This is the memoir of someone who worked in the Chinese foreign service during and after the Mao era, and still resides in China with his family. The result is a book that gives a moderate version of the official Communist Party story of Chinese history and diplomacy in the 20th century.
Someone who doesn't know much about recent Chinese history would probably learn quite a bit. The book would be especially helpful for someone who couldn't imagine why the Chinese government joined the Korean War, or why Taiwan has been made such an issue--and why most people in China agree with the government position on these topics. As someone already quite familiar with the history, I didn't get any new information from this book.
The author's description of his personal experiences are rather monotonous, without much reflection or psychological detail. Expect to spend a lot of time hearing about the health problems of every member of his family. His political insights are limited to categorizing all the people he discusses as either good (Zhou Enlai, Peng Dehuai, Deng Xiaoping) or bad (Mao, the Gang of Four, and their supporters), and so he explains political events by attributing them to whether the "good" or "bad" people happened to be in control of government at that time. This was much too simplistic for me to feel that the book had deepened my understanding of how the tumultuous politics of the Mao years really worked.
The narrator made some effort to learn how to pronounce Chinese, so about half the names came out fairly well (except for the tones), and half are mangled. This is still better than most audiobooks on China.
Much too slow, much too simple. The speed of speaking isn't thoughtfully slow, but rather sounds like he adds unnatural pauses in between words in case his audience is trying to write everything down. The amount of information included in each sentence is , to the point where it sounds like he's just trying to fill up time by putting in filler sentences that restate the obvious. I can only guess that he's trying to make the lectures as simple as possible, but nothing for adults is ever this simplistic. Average middle school students (and probably younger children) would find this easy.
I've listened to perhaps ten "Great Courses" audiobooks, and have never found it so hard to keep going. Right now I'm at lecture four and feel like every minute has been a waste of my time. Don't know how long I'll keep listening.
Having read other books on religious studies before, I find that this course does an excellent job of introducing all of the most influential ways of looking at religion. It conveys as well a clear sense of how the field has changed over time, and does so from a very balanced perspective.
Compared to the other courses and audiobooks available on the subject, this is exceptional in how serious and up-to-date its treatment of the material is. It could be better, though. Some people I think have complained that it is "too theoretical." The problem is not too much theory, but rather a bit more emphasis on where each theory came from and not enough on how it has been used more recently. Thus, much time is spent on the biography of each thinker and the particular cases he (always "he") considered. For example, we hear a lot about how Emile Durkheim thought religion helped create social unity among Australian aborigines, but almost nothing about how many scholars have subsequently drawn on his ideas to examine religion and communal ties in other societies, including our own.
The speaker is very engaging--I always listened to this while commuting or doing chores, and never found myself losing track of the lecture.
Bays is a solid scholar in this field, and he has clearly made an effort to present the nuances of this topic in a way that even listeners who don't know specialist terminology or even basic Chinese history can follow his points.
Considering that this is a history book, the narrator does a decent job of avoiding monotony. I very much appreciate that she took the time to learn how the q's and x's in Chinese words are supposed to sound. Oddly she didn't bother with the consonants, so that most of the time she says "Tang" like she's ordering orange drink in Cincinnati.
I also wince every time she pronounces "bas-relief" as "bass-relief"--the word comes up several times--but this is minor.
This give a solid, if simple, introduction to this field of philosophy--a good preparation before listening to the Great Courses lectures on the topic.
I think the book is actually fairly well-written and often witty, but it comes across as a bit dull because of the reading. I often wonder whether or not this is actually read by computer software, in an experiment to test whether or not customers can tell the difference.
A two-dimensional portrait. Seeks simple explanations for each of his actions.
Not a minute goes by without hearing "passion," "desire for control," or "hardware and software should be closely integrated."
First of all, Simon Vance does an amazing job with this book. All kinds of British accents, and he nails each of them. The perfect ideal of expressiveness without melodrama from start to finish. So this is what a professional sounds like. If only I could get serious nonfiction books narrated with this level of talent.
