On Audible since the late 1990s, mostly science fiction, fantasy, history & science. I rarely review 1-2 star books that I can't get through
The Swerve is a Pultizer-prize winner, and justifiably so. In a compact way, it manages to tell fascinating, well-researched, stories of both the Epicurean philosophers during the Roman Empire, and the intellectual and religious struggles of the late Middle Ages. These two threads are both really well done, and full of fascinating and illuminating details: monks were not allowed to discuss the books they copied, Epicurus presaged our modern understanding of atoms and evolution, the Papal secretary wrote a joke book, and so on. Greenblatt just does a wonderful job in illuminating these time periods, and how they relate to our own way of thinking. Similarly, the reader is excellent, and the many languages invoked in the book flow naturally from him.
The only downside, and it is a small one, is in the argument itself, that the discovery of the poem "On the Nature of Things" was a critical event in that led to the world becoming modern. I was convinced that the rediscovery of Lucretius was certainly one of the elements that led to the "swerve" and the Renaissance, but there are already other forces at work, many alluded to in the book, that play at least as big a role. However, Greenblatt really wants to make the poem central, though, so we get a somewhat more evasive account of other factors, such as the popularity of humanism, that were also important. As a result, the book becomes a little strained in its main argument, but it doesn't detract from a wonderful historical account. Greenblatt uses all of his considerable ability to make his argument, one that you may or may not buy, but that you are certain to enjoy if you like Medieval, Roman, or intellectual history.
There are two important things to know about this book: First, it is a wonderful popular history, strong on narrative and with terrific scenes that illuminate a deeply troubled period of knights and plague. Second, it is, apparently, also only mediocre as actual history, drawing large-scale conclusions about the psychology of the age from a few pieces of art, frequently assuming the motivations of historical figures, and relying on translations rather than original documents, among other historical sins.
Whether the second point matters more than the first depends on you. I found it fascinating (and well-narrated) and, as a non-historian, was not troubled by its generalizations and potential inaccuracies. Ms. Tuchman could write! And the book is still the most detailed popular history of the Middle Ages thirty years after it was published. Plagues! Wars! Betrayal! The book has everything, so I was more than willing to not worry too much about where it overgeneralized or lept to conclusions. I highly recommend it.
If you are considering this book, then you are certainly already interested in 14th century English history. If that is the case, the choice is easy, since The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century (TTTGtME:AHfVttFC for short) basically describes exactly what the book does. It is entertaining, well-written, well-received by real critics, and (apparently, since they aren't in the audiobook) has lots of references. You'll learn all sorts of interesting facts, and be given some very vivid descriptions of everything from plagues to the experience entering a town.
The only weakness is that, since there is no real narrative or argument here, the book lacks a focal character or idea, and moves back and forth in time. To that extent, it is less compelling then, say Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, which gives a better sense of how individual lives progress in the Middle Ages by following one powerful family. It makes up for this in breadth, of course, and TTTGtME:AHfVttFC is immensely entertaining, and often enlightening, while being well-read. If you like the subject, you should certainly add it to your library.
I had never heard of Nancy Wake prior to listening to this book. She is a true hero. This book is well written and almost perfectly read. I found it very difficult to stop. If this book had been a novel, you might have said "right, who makes this stuff up?" I loved the whole story, from Nancy's time in America and England to her carefree life in Paris. The writing gave the real feel of the Paris streets, the parties and Nancy's step by step change from free spirited wife to resistance fighter. I find it very interesting to read about ordinary people who find themselves in circumstances that bring out extraordinary responses. To see a young woman (not that different from me) who becomes a leader of the French Maquis (thousands of them in fact), and is recognized as having such a great impact on their success is amazing. WWII is full of stories of those who rose to the occasion and did the right thing. What happened after the war was sad in it's anticlimactic return to "normal" life.
Not great literature, but an inspiring read.