Simon Winchester is always a joy, but here he turns his research talents and pleasant prose to a great task. He paints the historical backdrop against...moreSimon Winchester is always a joy, but here he turns his research talents and pleasant prose to a great task. He paints the historical backdrop against which the great supervolcano at Krakatau exploded, and shares witness accounts and scientific explanations of the disastrous aftermath.
Some of the tectonic background and history of science was review for me, but we aren't all nerdy ex-geology majors, and we all can skim things if we are. As ever, Winchester digs up hilarious connections and details, as well as giving us a vivid picture of a time (and, here, place) lost forever.(less)
The stories here are compelling, astounding, whether or not you've seen the excellent HBO miniseries. It made me cry and laugh, and put off sleeping a...moreThe stories here are compelling, astounding, whether or not you've seen the excellent HBO miniseries. It made me cry and laugh, and put off sleeping a little bit longer...just a little bit longer....
I read it on a journey, in stolen moments, so I didn't mind the largely episodic structure. If you would like to place the remarkable experiences of Easy Company into a broader context, read Citizen Soldiers by the same author first, then this focused account of one company's war.(less)
A great book for getting a glimpse of what the war was like for the American troops, which increased my general understanding of the course of the pos...moreA great book for getting a glimpse of what the war was like for the American troops, which increased my general understanding of the course of the post-Normandy war in Europe as well.
Extensively researched, the book draws on thousands of personal accounts, diaries, letters, and oral histories from men on both sides of the war. It was packed with moments and anecdotes so amazing I simply had to repeat them to my poor unsuspecting friends.
The reader is good for this particular book, with creditable accents for the various regions the GIs came from, German and British accounts, and even a fair Patton impersonation.(less)
I've read Keneally's The Great Shame, and I thought I ought to pick up this, his most famous work. It is as chilling and well-written as expected, an...moreI've read Keneally's The Great Shame, and I thought I ought to pick up this, his most famous work. It is as chilling and well-written as expected, and, since its scope is more focused, easier to follow than The Great Shame. The story is fascinating, even if one already knows the broad strokes.
The reader is excellent, with what this French-speaker can only guess is authentic German and Polish pronunciations, and an aloof suavity that accords perfectly with the precision and detached judgment of the text.(less)
I've read and enjoyed several of Simon Winchester's books, and this is my favorite thus far. This story abounds in historical interest, geological dra...moreI've read and enjoyed several of Simon Winchester's books, and this is my favorite thus far. This story abounds in historical interest, geological drama, and the bizarre coincidences that delight both Winchester and his readers.
The early chapters paint the broad backdrop of the 1906 earthquake -- both a cultural portrait of 19th century San Francisco and a geological profile of Western North America. In some Winchester books, the sections on geology can be largely review for readers who are (now or have ever been) geology majors. Here, however, the basic earth science is mixed with the history of scientific discovery and Winchester's travelogue of seismologically notable America. It never fails to engage and intrigue.
Of course the earthquake itself is fascinating, and Winchester weaves a compelling story out of past destruction, present danger, and the mythos of frontier America.(less)
This is an entertaining and informative book, and the audiobook is winsome and sparkling, courtesy of 'performer' (not credited merely as 'na...more3.5 stars
This is an entertaining and informative book, and the audiobook is winsome and sparkling, courtesy of 'performer' (not credited merely as 'narrator') Donal Donnelly. The personality of the subjects is amply shown by the texts quoted, and the story is interesting and definitely underknown, if not unknown. What really gives me pause is the suffusion of Cahill's own biases in the text. This isn't a scholarly work, but even for a popular history, the degree to which Cahill's opinions and judgments color the narrative gives me pause and makes me trust his version of history slightly less. Oozing affection for things and people Irish is appropriate to the work, and I'm with him on his nostalgia for the Celtic Church, if only from descriptions in Ellis Peters books. But in general, the Occidocentric (saved Civilization did we, or just one?) and Christianocentric biases seemed a little strong. Plus, he totally buys into monkish anti-Viking propaganda.
My favorite part was the biography and discussion of Patrick and his assumption of and effects on Irishness.(less)
A fascinating nonfiction book about cholera, Victorian London, epidemiology, scientific breakthroughs, social patterns, and more....moreFour and a half stars
A fascinating nonfiction book about cholera, Victorian London, epidemiology, scientific breakthroughs, social patterns, and more. As that suggests, this book ranges quite a bit in topic and scope, but the transitions are excellently accomplished, so that the reader's mind happily follows the author from bacteria to waste removal systems and back again, forging unexpected connections and learning as it goes.
