Petaluma, CA, United States | Member Since 2008
I had long known that Moby Dick had antecedents in a real life event, but I had no idea so much detailed information was available about it. Philbrick does a brilliant job of pulling all the original sources together and making this story real and human. Watching this group of men deal with their circumstances, making decisions based on the available information, suffering from the consequences of those decisions, was vicarious living at its best. This book should tell you just about everything you'd ever want to know about the 19th century whaling industry. It's also a great story about human nature and how all of us act and react in the face of adversity.
This was not what I expected. A confession: my previous experience with Arthur C. Clark was limited to Tales from the White Hart. I expected that sense of humor and quirky characters to be part of Clark's other work. Hitting this book and discovering that it was a very dry procedural narrative with cardboard characters was something of a shock.
Admittedly, the creation of the alien spaceship and the puzzles it created for the human explorers was cleverly done. There just wasn't enough of it. The book focused on a few creative challenges, rather than a wide variety of things to be interpreted and overcome. This would perhaps not have been so aggravating had the book not constantly commented on "looking out over a myriad of wonders", when in fact the interior as described is extremely drab and nearly featureless. Add to that the lack of characters, story, and overall purpose, and this simply wasn't my cup of tea.
I suppose a lot of first contact stories get bogged down in the details of overcoming the initial obstacles of the alien society. I'm sure there is a place for that in the world of literature, just as I am sure there are plenty of readers who enjoy contemplating that. For me, I expect more of a payoff.
The first thing that struck me, having grown so used to the movie version over the years, is how young all the characters are. Most of them are barely into their early 20s, and some of them are still in their teens. And like so many young men of that age, they are trying to understand life. It was just a smidge surprising to hear the same old college dorm room bull sessions coming out of the mouths of young enlisted men. But college kids have no reason to think they have a monopoly on that kind of philosophical speculation. Prewitt is at the heart of this conversation on what it is to be a man. His internal conflict between his own sense of self and what the Army demands of him is what drives the whole book.
Set in 1941, and written 10 years later, this book preserves an honest depiction of how a certain class of people lived and thought, while unavoidably coloring it with how Americans were changed by the war and its aftermath. Allowing for a certain amount of authorial tampering, this is a more uncensored look at normal Americans than you will get from the movies, and a whole lot more informative than you will get from history books. I applaud the visceral realism that James Jones tries to capture here.
I had no idea the movie version dealt with such a narrow slice of this book. To it's credit, the movie captures the essential core of the book as far as story and characters go. What got lost is a lot of the back story for the characters, and how the peacetime military became a refuge for young men hit hard by the Depression. In fact, the influence of the early 20th century labor movement, the Prohibition years, the Depression, and hobo subculture, all loom large as formative factors for these people. The other thing that got shorted was the internal life of these characters.
One odd thing about the novel is that there is a change in tone that takes over most of the last quarter of it. It kind of feels like that portion was written earlier, before Jones had polished his style. It feels amateurish like a young writer trying to imitate some cheap pulp fiction of the time. Jones does a good deal of damage to the authenticity of the characters he worked so hard to create. Fortunately, he manages to get back on track and ends strong.
Overall, Elijah Alexander does a great job of keeping all the characters straight and giving them appropriate accents. My one complaint is that I wish he hadn't adopted such an exaggerated drawl for Maylon Stark.
The subtitle was irresistible: "How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships". The subtitle is still irresistible. I would still love to read that book. Sex at Dawn, however, is not that book. Christopher Ryan spends a huge amount of time ripping apart other people's research and taking pot shots at his vast assemblage of straw men. He loves to accuse real researchers of confirmation bias and cherry picking. He seems oblivious to the fact that he is himself a master of confirmation bias and cherry picking, as he proves over and over in chapter after chapter. I make the comment "real researcher" because Ryan's only research apparently consists of reading the research of other people. He cavalierly chooses to ignore the conclusions of the actual researchers in favor of his own self-serving conclusions. In his defense, I suspect he is not always wrong, but it becomes an issue of where does one draw the line.
Ryan is obsessed with debunking what he calls "the standard narrative of human sexuality". The problem is that there is no standard narrative to debunk. The honest truth about human nature is well known to every adult on the planet. What would be interesting is the latest insights from evolutionary science and psychology. But what we get here is a mish-mash of old news. Ryan is evidently one of those people who believe that every society on Earth is natural except our own. He goes to great lengths to document obscure fringe societies as examples of how we would behave if we were only "natural". He has no interest in exploring how our own society evolved (naturally or otherwise). In fact, he has nothing good to say about our own society at all. I kept thinking his view might be different if he had any understanding of economics. And then, to my surprise and dismay, he brought up economics. His ignorance on that subject was staggering. Rather than view it as an empirical discipline to explain human behavior, he honestly believes it is a collection of arbitrary rules invented by economists to control the rest of us!
After regaling us with his tawdry excuse for scholarship through the bulk of the book, he feels he has earned the right to give us advice! The very brief conclusion of the book is his "advice" that we would be better off adopting a looser attitude toward sexual fidelity. That fell far short of the promise of the subtitle. I really don't care about his advice. I'm really more interested in tracing the prognosis for the conflict between human nature and social mores. Ryan seems absolutely oblivious to the interactions between the sublimation of human nature and the accomplishment of social goals. That would truly be an interesting book. I guess I will have to wait for someone besides Ryan to get around to it.
