What a dry subject, nitrogen! It would be hard to write an interesting book about this topic, but the author succeeded. He describes how the planet's population was on the verge of starvation, having consumed nearly all the natural deposits of fixed nitrogen to use as fertiliser, and how nations vied for the last scraps of the chemical in remote outposts of South America.
Nitrogen is, of course, plentiful, in the air we breathe. But in order to be useful as a fertiliser, it must be converted to a solid form. Two German scientists, Haber and Bosch, (excuse any mis-spelling, I never saw these names in written form!) worked tirelessly to solve this tricky problem. Their drama unfolded against the backdrop of a fascinating period of German history, in which nitrogen played an especially important role because of its use in explosives (and hence in warfare).
The theme of antisemitism is also important in the book, because a large proportion of Germany's scientists were Jews.
It is a good story, well narrated, and worth a listen.
I don’t believe in gods, or life after death, so I found it hard to ‘believe’ this novel. The characters, dialogue and narration are all excellent, and it’s quite a good story too, except that some of it takes place in a nether World where gods do battle and where our (mortal) hero is able to participate despite being dead.
The story begins prosaically enough, with our hero, Shadow, nearing the end of his prison sentence. He is paroled and is met by Wednesday, a grifter (aka the god, Odin) who offers Shadow a job as his henchman. Shadow’s wife, Laura, dies in a car crash, but that doesn’t stop her ghost or corpse or whatever from participating further in the story, as a kind of guardian angel for Shadow.
So Shadow goes on a journey around America and meets lots of other people and gods as we head towards a climactic battle between the ancient and the modern gods in the Pantheon. It’s very much like a Quentin Tarantino film in the way that quirky characters use snappy streetwise dialogue and engage in a lot of violence, but with a few Norse Gods thrown in for good measure.
It seems as if this book was written to answer the difficult question: ‘what happened to all the gods that all the various immigrants believed in when they came to America?’ Well…what really happened was nothing, they never existed and the immigrants, or their descendants, forgot about them. But in this book they exist and have a battle with modern gods, and I don’t really see the point of it all, except that it was an OK listen because of the good characters, situations and interactions.
This book received high praise in a recent Facebook conversation, so I thought I would take a punt. I hunted it down on Audible and had a listen.
I’d have to agree with the Facebook reviewers, it is a really good, engaging story and, when life’s routines demanded that I switch it off (e.g. arriving at work) I was usually disappointed because I wanted to keep on listening.
It’s all about a painting: The story takes place in two different settings: Occupied France during World War 1 and London in the present day. We also have two heroines (one in each era), two heroes, and a couple of villains. The eponymous painting is of our First World War heroine, Sophie. She is the owner of a hotel (Le Coq Rouge) in an occupied village in rural France. The picture had been painted before the war by her husband, Edouard, who is away fighting the Germans.
The most senior German officer in Sophie’s town is Freidrich, a Kommandant who takes his meals at the hotel and takes a liking to Sophie and her painting.
Then we suddenly switch to modern London to meet Olivia, whose architect husband David died unexpectedly 4 years earlier. She is still grieving his loss, and her favourite possession is the painting of Sophie, which David had bought from an American woman.
I won’t reveal too much more of the plot, but from then on the story follows Olivia’s battle to keep the painting when a legal action is initiated by Sophie’s relatives, who claim that the picture was stolen by the Germans.
It is very well written, with good characterisation and dialogue, and plenty of twists and turns. I think it would make a good film (incidentally, if a film was made I think it might be categorised as a ‘chick flick’). The narrators told the story very well in the sense that they played the roles convincingly, but they also made lots of mistakes and this distracted and irritated me a bit, but this is a churlish criticism of a really good listen.
This is the third book I have read on the recommendation of Andy Miller, who wrote ‘The Year of Reading Dangerously (how 50 great books saved my life)’. I didn’t really enjoy any of them very much, and so I’m not planning to listen to any more of his 50 picks.
So, what about ‘A confederacy of Dunces’? Well, I suppose I can see why it became a cult classic. It includes some interesting characters and clever dialogue. But I never found any of them to be truly believable, and I didn’t find the plot to be at all believable either.
