A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 by G.J. Meyer

A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 by G.J. MeyerA World Undone by G. J. Meyer
Narrator: Robin Sachs
Published by Blackstone Audio on 5/24/12
Genres: Non-fiction
five-stars

Story: A
Narration: A-

 

Quick Review:

I am neither a regular reader of non-fiction nor an avid student of history but occasionally a fiction book prompts me to seek out more information on a specific topic and this audiobook may have just converted me to a far more frequent non-fiction reader. There was a lot of information in this book that was unfamiliar to me but it excelled at filling in the details around my existing framework of knowledge in a very well-paced and engaging manner with excellent narration.

Warnings, Disclaimers, and FYIs:

To start out with and in the interest of full disclosure, I received this book without charge from Blackstone Audio via the Solid Gold Reviewer program at www.audiobookjukebox.com. Not being an avid non-fiction listener (and often considering non-fiction something like medicine: a quick dose is sufficient followed by something to wash the taste away) that seemed like a pretty good way to expand my knowledge and listening horizons with minimal risk. Also of note (again in the interest of full disclosure and as proof that I occasionally swim in the shallow end of my personality pool) is that when I saw it was narrated by Robin Sachs I was even more interested. This book is 27+ hours long and let’s face it, if I’m going to listen to anyone murmur in my ear for that long, there are few narrators I’d rather have doing it than Mr. Sachs. As it turned out, he was just the icing on this audiobook cake because this was an incredibly engaging book. Not being a history buff, I have no basis for critiquing the accuracy of the content of this audiobook and can only speak to how well it communicated the information, how much detail there was, and how well it held my interest. That being said, I know a lot more now and I am startled by how very much I enjoyed this audiobook.

My Thoughts:

The structure of this book is perfect for the way I absorb and retain information. Starting with a day-by-day account of the events leading up to World War I, these detail-packed chapters are interspersed with “background” chapters that, as each country/region/personality is introduced, give the listener additional details on the historical pieces that play a part, including outlines of the Hapsburg dynasty, the Czarist succession leading up to Nicholas II (the last Czar), the French political situation pre-war, and much more.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as the catalyst for WWI wasn’t news to me but the information woven in that covers the shifting powers in the region, who knew what in advance about the planned assassination, and the broader historical picture of the conflict between Serbia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary immediately provided me a far more solid grounding in the lead-up to hostilities. Particularly fascinating was all the points at which war could have been averted but wasn’t.

As the flow of battles and political wrangling reach the end of the first year of the war, the book pauses to briefly discuss the evolution of weaponry and why two critical inventions – the machine gun and barbed-wire – were partly responsible for extending the length of the war. Chapters covering the economics of funding the war, WWI and its impact on the poetry of a generation, and shell-shock (to name just a few) were clear and concise interludes that often described individual experiences and those unexpected victories or defeats on a smaller scale, adding to my interest in the narrative and bringing the story to life to an even greater degree.

The ponderous nature of the military infrastructure in place at the time is hard to imagine for a listener in the 21st century. Three nations whose military mobilization plans were so rigid that they simply could not be implemented without overreaching the lines drawn that might have minimized the scope of (or even prevented) the war was a mind-boggling thing for me to contemplate. That Germany could not mobilize without pushing troops across its borders, Russia couldn’t mobilize without (threateningly) staging troops on the German border, and Austria couldn’t mobilize into Serbia and hold the line in Belgrade (strictly as an issue of troop movement, not just orders) was appalling.

Miscommunication, lack of communication, ambassadors with their own agendas who acted in an inflammatory manner – all put me in mind of von Clausewitz’s dictum in his book On War that “war is fought by human beings” and it may very well have been an analysis of WWI that prompted him to write that. There are many examples of the all-too-human frailty of those who engage in war in this audiobook but the one that first struck me was the French general who asked for permission to move his troops because his study of German troop movements indicated that the Germans were moving into Belgium not just with the intent of taking ground but as part of a larger plan of wide encirclement of the French troops (which was exactly what they were doing). He was denied permission until it was mostly too late because of one man’s conviction, not based on study or actual troop movements, that the German troops simply wouldn’t do that.

