LISTENER

Ary Shalizi

California
  • 18
  • reviews
  • 154
  • helpful votes
  • 100
  • ratings
  • American Judaism

  • A History
  • By: Jonathan D. Sarna
  • Narrated by: Philip M. Leavitt
  • Length: 17 hrs and 43 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 43
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars 35
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 34

This magisterial work (winner of the National Jewish Book Award and other honors) chronicles the 350-year history of the Jewish religion in America. Tracing American Judaism from its origins in the colonial era through the present day, Jonathan Sarna explores the ways in which Judaism adapted in this new context. How did American culture - predominantly Protestant and overwhelmingly capitalist - affect Jewish religion and culture?

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Excellent general history of Jews in America

  • By Amber on 02-22-15

Informative, but impersonal

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

Reviewed: 09-20-18

This social history of Judaism in the New World, from the first Portugese Jewish émigrés to New Amsterdam, through the mass migrations of Central & Eastern European jewry in the 19th and early 20th century, to the present day, while scholarly and comprehensive, is also disappointingly dry. There is a lot of fascinating material in here about the changing character of American Jewry, which was predominantly Sephardic through the founding of the republic, but became more Ashkenazic in character in parallel with the post-Napoleonic upheavals of Europe, until America became the undisputed center of Diaspora judaism after WWII. The distinct character of American as opposed to continental European or British Judaism is discussed at length. A lack of state-sanctioned religion in the United States promoted decentralization and diversification of jewish religious practices in a way that did not happen in Europe, and Jewish congregations actively borrowed practices from their protestant neighbors. What the book lacks is any real sketches of the actual individuals involved. Names of key rabbis or community luminaries are given, but you don't really get an insight into what kind of people they actually were–pugnacious? Concilliatory? Energetic? You come away with a lot of information about changing Jewish thought, and Jewish religious practices, but not much understanding of the Jewish persons doing the thinking and the practicing.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • An Edible History of Humanity

  • By: Tom Standage
  • Narrated by: George K. Wilson
  • Length: 10 hrs and 2 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 331
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars 255
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 255

Throughout history, food has acted as a catalyst of social change, political organization, geopolitical competition, industrial development, military conflict, and economic expansion. An Edible History of Humanity is a pithy, entertaining account of how a series of changes---caused, enabled, or influenced by food---has helped to shape and transform societies around the world.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • A big heaping feast of history

  • By Eric on 08-13-09

Flawed, but worthwhile

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

Reviewed: 12-28-17

Not a bad book, but not a great one either. Standage, an editor at The Economist, tells a story similar in outline to that of “A Splendid Exchange,” and both books fall far short of Jared Diamond’s comprehensive, scholarly “Guns, Germs and Steel.” Beginning from the observation that even a medieval farm would be incomprehensible to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, Standage discusses the domestication of the major staple grain crops (maize, wheat, rice); the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to pastoralism and sedentism before covering the role of spices in the ancient economy; the first and second green revolutions, with particular emphasis on how late 19th century developments in chemistry allowed for a vast increase in the global food supply through production of nitrogen-rich fertilizers; and how ready access to food (or lack thereof) affected combat strategies from the ancient world until the advent of mechanized warfare in the 20th century.

Some of these topics hang together better than others: the discussion of domesticated agricultural crops and farm animals as a form of biotechnology (albeit an ancient one) complements the later discussion of the interplay between technology and agriculture (sugar refining begat industrialization, which begat fertilizers, etc.) nicely. In contrast, some of the later sections on the spice trade as a spur to European global exploration, and especially the parts about food and war, seem more like a re-hash of standard historical surveys of the Age of Exploration and the Greatest Hits of European Colonialism, with some bits about food added as an afterthought. Why not talk about how coffee fueled the Enlightenment? Because the live-off-the land mobility of Alexander and Napoleon is just so much sexier. But then, why not talk about the Mongols? They pulled off conquests of much greater scope than Napoleon or Alexander; understanding how they stayed fed while conquering more technologically sophisticated cultures would be fascinating.

