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Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts
Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts
by Clive James
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.08
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4.0 out of 5 stars Jamesiana, February 6, 2013

Cultural Amnesia consists of about one hundred short essays on various people who influenced European culture for good or bad (I use the word `European' in the sense that James uses `English' writers meaning cultural rather than geographical space). It is not a book for the commuter train or the dentist's waiting room. It takes time to read. It requires the reader's full attention. Several times I had to stop to go over a sentence, not because it was badly constructed or ambiguous, but because I had not thought enough of what the words and their combination meant. Each essay is structured with an opening statement that is usually more or less a prosaic account, followed by a quotation from the subject's work. He then goes into a kind of stream of consciousness that may take him far from his starting point. The essay on G.K. Chesterton for example wanders into the world of music from Puccini to Beethoven via Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky. But each essay usually ends with a short coda that refers back to the beginning in a way reminiscent of the Beethoven string quartets that James admires so much. The essays are dense with the author's, mostly very well informed, opinions, but unless you are a James clone you will inevitably find parts where you disagree.
James is primarily a journalist. It is therefore no surprise that his several books of memoirs, while well written and very entertaining, appear to have been produced with an eye to the market. This collection, though, probably will not appeal to a wide readership. It could reasonably be considered as self-indulgent because it seems to have been written largely for his personal satisfaction. He deals with the world of European thought and ideas according to James - a subject he knows well in several languages. We may disagree when he makes statements on subjects such as the importance of the Christian scriptures or that Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead is `unarguably' a work of stature or (most surprisingly) that Evelyn Waugh represents the height of English prose! But we are in a subjective Jamesian world with his view of reality - a subjectivism verging on solipsism.
He was educated in postwar Australia and England. Europe was still recovering from the shock of totalitarian criminal governments and their actions. Germany's pre-eminence in literature, science and advanced systems of social justice inherited from Bismarck suffered terrible damage under the Nazis. Austria was sucked (willingly?) into the maelstrom. The Nazi's cousins, the Fascists and Falangists, did much the same in southern Europe but with less thoroughness or singleness of purpose. Italy was more modest both in its destruction of its culture and its military enterprise. Soviet Communism out Nazied the Nazis. It destroyed all Russian culture in its path much as the Red Army had done with the Germans and with a similar high rate of casualties.
The totalitarian plagues that infested Europe did terrible damage to the intellectual world that James so much admires. His horror of the cultural loss appears under many guises but one recurring theme is that of Jewish writers who were victims of Nazism but whose destruction severely harmed the European intellectual tradition because of their disproportionately great contribution to European culture. However his understandable revulsion at the Nazi's attempt to extirpate the Jewish race has unbalanced his accounts of Hitler and Goebbels. He makes no attempt to address the troubling question as to why so many people admired and supported them to the end. It is unwise to write off these men as maniacs. James describes Goebbels as a `crippled schizophrenic'. Mental illness would be an excuse for his behaviour. His crimes though were committed by a sane, intelligent, educated and charming man who was (to use an old-fashioned word) evil. The same applies to his boss Adolf, but without the education.
James is a champion of `liberal social democracy' but unlike most people in my experience who use this phrase, he is not leftist; in fact he appears hostile to Socialism. He appears to belong in an unusual category of right wing, intellectual, liberal (using the word liberal in its European rather than American sense). It may be no coincidence that the four Britons from the 20th century that he selects include G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh and Margaret Thatcher. All three were highly reactionary and strongly religious - the first two worshipping at the Catholic altar; the last the God of supply side economics. Attila the Hun would not feel out of place in this company. The fourth by the way is Beatrix Potter. The left wing is personified in the obnoxious Jean-Paul Sartre. (It is a little unfair on les gauchistes to be represented by the master of radical chic). James is silent on how his liberal social democracy would survive under naked Capitalism, that in spite of everything that has happened in recent years still seems to be the panacea of the liberal (in its American sense) Right. Cuts to funding of the arts and education in the interest of fiscal probity is not a formula for preserving the national culture unless by that you mean celebrity soccer players, TV pundits and third rate pop stars. When James moves out of his intellectual space into the brutal and crude world of politics he sounds (one hesitates to use the word to describe a man of his intellectual depth) naive.
James is delightfully chauvinistic about the land of his birth. He awards Australian war correspondent and writer Alan Moorhead the status of a major literary figure. One suspects that James is not being entirely fair dinkum. Could he be coming the raw prawn? We are told that Moorhead befriended Montgomery. With the greatest deference to Clive James I think it may well have been the other way round. Captains do not usually `befriend' Generals, not at least in the British Army but maybe the Aussies are different. Anyhow who could possibly regard Montgomery as a friend? He wasn't even a good enemy. Apparently the British regard modern Australian culture as infinitely richer than its own. Again it is hard, as a Canadian, not to feel a little sceptical. Maybe the Poms were just being kind Clive. I feel sure that James has strong feelings about the superiority of Vegemite too.
In summary this book is worth buying in hardback because you will keep going back to it. It provokes interest in all sorts of people. The works of some I knew well, many vaguely. Others were completely new to me. He dedicates Cultural Amnesia to the memory of Sophie Scholl. I think this great German would have been pleased. I hope she would.

