This book has received much critical acclaim, the New York Times Book Review labeling it “the literature of enchantment.” Another reviewer pronounced it the best novel of the year. With an interesting premise of a missionary traveling to another galaxy, I eagerly went off my usual audiobook diet of non-fiction to try more exotic fare.
Fans of Marcel Faber will no doubt enjoy more of his elegant prose and detailed character development. And if there were an Olympics for audio book narration, Josh Cohen would take home the gold medal with his uncanny mastery of countless voices and accents. Faber explained in an NPR interview that he wrote this book after his wife was diagnosed with incurable cancer, and his understandably dystopian world view definitely comes through in his writing. Although some may categorize this book as science fiction, Faber uses the alien civilization and distant human outpost as more of a device for examining estrangement and relationships.
That said, I found the book ultimately frustrating, and all the favorable reviews surprising. Science fiction fans will probably not consider this book in the genre at all, given how incidental are the details of the other world and its inhabitants. If one would have thought that the first contact with other life forms would have been a momentous historical event, none of the characters in the book apparently think so. The missionary, appropriately named Peter, spends no time reflecting on this singular marvel, but rather sets off for the distant galaxy as if he were traveling to Africa or somewhere, giving more thought to things like how his cat will do in his absence.
Much of the book is devoted to Peter’s communications with his wife back on Earth, who he corresponds with via a crude form of intergalactic email (apparently attachments are too data intensive, sort of like in the early days of dial up). Readers hoping a lot more will happen in this story will be disappointed. For example, we learn that Peter has been hired to replace the pastor who preceded him on the alien planet, who has gone missing without a trace. Tantalizingly named Kurtzberg (hint, Conrad), I won’t drop any spoilers here, but suffice it to say Peter never ventures up river.
Similarly, readers hoping that something enlightening (heck, anything!) will come of the biblical exegesis Peter presents to the childlike aliens will have little to show for a lot of reading, except perhaps Peter’s adept rephrasing of the New Testament into words more easily pronounced by the locals.
In the end, I found myself thinking the setting the author chose was distracting to his purpose. The novel could as easily taken place in any far off corner of the Earth, like Peter Matthiessen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord. And then readers like me who were hoping for something more like Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris would not feel like they bought the wrong book.
But still, that British narrator’s American accents are crazy good…
Eula Biss is a talented writer with interesting life experiences, and many of the essays in this collection are lyrical explorations of her thinking. With the theme of race interwoven throughout her writings, this makes for a thought-provoking book, and one capable of passionate discussion, e.g., in a book group.
That said, the author seems to use the personal essay format as permission to put forth her most superficial views, often poorly researched if at all. For example, she begins the book by stating the oft-repeated conclusion that there is no biological basis for race, which is therefore a purely social construct. Even the most casual research shows that this is wishful thinking and scientifically incorrect (see, Race Is Seen as Real Guide To Track Roots of Disease, By Nicholas Wade, Published: July 30, 2002 in the New York Times). What the author means is that the biological differences are exceedingly minor and cannot support all the behavioral claims or segregationists, etc., but this is no excuse to misstate facts. Similarly, the author later boldly states that the historical record is completely devoid of documentation of a certain practice, as if she has actually reviewed the historical record in its entirety.
Personally, my aha moment was realizing that racism can be thought of as merely a subset of the more general shunning of otherness. And this is why I think of the book as, at best, a well written series of essays based on the most lightweight analysis of the purported subject matter. The author describes some of the most atrocious examples of racism, but seems to see these only as stemming from the bad traits of certain members of the currently predominant racial group—rather than something universal in the human condition. This produces a lot of guilt on the author’s part, but little understanding much less any prescription for improvement.
Perhaps I owe the author thanks for making me think about this by writing much I found to disagree with.
This book begins with an interesting premise: given the universality of religions of various sorts with all human populations, is there some evolutionary advantage this commonality could have conferred such that religion could be said to be genetic in some sense?
If you're looking for a well written, up to date, and understandable survey on this topic, then this is a good place to start. (Several of the reviewers that pan this book seem be say either that they disagree with the conclusions or they already know everything presented.) Perhaps not the definitive treatment of this subject, but a good survey. For example, I found the discussion of how altruism and aggression/warfare could have developed together to be fascinating (if depressing!).
My problem with this book was the narrator. Maybe this is just a personal thing that will not bother others, but I found the narration so annoying that I could not finish the audiobook. No offense, but the narrator sounds like a chain smoker with a basso profundo voice recorded too early in the morning. Gasping for air before each sentence, he drove me crazy. He would be great for a political attack ad ("John Smith... wrong for America"), but not non fiction audiobooks.
But again, maybe it's just me: try the sample before you buy, and if you're fine with the narrator, then enjoy this interesting book.
If you want a well researched and tightly written survey of the important topic of innovation, and how we can foster more of it, then you'll want to listen to this book.