The central story, of the Broadstreet epidemic in London, is very interesting indeed, and it's only improved by the background Johnson ties in. Johnson does occasionally get very basic in science so that all readers can understand, but it's never obnoxiously didactic or long-winded. I'm perennially obsessed with Victorian London, and here we get a pungent, detailed and thorough glimpse into that place, and a certain frightening time. I grew rather attached to our "protagonists", the doctor and clergyman who investigated the outbreak, and I loved the various period sources Johnson used to make the story come alive (Dickens! How I love Dickens.)
I would be tempted to give this book five stars, but I felt the ending, extolling the awesomeness of cities and exploring other threats to their citizens, like terrorism, went a bit too far astray from the heart of the book, and got boring. I also was a little dubious about the author's city-love, which seemed to be so strong he didn't rigorously question some of his conclusions. If it weren't for that, this would be a five-star review. As it is, I think I'll give it four and a half. An engrossing, well-written book. (less)
A well-crafted hybrid of memoir, travel book and history. It begins with Thomson's quixotic decision as a 21-year-old, untrained, to go to Peru and re...moreA well-crafted hybrid of memoir, travel book and history. It begins with Thomson's quixotic decision as a 21-year-old, untrained, to go to Peru and re-find an Inca ruin that had been discovered, then lost again. In the decades since, he's become a more seasoned explorer and a documentary filmmaker, and his love for the mountainous areas of Peru is a constant.
Interwoven with his descriptions of the beautiful, punishing terrain and the abandoned complexes of the Inca are anecdotes of the bizarre characters that have explored the area, the relationship between people of the mountains and of the jungle, the demands of outsiders' tourism and spirituality on the Inca's image, and the often forgotten history of the Inca's last stand. The sites he explores are part of their "rump kingdom", the Vilcabamba, from which they held off the Spanish for decades with guerrilla tactics and cagey diplomacy. While unlike the reviewer from The New York Times Book Review, I am content to remain an 'armchair traveler' and leave these treks to Thomson, I am inspired to read further on the fascinating history of the Inca.(less)
Maus is interesting not only for the sake of the survival story Vladek has to tell, but for the frame that surrounds it. Seeing Vladek's relationship...moreMaus is interesting not only for the sake of the survival story Vladek has to tell, but for the frame that surrounds it. Seeing Vladek's relationship to his son, and the lasting effects of the Holocaust on his character make this story richer and more layered. It isn't only about survival or violence, but about love and family (and the damage both can do.)(less)
A well-focused little history. It gives a good overview of the B-24's significance and its contributions to the war in Europe, as well as a moving gli...moreA well-focused little history. It gives a good overview of the B-24's significance and its contributions to the war in Europe, as well as a moving glimpse into the lives and stories of specific men and crews. The book centers on George McGovern, whose experiences as a bomber pilot were remarkable for a reader yet not unusual among his fellows. I emerged with respect and admiration for the man (as well as a wistful curiosity about what his presidency would have been like).
I've mostly read about the ground war in Europe (and heard about it from my grandfather) so this book was an intriguing look at a very different side of the war. It's a fairly quick read, not at all overloaded with aviation jargon, and full of interesting anecdotes and events that I was forced to immediately relate to my unwary friends and family.(less)
I am a big fan of Simon Winchester's books in general, but this one I found less enjoyable than his others. There were occasional inaccuracies ("bird...moreI am a big fan of Simon Winchester's books in general, but this one I found less enjoyable than his others. There were occasional inaccuracies ("bird progenitor pterodactyl"? What?) or oversimplifications (sedimentation can't occur without an ocean?) which bothered me, as well as a certain habit of repetition. I am not sure these flaws were more pronounced here so much as his usual sterling qualities had less range for expression.
This is, after all, a fairly straightforward story. Though William Smith's accomplishments shaped the history of geology, his life and career are fashioned on the scale of the personal, the regional. Where Winchester has excelled, in A Crack in the Edge of the World and Krakatoa, in tracking down scores of accounts and sources and using them to fashion a multi-faceted portrait of vast cataclysm, here he has a smaller canvas to paint. He has fewer sources -- Smith's papers and abortive autobiography, his nephew's biography of him -- as well. There is less here for Winchester to thoroughly investigate and vividly imagine for us, and less surprise. Smith's ill fortune and lack of recognition is hardly startling, since it fits into a pattern in the history of the sciences in Britain, as Winchester notes.
