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Saturday, May 24, 2014

THE GREAT UPHEAVAL: AMERICA and the BIRTH of the MODERN WORLD (audiobook) by Jay Winik


Published by HarperAudio in 2007
Read by Sam Tsoutsouvas
Duration: 12 hours, 56 minutes

Jay Winik's April 1865 is one of my favorite Civil War histories - it holds a very safe place on a shelf that has to be purged on a regular basis to make room for new books because it is a brilliant history. 

Before I go on with this review I must note that I listened to the abridged audiobook version of this book (so far as I can determine, there is no unabridged version). Despite the abridgment, this book still clocks in at nearly 13 hours. Some of my criticisms are undoubtedly due to the abridgment.

Winik's thesis in this book is that the time period from 1788 to 1800 was a time of revolutionary ardor and that most of the great European powers were affected. Victor Hugo wrote: “One can resist the invasion of armies; one cannot resist the invasion of ideas.” Winik looks at how the ideas of America's Founding Fathers and the French philosophes affected three countries: The United States, France and Russia.

In 1788, those three countries had almost nothing in common. The United States was small, almost inconsequential to European politics and in the middle of implementing a new Constitution. Mostly, it was a curiosity. France was the most powerful, most important country in Europe and quite possibly the world. Russia was a massive, largely mysterious backwater that hovered on the fringe of the European political scene.

The execution of Louis XVI (1754-1793) on January 21, 1793
Winik presents three different models of how various countries dealt with the new "invasion of ideas." Russia, in the person of Catherine the Great, entertained them on a philosophical level, but on a practical level she smashed them and dug them out by the root. The French King Louis XVI attempted to compromise with them but, in the end, he could not compromise enough to please Revolutionary France and it cost him his life. Worse, the country spun out of control and began to consume itself. The United States institutionalized the conflict between change and tradition by creating political parties and a system of government that allowed give and take without permitting everything to spin out of control (although the Whiskey Rebellion came close to doing just that - Winik discusses the Rebellion in detail but never says why the Western farmers were so upset about the tax on Whiskey. The answer - they had to convert their corn into whiskey to transport it out to sell. It taxed them but not farmers in the East who could sell regular corn).

John Paul Jones (1745-1792)
For me, the greatest weakness of this book is the inclusion of Russia. The discussion about the Russo-Turkish War (1787-1792) was not particularly interesting (I had to turn it off while I was driving because I found myself so bored with the topic that I began to nod off), with the exception of the brief mention of John Paul Jones.  Catherine the Great's reaction to the implementation of the revolutionary ideas of the time was no different than that of almost all dictators of almost all times and all places - she perceived a threat and she destroyed it as thoroughly as she could. In this book she serves as the opposite example of what happened to Louis XVI. As such, she really was superfluous - she was the norm and could have been described in just a few paragraphs or even sentences (for example, "While Catherine the Great loved to read and discuss these new revolutionary ideas, she never tried to negotiate with those who would take away her power as absolute monarch in the name of those new ideas like Louis XVI did. Instead, she engaged those revolutionaries with military power and hunted them down until they were utterly destroyed, much like successful tyrants like Augustus Caesar, Stalin and Kim Jong Il have done throughout history.")

On the other hand, I found the descriptions of the French Revolution to be fascinating. Winik included the grim details, a decision I agree with because those details demonstrate the degree to which the crowds were moved to act. For example, the simple fact that the crowds taunted the Marie Antoinette with the severed head of one of her friends (after they had its hair made up nice) shows that the French Revolution was out of control. Fortunately, the largest portion of the abridged audiobook deals with the French Revolution. The American Revolution section is also very strong.

The narrator of this audiobook was Sam Tsoutsouvas. He is an experienced audiobook reader and his command of French came in very handy when he read the occasional French word or phrase that pops up in this book. On top of that, when the crowd yelled, he would actually yell too which makes the descriptions even more powerful. His greatest strength, though, is the sense of gravitas he gives to everything he reads. If he read my grocery list it would sound as though the security of the nation depended on the purchase of a 2 liter bottle of Coke Zero and a box of Cheerios.

However, when coupled with Winik's often overwritten text this sense of gravitas becomes overwhelming. Winik has invested in a thesaurus and truly loves using it. He repeats himself in long strings of sentences. He loves to restate things with very similar words. He is verbose, wordy, repetitious and long-winded (yes, I did that on purpose). Winik invests a lot into injecting false drama into the story by asking dramatic questions such as, "What would happen next?" and listing a series of adjectives and using this kind format (sorry, I could not write one down - I listen while I drive and it did not seem prudent): "Coca-Cola. Is it brown? Is it fizzy? Is it wet? It is all of that - and more!"

He also likes to describe things and then use this ending to the description to inject doubt: "If - and it was a big if..." and "Yet - and it was a big yet..." and my favorite "But - and it was a big but..." Yes, he actually made the audiobook reader read the phrase "it was a big butt."

So, match this dramatic reader with an overly dramatic writing style and this book approaches parody in its audiobook form. Maybe this sentence is the epitome of the problem: "A bodyguard, a mere boy, was ruthlessly murdered and dragged into the courtyard half dead, becoming little more than a bleeding trophy." Indeed, the murdered boy was half dead.

Once again, I must point out that I did listen to the audiobook and it was abridged so some of the problems may have occurred because the abridgment. 

I rate this audiobook 3 out of 5 stars.
Reviewed on May 24, 2014. 

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