Finally, I think the whole narrative suffers from a Eurocentric historical perspective; part of this is understandable, since it was European expansionism that distributed new foodstuffs globally. Who can imagine Italian cooking or Irish suffering without New World crops like the tomato and the potato, respectively. But then why not tell some of those stories? Why is New World chocolate now grown in Africa, and refined in Europe? How did coffee from the shores of the Red Sea wind up growing in the highlands of South America? These would have made for more interesting case studies, that really highlight the global nature of trade in foodstuffs, than some of the material that is in the book. But overall, not a bad read.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • To Hell and Back

  • Europe 1914-1949
  • By: Ian Kershaw
  • Narrated by: John Curless
  • Length: 26 hrs and 43 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 507
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 455
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 453

The European catastrophe, the long continuous period from 1914 to1949, was unprecedented in human history - an extraordinarily dramatic, often traumatic, and endlessly fascinating period of upheaval and transformation.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Very good, well-educated reader/narrator.

  • By M. MCCASKEY on 01-19-16

An excellent overview

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

Reviewed: 12-22-17

Dry, but intriguing book about Europe’s generational cataclysm and reorganization in the first half of the 20th century by one of it's foremost historians. To Hell and Back is not really a conventional historical narrative so much as it is a series of interconnected essays that touch upon art, politics, culture, and diplomacy while chunking the 50 year period into 5 smaller epochs: the Bell Epoque prior to WWI, the great war, the interwar period, the Second World War, and the crystallization of the postwar world order by the end of the 1940s. There’s nothing really new here, but it is a solid work of synthesis of primary sources and prior scholarship. Makes a great introduction to the period for any student of modern world history.

  • Don Quixote

  • By: Miguel de Cervantes, John Ormsby (translated by)
  • Narrated by: Roy McMillan
  • Length: 36 hrs and 5 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 762
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 662
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 657

The most influential work of the entire Spanish literary canon and a founding work of modern Western literature, Don Quixote is also one of the greatest works ever written. Hugely entertaining but also moving at times, this episodic novel is built on the fantasy life of one Alonso Quixano, who lives with his niece and housekeeper in La Mancha. Quixano, obsessed by tales of knight errantry, renames himself ‘Don Quixote’ and with his faithful servant Sancho Panza, goes on a series of quests.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • More than funny

  • By Colin on 08-21-11

Bucket list and nothing else...

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

Reviewed: 12-22-17

You know why the iconic image of Don Quixote is summed up in the expression “tilting at windmills”? That’s because most people who pick up this turgid, bombastic tome for any reason other than an academic assignment probably never make it past that part of the book.

The first book is repetitive, with the same tiresome story of lovers betraying and reconciling, losing and–shock! surprise!–finding each other in the most vexatious and unlikely of circumstances over and over and over and over again. The second book details the variety of ways a succession of people take advantage of Sancho’s credulity and Don Quixote’s mental illness for their own amusement. (Although I did enjoy the metatextual device of Sancho and Don Quixote knowing about, and referring to, the first book throughout the second one, so good on Cervantes for being postmodern before it was cool.)

The principal characters were more inconsistent than interesting. Sancho's combination of idiocy and sagacity is supposed to make him a great comic character, and Don Quixote’s juxtaposition of pragmatism and fantasy is supposed to make him a great tragicomic character; but they bounced between extremes at the whim of the plot, making their personalities seem like flip narrative contrivances rather than fundamental natural conditions, which ultimately made them both unconvincing and unbelievable.

“Sophomoric" is a fitting description, since it’s a tall tale about two wise fools. I know it’s supposed to be hilarious, but its humor is decidedly low and scatalogical. When the humor isn’t about our heroes uncontrollably vomiting or voiding their bowels, it’s laughing at their ignorance and insanity. That, in the end, is what really kept me from enjoying MacMillan’s superlative narration: I couldn’t get past the fundamental cruelty of Cervantes' humor, the expectation that I should laugh at Sancho because he’s dumb and Don Quixote because he’s divorced from reality. I was thankful to finish it and move on to something else.