As the war begins and the troop movements and battles are described, the pacing was enough to keep me glued to my earphones, let alone the information that was more detailed (and fascinating) that any of my previous encounters with this bit of history while in school. The shifting battle lines and various offensives were described clearly and concisely and held more than enough drama in their factual recitation without requiring dramatic phrasing or overly gruesome descriptions. In addition to the (for one primarily accustomed to news reports of modern warfare) unimaginable death toll on a sometimes daily basis, the scale of the weaponry described was unexpected. Huge guns that took ten train cars to transport and fired ten shells per hour? These types of details were woven into the stories of individual battles with perfect timing to keep this audiobook moving along. There was never a point at which the story bogged down and the audiobook didn’t seem as long as its run time. In fact, I was so caught up in the description of the initial battles between Germany and France (and the British Expeditionary Force) that I forgot about the Russians and when their troop movements were suddenly introduced, I almost groaned aloud on behalf of the Germans (as it turns out, of course, unnecessarily).

Multiple times while listening I found myself mentally shaking my head in astonishment and all but muttering aloud “I had no idea” over topics such as:

  • The lack of communication between Austria-Hungary and Germany (Austria-Hungary’s ally) prior to Austria-Hungary mobilizing their army
  • The misconception that Russia, although admittedly not capable of rapid mobilization, was incapable of fighting against Germany
  • The idea that Germany needed to (and thought they could) knock out France w/in 6 weeks before Russia attacked
  • That mobilization itself by Germany was a declaration of war
  • The astonishing impact of misunderstandings on the initiation/course of war (e.g. Count Von Berchtold, the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister, met with the Russian ambassador and a miscommunication about what they were discussing lead to the ambassador believing Berchtold would not negotiate with Russia when in fact it was only Serbia they would not negotiate with)
  • The description of the release of 168 tons of chlorine gas at the Second Battle of Ypres
  • I was aware of the Armenian genocide but didn’t quite understand the scale or mechanics of it and the short chapter on the Ottoman pogrom was horrifying
  • I had no idea that Russia, as part of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany, relinquished so much territory w/ 50 million people(!) occupying it to puppet regimes put in place by Germany
  • In 1916, the U.S. Army presence in WWI was smaller than the British casualty count in just the Battle of Somme

The summary given in the chapter covering post-Armistice (in November of 1918) was staggering. 9.5 million dead. 15 million wounded. That doesn’t even count the reverberating after-effects such as the deaths in Russia in what was essentially civil war and in the countries still in disorder and those still forming (Finland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Yugoslavia, Estonia, Latvia, Lebanon, Syria).

If you have even the slightest interest in the history of WWI, I highly recommend this audiobook and if anyone knows of audiobooks that do for WWII or Vietnam what this one does for WWI, I’d love to hear your recommendation.

The Narration:

In terms of minor distractions, (I’m not sure whether to call it a narration or production issue) the proofing edits were uncommonly noticeable in terms of the change in audio/acoustics (exactly how was “Picardy” originally pronounced that each instance of it had to be dubbed in later?) but that aspect notwithstanding, Robin Sachs provided the ideal narration for this audiobook. His non-fiction delivery is a clear and measured presentation of the information and he sounded much like I imagine the author, with his journalism background, would have if he was reading the material. The occasional quote from historical figures was given just the lightest touch of a “character” voice, which was ideal. Mr. Sachs let the text speak for itself, something it was more than capable of doing, and his mellow baritone imparted a sense of gravity while adeptly letting the drama, horror, and sheer humanity of the story clearly shine through.

five-stars

Swimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone

Swimming to Elba by Silvia AvalloneSwimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
Published by Blackstone Audio on 6/14/12
Genres: Fiction
two-half-stars

Story: B-/C+
Narration: A-

 

In many ways this audiobook was a journey to a foreign land and it was through the skill of the author that I was able to set aside a certain amount of ethnocentrism and immerse myself fully in the sensibilities of the story. In setting, the listener is presented with an incredibly clear sense of Piombino, Italy with its sweltering summers, crowded public housing redolent with the odors of life, the constant noise and motion of its inhabitants and the scent of the sea and the stagnating life washed up on its shore. Life in this steel town – the Lucchini steel foundry is the primary employer but is struggling to stay afloat in a post-industrial age – seems peopled with resentful young men who can’t escape the expectations of their life and who usually, like their fathers, end up taking a job in the steelworks. In the evenings they salve their restlessness with drugs and discotheques and sometimes a bit of theft. Youth seems destined to end early and there is a pervasive sense of suffocation and lives going nowhere as the men wear themselves out working in the foundry and the women sacrifice happiness in expectation of attaining security.

