Reviews By Me
THE RED PLANET, by Simon Morden
Will you be one of the intrepid few to venture out to Mars?
Now is a good time for this book. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk wants to send a million people to Mars by 2050. He feels it is important for humanity to become a multi-planet species as a kind of life insurance policy in the event that we should either destroy ourselves entirely or be subject to a natural calamity, such as a major meteorite strike or some other Earth threatening event. He anticipates terraforming Mars to support human life, and plans to build cities under vast glass domes and ship people to them by the hundreds in reusable spacecraft that may one day become as regular as chartered flights to holiday destinations. It seems like the stuff of science fiction but Elon Musk seems pretty convinced that he can do it.
Author Simon Morden is also fascinated by the planet Mars. Called the Red Planet because of the iron oxide in its rock, Mars is Morden’s missed opportunity. He ordered a piece of a meteorite from NASA’s collection when, as a young student, he had just completed a doctorate on the magnetic properties of meteorites. It was rusty and unpromising so he tossed it aside and found another subject. This must have been one of those occasions when you’d want to find the nearest crater and bury your head inside it, because what he actually had was a meteorite from Mars, one of a tiny group of Martian rocks that had landed here on Earth at some point in the past. Devastated by the lost chance, he abandoned his research and started writing science fiction…READ MORE HERE
12 BYTES, by Jeanette Winterson
How we got here…where we might go next
Perspective is a good thing. We are often told to step back and see the bigger picture, and it isn’t always easy. Author of the acclaimed novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a semi-autobiographical, coming of age story that became a BAFTA-winning screen adaptation and made it into the A Level national curriculum, Jeanette Winterson now brings us this: a book of essays about our collective past and future, a work of non-fiction unlike any other that delivers a quantity of perspective strong enough to restore sight to the visually impaired.
Having read a large amount of non-fiction over the past few years, written from various social, political, spiritual and philosophical angles, I feel that this book merits an award, if not half a dozen. The style of writing is powerfully persuasive and the arguments are incisive. Set to be a new classic, 12 Bytes explores the route that humanity has taken to get where we are now, and then takes a radical look at what seems to be inevitable, with topics ranging from sex dolls to cryonics, artificial intelligence and what is likely to happen when we finally smudge homo sapiens out of the picture on the cave walls of Big Tech.
READ MORE HERE
A SHORT HISTORY OF FRANCE, by Jeremy Black
A Brilliant History of France
In the summer of 1944, not long before France was liberated, German soldiers grown desperate in the face of allied opposition rounded up the entire population of the village. 642 civilians were murdered. The men were shot point blank. The women and children were herded into the small church in the square, undoubtedly weeping at the sight of their men and rightly terrified at what was now in store for them. Then, when they were all inside and the door was barricaded fast, the church was set on fire. Nobody survived. “Today,” relates Black, “the village stands as it was after the devastation”, a grisly monument in the history of a country often plagued by a lack of cohesion, a deep-rooted distrust of government and an anarchic mentality.
Black leaves the reader in no doubt that, after the Germans were defeated and driven out of France, the history of those dreadful years was rewritten to cover up the high level of collaboration with the Nazis and to glorify the courage of the Resistance fighters who had meanwhile stood their ground but were not perhaps as numerous as the French nation would have liked. The celebrations of victory were followed by “a popular fury, called the Epuration (purge), directed against collaborators. Possibly up to 10,000 were killed and 40,000 detained.” The Vichy government naturally was top of the list. “Pierre Laval, the Vichy prime minister who was convicted of plotting against the security of the state and collaboration, was executed by firing squad.” READ MORE HERE
FIFTY SOUNDS, by Polly Barton
A Book about Language and Life
This book is a love affair with the country of Japan, its people and its words. I’ll say words not language because Fifty Sounds, winner of the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Essay prize, contains a glossary of random Japanese words thrown together as pairs, with each word pair recalling a sound made in a particular context. It’s language learning, but not exactly text-book oriented. It talks about philosophy but wraps it up in personal experience. So, is this an essay, an autobiography, or a dictionary? It’s probably all of these, which makes it quite unique.
