I had somewhat mixed feelings about this little audio book. On the one hand, if you've read even a modest number of books or blogposts on productivity...moreI had somewhat mixed feelings about this little audio book. On the one hand, if you've read even a modest number of books or blogposts on productivity tips or "life hacks" or any of that sort of stuff, a lot of this is going to be old hat. You've probably heard tips like "Don't check your email first thing when you get to the office" or "Block of time on your calendar for work that requires concerted mental effort" a million times.
However, the book's format as a series of short essays does make it very easy to digest: when you have a few free moments, you can listen to an essay, then ponder it a bit and think about how to apply it in your own work. And there are some genuinely new and interesting ideas and tips scattered through the book.
If you're new to the genre of productivity hacks, this would make a great introduction. Otherwise, not everything will be new here, but it does make an easy-to-read package. (less)
A very readable account of Tony Blair's first term as British prime minister. Rawnsley does assume a certain level of political knowledge that might b...moreA very readable account of Tony Blair's first term as British prime minister. Rawnsley does assume a certain level of political knowledge that might be reasonable for the typical British reader of this book. If you're not British, and things like "Clause Four" and "Ernest Bevin" don't ring even vague bells for you, you might want to keep Google handy at a few points.
Being an American who wasn't following British politics closely for much of Tony Blair's time in office, I was mostly aware of Blair when he did something that got substantial coverage in the American press. From this, I had two rather contradictory images of him. One was of a world leader who seemed to demonstrate much more focus and moral clarity during the war in Kosovo than President Clinton. The other was of a politician who made himself President Bush's willing accomplice in misleading the world about the case for war in Iraq. Rawnsley's book certainly makes it possible to square these two Blair's as the same man: it seems clear that Blair was capable of great energy and accomplishment when he was willing to wholeheartedly commit to something. However, it's also clear that he was obsessed with opinion polls and the idea of securing his future place in history, that he didn't actually have many strong political convictions of his own, and that he had a lot of difficulty dealing with conflict among the members of his cabinet.
Mostly, though, this is a book that is likely to make you want to read lots of other books. In particular, Rawnsley's account of the Northern Irish peace negotiations is riveting, but clearly highly compressed. I do hope some good books have been written dealing with that in more detail. I'm also quite eager to read The End of the Party, Rawnsley's book that picks up where this one left off. (less)
I'd rate this one as a solid, but not spectacular Culture novel. It doesn't have the philosophical weight of Surface Detail, or the epic stakes of Con...moreI'd rate this one as a solid, but not spectacular Culture novel. It doesn't have the philosophical weight of Surface Detail, or the epic stakes of Consider Phlebas, or the sheer mess-with-your-headness of Use of Weapons. And without spoiling the ending, I'll say that it's the sort of ending that ought to feel like an anticlimax. The book is a bit like a roller coaster - it keeps you so engaged with its twists and turns that you don't feel cheated that at the end you're back where you started.
The book probably also has some of Banks's most spectacular action sequences. The Culture novels have always been notable for the fanciful futuristic constructions that Banks loves to create - giant ships, orbitals, and so on. In this book, he gets to destroy a few of these. Spectacularly and messily. Just as one example, a climactic sequence takes place on a giant airship (location of a continuous year-long floating party) which has been filled with a giant tank of water which party guests have to traverse to get to the ultimate party location. An android pursuing the book's heroes blows a hole in the tank, triggering massive flooding, gale force winds in the upper party area, and a huge increase in buoyancy for the airship, which proceeds to crash into the roof of the tunnel it's flying through. Then there's a laser firefight in the wreckage. This is one culture novel that I think would make a great movie, just for the pyrotechnics. (less)
I think I am possibly the last person on earth who might conceivably be interested in this book who hadn't read it or seen the film. So, I'm slightly...moreI think I am possibly the last person on earth who might conceivably be interested in this book who hadn't read it or seen the film. So, I'm slightly uncertain about the utility of reviewing it. But here goes...
