This is an interesting book. Actually, it is two interesting books and that is the problem. The construction of the Panama Canal is clearly a subject of immense interest to David McCullough, who has written a book about the canal's French and American construction episodes that positively drowns the reader in superfluous detail. Really, this is two different stories which would be best left to two different books. McCullough's editor failed him here, for much of the material in this book would be best left on the cutting room floor. There is plenty of good material in this book, just too much of it. Another shortcoming regards the "performance" or audiobook narration. This book is full of Spanish and French person and place names, and the narrator is simply not good at pronouncing those names. The result is just a bit annoying and painful to listen to.
Many people who have watched the History Channel or have ever had a passing interest in UFOs will be familiar with Area 51, the huge and secretive U.S. Government testing facility located in Nevada. Being secret and off limits to the public (and even most military officials), Area 51 naturally invites attention from conspiracy theorists of all types and is made especially attractive by its association with the "Roswell incident," in which a UFO allegedly crashed in New Mexico. This book mostly avoids conspiracy theories and instead presents the history of Area 51 as a U.S. Government facility where highly secret activities (nuclear tests, CIA spy plane development, etc.) took place, but little claimed by the creatively paranoid transpired. In many ways, this is the history of the Air Force and the CIA and of their frequently competitive relationship when it came to aviation and overhead surveillance. Additionally, the book is a history of the many German scientists who had served the Nazis and were brought to the United States to work for the U.S. Government after the war. (The Soviets similarly brought former Nazi scientists to the USSR for similar purposes.) So far so good.
Where the book stumbles a bit is with regard to the Roswell Incident, as one might expect. To her credit, the author does not sensationalize the Roswell crash, which has virtually become an industry for the conspiracy minded. Rather, she concludes after interviewing several people associated with Area 51 that the alleged alien craft was actually a Soviet remote-controlled version of an experimental aircraft created by the Horton brothers in Hitler's Germany. The aliens aboard the craft were actually deformed human children who were the products of a German/later Soviet program to conduct bestial experiments on unwilling human subjects. The whole crash incident, the author asserts, was part of an attempt by Stalin to show how mass hysteria could be created in the US by manipulating the media and prompting terrified Americans to report thousands of bogus UFO reports. Besides interview testimony, evidence for this explanation also is to be found in Cyrillic writing allegedly found inside the crashed "spacecraft."
Really? It may be true that the answers to many of the most sensational riddles turn out to be utterly banal, but Jacobson's explanation for the Roswell crash seems rather implausible to me. After all, why would the Soviets deliver one of their most sophisticated aviation prototypes to the USA for study? And how did Cyrillic writing on the aircraft itself get overlooked by Moscow? I'm not asserting that the crashed craft at Roswell was from another planet and I expect that the author is sincere in her explanation of the incident, but the Stalin-space-stunt strikes me as so implausible that I really have difficulty accepting it. When one thinks about it for even a moment, it makes little if any strategic sense for the Soviets to do what the author asserts they did. Her explanation, therefore, is unsatisfying.
The author, Annie Jacobson, makes one more very disturbing assertion that one deeply hopes is unlikely but unfortunately is not in the realm of the totally implausible. The real reason that Area 51 has been off limits except to the most select few Government officials over the years, she claims, was that the US Government continued the above-mentioned and bestial Nazi experiment program on unwilling human subjects there. This program continued with American help in Nevada until the 1980s, she suggests. As we have seen in 20th century history, there have definitely been incidents of governments or other authorities conducting experiments on unwitting subject populations, so such a program would not be without precedent. One must hope, however, that it is without basis in fact.
So...this is a book which presents a mix of fact and speculation but often succeeds because it takes both its subject and its readers seriously. Even (especially?) without the Roswell assertions or the allegations of Dr. Mengele-like human experiments by the US Government, it would be an interesting read just for its discussion of the often tense history between the CIA and the US Air Force. Enjoy it as a guilty pleasure.
So, Steve Jobs was a total freak. Let's just get that out there. I mean not the slightest criticism of the man by that. It's just true that a guy who refuses to eat anything other than apples for weeks on end (really), has something going on.
First, let's just get the normal book criticisms out of the way. This book's length is appropriate to the accomplishments of it's subject's brief life and is extremely well organized. The "performance" on the audiobook is very good and the author shows his mastery of his craft by maintaining a level of tension across a story (which many readers will already know) and whose conclusion even Amelia Earheart probably knows, wherever she is. I'm exactly the age to have watched Apple introduce its products, soar, crash, get saved, and triumph and I was never bored.
This book is long and complex as befits its complex subject. That said, anybody over 35ish with a dim recollection of the evolution of the personal computer will find a reassuring familiarity in the subject matter of this tome that will undercut the burden of its many pages.
