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By turns maddening and fascinating
on September 23, 2004
Reading this terribly uneven book was the most irritating experience I've had in a long time. Its title seemed to indicate a tongue-in-cheek approach to history's gaffes and goofs, in the vein of "The Darwin Awards". Instead, the reader was often treated to rather ordinary recititations of history. The tale of Watergate was told in a straightforward style without entertainment value. The barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire were a dull, unfunny and undetailed summary (in only 7 pages !) of 400 years of Roman history. Other stories held my interest better, not due to the writing but because of the unfamiliar subject matter. The story of Ferdinand de Lesseps' first attempt to build the Panama Canal was an example. But even this tale, which tried to poke fun at de Lesseps' folly, just wasn't funny.
The book, subtitled "Mad Plans and Great Historical Disasters," is less about the folly of human beings than about the unexpected (but not mad) turns that human activities take. Who knew ahead of time that aspirin would have value while heroin would become a social scourge?
I'll say this for the book: as annoying as it was, I kept coming back to it until I finished it. That's worth 3 stars.