In 1996, Jon Krakauer joined an expedition climbing Mt. Everest as a reporter for Outside magazine. He ended up getting a bigger story than he bargained for, as a storm caught climbers on the mountain, resulting in 12 deaths, including several members of the expedition Krakauer had climbed with.
I've always found stories of high-altitude mountaineering fascinating, albeit in a way that makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. They're always stories of extremes, both physical and mental. People perform amazing feats of strength and endurance, or suffer complete and total physical breakdown. (And sometimes do both alternately or sequentially.) People show amazing bravery, compassion, or quick thinking under nearly impossible circumstances, or exhibit unbelievable selfishness, apathy, or stupidity. (Again, sometimes the same people at different times.) I can't decide whether Everest stories reveal something important about human nature or are merely sideshows about people behaving freakishly under freakish conditions that humans were frankly never meant to endure.
Anyway, Krakauer has a talent for sketching out the personalities of his fellow team members in a way that make them very vivid. And he has a real talent for making a complex series of events clear - I've read some other accounts of mountaineering disasters, and many writers have a lot of difficulty juggling varied accounts of what happened on different parts of the mountain without creating a muddle. The book is a fast and gripping read.
Of course, this very vividness and clarity has opened up Krakauer to criticism. Some people have objected to the way they or their relatives were portrayed in the book. And Krakauer was not actually present for some of the most dramatic events of the book, and is able to document that for at least one incident in which he was present, his memory was faulty, fogged by exhaustion and oxygen deprivation. It's possible that of the differing versions of events in the 1996 disaster, Krakauer's may have prevailed just because it is the most compellingly written.
In Krakauer's defense, he seems to have tried hard to make the most honest account he could. The second edition of the book, which I read, includes a section in which he addresses some of the criticism of the first edition. Of course, he may be misrepresenting his critics, but in general he seems to acknowledge where they have legitimate points. (less)
If you're an endurance athlete who has ever been told that you should drink before you're thirsty or that you should drink sports drinks with electrol...moreIf you're an endurance athlete who has ever been told that you should drink before you're thirsty or that you should drink sports drinks with electrolytes to prevent your blood sodium levels from dropping too low, you should read this book. Noakes meticulously outlines the science that proves that a lot of the conventional advice given about hydration is at best useless, and at worst, potentially fatal.
It's also a fascinating look at how the combination of faulty assumptions and commercial interests can skew the interpretation of scientific research. It was actually a bit shocking to me how little we really know about the causes of heatstroke or exercise-induced cramping. Because these conditions are difficult to produce in controlled laboratory conditions, much of what we know has been based on anecdotes or on experiments with less than ideal design.
It's also a very readable book, despite the quantity of detailed scientific data that Noakes discusses. (It might help that I've got a background in chemistry, and went in knowing what "millimolar" means.) I did find that the book got a bit repetitive towards the end - Noakes rightly takes seriously his obligation as a scientist to address all alternative hypotheses and interpretations of the data, but if you're just someone who wants to know how much you should drink while running, you've probably absorbed everything you really need to know by halfway through the book. (less)
An excellent social and political history of the beginnings of the Civil War. Very different from other Civil War histories I've read, which focused m...moreAn excellent social and political history of the beginnings of the Civil War. Very different from other Civil War histories I've read, which focused mostly on the military angle. Goodheart really has a knack for bringing out interesting personalities - I found his discussions of Elmer Ellsworth, Jessie Fremont, and the German-American involvement in the war particularly fascinating. (less)
**spoiler alert** This is basically Sherlock Holmes versus Dracula, and how you react to that capsule description will tell you most of what you need...more**spoiler alert** This is basically Sherlock Holmes versus Dracula, and how you react to that capsule description will tell you most of what you need to know about how you'll feel about the play. My own reaction was more or less, "Well, the two don't really seem to belong in the same universe, but it could be fun."
