The Story I Am: Mad About the Writing Life
Turtle Point Press (April 7, 2020), 277 pages
Kindle edition $10.99, Amazon paperback $16.99
I have been familiar with Roger Rosenblatt for some time, though I have read little of his work. He regularly reviews books in the New York Times Book Review and he reviewed a book recently that I wasn’t interested in reading, but the reference in the credit line to this book caught my attention.
The book, the subtitle suggests, is supposed to be reflections on writing. Much of it is, but many essays only touch tangentially on the subject of writing. The essays come from a variety of sources: Rosenblatt’s novels, his memoirs, including The Boy Detective about his coming of age in New York, reviews in the New York Times Book Review, and essays in Time magazine.
There are some interesting and enjoyable passages, but for a book of essays that was supposed to reflect on the writing life, I felt that it came up short.
The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World
Sarah Stewart Johnson
narrated by Cassandra Campbell
Random House Audio, July 07, 2020
$19.60 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit
I guess one can say that one has truly become an audiobook aficionado when one decides to listen to an audiobook based on the narrator.
The book The Sirens of Mars caught both Terry’s and my attention when we read about it. Terry bought the hardcover at Barnes & Noble. I had finished my most recent audiobook and was looking for the next, so I pulled up the title on Amazon. I saw the audiobook was read by Cassandra Campbell, who narrated the biography of Dorothy Day that I enjoyed so much. That clinched the decision to make The Sirens of Mars my next audiobook.
Campbell is an accomplished voice actor, who has narrated many audiobooks, most notably that long-time bestseller Where the Crawdads Sing. She does a skilled job of reading this book, making me feel as if the author was doing the narration. Even the best readers make errors, however. At one point she used the word epithet when it should have been epitaph. (I recently saw someone make the opposite error in print. What is it about those two words?) But this does nothing to diminish Campbell’s superb skills as an audiobook narrator.
Author Sarah Stewart Johnson is a planetary scientist, one of the few women in that field. She beautifully interweaves three stories: the observers of Mars from the nineteenth century on, the various NASA Mars missions, and her own life story. The latter two converge, as she was on the science teams of a couple of the Mars Rover missions.
I was particularly sensitive to the author being involved in the search for possible life on Mars as I wrote an essay in 1976 which I titled “Gazing Towards Mars” about the Viking Mars mission. I tried to sell the piece but was unsuccessful. I said we were lonely here on earth and wanted evidence that there was life elsewhere in the solar system. That hasn’t changed in the past forty-four years.
It was only two decades after I wrote that essay that the rovers found water and gave us hints that life might once have existed on Mars. The Sirens of Mars offers a thoughtful and enlightening perspective on human attempts to understand the Red Planet.
I heard Giants broadcaster Jon Miller ask that question in a frustrated tone of voice after an odd play that invoked an obscure baseball rule. Miller didn’t like how the official scorer scored the play, and, as I recall, he may have been unhappy with the call on the field by the umpire as well.
I ask that question about some less obscure aspects of baseball these days. I’ve learned to accept the designated hitter in the National League during this COVID-19-shortened season, being grateful just to have baseball.
The one thing that does irk me, however, is the concept of the “opener” as opposed to a proper starting pitcher. That’s someone who pitches only an inning or two at the start of the game.
For example, in the final game of the National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves on Sunday, the Dodgers started Dustin May, who pitched only a single inning. He was followed by two more pitchers who each picked up two innings, and then by Brusdar Graterol who pitched a single inning. Finally, Julio Urías pitched the last three.
That’s not the baseball I grew up with. I was going to blame Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who played in a more traditional era, but Houston Mitchell wrote in the Dodgers newsletter:
Keep in mind that Dave Roberts doesn’t decide who is going to start. He has input, yes, but the front office looks at all their flow charts, their crystal balls, their sabermetrics, their Tarot cards, their performance metrics, their Magic 8 Ball and decides who will start.