I'm glad Winchester wrote this book. It's unfair that Smith's posterity should be confined to those who took Sedimentology and Stratigraphy courses in college, and I was glad to learn more about him than the single day's lecture I remember from that class. It was edifying, well-written and interesting. However, I feel it could have been pruned quite a bit.
Notes on the audiobook: The author narrated his own book, and did it admirably. His accents for quotes -- notably Smith's own Oxfordshire -- were lovely.(less)
This is a quick read and does what it sets out to do well. That's particularly remarkable because it sets out to be an overview of the history of plum...moreThis is a quick read and does what it sets out to do well. That's particularly remarkable because it sets out to be an overview of the history of plumbing from the 6000 BCE Indus Valley civilization onward and a droll personal account of being obsessed with plumbing. (f.t.6k.BCE.I.V.c.o.)
It's informative (did you know toilet rooms at Roman baths had no privacy?), sweeping (what would happen if we used our sewage to make energy instead of spending energy to clean it?), and very funny. It made me chortle at my lunch counter, in fact. And despite the assumptions I've found people draw when I say it's a hilarious book about plumbing ("poo jokes!?") it's not scatological humor -- it's mostly self-deprecation about how obsessed and occasionally foolish the author is. He also, however, has his wisdom, whether in briefly guessing at the roots of scatological humor, or envisioning a healthier, brighter future where we aren't ashamed to talk about toilets and our planet reaps the benefits.
My least favorite parts were the pro- and epilogue, so if you don't like the first few pages, do skip to Chapter 1 and give it another try.(less)
This was the text for a History of Modern China course I took in undergrad. From that you can infer that it's very detailed and scholarly. However, it...moreThis was the text for a History of Modern China course I took in undergrad. From that you can infer that it's very detailed and scholarly. However, it's also intensely readable: I've reread it for pleasure in the years since graduation.
The "Modern" China of the title is in the strict sense of Modern, in this case starting in the 17th century. That may seem a long time ago, but the context it gives to more contemporary events is rich and useful. I found the patterns and trends that emerged from this book, as well as the sense of China's journey as a nation, fascinating. The insights I got from this book help me understand a little better China's stance toward the world and place in it. Highly recommended.(less)
A sad little book about some of the less well known casualties of World War II: animals in Tokyo's zoo. The watercolor illustrations are lovely, and t...moreA sad little book about some of the less well known casualties of World War II: animals in Tokyo's zoo. The watercolor illustrations are lovely, and the story is moving. The small focus, on the lives of a few elephants, may be particularly effective in making the cost of war clear to young readers.(less)
The idea of a biography in poems struck me as rather odd at first, but it ended up being very effective. Perhaps it would be more difficult with a les...moreThe idea of a biography in poems struck me as rather odd at first, but it ended up being very effective. Perhaps it would be more difficult with a less documented life than Darwin's: the sort of beautiful image or moment of transcendance that poetry loves to explore is precisely the sort of thing Darwin noted in his journals. I found the poems stronger in the more adult sections, probably for exactly this reason.
We can't know another person's life, no matter how thoroughly that life was recorded, no matter how minutely his or her biographer's have dissected it. These poems do not pretend to show every detail or the full scope. However, they pluck out the crucial moments, trace the threads of connection, and evoke the emotions the subject may have shared; they leave the reader with lasting impressions of having encountered Darwin, of understanding him better. What biographer could ask for more?(less)
The kind of history you can't believe could be forgotten -- but it routinely is. Timothy Egan's journalistic researching serves him in good stead here...moreThe kind of history you can't believe could be forgotten -- but it routinely is. Timothy Egan's journalistic researching serves him in good stead here, allowing him to paint a detailed picture of the fire and the individuals' stories. The structure, starting at the fire then jumping back to give lots of background, is somewhat teasing, but the background does eventually pay off as the events and their political aftermath unfold.
I got quite attached to the dedicated foresters and plucky citizens of the tale, and even found myself engaged by the portraits of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, which I did not expect. Come for the amazing stories of survival and inferno, stay for the perspective on the history of the American West, the Forest Service and conservationism!(less)