The premise of the book is how language must be bound up with experience in order to be really understood. Language is context dependent. A word can change its meaning in any given context quite subtly, and Barton plays around with these subtleties, alienating the reader then hooking them back in through the medium of story. As her command of Japanese deepens she succeeds in breaking the linguistic code that made her feel like an outsider. Words can be feelings, and feelings are the switch that turns a language on…READ MORE HERE
EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE, by Ian Williams
China’s New Tyranny
In his new book chillingly titled Every Breath You Take, Ian Williams, who was Channel 4 News foreign correspondent for Asia from 1995 to 2006, graphically explains why we should be wary of the world’s most dangerous and fastest growing superpower. China’s reputation has been heavily tarnished of late by the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, during which the attitude of officials has vacillated between on the surface cooperation and cover-ups. But in all the uncertainty one thing is clear, China has emerged from the pandemic stronger than before. The fear that was generated by the virus outbreak has allowed the totalitarian state to wield its internal power in new and frankly terrifying ways. It has even used the fear stoked by the virus as a smoke screen in order to make multiple arrests in Hong Kong and tear up the ‘one country two systems’ agreement, confident that every other government in the world would be so busy with its own problems that the deed would pass unnoticed, and it did, for a while. Other aspects of life in China are also passing unnoticed, and the warning in this book is clear. If we do not make more of an effort to curtail China’s influence, it will be too difficult to stem the tide of her insidious ambitions…READ MORE HERE
THE WEB OF MEANING, by Jeremy Lent
‘We need to re-evaluate the way we see the world’
A number of books have been written recently with the aim of drawing attention to the apparent misconceptions that have directed Western civilisation since the first murmurings of agricultural and industrial revolution were heard in Britain and Europe over four hundred years ago.
We have read and reviewed How to be Animal by Melanie Challenger, as well as This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein. We have lingered over The Goodness Paradox by Richard Wrangham and cogitated Sapiens by Yuval Harari. We have also brandished Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond in the faces of the sceptical. Each of these books is different, but all of them have in common a pressing belief that things need to change and that a new vision of both the past and the future is desperately needed if society is going to survive into the next century and beyond. All of them believe that to build on the successes of the past (and there have been many, so let’s not feel too dismal), we need to re-evaluate the way we view the world and our place in it. These books have clearly been motivated by the current climate crisis, but many of them put forward the idea that we have had a tendency to see our role in the world as that of a dominant species with the superiority complex to match. And the warnings are insistent. We cannot expect to bring on mass extinctions and global warming with impunity. Something has to change…READ MORE HERE
UNDREAMED SHORES, by Frances Larson
The Hidden Heroines of British Anthropology
Ethnocentrism, or cultural ignorance, means thinking one’s own culture is superior to another, or the right way to live. This has been a feature of colonialism ever since the days of the Raj and probably long before. When the first colonisers set foot on the shores of the New World they certainly considered themselves to be superior, as did the Spanish conquistadors, whose swordsmanship left the Incas in no doubt of the fact. As the world continues to struggle with the demons of slavery, genocide and racism – the outcomes of historical ethnocentrism – it is enlightening to remember the individuals who tried to shake it off.
Read More HERE
WOMAN IN THE PLURAL, by Vitezslav Nezval
Verse and Surrealist Experiments
The history of the Czech Republic is marked by the stains of the ‘Human Condition’, and the significance of both the history and the phrase have influenced Czech poet Vítezslav Nezval’s collection of poems, ‘Woman in the Plural’, first written during the inter-war years and recently translated by Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novicka in this new edition.
As a nation, Czechoslovakia rose from the ashes of the Russian revolution, when the Tsar and his family were sacrificed in 1918 on the altar of Marxist ideology. Ideology is contagious, and when it chimes with a need for change it becomes a driving force. After the First World War, when the old Austro-Hungarian empire finally crumbled beneath the weight of the region’s collective war-mongering, the Czech and Slovak peoples, who had been ruled for over three hundred years by powerful Habsburg princes, yearned for change. But as they say, be careful what you wish for. The inter-war years went by fast. In 1939 Hitler may have shared the empire building aspirations of the old empiricists but his approach was far more sinister. When Nazi Germany was finally overcome, the Russians also invaded Czechoslovakia and communism became a reality instead of just a dream. Poet and playwright Viteslav Nezval died ten years before the Prague Spring of 1968, but in 1936 his poetry still bathed in the vision of a classless society, of the kind that Karl Marx advocated. READ THE FULL REVIEW
DAUGHTER OF THE REICH, by Louise Fein
Impossible love against the backdrop of the Nazi regime
Author Louise Fein writes …the inspiration behind Daughter of the Reich was my father, who came to England as a refugee from Nazi Germany in 1933. He grew up in Leipzig, where the book is set, and although the story itself is fictional, all the events and incidences in the book are based around real events. My father never spoke of his life in Leipzig and he died when I was only seventeen so it was always something I wanted to explore. In researching the book, I travelled to Leipzig and was lucky enough to have access to some family archives.
