I am a fan of Paul Theroux, both his fiction and travelogue non-fiction but this one left me with the same feeling I did after having watched the last Indiana Jones movie - sad and nostalgic for his earlier works. As usual, Theroux is a daring and candid observer who prefers to tread unbeaten paths and this book is a really a collection of essays on his Africa journey rather than a conventional narrative. Some of his encounters are more interesting than others and I found the latter half of the book more interesting than the beginning. A few common undercurrents run through his observations - the urbanization of the population, the westernization of the indigenous peoples and their culture, the environmental degradation of the bush aka Zona Verde, and the misguided attempts by foreign do gooders to infuse donations into corrupt and dependent regimes. All valid and important messages. But at the same time, despite his protestation that he is not an "Afropessimist"' his crankiness shows through and this has none of the optimism of say, The Happy Isles of Oceana. Clearly, Theroux is not pleased with the changes he has seen over the 50 years since he first set foot on the continent as a Peace Corps volunteer. The reading voice of the narrator only compounds the elegiac tone of this book. Better to browse some of the more interesting chapters near the end than read this cover to cover.
This amusing, frequently hilarious memoir chronicles Shteyngart journey from Soviet era childhood in Leningrad, to his family’s emigration in the late 70”s to New York, to his college years and first time book deal. Shteyngart indisputably has a gift for storytelling and turn of phrase and the narrative breezes along. His experiences are heavily dosed with self-deprecating humor and one liners that sometimes border on shtick. Though the book is often funny, I found that if I listened too long, it tended to lose its charm and grate a bit. I found I liked it much better when I listened to it in small, measured doses. The narration is spot on, capturing Shteyngart’s angst ridden persona. The mimicry of his parent’s Russian accents humorously (and without insult) enlivens what they are saying. If you haven’t read any of Shteyngart’s fiction (I hadn’t), don’t let that deter you from Little Failure. In the end, this is a lighthearted, breezy read that won’t change your life but will distract you from it.
Ronson’s investigation into the shadowy world of psychopaths has his usual mixture of self-deprecating humor, man on the street reporting, and tongue in cheek sleuthing. At the heart of the book is the question of what is a psychopath, can we reliably identify and diagnose it, and if so, what is to be done anyway. Robert Hare, arguably one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject, serves as Ronson’s guide slash mentor and their interchanges are often amusing. Ronson also interviews incarcerated psychopaths, as well as one former CEO of a major corporation among others. Their dialogues with Ronson are expertly self-revealing and chilling. I found the parts of the book that focused solely on psychopathy interesting and illuminating; other parts that digress away from the topic (e.g. a mysterious manuscript sent to Neurologists, the dubious over-prescribing of medications to children among others) felt out of place. As usual, Ronson makes an excellent narrator of his own work, conveying the anxiety, uncertainty, and exasperation these investigations seem to bring out in him (love his bits on iatrogenic illness) Though The Psychopath Test isn’t Ronson’s best work, it is still an amusing and worthy read.
This is a tidy examination of Afghanistan with particular emphasis on 1) its history from the 1970’s through 2000’s and 2) the U.S. led war and counter insurgency efforts post-9/11. The book is critical of what might be characterized as waning US commitment once the Taliban had been displaced and the Iraq war commenced but the author’s arguments are rational rather than ideological which imparts a certain gravitas. Having been written in 2009 the book is somewhat dated but still resonant with the benefit of the intervening years affording the listener hindsight and a greater opportunity to form their own conclusions. In the end, this audiobook is a good overview of the perils of foreign adventurism in Afghanistan.
Ronson’s foray into the worldview of extremists has its charms and moments of humor but soon becomes, like its subjects, tedious. Ronson’s journalistic shtick is to more or less ingratiate himself among his subjects, get them to open up, and report on the results in what amounts to narrative transcripts with a bit of commentary thrown in on the side. Kudos for his bravery, ingenuity and chutzpah. Still, like anyone who has ever been trapped at a party by a droning bore, the listener’s initial amusement soon gives way to tedium. Are any of the extremists in this book interesting? Not so much, unless you are perhaps a fellow traveler. Does this book shed any light on why Ronson’s subjects have adopted such beyond the mainstream worldviews? Not really, apart from the obvious. Are his repeated attempts to validate suspicions about the highly secret Bilderberg group compelling? No. I like Ronson as a journalist, as a narrator of his audiobooks, and for his humor but Them is an audiobook I don’t recommend.
More entertaining than perhaps enlightening, what you have here are the experiences of a collection of individuals who have all experienced public shaming, most of whom, ironically, the typical reader has probably never heard of. Ronson has a knack for highlighting the issue without lapsing into cultural critique or self-help condescension. Are we living in a shameless society, as Ronson quotes one commentator, or an overcharged infocentric era where internet social media places every user under the scrutiny of countless, anonymous eyes (and commentators)? Ronson doesn’t really say, but the experiences of his subjects – who come across as neither loathsome or pitiable but instead, rather banal - leaves little doubt. In the end, I found this audiobook a worthwhile, enjoyable listen as well as a cautionary tale for anyone who has ever hit the send button on an e-mail, Facebook posting, or Twitter feed perhaps a little too quickly as well as for those who are apt to pin an electronic scarlet letter on someone without giving much thought to the consequences. The narration, by Ronson himself, is emotionally charged and first-rate.