The author is a credible science writer, and here as in his previous books he compiles an interesting collection of stories, research results, and theories of prominent thinkers. We learn that perhaps the most important thing Steve Jobs did at Pixar was the design of the team's workspace (including the location of the bathrooms!), and that cities tend to be innovation clusters because of their density and happenstance connections rather than anything deliberate. Anyone interested in what the future will look like in terms of innovation (and especially innovative groups) will want to check this book out. Thumbs up.
My only complaint is that the author, like Malcolm Gladwell, may at times commit success bias (assuming that whatever successful people or companies do is causational, ignoring all the people or companies that did the same things but did not succeed). Also, the audio recording by the author is a testament to the value of a professional reader. The author reads in a virtual monotone, and whatever his accent is soon becomes annoying (he pronounces patents as "paddens", and shouldn't as "shoont", etc.). The author should listen to how much better a professional narrator sounds.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the intersection of neuroscience and music.
The author does a good job of weaving in interesting summaries of the current state of the science of things like language acquisition and musical talent vs. practice.
The author is a good narrator, which is not always the case.
This book delivers a number of ah-ha moments, such as debunking the myth of 10,000 hours.
This audio book not terribly long, and some will probably complain that it's not technical enough, but it makes for a thoroughly enjoyable tour through the science of musicality. The author is good humored, and tells entertaining stories about his visit to music camp (for kids because he is such a lousy guitarist). If you've ever wondered whether music is somehow innate in humans, this book does a good job of walking you through the answers from a neuroscientist.
This is a fascinating book that makes for great listening. One measure of a good book is how much I tell others about it. After listening to Wrangham's book about the effect of cooking on human development, I find myself mentioning it to all my friends and acquaintences (my family is probably sick of hearing about raw food diets, and the unappreciated effects of cooking on food and culture). In addition to those interested in early human development, this book also renders useful information about the dangers of today's hyper-processed foods (mostly obesity). Highly recommended. Great content and good narrator.
I listened to this book with the expectation that it would be an interesting examination of the fragility of our modern electronic infrastructure, a spellbinding post-apocalyptic science fiction story, or hopefully both. Unfortunately, this book is neither. First, the author merely posits that an Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP) generated by unnamed terrorists disables every single machine in the US. There is more information in the short Wikipedia article on EMP than in this book. And second, rather than a good science fiction read, the book is instead a long diatribe against all the things that apparently bug the author. When was the last time you heard someone rail against "hippies"? Everyone in the book who matters is ex-military (the only ones with the guts to shoot looters), and the phrase "I can't believe we've come to this" is repeated ad nauseam. The fact that the hero of the book, coincidentally like the author in real life, is a history professor at a small North Carolina college, makes the reader wonder whether this is really a fantasy for the author -- particularly after the hero becomes the undisputed military ruler and savior of the town in the wars against marauding cannibals. The new audio release on Audible of "Earth Abides" by George Stewart is a truly great post-apocalypse story that has withstood the test of time. With "One Second After", however, this book is the real disaster. The author's Web site says he has already sold the movie rights... God save us indeed.
Regardless of what you ultimately think of the author's analysis, Gladwell is a masterful storyteller, weaving together interesting anecdotes from such diverse sources as plane crash research to hillbilly feuds to standardized math tests. That Gladwell narrates the audio book himself adds greatly to the listening experience. Critics will complain that his thesis is obvious (that opportunity, cultural inheritence and hard work play key roles in success), or that his examples are selective and ignore in turn outliers that don't illustrate his points -- or, somewhat inconsistently, both. But Gladwell's books are successful because he examines phenomena and topics of importance in an accessible and entertaining way. No one should mistake Malcolm Gladwell for a big thinker like, say, Stephen J. Gould, but Gladwell would be the first one to tell you that he's no outlier. Don't accept everything the author says as truth revealed, but do listen to this book -- it's one of the best non-fiction offerings available through Audible.
Fascinating subject matter and meticulous research, but Audible listeners who make it through the 18 hours of this book deserve some kind of a medal. The author may be a distinguished historian, but I don't think there is a simple declarative sentence in the entire book. Though perhaps not intended for general audiences, the endless litany of facts, dates, names, and erudite references in this book soon numbs the mind. And I was listening to this book while traveling in Andalucian Spain to the actual places described (God knows somewhere...) in the text! Contrast this form of writing with, say, that of David McCullough (author of many delightful histories such as "1776" and "John Adams"), and I can only wish for what might have been with this book.
Don't be dissuaded from listening to this book, however, as the information is important to understanding the relationship of Islam to the West. Just be prepared for something that reads more like a graduate level history text than a page-turner.
Retold by the survivor most responsible for the group's rescue, this excellent book not only provides a spellbinding rendition of one of the great survival stories of all time, but also provides a unique view into the feelings and thoughts of the people who were there, and a perspective from three decades later on what it means to have survived. This is one audio book you will not want turn off or even pause. The epilogue spoken by the author himself, together with an interview by the publisher, provides added interest. I've listened to maybe 40 different Audible books, and none more enjoyable or thought provoking than this one. Highest recommendation.
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