At first I thought I’d made a big mistake choosing this book, and for a while I was tempted to return it. I chose it because I am always struggling to think of my next book to download. You would think, with so many amazing books in the World, that I would have a long list of titles waiting patiently to be read. But for some reason this isn’t the case. I rarely get a book recommended to me and often, when I do, I don’t really like it. I think this is a combination of the fact that I don’t mix with particularly bookish people and I have a particular, perhaps narrow, taste in books. For example, I really like non-fiction and especially popular science.
So I picked this book because I want to venture more into fiction, and I hoped that it would give me lots of great tips for novels to read. Unfortunately, it didn’t.
This is an autobiographical book by an American publisher whose mother is dying of pancreatic cancer. He and his mother are both avid readers, and they turn their informal chats about their reading into a more formal arrangement whereby they read the same books and discuss them. Of course, it is also about the man’s love for, and close relationship with, his dying mother, who lived a busy and unselfish life helping people in war-torn countries around the World.
Although, if I could live my life over again, I probably wouldn’t choose this book second time around, there were definitely some good things about it. The writer has a good engaging style and his reflections on life, dying and death were interesting enough to make me want to carry on listening to the end. For example, he was sitting beside her deathbed and I liked that fact that he admitted that he found this tedious, when I was expecting him to describe it as deeply intense and emotional.
On the negative side, the book is a bit claustrophobic. It is almost exclusively about the man and his mother. Even though he is an interesting man and she was a brave philanthropist, the constant chemotherapy, the gradual deterioration, her physical frailty, their chats, all feel like you are trapped in a hospital room with the 2 of them for 2 years. You would hope that the escape from this would be the discussion of books, but very few, if any, of the books discussed made me think, ‘ooh, that sounds interesting, I must get that one’. This may be because I am shallow, or perhaps because I have different tastes to the author and his Mom. For example, they both appreciate poetry and pottery, and these things play no part whatsoever in my life.
In short, this book is very well-written, but just isn’t really for me. Other people might love it. If you think you might be one of those people, I hope I haven’t put you off!
This book didn’t quite live up to its billing, but was a very good listen nevertheless. I always struggle to know where to look for fiction, and I chose one this on the back of its being a best seller.
The character who narrates this book is death. He tells the story of a young girl orphaned by the political turmoil in Nazi Germany, who is then fostered by a Munich housepainter and his wife. They are simple, unsophisticated working class folk who swear at each other constantly, but underneath this rough exterior is a deep well of love and courage, the courage to risk their lives by sheltering a Jewish man in their basement.
So why is it called the book thief? The heroine, Lisa (forgive the spelling, I didn’t see the written name), begins by being illiterate and gradually develops into an avid reader. But books are scarce in this time of immense upheaval, poverty and strife. Not just scarce but also dangerous to own, and she rescues them from the burning bonfires of books lit by the Nazis in their rampant, frenzied campaign to enforce their ideology onto their people.
It’s a sad and moving story of a young girl trying to grow up in this bizarre and dangerous environment. Germany is locked into a war against the rest of the World, a war which they are starting to lose. All men, young and old, are susceptible to conscription to fight in Russia, the remaining civilians face the threat of increasingly frequent Allied bombing raids, and Jews are being transported to concentration camps. Against this background Lisa somehow enjoys some of the ordinary experiences of childhood and early adolescence, but you know all along that this small community, like the rest of Germany, is doomed and that there will be few survivors.
I understand that people who write books for a living have to keep generating ideas for new material. This must be very taxing, and I guess this is why there exists the concept of ‘writer’s block’. When Malcolm Gladwell sat down and starting scratching out this latest offering I think he was probably struggling a bit and scraping towards the bottom of the barrel.
He’s written some really good works that change the way his readers think about the world. In ‘the Tipping Point’ we learnt what factors combine to make something ‘go viral’, a la Gangnam Style. In ‘Blink’ we saw how adept humans are at making intuitive judgements in milliseconds with limited information, and in Outliers we realised that successful people are often winners because of arbitrary lucky factors rather than pure talent. In David and Goliath I’m not too sure what we learn, and if there is a core message in there, it’s a bit tenuous and foggy.
The basic idea of the book is that underdogs often prevail against the odds, and that this is the result of a number of factors such as: they break the rules; they aren’t afraid to do unpopular things; they are the products of difficult childhoods with ‘desirable difficulties’ such as dyslexia; their enemies underestimate them and misunderstand the use of power. These messages are intertwined with some quack pseudo-psychological theories, such as the notion that when the British Army were in Northern Ireland they didn’t realise they were on the ‘downside of the inverted u’.
