I was born on Long Island in the year after Nelson Rockefeller finally brought to an end Robert Moses' decades of almost unfathomable power. I grew up in the landscape and society he did so much to create: amid his roads and his parks, and the suburban sprawl and ennui they made possible (indeed inevitable). My forbears were the poor Irish who came over to work for the rich Barons whom he fought, defeated, and later allied with. My family's upward mobility was won largely through the construction trades that his projects bankrolled and shaped. Hecksher State Park, Jones Beach, the Southern State Parkway, the Long Island Expressway, the Long Island Railroad that he nearly killed – these shaped my youth; they helped shape me, and millions of others of my generation and our successors.
I never quite understood how and why my society came to be this way until I finally tackled Caro's masterful biography cum history. I'd tried and failed before to read it, but it wasn't until I tried this wonderful audio version that I was able to absorb the whole of it. Robertson Dean's reading is a bit deliberate at times – I was grateful for Audible's Narration Speed feature, and listened to much of it at 1.25 times normal – but he does wonderful work in navigating Caro's sometimes dense prose, especially in the long exegeses of urban planning, legal niceties, economics, natural history, engineering, and on and on, which are crucial to understanding Moses' methods and impact.
Not that Caro neglects the human element. Indeed, the character portraits of figures like Fiorello LaGuardia, Joseph Papp, the dogged reporters who did so much to cut Moses' image down to size in the '50s and '60s, and especially of the criminally neglected Al Smith, are each worth the price of admission.
He's equally thorough and insightful in his portrayal of the wider society: the elites who Moses fought and later controlled, the neighborhoods he ended up destroying, and especially the press he played like a cheap fiddle (the New York Times especially does not come out of this book smelling too rosy).
I only wish Caro had come back to this subject in succeeding decades and brought his intrepid scholarship and insight to the history of post-Moses era; but he chose instead to spend the next 40+ years on LBJ. After experiencing this amazing more-than-biography, I look forward to tackling that even larger opus, probably with Audible's help.
How did we get here? Where is here exactly? And for that matter what are we? Bill Bryson takes up these questions and leads us on a tour of science and the history of science – from particle physics to astronomy and cosmology, through chemistry, geology, biology and much else besides. He is so endlessly engaging and entertaining that it's easy to overlook how much one is learning amid all the compelling human stories of scientists famous and unknown, professionals and amateurs, but all brilliant and endearingly (or infuriatingly) quirky and weird.
Richard Matthews, posh English accent aside, does wonderful work in capturing Bryson's breezy, conversational tone, even in exploring the densest thickets of atomic structure, rock chemistry, ocean salinity, etc etc etc.
The themes that emerge through all of this are just how little we still know, and above all just how accidental, fragile, and tenuous life (especially human life) is, and how much our ignorance and carelessness as a species threaten our very existence. Bryson enumerates the many threats we can't control – volcanoes, earthquakes, meteors – while eloquently appealing for us to come to terms with those we can.
First: yes, the narrator really should just not bother trying to pronounce the German and French names and words - he only embarrasses himself. I happened to find his hapless attempts more amusing than annoying however, and in between he does a fine job of conveying Mr. King's engaging portrait of the brilliant, quirky, and deeply flawed people who did so much to shape European and, by extension, world history for the decades and centuries to follow.
This is the kind of history I find most informative, and certainly most fun. Metternich, Czar Alexander, Talleyrand and the rest at the Congress of Vienna were in the long run fighting a losing battle against the ideas and legal structures that Napoleon had carried from France to the rest of the continent, and against the industrial and economic changes spreading inexorably south and east from Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool; but as crucial as these broader social and economic trends are, history is also shaped by individual humans, and King brings many of the most influential to life in this engaging look at one eventful (and often weird) year at a turning point in 19th Century history.
He efficiently provides just enough of the broader context while focusing on the lives of these elites: their petty squabbles, their endless parties and conspicuous consumption, their love affairs, their mutual spying and intrigues, and the diplomatic maneuverings and power plays that ended up shaping the post-Napoleonic era.
Amid all the fun, I found myself periodically having to remind myself that these people wined and dined and danced on the back of the brutal exploitation of 80-90% of the population; and that their casual horse-trading at elegant salons often doomed entire societies (notably the Poles). But for good or ill, this is how history was (and still is) made, and King – largely through their own words in letters, diaries and diplomatic dispatches – gives us a compelling look at the people who made it.
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