The Promise provides a good summary of the firs months of the Obama presidency.
Its a decent book that succeeds in what it sets out to do.
Jonathan Alter is clearly sympathetic to Obama and his brand of pragmatic liberalism. So if you're looking for a neutral or a negative view of the president, this book will probably be an irritating disappointment.
By noting that this volume is decent I also want to highlight that it's not great.
Yes, by reading The Promise you would get a little more insider information about the young presidency than you would if you were following Obama in the pages of the New York Times. But you won't get that much more.
Most of the book consists of rehashing what any political junkie already knows (but may have forgotten).
Tidbits of novel insights are intermixed with the authors prolonged analysis and interpretations that can get redundant. They are by no means intolerable, its just that instead of having a feeling of reading a detailed history one often has a sense of consuming a vague, supportive editorial.
I don't have a problem with a liberal bias. I am a liberal and will enthusiastically support Obama in the upcoming elections. But this books lengthy and supportive psychoanalysis of Obama's character and vague support of his policies gets a little old.
Atler's transparent admiration of Obama shrouds the narrative with a blurry softness.
Basically, my problem is that instead of concrete information, after a brief and adequate summary of some event in 2009 you then get pro-Obama analysis of the event and the book moves on to something new.
Its not bad, and is pretty informative but leaves you without a sense of any great insight.
This is by far the best book on this period of Russian history that I have encountered.
The author struggling to present a complex economic/social history to the general reader faces two potential pitfalls. One is to simplify everything to the point of being patronizing. The other is to air on the side of the more technical information that will be alienating to non-academic readers and take away from the human narrative.
This book avoids both of these risks and strikes a perfect balance between stories of men who advanced in this tumultuous period and the systematic/structural shifts that allowed for their rise.
We all know that command economy has failed in the Soviet Union but this book explains why it did without becoming technical or dull. We all know that oligarchs rose from the ashes of the empire, this book explains how they did. We are all familiar with the pervasive corruption in Russia, this book shows how corruption was used to wield power by the mayor of Moscow and the Kremlin itself.
The old historical debate pits those who believe that men make history versus the scholars who emphasize structural forces that toss around the lives of people who are not important in on of themselves. The truth most intelligent people grasp instinctively is that history is made in a messy struggle, the Yin and Yang, between the fates of individuals and larger historical forces. Each trying to define the other.
You want find a better story of this struggle than David Hoffman's book.
~Ivan's Shady Existence Blog
A word about the narrator. As a native Russian speaker hearing him pronounce Russian names and words is like hearing someone scratch the chalk board. Obviously the pronunciation of Russian words in an American book will not be precise. I wouldn't be asking for that. But the emphasis is sometimes shifted so much that the original Russian name or word becomes unrecognizable.
Imagine listening to a Russian book where the name George Bush would be pronounced as "Dzorge Push"
When it comes to the flow of the book the narration is perfect but its a shame that no one familiar with the Russian language was consulted on the narration to make it a little better.
At the outset of Vladimir Putin's reign, masked government strongmen burst into the halls of the Independent Television Station (NTV is the Russian acronym) and wrestled the control of this media empire away from an oligarch fleeing to Israeli shores and into the hands of the resurging Russian state.
In a sense this was a uniquely Russian story, and yet the themes of this power play echo in the American landscape.
Media power, government collusion with that power and -yes- oligarchy (with a human face here in the USA).
A life of an individual told by his associates is a jumble of anecdotes, metaphors, gossip and flawed memories. That is what a biography always was and always will be.
Any reader who reads a biography and believes that he is getting a total portrait of a single person is an idiot.
The bigger question -the true mark of a success or failure of a biography- is whether a larger truth emerges out of a swamp of gossip and recollections. Similar to way a lotus rises out of the mud.
In this book a larger narrative does emerge and the developing picture isn't all that agreeable to the eyes of a common citizen.
News Corporation's media foot soldiers have attacked this book on account of a story it tells of Roger Ailes offering a female underling money for sex. Although Fox News made millions of dollars peddling salacious rumors about Bill Clinton and there are youtube compilations of female Fox News anchors crossing and uncrossing their legs, we are expected to believe that their corporate offices are filled with asexual boy scouts.
The sexual harassment tale sounds plausible to me; but even if it was proven to be totally false it does nothing to amend the larger narrative of the book.
Forget Roger Ailes, the main protagonist here is power in modern America. The flow of power away from the smoke-filled backrooms and into greenrooms and shiny studios.
Gabriel Sherman does -in one volume- present a narrative similar to that Robert Caro does in his unfinished biography of Lyndon Johnson. This is a study of power: its acquisition, its nature and its use.
The Loudest Voice in the Room is a good listen and I recommend it. The narration is perfect.
Ivan's Shady Existence Blog
The story might be compared with a David Lynch movie. A household cat vanishes and as the protagonist sets out to find it, the normalcy of his life dissipates into a compelling, dreamlike narrative.
The one big minus for me, is the reader doing female voices.
While it is amazing that a guy can present a repertoire of female characters. In the end, its still a guy doing a variation of a high pitched, emotional voice and -for me- it still sounds goofy and distracting.
For a guy to do a female voice he pretty much has to make it somewhat of a stereotype. For example, a high pitched teenage girl voice. These stereotypical depictions detract from the characters' complexity and makes them sound like the cartoon network.
I would prefer for the production did not exert the effort to make feminine voices and let the content of their words carry the book forward.
I would still recommend this audiobook and -from reading the comments- I realize that my opinion about the narration is not universal.
The book provided a good introduction to the subject of psychopaths. In popular culture, psychopath and killer are words that are used interchangeably. The best feature of this book is that it shows that the majority of psychopaths are not killers, and that they can live a life of manipulation and control games that doesn't necessary cross over into physical violence. In other words, you don't have to go to prison to see a psychopath, you might not have to travel further than your office.
The downside is that the author adopted a narrative/philosophical approach to the subject. Much of the book is dedicated to philosophical rumination on conscience and what a total lack of it means to an individual and a society that has to endure him. The individual stories of psychopaths are presented as pieces of fiction that present the thought-process of a psychopath as if he was a character in a novel. This is valuable if you are interested in a more personalized introduction to the subject, however much of it is not backed up by research. It would nice to be presented with more case histories, research and statistics and less subjective narrative and philosophical conclusions about what Dr. Stout calls the "seventh sense" that is our moral conscience.
Also unfortunate is the matter a fact way in which Dr. Stout presents 20th century dictators as psychopaths. These historical diagnoses are always iffy and are so often made on television that one would like to avoid encountering them in a more nuanced, scientific work.
Overall, I would recommend this book, but also warn that much of it consists of personal conclusions of an expert and not a summary of the research from the field that I have expected.
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