There is some good stuff in this book. There are some insights that I could imagine being relevant to me in some future situation in my life, and the book was enjoyable because of the fascinating human interest stories that Gladwell tells so well, but there are too many generalisations and oversimplifications of complex issues which the author-narrator manipulates to fit his theory, whatever that may be.
I feel very shallow after listening to this book. I normally try to listen to material that will enlighten or educate me, but this was just plain entertainment; just a great story, well told! I loved every minute of it, from start to finish, and kept engineering ways to carry on listening.
It is about a wealthy man who commits suicide and leaves a note instructing the hero, a Mississippi lawyer, to leave 90% of his estate to a black housekeeper. The will is hotly contested, which makes for compelling courtroom drama. It’s just another story out of the Grisham mould, but every bit as good as any other I’ve read - and highly enjoyable.
I’ve listened to 130 Audible books so far, and this one was only my fourth biography/autobiography, the other 3 being Winston Churchill, David Attenborough and Tiger Woods. Those 3 people don’t have very much in common and my fourth choice, Johnny Carson, doesn’t help to establish a pattern.
I don’t know what made me choose this book. I have never seen the ‘Tonight’ show and am (or was) very unfamiliar with Johnny Carson’s work, but something tempted me and I bought the book, and enjoyed it thoroughly.
Johnny’s story is told from the perspective of his lawyer. Henry Bushkin. When Bushkin met Carson he was a young man just starting out in his career, and he was flattered and astonished when Carson decided to put his faith in him and appoint Bushkin as his attorney. Bushkin is modest and doesn’t sing his own praises too loudly, but he must have been a brilliant lawyer because he sorted out Carson’s perilous financial position and dismissed all the parasites who had been exploiting Carson. Bushkin then became Carson’s Everything-Man, sorting out all Johnny’s personal and professional problems, which were manifold.
Why did Carson have so many problems for Bushkin to solve? Because, although he was charming, witty, handsome and a great talk-show host, he was an utterly selfish egomaniac. He was a hedonist who drank heavily, smoked four packets of cigarettes every day and had casual sex with countless women. He enjoyed being rich but didn’t like to put much effort into the lucrative business interests supplementing his income, such as posing for photographs advertising the range of clothing bearing his name. Johnny’s amoral lifestyle created lots of problems which Bushkin solved resourcefully and tactfully until he eventually grew tired of the role after 18 years, when they parted acrimoniously.
Was Johnny Carson all bad? Not quite. He would occasionally do an impulsive good deed and could be very generous, but instances of brutal nastiness are more the norm according to Bushkin’s account of their time together. This book is a fascinating insight into the relationship between 2 very interesting people.
For me this was a rare foray into fiction, and I was really happy with my choice. The book is about a young autistic boy who is socially maladjusted, but very gifted in mathematics and science.
The story is a whodunnit in which the hero, Christopher, describes his investigation into the murder of a neighbourhood dog. He uses his acute sense of logical deduction to unlock the truth, while being simultaneously hampered by his social ineptitude. The murder case leads to the discovery of some hidden truths about his own life history, resulting in a fascinating and moving development of the story.
Like most books, it is ordered into chapters, but Christopher is so fixated by mathematics that he uses prime rather than ordinal numbers for this purpose.
It’s a very funny story, and most of the humour results from Christopher’s stark factual interpretation of the world, revealing a refreshing truthfulness and lack of sentimentality. Despite his inability to form normal relationships and his emotional immaturity, you can’t help but bond and sympathise with him as the story builds to its climactic conclusion.
The narrator, Jeff Goodman, does a great job, but his English accent is 10% off the mark, so that he sounds a bit Australian at times. Not as bad as Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins, but distracting nevertheless.
Despite this somewhat churlish reservation, my overall verdict on the book is a definite thumbs up, and this will encourage me to listen to a bit more fiction in future.
I wasn’t worried about buying this book without knowing what it was about, because I trust Bill Bryson to be worth the risk, and he didn’t let me down.
At first it appears to be the story of Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic, but then it expands to also become the story of all the other interesting things that were going on in America that summer. Bryson rambles from story to story in no particular logical order, but all the characters he mentions are colourful and fascinating, such as Babe Ruth, Al Capone and Jack Dempsey.
Bryson’s style is very distinctive, full of superlatives and yet simultaneously laced with dry understatement. He is also the narrator of this audiobook, and he does a great job (although his French pronunciation isn’t great!).