There is an undeniable power here. I can't say that I liked the characters, but they were somehow compelling. I can't say that I understand the choices the characters made, but they were somehow believable. Bowles has somehow tapped in to the mid-century malaise that followed World War II, and created a novel that is at once evocative and enigmatic. We never learn enough about Port and Kit to know why they came to Africa, or why they brought Tunner along. They are intent on following their own plans despite having no actual purpose. They are oblivious to the consequences of their choices, and seemingly oblivious to the possibility that their lives are also subject to other people's agendas. Scattered throughout are some truly stunning observations by Bowles about life. I cannot help but reflect on this novel months after hearing it; still trying to make sense of it; still admiring and confused.
As much as I am a fan of Jennifer Connelly, I have mixed feelings about her as a reader. On the plus side, she is about the right age for Port and Kit, and thereby makes it easier to access those characters. On the other hand, she comes across as rather flat, lacking the varied modulations of the truly accomplished audio book readers.
The War of 1812 always gets short shrift in school, leading a lot of us to assume it was just a minor skirmish. I suppose in some ways it was. But there was still a lot going on, and this book does its part to fill in the blanks. Daughan does a great job setting up the background for the war. The specific issues of trade and impressment and how it was all related to the Napoleonic campaigns, the non-military tactics employed, the eventual breakdown, and the territorial designs of the US and Great Britain over Canada and the "Northwest".
Madison does not come off well in this story. In fact the partisan rivalry between Republicans and Federalists sounds all too familiar to the times in which we live. Madison may have been a great political thinker but he was a lousy war president. Tales of American military and political incompetence abound during this conflict. It would be funny if it weren't so shameful and tragic.
Daughan spends a lot of time on the details of individual military encounters. This really helped bring home the reality of men in the field dealing with what was right in front of them, as opposed to the orders reaching them after days or weeks from people in Washington who had no firsthand sense of what was going on. It also helped confirm that all the details in the Jack Aubrey books and the Hornblower books are pretty accurate.
The two events everyone associates with this war--the burning of Washington and the bombardment of Fort McHenry--turn out to be rather peripheral in the scheme of the overall campaign. Which isn't to say they aren't important.
It's easy in a history to have the thesis get lost in recounting details. But Daughan keeps revisiting his underlying premise that the US naval forces played an important role in changing the attitude of the British toward the US and contributing to the long peaceful affiliation the two countries have shared since that time. While Daughan addresses the issue of privateers, I couldn't help feeling that that story did not get proper weight. Perhaps someone else will tell that story someday.
This is unquestionably a powerful book. Stephen Kumalo is one of the great literary protagonists. You cannot but help bonding with him immediately. Thanks to him, I can overlook other aspects of the book. What starts out looking like it could be South Africa's "To Kill a Mockingbird" ends up being closer to South Africa's "The Jungle". Paton alternates the main Kumalo story with passages of journalistic prose, as well as an attempt to set up a secondary protagonist. I can understand why. His main story simply isn't big enough to fill a novel. But Kumalo is such a great character that the parts without him are such a letdown. Still, the book is just the right length for what Paton has to say. Paton makes an effort to stay even-handed throughout. That is, every character feels true to his own beliefs. That said, there are a few places where it feels like he has stacked the deck in his favor, and that's all I'm going to say about that.
What I found most compelling about the book is the universal message it has to tell about a society in transition. How people respond when traditional ways are under attack and no new societal institutions have been developed to take their place. It's something that people in every country can relate to. And South Africa's situation simply puts it into a perspective that makes it clear to all of us.
Some other reviewers have complained about Michael York's narration. I have my own issues with him. He tends to drift into a sing-song pattern sometimes that makes the book sound like it was intended for children. But when he gets engrossed in the important parts of the book, he does just fine. And while he has been lambasted for his pronunciations, it is interesting that no one has criticized him for any of the words that a non-South African would definitely need help with.
There is a passage early on where Lord Henry Wotton, the Mephistopheles character in this little morality play, offers a definition of the word 'influence' that encapsulates the central issue of the book. The word 'influence' is repeated often enough in this short book that I think Wilde must have intended that significance. It's something I overlooked the first time I read this book 40 years ago. I must have overlooked a lot because the book has improved a great deal in that time. It helps to have more context about Wilde and his times. And it helps too to know how much the extravagant descriptive passages owe to Wilde's French inspiration, À Rebours, a book sadly not available on audio.
Watching Dorian deteriorate under the influence of Lord Henry, while the positive friend, Basil Hallward, refuses to influence him at all, it strikes me that Wilde is making a rather strong case for morality in contradiction to the usual libertine motives ascribed to him. One thing that I think is often overlooked about Dorian is that he is described by Basil at the beginning as having some kind of special unique personality. Who he would have become if left uninfluenced is one of the mysteries that makes the story poignant.
