I have read, or listened to, a lot of very gloomy books over the last few years. Unfortunately, I think most of them have probably been telling the truth, so it is quite a relief to listen to a book that paints an optimistic picture of the future.
The authors don’t hide from the fact that we are facing an apparently unsustainable world population growth to 9 billion in the next couple of decades, along with an increasing demand for food and water and a continuing of humanity’s destruction of other species and the environment.
But in this book they do a pretty good job of convincing us that the situation is not as bad as we think, and that we have the ingenuity to solve many of these crushing, dispiriting problems: lack of food, lack of clean water, dependence on fossil fuels, pollution by human and industrial waste, deforestation, destruction of the oceans etc.
Their first job is to convince us that we are inherently pessimistic for a number of deep-rooted psychological reasons, because a pessimistic, suspicious, over-cautious outlook would have increased our survival chances when we were evolving as hunter-gatherers. A hunter-gatherer’s territory was small and involved only a few people and animals, and we aren’t wired to comprehend systems involving billions of people and countless other variables, so we tend to be over-pessimistic. For example, in 19th century London people believed that the city was being overwhelmed by horse-manure. They couldn’t conceive of a workable solution because they couldn’t imagine that a few years later the city would be dominated by automobiles and we would be worried about air pollution instead. Similarly, in later decades we thought acid rain would decimate the environment, but this problem has now been largely forgotten.
When we try to predict the future we tend to think of our rate of progress as being linear, but actually, many of our technologies advance at an exponential rate. An example of this is computer chip technology, where each year the number of circuits packed onto a chip increases exponentially. Problems that currently seem to be unsolvable, like the lack of clean drinking water in the world’s poorest countries, can be solved by the invention of water-purifying technologies. These devices are already being produced and are improving at an exponential rate. The knowledge and spread of such technologies is enhanced and compounded by the exponential growth of communication networks in the developing world resulting from the spread of mobile phone technology.
Similar technological solutions are offered for sanitation (toilets that don’t need water or an outlet pipe, that burn the faeces to generate energy, purify the urine to release fresh water and produce urea as a fertiliser). There are similar solutions offered for many other problems faced by the poor in the modern world. Solar panel technology which increases efficiency exponentially, improved battery technology made from abundant non-toxic chemicals, efficient high rise farms, bacteria that are genetically programmed to manufacture fuels and so on.
These may seem rather far-fetched, but today’s smartphones would have seemed far-fetched 20 years ago, and now they are affordable to almost everyone.
One might object that improving the lot of the poorest billion will only increase population further, so that it always remains unsustainable and beyond the reach of technological advances, but the authors point out that the rate of population growth always falls once people have the basic necessities to bring them out of poverty: Food, shelter, clean water, good sanitation, energy for cooking, heating and lighting, health and education.
It’s a fascinating book, and it offers an optimistic future without the need to radically change the whole global political landscape. I thought the only way to slow the current reckless onslaught towards environmental destruction would be to form some kind of world government which could control and limit emissions, deforestation, overfishing and all the other human activities that are doing so much damage, but this book suggests that we might arrive at a cleaner, better world without the need for drastic government intervention. This view may be overly optimistic, but I have enjoyed the hope.
A terrorist bomb explodes in a New York art gallery, killing many people and destroying priceless art treasures. Theo, the hero of this book, loses his mother in the blast, but before discovering this he is given a famous painting, The Goldfinch, by an old man dying of his wounds, accompanied by a young girl.
The rest of the book describes the effects of this initial trauma on the life of the boy growing into a man. He is taken in by two kind New York families and is eventually reclaimed by his dodgy estranged father, who whisks him off to Las Vegas. Theo still has the painting and has kept it secret all along.
He forms a friendship with a likable Russian-American rogue and they hang out together, getting drunk and experimenting with drugs. His father is then killed as a result of mixing in the wrong circles, and so Theo is alone again. He runs away to avoid Child Custody Services and rejoins the kindly New York antique dealer who had helped him after the bomb blast.
The book then shoots forward a few years to find Theo getting himself into trouble by selling fake antiques, and then he is reunited with his Russian Friend. There is a bit of an adventure at the end and I won't spoil it any more than I have already done.
Overall, I was disappointed by this book. It is well-written and the characters are well-drawn and engaging, but the plot is slow and a bit random. It sort of drifts along and you are thinking 'come on, come on, get on with it', and although it finishes with a dramatic climax you are still thinking 'what was the point of all that?'. It is all a bit shapeless and unsatisfying.
