our newest Echo device

I have written about our Amazon Echo devices and about how much we enjoyed having two of them, one in the kitchen and dining area, and one in the bedroom. I also wrote that I was content to continue enjoying the trusty internet radio in my office until I learned that the service that powered it was going away, making it for the most part useless.

Amazon Echo ShowI wrote that I thought about getting a new internet radio that would be powered by a newer service, but as I considered the matter I decided that an Amazon Echo could play all the stations and streaming services that an internet radio could, and that it could do a lot more. With the Echo I can ask Alexa to play the NPR hourly news or to give me the weather forecast. I can ask it to play my current audio book or give me the score of yesterday’s Dodger game.

Deciding to buy a new Echo, it only made sense to go for quality. I wanted an Echo Show so I could have the visual element as well. I bought a third generation Echo Show 10. It’s pretty amazing. It has excellent speakers and the screen is sharp and clear. I like seeing the artist and song title on KNX-FM 93 (clearer and more easily readable than on my internet radio) and that information plus a nice image of the album cover on my Pandora stations. I recently signed up for Amazon Music and am amazed at the breadth of choices available. I can ask Alexa to play just about any classical work, and when I play popular songs most of them display the lyrics.

Echo Show MusicOf course it’s not perfect. Sometimes it’s easier to punch a button than give a verbal command, and sometimes Alexa doesn’t understand what you want. Podcasts are a particular problem. If I ask Alexa to play either of the two astronomy podcasts, StarDate or Earth and Sky, I get something Star Trek related for StarDate and a mystical podcast of the same name for Earth and Sky. But then Alexa has no problem bringing up John McWhorter’s podcast on linguistics, Lexicon Valley. Too bad he’s going to stop doing it.

Still, though, for the most part all three of our Echo devices work very well.

The new Echo Show was an indulgence, to be sure, but given the income I’ve been getting from my contract writing work, I decided I could use some of that money for fun stuff. And this is really fun stuff.


The Possessed

The Possessed coverThe Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Elif Batuman
Narrated by the author
Penguin Audio, March 14, 2017
Print edition: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (February 16, 2010)
$24.46 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

I had read and enjoyed Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot and picked up this volume based on a brief mention in The New Your Times Book Review. Batuman specializes in Russian literature, as you might surmise for the book’s subtitle. As to the book’s content, the subtitle does not mislead.

Batuman opens the book describing the beginning of her post-graduate studies at Stanford, and how she came under the influence of the leading scholar of the Russian author Isaac Babel, of whom I had never heard until listening to this book, and how said scholar hooked her into the study of Babel. Babel wrote in the first part of the twentieth century but fell afoul of the Soviet authorities and was executed in the Stalin era. Batuman writes about her encounter with Babel’s two daughters, who are invited to Stanford for a Babel conference. I learned far more than I cared to about Isaac Babel.

She also writes about a summer spent in a language immersion program in Uzbekistan, about lost luggage, and the people she encounters there. Passing off her boyfriend, who wanted to tag along, as her husband caused her to make up some fabrications about their nonexistent marriage.

We hear a lot about other, better known, Russian authors and their writing: Tolstoy, Chekov, and Dostoevsky. Since Russian writers write a lot about grim topics such as illness, poisoning, and death we hear a lot about those topics. Too much. I didn’t know that there was a debate about whether Tolstoy’s death was due to poisoning or that depending on one’s own views one could be labeled a Tolstoyan (or not).

Batuman writes about academic politics, the unsettled lives of graduate students at Stanford, and her own untidy personal life. Although I did not enjoy The Possessed nearly as much as her novel, the book was nonetheless interesting reading, especially since we hear it in the author’s own voice.


A Thousand Ships

A Thousand Ships coverA Thousand Ships
Natalie Haynes
Harper (January 26, 2021), 368 pages
Amazon hardcover $19.28, Kindle edition $10.99

There have been some excellent retellings of classical mythology by women published in the last couple of years. Madeline Miller wrote both Circe and The Song of Achilles. Now Natalie Haynes has released A Thousand Ships, which tells of the events (mostly) after the Trojan War through the perspective of women. It was originally published in the United Kingdom in 2019, but Harper just published it in the United States this year. Terry got to the book before I did, buying it at Barnes and Noble, so in this instance I read the hardcover rather than the Kindle edition.

Haynes opens the novel with the sack of Troy by the Greeks after the Trojans brought the famous wooden horse inside the city walls. This is interesting because the Iliad does not mention the Trojan Horse at all. The Odyssey mentions a “hollow horse” three times in passing, in such a way that Homer must have assumed that his audience knew the story. It is only later sources that provide us with any sort of full account.

Nonetheless, this approach works because Haynes tells the story mostly from the Trojan perspective, from the viewpoint of the losing side, and in particular by the women of the losing side. She does not, as you might guess, portray the Greeks in a positive light.

We encounter a lot of women in the book. Some women we meet only in a single chapter, and others intermittently throughout the book. Then there are the Trojan women as a group, drawn from the chorus in the Euripides play by that name, who sit on the seashore awaiting their fate by the conquering Greeks. We see them several times.

Helen, the cause of all the fuss, has no chapters of her own and plays a very small role in the novel. In Haynes’s world Helen had willingly headed off to Troy with the Trojan Paris, though the mythology we have is ambiguous as to whether she really was infatuated with Paris or whether he took her to Troy against her will.

The one Greek woman Haynes features prominently is Penelope, wife of Odysseus, waiting for him at home in Ithaca. She becomes increasingly snarky as she writes him letters after hearing the stories from the bards of his long, circuitous journey home. She is neither understanding nor patient.

Also impatient is the muse Calliope, who wants the poet to pay more attention to the women and less to the men and the fighting. What Homer doesn’t do Haynes fulfills.

We are all the better for that.


the end of the road for my internet radio

When I tried to tune in to 70s on 7 on my Grace Digital internet radio on Saturday it displayed a message saying it could not contact the SiriusXM server. This was not a huge surprise to me as I had received an email from SiriusXM some months ago saying that “it has come to our attention that you may be streaming SiriusXM at home using a Grace device” and telling me that my Grace Digital device would no longer be supported. When I went on to Google to confirm that I had remembered correctly I saw that I had, but I also saw that my radio would be completely inoperable by late May. It’s a first-generation device that uses a third-party service and that is all going away. (“The managed shut down…will be completed by May 21st, 2021.”) That was a surprise.

We had purchased two Amazon Echo devices, one for the bedroom and a second for the kitchen and dining area as our ancient Recoton 900 MHz wireless devices kept performing less and less well. But, I thought, I still have my internet radio for my office. Guess not.

internet radioI bought my Grace Digital internet radio in January 2014 while we were still in Gilroy to replace another internet radio that used a rather unreliable technology. I kept it in my office and loved it, as over-the-air radio reception in Gilroy was less than optimal. It moved south with us in 2015 and remained in my office here, where over-the-air radio reception is also far from ideal.

There was rarely a day when I was in my office, either there or here, when I did not turn on that radio. And attached to the Recoton 900 MHz transmitter we used it every single evening with the Recoton wireless speakers in the dining area and the bedroom until we replaced them with our Echo devices.

So now what? I thought about getting a current generation Grace Digital radio, but I don’t quite trust those folks, and was not encouraged by the misused words (“effected” instead of “affected”) and other typos on their support web page.

I realized that an Amazon Echo device (our third) could do everything an internet radio could do, plus a lot more. I have always relied on my internet radio for a quick glance at the time when it was not playing, so I needed a visual display. I decided to buy a new Echo Show 10.

It’s supposed to be here tomorrow. I’ll let you know how it works out.