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BOOKS - Non Fiction


The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich - William L Shirer

Still the definitive history of the German Empire Hitler tried to build. A concise summary of pre-Nazi German history brilliantly contextualises the whole sorry saga, and the relating of the political chicanery, the street violence, the (later) state sponsored violence prior to driving Germany to war, brutally exposes the monstrous, nightmarish nature of Hitler's gangster state.

            The war years are treated almost perfunctorily, painted with the brush of utter inevitability, the soaring successes at the outset, including the fall of France, the stoic resistance of Great Britain, the disaster in Russia, the long, slow, drawn out collapse as Hitler tries to take down Germany with him.

            Be warned, to today's ear - the book was written in the 1950s - much of the language is at least infelicitous, if not downright offensive. Yet, the book is highly pertinent across the generations, more so today than possibly ever in the last 50 years, and it would be a pity if many abandoned it in offence at some of the outdated attitudes expressed in the writing. It is a book of its time and place, but it is still relevant and deserves a continuing audience despite its shortcomings.

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The Blind Watchmaker - Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins takes you by the hand and walks you through the flowering gardens of Darwin's theory of evolution. For anyone who has long been suspicious of religions' explanations for the diversity of life (and anything else, for that matter) but who have been unable to marshal a coherent, cogent and satisfactory alternative explanation, then this book is for you. Dawkins is a powerful advocate of the Darwinian view of life: we have not been gifted a diverse, wonderful, intriguing world by an all seeing God, but rather that world has arisen by the slow accumulation of ever increasing complexity over geological timescales by the steady but blind apparatus of natural selection. That Dawkins can explain all this so clearly with such apparent ease is a testament to both his scholarship and his abilities as a communicator. First class stuff, as are most of his books.

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God Is Not Great - Christopher Hitchens

A philosophical bedfellow to The Blind Watchmaker, Hitchens brings his own unique perspective to bear on the question of the validity of the theists' view of the universe. It's a smile provoking, bliss inducing, demolition of the religious viewpoint delivered with the precision of a surgeon. He carefully and lightly mocks everyone, including himself, but wages blistering attacks on irrational, hateful and damaging ideas. A must read for those radical atheists who believe the religious viewpoint should be challenged at every turn, and that we must embrace reason and evidence and not give way to baseless, irrational fantasies.

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In Search of Schrodinger's Cat - John Gribben

The totally compelling story of the development of Quantum Physics. The crisis in classical Newtonian physics came to a head in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from the inability of classical theories to adequately explain some physical phenomena to do with electromagnetic radiation - light. From Max Plank's desperate measure of quantising light to explain Blackbody Radiation, through Einstein's "proof" of the existence of light quanta, the gripping tale of the formulation of the Niels Bohr inspired Copenhagen Interpretation, and beyond, Gribben lays it all out lucidly, plainly and without fuss, creating a narrative most people with a little application of their own grey matter will follow easily enough. If a book like this fails to excite you about modern physics, nothing will. It's a testament to the breathless ingenuity of the human mind, and an account of the nature of the universe more astonishing than you can imagine.

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Berlin - Antony Beevor

Following on from his equally brilliant Stalingrad, Beevor here turns his attention to the last few months of WWII (in Europe) and charts the harrowing, catastrophic military collapse of Nazi Germany culminating in the battle for Berlin. As in The Rise and Fall ... where Shirer covers the same events, there is a terrible inevitability about it. In Beevor's account one cannot help sympathising with the soldier at the front (on both sides) and the poor civilians caught in the vortex of destruction and the dehumanising blood lust of the theatre of war. What Beevor does so successfully is put the reader in the shoes of the combatants, turning a slice of history into a thrilling ride without ever losing sight of the horror of it all.


Dear Miss Landau - James Christie

An autobiographical work by my friend James Christie. When reviewed on A Good Read (BBC Radio 4) the reviewer called it the best book he'd read in 10 years. Praise indeed!

