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Review: The FARC: The Longest Insurgency

The FARC: The Longest Insurgency by Garry Leech My rating: 4 of 5 stars This book covers a very interesting subject for what in general there is a dearth of information and that which does exist tends to be fundamentally skewed with bias. The left wing of Colombia’s forty year civil war is headed up by the FARC-EP. This revolutionary Marxist guerrilla group holds a vast amount of Colombian territory and is the de-facto government of a large amount of mainly impoverished rural people who are in general greatly neglected by their government. The FARC have a very strong propaganda campaign in action against them and in this rather brief book, the author attempts to unravel the myths surrounding the FARC, and to determine the truth of what lies behind the propaganda against them. The Americans and Colombian government accuse them of being narco-traffickers and narco-terrorists, and use these accusations in order to fund their fight against their enemy. The book is good at unravelling many of the myths and in general one gets a decent balanced impression and a feeling that one has touched upon the truth. the FARC can be seen as a genuine combatant army and are a bit different to the way they are portrayed as a terrorist or criminal organisation. Their insurgency, although very bloody and difficult, is based in the realities of a real war. They have an ideological struggle and truly represent the feelings of their people. Some of the facts are quite surprising. I found the chapter on human rights abuses very revealing. It shows that although the FARC are very far from perfect and have committed some truly heinous acts, in general, the Colombian government forces and right-wing paramilitary groups are far more oppressive towards the average civilian. I think the author, who is an investigative journalist based in Colombia, has done a very good job with this work. I feel that for such a subject, a much broader and deeper piece of writing could be done. If anything the account is just a bit too brief. I hope to check out some of Garry Leech’s other books. View all my reviews

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Review: Siddhartha

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse My rating: 4 of 5 stars This short work by German / Swiss author and nobel literature prizewinner, Herman Hesse, was a cornerstone of the hippy movement which emerged during the 1960s. The book explores the journey of a young Indian man through an adventurous life, in which his main quest is to achieve enlightenment. He leaves home, becomes an ascetic and then meets the Buddha (Gotama), before rejecting asceticism and turning to the material world, seeking the pleasures of lust, wealth and gambling. He fathers a child with his lover and then departs off to seek pastures new, depressed and fed up of his life in the city. He finds a middle way between the asceticism of his youth and the high life of his merchanting. As a ferryman, next to the river, he lives with a wise old sage who comforts him and allows him to finally achieve the enlightenment he seeks. His son disowns him and his old friend, who becomes a follower of the Buddha, periodically bumps into him and eventually the story concludes with the two old men sharing views on life and what they have learnt, with Siddharta revealing some of the deep philosophies which have shaped him. It’s an exciting and eminently readable tale, full of Buddhist and Eastern mystical titbits that the reader can relate to and indeed be enlightened by. I can see why hippies favoured this novel and it really can be classed as a true twentieth century classic. View all my reviews

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Review: When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order

When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order by Martin Jacques My rating: 4 of 5 stars This is an excellent study of China and its position in the modern world. The author explores the rise of China’s power, through history and into the future. China will be the biggest power in the global economy and this book projects how the new world will look. It examines Chinese attitudes to the world, the rate of development in China, and how China will treat the rest of the world as it assumes its position in the number 1 spot, currently held by the USA. A key factor which the author constantly identifies, in how China differs from previous world powers, is that China is not just a nation-state in the Westphalian sense, but a ‘civilisation-state’. It is continental in terms of its landmass and holds 20% of the world’s population. It has a rich 5000 year old history and is much less imperialistic in its attitude to foreign countries as the great powers which have preceded it. There are vast differences in how a world with China at its head will appear. The Western illusion will be shattered and countries will become ever more dependent upon a developed China. The study contains many fascinating statistics which prove the author’s thoughts and ideas. It introduces many topics which I had previously not really appreciated, such as the Chinese racial views on the world and also the dependency of Western Oceania countries such as Australia and New Zealand on the Chinese economy. As a sinophile, myself, I found the book thoroughly intriguing. It is unlike any other study I have read to date on China and offers a good glimpse into the future of the mother country. It is a question of when and not if, China becomes the biggest and most powerful nation on earth. It is scary to us in the West, what this may entail, but equally it is important that we ready ourselves for a new world order. This book provides ample preparation for anyone interested in what the growth of China means to them and how the world will change. View all my reviews

