After Devil in the White City, an amazing tour-de-force, I was expecting quite a bit from Erik Larson. And while he doesn't disappoint with In the Garden of Beasts, it also doesn't quite live up to the lofty standards set in his earlier story. Still, it is a story worth exploring, with its building tension and "oh my god...really?" moments. The lasting legacy of this book, for me, is that, despite the number of WWII books I've gone through recently, it inspired me to spend at least a little more time trying to understand how the world plunged back into a world war, so soon after The Great War.
In this book, we spend time with a family that has been thrust, almost unwittingly, into the downward spiral of a totalitarian regime. Through their interviews, memoirs, private diaries, and more, we get to see life in Berlin in the early 1930s as both an incredibly lively and exciting place, and as one teetering on the edge of chaos. The rise of the Third Reich is told here in very personal detail. Through social interactions, political intrigues, and romances between young lovers, we experience the birthing pains of dictatorship, and wonder at its impact on idealistic diplomats and young adults.
I'd go deeper, singling out individual characters for their naivety or blindness, but I think that part of the intrigue of the story is the way these real-life figures try to make sense of what they've walked into. Spend time in Berlin in 1933, and I think you'll find it quite amazing, and depressing.
I'm not quite sure how I ended up on this path. It started with a book about WWII in general, then a few that touched on specific people or incidents during the war, and it has circled back to this epic account of Hitler and his twisted designs for the world. This is a work that feels so comprehensive, though I suspect that scholarship since the 1960s has produced a bit more detail, that I feel like I just spent several days of my life walking down the path of destruction that seemed so inevitable throughout the recounting of the Third Reich. An amazing book and experience, it is not for the faint-hearted -- those either daunted by size or by content. It is for the truly intrigued among us, who often see in historical events a reflection of who we are today, and how to address challenges in the world around us.
Clocking in at 60-ish hours, this book takes commitment. But that investment comes with a grand payoff. You never feel cheated. The sheer volume of leftover records and accounts of daily life in Germany during the timespan covered here ensures that the reader walks away with a belief that no stone has been left unturned. There are so many things that I recall from previous exposure to World War 2, and almost all of these are told again here, but with a specific focus on the motivations and reactions of Hitler and his cronies. While I would never suggest that I am an expert in such things, I do feel like I can speak confidently about what happened, why it happened, and perhaps draw a little from that to talk intelligently about how to identify and react to modern day despots and lunatics.
Grover Gardner does a fantastic job with his narration. I had to repeatedly remind myself that he, himself, was not the author. It is easy to make this mistake in a book of this nature, which has a number of self-reflective moments by William Shirer, but even when acknowledging that, of course, Grover was not actually there, it still felt like an intimate conversation with someone reflecting on their days in Berlin during the 30s and 40s. Great quality throughout.
A final note -- one criticism that could be leveled at this book is that William Shirer often interjects his personal opinion, both on Hitler, and on the Germans in general. And actually, on many others as well. These personal opinions sometimes disrupt the natural storytelling flow of the narrative, and pull the listened/reader out of the depths of listening for content into a level of critical analysis of the author's intent. When he characterizes Germans in a specific way, it sounds more like stereotyping than it does educated analysis. While I understand the personal nature of this book, I could have done without some of the antiquated beliefs expressed within. And yes, I acknowledge that writing this book in the 50s and 60s might play a part -- our system of political correctness many not have been as refined then as it is today -- but it still strikes the reader today, and should be noted.
All in all, a fantastic, sweeping, and important work, that should appeal to anyone even remotely interested in what happened to the world 80 years ago.
You might not be able to tell from my previous reviews, given that I have heaped praise on a number of books here, but I am pretty picky. If I don't like something, if I am struggling to get through it, I just stop. What is left are books that I find generally engaging, fascinating, and overall an enjoyable experience.
Topping just about everything I've listened to in the past 12 months or so that I've been a member is this nearly perfect story. Erik Larson's narrative non-fiction is among the best available in any form. This story of the interweaving of herculean city building and evil incarnate is nearly unbelievable. Neither story feels like it could have taken place in the reality we inhabit. But as we all too often know, real life can be quite jarring, unbelievable, and amazing.
So it is with the most fervent recommendation that I suggest you read/listen to this book. Do it because the writing is impeccable. Do it because Erik Larson has set a new standard for whatever genre this actually falls into. And do it because you will finish the book with a newfound appreciation for Chicago, its roots, and the work of men to build things, discover things, and, ultimately, be greater than human in a time that often tried to stop them from doing so.