This audiobook documents the lives of three women enrolled in the National Guard, from pre-9/11 through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Though the women – Desma, Debbie, and Michelle - share many commonalities and experiences, their motivations and ultimately, outcomes and views on their service diverge. With bravery and candor, the women have seemingly provided Thorpe access to their diaries, records, and innermost thoughts and experiences. The result is at times uplifting, horrifying, and sad but always compelling. In short, I was engrossed. To her credit, Thorpe skillfully lets the women’s voices and experiences drive the narrative and by doing so, their stories offer much to say about the National Guard, the role and treatment of women in the armed forces, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and how as a society we re-integrate our veterans back into civilian life. The narration is competent. Though this book is a good listen for anyone to enjoy, I would say this should be compulsory reading for anyone thinking of enlisting in the National Guard or armed forces as well as those who are already serving.
What to make of this book? Guide to taming your hawk? Check? Mournful eulogy to a dead father? Check. Biography of T.H. White? Check. In whatever genre you may wish to pigeonhole H is for Hawk, I found this audiobook enthralling and this has mostly to do with MacDonald’s brave “bare your soul” honesty as well as her adept, fictionesque turn of phrasing. Grieving the sudden and unexpected death of her father, MacDonald retreats into two worlds: the solitary taming of a young goshawk she names Mabel and the life of tortured author (and one time goshawk trainer) T.H. White, with whom MacDonald obviously senses a kinship on several levels. Through both, MacDonald loses and then reclaims herself from the grief for her father. This is a moving, elegiac memoir that connects the listener intimately with MacDonald, her father, White, and Mabel (whose personality is slowly and fascinatingly revealed). For those without much knowledge of falconry there are lots of interesting historical, cultural and taming tidbits that left me wanting more. The parts about White I found less compelling but certainly understood MacDonald’s fascination with him. This book had me at every page and I honestly didn’t know where it would end up. The only criticism I had was the narration, by the author herself, which I found a bit leaden. Nevertheless, I will look forward eagerly to her next book
Equal parts fascinating and informative, Ridley offers a tour of the human genome with each chapter focusing on a different gene(s) within one of 22 chromosome (the 23rd sex linked chromosomes are omitted). Thankfully, rather than an exhaustive A to Z treatment that would have been numbing, Ridley chose wisely to focus on a sample representative not only of the traits and qualities that define us as humans but also illustrate the vast promise and hidden shortfalls of genetics, heritability, disease and at the end, free will. I found this very intriguing and the arguments/science are well laid out. A few caveats though: this is a step above an introductory/layperson guide so at least a general familiarity with genetics will make this much more understandable (and enjoyable) listen; secondly, the author’s foray into behaviourism, Freudian psychology and some arguments about free will and determinism were a little shaky and perhaps out of place here; and finally, the book was written in 1999 which may as well have been a millennia ago given the pace of genetic research. Though I wouldn’t say this disqualifies the book, I was left yearning perhaps for a second edition that might be more current. Still, the themes of the book remain relevant and I found it a very worthwhile and enjoyable read.
Loyd’s memoir of his time as a war journalist in Bosnia and Chechnya in the 1990”s is an odd mix of war story, addiction tell all, and biography of a troubled upbringing. To Loyd’s credit, he interweaves the three threads in a back and forth timeline that works better than if the whole had been told in a linear fashion. But overall I found this audiobook grim and not terribly enlightening. There is extensive, vivid recounting of battlefield scenes of viscera and horror that loses all shock effect after awhile. Is this supposed to be the true confession of an adrenaline junkie, war fetishist, drug addict or all of the above? In the end, I wasn’t sure. Though Loyd is undoubtedly brave, both in his exploits and in his willingness to bare all on the page, I found myself unable to relate to the person or the plight. For those who want a journalist’s unblemished view of the horrors of war, then this may be the audiobook for you, but it left me cold and frankly, slightly repelled.
This fourth volume in Caro’s expansive biography of LBJ covers the period of 1958 through early 1964. It traces LBJ’s ascension from dithering presidential candidate, to the powerless office of the VP, and concludes with his transition to the Presidency in the two months following JFKs assassination. This is a well researched and crafted biography of the man, his times, and the people around him. There are many fascinating details that deal with LBJ’s ambitions and insecurities, his relationship with the Kennedys, and the oft forgotten craftsmanship with which he assumed the mantel of the presidency during a difficult period. Caro is not one to skimp on details and for those who might be put off by the length of the book, there is an elegance and precision to Caro’s writing that keeps the narrative flowing. I should also say that I don’t think it is necessary to have read Caro’s other volumes in order to enjoy/follow Passage of Power as Caro briefly recaps details from the earlier works where it is necessary to add context. I found the narration brisk and competent. In short, this is a monumental work of biography about one of America’s more conflicted Presidents, one to whom history has perhaps been unfairly unkind. I am eagerly looking forward to the release of the final volume in the next few years.
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