Londongrad: From Russia with Cash;The Inside Story of the Oligarchs
Londongrad: From Russia with Cash;The Inside Story of the Oligarchs
by Mark Hollingsworth
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.34
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lords of the Flies, August 12, 2011
Lord Acton was right. The more the lolly the more the corruption. That is just one of the several inferences of this book that is not spelt out but left to the reader to connect the dots. The dots though are generally so close together that it is scarcely necessary to connect them. It is a subtle piece of writing because superficially it is racy journalism but some of the dots are pixel size so that the subliminal message comes out as clearly as if it were engraved in stone.

The authors do not present a polemic. They simply recount facts which we may assume are true because no overpaid lawyer has got an injunction to prevent their publication. The book deals with the accumulation of staggering amounts of personal wealth by a handful of ex-Soviet wheeler-dealers (Messrs Berezovsky, Khodorkovsky, Fridman, Gusinsky, Abramovich, Deripaska and Patarkatsishvili among others) soon after the collapse of the USSR and their gross behaviour in squandering it on themselves and their friends. The crudity of their lives reflects their extraordinarily low cultural level. They have the tastes of gangsters, and not just the tastes. They justify their grasping greed by saying it was OK because it was legal. Adolf Hitler and his merry entourage were 'legal'. Morality and law are not the same thing. To acquire, by whatever means, huge amounts of the property of the Russian people then to squirrel the proceeds away in foreign havens to protect it from taxation and being returned to its rightful owners is immorality on an industrial scale.

The main focus of this book is London where the oligarchs feel safe because courts seem reluctant to extradite them even though they are charged with serious crimes in their own country. The Chief Magistrate of London appears to sincerely believe that Berezovsky is a political refugee! They have recruited highly-placed British bag-carriers. Lord Bell was a media adviser (PR man to put it more crudely) to Maggie Thatcher who knighted him for his efforts. Tony Blair gave him a peerage. He now is employed to improve the image of London-based oligarchs and to represent the interest of the rich and powerful such as the Saudi government. (What on earth had this man done to benefit his country that justified him being appointed to the upper house and to sit in government over the British people at their expense? The authors of this book don't ask the question). A fellow Peer of the Realm, Lord Goldsmith, the man who gave flexible advice on the legality of attacking Iraq, is another hanger-on in the entourage that surrounds plutomaniac Russians. He provided legal advice to Patarkatsishvili - a late client of Lord Bell.

The political spectrum is well-represented among the Russian's spongers. Another noble Lord, Mandelson, of the then ruling Labour Party and George Osborne, at the time Shadow Chancellor in the Tory opposition and Nat Rothschild, of the famous banking family were notoriously entertained by Depriska on his luxury yacht in Corfu. In case the middle-ground of British politics feel left out Lord Owen was up to his neck with Khodorkovsky. It's amazing how many of the flies buzzing around have the title Lord. Connecting the obvious dots is it any wonder that not only British but also French, Italian, Canadian, and perhaps most of all, American citizens are disillusioned with their leaders. It is unimaginable that Roy Jenkins, or Lord Carrington or in more recent times Shirley Williams, would stoop so low as to associate with these people. How many times have leading politicians of any stripe been entertained in their homes by working people in Wolverhampton or Tottenham? Do Britain's political leaders have no interest in the British poor, just the foreign rich? Lord Acton was right and so was Oliver Goldsmith (no relation) when he says that wealth accumulates but men decay.