To this, an imaginary defender of the book might object that the book is a comedy and therefore it isn’t supposed to be believable. Well, I would accept that, except that comedies are supposed to make you laugh, and I didn’t laugh once. There were some slightly amusing bits, but no LOL moments, not even close I’m afraid. To be honest, I spent most of the book being mildly entertained by its interesting cartoon caricatures, but really I just wanted it to end. I actually tried to return it, but for some reason it was not eligible for a return.
I seem to have a disturbing tendency to find many works of fiction disagreeable. I expect I will be in the minority, and that this book will be highly praised by other Audible reviewers. I don’t know yet because I will wait until I have posted this review before I go and read the others. Maybe I am just not cultured enough to appreciate quality fiction. In any case, I didn’t really enjoy it and I don’t recommend it, so you can decide for yourself.
I had read Jared Diamond’s harrowing and fascinating book ‘Collapse’, explaining how different populations throughout human history have destroyed their own, previously rich and fertile, environments and brought about their own extinction, but I wasn’t aware that this had happened in America.
The High Plains of the Midwest were originally home to Native Americans and millions of bison. These were slaughtered or driven off the land in favour of cowboys and cattle, damaging the land to some extent, but by no means irreparably. Next came the farmers, encouraged by the government and the offer of homesteads, who ploughed away the grasslands to plant crops. This agriculture intensified with the increasing demand for wheat and the introduction of industrialised farming, until there was hardly any grassland left.
At this stage there didn’t appear to be a problem, until the drought came along. The drought lasted several years and in the early period crops failed, then, worse, all the topsoil dried out and began to be blown into the sky to form colossal dust storms. Topsoil that had taken thousands of years to accumulate was lost in a few years and was deposited all over the USA and beyond.
The toll in human suffering was horrendous. People became bankrupt and starved, or died of ‘dust pneumonia’. Livestock went blind and died of lack of food or with intestines clogged with dirt.
This environmental disaster coincided with the great economic depression of the 30s to produce a grim double whammy of misery. Many people abandoned their land in a diaspora known as the ‘Exodust’, but some mega-hardy people stayed and held on to what they had, suffering immense hardship, despite the Roosevelt government’s considerable efforts to support the people and regenerate the land.
The book carries an obvious and ominous message of warning to us all about the way we are overpopulating and over-exploiting the World today, with similar consequences being quite possible. But a reader choosing to overlook this theme can still appreciate this powerful insight into the lives of the people who stuck it out in frightful, arid, baking conditions. Whilst it is awful to see how these people suffered, it is uplifting to appreciate their courage and doggedness.
Q. Why did I listen to ‘Anna Karenina’? A. I had listened to ‘The Year of Reading Dangerously’ by Andy Miller, in which he reads and reviews 50 books, and he singled out ‘Anna Karenina’ for high praise. Incidentally, I also tried to get his absolute favourite number one book on the list ‘Atomised’, but it isn’t available as a talking book so I hunted down a hard copy, and I haven’t finished it yet but have struggled so far. This is the problem with recommendations. People’s tastes differ.
Anyway, back to the main point, which is ‘Anna Karenina’: I found it enjoyable, mostly, but it does meander off into politics and philosophising quite a lot. It has been described as ‘the best book ever written’, but, whatever these qualities are that qualify it for such hyperbole are lost on me.
The characterisation is good and realistic, and you are drawn in to sympathise with the characters. There is interesting social comment (the fact that when a man and a woman commit the same social indiscretion, adultery, the man is unpunished while the woman is ostracised and disgraced). The narration is excellent. But the plot is a bit of a disappointment and after the ‘main event’ near the end there is a boring epilogue and I was waiting for it to finish so I could listen to something more interesting.
Maybe I’m just too shallow for old classics, but I wasn’t particularly impressed by this book. 7/10.
The book takes the form of a sort of diary-blog-journal of a year in the life of a middle-aged Englishman from Middle-England. He parodies his own suburban middleness with a lot of wit and engaging humour, poking fun at his rat-trap, 9 to 5, 1.8-children lifestyle and the fact that he no longer has time to pursue his passion, reading books (although he is an editor at a London Publishing Company and had written 2 books before this one, so it isn’t as if he is totally disengaged from literature).
