The impetus for “reading” this book was that I started reading another A.J. Jacobs book on Kindle: The Year of Living Biblically, and, at the time, thThe impetus for “reading” this book was that I started reading another A.J. Jacobs book on Kindle: The Year of Living Biblically, and, at the time, the idea of reading the Encyclopedia Britannica appealed to me more than attempting to live a life of biblical literalism (as I “read” both of these books together, I am beginning to change my mind). As a cerebral nerd who loves to delve into epistemological debates, I was rather excited to read this journey into explicit knowledge. I should have simply read the Britannica myself (don’t count this bucket list item out yet).
I listened to this book on audio, so allow me get my critique of the narrator out of the way first. If you love to have your fun, light and acerbic non-fiction read to you in the tone, pitch and timbre of someone reading a 3 year old a story to keep their attention from wandering, this is the book for you. Geoffrey Cantor overdramatizes with the gusto of a last-minute nerve-wracked understudy taking over opening night at an amateur dinner theatre. He has outrageous accents in Bronx (I’m guessing, I don’t know the different borough accents that well), French, snooty Brit and various snotty and nerdy Americans (his Italian accent is abysmal). His portrayal of Jacobs partially contributes to my distaste of the author. Cantor’s rendition of Jacobs goes from whiny and petty to simple-minded glee and exaggerated self-congratulation. The author may be none of these things, but it is difficult to tell from the narration.
One hopes desperately that Eric, the brother-in-law, is a serious caricature, because if he’s not…no one needs that toxic narcissist in his or her life, no matter the family connection and level of cuteness of his kids. In fact, if the author is giving an anywhere near authentic sketch of Eric in this book, he’s seriously fooling himself that Eric is a good father. No one is that much of a jerk (this is the most underwhelming noun that can be ascribed to Eric, but it’s printable) and is truly good at parenting behind closed doors or after his kids become teenagers.
Jacobs’ use of the “witty” rhetorical question becomes tiresome quickly. I use quotation marks here because, in truth, his comments and sarcastic humour are not sophisticated, but I ascribe that to his work as a popular men’s magazine editor. He shouldn’t be too cerebral—no matter what he maintains as an encyclopedia reader—or too “smart” that he loses the broader audience. I think this explains why the majority entries are that which I am already familiar…that or since the writing of this book, mainstream information media (e.g. Mental Floss, Stuff You Missed in History Class) have decided to go over these topics. Anyone with a reasonable amount of education (either self-acquired or via an accredited university) will find the facts and trivia to be a cute re-tread. Even though he takes a very clunky approach for people who have more sophisticated senses of humour, he does tackle some sadly forgotten understandings and discriminations of intelligence, education, wisdom and talent. Unfortunately, the commentary is sophomore, at best, and the humour is predictable.
Again, the narrator could be doing the author no favours, but mainly I found the anecdotes and analysis of Jacobs’ journey into reading the Britannica to be twee, vacuous, and not-a-little lame. An example? Upon finding out that the bandicoot male and female have a doubling of coital organs, Jacobs states that these animals “can have a little orgy without sending out invitations.” Thud. Perhaps I’m being elitist. It’s a fair cop, but I’m not going to apologize for having a high standard of sardonic wit (or of esoteric knowledge). I do, however, read a lot of heavy, dense tomes and do appreciate light, fluid non-fiction book one in a while. Know It All is fair to middling. If you are interest in knowing what’s it’s like to try to learn this much explicit knowledge (as opposed to experiencing a priori or exploring tacit knowledge), I’d recommend borrowing the book from the library. ...more
Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence should be required reading for university first-years, if not high school history students. TheFields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence should be required reading for university first-years, if not high school history students. The book begins with a premise that I have myself formulated over years of study in history, theology, anthropology, linguistics, and sociology—that religion isn't truly to blame for violence, but it can sure be used to incite it. My suspicion was that oligarchy was the only true political organization and that all others were smoke-screens for it; that every society had and has it's "aristocrats," and that monarchs or parliaments were and are smoke and mirrors obscuring and distorting common understanding of the true holders of power. Karen Armstrong infers the same thing while focusing on a common popular deception that religion is the root of large-scale human violence.
Using cogent and coherent arguments, Armstrong sweeps through 7000 years of human pre-history and history disputing the popular notion that religion as a cultural construct is to blame for wars, massacres, genocide, etc. Instead, she contends that surplus and the emergence of wealth in agrarians societies led "structural and systemic violence," an enforcement of inequality and exploitation of most of the population by a smaller number of 'elites.' This structured violence was "Established by force and maintained by military aggression..." (page 14).
