Petaluma, CA, United States | Member Since 2006
I was largely ignorant of the details of Marie Antoinette's life. This book was a revelation not only about Marie but about the times in which she lived. Fraser does not idolize her subject, but she makes a superb case that Marie deserves better than the conventional image of the woman who said let them eat cake. As for the atrocities committed by the revolutionaries, no one should ever have had to endure those.
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.
I guess I'm glad I finally got around to reading this. I can't help feeling I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it when I was younger.
There are some genuinely interesting ideas here. The key one being how to construct a vastly larger world than Earth on which we could still function. The parts where Niven explores how this world would differ from our own show some serious thought. We can ignore the technical difficulties such as how to keep it in a stable orbit.
The characters were marginally interesting, although in fairness I do have to note that recent sci-fi shows all seem to have similar conglomerations of personalities so maybe Niven deserves credit for being so influential. All the same I couldn't get especially invested in any of their supposed agendas. Why is it that alien races all have to be so simplistically monolithic in their interests, personalities, and outlooks?
There seems to be a recurring interest in granting human beings increased longevity while maintaining the physical bodies of the young. I suppose this is very appealing to the core audience for this kind of book. What is baffling is that these very old humans seem to have no acquired wisdom, judgment, skill set, or cultural depth that would correspond to this increase in lifespan.
Where the book really let me down was in the absence of any kind of compelling story. I kept waiting for a plot to develop, but it was just a basic adventure story pasted onto a very thin excuse to motivate the action. Niven fans will no doubt take me to task for overlooking the very compelling reasons these alien races had for undertaking this mission, but as I said the imaginary forces working on imaginary races using imaginary technology just doesn't excite me.
Still, this is an acknowledged sci-fi classic and spawned a series of other books exploring the premise, so it must be appealing to someone out there.
There are a number of harsh reviews here regarding Heinlein's depiction of women. I wish I could give a hearty rebuttal, but this is not a book I got deeply attached to. On the other hand, I think the critics are forgetting that the attitudes shown accurately depict a significant segment of liberated women in the 1960s, and that we really haven't moved that far beyond that as you can tell from just a glance at TMZ. Moreover, I don’t think Heinlein was writing for posterity. As far as extrapolating from the time of writing, I think the book was fairly prescient in describing what the 1970s would be like.
On a side note, his fake news stories of the future are dead on accurate in describing the current events of our own time. I don't know if that is hilarious or just intensely sad.
At this distance, it's hard not to wish that Heinlein had been interested in exploring different questions. However, the issues he focused on (gender relations, overpopulation, class privilege, environmental pollution) were the issues of that time. And as far as the depiction of human relationships is concerned, he does an excellent job of capturing the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of his time. It's never clear whether the author perceives them as such. Too bad. Would that we all could perceive the hypocrisies of our own time as clearly.
There is a hint near the beginning of the book that the whole story could merely be a fantasy constructed by a brain cut off from contact with the outside world. But this isn't supported by any further exposition within the text itself. Still, it's interesting to note that every book is essentially a fantasy constructed within the mind of the author.
I can't help wondering how the book would have come across if read by a female narrator. So much of the book takes place within the mind of a woman, and the dated expressions seem especially incongruous being spoken by a man.
The central theme that Heinlein seems to have been interested in was how to get a totally frank conversation between genders without any of the masks or defenses that customarily get in the way. To that end, he created a rather unique scenario. Sadly, I think his solution was of more interest to him and his readers at the time than it will be to readers of our own time.
The first segment is very rich in depth of scholarship. It is a reminder of just how superficial the education system is in terms of touching on the vast range of intellectual thought in human history. If the entire series was like this, it would be daunting. Fortunately, the other 11 segments slow down and focus on smaller topics of interest. That isn't to say they are less intense. These are all carefully crafted essays. You may not agree with everything they have to say, but they make a compelling case in every instance.
The common theme through all the units is exploring the philosophical, political, economic, moral and ethical underpinnings behind the idea of liberty. Not so long ago, I wouldn't have thought such a course was necessary. I thought everyone appreciated liberty as the number one priority of society. But liberty is under assault by a number of other interests. People who, with the best of intentions, think that society would be better off if we could control people better. People who think other people can't be entrusted to make important decisions about their own lives. People who think they can reduce the amount of unfairness in the world by curtailing some liberties. People who think there are higher priorities than liberty. And people who are just outright opposed to the idea of liberty.
Learning about Liberty may not convince everyone that liberty should be the number one priority of society, but I hope it will at least convince anyone who listens to it that there is a good case for that.
I was sorry when it ended. I am hoping Cato will add more things like this to their library.
Just one comment about production values. The overall narration is very good, although there were times when it felt like one of those high school documentary films. The producers made the decision to have actors read the direct quotes from the authors cited. This adds some variety to the material, but sometimes it seems like the actors went a little over the top. For a couple of people, like Ludwig von Mises, the text was nearly lost in the thick accent. Overall though, I think this was a good choice.
I had to take a detour into Japanese YA fiction because of the terrific trailer for Edge of Tomorrow, which appears to be (loosely) based on this book. The book is a well-paced, tightly plotted genre novella. It has two things going for it that make it stand out: an incredibly great premise, and one carefully prepared exchange between the two main characters about 3/4 of the way through.
Apart from that, there isn't much in the way of character development, or even the exploration of the possibilities inherent in this rather original alien invasion story. Anime and manga fans will be in familiar territory with how things play out. Sakurazaka is focused on his protagonist only, and he provides as little context as he can get away with. That said, he does cheat a little. When the first person narrative gets in his way, he switches to third person, giving the reader information that our hero can't know, and even some stuff that the human race is not allowed to know. He even takes the cute tactic of having his hero comment on how time travel stories generally don't quite make sense, unlike this one which is "real life". Having disarmed the reader this way, he blithely goes on to spew out his own set of inconsistent time travel conundrums. Once again, anime and manga fans will be unfazed.
As for the coffee… Well, there is a sense in which the book strongly suggests that coffee is the most important thing on the planet. Or then again, it might just be a metaphor. I'm still a little confused by the title. Is that a literal translation of the Japanese? Or am I missing the grammatical intention? All the same, a very enjoyable quick read. Don't let the 3 star rating deceive you.
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