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Occasional Reviewer

St. Louis, Missouri United States | Member Since 2017

  • 8 reviews
  • 14 ratings
  • 718 titles in library
  • 4 purchased in 2018

  • Mao Zedong

    • UNABRIDGED (5 hrs and 51 mins)
    • By Jonathan Spence
    • Narrated By Alexander Adams

    Born in rural China in 1893, Mao Zedong led his country through "a long-drawn-out adventure in upheaval". In the process he became one of the monumental figures of the 20th century. He died in 1976, just as China was entering detente with the U.S.

    Karen says: "Excellent analysis"
    "Anodyne Chronicle"
    What would have made Mao Zedong better?

    Any insight at all into Mao's driving motives and character; any power of evoking the moral and emotional atmosphere of the political culture in which he thrived and that he dominated; any ability to offer a sense of causal connection among major historical events.

    What was most disappointing about Jonathan Spence’s story?

    The bland, generic quality of the narrative. So far as theme and tone are concerned, Mao's story, as Spence tells it, could have been the story of virtually any political figure in the liberal bourgeois democratic West. Mao comes across as mild, benevolent, avuncular, but sadly a little too confident in his own omniscience, and misled, poor fellow, by those around him who could have steered him aright but who for reasons unspecified failed to do so. A colorless narrative. The East in this story is not only not Red; it is scarcely even the East. Decades of terror, purges, intrigues, power struggles, treachery, deceit, manipulation, betrayal, and homicide on an unimaginably gargantuan scale--one gets the impression that Spence is himself so bland and mild that he would consider it impolite to evoke such things with any vividness. Or perhaps his vision is itself so neutral, so anodyne, that he really isn't capable of registering them.

    What three words best describe Alexander Adams’s performance?

    ordinary, moderately clumsy, not too distracting

    What reaction did this book spark in you? Anger, sadness, disappointment?

    Shock and dismay, disorientation, a dizzying, vertiginous sense of unreality

    Any additional comments?

    The biography by Jung Chang and John Halliday offers the power and color absent from Spence's account. They depict Mao as a power-mad monster, a supremely cunning psychopathic gangster boss. One could say it's a hatchet job, but they have a lot of evidence to back up their depiction, including many of Mao's own statements. Without the recognition of Mao's psychopathy, it would be hard to account for quite so many corpses and shattered lives, so much deliberate and prolonged torment. Their story is compelling, linked causally one episode to the next (Spence's is not). The one main thing missing from their account is the ideological fervor that must have animated so many cadres, along with sheer terror and intimidation. I had hoped Spence would compensate some for that large hole in the Chang/Halliday biography. It didn't. I'm on now to David Priestland's The Red Flag: A History of Communism, which promises better in that respect.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • The Red Flag: A History of Communism

    • UNABRIDGED (28 hrs and 49 mins)
    • By David Priestland
    • Narrated By Paul Boehmer
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready

    In The Red Flag, Oxford professor David Priestland tells the epic story of a movement that has taken root in dozens of countries across 200 years, from its birth after the French Revolution to its ideological maturity in 19th-century Germany to its rise to dominance (and subsequent fall) in the 20th century.

    Christopher says: "Time well spent for history buffs"
    "Decent journalism on a large scale"
    Any additional comments?

    I had listened to various books about Maoist China, most recently Jung Chang's depiction of Mao as a psychopathic thug. I wanted to get more of a feel for the inner perspective of the people who actually believed in communism, people who were animated by its ideals. Priestland starts off by stipulating three basic narratives about communism: heroic liberators; party boss thugs; and committed ideologues. That sounded promising. Didn't work out very well for me, though. Like the histories of Jonathan Spence, this book is well-informed but imaginatively dull. The manner is that of a civilized Westerner who really even begin to imagine what it must be like to be a committed fanatic capable of monstrous violence, nor what it is like to live in a world saturated by fear, intimidation, and ruthless totalitarian domination.

    It's worthwhile to have a comprehensive journalistic survey of radical communistic movements over a period of more than two centuries. But that's by way of superficial outline. What I needed more than that, beyond that, was (1) a vivid evocation of the quality of mind and life in the communist world; and (2) some apparatus of causal explanation deeper than the descriptive terms being used for the journalistic chronicle. Priestland offered neither.