In order to remedy this situation (and also to provide the premise for writing this book), he decides to read 50 books that he has either always wanted to read, or feels that he ought to have read. They are all works of fiction. Some of the books are difficult to read, such as Middlemarch, Moby Dick and Of Human Bondage. Others are more popular and accessible, such as The Da Vinci Code, Pride and Prejudice and Absolute Beginners.
The book is definitely interesting from start to finish, and he certainly gives tips about what not to read and a few ideas about books that are worth a try (although, as he is a somewhat eccentric character, I do have some doubts about whether I would enjoy his favourite picks as much as he does). At times, he drifts off on a bit of a tangent and you want him to get back on course, and also, he doesn’t review a significant number (half perhaps?) of the books, he just tells you that he read them.
Despite these shortcomings, it's a good entertaining, worthwhile read, excellently narrated by the author himself. Unfortunately, his absolute-number-one-must-read pick of all the books is Atomised (aka The Elementary Particles) by Michel Houellebecq, which I sadly could not find on an Audible search - and so maybe I will have to find and read an old-fashioned 'dead-tree' version of this book.
‘Salt, Sugar, Fat' is a depressing expose of the processed food industry. It’s a fairly detailed analysis of how the industry has crammed more and more of these three ingredients into food, and the resulting havoc wrought on the health of Americans. Dramatically increasing rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke have arisen as the population has become increasingly dependent on fast, cheap, convenient, tasty food and drink containing frightening amounts of these eponymous ingredients, as well as a whole load of other chemicals to flavour, colour and preserve the food and increase its shelf-life. The same problem has now been inflicted on other, poorer, nations, such as Mexico as the corporate giants have colonised other markets in their relentless pursuit of greater profits.
Over time, some sections of the public have become more aware of the health hazards associated with these foods, but it hasn’t really reduced the scale of the problem. Attempts to introduce government regulation in the US have largely been scuppered by the lobbyists representing the powerful food and agriculture industries. There has been some effort on the part of the food corporations to reduce the quantities of salt, sugar and fat in their products, but these reductions have been fairly minor, token cuts and haven’t reduced the scale of the problem. Many people have cravings for these powerfully tempting products and can’t cut back effectively, and often don’t have the time, awareness or motivation to make radical changes to their lifestyles. Advertising and marketing campaigns are cleverly designed to make processed food seem irresistible, and of course advertisers are more likely to emphasize health benefits than to warn of the dangers of eating these products.
The World has surely got itself into a sorry mess when people are encouraged to oversize their drink portions so that they are ingesting 44 teaspoons of sugar in their giant cup of fizzy soda, while people in other countries starve to death in droves. The companies defend themselves by saying that no one is being forced to consume their products. It’s a free market and they are only selling what people want. But surely, for the sake of the health of everyone, there should be a massive education campaign telling people how they are potentially harming themselves by eating fast food. There should be limits on the amounts of salt, sugar and fat that can be included in processed foods, as there are in other countries. Surely enough is enough?
Michael Pollan is a great food writer. In his previous three books he enlightened me and changed my attitude towards food and the food industry. He got me started on the road to eating food that my grandparents would have recognised as food (avoiding today’s cornucopia of processed foods when possible) and to worrying about the way food is mass-produced and animals are mistreated.
His fourth book, ‘Cooked’ continues some of these themes but from a slightly different angle. He looks at foods corresponding to the four classical elements: fire, water, air and earth. For ‘fire’, he chooses traditional barbecue of hogs in the Deep South. For ‘water’, he looks at meals cooked in a pot. ‘Air’ is bread, and ‘earth’ is foods relying on the action of microorganisms (e.g. fermentation to make alcohol or acidification to make cheese).
It’s an interesting and enjoyable book. A rambling, meandering, thoughtful piece about what food means to us as humans. But, unlike his other work, it doesn't really have one central point or idea that he’s trying to prove.
For this reason, it comes over as being slightly contrived and a bit aimless. You can’t help thinking that Pollan needed to write another book and was a bit stuck for a central idea, and then he thought about the four elements and that was good enough. The result is a Sunday Supplement magazine article that stimulates your appetite, but doesn't really bite like his earlier works. But it’s a best seller, so what do I know? In any case, it’s good enough to deserve a listen, so go ahead.