1 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Behave

  • The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
  • By: Robert M. Sapolsky
  • Narrated by: Michael Goldstrom
  • Length: 26 hrs and 27 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 2,155
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 1,918
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 1,898

Why do we do the things we do? More than a decade in the making, this game-changing book is Robert Sapolsky's genre-shattering attempt to answer that question as fully as perhaps only he could, looking at it from every angle. Sapolsky's storytelling concept is delightful, but it also has a powerful intrinsic logic: He starts by looking at the factors that bear on a person's reaction in the precise moment a behavior occurs and then hops back in time from there in stages, ultimately ending up at the deep history of our species and its evolutionary legacy.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Insightful

  • By Doug Hay on 07-27-17

If you read one book about the brain this year...

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

Reviewed: 12-22-17

...read this one!

As a trained neuroscientist, this is a book I’d like to hand out on the street everyone. Any time you hear a pop-culture think piece confidently declare “gene X is responsible for behavior Y,” “hormone Z is a ‘love potion,’” or “socioeconomic factor A means you will do B in situation C,” there are reams of caveats omitted, context and nuance left out in our breathless excitement that is important for understanding not just the experimental design, but the type of behavior, even the “meaning" we ascribe to the behavior itself.

Sapolsky’s book is a chance to stop and take your breath, an ambitious but accessible introduction to behavioral neuroscience that attempts to understand the headline-grabbing findings by synthesizing across a variety of temporal and biological scales. He begins with momentary and molecular and, by constantly expanding his scope, eventually encloses the cultural and generational in his arguments. His tone is conversational, like you met at a party or a coffee shop and started chatting about the topic with someone who happens to be a world expert accustomed to explaining things to novices.

With patience, an abundance of evidence, and a sophisticated understanding of the drawbacks inherent to each level of analysis, he dispels common misconceptions about behavioral science, and explains the complex interplay between different levels of inquiry–genes and environment and individual history and evolutionary history and social context and economic factors and… you get the idea. As a pair of simple examples, consider that elevating testosterone can increase cooperation, and that increasing levels of the “love hormone" oxytocin can promote aggression; in both cases, the social context is king when determining the behavioral outcome of the biological manipulation.

As a consequence of all this effort, Sapolsky comes to some truly radical conclusions about “what it all means” for topics like education and criminal justice. In particular, Sapolsky posits that as our understanding of the neural basis of behavior, and the scope of social, cultural, and economic influences thereupon, improves, our conception of justice must change. He hopes that a future “justice” will look upon our current system of crime and punishment the way we now look at epilepsy and mental illness: not as a cause for ostracism or execution due to demonic possession but as organic maladies that deserve treatment, and our sympathy.

This is that rare scientific book that is at once comprehensive and morally ambitious. I cannot recommend it enough.

11 of 11 people found this review helpful

  • I Contain Multitudes

  • The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life
  • By: Ed Yong
  • Narrated by: Charlie Anson
  • Length: 9 hrs and 52 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 1,688
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 1,500
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 1,498

Joining the ranks of popular science classics like The Botany of Desire and The Selfish Gene, a groundbreaking, wondrously informative, and vastly entertaining examination of the most significant revolution in biology since Darwin - a "microbe's-eye view" of the world that reveals a marvelous, radically reconceived picture of life on Earth.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Undoes what you've learned from the headlines

  • By Tristan on 10-14-16

We wee beasties

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

Reviewed: 12-22-17

This is one of the best science books I’ve read in a long time. Ed Yong writes engaging prose that conveys the excitement surrounding the current explosion of interest in the role microbes play in–well, in just about everything, from shaping individual animals to regulating nutrient flows through entire ecosystems. He makes complicated ideas and experiments easily accessible, and carefully punctures the hype surrounding some of the more exaggerated claims about the human microbiome.

The reality, while less pat than the hype might suggest, is far more bizarre and interesting. A sustained theme is the need to reframe our understanding of every animal as a community, the metazoan host and its constantly changing microbial penumbra. At least one thing I will take away from this is a new metaphor for thinking about the immune system, not as an army defending against invading pathogens, but as a ranger managing your microbial ecosystem.

The book’s organization is clever: Yong will use a recent finding as a framing device for each chapter, but whether it is engineering wolbachia to slow the spread of dengue by shortening the lifespan of mosquitos, or the way gut commensals have enabled insects (and herbivores of all stripe) to eat otherwise indigestible plant materials, he then spirals away from the specific frame story to discuss both its grand (the health of whole ecosystems) and specific (the health of single organisms or people) implications, underscoring along the way how wee beasties that we cannot see provide a foundation for all the life that we can.