One wishes Wilde had explored that possibility. One wishes that Dorian, as he ages, would become a person with a more defined persona. But he remains a rather unformed cipher right up to the end. That is yet another mystery Wilde left unexplored. What was it about Dorian that kept him from becoming "the hero of his own life" as Dickens phrased it?
Still, the questions Wilde chose to explore have managed to produce one of the iconic books of the Victorian Age. One might ask what it was about the puritanical moralistic Victorians that has left us with such a collection of horrific Gothic legacy: Dorian Gray, Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, etc.
The painting itself plays such a small part in the book, one is tempted to wonder if the title is actually referring to the painting or not. I am inclined to believe the title really refers to the book itself (i.e., a narrative picture rather than a visual one).
I have a number of quibbles with this book, which may lead some to consider this a negative review. Therefore, let me say right at the start that I love this series and I do not regret one minute of the many hours it has taken to listen to the first 5 books.
Book 5 covers the same time frame as book 4 only focusing on different characters. That puts a solid limit on how much the story can advance. As always in this series, Martin relies on the dialog to move the story forward. He's really good at it, but sometimes I wish he would resort to some old-fashioned exposition and just jump ahead. The problem is that we already know most of the facts the characters are going to consider. If you love the characters and like to hear them talk, then it's no big deal. If you are conscious of the fact that we have a long wait ahead of us before book 6 comes out (and who knows how long till book 7 and possibly book 8), then you'll have to forgive me for being a bit impatient.
Another reason for my impatience is that some of the questionable details of Martin's imaginary world are starting to wear thin: bodyguards appointed for life, an ice wall that lasts 1000s of years without maintenance, multi-year weather patterns that are a big deal in one continent but not in the other, the absence of technological advances in a world that seems to have all the resources ours does, medieval empires of a scope unimaginable in our own world, royal families with almost no members after centuries of unbroken dynasties.
Martin has gotten much better about overusing certain vocabulary since he started this series. Unavoidably, he still gets attached to certain words and phrases. 'Much and more' and 'little and less' are two that stood out in this latest volume. And even though he never strays from the emotional truth of his characters, I couldn't help but feel he made some missteps in this book as far as certain dialogs between characters of different ranks or classes.
Yet for all that, this series is still an amazing exploration into human nature. It is fascinating to watch the main characters discover the perils of leadership and agonizing over the right decision. Just as it is fascinating to watch other characters discover the result of their own hubris. It is hard to think of a single character in this series, whose future we are not interested in discovering, regardless of how we may feel about them. Just the fact that Martin has us rooting for multiple characters, even knowing that they will eventually be in conflict with each other, puts this series in a class by itself.
Reading a book like this makes you appreciate how little the world has changed in the last 100 years. And if people bought into the same weird fads 100 years ago, why not 200? Or 1000? Or all the way back to the beginning of civilization?
I thought I knew Elmer Gantry by reputation but I was mistaken. Whether Elmer does or doesn't believe in religion, he works really hard at it. And therein lies a deep and probing search into any of the professions like preaching, politics, activism, where success is measured by how much support and attention you can get. There is a kind of moral hazard created by that phenomenon.
Sinclair Lewis does a brilliant job of showing how Gantry gradually brainwashes himself, and how his hypocrisy arises, not from some deliberate choice on his own part, but from a lack of self-reflection and an absence of self-awareness. Gantry is terrifying, not because he is a hypocrit, but because he ultimately truly believes he is doing the right thing.
Lewis also paints a depressing picture of what happens to people in the ministry who are truly sincere and honest about their faith. It seems they will always lose out to people like Gantry who profess to harbor no doubts. Those who wrestle with their doubts--and even consider that struggle to be essential to their own faith--will never have the popular appeal of a charismatic personality like Gantry. What that says about the general public I leave to your imagination.
This series just gets better and better. Things that were annoying in the earlier books (like the overuse of certain vocabulary terms) have been fixed or at least mitigated in this latest installment. We will forgive him for falling prey to a new batch of overused terms towards the end.
Unlike book 3, book 4 starts off in a way that seems to deliberately ignore where the previous book left off. Rather than remind his readers of recent critical events, Martin simply goes on with selected storylines, trusting that eventually there will be enough clues to fill in the gaps. His opening scene doesn't appear to fit in anywhere and we will wait an agonizingly long time to find out what it relates to. Likewise, we are forced to wait an agonizingly long time to pick up the story lines for the most intriguing loose ends of book 3.
The result is a book that is always entertaining yet vaguely unsatisfying. While we get to watch the aftermath of the recent war play out, and while there is clearly a lot of background preparation for what must ultimately happen, there isn't a feeling of making much progress toward a final conclusion. I am not wishing for Mr. Martin to telegraph the ending, but book 5 had better do more than simply mark time.
I have recently been subjected to other imaginary worlds of inferior quality and it has me pondering why this particular world holds my interest. Martin has taken the time to construct a back story with unstable forces in play. And then he has taken the trouble to create a host of very individualized characters each with his or her own agenda. But the real magic comes when Martin lets those characters collide with each other and with the sociopolitical forces of their time. At that he is a real master. And all the specific trappings of the imaginary universe assume their proper role as background matter.
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