Being a fan of history and railroading, I chose this book on a whim because Audible doesn't have an enormous choice of books which cover both of those subject fields simultaneously: Beggars can't be choosers. Nonetheless... I got lucky. The writer tells a story that is informative and interesting. It is entertaining and educational. The descriptions of political and industrial scandal and achievement will cause you to draw comparisons between Andrew Carnegie and Bill Gates. Between Boss Tweed and Huey Long. Between Google and the PRR. The French have a phrase: "Plus ca change, plus c'est pareil" (The more things change, the more they stay the same).
This book describes the political and business atmosphere of the early 1900s in New York, and what it took physically, monetarily, politically, and socially, to build tunnels under New York's rivers that would allow the PRR's trains to come straight into Manhattan instead of having the passengers debark from their trains in New Jersey to take the ferry across. The entire exercise was a turning point in New York's coming of age in being the major metropolis of the United States and a global force to be reckoned with. The narrator blends into the background for the most part, leaving the story to tell itself. When you listen to a story and don't hear the telling, you know that it was well written, and that the story teller treated the material as superior to his or her ego.
There are some books that you will read (or listen to) many times because you like the tale, or the author, or because you want to pick up on the little bits that you missed the last time. I won't listen to this book a dozen times, but I will listen to it three or four more times because the tale is good. It speaks of courage and conviction and crime and corruption. The good people are inspiring and the sociopaths will make you wonder why we still have people like the Ken Lays and Jack Abramoffs of the world.
I first read Ms. Tuchman in "The Guns of August." I was impressed with her ability to tell a story and to keep me on a tether by showing how one important fact or event inevitably led to the next. In "The Guns of August" she clearly showed the line of reasoning from Edward VII's efforts to improve relations with France to that policy causing jealousy on the part of Kaiser Wilhelm. From there it was easy to see how a slighted Kaiser moved inexorably toward war with its promise of reasserting German diplomatic supremacy on the continent. "The First Salute" tells a wonderful story of how the United States was first recognized as an independent nation by the firing of a signal gun in the port of Dutch-owned St. Eustatious and the ramifications of that action on English-Dutch relations. The first few chapters tell the story of the governor of the island, his decision to recognize an American ship that sailed into his harbor, the history of the island, etc. But then the rest of the book broke off into separate stories of the War of Independence, biographies of some of the major players (like Rodney, Cornwallis, etc), how the French were convinced to come in on the Americans' side, pushing the decision at Yorktown, etc. All in all, very convoluted if not superfluous or confusing.
The title led me to believe that the book would be more about the new nation's path to recognition in the world, rather than its struggle for independence. It isn't a bad book, but it could have been better. The chapters about the Dutch and the First Salute should have been bolstered by further stories of how America found recognition around the world as a new country, or they should have formed a section of a larger work on the history of the Revolution. Ms. Tuchman's skills are great but the book could have been better organized or the title changed to reflect the real main plot. Buy it anyway. It's a great story and Ms. Tuchman's perspective on the British officers is refreshing.
I was getting a little tired of the "thinking needed" stuff I normally read and wanted a bit of fluff just to pass the time while driving or working around the house. This book was almost perfect for that purpose and I'll be buying additional volumes in the series just to see predictable loose ends tied up.
As some of the other reviewers might have mentioned, it has a cliff-hanger aspect to it (as do the others in the series) and almost seems composed of air. It went by VERY quickly, and as a sort of shoot-em-up space opera, it was very good. The story could be understood by a six-year old and the characters are two-dimensional. Which is precisely the reason I got it: It was supposed to be simple and entertaining. I didn't want Ulysses while working in my garage, I wanted Indiana Jones and I got it in spades. The author's experience as an ex-Navy officer comes through in the action and strategy descriptions and that is a welcome feature.
All that being said, I do have one complaint and it's about the narrator. He's just... the wrong voice. He tries to inject a feeling of suspense into the stories, but his voice is just... too young? too quick? too... Madison Avenue? too high-school quarterback? I'm trying to find the right description, but I think you'll get the idea. I keep thinking to myself that a captain of a ship that has fought a to-the-death battle and been the sole survivor, and then been promoted to lead the fleet, should have more gravitas. I keep seeing Russell Crowe in the role and I guess that's what I was expecting in the voice. That notwithstanding, I just bought the next two volumes in the series, and I'm going out to finish weedeating the back yard before moving on to the front while listening on my iPod. I expect to enjoy it.
By comparison, some favorite audiobooks: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (LeCarre), Guards,Guards (Pratchett), Pillars of the Earth (Follett)
It came in six parts, and it needn't have. Zero would have sufficed. The story is disjointed and uninspired and rises to be formulaic when it strives to reach that high. Picture the most brilliant fictional spy essay you could have possibly written in the fifth grade. Now picture reading that same essay 20 or 30 years later. That's the feeling I got listening to this book. Play the demo clip before deciding that I'm a liar.