An engrossing and enjoyable book that resonates with the author’s own experience of her family history, Daughter of the Reich is about what happens to people when they become the victims of manipulation as a result of propaganda. Hitler’s Germany provided humanity with a dangerously successful example of large-scale manipulation and indoctrination. It succeeded in convincing large swathes of its population, including its armed forces, of the validity of Hitler’s anti Semitic policies and his own particular variety of megalomania, and the characters in this book are likewise swept up by the fervour, to the ruin of all.
This is primarily a story of impossible love, but romance is not the only driving force behind it. There are questions, profound ones: How was it possible that fathers could turn into sadists and soldiers could turn into murderers? How could a child be made to turn against his family, and how could a daughter absolve her parents from the sins that they commit in the name of the fatherland? Highly recommended…
BRITAIN AT BAY, by Alan Allport
The Epic Story of the Second World War
There have been numerous books written about the Second World War, and many of them are excellent. What makes this one different, however, is the way it blows apart some of the myths we have come to accept as facts, such as Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler and Britain’s Blitz psychology. It’s a big tome to read, but not a heavy one. It is so incredibly detailed that the research behind it fairly boggles the mind… A great read for history buffs or those who have watched too many WWII films and need a reality check.
Full review to follow if I ever make it to the end…
UNDERLAND, by Robert MacFarlane
A Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller
It’s not often that I rave about a book, but I’m going to rave about this one. It has been an absolute privilege to spend time with Robert Macfarlane on his travels through what he calls the Underland of the world in this, his new book. I have never climbed a proper mountain, nor dared to enter deep into an underground cave, but because Macfarlane the writer draws you so deeply into his experience in Underland, I almost feel I have – or could.
I have several of Robert’s books in my library at home, including The Wild Places and The Old Ways, but it seems that his writing has reached even greater heights with his latest work. Macfarlane’s style has always been deeply lyrical, but now the lyricism has evolved into something more powerful. He has always drawn the reader expertly into his world through the lens of emotion as he delves into the geography and geology of a place. We still get that in Underland, but we also get a whole lot more. Consider this passage, which is at the opening of the book, “In a cave within a scarp of karst, a figure inhales a mouthful of red ochre dust, places its left hand against the cave wall – fingers spread, thumb out, palm cold on the rock – and then blows the ochre hard against the hand’s back. There is an explosion of dust – and when the hand is lifted its ghostly print remains…The prints will survive for more than 35,000 years. Sign of what? Of joy? Of warning? Of art? Of life in the darkness?” READ MORE HERE
THE PRECIPICE, by Toby Ord
EXISTENTIAL RISK AND THE FUTURE OF HUMANITY
The world is in the midst of what may be the most deadly pandemic of the past 100 years. Threats to humanity, and how we address them, define our time.
So, just how worried should we be, and about what exactly? Ecologists worry daily about the threats to other species of animal on the planet. We worry about the rhino, the elephant and the tiger. We worry about trees and plants and sometimes even insect life. But do we worry enough about our own future? It seems that we don’t, because we have constructed most of our societies according to the ‘live for today’ principle. As Toby Ord points out, ‘we forget the scale of the story in which we take part…Fuelled by technological progress, our power has grown so great that for the first time in humanity’s long history, we have the capacity to destroy ourselves—severing our entire future and everything we could become.’
Ultimately, the drive of this profound and fascinating book is to try to make us understand what is at stake, what is being done, and why it all matters. Such books form an essential part of the vital conversation that we should be having about the future. As we have recently discovered, preparedness is the key to our survival. And the more we understand that, the better. ‘Safeguarding humanity’s future is the defining challenge of our time’. But we have to do it wisely. READ MORE HERE
‘A book that seems made for the present moment…’
STORIES WE TELL OURSELVES, by Richard Holloway
Well, this is a turn up for the books, I must say. Author Richard Holloway was Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. What is he doing writing a book about the difficulty of believing in God? Is this the most contradictory book of all time, or are we at last witnessing the Great Questioning of Faith, which seems to have taken an eternity to be given a proper airing by one of its own? Hard not to raise your arms up and cry Halleluiah to that.