    Priestland's chronicle is channeled by unstipulated upper-middle-brow conventions of belief. A symptom of that kind of channeling appears in his account of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. He superciliously dismisses the idea that ancient ethnic tensions had anything to do with the civil wars. The reason he gives is merely nonsensical, illogical. Ethnic rivalries could not have been a major factor, he says, because if people had managed the political power structure and financial organization better the civil wars could have been avoided. Anyone who has a mind-set that automatically filters out the possibility of ethnic hatred as a causal factor is unlikely to be able to give either an explanation for large-scale political movements or a vivid evocation of the quality of life in them.

    I'm now listening to Robert Conquest's Reflections on a Ravaged Century. Conquest has his own limitations--a pluralistic discountenancing of all Grand Explanation--but he succeeds in the two main areas in which Priestland fails. He is capable of registering horror in both Nazism and the communist states; and he understands the psychology and cognitive dispositions that lead to fanatical totalitarian commitment. What's it like for Cambodia to murder a huge proportion of its own population? What's it like to live in a reign of Stalinist terror? What's it like to have society dominated by lunatic teenagers waving the Little Red Book while brutalizing their elders? Priestland and Spence can mention such things in ways that drain them of all sensation, turn them into numbers or abstract institutional concepts with little more emotional force than an annual corporate business report. Conquest puts the blood back into the red flag.

    Boehmer's performance is fair to middling. At first, listening to him giving such thoughtful care to mispronouncing each one of the multitude of words in foreign languages is a little distracting, but one gets used to it, and it can even serve as a mildly entertaining side-track to the narrative.

    7 of 12 people found this review helpful
  • Thousand Cranes

    • UNABRIDGED (3 hrs)
    • By Yasunari Kawabata
    • Narrated By Brian Nishii
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready

    With a restraint that barely conceals the ferocity of his characters' passions, one of Japan's great postwar novelists tells the luminous story of Kikuji and the tea party he attends with Mrs. Ota, the rival of his dead father's mistress. A tale of desire, regret, and sensual nostalgia, every gesture has a meaning, and even the most fleeting touch or casual utterance has the power to illuminate entire lives - sometimes in the same moment that it destroys them.

    Erez says: "Painfully beautiful"
    "Compelling but incomplete biography"
    Any additional comments?

    Jung Chang and Jon Halliday depict Mao as a power-mad monster, a supremely cunning psychopathic gangster boss. One could say it's a hatchet job, but they have a lot of evidence to back up their depiction, including many of Mao's own statements. Without the recognition of Mao's psychopathy, it would be hard to account for quite so many corpses and shattered lives, so much deliberate and prolonged torment. Their story is compelling, linked causally one episode to the next. The one main thing missing from their account is the ideological fervor that must have animated so many cadres, along with sheer terror and intimidation.

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution's Greatest Puzzle

    • UNABRIDGED (8 hrs and 29 mins)
    • By Andreas Wagner
    • Narrated By Sean Pratt
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready

    In Arrival of the Fittest, renowned evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner draws on over 15 years of research to present the missing piece in Darwin's theory. Using experimental and computational technologies that were heretofore unimagined, he has found that adaptations are not just driven by chance, but by a set of laws that allow nature to discover new molecules and mechanisms in a fraction of the time that random variation would take.

    Gary says: "Robustness makes for an interesting life and book"
    "good subject, poor exposition and poor reading"
    What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?

    I'll get this book in print and try to skim past all the hype to get to whatever argument Wagner might make, assuming he does eventually getting around to saying something rather than just touting the fantastic, revolutionary, unhead-of mega-achievements in evo-devo to which he has, we are told, contributed so much. Evo-devo has a bad habit of proclaiming itself revolutionary without actually producing any ideas that fair play would count as more than detailed technical elaborations that don't alter the larger structure of evolutionary theory. Wagner might or might not be vulnerable to that accusation. But then, if he had something actually to say, why not say it, rather than perpetually leading the listener along with fanfares and preludes? I suppose he imagined that one secret of books for a "general audience" is to keep the reader in suspense. Bad idea, here, anyway. I want to know what is going to be argued so that I can assess whether the evidence being presented gives good support to the argument. After a couple of hours listening to this book, I gave up.