  • The Drug Hunters

  • The Improbable Quest to Discover New Medicines
  • By: Donald R. Kirsch PhD, Ogi Ogas PhD
  • Narrated by: James Foster
  • Length: 7 hrs and 35 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 1,022
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 935
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 935

The search to find medicines is as old as disease, which is to say as old as the human race. Through serendipity - by chewing, brewing, and snorting - some Neolithic souls discovered opium, alcohol, snakeroot, juniper, frankincense, and other helpful substances. Ötzi the Iceman, the 5,000-year-old hunter frozen in the Italian Alps, was found to have whipworms in his intestines and Bronze Age medicine, a worm-killing birch fungus, knotted to his leggings.

  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Aargh!

  • By Curmud the prof on 05-20-17

This is why we don't have a cure for...

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

Reviewed: 12-22-17

This is a gem of a book for anyone who wants to better understand where the things that fill our medicine cabinets come from. The authors, themselves career drug hunters, take an intriguing approach to the history of pharmaceuticals, employing an extended riff on the "Library of Babel" by Borges: The vast majority of books in the library are random gibberish, but one might occasionally stumble upon intelligible “vindications." Kirsch and Ogas compare the process of drug hunting to searching Nature's libraries of Babel for vindications, the peculiar compositions of matter that can work as palliatives or curatives for humanity's afflictions. By grouping the pharmacopeia into distinct libraries–-“The library of plants,” “the library of chemistry,” “the library of soil,” “the library of genetics,” and so on–readers are introduced to a colorful cast of physicians, chemists, and biologists, who through persistence and serendipity discovered antibiotics, antipsychotics, beta-blockers, and birth control, among many others. What you come away with is an appreciation that, while it leans heavily on our accumulated knowledge of chemistry, biology, and medicine, drug discovery is driven far more by luck than effective prediction.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

  • By: Frans de Waal
  • Narrated by: Sean Runnette
  • Length: 10 hrs and 35 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 1,054
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 934
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 927

De Waal reviews the rise and fall of the mechanistic view of animals and opens our minds to the idea that animal minds are far more intricate and complex than we have assumed. De Waal's landmark work will convince you to rethink everything you thought you knew about animal - and human - intelligence.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Finally the science catches up

  • By Philomath on 05-07-16

Smart enough, or humble enough?

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

Reviewed: 12-22-17

As with his other books, de Waal does an outstanding job of explaining complex scientific topics with passion and clarity. In this case, he moves beyond his specialty in primate ethology to discuss animal behavior and cognition more generally. A better title for this book might have been “Are We Humble Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are,” because throughout all the anecdotes and research summaries de Waal provides, nothing better illuminates the intelligence of his nonhuman subjects than the overweening self-regard for their own mental capacities humans display. De Waal illustrates how all too often, experiments ostensibly asking “is this species intelligent” are really asking “can this species do something we think is intelligent" or “can this species do something that is useful for humans,” and fail to account for the unique evolutionary histories or sensory capacities of the animal in question. For example, designing visual tests for octopi that hunt by smell, or conflating “intelligence” with “obedience” in dog breeds. One of De Waal's previous books, “Our Inner Ape,” made me look at human behavior in a new light, and realize how little distance truly separates us behaviorally from chimps and bonobos. This one has managed a similar feat for how I look at animals, as I now realize many of them are far more intelligent than we might care to admit.