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Review: Animal Farm

Animal Farm by George Orwell My rating: 4 of 5 stars This short book is regarded as one of Orwell’s key classics. It was written at a time when criticism of the USSR in Britain was not encouraged as they were critical wartime allies. Orwell got through the net and his revolutionary animals at ‘Animal Farm’ are his way of assessing Stalin’s Russia. From initial success in their revolution to overthrow the humans, the animals build up their community with new laws, a utopia is created, where they are free from their former masters. Through the subsequent rise of a dictator, the dissemination of propaganda, the purges, wars and rewriting of the laws, we see a community rise and fall to a point where the ruling pigs more or less merge with the humans they superseded. Animal Farm contains some great characters which one gets attached to. The revolution can be seen through varies eyes, from the bleating sheep to hardworking horses, from the rats to cunning pigs. If one has an awareness of the development of the communist Soviet Union, you can see how Orwell has built his tale. Even without any knowledge of the Russian Revolution, the book can be taken as a story in itself, without the subtlety of underlining politics, the book is a quaint tale of a fantastical overthrow of the rulers of the farm and how a new life of self-governance is created. I enjoy reading George Orwell and Animal Farm is a thoroughly decent book. Recommended. View all my reviews

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Review: Kon-Tiki

Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl My rating: 5 of 5 stars I’ve been to Polynesia, and stood out on a deserted beach, staring out at the vastness of the Pacific, it is only natural to imagine how these people first arrived in such a remote location. Thor Heyerdahl, in living memory, in one of the greatest sea voyages of all time, also wondered this, and set in motion a fabulous journey to emulate the ancestors of the modern day Polynesians, by sailing on a traditional pae-pae or raft from his theorized seeding point of the race in Peru. Kon-Tiki was a pre-Incan King who escaping from battle defeat on mainland South America, headed off into the Pacific Ocean sunset, seeking new lands. Thor and his five Scandic compadres repeated this adventure, having thoroughly researched every detail of it. Their voyage was viewed by most experts as a complete suicide mission. This book narrates wonderfully the ship’s log, as they trundled along the empty oceans on a unique epic of discovery. From the sea creatures they encountered en route, to the sparseness of their abode, Heyerdahl records in graphic detail every aspect of their plight. It is a truly enlightening tale, which reads exceptionally well. It is a real page-turner, which grips you as the journey progresses and you genuinely can empathise with the men’s elation when they finally strike land and spend a few weeks partying with the natives, Polynesian style. It’s a happy tale and an amazing true story. A great read! Highly recommended. View all my reviews

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Review: Confessions of an Economic Hitman

Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins My rating: 4 of 5 stars This is an easy to read autobiographical account of a confessing EHM, who feels the pangs of guilt for his work in expanding America’s global empire over the past few decades, at the expense of developing countries’ poor people and environments. It covers many important political situations, where the author often had a hands-on role. From Saudi Arabia and the Oil Crisis of the 1970s to Iraq and the recent wars fought there. From Panama and its loss of leaders and the controversy of its canal, to Colombia and Ecuador, with their internal problems. John Perkins is very critical of the often heartless role he had to play in creating opportunities for big US business. He has led a very fascinating life and it’s interesting to see directly how power politics and people of influence are directed by the interests of big US corporations. We see a man who struggles with guilt and who ultimately revokes this powerful lifestyle, to retire to championing the plights of indigenous people through non-profit organisations. It’s an important firsthand account of a critical era of US expansion across the globe. Whatever your views on America’s imperial tendencies, this is an enlightening read which will broaden your horizons. View all my reviews

