A reader named Shawn wrote a review of #3 in this series entitled "Mediocrity I can't stop listening to." His comments on Book 3 are precisely my reactions to Book 1, except that I give Mark Boyett 5 stars for the narration. The series seems to be worth listening to so far. To summarize quickly, the characters are paper-thin, but Larsen has a real gift for plotting. I may not finish the series because I don't like the main character much. Still, Larsen does keep me in the game wondering what will happen next, and his writing is workmanlike. Part of my willingness to keep listening is probably the narration of Mark Boyett, who does a very creditable job.
This is a really nice history of the Borgias, combining lots of crunchy background details with intriguing ideas about the key players. As others have pointed out, this is mainly a defense of the Borgias.
Of course, nobody can make saints out of any of the families that played the power game in Renaissance Italy. Meyer's approach is simply to ask the valid question, "let's just assume that the Borgias were, generally, not monsters -- but just the normal sort of power-hungry egomaniacs who rose to power in that time and place? Can that theory be made consistent with the actual historical record?"
The answer seems to be yes ... or sort of ... more or less. Meyer quite properly rejects the usual fables about incest, orgies, sadism, and the 50 other shades of really, really dark grey which usually pass for historical facts about the Borgias. On the other hand, he can still only make sense of the Borgias by uncritically accepting all the other fables and stereotypes of all the other leading characters of the time, from the Ottomans to the Sforzas. Even then, Cesare comes off looking rather psychotic (but neither depraved nor foolish).
So, draw your own conclusion on the thesis. The book -- right or wrong -- seems to be a successful attempt to walk the line between fairly serious scholarship and entertainment
Philosophy of science or, more broadly, intellectual philosophy, is endlessly entertaining. Generally, it's about having very bright people attempting to respond to fundamental questions about our knowledge of the world. What does "knowledge of the world" really mean? What is scientific knowledge? How does it relate to theory or to observation? What is a theory and how do we decide which theories are better? True, none of these questions matter a great deal individually. Still, good intellectual philosophy is vigorous mental exercise, and does tend to give the reader a fresh perspective on things that do matter.
So it was with much optimism and cheerful anticipation that I began to read this selection of essays on the philosophy of history. I did not finish it. Unfortunately, it seems that either (a) philosophy of history is radically different from philosophy of science, or (b) the editor was singularly inept.
Two features in particular were discouraging. First, whacking away for hours at a cartoon stereotype of a kind of historiography allegedly practiced about a century ago isn't philosophy. Nobody writes that kind of history any more. In fact, I suspect that no one ever really did. It's a straw man with a painted bag for a head -- not even an appropriate subject for ad hominem arguments. It's trivial and uninteresting to watch an author deconstruct her own construct.
Second, the authors ignore an enormous body of practical and academic study of the critical issues. One really valuable point made (but then ignored) by several of the authors is that the critical issues in philosophy of history are precisely same as those encountered in law: the nature of causation, the reliability of mixed sources of evidence about the past, the requirements for rules of evidence, the accommodation of differing perceptions, the appropriate procedures and substantive burdens of evidence to apply, the proper melding of normative standards with "objective" fact. Frankly, to any thoughtful lawyer, the essays in this collection seem remarkably naive and kind of -- well -- primitive.
But, God forbid that these particular philosophers of history, at any rate, should pay any heed to anything as distastefully practical as law or, for that matter, history. This seems odd since, as a rule, philosophers of science do listen to scientists, even if their aims and methods are different. Perhaps this is because even the Paul Feyerebends of POS have faith in the scientific enterprise. The authors of this book lack an equivalent faith in the enterprise of history. They mostly seem interested in listening to themselves. This is just as well, since it's hard to see why anyone else would want to.
The title of this review is really all I wanted to say. This is workmanlike military science ficton. Not exceptional, but well over the minimum "fair average quality which would pass without objection in the trade." Like all military SF, it's really an extended essay on the stuff that matters in life: duty, sacrifice, competition, friendship, the value of life, and the fear of death, all illustrated by stories featuring the things that entertain us all: violence, sex, and good triumphing over evil. Buettner has his own slant on all of the above. Good for him. What more could we ask?
Mostly we could ask for a reader who doesn't sound like an idiot with a sinus infection. It grates. I suspect Adam Epstein is trying too hard to channel the personality of the first-person narrator, who is a fairly emotional high-school drop-out. But that doesn't make him (or any real-life high-school drop-out) an idiot. The POV character certainly doesn't behave like like an idiot, and the other characters don't react to him as if he were one. The effect is dissonant, and becomes more so as the narrator gains in rank and experience.
Still worth listening to. Hence the three stars, but the paper book would be a better choice.
My first steampunk, but it more than met my expectations for the genre. Lightweight, of course, but consistently fun. Narration by James Langton was a wonder, as it skipped about the British Empire from Welsh to Australian to public school English. One critical reviewer is probably right in that Langton's Kiwi accent seems off, but the amazing melodramatic default-narrator voice more than makes up for it. In fact, its the narration that makes this book -- that and the snide references to 19th century British pop culture. I suspect I only "got" about half of those, but they do add to the fun. The plot? Uh ... why, yes, I suppose it does have a plot. But it doesn't really get in the way of the other stuff, and it does move along in a sprightly sort of way, with appropriate quantities of flash bang -- like the deadly battle of assassins fought out on stage, with prop weapons, during a performance of the finale of Verdi's Macbeth. Definitely worth the price of admission.
I approached this book with optimism. It's an interesting, perhaps persuasive, argument by someone who knows what he's talking about. What could go wrong?
To be fair, I would have been much more impressed if the book had been published 25 years ago. Today it reads like a blog post: good ideas, relatively well written, but short on detailed evidence.