    I might have listened longer, though with mounting frustration and annoyance, except that the reader was unbearable. I've listened to hundreds of audio books and have only very seldom given up on one because the reader was unbearable. This reader was fatuous and affected, posing and prissy, to an intolerable degree. It might be unfair, probably is unfair, to say that Wagner got what he deserved from this reader, but the posturing prose and the posing reader combined to make me turn it off and put it away, despite my real interest in the announced subject of the book.

    Would you ever listen to anything by Andreas Wagner again?

    Probably not.

    Would you be willing to try another one of Sean Pratt’s performances?

    Absolutely not. Abominable. The very worst.

    You didn’t love this book... but did it have any redeeming qualities?

    Maybe. Hard to say. I have a rule about movies. If I get thirty minutes into a movie, and it has been awful all along, I quit. I figure it is unlikely to redeem itself in the last two thirds, and even if it were to get better, that would not justify the bad experience I've already had. i felt that way about this production, too.

    8 of 10 people found this review helpful
  • Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A Psychologist Investigates How Evolution, Cognition, and Complexity Are Revolutionizing Our View of Human Nature

    • UNABRIDGED (7 hrs and 35 mins)
    • By Douglas T. Kenrick
    • Narrated By Fred Stella
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready

    Between what can be learned from evolutionary psychology and cognitive science a picture emerges. In Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life, social psychologist Douglas Kenrick fuses these two fields to create a coherent story of human nature. In his analysis, many ingrained, apparently irrational behaviors—one-night stands, prejudice, conspicuous consumption, even art and religious devotion—are quite explicable and (when desired) avoidable.

    Cynthia says: "skip it"
    "Good introduction to evolutionary pscyhology"
    Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

    yes, clear overview

    Would you listen to another book narrated by Fred Stella?

    Fred Stella did a superb job. I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn't actually Kenrick speaking.

    Any additional comments?

    Kenrick is good with anecdotes and has a personable manner. He was one of the earliest researchers in evolutionary psychology and has done a good deal of primary research, so he gives an insider's view of developments in the field. The story has a narrative trajectory, beginning with the early efforts to overcome mass resistance to biological explanations and concluding in a serene late stage, with the revolution more or less completed.

    Kenrick accepts the idea of massive modularity but at least systemizes modules by appealing effectively to human life history theory. He doesn't adequately register the way evolutionary psychology has finally succeeded in assimilating the idea of general intelligence, so his concept of human behavior retains the inflexibility that was a crucial limitation in early evolutionary psychology. Theoretically, humans remain robots animated by an array of basic motives automatically elicited by specific environmental inputs. They lack the power of altering behavior by envisioning their own identities extending over time, connecting to social networks beyond the immediate sensory field, and subject to norms, values, and beliefs. But that's only theoretically. Kenrick has enough wisdom, as a narrator, to see beyond some of the limitations in his theoretical model.

    The wider evolutionary vision of human nature now takes in "group selection" as part of "multi-level selection." It also takes in the idea of "gene-culture co-evolution." Kenrick doesn't get that far. He reduces human behavior to three causal principles: inclusive fitness, differential parental investment, and reciprocal altruism (Hamilton, Trivers, and Trivers). He shows clearly just how far those three causes can take us in understanding human behavior. He thus also lets us see the limitations in those three explanatory principles.He reduces all mental effort to status striving, itself reduced to mating displays.

    Inclusive fitness and differential parental investment account for so much of all animal behavior that evolutionary psychologists can produce a reasonable facsimile of human nature by treating humans as if they have adaptive capabilities no different from those of birds, chimps, and meerkats.That leaves out specifically and singularly human activities and accomplishments: technology, science, trade, philosophy, history, aesthetics, religion, myth, the arts, music, narrative, and ideology. All of human civilization is accounted for by waving airily at the peacock's tail.

    Like most evolutionary psychologists even now, Kenrick essentially explains away the human mind. Evolutionary thinkers have only just recently begun to make real progress in understanding gene-culture co-evolution, and Kenrick has made no effort to include those recent and still rudimentary advances. He can thus explain human behavior only in the degree to which it is indistinguishable from the behavior of other dual parenting species or other species capable of cooperative group endeavor.