Oh, and Scott Brick is fantastic here. I want to say more about his reading, but the quality of the overall work itself drawfs anything else in its wake. Just know that Scott Brick does a great job, and his work here is another reason that I seek out books that he narrates, just as I do with a few other top-tier readers.
Since sometime last year, I've been a bit taken by post-apocalyptic fiction. Whether it was The Canticle of Leibowitz, Earth Abides, or The Hunger Games (my wife made me read it), or this book, I'm in a place where I really want to dive into visions of a dystopian future. For me, it is less about the loss of hope as it is the search for hope amongst the wreckage of past choices. This fascinates me, and I began Alas, Babylon with the expectation that it would add a dimension to the unfolding image around me.
Unfortunately, it did not. This isn't to say that this is a bad story. It is a good one, if you focus on the core idea -- the immediate survival needs of a town in Florida after a nuclear war. This isn't a story about a journey, nor is it about confronting evil, or, really, confronting anything other than the base instinct to survive. The town gets lucky, a few people have insight into what's going to happen, society breaks down, and a few people try to rebuild it. It's a pretty straightforward idea, but one that resonated a bit less forcefully for me than I had hoped.
Despite my let down, I can't deny that there aren't some quality sequences here. Whether the build-up to the big disaster, or a confrontation that takes place late in the book, there are times when I was thoroughly entranced. I was fortunate to listen to these at a time when I didn't have to break up my listening with some other task. Which is a good thing -- the task would have gone undone.
The narration is fine. Nothing great. I wish I could say more, but it was serviceable, didn't get in the way of the story, and not a reason to avoid Will Patton in the future.
In the end, I was hoping for something bigger. The Point of All This, for example. Even the explanations given for what is happening in the bigger world felt flat. But again, this is probably because I was expecting a sweeping story of a post-nuclear America, and what I got was an intimate story of one town, and a few people.
(I'm so tempted to write "Alas" something here, but I won't)
After many, many, recommendations, I gave in. For whatever reason, I had spoken with at least a half dozen people within a week who had either recently finished the book, or were close to finishing it. I originally thought that I might get around to this someday, mostly because the idea of reading a biography of someone so recently alive seemed mundane compared to the backlog of great biographies that I would like to get to.
I am very happy that I did get to it now. This was a wonderful biography of a sometimes horrific, often brilliant, and almost always headstrong man. Isaacson does a great job balancing the competing storylines that could be attached to Steve Jobs. While it feels like Isaacson does side with Jobs' worldview a bit too often, he does ensure that there is a bright spotlight on the foibles of a man who most of us knew only through the press. It is a difficult job to portray someone whose echo through history has only just begun. So many of us have opinions about Jobs, and Isaacson really makes no attempt to sway us. He gives plenty of ammunition to both supporters and detractors. In the end, I think he means to say that it doesn't matter if you were for or against Steve Jobs, the man. Instead, it is about the kinds of legacies we wish to leave, and how one man shaped his own.
Highly recommended, especially when so many of your friends have already read this.
I think my headline says it all. After spending such an indescribably wonderful time in the universe of Cloud Atlas, I have emerged with the understanding that I can't add anything to what has been written before.
This was a transcendent experience. The story structure could have been a gimmick. The various genres could have been a mess. The relative looseness of all of this could have been silly. None of that happened. Instead, David Mitchell has crafted a book that has everything I could have possibly asked for. It has six interlocking stories, each with its own merits and fascination. The end of the story, when I thought it would finish with a wimper (although a great wimper!), finished strong, bringing home the entire reason the novel exists. It was this finish that left me wholly satisfied.
Among the best books I've ever experienced. I cannot recommend it any more than I am trying here. Just read it, listen to it, experience it. You will not be disappointed.
The thing that fascinates me most about history is that it contains so much....history. There are nooks and crannies in the world that contain the most fascinating stories, and I have to imagine that most of the best ones will go undiscovered for eternity. In their place, we still have a treasure trove of the most harrowing, enlightening, exciting, and sad stories that we could ever dream up. World War 2 seems to be a breeding ground for these stories, and Lost in Shangri-La reveals another tiny corner of these nooks and crannies.