Post-post-modernism and post-internet, that just isn't good enough. Today, every fledgling new scientific idea has to fight for its life in the blogosphere against all kinds of criticism, both well- and ill-informed, before gaining much acceptance. Scientists, as a group, have also lost a good deal of the moral authority they once had. Readers are beginning to realize that what a scientist writes isn't always good science -- or science at all -- and we automatically try to identify and compensate for the writer's personal agenda as soon as we're past the title page.
This makes Wrangham's Paleolithic Cook Book look a little under-done. Sure, the idea that cooking was instrumental in turning habilenes into modern humans is attractive; but cool ideas aren't enough. Wrangham includes some interesting comparative physiology (humans have unreasonably small guts), and that's a strong point. However, his argument that we traded guts for brains is more or less pure speculation -- to say nothing of all the social psychology he attempts to extract from this observation. Wrangham relies a good deal on hunter-gatherer ethnology, but it's all anecdotal. Plus, that kind of anthropology has never recovered from its politicized self-immolation after the Chagnon/Yanomamo controversy and carries little weight today.
The discussion of human evolution is weak. If, for example, Neanderthals really developed the advanced cooking techniques he ascribes to them, and if cooking is really that important, then why doesn't Wrangham have a sloping forehead and brow ridges? Wrangham isn't much bothered by that issue because he seems to have a linear, 1960's-style idea of human evolution. Neanderthals came "before" H. sapiens in the Great Chain, right?
This is getting too long for a review, so I'll stop. The main point is that the book makes for a good snack, but it's not substantial enough to make a solid meal today. It may work up an appetite for the subject; but, like our distant ancestors eating raw food, you can chew on this presentation a long time and still not get enough out of it.
While the Enron story was passing from business legend to business nightmare at 1400 Smith Street in Houston, I worked in an office at 1200 Smith. I always wondered what had actually happened. Now I know. McLean does a wonderful job setting out the history. She also does an exemplary job explaining Enron's rise and its culture. This is more than worth the price of the book. Even better, Boutsikaris' narration is possibly the best of any Audible I've listened to in quite a while -- possibly ever.
Here's my gripe: McLean starts by giving a reasonable, thoughtful, and completely convincing account of the factors that gradually pushed Enron onto a slippery slope. Her description of the pressures and temptations in the Houston energy community in the 1980's and most of the 1990's certainly hit the nail on the head from my perspective. But the narrative from 1998 onwards is tightly focused on upper Enron management, and it takes on an increasingly simplistic, moralizing tone as the story nears its end. In a strange way, McLean falls into the same trap as Ken Lay, progressively disengaging her analytical objectivity for the sake of telling a good story and, yes, making the extra buck.
In the end, the author gives up. There's no analytical conclusion -- no real take-home lesson. McLean even expressly disavows any conclusion about where and when Enron top management crossed the line from aggressive business to fraud. She often repeats a mantra about the evils of following the letter of the law while ignoring its purpose. Here, it's obvious she has never actually had the responsibility of running or growing a business. One has to do both, and Enron plainly refused to do either; but that isn't the right question. The real issue is why it didn't.
McLean makes much of Enron's corporate culture, and perhaps that's the core issue. Here, Bethany McLean has a great deal of experience and comparative knowledge. But there's no end chapter dealing with the take-home lessons. Lord knows, after dealing with facts so well, she must have some serious insights on the subject. Business people, regulators, and investors need to know -- perhaps more now than in 2002. To return to the personal, I'm currently general counsel of a Houston company; and I desperately want to make sure this doesn't happen to us.
So, this is a book I have to recommend. It is excellent. It will give me a lot to think about. I just wish that this one last chapter had been written.
Based on some of the reviews of the narration here, I'd hesitated to buy. I have to disagree with the low reviews of Keating as narrator. He does not try to give strong dialect identification to his voices, but he's an excellent story teller. I even went back and listened carefully to previous volumes in the series. For my money, he's the best of the three narrators. Admittedly, with such a big cast of characters, a unique dialect "tag" was useful to keep things straight. Still, for the same reason, the accents were getting a bit strained and -- frankly -- wore on my ears after a while. Personally, I prefer a really high-quality voice like Keating's for such a long book.
Personal peeves from a former sailor. "Forecastle" is pronounced "folk-s'l." "Leeward" is pronounced "loo-ard." It's really jarring to hear these words pronounced in such a lubberly fashion.
This review is limited to the narration; but, yes, it was also a very good book -- actually better than the last one in the series.
If you like military SF, then this is near the top of the class. If you don't like the genre, you will not like the book. It's that simple.
This is a history of the Cold War, largely from the perspective of the Kremlin. The author unapologetically emphasizes the effect of personality on the course of the Cold War. In fact, he argues that the personalities in the Kremlin were decisive. Unlike many historians, he thinks highly of Brezhnev and even Andropov. His evaluations of Kruschev and Gorbachev are mixed.
Zubok's scholarship and grasp of detail are impressive, and he makes good use of the new historical materials which have become available since the late 1990's. Personally, I suspect his analysis is completely off base. However, one of the virtues of the book is that Zubok gives the reader enough solid information to make a personal judgment possible.
The narration is a bit mechanical, but clear and well-paced. This may be because Zubok's writing could be described in almost the same words. This is solid, well-crafted political biography -- not really history in the broader sense. However, if, like me, you lived through many of those events and always wondered, "why did they do that? What were they thinking?" then this book will go a long way towards answering those questions.
If this seems contradictory, consider an example: Zubok explains almost nothing about the internal economic problems of the USSR. However, he thoroughly explores the Soviet leadership's deep ignorance of these issues and how that ignorance affected their decisions. He doesn't really explain the deep stagnation of the Soviet apparat, but is brilliant in explaining how this dead weight isolated the top leadership and constrained their thinking.
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