The novel: written by two people, and it shows. It gives the impression that they worked together for a while, agreed to work separately on the rest, and then both mailed in half-baked work when they ran out of time. The first 1/3 is absolutely gripping and fascinating. The next 1/3 is a mediocre action story climaxing with a gunfight in a burning warehouse (the ultimate action cliche). The last 1/3 is told as a series of disjointed fragments revealing large chunks of leftover plot, as though the writer didn't have time to weave them together to give pacing and complexity.
I felt the book was worth my time, but ended up mourning the much better novel that could have been if the high standard of the first section had been kept up.
It would be much better to have the entire book. They cut out one of the parts I had most wanted to hear; apparently he discusses the reasons why thermonuclear bombs aren't made as destructive as technologically feasible. Who knows what else is missing from this version.
Otherwise the book is quite good, a nice balance of technology, biography, and politics. And a good reality check on what nuclear stockpiles really entail for society.
Rhodes is not the smoothest reader in the world, but I enjoyed hearing the author reading his own writing.
In the academic world, this book has become well-known and influential that a realistic estimate of its impact has the sound of hyperbole. That makes it worth reading in the same way as Plato's _Republic_ or Machiavelli's _The Prince_; you may not agree with all or even much of its arguments, but there's much value simply in knowing what these ideas are that so many people are thinking and talking about.
For those who don't know the book, it describes the connections between how European empires (and the US, somewhat) controlled the Middle East politically, fantasized about it, and studied it, arguing that these were all aspects of the same structures and processes. It suffers from a certain amount of contradiction and one-sided argument, but I think that when Said was writing in the 1970s the other side of the argument--the pro-colonialist side--was more frequently heard than it is now.
Another reviewer complained that he quit after listening for 45 minutes and finding that it was all generic political arguments. I think that reviewer never got past the new preface, which does go on for something like 45 minutes. The preface was added around 2004 and is mainly a fairly standard critique of the US invasion of Iraq from the perspective of its early years. There's no solution but to be patient and wait for the book itself to begin.
I've had a print copy for years and never got around to reading it, but am finding the audio version pleasant going. Said's writing is much clearer and jargon-free than many of his admirers--he is a scholar of literature, after all. The reader does well enough to keep my attention, and handles fairly well the French words that show up regularly. There are times when he sounds exactly like a computer-generated voice reading text, but his reading doesn't put me to sleep.
I don't regret the time or money I spent on this book, but I can certainly see why it's not as famous as his _Collapse_ or _Guns, Germs and Steel_. Part of the problem is that some of his points here are also made, more convincingly and intriguingly, in those other books.
Another problem is that some of his arguments here seem shaky even to a non-expert like me. For example, Diamond suggests that menopause evolved to help women survive to care for their first few children by preventing death in childbirth later on. If so, why does menopause not occur until AFTER most of a women's children are old enough not to need care by the mother? He also argues that the use of alcohol, tobacco, and other substances arose from the desire to show off one's strength and health by poisoning oneself and surviving. This is not convincing either: why wouldn't most societies use more toxic and less enjoyable chemicals if showing toughness was the main result?
His chapters that focus on comparing humans to other animals are much stronger, and the sections on language and art are the high points of the book. The section on the advantages of hunter-gatherer over agricultural societies will be nothing new to anyone who knows ancient archaeology or the "paleo diet", but is still enjoyable.
Bottom line: If you haven't read or heard Diamond's other books first, start with _Collapse_ (the unabridged version) and then _Guns, Germs, and Steel_. They're much, much better. But this one is still better than most of what's out there.
This is a classic textbook on early modern and modern Chinese history. I've very happy to see it finally appearing in audio form, and I hope there are more on the way.
I have one complaint: The pronunciation of most of the Chinese names is so wrong that the reader might as well be making up random noises. For example, "zhou" is pronounced "joe," not "zoo," and it matters because "zhou" appears in the names of most Chinese geographic locations outside Beijing and Shanghai. It would take 10 minutes for the reader to learn the absolute basics of how to pronounce Chinese names. By being too lazy to take those 10 minutes, the next 20? 30? hours of audio lose much of their value for any listener who hopes actually to learn something.
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