as normal, long afrer the outbreak of war. She holds the real war back until the last 70 pages. For a long time the characters maintain their pre war plans, and only in small ways does the war start to intrude.

The relationships are described in a beautifully restrained way too, which I also admired. For example the Daniel/Craigmore relationship is handled with great subtlety. Less is more.

There is much else to enjoy – the social commentary is very perceptive and even the minor characters engage the emotions (my tears were caused by one of them). The description of the war itself is handled better than a man could have done it (no boring technical bits!)
I was so happy that the author avoids some of the clichés which mar many contemporary novels. No flashbacks, no overloading with pretentious mataphors, and some of the characters are actually allowed to be nice.

I thoroughly recommend this book, which I would give six stars if I could. Reading it will give you a burning desire to visit Rye, but that is no bad thing either.

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