I am a bilingual high school teacher. I mostly read non-fiction, especially history, but I am also a sucker for science-fiction and fantasy novels.
I enjoyed this audiobook, for the most part. It had lots of good stories about discovering elements in particular, as well as a wide range of connections to real-life uses for elements that made them more real and accessible to a general reader. I am a science teacher and I still learned a few new things, which I appreciated.
That said, while I found the individual stories interesting, the book as a whole doesn't hang together well. It feels disjointed in general and at times seems to ramble on about a topic that is honestly not that interesting. There isn't enough of an effort to keep everything connected to the (honestly pretty flimsy) underlying story so it is hard to keep track of which element is being discussed if you stop and start, especially with the sometimes-arbitrary categorization method used (by author-determined category rather than something related to the periodic table). I can understand why it made no sense to do the elements in order but jumping all over the place was often hard to follow.
Overall, I would say this was worth the listen and definitely made the elements more concrete and relatable to the average person, but it wasn't cohesive or consistent enough for me to give it five stars. Even the narration was somewhat inconsistent.
I really enjoyed this book. I am a huge history buff and just finished listening to Mike Duncan's podcast series The History of Rome, which gave me little tantalizing bits of the early history of the Christian church and this audiobook was my chance to learn more.
And I got exactly what I came for. I cannot believe how much information there is in this book. I'm already considering listening to it all over again just to absorb more of it. It covers literally every pope ever, from the most obscure to most well-known, from anti-popes (yes, that is a real thing) to the genuinely pious to the most despotic and decadent rulers, and, most importantly, it covers them with a real air of neutrality and academic distance. This is not a pro-church book, but it's not an anti-church book either. It provides perspective that is painstakingly fair, even when that makes a famously "good" pope look bad, or, in some cases, finds reason to redeem even the most notorious popes. Of course, everyone goes into reading this book with their own biases and that colours their feelings about how the author portrays the church. But as an outsider myself but someone very interested in church history nonetheless, I found it dealt with something that is an emotional subject for some people in a very fair way. There was no attempt to be nice just because the truth might offend some people, but there was also clearly no agenda to smear the church either. Like any human beings, the popes all had both their faults and their strengths and this book makes sure to tell you about all of them. It holds nothing back. I can see why that has created some unhappy listeners and negative reviews, but it is the reviewers' own biases about the church being challenged that they find offensive, not the reality of history that the book provides.
The historical perspective is excellent. I would say that it would help immensely to have some background knowledge of European politics and history to understand what was going on at the time, but the author goes to great lengths to explain things directly related to the popes' reigns when necessary (a major example being the politics surrounding Napoleon Bonaparte and the unification of Italy, among others), so it's not required. Being a frequent student of history but mostly studying Britain, France, and their overseas colonies, this was a whole new perspective for me and I learned a lot about German, Austrian, and Italian history that I only knew snippets of before. I would have liked more details on the Crusades, but it does explain them in the context of the popes. This book gave me exactly what it advertised.
I did not rate the narration 5/5 only because being a French speaker I noticed some mispronounced words that bothered me. However, I admit it could be a North American/British difference, since the narrator is British and I am Canadian.
I could not have asked this book to provide any more than it did. It had not only the overall information, which I expected, but also smaller details that were fascinating and kept me interested all the time. I am a constant consumer of non-fiction, so I suppose I don't bore easily either way, but I found I was listening to the book in the car on my commute and then coming home and telling my husband things I had heard that had stuck in my head as interesting enough to share. Overall, I found the fact that the papacy never really functioned as a religious institution - rather, it was another political player vying for power in medieval Europe - to be the biggest take-home from 20 hours of listening. Learning about it is like learning about the kings of England or France, or the emperors of China. It's a political story - the only difference is that it held its power through religion rather than through military strength.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone looking to learn more about the history of the Catholic church. However, don't go into it thinking it will tell the history the same way the church would, or that it will tell the stories of the saints without questioning the mythology's authenticity. It won't. It's a history book, and it does an excellent job telling the historical truth in a remarkably neutral, detailed, and honest way.
Before I found this book, I'd never heard of the Zimmerman telegram. Being Canadian, we never went into great detail on why the Americans entered the First World War - we were involved once Britain was involved. However, once I listened to other Barbara W. Tuchman books (The Proud Tower and The Guns of August), I knew I had to listen to this one too, and it didn't disappoint me.
Although this is not a particularly long audiobook, especially in the realm of nonfiction, that doesn't mean it isn't detailed. In fact, it gives practically a day-by-day account of some of the most critical periods and plenty of background to understand who the players are and what their motivations were. It is fascinating to listen to and it gives you a really good sense of the state of the world in early 1917 - the Germans moving to unrestricted submarine warfare, the French running out of energy, the British running out of money, the Mexicans caught in a series of coups, the Americans failing to understand why no one would agree to a negotiated peace. All of the backroom negotiations, intelligence operations, and diplomatic unease made for a really engaging story. And although you know from the start that the Americans will get involved, somehow there is still a sense of suspense in the telling where you wonder whether Mexico will attack Texas and the Germans will win in Europe after all.
The narration in this book by Wanda McCaddon was excellent. She can pronounce all of the foreign-language words (primarily German and Spanish) well, one of my personal irks with a lot of audiobook narrators, and in general reads at a good pace with great voice changes to represent individual speakers.
Filled with information from diaries and official records, this book makes you feel like you know the people involved well and that you understand why they are making the decisions they are. For such a small incident, really, in the overall view of the war, it makes for an interesting story with far-reaching consequences that affect how the world is today. Although I don't have a huge interest in American history, this was so much more than just a story about how they came into the First World War. It's about Germany, Britain, Mexico just as much as it is about the US, and Tuchman does a great job of showing the events from all those perspectives. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in WWI history, Woodrow Wilson, and/or stories of diplomatic intrigue.