    2 of 3 people found this review helpful
  • Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin

    • UNABRIDGED (18 hrs and 15 mins)
    • By Timothy Snyder
    • Narrated By Ralph Cosham
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready

    Americans think of World War II as “The Good War”, a moment when the forces of good resoundingly triumphed over evil. Yet the war was not decided by D-day. It was decided in the East, by the Red Army and Joseph Stalin. While conventional wisdom locates the horrors of World War II in the six million Jews killed in German concentration camps, the reality is even grimmer. In 13 years, the Nazi and Soviet regimes killed 13 million people in the lands between Germany and Russia.

    Joe says: "One of the best and scariest books I've ever read"
    "Powerful narrative history"

    It takes a strong mind to grasp the enormity of what happened in Eastern Europe between 1930 and 1945. Snyder has the necessary imaginative courage and also the knowledge and skill. One of the most disturbing and morally challenging histories I've listened to or read. The reader is excellent, clear, deliberate, fluent.

    13 of 13 people found this review helpful
  • Brain Magic - Part One: Brain Facts & Figures

    • UNABRIDGED (34 mins)
    • By Nancy Slessenger, Andy Gilbert
    • Narrated By Nancy Slessenger, Andy Gilbert

    Introduction and background research to the Brain Magic series. Includes 21 questions and answers, on such topics as brain capacity - myths and reality; how much of your brain you use; the differences between men's and women's brains; and more.

    Occasional Reviewer says: "Give it a miss"
    "Give it a miss"

    The blurb is rather misleading. One expects a serious if fairly popular account of current neuroanatomy and neurophysiology. The first volume offers some of that, from Slessenger, a science journalist, but most of the rest of the set is taken over by a Gilbert, a goofy motivational speaker, good-natured and assertive but ignorant and vulgar. I had to give up on it. There are many other titles available that give real neuroscience, sometimes in the context of more particular topics: Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence, Cacioppo's Loneliness, even Johnson's Mind Wide Open. Bryson's Nearly Everything and Angier's The Canon also contain a good deal of legitimate neuroscience, though aimed specifically at a popular audience. Brain Magic isn't anywhere close to joining the real third culture league. It keeps company instead with Lipton's The Biology of Belief and Pink's A Whole New Mind--other stinkers I had to trashcan after just a few minutes, plenty of time time to reveal the quality of intelligence at work.

    12 of 12 people found this review helpful
  • Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors

    • UNABRIDGED (12 hrs and 48 mins)
    • By Nicholas Wade
    • Narrated By Alan Sklar
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready

    Just in the last three years a flood of new scientific findings, driven by revelations discovered in the human genome, has provided compelling new answers to many long-standing mysteries about our most ancient ancestors, the people who first evolved in Africa and then went on to colonize the whole world. Nicholas Wade weaves this host of news-making findings together for the first time into an intriguing new history of the human story before the dawn of civilization.

    Albert says: "Amazing information"
    "A lucid synthesis, comprehensive, authoritative"

    Wade brings together all the most recent scientific information on "the human revolution," the emergence of fully modern humans some 50,000 years ago. He integrates findings from genetics, paleo-anthropology, geography, evolutionary psychology, and linguistics.

    E. O. Wilson and Lionel Tiger both rightly identify this book as the currently best available synthesis of information in the field.

    "Before the Dawn is by far the best book I have ever read on humanity's deep history. With courage and balance, Wade has pulled together the explosion of discoveries now ongoing in diverse fields of biology and the social sciences on the origin of our species, and he explains a large part of what is necessary to comprehend the human condition." E. O. Wilson.

    "Into the turmoiled and sultry fray of controversy about human evolution and human nature, Nicholas Wade has delivered an impeccable, fearless, responsible, and absorbing account of the real story. . . . Bound to be the gold standard in the field for a very long time." Lionel Tiger.

    Wade decisively puts to rest the fallacies promulgated in narrow-school EP about the monolithic EEA and the cessation of human evolution over the past 50,000 years or so.

    Wade is always judicious and measured, never harshly polemical, but he directly confronts the chief alternatives to his views on the ongoing process of evolutionary change. He takes up Jared Diamond's geographical thesis and lightly touches the central weaknesses in Diamond's arguments.

    He offers an incisive account of Robin Dunbar and Geoffrey Miller vs. Derek Bickerton and Richard Klein on the origin of language.

    For comparison, Larson's book Evolution is just a pedestrian summary.

    Highest recommendation.

    21 of 22 people found this review helpful

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