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Review: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford My rating: 4 of 5 stars It only took me three days to read this relatively thin paperback. Genghis Khan had a huge role in history and there is rather a dearth of information on him, considering the massive scale of the Mongol Empire he created. At its peak, it ran from the Pacific in the East to the Mediterranean in the West, bigger than the Roman Empire and that carved by Alexander the Great. The author based his account primarily on new revelations prompted by his research team re-examining the Secret History of The Mongols, an ancient document which was very difficult to translate and had laid hidden for many years due to the political upheavals in the region. Genghis has a mixed reputation throughout history, with the likes of Chaucer elevating him and Voltaire and Montesquieu later deriding him. The Mongols uniquely placed world culture in a position to develop into what we now know, with international trade, religious tolerance and mass migration of peoples. The Mongols are perhaps looked down upon for not bequeathing us anything unique from their own culture, but rather amalgamating and developing existing ideas from the races and civilisations of other people’s they conquered. They practised some novel ideas for the time such as diplomatic immunity, not torturing prisoners, allowing all religions to flourish under the empire with an emphasis on secular law. The book covers the rise of Temujin from his downtrodden youth, to the height of his power and then looks at the maintenance of his legacy after his death, with the separation of the great Khanate into four primary regions. It is a great look at medieval history from an Asian perspective and has enlightened me about various subjects from that time and added to knowledge I already had on the Crusades, Marco Polo, the Black Death and The European Renaissance. The decline of the Empire was sudden and could only arise through a natural disaster which engulfed the whole world, in the Great Plague. What would have occurred had this devastating illness never erupted? The book was brief and precise and covered a vast array of topics though in my opinion for such a good subject matter, it could have been more expansive in volume. It has given me a taste for Genghis Khan and I shall…

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Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill

Following on from his book on the mercenary force Blackwater, Jeremy Scahill delves into the Dirty Wars of the Bush and Obama era in the War on Terror. The main theatres covered include Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Scahill writes about the excesses of the Bush administration, in particular the detainee programs and he deals with how Obama has ratcheted up the campaign against terrorists with the heavy use of drones and targetted killings. There is a focus on American citizen Anwar Awlaki and his rise within the terrorist ranks and how his targetting by the US raised all kinds of legal dilemmas in terms of assassination by his own government. The Osama Bin Laden death is covered in detail, and perhaps extremely relevant, in light of the Kenya bombings this week, the book analyses the rise of Al Shebab in Somalia and also Al Qaeda Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen. The book is very well researched, although I feel that the author is somewhat sympathetic towards the Jihadists and critical of the US government measures to contain them. Obviously, the killing of civilians is wrong from whatever side, and some of the US actions can be compared with those of the terrorists. It is frightening to witness how clandestine operations are from the White House down and the way in which the JSOC has been totally unleashed over the years to a status where it has virtually no oversight, is a scary fact. Since September 11th 2001, the War On Terror has been a real issue to most citizens of the world. Dirty Wars is a book which details this struggle in a very readable, interestign and enlightening manner. I highly recommend this book and believe it is a step up from the Blackwater predecessor. I look forward to future work from the author.

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No Ordinary Joe by Joe Calzaghe

I was fortunate enough to get to watch Calzaghe fight live, against Mikkel Kessler, in Cardiff Millenium Stadium. I followed him throughout his career and can honestly say he was the most amazing fighter. I believe that his record places him among the very best to have ever graced the sport. The ferocity in how he attacked Kessler and the grace about which he danced the ring, were truly a sight to behold. Joe’s autobiography is an outstanding read. Here we have a legend in his own words. The early years of his fighting career demonstrates how difficult a ladder he had to climb. His training regime was immense and the dedication his father showed him is a tale unto itself. Aside from the boxing and sport side of the book, it is a great story about the relationship between a loving father and a caring and obedient son.  Enzo Calzaghe is as much to credit for Joe’s wonderful career, as the great fighter is himself. I found it really bizarre how Joe was overlooked by the national squad early on and denied the opportunity to represent at the Olympics. It also shocked me how meagre his wages were right up until the latter stages of his career. When you hear of the immense purses available in the sport today, you get the impression that boxing is very lucrative. Joe was world championship material and was still struggling to make ends meet and finance a humble mortgage. It was a shame for me, that the book ended where it did, as it doesn’t cover the final few years of his career, when he really hit the very top and started to get the true recognition he warranted. It would be nice if he one day adds a further few chapters to cover complete the story. Joe comes across as a humble man and his modest upbringing in South Wales and really basic training setup, make his rise to success even more outstanding. His book is an essential item for any boxing fan’s reading list and a lover of sports biographies or a lover of sport in general should give this read a go. Joe is the people’s champion and his book affirms this view.

