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AR

Maryland, USA
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Good, with Reservations

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 12-10-18

I bought this book (I have it in both audio and hardcover) because I wanted an objective narrative history of the U.S. to balance those opinions that are narrower in viewpoint. Well, the book delivered, but not much more. It must be difficult to write history that’s so recent. Towards the end of the book I was remembering the events when they actually happened, and I’m sure the author is older than me. Nonetheless, I was disappointed that there were no piercing insights or fresh perspectives, as there had been in the two previous Oxford American history volumes I’ve listened to and read, Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson (Civil War) and Freedom From Fear by David Kennedy (Depression & WW II).

One problem with the book is that the author has difficulty dealing with popular movements unless he can identify people or organizations to exemplify them. Even when he does, he associates them too closely. For instance, he frequently names the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) as a leader of student protests, whereas most of the protests were started by the students of the schools themselves. (He writes, “The collapse of SDS did not signify the end of anti-war activity in the United States.” Well, of course it didn't.) As the 1960s and 1970s were marked by many social change movements, this is a serious problem with the book. In general, Patterson seems more comfortable writing about individuals, especially presidents (the “great man” approach to history) than in looking at events as a whole.

Although he is careful to track shifting political winds, he says not a word about the significant realignment of party loyalties in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Yes, he does mention en passant that some Dixiecrats defected to the Republican Party, but, amazingly, he doesn’t discuss the enormous electoral consequences of this move (it wasn’t just politicians who switched loyalties, it was also millions of voters). What it did was destroy the Democrats’ coalition of northern liberals, union members, blacks, and the solid south—a catastrophe from which the party has still not recovered. (It’s significant that the only Democratic presidents who were elected for the remainder of the century were both Southerners.)

One thing that shocked me was the contempt the author had for the space program. He mentions it only three times, twice stating that efforts like the moon landing and the space station did nothing to advance scientific knowledge. That’s not true. NASA’s work brought us a wealth of new information about our universe, enabled such critical innovations as communications satellites, and boosted the development of new technologies, especially those related to computers. And on a more prosaic level, it represented a thrilling advance in human history, being the first time that we had sent people and intelligent machines beyond our own atmosphere. You’d think, at least, that the author would have jumped at the chance to reiterate how Americans’ “grand expectations”—a phrase he used so often that it made me wonder whether he got a bonus each time he did so—were expanded further.

Interesting Content, But ...

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
3 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-17-18

Thomas Friedman's books tend to be extensions of his columns for the New York Times, so they are inevitably rather discursive. Because I enjoy his columns, this doesn't bother me, and Friedman has such an interesting mind that it's a pleasure to hear what he has to say on many different subjects. This book is no different, although I do have some reservations.

One chunk of the book looks at the different ways that some companies are coping with this era of racing technological change. To examine this, Friedman talked with the top executives of these companies--and no one else. They, of course, promote their brands enthusiastically, and amazingly, Friedman swallows all of it. I happen to work for one of these companies, so I have a different perspective. But it doesn't ever seem to have occurred to him to talk with others in the company, such as myself, who might have given him information about how the policies and practices that he celebrates so effusively play out in real life. That would be odd for any journalist, but for one as smart as Friedman, it's incredible.

Sometimes he gets so wrapped up in what he's talking about that he's not aware that his readers don't reside in his mind. At one point he dilates extensively about how a "pluralistic society" is not as good as a "society with pluralism"--without explaining the difference. At other times he's just superficial, as when he mentions the economist Robert Gordon's contention that the great age of technological change was between 1870 and 1970, and what's happening today doesn't match up, and then seeks to refute it by quoting another academic. But he summarizes Gordon's argument in a single sentence that doesn't do justice to its complexity, and the response he quotes is just as sketchy. This is an interesting subject, and I would like to have heard more about it.

When it comes to technology, he is in the ideal position of having reached adulthood and begun his professional life in the pre-digital age and then seen everything change, so he can write about this transformation as one who is intimately familiar with both worlds. But he has his idiosyncrasies: he uses the phrase "Moore's Law," which has a specific meaning as to microprocessors, as shorthand for "insanely fast technological change." And he doesn't like the word "cloud," so he uses "supernova" instead, despite the fact that everyone else in the world uses "cloud." Minor matters, but they irritated me.

The extended book-inside-a-book about the Minnesota suburb in which he grew up is much too long for what he wants it to say, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. All in all, I wish he had been more disciplined in putting this book together, and concentrated on fewer subjects but gone into them in more depth.