As a listener who happens to be a woman, it was also a trip back to the cusp between adolescence and maturity and in journeying along with Francesca and Anna I found, for good or bad, just as much of the familiar as the unfamiliar. The core of the story is two girls transitioning to adulthood who alternate between the naïveté of youth and an all-too-knowing confidence in their bodies and there is a palpable sexual charge that runs throughout the story. The self-absorption inherent in adolescence is nicely balanced by the affection each has for the other as well as the glimpses we have of the sometimes painful family dynamics that help shape them and drive the choices they make in life.

While Anna is reaching greedily for adulthood, Francesca is desperately clinging to the affection present in her friendship with Anna and I found them to be very realistic characters and often sympathetic ones – though not always likable. Francesca and Anna want nothing more than to escape their world of limited options and had always planned to do it together but when events shatter their already unstable family lives, the chasm that opens between them seems uncrossable and the choices they make after the split may separate them forever.

In addition to Francesa and Anna’s story the listener is presented with significant glimpses into the lives of many of the other characters. Alessio, Anna’s older brother, is a heavy machinery operator at the foundry and his drug use provides an imagined escape from being trapped. Arturo and Sandra, Anna’s parents, are in conflict as Arturo loses his job at the steelworks and then disappears for days at a time running cons in an attempt to earn enough to buy his family’s respect. Francesca’s father, Enrico, is abusive and his obsession with his daughter’s rapidly maturing body is extremely disconcerting to read. Francesca’s mother, Rosa, can’t bring herself to leave Enrico – even to save her daughter – and turns to medication to dull her pain. Toss in a handful of supporting characters and there’s a lot of head-hopping as each one gets to explain their perspective, adding a lot of tell rather than show. It also means that a large chunk of the first half of the book is brick-by-brick character creation which slowed the pace significantly.

There was a lot of minute detail in each of the perspectives. Although this played a large part in creating the well-developed sense of place that ran through the story, because it was split between such a large number of characters my overall connection with the story felt diluted. This book struck me as an intricately described year-in-the-life piece and while it was enjoyable because of how adeptly the author was able to convey the atmosphere of those lives, I often bogged down in the details and the repetition of them.

Despite not being able to say that I was completely wrapped up in the book or that I loved it, I have to acknowledge that these characters seemed like very real people to me. Even if I didn’t like them (and I definitely found Francesca’s father and his controlling nature repellent) I felt immense sympathy for Anna and, truth be told, Francesca absolutely broke my heart – especially in the beginning. At one point I alternated between wanting to pull her in close and feeling a desire to shake some sense into her.

While I am usually an audioook advocate, that’s especially true with this book because a significant amount of the connection I did make with this story was due to the narration.

The Narration:

This was my first experience with Cassandra Campbell’s narration and I’m marking it down as another win in my recent streak of new-to-me narrators whose work I need to find more of. I suspect I might have been tempted to put this book down and not pick it up again if it hadn’t been in audio and that would have been a shame because there’s a lot to appreciate in the writing.

As a translated work, it made sense to me that a heavy Italian accent wasn’t employed for the characters but combine the presence of that rhythm in dialogue with the liquid cadences of Italian proper names seamlessly wrapped in the smooth progression of Ms. Campbell’s delivery and suddenly I was entangled in lattitudes and longitudes that were miles distant and years away from my own.

I found there to be an almost gentle flow to the narrative. While that provided a striking contrast to the moments of frustration expressed by the characters and especially to the angry and controlling character of Enrico, on the opposite end of the spectrum it emphasized the slower pacing in some portions of the book. Offsetting that completely was the impression I received that the narrator (in both the literary and audiobook sense of the word) was achingly sympathetic to the characters, which kindled my own sympathies and interest to a surprising degree. Francesca was already hitting an empathetic chord in me but the almost gentle treatment her story received at times was uncommonly affecting.