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A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

I studied Chinese language for a couple of years and am constantly on the lookout for books about China and its culture. When this jumped out at me from a charity shop bookshelf, at first I thought it was just another dictionary. But I read the back and thought that it would make a good present for my partner and as I had recently bought her the cult erotic tale, ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’, I thought she could trump all her friends by encountering the Chinese version. I decided that although I’m not a great lover of fiction and no virtually nothing at all about erotic fiction, because of the cultural aspect, I would give it a go myself. I immediately got drawn into the main character. I loved the way the book was presented. For a student of the Mandarin tongue I fully embraced the way the English was written, in a ‘Chinglish’ fashion, and many references were made to the linguistic differences between East and West. Sex in the Orient is often seen in the West as a taboo subject and it is certain that it is viewed in very different terms throughout the globe depending upon one’s culture. I was shocked in a way to hear this young Chinese girl talk so open about her sexual desires and experiences. It was a real eye-opener. Her journeys across Europe and her liasons were very much down to earth and frank, and to be honest very believable. She didn’t experience the Hollywood romances, other fictional writers may depict. Her boudoir was really rather more grounded in the reality of sex, with disappointment, less than perfect partners and a real animalistic edge to the carnal desire, which did seem rather shocking coming from a woman’s mouth, even if she was from the Orient. The book wasn’t all about sex and I found the travel side of the tale very interesting. The clash of cultures, of civilisations, the differences between East and West were fully explored. Not since I read Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, have I read such a good description of how an alien immerses themselves in a totally foreign culture. For anyone who has travelled abroad, especially travelling solo, it is very easy to relate to the findings made in this book. It’s not the grandiose elements of travel that form the memories of the experience, it’s the little details,…

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Cyberwar: The Next Threat to National Security & What to Do About It by Richard A. Clarke

The author has had a political career which has reached the highest levels of the Pentagon. He is obviously a very driven and intelligent man and his analysis of the new phenomenon that is Cyber War is second to none. The globality of the threat is given a context that is very revealing of the geopolitics which drive the internet. How do nation states handle the use of cyberspace within their own borders and indeed outside their territories? As countries become more and more dependent upon computer technology, the risks faced by cyber attacks become exponentially more severe and critical to the economy and security of a nation. America is perhaps the nation that is most vulnerable, most dependent and most at risk, and Clarke’s high position within the US government system means that he has been placed in the very real environment of deciding upon global cyber was strategy. Some of the facts and figures revealed by the book are truly revelationary. Clarke rates North Korea  as being the nation with the most capacity for cyberwar as it focuses on attack strategies and its near negligibilty of dependance at home on computer networks makes it absolutely resistant to any cyber warfare attacks it may experience itself. I was surprised at the levels of internet usage in countries like Estonia and also South Korea, and the stories of actual cyber attacks that were known to have happened and documented made fascinating reading. I didn’t think that the author ever really stretched the technicalities of what is indeed a very technical subject. He kept most of the book within the grasp of any tech novice reader, with a clear focus throughout on geopolitics.  It’s a good book and I feel will be interesting to look back upon in 10 or 20 years time, to see if any of his prophecies have proved correct and also to gauge how different future cyberspace is. I’d recommend this book to any end user of the internet as your own reliance and dependance on the worldwide web is at risk from the cyber war phenomenon that is discussed..

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Ayahuasca In My Blood: 25 Years Of Medicine Dreaming – by Peter Gorman

