The lectures start out reviewing some ideas that have been suggested over the years for the fall of Rome: maybe it was the decadence or the rise of Christianity or the Barbarians... A lot of these are rejected on the argument that they apply equally well to the Eastern Empire, which lasted till 1453, as to the Western, which fell in 476. I find this argument less than fully convincing, but I was willing to accept it provisionally, awaiting the author's preferred thesis to be given at the end. Except he never does give one.
Instead the book is basically a litany of emperors and generals. The sort of thing that perhaps you're required to know for the test if you're studying to be a card-carrying historian, but which is of limited interest or use to the rest of us. The lectures start (following the part where he throws out and rejects various theories) with Julius Caeser and the Julio-Caludians, and if you know at least the outlines of that part of the story, as many of us do, things start to get pretty boring. But then he passes through that bunch and there's 4-5 more hours of so-and-so succeeded so-and-so, and you realize that hey, this never ending parade of emperors actually continued for like 400 years and was pretty well recorded. You also realize there's a reason no one's ever made an "I, Pupienus". Seriously, there's dozens of these guys you've never heard of and don't care about.
And Madden is just not a great lecturer. He's not terrible, but he seems to sigh a lot, which made me feel like he was disappointed in me as a listener. More likely, he was bored with his own story, because it's boring.
The unfulfilled promise of this program is to get at the deep causes of the fall of Rome. Madden's basic story is that the fundamental failure in Rome was a constitutional one, failing to specify the order of succession, which led perpetual rivalries between claimants to the throne. Perhaps, but given his own dismissal of stories that work just as well in the east as west, he never really explains why this explanation should pass that test. I'd also like to hear what other historians say on this topic; Madden mentions Gibbons, but doesn't say much about him, or anyone else's analysis. Basically, I kept waiting for the analysis lecture to come, and it simply doesn't.
It has a much broader focus, but if you're interested in this topic in general, let me suggest Ian Morris' recent book "Why the West Rules for Now". That one may leave you not knowing the Latin names of all the trees--err, emperors--but at least it acknowledges the forest.
Not a lot to say: There's a magic to informal live theater and improv/comedy. I can imagine this having been a great experience in person, but I'm not sure. On audio though, I found it fell flat. If you're smarting from a firing, you might find more here than I did. Some fun details, but I can't really recommend it.
Warren is not an amazing writer, and I don't like the framing of the book. But there's enough good stuff in here to justify a listen.
You might expect this to be a pretty hokey book: hypnosis, lucid dreaming, brain waves, biofeedback. A lot of it has a weird new-agey reputation. But that's exactly the point: there's perfectly good science behind all of this, even if many of the practitioners don't know it. To take one example: Warren goes to one of the world's foremost hypnotists, a man in his 80s (I think, it's been a little while since I finished the book) who used to be a university psychology researcher. He demos hypnosis very effectively and explains the simple relationship between easily measured brain waves and subjective consciousnesses.
Again, this is not a perfect book--too much of it is Warren self-indulgently reporting his experiences doing things like lucid dreaming seminars in Hawaii--but I don't know of a better one right now for explaining brain states. If you like Radiolab type stuff, give this book a try.
This is one of those books that someone had to write, and I'm glad to know it's out there. Sommers carefully documents all of the craziness in the feminist movement in the 1990s, and there sure was a lot of it! Claims that sexual assaults increase massively Superbowl weekend (they don't) or that the leading cause of miscarriage is domestic abuse (not even close) were bandied about wildly without regard for truth. What's more fun is the portrayal of academic conferences and the crazy one-upswomanship: when some of the attendees gathered in a drum circle, others declared that this was an appropriation of their cultural traditions and demanded they stop, which they did reluctantly. It's a delightful image of what happens when claims of marginalization become badges of honor.
Yes, the book is very dated. This of course makes you wonder whether things have gotten better. I have no idea.
Ultimately, this is one of those books that needed to be written but that isn't worth reading. Feel comfortable knowing that someone has done the work of collating all the craziness. And yes, Sommers has some affiliation with conservative hacks. That's unfortunate, but to my reading, this doesn't really affect the book.
There's a lot of 5-star reviews here that do a pretty good job of conveying the good parts of the book. I enjoyed it and I recommend it.
That being said, I can't call it a must-read. The story is entertaining but not really laugh-out-loud funny, and not must-know history. If you're looking for a fun, true story, go ahead.
...but I wouldn't necessarily recommend it.