Mitchell Zuckoff writes a good story about an interesting event. The survival, heroism, and bravery on display here are unquestionable. That a rescue mission was carried out in this extremely remote and dangerous place is a testament to the honor of our soldiers in WW2. Unfortunately, I couldn't shake the feeling that this really was a story about some people on a joy ride who made a mistake. Because of that mistake, many people died, and many others were put into harms way. It is a story worth telling not because of the bravery of those who avoided death in the initial crash, but rather because of those who cleaned up the mess afterwards.
And I know that sounds awfully harsh. Mitchell Zuckoff does a great job of extracting every detail out of the event and relaying those details to us in a fine manner. I have no particular quibbles with the way that this was done, other than those mentioned earlier. I think his narration is fine, and the story he tells feels complete -- it feels like we understand the backstory well, the events that occurred, and how it impacted both the valley, its native inhabitants, and those that got out alive. In the end, though, I can't shake this feeling that it isn't quite enough to convince me that I should evangelize this story and book to others.
Instead, I'll say that it is better than average, probably almost very good, but nothing more than that.
There are books that you experience in a state of welcoming bliss. They stick with you because you needed to read them JUST RIGHT NOW. And somehow the universe converged at the perfect moment to drop a wonderful story about this or that into your hands. You read with great fervor the adventures, sadness, mystery, or humor of your fictional doppleganger, and when you are done, you feel awash in both elation and deflation, wondering if you will ever find another story like this one.
This was not one of those stories. It could have been, and at times it seemed on the verge of becoming one of them, but it ended and I did not feel that. I have no doubt that it probably instills in others the feelings that I wrote about above. For me, I experienced the roller coaster of Hazel Grace's young life and was properly enchanted, worried, and hopeful for her. I think that I wanted something even more profound in the end, and it just wasn't there for me.
This, in no way, should discourage you from reading this story. It is beautifully written and wonderfully executed. Kate Rudd does a fantastic job of bringing Hazel Grace to life, to the point that I'm not sure they aren't the same person. This story of life, and its byproduct cancer, is filled with moments of pure happiness, humor, and devastating sadness. John Green's compelling storytelling is on full display here, and I cannot fault the story for any shortcomings.
An excellent read no matter what my unreasonable expectations may have been.
"We Need to Talk About Kevin" is one of those novels that provoke a wide range of emotions, which for some may be a bad thing. For me, it was an incredible journey. This story of a mother coming to terms with horrific acts perpetrated by her son is filled with honest emotion and bristling narrative, a combination that often leaves the reader/listened a bit dumbstruck at what is happening. A story that I won't soon forget, I was mostly enraptured by the story, with one glaring exception.
The root of good horror (in this case, a concrete, literal horror and not one of a supernatural kind) is in its accessibility. While this story feels like something that could happen next door, the nature vs. nurture battle that plays out often feels a bit too much of an indictment of "nature". Kevin's natural state seems to be one of violence and sociopathy, to an extreme that almost seems to drown out everything else that happens. Perhaps Ms. Shriver was trying to interweave the emotions of a reluctant and horrified mother with the state of a newborn, but in the end it felt too much like Kevin was bad from the outset. This led to characterizations that felt far away from "normal" life, and thus diminished, just a bit, the shock and horror at what was happening.
Despite this, and because of the brilliant writing and unique style, I found this book to be among the best I've heard in the past year. Highly recommended, I suggest that any potential reader be steeled against the heartbreak that comes so frequently with wading through this story. In the end, with whatever glimmer of hope you can take away, everything is worth it.
Shortly after finishing this story, I read/listened to a new history of World War II. Within the nearly 40 hours of narration, this story of the heroism, bravery, and shocking depravity merited only about two sentences. To think that such an incredible sequence of events -- the invasion, battles, and surrender in the Philippines exists as almost a footnote in any other telling of WWII is hard to believe. The story here is so rich and intricate that fascination with what it took to survive overpowers any lingering revulsion at what happened in those years following the initial fall of Manila and the Bataan peninsula.
That doesn't mean that the events are any easier to accept. To confront such hatred and evil takes a particular determination. This story by Michael and Elizabeth Norman is told in a way that never excuses any actions, but does give context and three dimensionality to many of the most important players in this awful calamity. Michael Prichard, again, does a fantastic job of bringing the text to life. As a result, I came away from this book with a newfound appreciation for all of the little things, relatively speaking, that happen in war. Bravery doesn't always shine like a newly minted coin. Sometimes, it is hidden in far off corners of the world, where men and women do what they believe is right, in the face of unspeakable wrong.
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