This autobiographic tale of one man’s relationship with the most sacred vine, shows Peter Gorman as a true pioneer. Ayahuasca is still very much an unknown quantity in the West and Gorman’s 25 years of experience make him a critical read for anyone considering experimenting with Ayahuasca, as the ‘Vine Of The Soul’ becomes more fashionable in mainstream society. I’ve had a few Ayahuasca sessions myself and I can relate to the rather bizarre and powerful nature of the sessions he describes. It really does put you in a different frame of mind and in a way is something that cannot very easily be put into words. Gorman does really well in painting a vivid picture of the alternate realities that Ayahuasca drinkers experience. It does become a life changing experience and the way Gorman seems to struggle between his life and family in the ‘real’ world and his mystic Amazonian adventures forms a key element to his story. Ayahuasca becomes a belief system to him, a religion, and he uses the vine ever more so to seek out answers to all aspects of his own life, and once he begins to master its application to himself, like a real shaman, he begins to turn his attention during the rituals upon the lives of friends and families and how he can help them for the better.  The descriptions of his jungle adventures and the detailed depictions of the shamen that guide him and the traditional ceremonies themselves gave a true insight into how the vine should be most appropriately used. I’ve never journeyed into the Amazon (though I would very much love to go there) and experienced a genuine ritual, but from what Gorman has revealed, I shall be applying some of his techniques in my next Ayahuasca encounter. I think that for every individual and every experience, the vine is truly unique. Its power is unfurling and almost omnipotent and to a non-initiate, maybe Gorman’s experiences would seem a little far-fetched and fictional. I believe every aspect of his tale and I think that the Ayahuasca has given him the insight and courage to have presented many of his deeper emotional thoughts about his family and genuine struggles in life in an open and honest fashion. It has made him realise his own imperfections and has guided him into being a better and stronger person. I’ve read quite a…

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Ayahuasca In My Blood: 25 Years Of Medicine Dreaming by Peter Gorman

This autobiographic tale of one man’s relationship with the most sacred vine, shows Peter Gorman as a true pioneer. Ayahuasca is still very much an unknown quantity in the West and Gorman’s 25 years of experience make him a critical read for anyone considering experimenting with Ayahuasca, as the ‘Vine Of The Soul’ becomes more fashionable in mainstream society. I’ve had a few Ayahuasca sessions myself and I can relate to the rather bizarre and powerful nature of the sessions he describes. It really does put you in a different frame of mind and in a way is something that cannot very easily be put into words. Gorman does really well in painting a vivid picture of the alternate realities that Ayahuasca drinkers experience. It does become a life changing experience and the way Gorman seems to struggle between his life and family in the ‘real’ world and his mystic Amazonian adventures forms a key element to his story. Ayahuasca becomes a belief system to him, a religion, and he uses the vine ever more so to seek out answers to all aspects of his own life, and once he begins to master its application to himself, like a real shaman, he begins to turn his attention during the rituals upon the lives of friends and families and how he can help them for the better.  The descriptions of his jungle adventures and the detailed depictions of the shamen that guide him and the traditional ceremonies themselves gave a true insight into how the vine should be most appropriately used. I’ve never journeyed into the Amazon (though I would very much love to go there) and experienced a genuine ritual, but from what Gorman has revealed, I shall be applying some of his techniques in my next Ayahuasca encounter. I think that for every individual and every experience, the vine is truly unique. Its power is unfurling and almost omnipotent and to a non-initiate, maybe Gorman’s experiences would seem a little far-fetched and fictional. I believe every aspect of his tale and I think that the Ayahuasca has given him the insight and courage to have presented many of his deeper emotional thoughts about his family and genuine struggles in life in an open and honest fashion. It has made him realise his own imperfections and has guided him into being a better and stronger person. I’ve read quite a…

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The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Casteneda

For anyone who has the vaguest interest in shamanism, this is an essential text. It is Carlos Casteneda’s seminal work and in my opinion is a work of art. He has a very direct personal way of revealing his story, about an encounter with an ageing Native-American man of knowledge, who takes Carlos under his wing and reveals to him some of the secrets of shamanism. The range of psychedelics encountered are followed up in the book, after consumption, with vivid detail of the accompanying experiences. For me, the most rememberable tale in the book is Casteneda’s transformation into a crow. It seems really strange and bizarre and perhaps fiction but for anyone who has actually had a shamanic experience, the story has a real truth to it and is a perfect example of the mystic powers that true shamen can harness. As the author weaves his tale through the years of his tuition, we get more and more familiar with th very likeable character of Don Juan. This book was written many years ago, perhaps when psychedleic drugs were only truly starting to be explored properly in the West. The eradication of shamen and ancient belief systems by the rapidly advancing modern society, perhaps makes the mere existence of such wise teachers, an absolute rarity today. Carlos Casteneda found himself a genuine opportunity in learning from a great man who had not abandonned the ancient teachings to the modern world. the insights gathered in this book, give the layman a fundamental grasp of exactly what shamanism entails. It is a literary masterpiece and should not be missed out upon.

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