I'm not sure exactly what to tell you about this play. It's weird. If you like weird stuff, odds are decent you'll like it. It's a story with strong characters, including spiritual murderers and conflicted secular lawyers. I didn't find everything credible--in particular, why does the lawyer throw away her career for this particular client? It's supposed to be because he's so unusually compelling, but it doesn't feel natural to me and instead it seems like the detail that's meant to convince us.
If you're just coming across LA Theatreworks, I strongly recommend starting with the two Pulitzer play collections. If you've listened to a few and are looking for something /experimental/, this is a good choice.
Good biographies are hard to write and often make poor audiobooks. Frequently biographers feel the need to be exhaustive, and the audiobooks drone on. Perhaps because this is part of "The Great Generals Series," whatever that is, this book manages to tackle its subject well without becoming boring. I enjoyed the book and would give it somewhere between 3 and 4 stars.
Pershing was an important figure who led a more interesting life than you might suppose. Before commanding WWI troops, he fought in Cuba, executed an impressive counterinsurgency campaign in the Phillipines, and led US troops against Poncho Villa in Mexico. He was a ladies man and had two great love affairs both with much younger women (though Lacey does a fairly poor job of bringing out Pershing's human side, which probably would have pleased Pershing). The first of these, his first wife, died tragically in a fire along with all but one of their children. Perhaps all this is why three biographies of Pershing have apparently been published in the last decade. I don't know if the other two do any better, but Lacey fails to really convince that Pershing is a figure worthy of study.
Let me attempt to make the argument: Thomas Ricks' recent wonderful book "The Generals" makes the case that the modern US military was largely the creation of one man, George Marshall, and that because the majority of young men of the WWII era served in the army, Marshall's personal style and strong character had untold impact in shaping the American century. In Ricks' telling, that's where the story begins, though he certainly mentions Marshall's close relationship (along with many of the other prominent WWII generals) to Pershing. After listening to this book, it's clear to me just how much Marshall absorbed from Pershing's leadership style. Pershing on the other hand, in Lacey's telling, didn't really have a mentor, just a hero: Ulysses Grant. Pershing taught himself the arts of leadership and logistics, and set the mold for the American commanders that followed. There feels to me a political dimension to all this. It's hard not to perceive a strand of creativity and liberalism in the thinking of Pershing and Marshall. Pershing, for example, repeatedly provided Phillipine insurgents with a route of escape as long as they symbolically surrendered the fight. In doing so, Lacey tells us he had much greater success than most of the army in other areas of the Phillipines. Marshall is remembered today as much for his contribution to rebuilding after WWII as for winning it. And Marshall's protege, Eisenhower, also showed his tendencies towards liberalism, especially as compared with more rigid military thinkers like MacArthur. All of this is very much in the great man school of history, but you cross that bridge the minute you start to read or write a biography.
All that being said, this is not the most exciting history book out there, and the lessons Lacey attempts to draw and comparisons to recent US experience in Iraq and elsewhere feel a little forced.
This is one of those books that you instantly recognize as a classic whether you knew it had that status or not, and then resent the world for not previously introducing you to it. The book is an exploration of the human dimension of war told through the experience of three reasonably well-documented battles: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. But it's not some namby-pamby celebration of the common soldier or anything obnoxious like that. Rather it's an erudite analysis of the cold reality: just how close were the soldiers together and in how many lines deep, and what happened when a cavalry charge actually crashed into the lines? How did the soldiers get to the front lines and how did they spend the night before, and so were they tired, cold, hungry, damp? The overarching strategic narrative of each battle is presented briefly, but for the most part each chapter focuses on the narrow tactical dimension: what happened, for example, at Waterloo when cavalry met cavalry, infantry met infantry, infantry met cavalry, or when artillery sprayed infantry or infantry or cavalry overran artillery. Some of the broader context is also discussed: how did the role of leadership evolve, how important was religion, and were the soldiers drunk?
Keegan is forthright about the limitations of his book. He focuses on three Western European battles fought by English troops. Near the end of his work, published in 1976, he discusses how tanks changed the role of individual battles--many of which were truly sieges he concludes--in WWII, and speculates about the future face of battle, clearly having WWIII against the Soviets foremost in mind. He doesn't anticipate, although it seems unreasonable to expect him to have, the increasing significance of counterinsurgency warfare. Perhaps the age of the true battle really is past and this book is of mere historical significance. Let's hope so. But if so, that makes the experience of reading about this lost world and imagining oneself in it all the more remarkable.
I highly recommend this book, but I will note that it's a little hard to follow on audio. It might work better on a long car-ride, but if you'd really interested, I think I'd suggest getting the print version.