This is the fifth epic historical novel by Ken Follett that I have read (or listened to). ‘Pillars of the Earth’ (his mediaeval historical epic) was stunning. Probably the most compelling and entertaining book I’ve ever read. ‘World without End’ was a continuation of the story and was enjoyable, but suffered a bit from sequelitis.
Then came his 20th century trilogy. Basically, these are the stories of five families who get tangled up in the events of World War 1 (Fall of Giants), World War 2 (Winter of the World) and the Cold War (Edge of Eternity).
These three 20th century novels are all entertaining, because Follett knows how to tell a good story, but they are flawed by the disjointedness inherent in jumping around between the five families, and the implausibility of the families’ participation in all the key events of 20th century history.
Plus, in this, the third volume, the author seems to be getting tired and jaded. It feels like Ken Follett is going through the motions and just bashing out books for the money. I even wondered if this one was written by a ghost writer (especially when he calls a British Policeman’s truncheon a ‘nightstick’. Follett is English, so he either changed it to ‘nightstick’ to make it more comprehensible to an American audience, or he didn’t write it himself).
Having said this, it was still fairly entertaining and kept me reasonably engaged to the end. I just feel a bit sad that Follett seems to have traded quality for quantity.
What can you say about a man who had this much impact on history? How could a person rise from such humble beginnings to mesmerize and captivate a nation, instilling god-like devotion in his followers and inspiring them to wage war on the rest of the world?
This book provides some of the answers, but the true inner Hitler will always remain something of a mystery. He had an unusual early life: He was born in Austria, not Germany. His father was illegitimate and his grandfather may have been Jewish, no one knows for sure. In early adulthood he aspired to be an artist, but he struggled greatly to make a successful career out of this. His failure resulted in him living, for a time, on the streets, in dire poverty. At this stage there were no obvious signs that he was a monster: He loved and cared greatly for his mother and was heartbroken when she died. Strangely, he greatly respected the Jewish doctor who treated her for cancer.
In World War One, he miraculously survived four years of trench warfare as a lowly corporal. Germany’s defeat was very painful for him, but he enjoyed and revelled in warfare more than any other activity. From this time onwards he was motivated by two main passions: the rise of Germany and the destruction of the Jews. In order to bring this about he needed to rise to power, and to acquire this power he used his extraordinary talent for oration. He was a brilliant speaker. Despite his unremarkable appearance and diminutive stature, he captivated his audiences wherever he went.
He used this talent to harness the German people's patriotism, their fear of communism and their anti-Semitism, persuading them to go to war to create a new German Empire. His method of waging war, ‘blitzkrieg’, was innovative and immensely successful. This military success continued for a while, but it nurtured an unrealistic optimism in Hitler. As the tide of war started to turn, when the USSR and USA joined the fight against Germany, he continued attacking, against overwhelming enemy forces, in the mistaken belief that he could repeat his early successes. This approach, which incurred massive loss of life, continued right to Hitler’s end. In his final few days, even as he could hear Russian artillery fire from his bunker in Berlin, he was ordering counterattacks in the deluded belief that the war could still be won. Finally, when he realized that the war was lost, he committed suicide to avoid the humiliation of capture by the Russians.
Why did he hate Jews and treat them so abominably? I didn't find an answer in this book. The Jews have been persecuted throughout history, so antipathy towards them is not particularly rare, but the extent of Hitler's hatred of the Jews and the appalling cruelty he perpetrated upon them was exceptional and truly shocking. Clearly, he used anti-Semitism as a means of motivating others to fight for his cause, but why he wanted to go as far as to commit genocide is unclear. There doesn't seem to have been an incident in his life where he was badly treated by Jews, so it is hard to identify how this came about.
Listening, for 44 hours, to the story of the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler was certainly interesting, although there are certain feelings of guilt and self-accusations of morbid fascination associated with it! I wasn’t able to completely solve the puzzle of what formed this man’s character and how he succeeded so spectacularly, but I did gain some valuable insights into his life and times. If you are interested in history, this book is definitely worth listening to.
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