OK, Dave is off the hook.
And the Dodgers are in the World Series. We actually have a World Series this year, wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles.
That’s something to be thankful for in these crazy days.
I have two wireless earbud sets? Yep, two.
I wrote a while back about buying a set of wireless earbuds for my iPhone from a company called Letsfit and how much I liked them. As I expected, they are great for listening to my audiobooks when I’m doing yard work and I don’t want sweat to damage my expensive hearing aid.
But then there is my laptop, which I use for Sunday morning worship at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Hemet via Zoom. I had been using wired earbuds, but I decided that they were a bit too restrictive. Since we are unlikely to return to indoor in-person worship anytime soon, I thought a wireless solution would be better.
My hearing aid uses an Apple technology that allows it to connect to multiple devices. So I can use my hearing aid with both my iPhone and my iPad. But here’s the thing with Bluetooth. Bluetooth earbuds only connect with one device. My Letsfit Bluetooth earbuds are paired with my iPhone and if I want something similar for my laptop I need a separate pair.
I searched Amazon and found a set for $19.95. (Prices for all of these things seem to fluctuate frequently.) The average rating was 4+ stars with input from over seventeen thousand users. I ordered them and paired them with my laptop. They work great for Sunday morning Zoom worship.
Something interesting. When I fired up my laptop and put the new set of earbuds in my ears, the voice that said “Connected” was identical to the voice on my Letsfit earbuds.
I guess the underlying technology is the same on all of these products.
How You Say It: Why You Talk the Way You Do—And What It Says About You
Katherine D. Kinzler
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (July 21, 2020), 253 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $20.99
As a writer and as a reader I place a lot of emphasis on the written word, and I think a lot about writing and styles of writing. However, the spoken word is important to me as well. I spent nearly four years in Toastmasters, leaving only when changes to the program made the organization less appealing to me. A linguist will tell you that language is about the spoken word far more than it is about writing. That was the message in John McWhorter’s Great Courses series on language families which I recently watched. It is the spoken word that interests Katherine Kinzler in this book.
Kinzler wants to understand, and wants us to understand, how the spoken word affects how we perceive other people. She is not a linguist, rather she is a psychologist. However, in doing the research that forms the basis of this book she took a multidisciplinary approach, working with individuals in multiple fields, including linguistics. She writes with the approach of a linguist, saying, for example, “African American English is a dialect of English like any other (including Standard American English).”
The author writes about the misconceptions that people have, for example that an ethic Asian might have difficulty learning a non-Asian language such as French. She describes how bias is pervasive in the media. In children’s movies, such as Aladdin, she points out that the bad guys have accents and the good guys don’t. Kinzler explores how an accent can have a negative impact on a person being hired for a particular job, even when they are fully qualified.
This is interesting material, and it presents an important set of social issues of which we ought to be aware.
I rarely write in a melancholy mood, but sometimes the melancholy catches up with you, particularly in these days of COVID-19 and bitter political division.
One thing that has been missing in our lives in this time of pandemic and quarantine is the ability of the family to get together for breakfast on Saturday. Terry and I gathered with my brother and sister-in-law, my nephew and his daughter (later his fiancée became part of the group), and my dad who was the primary reason for this weekly routine. We had our restaurant rotation, but for most of us our favorite spot was DJ’s. We knew the staff, including the owner Grace and her daughter who waited tables, and they knew us. Their lease was up and the owner of the building wanted a long-term renewal. Grace, nearing retirement age, declined. Their last day of business was Halloween 2018.
Far more significant than that was the loss of my father in August. We did not lose him to COVID-19, but because he was ninety-one and his organs had simply reached the limit of what they could do.
I had forgotten that this picture had been taken, but Google found it for me on the DJ Restaurant Facebook page, which is still out there. It is a reminder of happier times.
One day the family will be able to safely gather once again and enjoy a meal out. But Dad won’t be there with us. Not physically anyway. And that I think is justification for some melancholy.