            James is autistic, at the Asperger, high functioning end of the spectrum. During the 90s he developed an obsession with the TV drama Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and in particular with the character Drusilla, played by Juliet Landau. DML is the story of his friendship with Miss Landau which started after he wrote some "fan fiction" based on unfinished plot lines and such like from Buffy. Juliet liked what he'd written and they started an email correspondence which culminated in James taking a journey across America to meet Juliet in person in Hollywood.

            DML is a wonderful and heart-warming true story brilliantly told. It deserves a wider audience, and for the record, it's one of the best books I've read in the last few years. And I'm not saying that because he's a friend of mine. Oh no. Well, maybe I am, but it's still a heck of a good read. Check out the BBC 4 archives if you don't believe me.


Those Angry Days - Lynne Olson

A modern historical masterpiece. It explores the political turmoil in the USA in the years leading up to the USA's entry into WWII. On the one hand there's the isolationist movement, embodied by the all American hero, Charles Lindbergh, on the other, the president, FDR and his coterie who believe sooner or later the USA will have to challenge Hitler's regime and Europe cannot be abandoned to the Nazis.

            Lynne Olson has written an exquisite book, packed with facts and solid, detailed analysis, but it reads like a fast paced thriller, exciting and absorbing. Like Antony Beevor, she's mastered the art of telling the tale in a way that makes you wonder how it will all end even though you know perfectly well how it does.

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Rich - Melvyn Bragg

Sterling work from MB charting the extraordinary life of the lad from the valleys who became one of the highest paid and most famous actors and movie stars of all time. It's an affectionate, respectful, dare I say, loving account of a brilliant but troubled soul, whose gifts dazzled and impressed, whose short-comings and frailties were often cruelly exposed in the glare of the spotlight of his incredible fame. It's all there: the proud Welshman who never forgot his roots, the magnificent actor of stage, screen and radio, the women, the booze, the scandals and the flouting of the wealth he craved for the security of himself and his loved ones. Such a gift of a subject is often a trap for the biographer, but Bragg steers a steady course avoiding sentimentality and hero worship, and presenting a rounded portrait of an intelligent and fascinating character hell bent on living the Rich life.


SHOUT! - Philip Norman

After 40 years it's still the go-to biography of the greatest pop-rock band the world has ever seen: The Beatles. When I first bought this book back in 1980/81 it was subtitled The True Story of the Beatles, which was kind of arrogant, but also an aphorism I could buy into. Later editions have re-subtitled it, The Beatles in Their Generation, which means absolutely zilch to me. Especially given that the whole point about The Beatles' greatness is that their fame and popularity and, more importantly, the appreciation of their work, transcends the generations,  undimmed by the 5 decades since their dissolution. Philip Norman is a canny biographer and as he remarks in his foreword one really should read their "scarcely imaginable true story."


A Prime Minister on Prime Ministers - Harold Wilson

A collection of 12 essays published in the late 70s, post Harold Wilson's final stint in 10 Downing Street. They cover some of the giants of the office, from the first, Robert Walpole to Supermac, Harold MacMillan. Wilson, perhaps unsurprisingly, is an engaging and competent wordsmith, and I make the assumption his historical accuracy is not seriously contested. But where the easy style and readability really pays off is in Wilson's critique and judgements. He's firm but thoughtful with all his subjects and avoids harsh, easy cheap shots. For example, he gives Neville Chamberlain the benefit of the doubt over the appeasement policy, condemning the policy but not the motives of the man, and balancing this well known aspect of Chamberlain's premiership with a broader account of the man's considerable achievements in his wider civic life.

            Whatever the foibles, political leanings or failings of these men, Wilson's account makes it clear they were all men of substance, serious people taking a serious job seriously, statesmen demanding and deserving respect. A timely re-read might be in order, for some recent occupants of the post seem somewhat shallow, even comic by comparison, deserving of not much more than our derision. What would, could, Harold write today if he was around to do so? His famed magnanimity might well be tested.

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