It's a long book, but it kept my interest to the last sentence.
McCullough is a wonderful biographer/historian. Two of his previous books on the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal were people-oriented histories; this is a history-oriented biography. It uses correspondence involving Adams, his wife Abigail, and several contemporaries who played a part in Adams's life to excellent effect. Both Adams and his wife were enthusiastic and thoughtful correspondents throughout their adult lives and McCullough knows how to mine this source to great effect.
The book handles all of the significant controversies in Adams's public and private life, and to this non-historian, does so quite even-handedly given that the biographer seems to truly like his subject. We are shown Adams's faults, but they are overwhelmed by his many virtues; his real self shines through the often-slanderous verbal fog created by his many enemies. In today's scholarship it sometimes appears that you have to be either for Adams or for Jefferson, but McCullough admires both and refuses to be drawn into that feckless enterprise.
It is a long book, but it could have been much longer and still held my rapt attention.
Hamilton is a contemporary master of building future societies that make sense and contain amazing surprises. And then the stories he sets within them are great fun.
If you want to know what espionage is really about, just listen to this book. Why do some people spy? How hard is it to catch them? It's all here. What are the real-world consequences of spying? Real people get killed. The performance perfectly matches the clear straightforward prose. Oh yes, and if you want to know how the CIA really works (or at least one part of it) look no further.
Duty is important for three reasons. First it presents a very reliable perspective on how things really work in Washington, DC from the point of view of a very senior cabinet secretary. Gates understands the federal bureaucracy, the way Congress operates, and, most importantly, the way Presidents engage with issues. Short answer: the bureaucracy tries to do its best and often fails, Congress is made up of too many grandstanding blowhards, and you can't trust Presidents to do what they promise because of the great number of pressures on them.
Second, he compares the styles of our two most recent Presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama with insights gained from having worked with several previous Presidents. I don't worry about his apparent preference for the former, but rather Gates applies his excellent analytical insights to the comparison and concludes that Bush's more down to earth approach permitted a more functional Executive Office than Obama's greater detachment. Gates really doesn't like the way Obama's senior staff tried to micromanage in the absence of hands-on Presidential involvement.
Third, the reader gets a very smart man's observations on the major international conflicts of the beginning of the 21st century. Historians will find his stories to contain valuable nuggets of information that help explain why the US did what it did, and often why the US failed to do what it tried or ignored. For those who are attentive to the day-to-day headlines coming out of Washington, Baghdad and Kabul, the book is full of "Oh, that's why that happened" moments.
You don't have to agree with Gates's positions on the issues to benefit substantially from reading this well-written, well-produced audio book.
I've been reading and listening to SF for over 50 years--cut my teeth on Asimov and Heinlein, and most of the best since then. This book and its sequel rank among the very best of all time. First of all, it's great classic SF: the science is credible and Hamilton's extraordinarily clever use of the science context he creates continues amazes throughout. The characters are interesting enough to make you want to follow them (with the significant exception of the ultimate villain--no spoilers here) through their very lengthy adventures. The story is a classic "great novel" in the style of Dickens, Tolstoy, or Hugo. It is complex, believable and resolves itself with no significant loose ends. And it is a fundamentally moral story. There are good guys and bad guys, and some bad guys are redeemed, and some good guys die the death of the hero. There are ethical points to be made and they are made well, without overdoing them or minimizing them. It took forever to complete, and I am quite sad that the adventure is over. Thanks Peter F. Hamilton.
Revel is one of the relatively few pro-American European intellectuals and in this book he tells us 1) why European anti-Americans are not to be taken seriously (intellectually, if not politically), and 2) what it is about the US that so infuriates them.
Most European intellectuals, per Revel, are so immersed in their mid-20th-century marxist polemics that they will say nearly anything to keep their ideology alive. This leads to bizarre, self-contradictory anti-US diatribes that fail to survive any reasonable analysis. In the same line, the US's frequent social and political successes become living disproofs of their rigid ideological perspective and cannot be tolerated.
The book is occasionally over the top in its examples of European silliness, but for the most part it's an excellent antidote to prevailing "intellectual" trends. Ravel is careful to note, at least once or twice a chapter, that a critique of the anti-Americans does not imply that the US is even close to flawless, and in his conclusion he suggests that the uselessness of the European critique makes it possible for Americans to ignore them on those (few) occasions when they are on target.
A worthwhile 7 hours of listening
Your Mac Life, or YML as it is generally known, is a great way to stay abreast of what's happening in the world of Apple consumer products, especially including the iPod and Macintosh computer families. The principals (Shawn and Jay) are knowledgeable, amusing, and technically great at putting out a radio show. They (especially Shawn) are also opinionated and articulate, so if you generally agree with them you'll be entertained, but if not, you'll probably find them a little hard to take.
This is a show primarily for people who really like their Apple products, but it's also useful for those wondering what those products might offer them. The interviews and news features are the most useful, and their "shout outs" and more social segments can easily be skipped over. It's worth a sample subscription to see if you like it, and if you like the first few, you won't get bored.
The Cato Institute is one of the most influential Washington "think tanks" and the most important one with a libertarian bent. (This means, on one foot, that there are very few areas where government participation improves matters. It is NOT the same as political conservatism.)
If the July 2004 issue is representative, the monthly audio magazine presents a half-dozen interviews, speech excerpts, and short "lessons" on topics of contemporary political interest. Of course the quality varies with the presenters; some are a bit dull, but most are good enough speakers to hold your interest if the libertarian point-of-view is at all interesting. Unlike many political journals that are fairly far from the center, some contributors even demonstrate a good sense of humor.
If hearing the idea that the government is the source of most contemporary problems makes you uncomfortable, don't bother with a subscription. But if understanding how people can improve their lot without relying on governments to help them intrigues you, then give it a try.
Kabbalah is one of those topics that is almost impossible to learn, at least initially, from books. Its intellectual history--as a kind of wisdom transmitted orally from teacher to student over very many generations--suggests that it needs face to face instruction on the basics. The reason is that as a form of mysticism, it is fundamentally alien to how most westerners think, and that it is usually essential to have a teacher to ask questions.
Furthermore, the language is very obscure, in some cases deliberately so. It is paradoxical to the extent that it challenges your ability to "make sense" of it and invites you to "go with the flow" of the words, the poetry, the images, and the symbolism.
Once you understand a little bit of this, Danny Matt's book becomes immediately essential to help expand your familiarity with some of the literature of the Kabbalah. As a translator, Matt is probably one of the very best currently working in the English language. (He has recently undertaken a complete translation of the Zohar, the "Bible" of Kabbalah.) But Matt is also an academic, and understands that the symbolism is complex and difficult even for the intermediate student, so what he does is translate brief excerpts of some of the most important Kabbalistic works, organized by topic (God, the emanations, creation, revelation, etc.), and then at the end of the book, he provides notes for each excerpt that explain the symbolism and the Biblical and Talmudic references.
The Essential Kabbalah is also a wonderful book to accompany a class in Kabbalah, and it is particularly good to listen to rather than to read because, again, the information was not so long ago conveyed from mouth to ear, rather than from hand to eye. Don't expect to learn Kabbalah from this book; but then again, don't expect to learn Kabbalah from any book, by itself.
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