The story starts off with Holmes dealing with an adversary who's trying to kill him, and who nearly succeeds a couple of times. The plot then takes a turn as Holmes and Watson suddenly have to deal with the more pressing threat of vampires. Of course, the two plots turn out to be connected. Although I find myself wishing that they'd been connected in a more interesting way, or that the original adversary had remained more central to the story, because I thought he was actually more interesting than Dracula. The final showdown between Holmes/Watson and Dracula is suitably dramatic, though.
I like Nick Briggs and Richard Earl as Holmes and Watson, and I thought the more traditional Holmesian parts of this were quite good, so I'll definitely be checking out other titles in Big Finish's Holmes range.
A very satisfying continuation on from the first book in the series. I found it a bit slow going at first, but after maybe the first third, I couldn't...moreA very satisfying continuation on from the first book in the series. I found it a bit slow going at first, but after maybe the first third, I couldn't put it down. (less)
If you've had the pleasure of hearing Ken Robinson speak (or seen his TED talk), you've already experienced most of the best bits of this book. This i...moreIf you've had the pleasure of hearing Ken Robinson speak (or seen his TED talk), you've already experienced most of the best bits of this book. This is a very entertaining book, with an important message, but in my case, I felt it was preaching to the choir. It is certainly nice to have someone saying that creativity is important in nearly all fields of endeavor, not just the arts; that creativity is a basic human skill that everyone can develop and nurture, not just special people; and that modern Western school systems do a terrible job of nurturing creativity in their students. But I believed all of these things before I read the book, and I can't escape the nagging feeling that the people who most need to be convinced of these things wouldn't read this book and wouldn't be convinced by it if they did.
Also, I do think the subtitle, "Learning to Be Creative," is a bit misleading. This is more a book about how institutions and cultures do or don't encourage creativity, and less about how individuals can be more creative.
A short but fascinating book trying to explain why Bulgaria was one of only two German-aligned countries during World War II that didn't deport their...moreA short but fascinating book trying to explain why Bulgaria was one of only two German-aligned countries during World War II that didn't deport their Jewish populations. (The other being Denmark.) [Edited to add: A friend has pointed out to me that the preceding statement a) omits Finland, which also did not deport its Jewish population and b) in using the word "aligned" to try to describe the rather different situations of Bulgaria and Denmark during the war, implies that Denmark's cooperation with Nazi Germany might have been something other than forcibly coerced. I probably should have just said that Bulgaria and Denmark were both notable in their success in preserving their Jewish populations from deportation in the face of considerable German pressure, and left it at that.] t's a particularly dramatic story, because Bulgaria had deported nearly 12,000 Jews from Bulgarian-controlled Macedonia and Thrace (of whom 12 survived the war), and the Bulgarian government had actually gotten to the point of arresting large numbers of Jews and preparing to load them onto trains for Poland before the whole thing was abruptly called off.
The first part of the book is an essay in which Todorov lays out his explanation for how this happened. As his title implies, his thesis is that it was highly contingent - a number of things had to be true simultaneously for the outcome to be reached. Some of the things that Todorov highlights: * Bulgaria had neither a particularly strong tradition of anti-semitism, nor a particularly strong narrative of Bulgarian national superiority. Bulgaria's Jews didn't live in ghettos, spoke Bulgarian, and were mostly artisans and small businessmen with a sprinkling of educated professionals like lawyers. This meant that a lot of Nazi propaganda about the Jews didn't really resonate with a lot of Bulgarians. (Lots of the contemporary documents reproduced in the book contain some version of, "Have you seen our Jews? They're poor.")