  • The Hidden Half of Nature

  • The Microbial Roots of Life and Health
  • By: David R. Montgomery, Anne Bikle
  • Narrated by: LJ Ganser
  • Length: 10 hrs and 42 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 421
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 373
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 374

A riveting exploration of how microbes are transforming the way we see nature and ourselves - and could revolutionize agriculture and medicine. Prepare to set aside what you think you know about yourself and microbes. Good health - for people and for plants - depends on Earth's smallest creatures. The Hidden Half of Nature tells the story of our tangled relationship with microbes and their potential to revolutionize agriculture and medicine, from garden to gut.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • A perfect introduction to microbiology

  • By Ary Shalizi on 02-17-17

A perfect introduction to microbiology

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

Reviewed: 02-17-17

Because of my recent transition from life as an academic neurobiologist to developing diagnostic tests for antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections in the biotech industry, I thought it would be a good idea to read up on microbiology. Ploughing through a Medical Microbiology textbook was not an appealing option, and The Hidden Half of Nature popped up in my Audible recommendations. I'm glad I selected this book, which proved a fascinating and accessible introduction to one of the hottest topics in contemporary biology.

The authors, a husband and wife team, use two personal stories–revitalizing the garden at their Seattle home, and recovering from uterine cancer–as the narrative threads from which they weave a historical tapestry that combines industrial chemistry, public health, agriculture, and medical and ecological microbiology. The prose is lively and engaging, and while much of the ground has been covered elsewhere–Pasteur and Koch's bitter rivalry, Flemming's serendipitous discovery of antibiotics–I don't think the particular cast of characters has been brought together for an ensemble piece before. I certainly can't think of another book that coherently links Fritz Haber's synthetic nitrogen fixing methods, Karl Woese's phylogenetic revolution, Lynn Margulis' symbiogenic hypothesis, and Liping Zhao's work on obesity and the gut microbiome.

They make a compelling, evidence-based argument linking human health and soil health, and that both are dependent on maintaining balanced relationships between uniccellular microbes and their multicellular hosts, plant or animal. I did have some minor quibbles with some aspects of the book. For example, neither horizontal gene transfer NOR the symbiogenic origin of chloroplasts and mitochondria postulated by Margulis really "fly in the face of Darwinian evolution," as the authors assert. Both phenomena fit neatly within a standard framework of selective advantage, especially from a "gene-as-the-unit-of-selection" perspective.

The other issue I had was with the narrator, LJ Ganser, who is quite over-the-top in his performance–more than once, I found myself thinking "Easy there, Shatner." As is the case for most audio renditions of science-oriented books, he mispronounces many terms (the regulatory immune cells are "tee regs" not "tregs"; the extremophile bacterium is "radio-durans," not "radi-odurans"; etc.), which can take a listener out narrative.

That said, Montgomery and Biklé have created something extraordinary with this book: An accessible layperson's introduction to modern microbiology spanning from the personal to the planetary, that makes a compelling case for why–and how–we can become better stewards of ourselves and the environment.

28 of 28 people found this review helpful

  • The American Slave Coast

  • A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry
  • By: Ned Sublette, Constance Sublette
  • Narrated by: Robin Eller
  • Length: 30 hrs and 37 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 68
  • Performance
    3.5 out of 5 stars 63
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 65

The American Slave Coast tells the horrific story of how the slavery business in the United States made the reproductive labor of "breeding women" essential to the expansion of the nation. The book shows how slaves' children, and their children's children, were human savings accounts that were the basis of money and credit. This was so deeply embedded in the economy of the slave states that it could be decommissioned only by emancipation, achieved through the bloodiest war in the history of the United States.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Important; Thoroughly Researched, Terrible Reader

  • By Dana D. on 11-18-17

Get "The Half Has Never Been Told" instead!

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

Reviewed: 11-28-16



Ned & Constance Sublette have put together a thoroughly researched and well-told account of the slavery economy. The primary focus is on the slave trade from the Atlantic Coast (Maryland/Virginia vs. South Carolina/Georgia) to the cotton lands opened up by the Louisiana Purchase and subsequent wars. It covers much of the same territory as Edward Baptist's "The Half Has Never Been Told," relying on many overlapping primary sources, and comes to similar conclusions as well. However, I found Baptist's prose is livelier and more engaging than the Sublette's, though the latter provide more complete social and historical context.

While this book is worth reading, I would advise you avoid the audio version. The narrator does an atrocious job; the reviewer who compared the narration to Siri is pretty much on the mark. Odd pauses within sentences, sometimes even within words; mispronunciations; and a complete lack of emotion do an utter disservice to this important material. By contrast, the narration of "The Half Has Never Been Told" is excellent.

12 of 13 people found this review helpful