The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe
The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe
by Roger Penrose
Edition: Paperback
Price: $18.20
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Revolutionary Cambridge Mathematician, February 3, 2011
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The mathematician in the title of this review is of course Newton, but Penrose has a similar claim, though being modest would probably be embarassed at the comparison. Other than their profound knowledge of Mathematics and its closely allied subject Physics, Newton and Penrose were both willing to peer into other areas of science and speculate. Trespassing outside of ones own scientific territory has its perils. Newton wandered into Alchemy and the Occult and Penrose has written on the function of the brain and now in this book has stepped into the great unknown before the Universe exploded in the Big Bang. As a communicator and teacher of advanced Physics Penrose is bettered in my opinion only by Richard Feynman, but where Penrose is extraordinary is in his courage in presenting revolutionary ideas in a world of aggressive and often very unpleasant academics who defend their turf with a vigour verging on mania.

He expects a lot from his reader but much of what he is trying to explain is not understandable outside of Mathematics and any attempt to explain his arguments using language is not just an oversimplification but may indeed be wrong. Many kinds of mathematical space other than our own three dimensions require some understanding of tensors to follow the reasoning. Quantum physics is based upon complex numbers. Penrose's earlier book The Road to Reality deals with all this in some detail and is understandable with a lot of effort even by non-mathematicians such as me.

Although marginal to the subject of this book I would have liked to hear more on his views on the cosmological constant that to applied scientists sounds embarassingly like a 'fudge factor' designed to make theory fit facts. Another minor quibble is in the editing. Some sentences sound as if they were taken verbatim from a lecture (perhaps they were). An inevitable problem when a specialist is explaining a subject to a non-specialist editor is that obscurity isn't always because of the nature of the subject but may be because it is badly expressed in language. The spelling of the word discernible and a few other grammatical errors should be corrected in future editions, after all Penrose can't do everything...not quite.

The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia's Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB
The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia's Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB
by Andreĭ. Soldatov
Edition: Hardcover
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More Sword than Shield, November 25, 2010
Reports by brave and resourceful journalists in Russia are worth buying if for no other reason than to show concern for this enigmatic country that has played a central role, often beneficial, in world affairs since Napoleon. The authors make no attribution to a translator so it must be assumed that they wrote directly into English which is quite remarkable because of the clarity of their language and the absence of absurd posturing that is so prevalent in modern English liberal journalism. What they have to say does not come as a surprise to most of us who have seen with horror the untimely deaths of many Russian journalists, especially those reporting on the criminal behaviour of Russian defence and security forces. Soldatov and Boragan provide new information, much of it first hand, of incidents such as the murder of schoolchildren at Beslan and the infamous Nord-Ost assault by Chechen terrorists. The FSB is shown to be at least incompetent in handling these incidents.

However it is easy to sit on the sideline and tell police and soldiers who were risking their lives how it could have been done better particularly when they were faced with suicide bombers who may explode taking hundreds of victims with them at any threat of being captured. Furthermore, in a world where the United States has waged several undeclared wars starting with Vietnam (does the word infamy spring to mind?), France has killed an opponent of hydrogen bomb tests in the ironically named Pacific Ocean, Britain executed unarmed Irish citizens in a Gibraltar street, to say nothing of murderous Mossad - all in the name of state security is Russia any different?

The end of the USSR created several democracies in countries that had previously known only autocracy of one form or another. In this difficult transition Russia has not been helped by a range of enemies from Islamic terrorists, Russian plutocrats who grabbed vast wealth during the dissolution of the Soviet Union and of course its old foes since 1917, the United States and its satellite Britain. Soldatov and Boragan I believe are too hard on their country. It would have been fairer to put Russia in its global context. It is not greatly different from many countries that have behaved foolishly or even criminally in the face of terrorism.

Terrorism is insidious because it provokes its victims into the same evil mentality as the terrorist. But to fight according to civilised rules is doomed to lose. It is a sad fact that unless a country bows to the terrorists demands it must fight dirty. Trotsky wouldn't have spent his days in exile studying and writing if he had been in the Gulag or Hitler churn out his bizarre diatribe of his `struggle' in an SS concentration camp. Fidel in the hands of the Cuban Security Service would have had to forego the cigars shipped to his prison cell on the Isla de Pinos.

Many countries are faced with the apparently insolvable task of constructing a legal framework that allows effective actions against terrorists but does not trample on the freedom of its citizens. Russia is not unique in having no answer to this conundrum.

