I hear voices. But maybe that's because there's always an Audible book in my ear.
While I was listening to this book, John Adams and his family came to live with me. I was so absorbed in the history, I thought about it even when I wasn't listening. I am impressed with McCullough's skill at bringing history to life. It's a fascinating time with relevance to today. The time and thought put into the Constitution should never be taken for granted. Also, the knowledge of these people and their efforts to continually educate themselves and engage their intellectual lives is beyond anything we see today. While this will appeal to history buffs, I highly recommend it for anyone interested in people's lives and an in depth view of the minds of brilliant people.
I need to say two quick things about this book before I comment on content. #1: Ray Porter is amazing as a narrator. #2: The author does a great job with "just the facts, ma'am" even though his opinions are clear. Look up any number of the things he talks about and you will find supporting facts. I value that with non-fiction.
This is NOT a feel-good book about America's export of democracy or freeing the Iraqis from Saddam Hussein. It is a harsh look at the mechanical parts of occupation and the responsibility you assume when you decide to take over another country. It's too bad the word "hubris" has already been used by another book. This could have been titled the same way.
There are many things I do not understand and this book didn't help. How could we as a country allow bridges to fall into rivers due to infrastructure neglect yet support the billions of dollars it took when we decided to rebuild Iraq? How do lawmakers justify their support of the billions of dollars for this and not for education and health care in our own country? When you look for skills during a crisis, why would political party even matter? And what does it take to put down your political party affiliation and just do the right thing?
There are two particular people in the book who are incredibly effective at carrying out their tasks. Their effectiveness has nothing to do with politics and all to do with pure competence. Reading about them and their M.O. is a great lesson in how to get things done. I was impressed at the odds against them and what they achieved.
I bought this book thinking it was a biography of Stalin. It is not and you will not find much about his young life, his marriage and children, his life in the early Communist Party and so on. Rather the book is a study of Stalin during a series of political crisis, many of his own devising, how he came to dominate the Communist Party and State, how he disposed of his rivals and how he maintained that control. It is a frightening portrait of how one person could terrify first a party organization and then an entire state. It is also a view of how a ruthless person who has no controls on his behavior can keep and maintain terror as a weapon.
The author's family apparently grew up in Russia during the time of Stalin and this connection allows him to add a personal touch to the episodes in this book. The very first story in the book concerns Stalin's birth and how the entire Soviet State observed a fictitious anniversary on his “birthday”. This episode is meant, I assume, to assure us that everything we thought we knew about Stalin as likely to be wrong and simply a device through which the dictator fashioned and maintained the information the public thought they knew about him.
Most of the information is related to Stalin's seizure and maintenance of power. Other events, such as the Second World War, occupy little or no space at all. However the re-imposition of terror after the Soviet Union's victory in World War II is given a great deal of space as is his plans for a final round of terror prior to a new war. The book is chilling and one is left with the feeling that only providence prevented World War III.
While much in this book was surprising to me perhaps most surprising was the willingness of some of Stalin's victims to be victims. Their loyalty was more to the Communist Party and the Soviet State than to their own lives and they were prepared to be humiliated and degraded rather than be seen as varying from “the party line”. This seemed to be true of almost all of the early Communist revolutionaries with the exception of Trotsky who never was willing to bend to Stalin.
The title I gave to this review is from a line in the book. Stalin's associates apparently knew that their day would come and felt that as long as he was humiliating them, they were safe. Hence the line – humiliating the living dead. They knew they were, as the expression goes, dead men walking, and he seemed to get a great deal of pleasure out of humiliating the living knowing that they were eventually doomed to be killed in one of his purges. And their view of Stalin is shown in the story of how Khrushchev acted when he found Stalin almost dead from a stroke. While I had read this story before Khrushchev's actions explain perfectly the way Stalin's associates viewed him.
While this book did not give me much information about Stalin's life outside of his struggle to gain and then maintain power, he left me with much more knowledge about this despot than I had before and I feel that it was well worth reading. The narration, by David McCallum, was powerful and perfectly suited for the subject. I would have given it 6 stars had I been able to.
Highly recommended with some warnings. It is not a biography and it is not for young children.