The Penguin series of brief lives tries to boil biography down to its essence. So what is China historian Jonathan Spence’s verdict on one of the colossal monsters of the twentieth century? A strangely detached one. Apparently Mao was just out-of-touch, “more and more divorced from any true reality check” around the time of the launching of the Great Leap Forward. While I understand Spence’s desire to avoid putting Mao on the couch, this sounds almost apologetic and one feels a need for a deeper critical analysis of Mao’s personality. At what point did the chip on his shoulder about being a hick from the provinces, which is where I think it all started, turn into a big stick?