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Friday 16 September 2011

Will the Chinese really eat the West?

How The West Was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly - And the Stark Choices Ahead, by Dambisa Moyo (Allen Lane, 2011)

The book is full of the discourse of winners and losers, victors and vanquished, races to be won, opponents to be outmanoeuvred, markets to be cornered. The author would no doubt consider this to be simple realism, premised upon a world with finite resources (how depressing), but one has to ask, does the world really need another book which implores nations to better impoverish one another?

‘The golden age is still ahead of us’

Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life Beyond the Solar System by Ray Jayawardhana (Princeton University Press, 2011)

Two aspects of the book stand out. One is the sheer excitement of the search, the traditional longing of mankind to know more and to discover more, although Jayawardhana has to record the failures as often as the successes. The other is the way that planet-searching has become a huge aspect of astronomic research in the last two decades. Jayawardhana names project after project, most of them using existing ground-based telescopes and facilities.

La mort de l’Europe

The End of the West: the Once and Future Europe, by David Marquand (Princeton University Press, 2011)

Marquand reduces democracy to being a way of adjudicating between competing claims of individuals who just won’t get along, much like a marriage guidance counsellor - or a judge. It means ‘accepting difference, rejoicing in difference, and negotiating difference’. Marquand stresses the complexity of modern life and proposes democracy as a tool to manage competing identities and differences.

Wednesday 31 August 2011

Light from the red hat

Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, by Raymond Tallis (Acumen, 2011)

Seeking to find our uniqueness within the claustrum or anterior cingulate cortex is like trying to unpick the internet by taking apart a single computer. Tallis’ conception of the human subject is one that is ‘embodied’ in a body in the material world as well as the social one, rather than caged only within the confines of the brain.

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Wheezy arguments

Civil Liberties: Up in Smoke, by Simon Davies (Privacy International, 2011)

Advocates of the smoking ban don’t trust ordinary people to resolve any conflict between smokers and non-smokers, or not to chain smoke in front of their babies. In the same way, Simon Davies seems to think that readers need exaggeration and sensationalism in order to be convinced that the smoking ban is wrong.

Thursday 4 August 2011

The Big Irony

The Big Society Challenge, by various authors (Keystone Development Trust, 2011)

Far from representing a challenge to Big State, the Big Society is providing a new rationale for institution-building and state-led activity in the community. And far from offering opportunities for the enterprising, it appeals to elite prejudices about people’s incapacities and about the way we live our lives.

Friday 15 July 2011

The edge of the coffee table

In Search of a Masterpiece: An Art Lover's Guide to Great Britain and Ireland, by Christopher Lloyd (Thames & Hudson, 2011)

Lloyd’s tastes, while not cutting-edge, are not cosy. Yes, there are the striking but standard offerings we might expect. But there is also work which suddenly pulls us up short.

Friday 8 July 2011

Belfast: Exposed

Where are the people? Contemporary photographs of Belfast 2002-2010, edited by Karen Downey

Ethical concerns can just as easily be motivated by an evasion of responsibility, as they can by a desire to capture the displacement of people from history-making. The absence of people in documentary photography can be an accurate picture of the position of the people in contemporary society, but this absence can also amount to an attempt to evade the question Where are the people?

Friday 17 June 2011

What ever did happen to Modernism?

What Ever Happened to Modernism?, by Gabriel Josipovici, Yale University Press (2010)

What Ever Happened to Modernism? indeed proposes its own definition of Modernism to reveal that it is more to do with a synchronic ‘structure of feeling’, to paraphrase Raymond Williams, than with a continuum in time. Modernism here refers to idiosyncratic approaches to art linked together by the wish to come to terms with the meaning of life and the value of language.

Friday 27 May 2011

The economics of don’t meddle and muddle through

The Age of Instability, by David Smith (Profile Books, 2010)

Not making decisions, not having a long-term strategy, ditching theory and rationality: all seem to be virtues for today’s economists. Economics post-crash seems like a codification of messy pragmatism: to be anti-theory now in principle. Leaving us, of course, with things just the way they are.

Friday 15 April 2011

Self-sufficiency with a ‘helping hand’

Hand Made: Portraits of emergent new community culture, edited by Tessy Britton (Social Spaces 2011)

You’d be hard pushed to find a truly ‘people’s’ project among the 28 featured in the glossy pages of Hand Made. At the risk of sounding like a cynic, too many of the projects lend themselves not to the interests of residents, but to the pet-prejudices of a bunch of trendy interlopers.

Tuesday 22 March 2011

Yeh hai Bambai meri jaan!

Mumbai Fables, by Gyan Prakash (Princeton University Press 2010)

The promise of the city, like that of Independence, was real – and perhaps still is. There is a tragic quality to Prakash’s account, but the gradual demise of the Modernist dream in the second half of the twentieth century should not be seen as inevitable or even, perhaps, final.

Monday 21 March 2011

Men and women both from Earth after all

Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, by Cordelia Fine (Icon Books, 2011)

By the time Fine has finished her furious denunciation of the worst examples of discrimination, unconscious and deliberate, still in action, it does seem ludicrous to look for causes of inequality in girls’ larger corpus callosum, or in boys’ testosterone-bathed parietal lobes.

Saturday 26 February 2011

More than the enlightened versus the unenlightened

The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, Kwame Anthony Appiah, (WW Norton 2010)

The situation has, to paraphrase Hegel, the makings of a tragedy: it is a clash not of right against wrong, but of right against right. The solution to the dilemma must therefore attend to both the conflicting values and somehow reconcile them, although not necessarily on equal terms.

Monday 31 January 2011

Life off Earth

The Eerie Silence: Are We Alone in the Universe?, by Paul Davies (Allen Lane, 2010)

This book’s importance is simply justified. There are only two possibilities: either the Earth is the only planet in the universe to harbour sentient life, or it is not. Each of these possibilities is, as Arthur C. Clarke famously noted, so astonishing as to verge on the incredible.

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