* The fact that Bulgaria's king, Boris III, was primarily focused on his own political power and Bulgaria's national interest rather than any anti-Jewish ideology. It's kind of hard to figure out what side Boris was on, because he was great at telling everyone what they wanted to hear. Nevertheless, Todorov is convinced that the king was powerful enough that if he'd wanted Bulgaria's Jews deported, they'd have been deported. The king managed to keep the Germans convinced for ages that he was completely in agreement with their Jewish policies while failing to implement the deportation. (There is an account in the book of a rather hilarious-sounding conversation between Boris III and von Ribbentrop, in which Boris tried to convince von Ribbentrop that Bulgarian Jews were different because they were "Spanish" (he meant Sephardic). von Ribbentrop was unconvinced.)
* Finally, the most critical element was a well-timed and well-orchestrated piece of parliamentary politics by vice-chairman of the Bulgarian National Assembly, Dimitar Peshev. This is the part where I wish the book were longer, because I don't really completely understand the nuances of parliamentary politics in wartime Bulgaria. Peshev wrote an eloquent letter of protest against the deportation of Bulgaria's Jews, and managed to get a fairly large percentage of the members of the governing party in the Assembly to sign it. The immediate result was that Peshev was censured and stripped of his post as vice-chairman, which doesn't sound like a resounding political success. But it seems to have done the trick in persuading the government that the deportation would buy them more trouble domestically than it would be worth in support from Germany.
The longer part of the book consists of reproductions of various contemporary documents - letters, newspaper reports, and diaries related to the events surrounding the attempted deportations. The documents shed a particularly interesting light on the claim that you sometimes hear that people didn't know what was happening to the Jews in Nazi Germany. I don't know what people knew in other places, but the documents make it pretty clear that everyone from writers of articles in Communist newspapers to Bulgarian government ministers knew that if they sent the Jews to Poland they were going to die horribly.
Overall, the message of this book seems to be that if good people want to stop evil from happening, they need not only to be passionate and vocal but very very good at operating the levers of political power. Food for thought. (less)
It's difficult to know exactly how to review this book - I was given it as part of a work training event. I would probably feel more positive about it...moreIt's difficult to know exactly how to review this book - I was given it as part of a work training event. I would probably feel more positive about it if I'd picked it up of my own accord and if reading it hadn't had something of the character of completing a "homework" assignment.
It's hard to argue with the basic argument of the book, which basically boils down to: Material success and the outward trappings of wealth and status won't make you happy. If you really want to succeed in life, you've got to cultivate your character and work on living life according to your values.
Now, I've certainly got my own issues with judging myself by externally imposed standards and setting unreasonable goals, but I've never particularly set my sights on achieving the corner office and being able to drive the flashiest car, and this book seems very much targeted at people who have. So, I was a bit underwhelmed. This book is probably very good for its target audience, but it's not really for me in my current stage in life. (less)
I suspect that this book will serve as an excellent introduction to feminist theory for a lot of people who would never pick up a book about feminist...moreI suspect that this book will serve as an excellent introduction to feminist theory for a lot of people who would never pick up a book about feminist theory, but would pick up a book about picking up chicks.
Not that this is really a book about "picking up chicks" - it's more like an ethnography on the pickup artist community, except without as much of the pretense of academic objectivity implied by the word "ethnography".
Pick-up artistry, for those not familiar with it, is a set of techniques taught to men to help them convince women to have sex with them. (There are fringe elements of pickup artistry that are devoted to women picking up men, or same-sex relationships, or which are actually focused more on relationships than sex, but the core of it is men's pursuit of women for sex.) Thorn does a good job of conveying the sense of horrified fascination that one feels on learning about this stuff. For anyone who's ever found the whole process of approaching an interesting member of the opposite sex really awkward, the idea that there are techniques that can make it go more smoothly is pretty appealing. On the other hand, the tendency of the movement to reduce women to Skinner boxes whose job is to dispense sex if you push the right buttons is pretty appalling, as is the fact that some popular techniques amount to a script for date rape.
Thorn uses this mix to spin out some pretty thought-provoking commentary on how we view sex and relationships as a culture. (less)