I liked this piece, but I didn't love it. It's an imagining of what actually went on in 1947 when Hollywood executives met at the Waldorf Astoria to discuss their response to the refusal of ten Hollywood writers and directors to testify before HUAC. It's a fun piece mostly because of its portrayal of famous and colorful characters, like Metro, Golwyn and Mayer.
While the Waldorf Statement is mainly remembered today as Hollywood failing to stand up for the principle of free speech, this play makes a lot of two issues we rarely think of. The first was an ongoing anti-trust campaign against Hollywood, which eventually led to the end of "the studio system," which I wikipediaed as a result of this play and I invite you to do the same. Chasing imaginary communists, which ironically meant these powerful men colluding at the Waldorf, was seen as a way to get Congress to look the other way on their exclusionary business practices.
The second issue was antisemitism. This was only a couple of years after the end of World War II, and there was a perception of Jews and communists (and Jewish communists) having manipulated the country into fighting their enemy, the Nazis. Also, these powerful men had vivid and fresh images of a seemingly advanced country turning against Jews in horrific fashion. It's a good point that I hadn't fully appreciated in the broader story of the Red Scares, but I think it's a little overdone in this piece, hence my healine.
I'll mention that there are a lot of characters, all male, with deep, slightly accented voices tending towards hysterics. Usually LA Theatreworks does a very good job of picking voice actors you won't confuse, but they have their work cut out for them with this piece, and they only partly succeed.
I barely took a history class in college, so I'm not all that clear on what the conventions are, but this series of college-style lectures really felt like a litany of events to me. I vaguely remembered many of the names of events from high school history class, but I didn't remember how they fit together. Then I listened to these lectures on a car trip, and for maybe a week I did remember how they fit together, sort of. And now as I'm writing this review, I don't again.
To be sure, Smele makes a strong effort to get beyond this. Every third lecture or so he stops and does a synthesis/analysis lecture, summarizing the main forces behind the success or failure of whatever just happened. And each time he does, it basically makes sense, but then you get to the end, and one of the greatest nations on Earth has just been toppled by a bunch of ideological loonies, and it's hard to remember just why all the steps followed. One of the important factors, it seems, was that the Bolsheviks ended up occupying the cities once the civil war really got going, and from there they could muster large armies of the underclasses who basically fought for whoever controlled their territory. So was the failure of the Whites a failure to grasp this basic strategic point? That's certainly part of it, but I can't tell you how big a part.
I guess I'm being unfair to Smele. This is a really important subject, and I don't know of a better work on it, certainly not on audio. But I still didn't care for it.
It turns out a lot of what most of us know about Columbine is wrong. Some headliners: the "trench coat mafia" was not involved, and bullying plays only a minor role in the story. Also I was totally unaware that the main thrust of the attack was actually a propane bomb intended to knock out a support pillar in the cafeteria during lunch. Investigators believe that had the timing device worked, the bomb would in fact have toppled the support and the death toll would likely have been in the hundreds. There's an awful lot of interesting stuff in this book.
Unfortunately, Cullen has decided to make this the definitive account of the Columbine massacre and so there's a lot of uninteresting stuff too. I appreciate Cullen's desire to tell the story of the victims on the moral premise that they deserve their stories told more than the killers deserve theirs. There's a logic to that, but ultimately I just don't care whether the third student who was shot wanted to be a lawyer or a pilot. Sorry. I don't make my listening decisions based on that sort of moral calculus.
And that encyclopedic focus coupled with Cullen's other odd choice, to tell the story out of chronological order, makes this a difficult listen. One chapter tells the very important story of why a warrant that was sworn out against Dylan was never actually executed, and then the next goes on at great length about how different churches in town held competing services in the wake of the attack. If you do get the book, I recommend using the audible app to skip the less interesting chapters.
In case you don't decide to listen, and overall I recommend against it, the takeaway is this: Dylan Klebold was a sadistic psychopath and the main force behind planning the attacks; Eric Harris was a depressed young man, like many depressed young men, who fell under Dylan's sway. Just why this particular pair ended up perpetrating what would have been, except for Dylan's ineptitude with fuses, the second (to 9/11) largest peacetime mass killing in American history is not entirely clear. But there were plenty of warning signs, and one family in particular (the Browns) deserve more notice as the unsung would-be heros of the story. They repeatedly contacted Dylan's family, the school, and the police to warn of the dangers of the budding psychopath, but their warnings were not taken seriously.
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