What Next?: Surviving the Twenty-first Century
What Next?: Surviving the Twenty-first Century
by Chris Patten
Edition: Hardcover
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Good Guy Looks at the World (with the help of Google and research assistants), October 30, 2009
In his latest book Chris Patten provides a humane perspective on some of the horrors that the World faces in modern times from proliferation of nuclear and other arms, crime, drugs, disease and bank managers. The blurb on the jacket of the paperback version includes the usual undiluted praise, mainly from prestigious British sources, with one acerbic comment from Simon Robinson of Time magazine that describes it with some accuracy as 'part history part opinionated guidebook', to which he could have added 'part compendium of interesting facts.' However Patten's opinions are worth reading. He is an unusual politician in that he does not have a monumental ego and is willing to recognise the achievements of his political adversaries. He has also been in the centre of world affairs for many years and has met and knows some of its key players. The changing times in which we live are reflected in the six people he names 'who have tried to improve the world', two are of Portuguese origin, one Chinese, one Arab and only one American. This is a very different world since the last major resetting of human affairs after WW 2 with Bretton Woods and the U.N. - dominated at that time by the U.S. It would have been interesting to hear more from Patten on the decline of American power and the new multipolar world and its consequences both good and bad. In fact it is the deeper level of insight and understanding that will answer the question 'what next?' that is missing from this book.

Patten has a cool logical approach but his personal bias shows through from time to time. A nuclear-armed Iran is obviously not good but it seems a little one-eyed to warn of its potential threat to security in the Middle East when Israel, that many Arabs would regard as substantially more threatening than Iran, is armed to the teeth with rockets and nuclear warheads. The decline in populations of ethnic Europeans throughout the world is presented as a problem when in fact the best hope for a less polluted and better world with adequate resources for all is when world population starts to decline. The spread of AIDS in Africa combined with rapid increase in human population guarantees disasters in the future even worse than we have today. Both of these problems, overpopulation and AIDS will be improved by wider use of condoms - a solution which Patten, understandably because of his personal religious beliefs, does not advocate.

The density of information is enormous and detailed which together with the changes of style and contradictions in facts suggest that research assistants and Google played a large part in its preparation. Much of the numerical data should have been presented as graphs and tables in appendices with attributions which are almost entirely missing. Technical subjects are generally presented in such simple terms as to be misleading. Oil will not be pumped until finally the last barrel is shipped off to be refined. As oil prices increase new conventional, oil sand and oil shale reserves increase exponentially. The same applies to all natural resources. Malthus was wrong. Metals and mineral fuels are virtually limitless - at a cost, both financial and environmental. Patten says that countries reliant on natural resource exports are prone to civil war. Oh? Canada, Russia, Australia, Chile, Brazil and Norway are very large suppliers of natural resources to the world though I think the chances of blood in the streets of Melbourne or Oslo rather far-fetched and Russia's last civil war was quite a long time ago. I think Patten (or his assistant) has in mind Sierra Leone, Angola and DRC - countries that are small players among the global natural resource economies.

In short this is a book from a unique perspective with many interesting insights and stories but which wanders into areas that the author and his assistants have no knowledge or understanding which is a shame because Chris Patten is one of the good guys.

The Inner Bird: Anatomy and Evolution
The Inner Bird: Anatomy and Evolution
by Gary W. Kaiser
Edition: Hardcover
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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars New thoughts on birds, August 5, 2007
Kaiser's book is called 'The Inner Bird' because he concentrates on the skeleton and internal features of this large and varied group of animals rather than the superficial plumage and behaviour which have been the subject of a great number of books in the past. It is an exceptional and possibly unique presentation of the highly specialized field of modern ornithology and the origin and development of the bird written in language readily accessible to the reader by an acknowledged expert. Kaiser describes the basic structure of birds, the most recent discoveries of feathered dinosaurs, early evolution and the way birds have adapted in their anatomy to different environments. The book is full of interesting insights and asides. Few people are aware for example that the bird was fully evolved long before the extinction of the dinosaurs or why penguins are so successful underwater (their anatomy allows them to generate pressure on the upstroke)or that the little swift may achieve speeds of more than 160 Km/hour. This book is not cheap but very good value for anyone who is interested in these extraordinary animals.

Bitter Fame
Bitter Fame
by Anne Stevenson
Edition: Paperback
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Madness and Genius, December 1, 2005
This review is from: Bitter Fame (Paperback)
Plath is presented as an unstable but very talented woman. There is not doubting her instability which appeared long before she met Ted Hughes, but what Anne Stevenson has managed to do is present the enormous stresses placed upon her husband and her friends by Plath's behaviour. It is not easy living with a poet, at least one who writes seriously. Dido Merwin was on the receiving end of some pretty nasty vitriol, but if you have a face-lift to make yourslef look younger don't invite a perceptive poet along to visit you in hospital. This book is a fine biography and in my view is the standard work on a great 20th century poet.

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