There is a lot of background material here, but it’s presentation is eminently lucid, informative, and stimulating. The three main themes that Armstrong repeats are that states do not tolerate minorities, that structural violence is inherent in political organization (with the possible exception of hunter-gatherer groups), and that religion and political reform movements eventually become co-opted by the 'aristocrats/elite/ruling class/etc.' Some readers might find this repetition monotonous, but I delighted in reading a book with a “strong backbone,” rather than other, similar non-fiction books containing very nebulous assertions....more
Literary reading—like reading in general—has declined in popularity, even as science has demonstrated its importance to the human capacity for empathyLiterary reading—like reading in general—has declined in popularity, even as science has demonstrated its importance to the human capacity for empathy. Books that are so beautifully written that the reader finds pause difficult are few and far between. My latest experience with one such book was Elizabeth Stroud’s My Name is Lucy Barton. Ian McEwan first came to my attention with Saturday, a richly written book with a suspense-filled premise. That book also stunned me with how far a beautifully written book can take a seemingly common plot and give it surprising profundity. I ruminated over that book days after reading it and now feel that I must re-read it.
Amsterdam lacks the harrowing page turning, but rewards with another ethical dilemma written in scintillating prose. The only discordant narrative note in the book is occasional conceits of erudition, but seeing as the characters are cultivated persons, this reader can forgive them. Unfortunately, while the premise of Amsterdam is gripping the manifest plot doesn’t live up to it’s potential.
As the story proceeds, it fails to continually hold the reader’s attention. However, the stylistics are smooth enough to reward reading, and the moral discussion occurring within this plot is worthwhile. It the definition of literature is a piece of fiction that makes one think; then, this is literature. Amsterdam is dated and the power of the story is drained by post-year-2000-hyperindividualism. Everyone is prone to poor decision making, only nowadays there are fewer social consequences for a fundamental lack of integrity. The unwritten rule of the day is that no one can be called on the mat for their behaviour lest those who decry are judged. That is where this book feels near archaic. The main two characters make errors in moral judgment, but it’s difficult to feel the depth of that living in a world where far more egregious ethical failings are daily flaunted on the Internet. Nevertheless, those who lived in a time when such things still mattered will ruminate.
While the second act of the book’s weakness is lackluster interest in the characters and their moral and professional descent, ultimately the book’s failure is the third and final act. Theoretically, the ending should have been good. Normally, Ian McEwan is subtle but powerful, such that even his dramatic coincidences feel less contrived than most. Unfortunately, this ending felt mercilessly contrived, and the goodwill of an interesting subject matter is lost. ...more
The back blurb of My Friend Ché boasts of being the “first to present a picture of Ché based on personal knowledge.” I would suggest the reader not geThe back blurb of My Friend Ché boasts of being the “first to present a picture of Ché based on personal knowledge.” I would suggest the reader not get too invested in this description. There is a surprising paucity of truly personal information concerning Ché in this book, and if anyone is looking for comprehensive information about Ché’s life either early or later, he or she should expect to be frustrated in that hope. Even keeping in mind that it was written 47 years ago and translated from the Spanish, still the author’s biographical writing style is terse, wildly uneven and only provides minor tantalizing morsels of information about Ché Guevara. The photos of Ché, as a child, and his brothers and sisters serve to emphasize this lack of detail. Who are these people? The only relative mentioned at any length was his mother, Celia. If this book were read as an adjunct to a more thorough biography, it might be that it fills in gaps or features a contrasting perspective. Since the author has not yet done that (but is planning to), it is all speculation. It might be interesting to revisit the book and this review after such a scenario.
An interesting facet of this book is the number of entertaining and pointed quotes and quips ascribed to Ché. Upon taking up photography to earn a living, he notes the paradox of trying to garner true cash from American tourists who already carry cameras with: “The potential market…is enormous, but the real market, make no bones about it, means slow starvation” (page 60). In another instance discussing politics he states: “Lets not get carried away by Guatemalan officialdom, shall we? I say this because you reformers are specialist in bureaucracy” (page 40, Rojo). As intriguing as these examples of quick wit are, one questions how the author can remember such things. Did he keep a diary? Was he simple so good at remembering conversations, having a type of echoic memory? These quotes are elicited niggling, distracting doubt for this reader. The photos in the back of the book, as well as a couple of personal letters transcribed within, are very interesting—if as mentioned above—rather unexplored features. Unfortunately, these few tidbits are not enough to make the book truly worthwhile.