He is such a brilliant storyteller that you wonder if 1927 was an exceptionally interesting year, or whether Bryson could write a similar book about any year and make it just as fascinating. I think the latter is probably true.
I knew when I downloaded this book that I was being a bit of a nerd, using up time that could have been spent listening to riveting fiction swotting up on chemistry, biology and physics. But I couldn’t resist it. Science is a big part of my job (I work in an intensive care unit) but I didn't opt for science at school, and although I know a fair amount about human biology I’m really aware of fundamental gaps in my knowledge concerning the basic sciences underpinning biology and science in general. This lecture series has definitely helped to fill those gaps.
He’s a pretty good lecturer, with a very good knack for explaining complex concepts using simple, helpful analogies. And the series is thoughtfully constructed so that it begins with the most fundamental concepts in science and then builds on this so that the listener acquires an overview of all human scientific endeavour by the end of the series.
Downsides? Well, it’s pretty old. These recordings were made in the 1990s, and whilst the basics of science haven’t changed significantly in those 20 years, you do keep wondering whether some of the modern scientific topics he mentions are still current (e.g. the large hadron collider and recent advances in medicine). He talks about global warming as if it’s just some controversial new theory that some scientists are working on, and the internet isn’t mentioned at all.
If you can tolerate the fact that it is dated and you want to learn more about the fundamentals of science, you should get this book. It is also great value, with 60 lectures for your one Audible credit.
This lecture series spans 24 hours of listening time, covering thousands of years of human history and prehistory. Although it is a lecture series, it isn’t at all stuffy or boring. In fact it is an enthralling, gripping and moving story of how our ancestors used to live their daily lives. The author focuses on what he calls the ‘other side’ of history, looking at the way ordinary people, rather than the ruling classes, lived their lives. He paints vivid pictures of the daily challenges facing early humans, Neanderthals, hunter-gatherers, the first farmers, the first citizens of Mesopotamia, the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. He then moves to Britain to describe the Roman occupation, and the Anglo-Saxon period, finishing with the Norman invasion and the mediaeval era.
Themes that arise and recur many times across this immense span of history and prehistory include: the prevalence of slavery; the low social status of women and the hazardous nature of childbirth; the ever-present threat of violent death and appalling injury; short life expectancy; the constant discomfort caused by lice, worms, tooth decay, arthritis and gastroenteritis, and the smell of bad breath, body odour and faeces which would have filled the air in most of these societies most of the time. The immense power of religion was another force controlling the lives our ancestors to a depressing extent.
For each period of history the narrator focuses on a few different roles within the society in question. For example, in the Roman period you would learn what it was like to go into battle as a legionary, or to be a criminal facing the hideous ordeal of crucifixion, or an elderly man who can’t afford to retire and must work until he drops, living on the top floor of a rickety high rise Roman apartment block, with no sanitation and the constant risk of being burned alive in a fire.
I was never bored for a moment as the narrator transported me back through history and into the shoes, or sandals, of my ancestors. I wholeheartedly recommend this talking book.
If you want an unbiased history of the build-up to World War II, look elsewhere. This book is Winston Churchill's interpretation of the momentous events culminating in his coming to power in the early stages of the conflict.
But it is all the more interesting because it tells the story from his personal perspective. He is never shy of pointing out, time and time again, how his political colleagues could have avoided or delayed the war by standing up to Hitler. After the devastation of World War One the political climate in Britain was dominated by a desire for peace, and successive British governments stood back and watched while Hitler built a powerful military machine, a policy of appeasement which Churchill opposed vocally and consistently for many years. When Hitler invaded Belgium and Holland, the folly of the appeasers became undeniable and they stood down, making way for the one man who was ready for the fight.
Churchill's command of the English language is, of course, legendary. His radio speeches stirred and galvanized the British people and motivated them to make the necessary sacrifices in Britain's darkest hour. Although the subject of this story is a sombre one, it is a joy to hear it told in Churchill's own words.
These are the sad but fascinating stories of some of the survivors of the Titanic. It seems as though they were all fundamentally changed by the event. They didn't just get over the shock and move on. Why? Most of the female survivors had lost male family members; husbands, fathers, sons, brothers. Male survivors were shamed and tainted for the rest of their lives for having broken the Edwardian code of allowing women and children to be saved before thinking of their own skin. This latter group included the Chairman of the White Star Line, who lived his life numbly in a cocoon of guilt and shame because he was a male survivor.
There were other possible outcomes, such as a few people who profited from their experiences by becoming Titanic survivor celebrities, but most were forever scarred by the disaster and many committed suicide, wracked by grief or guilt.
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