I was not fond of Oliver Wyman's narration. He hasn't learned the fundamental tenet of narrating nonfiction: it's the CONTENT that counts, nothing else. He thinks that he has to be "expressive." Because this book is written in a casual, journalistic style, that means that he focuses too much on making the author's voice sound like a real speaking voice instead of focusing on what he's saying. The same is true for all the other people who are quoted in the book (and there are many). He should listen to some of the masters of nonfiction narrative like Arthur Morey and Grover Gardner to get an idea of what he should be doing.

Good Basic Intro to Islam

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-06-18

I listened to this book in preparation for a trip to Morocco, and feel that it helped me understand the people and the country that I saw. The author takes pains to debunk some of the myths that have grown up around Islam and stresses those aspects of it that make it understandable and sympathetic to non-Muslim Westerners. Although it is a biography of Muhammed, it serves as a good basic introduction to Islam.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

Misnamed—This is a History of Discovery of Autism

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-07-18

The title is wrong: this is a history of the discovery of autism as a neurological condition from the early 20th century to the present. It is a very journalistic approach to history: each stage is told by focusing on a leading player—Hans Asperger, Leo Kanner, Bernard Rimlin, Lorna Wing—or on a phenomenon—amateur radio and sci-fi fandom, the movie Rain Man, the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—and dramatizing the progress of theories about autism through stories and anecdotes.

It is not what I expected from the title. I wanted to know about what autism is, not about how we got to our understanding of what it is. Of course, as Silberman makes clear, we are still far from grasping the full extent of the extremely diverse neurological conditions that we yoke together with the label "autism." Nonetheless, I would have liked to learn more about why some autistic people take everything literally while others have great senses of humor and rich imaginations, why an autistic person can be, simultaneously, extremely articulate and nonverbal, and, especially, why autistic people can be gifted with great abilities while being deficient in common achievements.

Silberman touches on this in his final chapter, but unfortunately it is a very short chapter with only the most superficial references to the benefits of neurodiversity. Those interested in this subject will have to look elsewhere.

While the author's anecdotal, journalistic approach makes learning about the history of the discovery of autism more palatable than would a dryer, more conventional style, he often gets too wrapped up in details. The chapter on Rain Man could have been eliminated completely.

A Treat for Lovers of the Broadway Musical

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-10-17

For lovers of the Broadway musical, this is a great big birthday cake of a book. Jack Viertel, a veteran producer who is also director of City Center's celebrated Encores! series, examines each part of a well-constructed musical from the overture to the finale, each in a separate chapter. He gives detailed examples of how these elements were made to work in the most successful musicals (and how they failed to work in a few unsuccessful ones), showing us how very difficult it is to put together a show that really works.

While his heart is with the great classic shows that he grew up with—he was born in 1949—he is open-minded enough to be able to recognize the merits of more modern successes like Hamilton, even when they break the rules. Even if you've heard some of the stories he tells before (I have), the book is still a hugely enjoyable tour of the Broadway musical as a form.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

Disappointing

Overall
2 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
2 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 04-28-17

Disappointing. This book purports to explain the recent rise of far-right, anti-globalist sentiment around the world (Trump, Brexit, LePen, etc., to say nothing of Isis), but the author's thesis isn't very compelling. He argues that contemporary manifestations of nativism can be traced back to Rousseau, who reacted to Voltaire's glorification of reason by celebrating personal experience and intimate communities. This is a bit too neat for me, too schematic. Only in the epilogue does he introduce the idea of other forces at play in today's world, including the rise of previously disadvantaged groups and growing income inequality. These last two phenomena are of extreme importance, especially the economic chasm between working stiffs and the richest of the rich. The American Dream said that anyone could make it, but nowadays more people believe they were sold a bill of goods—they can never make it. I would have liked more discussion of that, but it's outside of Mishra's argument.

On another note, I was puzzled by the book's lack of organization. It seemed to have no structure, and there was a great deal of repetition.

On a positive note, Derek Perkins's narration was excellent, and he made a conscientious effort to pronounce the many foreign expressions correctly, even if he didn't always succeed.

18 of 22 people found this review helpful

Entertaining but Brittle

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 02-17-17

Pleasant but superficial account of the author's first year in Denmark as a British expat. As a personal history, the book is glib, with very little attempt at plumbing depths of feeling or experience. The author writes in a bright, brittle style that may have been what she was used to as a staffer for a slick London magazine. She's also not as witty as she thinks she is. As an impersonal, journalistic account of contemporary Danish society, the book is entertaining, but slanted heavily towards the rosy. Russell doesn't bother to examine the negative implications of some of the national characteristics she describes, such as the pressure to conform and the dread of conflict. If you want a balanced look at Denmark and the Danes, you'll have to go elsewhere. Lucy Price-Lewis does a fine job with the narration.

92 of 98 people found this review helpful

Fascinating if Flawed—A Must for Those Interested

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-17-16

This is a fascinating and important book, and I gave it five stars even though I don't agree with everything Ghaemi says. It should definitely be read, however, to stimulate discussion in this area.

