Redwood City, cA
With the labels "Communist," "Marxist" and "Socialist" being thrown around so much in contemporary politics that they start to lose their meaning, it is refreshing to hear an account of what "really existing socialism" was like and how the oppressive systems that used socialist ideals to legitimize power ultimately collapsed.
"Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire" does an excellent job of describing the decline and ultimate fall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe during the turbulent 1980s. Because there were events happening in multiple countries at different times, Sebestyen jumps each chapter from location to location and crisis to crisis. In doing so, Sebestyen highlights the common problems that Soviet puppets shared both politically and economically while also preserving the unique nature of each country's path to democratization. I found this strategy compelling as it gives the reader the sense of what was happening across Eastern Europe.
Regardless of one's economic views, the one thing that this book drives home is just how broken the Soviet system was throughout much of the Cold War period. While it is common knowledge the USSR propped up Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, this book discusses how these countries were also indebted to Western governments and banks, which would often extend credit to Soviet satellites to keep, among other things, food prices low.
Two words of caution, though: first, this book is about the fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and does not address to great extent the fall of the Soviet Union itself. Please adjust your expectations accordingly.
Second, if you're either a Reagan Mythologizer or Reagan Demonizer you will find this book frustrating. In terms of the former, the book discounts the popular myth that Reagan's military spending and hardline stance brought down communism—a position that I felt was, for what it's worth, disrespectful to opposition figures likes Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel and others. If anything, this book highlights Gorbachev's policies and willingness to withhold Soviet military power as anti-Communist opposition grew as the more crucial reasons to why the Soviet empire fell.
If you are a Reagan demonizer, you may find irritating the description of Reagan moderation and pragmatism towards the "Evil Empire" as he reached his second term, especially after the Able Archer '83 scare. For example, aware of the dangers of nuclear weapons, he worked with Gorbachev on arms reduction.
If you're interested in the Cold War, especially its last stages, I highly recommend this book.
I believe the content of this book should be graded on a curve: how does one adequately capture the development of an organization that defines itself by its lack of organization? How does one make sense of a so-called "hacktavist" group that does not have a specific political agenda? Lastly, how does one try to capture the meaning of a cyber movement that is still in its infancy?
Despite these issues, author Parmy Olson does an adequate job of giving a coherent account Anonymous, LulzSec and related cyber groups. She focuses on a few central key figures like "Sebu", "Topiary" and "Kayla" and tries to show how these figures reflect different sides of Anonymous. For example, Sebu represents the political-minded hacktavist side, Topiary represents the "lulz" side and Kayla the hard-core hacker side. I think this strategy was effective since it gives the reader the sense that while Anonymous, LulzSec, etc are frequently talked about as a single entity within the media the motivations of the people who identify with these group vary wildly.
I have two criticisms of this audiobook. The first regards the content. I thought the author at times went off into unnecessary tangents, introducing periphery figures that didn't add much to the book, or quoted chat logs for longer than was needed. My second criticism regards the narration. I don't know who's idea it was to have the narrator use different accents for each speaker because they were annoying and even distracting at certain points (Barret Brown's Texas accent immediately comes to mind). If I had to it over again, I would have bought a paper or e-book version rather than get the audiobook.
Within US history World War I is often relegated to being merely a prologue to World War II. I assume the reason for its relegation is due to the relatively minor role that the US served in WWI. This framing of history is unfortunate given how the outcome of World War I not only precipitated World War II, but gave birth to the powers, ideologies and technologies that shaped not only the rest of the 20th century but continue to influence world affairs today (see Middle East).
"A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918" provides an excellent overview of the conflict. G.J. Meyer accomplishes the remarkable feat of balancing details with generalities in a compelling and engaging narrative of the war. Although the audio format makes following the geography of battles at times difficult, the strength of this book is Meyer's treatment of the personalities of the leaders and generals who, through their blind adherence to tactical orthodoxies that no longer suited modern war, facilitated the breakdown of armies and societies alike during the four years of stalemate that marked the First World War.
My favorite feature of the audiobook are the "Background" sections at the end of many chapters. These provide background details (e.g., The history of the Romanov dynasty) that permit a richer understanding of the socio-political context from which the war emerged.
The audio quality is excellent and Robin Sachs provides a smooth narration (I feel like all history books should be read by someone with an English accent).
My only criticism of the book is that it ends abruptly following the signing of the Versailles Treaty. Although the immediate aftermath of the war is itself worthy of an entire book, Meyer closes the book with brief biographies of some major figures from the war. One could almost picture the close of the book as the end of a movie when a character is shown in freeze frame and text is provided describing their fate following the close of the movie (e.g., the end of "Animal House").
Regardless of this one criticism, the book is highly recommended for anyone interested in World War I or military history.
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