The objective of this fascinating and deeply humane book is to answer the question, what story does the author want to live by, and what stories have we, as a Christian society in particular, really lived by? Is it the story of the Church or another, more sinister and convoluted story, and if so, what has it done for us?
Read more HERE
How to be Animal, by Melanie Challenger
MELANIE CHALLENGER, researcher and environmental philosopher, is the author of On Extinction: How we Became Estranged from Nature. Now she has written a second book on the subject of humankind’s relationship with nature. This book, How to be Animal, is in a way an exploration of what social distancing has meant for the animal kingdom. Psychologically, socially and even biologically we have gradually seen ourselves as more and more separate from other animals: a species apart and deserving of special consideration. There is a whole legacy within us, which is by definition animal. We are, in fact, living ‘inside a paradox’ in the sense that ‘it’s so blindly obvious that we’re animals and yet some part of us doesn’t believe it’. This is because for centuries we have seen ourselves as the chosen ones among the rest of creation. We have anchored these myths into the bedrock of religion right from the start and they are hard to pick apart. How to be Animal probes deep into these questions and gives us the science behind the answers. We need that science if we are to turn the page on our own arrogance and replace it with something more enduring.
A Tall History of Sugar, by Curdella Forbes
A Tall History of Sugar transports you to warm, colourful Jamaica, both in content and in style. It’s an antidote to depression, a book to escape with. Replete with lyricism on every page, it tells the story of Moshe Fisher, a boy born neither black nor white but blue. Moshe’s story is narrated by the girl who tries to protect him from the gaze of other people, which, significantly, is also coloured by his skin. This is a subtle book about racism in a post-colonial world, but it is also a beautiful, piercingly imaginative tale about transcendent love. The appearance of Moshe is a brilliant trope; a man with no definable skin colour cannot be a hostage to his history, but still he is.. …’ READ THE FULL REVIEW
Tragedy, The Greeks & Us, by Simon Critchley
Tragedy, the Greeks and Us, by Simon Critchley, is a thought provoking, academic book about all that we have taken from Ancient Greek culture concerning our understanding of tragedy, and all that we have either forgotten, or never understood. The quote that appears at the front of the book says it all. We have cultivated ourselves on the foundations of Ancient Greek culture and civilisation, but we are, in the end, fakes unless we dig deeper and really get to grips with the particular lessons we could take away from tragedy, because first and foremost, tragedy is not really about disaster or a fall; it is about fate and what we do with it….READ THE FULL REVIEW
Our Fathers, by Rebecca Wait
What kind of man kills his own family?’
A haunting novel set in the wild Outer Hebrides of Scotland
You can’t really read Our Fathers by Rebecca Wait and come away unscathed. This is one of those understated books that really gets under your skin. At first sight, it looks like a dark book; the cover is spectacular. Forebodingly dark and moody, it conjures up the sentiment of the novel. Being a story about a man who murders his family in cold blood, this is not a bedtime story or a jolly holiday ramble. But it is a book worth reading…How can Tommy, the child who survives, ever find a way of living with the past? That is the question this book asks. The answer is, he can’t, not really. But even as he replays the memory of that dreadful day and the few days that preceded it, the trauma doesn’t let him see it right. There is more than one secret in this tale and memory, so it seems, is quite deceptive. The past is a story we tell ourselves, says the narrator. Sooner or later you have to decide what kind of tale you want to hear, or what version of the story you can live with..
The Goodness Paradox, by Richard Wrangham
In the middle of the eighteenth century, a group of ‘wild children’ was discovered roaming the woodlands of Europe (and by wild I mean not Ibiza party wild, which would barely raise an eyebrow, but ‘savagely’ wild in the Tarzan sense). The discovery fuelled a debate already in progress about how people had evolved. At the heart of this debate was the ‘nature/nurture’ question: were we born with certain characteristics, which defined us as a species, or could we be conditioned by environment? The legend of Tarzan was lapped up by Victorians, providing us with one of the best-loved characters of popular fiction and a gut busting calling card. Were we innately wild or tame, savage or civilised, good or evil? READ THE FULL REVIEW.
How Democracy Ends, by David Runciman
Democratic politics,’ says Author David Runciman “has become an elaborate show. Mature, Western democracy is over the hill”. Mr Runciman is Professor of Politics at Cambridge and so he must be right. It is in fact hard to read this book without being persuaded that we are on the brink of democratic collapse. How weary a word has democracy actually become, and why is it over the hill? READ THE FULL REVIEW
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