This was mostly an entertaining and educational explanation of what it says on the label: How music works. I enjoyed it and learned a lot.
As for the narrator, what were they thinking? If you made a recording of Huckleberry Finn would you cast actors with posh English accents? No, because that would sound stupid wouldn’t it? Similarly, in this book, the author uses many English expressions about going to pubs and eating chips with gravy, and these sound ridiculous out of the mouth of the American narrator.
Whenever I wasn’t distracted by this conspicuous miscasting, I was enjoying the audiobook.
I don’t read a lot of fiction, and I can count the number of science fiction books I’ve read on the fingers of one hand, so I was quite curious to see how much I would enjoy Dark Eden. The answer was ‘a lot’. Forgive me if I don’t know the genre well enough to judge whether this is truly a good example of sci-fi, but I loved it.
The story takes place some time in the not too distant future, when humans are able to travel into distant space, but they still have some familiar old technology such as radio, television, electricity and police vehicles. We only know this secondhand, however, because we are told about this technology by ancestors of 3 earth colonists who crash landed there and then formed a ‘fee-amily’ of about 500 people by interbreeding with each other.
They have heard about radios and television, but never seen them for themselves.
They are very simple souls who live a hunter-gatherer existence living off the exotic flora and fauna of this dark planet. There is no sun, and the only light comes from trees and animals who generate it through their evolved 'lee-anterns’, supplemented by a little bit of starlight and the light from human fires. There is a high incidence of birth deformities in this community, such as hair-lip ('Bat Face') and claw-foot resulting, presumably, from the interbreeding.
They all believe in a kind of creation story about their ancestors, and harbour a quasi- religious belief that earth will one day return to Dark Eden to fetch them back, even though it is about 150 years since their ancestors landed there. In order not to miss being picked up by earthlings, they all feel obliged to stay close to the original landing spot in a crater on the planet’s surface called ‘Circle Vee-ally’, even though the area has been over-hunted and food is growing too scarce to feed the growing Fee-amily.
But there is one character, John Red-Lee-Antern, who is different to all the rest. He doesn’t believe that the Fee-amily is destined to stay in this one small part of the planet waiting to be picked up. He wants to go on a dangerous trip over the top of ‘Snowy Dark’ in search of richer pastures. He has the courage and the vision to explore this unknown terrain, with exciting consequences for the rest of the story.
It is very appealing the way the fee-amily has evolved its own dialect and customs. They have become quite a primitive community, even though they are descended from advanced humans.
The characterisation and dialogue are very convincing and interesting. I found the book compelling from the beginning to the end and will now be keen to give sci-fi another go.
This audiobook was an enjoyable summary of British Literature from its inception with Beowulf in the dark ages up to the 21st century. As a general rule it was very entertaining, giving the background stories of the authors and describing how their lives and historical circumstances produced their writing. It was fascinating to hear the about the lives of Austen, the Brontes, Dickens and Hardy.
I found myself zoning out a few times when poetry was the topic. I don’t think this is the fault of the lecturer, poetry just doesn’t really do it for me, although I found the lives of Keats and Byron to be interesting and First World War poetry has always seemed more poignant to me than poetry about love or beauty. As for Milton and Paradise Lost, I still don’t get it even now, even after it has been explained to me.
My overall verdict is that this is an interesting audiobook and, at 25 hours duration, well worth the price of the credit.
This audiobook is a series of lectures looking at history's most memorable speeches. It is a good analysis of those speeches and helps us to understand the elements which combine to make great oratory. He helps us to understand the different strategies that should be used for different purposes. So, for example, Ghandi used 'logos' or logic to prove his point when he was on trial for his life, whilst Martin Luther King appealed to the emotions when he gave his iconic 'I have a dream' speech.
Whilst this analysis is interesting, there is a slight conflict of interests within the book which doesn't work so well. The lecturer is supposedly trying to teach us how to be better public speakers, but to this he draws his lessons from speeches made by history's heavyweight orators made at pivotal moments in the World's history, such as Churchill's 'Blood, sweat and tears' speech and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. This is slightly comical, as the average listener buying this self-help lecture series will likely do no more than give a best-man speech at a wedding.
Despite this qualm, the audiobook is interesting and worth a listen.
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.
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