Within the first minutes of The Know-It-All, I was laughing out loud, and probably looking like an idiot to the drivers of the cars around me. AJ Jacobs' quest for knowledge may be contrived for the purposes of writing a book, but so what? Bill Bryson's journeys are undertaken with the same goal in mind, after all.
In fact, a Bryson travel book is the closest comparison I can think of to The Know-It-All, and that's high praise. Expecting to get a condensed version of the encyclopaedia is ridiculous - this book is about READING the encyclopaedia, not just abridging the interesting facts. Yes, of course he's somewhat self-obsessed - but that's kind of the point: he's writing a book about a personal endeavour, and he's populating it with anecdotes about himself and characters in his life. Personally, I enjoyed the descriptions of his relationships with his father and his brother-in-law, and I thought the tone of his humour was perfectly pitched.
The Know-It-All isn't meant to be taken seriously, so people who are expecting it to distill all of human knowledge into a handy bite-sized chunk are going to be disappointed. Me? I thought it's the best Audible book I've listened to in a long time.
I really wasn't sure what to expect from Peyton Place, since all I knew about it was its reputation as a 'racy' novel. In reality, what was racy in the 50s is very tame nowadays, but the issues raised as are relevant today as ever. However, this isn't a 'preachy' book - it's simply a compelling tale about a bunch of very believable, and mostly flawed, characters. As a bonus, the essay at the end about the book's impact is an informative and interesting conclusion to an enjoyable listen.
The premise of the book isn't too bad, but it's very poorly structured and executed. It lacks all of the immediacy of a Dan Brown novel, where the action all takes place in a single day, and instead is filled with flashbacks, rambling plot expositions and a host of unnecessary characters. I really thought I'd enjoy this book, but it was a struggle to finish it.
This is a curious book - it's not really a thriller as the plot is too thin and there's little action. But then it's not really a literary novel either, which is what it seems to have pretensions to be. As others have commented, the narrator evinces littles sympathy. In fact, none of the characters does. A more self-centred, obnoxious bunch you'd be hard-pressed to find. Where the book works best is in the description of a troubled marriage and the narrator's relationship with his three-year-old son, but this has precious little to do with driving the plot along. There's some good writing scattered throughout the book, but there is way too much padding and pointless meanderings. The abridged version is almost certainly a better bet - this is one title that could be cut to a third of its length without harm.
Reaching the end of Silent Running, I was sorry that the Second World War hadn't gone on for another couple of years so that Jim Calvert would have a few more sea stories to tell. It's an excellent read: informative, detailed, and yet highly personal. Calvert pulls no punches when analysing his own actions during the war, both in the submarine and out of it, and it's refreshing to find a war memoir where the author doesn't consider that he won the war single-handedly. I can't recommend Silent Running highly enough.
Well. that's 62 hours, 18 minutes of my life I'll never get back...
If I'd been reading the printed version of War and Peace, I'd have given up long ago. Generally, I dislike abridged versions of books, but here I'll make an exception: if W&P were half the length it would be twice as good. Tolstoy seems confused whether he's writing a novel, a historical account of Napoleon's 1812 Russian campaign or a philosophical treatise on free will versus necessity. Frankly, it's a mess.
Thanks to the frequent rambling diversions and the innumerable Russian names, it takes 20 hours or so before you've a clue who the main characters actually are. When he's sticking to the story, Tolstoy can spin a good yarn, and the characterisations are interesting and realistic. But too often he wanders off on some tangent about why historians are forever getting things wrong and how Napoleon didn't actually mean to invade Russia at all, even though he ordered the invasion. I'm sorry, but most of this stuff is just plain boring. I listen in the car while driving to work, and half the time I found my attention wandering and realised I hadn't been listening for a minute or two.
Generally, I like longer audio books as they give more time to get into the story - the short ones are often over before you realise you've started - but War and Peace is an exception. I couldn't wait for it to be over. Clearly, the narrator couldn't wait either - he sounded as bored as I was. At least he was getting paid for his troubles.
If you're interested in novels (and lengthy ones at that) from around this period, try Alexandre Dumas instead. Now there's a man who knew how to tell a story and not bore his audience to death with inane pseudo-intellectual waffle.
Fans of Bill Bryson will know what to expect: sharp, scathing, hilariously funny tales from the master of travel writing. If anything, this book is even better than normal because the subject matter is less familiar - giving Bryson free rein to expound on the history, culture(?) and natural perils of Australia. He also narrates the book himself - something that is normally a Very Bad Thing. But he does an excellent job - better, perhaps, than anyone else would have done. All things considered, an excellent book.
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