The characters were distinct in presentation and personality and the vocal characterizations for Anna and Francesca were a nice blend of the supremely self-centered nature of adolescence and their awakening realization to the world outside themselves; this meant I was never irritated in listening to them because it balanced out nicely. This was an excellent narration that did nothing but enhance my interest in the story.

two-half-stars

The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam by Eliza Griswold

The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam by Eliza GriswoldThe Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam by Eliza Griswold
Narrator: Tavia Gilbert
Published by Blackstone Audio on 8/17/10
Genres: Non-fiction

Book: B
Narration: B

From the book description on Goodreads.com:

“The tenth parallel, the line of latitude 700 miles north of the equator, is the defining metaphor of our time. An ideological front line stretching across two continents and nineteen countries, this is where Christianity and Islam collide—a profound encounter that shapes the lives of more than a billion people. It’s not just geographic; it’s demographic. The center of global faith lies in the jungles and buzzing megacities of Africa and Asia. Of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, more than half live along the tenth parallel, as do roughly 60 percent of the world’s 2 billion Christians. Here, as elsewhere, Christianity and Islam are growing faster than the world’s population.

The stories of The Tenth Parallel examine the complex relationships of religion, land, and oil, among other resources; local conflicts and global ideology; politics and contemporary martyrdom, both Islamic and Christian.”

This book marks my second audio venture into non-fiction. It is evenly divided between historical information on the growth and movement of Christianity and Islam in the region bordering the 10th parallel (with a focus on Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines) and the author’s account of her interviews with people who live, worship, and evangelize there. Although definitely informative, I think more than anything what this book did was remind me how much I don’t know, pointed out how simplified my perspective on the conflict is, and provided me with enough information and varied perspectives to prompt me to ask more intelligent questions.

I picked this audiobook up after reading an article that briefly analyzed Islam as, in part, a political structure that evolved as a response to a lack of centralized government and as an aid to survival in a harsh environment with limited resources. A logical hypothesis that, while not exactly a paradigm shift, at least started something of a sea-change in my perceptions of the conflict. Although this book didn’t visit that idea with as much depth as I was expecting/hoping, that ended up being a good thing. I was initially displeased with the quantity of personal accounts but the fact that this book was an even combination of history and anecdotal stories from the author’s time in the region limited my ability to hold the information at a strictly analytical distance.

Although there are some typical themes outlined such as religion as a tool for imperialism, I was fascinated by several topics in particular that I just hadn’t really thought about before. Some examples:

  • The impact the Tsetse fly had in halting organized conversion attempts from moving south of the 10th parallel
  • The outline of the Cold War era attempt by the West to employ Islam as a tool to halt the spread of communism in the Middle-East, including the search for a “Muslim Billy Graham” who would see atheistic communism as the same threat the Christian West did
  • “Herein lies one of the striking enigmas about religion. Faith grows faster under pressure.” and the analysis that in America, 9/11 initiated a growth spurt in Islam
  • Although aware of the use of relief aid (specifically food) as a tool for recruitment or conversion, I was still startled at the described perception (while discussing Islam in the area of Malaysia) that much of the transmission of Western culture, from KFC to Brittany Spears, is part of an effort by the Christian West to turn Muslims from their faith
  • The disparity between Christianity as practiced in the West and as practiced around the 10th parallel
  • Conversion and living a life of faith is as often a political, economic, or survival decision as it is a mystical experience or calling
  • The analysis that from a historical perspective, conflict in Christianity and Islam was found in “The complicated bids for power inside them more that the conflicts between them.”

I doubt that anyone approaching this book with a fully formed opinion will come away from it with that opinion significantly altered. Regardless of your views on the conflict, though, the first-person interviews provide a valuable perspective from the inhabitants of that region. The geographical area under discussion comprises a large area and the 10th parallel division makes for a nice core to structure the narrative around but it should go without saying that there are other areas at play in this topic. The ending seemed abrupt and lacked any hint of a cohesive analysis or conclusion and I’m not 100% convinced the author holds an unbiased view but as someone with an unfortunate knee-jerk tendency to shut off my brain at the merest hint of a discussion surrounding religious fundamentalism, I admire the author’s (and narrator’s) ability to engage me in thought without triggering that reaction.

I have to hand it to Tavia Gilbert; I don’t think I would have gotten through this book on paper. Her narration was uncommonly clear and adept at pulling me through an occasionally dense and potentially confusing mix of people, cultures, and locations.  I do wish I had a paper copy so I could tell if the emphasis in quoted conversations was textually indicated or narrator choice. I now also have a better understanding of the different narration styles dictated by the fiction/non-fiction divide.

In the end, this book left me with more questions than definitive answers but I think that’s a good state to be in after only one book on the topic.