This is an extraordinary story, compellingly told from different perspectives - from the victims of an anthrax 'accident' at a secret laboratory, to a well-informed scientist defecting to the West, to Reagan and Gorbachev's private thoughts as they struggled to understand each other's beliefs, motives and ultimate goals. Living through this period of history simply provided the signpost events that were public knowledge at the time - and little or nothing of the context in which those events were set, or the secrets that are required to truly make sense of what was happening. David Hoffman does an extraordinary job in weaving multiple historical strands into a grand tapestry. The fears that we common people harboured about nuclear annihilation, or chemical or biological devastation were well placed, and if not for some well-intentioned people on both sides of the divide, and a lot of luck, those fears might well have been realised. It places the current fears concerning weapons proliferation in the Middle East - particularly in Iran - into stark relief. It also emphasises the absolute necessity of open, honest dialogue, and accurate knowledge in dealing with belligerent states. Bob Walter does a superb job of narration, and convinced me of his command of Russian pronunciation. Highly recommended.
I've asked numerous friends their belief about what caused the Japanese surrender at the end of WWII, and all answered 'the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki'. Paul Ham provides convincing evidence that the first (and fortunately only) use of atomic weapons in war had almost no influence on the surrender decision taken by the doomed government in Japan. Encircled, and economically strangled by naval blockade, its major cities razed by systematic fire-bombing, Japan chose to surrender to the US and its allies to avoid invasion by the Russians who surged across the Manchurian border only days after the devastation of Hiroshima, but before the significance of that event had even begun to be understood. Ham arrives at this point after providing the detailed political, military and scientific context in which it occurred. He is a superb historian and skilled narrator, who has changed my view of the end of WWII with this marvellous book. I could not recommend it more highly.
James Gleick has clearly not been idle since writing his introduction to chaos theory. I enjoyed this book enormously - I've listened to it twice, am listening to it a third time, and I've also purchased it as an e-book. Not because I didn't understand it the first time - although there are still ideas (like the notion of qubits) that I struggle with - but simply because the ideas he writes about are so important, and have such manifold ramifications. I'm impressed by Gleick's scholarship, the clarity and aptness of his writing, and the sheer breadth of the subject he has tackled. I found sections of the book literally inspiring. Other reviewers commented on aspects of the book which are impossible to render efficiently in audio format (tables, lists of numbers, etc), but these are minor issues set against the overall achievement. All praise to Rob Shapiro's narration - with the single exception of pronouncing 'era' so similarly to 'error' that it sounds like .... an error (at least to this Australian :-) ). I agree it's not a book for everyone, but it is a book for everyone who has even the slightest interest in any aspect of this topic. No matter what your expertise (I am a clinical neurologist), aspects of the book will be fresh, novel, unexpected, or wonderfully informative.
Unfortunately, I couldn't bear to continue listening to this after the first 30-45 minutes. I had come to it enthusiastic and interested to learn. What I remember of the small amount I was able to tolerate was that the author offered a few trite ideas described with the aid of a thesaurus. Rather than try to define clearly what he wished to communicate, the author seemed to seek many different ways of describing a few, very general notions. Instead of clearly communicating any single idea, the author appeared to be using the book to grope for some hoped-for-profundity he seemed convinced was in his verbal soup somewhere, if only he were fortunate enough to stumble over the right sequence of words. There are many more productive ways of spending one's time than listening to this.
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