Ghaemi's argument, in a nutshell, is that some forms of mental illness can help make a politician become a better leader in times of crisis. (He does not say that mental illness itself makes someone a good leader. The author is assuming that the baseline is politicians with good leadership skills.) By the same token, he argues that "homoclytes" (a term he prefers to "mentally normal") do not make good leaders in times of crisis, although they make the best leaders in non-crisis times.

He is unclear about what types of mental illness fall within his parameters. Instead, he looks at the history of certain outstanding leaders (Lincoln, Churchill, FDR, JFK, Grant, Sherman, ML King, Ghandi, and, for some odd reason, Ted Turner) and analyzes how their mental illness helped them cope sensitively and imaginatively at moments of crisis. Many of them suffered from depression; a few were bipolar; a couple were hyperthymic (having a personality that tends toward the energetic, effusive, happy). In JFK's case, he also looks at the psychotropic effects of drugs used to treat a non-mental condition (Parkinson's Disease). Less persuasively, he critiques the performance of homoclyte leaders who were unable to cope well with crisis situations (Nixon, George W. Bush, Tony Blair).

His argument isn't too far removed from the commonly held notion that mental illness endows artists with special insight, although he doesn't expand his discussion to include this.

He gives only one example of a case in which mental illness affected a leader's ability negatively: Hitler. According to him, Hitler was an effective (if not morally good) leader until he began to abuse amphetamines--a shaky argument at best. This just begs the question of Donald Trump (this book was written before he became a serious presidential candidate). Troublingly, Ghaemi rejects the inclusion of narcissistic personality disorder as a viable psychiatric diagnosis, despite the fact that many other therapists recognize it. How, then, would he diagnose Trump? I'd love to hear what he has to say on that score!

He also weakens his argument by citing Truman, Carter, and Mandela as examples of homoclytes who were good leaders in non-crisis times. I don't know many people who regard Carter as an effective leader, and to say that Truman and Mandela ruled in non-crisis times is highly debatable.

I also wish that he'd had his manuscript reviewed by experts in the historical periods he deals with. This would have prevented some gaffes, the biggest of which is his statement that FDR never tried to hide his disability. In fact, he went to extreme lengths to hide it, and was aided and abetted by the press, who never photographed him in a wheelchair.

Despite my reservations, this is a fascinating and highly readable book on an important subject.

Sean Runnette's narration was basically good, but he adopts an inappropriately elegaic tone for most of the book.

Slight 'Prequel' to Royal Spyness Novels

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
2 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-02-16

This brief audiobook is strictly for devotees of the full-length Royal Spyness series. I am one, but didn't enjoy it as much as the novels. There's very little plot and no mystery. I'm guessing that it was written on demand from Amazon/Audible, as it doesn't exist in hard copy.

Bowen exhibits her obsession with Wallis Warfield Simpson again, and Katherine Kellgren, whose narration I otherwise love, continues to voice American women characters as strident harpies.

Unfocused Book Doesn't Come to Life

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
3 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-02-16

This sounded like an enjoyable listen: cosmopolitan Shanghai in the 1930s, which I'd heard was a glamorous and exciting place. But Taras Grescoe's book lacks focus. The title led me to expect a tale of the foreign colony in Shanghai. It's partly that, but it's also a great deal about the American writer Emily (Mickey) Hahn, whose columns for The New Yorker and the books that came out of them were very popular, and Victor Sassoon, a British businessman who owned, among other properties, the Cathay Hotel (the "Shanghai Grand" of the title).

If the book has a focus, it's on Hahn, but she doesn't even appear until Part Two, and Grescoe often drops her to write about other people and events. At least her backstory is presented coherently; Sassoon's is confusingly fragmented and events are repeated several times. Most critically, though, is that none of these colorful characters ever come to life, because Grescoe seldom quotes them. In the case of someone like Sassoon, whose literary output was limited to telegraphic entries in a diary, that is no loss, but Hahn was a prolific and lively writer. We get excerpts of her letters to family, but none of what made her a famous and popular writer. Her lover, Zhau Sinmay (the so-called "forbidden love" of the subtitle) was a poet, but we never hear him in his own voice. Nor do we hear from the novelists, playwrights, and many journalists who formed a large part of Shanghai's foreign colony.

Christine Marshall's reading suggests that she is an inexperienced narrator: she is over-expressive, as though she felt that she ought to be "contributing" something to the auditory experience, and she sometimes gives the impression that she didn't read the book before recording it. (For instance, when Grescoe writes that someone walking down a street in Shanghai "would have seen" something, she stresses "would" as though it meant "might.")