As bad and as juvenile as the book is, its lack of qualities are further highlighted in the story-telling by Scott Brick, whose verbal reading skills go through the book in the same way his name's sake would go through a window pane. I can only believe that someone conducted him to a sound-proof booth, shoved a book in his hands, and said "Read this... you've got 38 hours to finish it." Picture an AM-radio disc jockey taking the next step down on an ever-spiraling career, and you'll understand where I am trying to go with my impression of Mr. Brick's interpretation of this book. I never thought I would say that I had wasted my money on an Audible selection (after all, I have chosen carefully all along), but the quality of this particular work makes me wonder if my judgment or the quality-control at Audible is slipping. It's a horrible book. Badly written and worse-read. It angers me to think that I have wasted a portion of my life on it. This review will be the last occasion that I give any of my time to this fetid excuse for what passes as literature, in the hopes that I may save someone else from wasting their time and money.
For comparison - Books downloaded from Audible that I consider worth reading: Tinker,Tailor,Soldier,Spy/John leCarre - Guards!Guards!/Terry Pratchett - A Short History of Nearly Everything/Bill Bryson.
This book is a followup to his Around the World in 80 Days book and, like that volume, is a good companion to the video series although it can be read and enjoyed on it's own. What makes either of these works worth listening to more than once is Michael's humanity when describing the pathos and comedy he encounters in his voyages. The sites that he visits are important, but only as much as they affect, or have been affected by, humanity. It is the stories of the characters and how they go about their lives, and the heart that goes into their telling, that makes you wish you were actually there along for the ride. It is the way that Michael describes the great highs and the dire lows of humanity's habitations and constructions and achievements that make his travelogues the ones that cause you to forget that you aren't actually eating cobra, waiting with trepidation at a hostile border crossing, or fending off unwanted attention. Short of actually going on the trip, this is the best way to go.
You know... name 10 books you would take on a desert island if you knew you were going to be there for the rest of your life? This is one of mine. It has everything to make me think, feel, question, and wonder about. It has human pathos and joy and sorrow and deceit and honor and pride and compassion. The story line revolves around the building of a cathedral in 13th century England, and how a variety of people relate to that building, and to each other. The good guys triumph, the bad guys fail, and (for the most part) seek redemption and forgiveness. Virtues and vice are examined and we see how the main characters use either (or both) to achieve their ends. The technical descriptions of peoples' lives in that time period is accurate, as are the scenes describing how the cathedral and medieval fortifications are built. It's a book that at the end will probably make you stop and say "Yeah, that's the way it should be... normal". It's on my desert-island list because I've been reading it since it first came out in hardcover, and still find something new and interesting, or thought-provoking in it every time. I envy you if this is the first time you read it, or listen to it.
I was positively entranced when I first saw Michael Palin's "Around the World in 80 Days" on my local PBS station years ago. The man knows how to tell the story of his adventures with a certain dry irony that makes you want to do what he has done, just to see if you can handle it as well as he did. I enjoyed watching the series on TV, and I enjoyed listening to this book because of Mr. Palin's humble humor in telling the tale. But... This book is not a substitute for the original TV series even though it covers many of the events and characters seen in that series. What it really does well is to serve as an addendum. It describes additional scenes and events and sheds new light on others shown in the series. If you have seen the original TV series, this book will shed additional light and tweak some good memories. If you haven't seen the original series, you may want to rent or buy the DVDs when they come out before listening to this.
Presentation: I don't know if it was his natural accent, or one that he chose to use as a narrator, but I found Frederick Davidson's voice to be a bit of an irritation at the beginning. But if you've ever watched a really good black and white movie and not missed the color because the story swallowed you, you'll understand that his voice, and hasty choice of accents for the various characters, fades into the background most of the time. Had the writing been anything less than inspired, his voice and style would have grated more than it did, instead of being the only reason for me to rate this audio version at less than five stars.
Writing: This novel is for those who can appreciate character studies and who recognize that all human beings are flawed. The villain is not perfect. Neither is the hero. There are no far-fetched or unlikely scenarios that help the plot reach the end. There is no great reliance upon technology (real or fancied) to help the protagonist achieve his ends. There is just a steady and purpose-driven walk in the direction of the goal. This is not a story about prima donnas. It is a story about those who get the job done no matter which way luck runs. The chase is begun and the steps to find the mole become clearer as the reader walks with the author, and enjoying every clue revealed, so that the eventual denouement becomes almost anti-climactic. Technology and luck and circumstances can vary and can fail when relied upon too heavily. This story tells us that a capable person, using their head and striving inexorably in the direction of their goal, exhibits the kind of successful human dignity that we cannot fail to applaud, and envy.
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