Excepting only the somewhat false advertising suggested by title and blurb, the next greatest weakness of this “biography” is the author’s assumption that the reader knows a great deal about the political situation in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. One entire chapter is spent talking about another revolutionary, former journalist Jorge Masetti, with what appears to be only a tenuous association with Ché. Although the books is not meant to be a comprehensive historical account of revolution in the Spanish-speaking Americas, a succinct overview would add much dimension to the book and perhaps hold the readers interest by boosting coherence. It has taken this reader and inordinately long time to read this book because of it’s great and many flaws. I would not recommend this book and hope that someone has used it as a reference for a much better, fuller, more thorough rendering of this fascinating historical figure. I intend to look for one of those. ...more
No sugar coating is found in this book. Yes, it is a difficult book to read, but not for which is conventionally expected in a book about genocide. IfNo sugar coating is found in this book. Yes, it is a difficult book to read, but not for which is conventionally expected in a book about genocide. If you are reluctant to read a book about mass-murder in Rwanda because of gory, grisly details, you won’t have to worry significantly about that in this book. Although, there are a couple of nasty details, so don’t get too complacent, if you are squeamish. An abundance of the actual ghastly specifics of massacre are omitted and definitely not what this book is about. However, the horror of the arbitrary; the unfathomable and barely pragmatically understandable, but nonetheless deplorable; and the unjust are indeed what you will read here. In fact, the level of injustice described in this book sapped almost the last remaining microscopic trace of idealism left in this much jaded and cynical reader.
I chose to read this book myself, after a very long resistance to it, at the recommendation of John and Hank Green, a pair of brothers who turned vlogging into a creative, progressive and educative entrepreneurship. After viewing the vlogbrothers early videos a second time, I decided that perhaps I really should read this book with which they themselves struggled but yet found crucial. They were not wrong.
Let’s get the stylistics out of the way first. This book is exceptionally well-written, and considering the subject matter, that is key because anything short of that would probably have buried this book before publishing. Gourevitch knew not only how to piece together a group of narratives interspersed with historical background without a lull in pacing, but to evenly discuss and listen with an open mind, while not pretending to float above in a nebula of journalistic relativity. He is angry and horrified, but not ranting and irrational.
Obviously, the theme is murder on a mass scale, genocide. The subject matter is mainly, but not exclusively personal accounts (including the author’s). Gourevitch is at times appalled, but is not confused. The details are complex, but not complicated. He doesn’t waste time with fru-fru theories of ethnic cleansing. This is human nature + colonialism + international politico-economic “handling.” Humanity has seen it before, decried it, ignored it, created a false “comforting” mythos about it, swept it under the rug, and then continues to repeat it. Unfortunately, as always we fail to learn from history…in many cases we fail simply to learn any history at all. We avoid uncomfortable books, and now in the age of near-instant gratification, we avoid reading books at all as too difficult. No amount of slick or twee 30-sec media is capable of conveying these kind of calamitous conditions that percolated to result in genocide; nor have done it so compellingly, compassionately and even, devotedly. This book is more than a worthwhile read.
One thing I must address here is the Wikipedia article concerning this book contains a critique of the book by Rene Lemarchand. His critique describes a book that is so the obverse to the one I read, that I cannot help but think that Lemarchand did not read much, if any of it. I would almost maintain that every statement Lemarchand makes about it, you can ascribe the exact opposite to the book. ...more
A seductive mindfulness meditation on a female human life, one with mildly fraught familial relations, ruminations of childhood poverty, and achinglyA seductive mindfulness meditation on a female human life, one with mildly fraught familial relations, ruminations of childhood poverty, and achingly delicate discernment. It is a book you can hug with your mind. I've never been so surprised at being unable to "put down" a book in all my life; a real literary "dark horse." I've had a great deal of difficulty listening to fiction in audiobook form, but Kimberley Farr does a superb, 5-star job reading this work. I'll be buying this in paper form. ...more
I was very excited when I read a blurb about this book, as the time period and historico-geography is of some interest to me. Historical fiction is ofI was very excited when I read a blurb about this book, as the time period and historico-geography is of some interest to me. Historical fiction is often a good gateway to historical understanding when one enjoys a novel enough to start researching and learning more. Unfortunately, the poor dramatic stylistics turned this book into a lost opportunity. Far too much time was spent on the very repetitive internal narrative of the main character. There are very few other characters despite the fact that the Hapsburg Court must have had abundant courtiers, was very little development of some of the main characters (meaning little investment by the reader in them) included, brutal inconsistencies (Sisi describes herself as having been "strong so long," is known as being free-spirited and a bit wild, and being a complete doormat throughout the bulk of the book), and next to no true court intrigue, despite all imperial courts (including the Habsburg's) being notorious for it.
Sadly this turned out to be mediocre romance fiction weirdly based on solid biographical research, but little to no historical context or political substance. Really, I would give this 2.5 stars instead of 3. It's not really bad enough to be 2, but it's a bit misleading to give it fully 3 stars. Pity. ...more