Ultimately, Isaacson (whose timing could not have possibly been better unless dictated by Steve Jobs, thank you, God) has produced an amazingly compelling portrait of a very troubled genius whose deep flaws were overcome by his profound insights. One walks away from this book with profound admiration for Jobs at the same time that one feels deeply sorry for the many people around him for whom his emotional torment must have been very, very difficult.
Jobs, as he often admitted, was a total asshole. Was he a visionary? Totally. Was he right with his integrated ecosystem philosophy? Absolutely. But (and here's the most interesting part of the book) was Bill Gates equally right with his non-integrated approach? Definitely. This is the most intriguing part of the book from a modern computer/business perspective. Jobs unquestionably frustrated innovation and contributed to the first death of Apple by his insistence of total control in a closed system. In the 1990s the Gates perspective of an open ecosystem clearly prevailed and led to many, many innovations. But there were problems, right? Viruses, beta products, and the poor integration across computer platforms which continue to plague owners of PCs, Android phones, and MP3 players. Jobs's closed ecosystem eliminated that, which was great, as long as inventors were willing to kiss his ring when submitting new apps for approval. There was a trade involved. Great when the right genius was at the helm at Apple. Problematic should that genius or his successors go mad and open the doors to God knows what or, worse, close the doors and force us all to live a 1984 style electronic life.
When I grew up in the 80s, I recall thinking that Apple products were probably the best on the market but too expensive for me. Turns out that Jobs agreed with me but couldn't cut prices for various business reasons before the age of globalization. I also remember hating Microsoft well into the late 1990s for producing a version of Windows (and Word, etc.) that was just obviously substandard and full of bugs. In retrospect, I realize that these bugs may have genuinely been the result of Microsoft's indifference, but they might just as well have been the result of a nascent industry producing a product on which we all immediately came to depend upon so heavily that a computer crash or glitch seemed like an apocalypse and an affront to our humanity. I also recall the Apple-Microsoft rivalry as a zero sum game not dissimilar to how many understand the situation today in Israel/Palestine. Turns out that that was not the case.
And that is one of the most interesting historical aspects of this book. Yes, Apple and Microsoft have long existed as rivals, but they also have a very long history of partnership. People over a certain age will recall Bill Gates's investment (bailing out so as to stave off anti-trust litigation) of Apple in the late 1990s. What was surprising to me was to learn about the long and troubled periods of COLLABORATION between Apple and Microsoft. Besides the fascinating and ultimately tragic details of Steve Jobs's personality, it is this unexpected history of collaboration that may surprise readers most.
So, a great book altogether. Exactly what a biography is supposed to do in portraying and revealing a human life. This is no hagiography, but the author demonstrates respect for his subject even as he is unafraid to point out his many, many flaws. I won't go so far as to call this book a triumph, but its author should feel considerable pride in himself as a professional. What's the bronze or silver in a triumph race?
Very interesting book but probably best experienced as an airport paperback rather than an audiobook. The performance is fine and the story is compelling, but this short book (approx. 6hrs) is less engaging in audio format than many other audio books I have experienced. It's still engaging, but my reaction was that this would be a better airport thriller than an audiobook.
Escape into Shangri-La. Or rather from it. Either way, enjoy this unpretentious and pleasant book.
I enjoyed 1421, which made a very convincing case for the Chinese discovery of the Americas before going a bit off the rails in its final chapters. 1434, however, is a totally inferior work which does a disservice to Gavin Menzies' previous book. This is a work of pure and utter speculation which does much to demonstrate the author's love of China and Renaissance Italy but makes no convincing case for the type of contact he claims between the two. Menzies' language betrays his lack of evidence as he constantly concludes that this or that "must have been" the case, but is unable to offer any conclusive or even vague proof to make his case. And some of the book's claims are just too fantastical to be taken seriously, even by readers who considered the arguments of 1421 plausible. Pity.
This is simply a wonderful book and Simon Winchester's narration ("performance") is a delight to listen to. I would rate this book even higher than Winchester's "The Man Who Loved China". Krakatoa is simply brilliant.
This is a very interesting book, but the abridged version is too abrupt. It's quite clear that something is missing.
This book is fantastic. The subject is fascinating. The performance is engaging. The scope is breathtaking. The material will be interesting to everybody who has ever wondered about the origins of certain English words or has a general interest in language. This is a truly wonderful book whose title is very appropriate. It is truly an adventure.
I'm Irish, and this book is dreadful. First, the performance is utterly comical and becomes very tiring to listen to after a while. Second, this is really a book about the classics of western literature, not a history book. That is, this a book about literature which will be difficult to engage or enjoy for anybody not already well versed in the major works of the western cannon such as The Confessions of St. Augustine. Finally, so much time is spent on figures such as Saint Augustine of Hippo (North Africa) that one cannot even really say How the Irish Saved Civilization is a book about Ireland. Rather, this feels like a book by a professor who knows more than you do and wants to show it off. It's title is magnificent and was probably the major driver of sales. I suspect that few readers will make it to the end of this book, however.
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