Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever
Narrated by the author
Penguin Audio, May 04, 2021
$21.44 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
I can’t imagine anyone other than John McWhorter doing the narration for the audio version of a John McWhorter book. I am very familiar with McWhorter’s work, having read a couple of his books, having listened to his podcast, and having completed several of his lecture series from the Great Courses, both audio and video. He has a distinctive voice with a great deal of inflection and cadence. And when it comes to quoting works in Middle English most voice actors couldn’t match his skill.
In the tradition of George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” McWhorter discusses the origin and history of nine “dirty” words. In fact, only one word is on both lists, though McWhorter discusses another of Carlin’s words in the epilogue. Of those nine words, I might occasionally use one or two of them in this blog, though there are more that I use in everyday speech, especially when I am angry or frustrated. Then there are words on McWhorter’s list that I would never use either in writing or in casual speech.
Though intended for a general audience, Nine Nasty Words takes the scientific approach of the linguist as McWhorter discusses the origins and evolution of those words. It’s fascinating stuff, all of it. A bonus is that you get the wit and humor throughout the book that are McWhorter trademarks.
If such things interest you, I highly recommend that you get McWhorter’s audio book version rather than the print or e-book edition. You will thoroughly enjoy having him talking with you in your living room or car.
The World’s Greatest Churches
Professor William R. Cook
State University of New York at Geneseo
Instant video $35.00 when on sale
If the course is not on sale, check back – the sale price will come around again
William R. Cook is one of my favorite Great Courses professors. I have taken several of his courses, both audio and video. In fact, I think his series The Cathedral is my very favorite of all the Great Courses I have watched or listened to (and that’s a lot: nearly 80, I believe).
The World’s Greatest Churches ranks right up there with The Cathedral for being interesting, informative, and visually captivating. In twenty-four half hour sessions Cook visits churches of all denominations around the world. What’s impressive is that he visited most, if not all, of these churches in person and took most of the photos we see himself.
The variety is amazing. We see famous churches in the East, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the former Constantinople (later a mosque and now a museum). In the West we visit Chartres and Winchester cathedrals along with St. Peter’s Basilica. But at the same time I was treated to churches with which I was not familiar: the cave churches of Cappadocia, the churches of Armenia and Georgia (the country that lies between Russia and Turkey, not the state in the U.S.), and the simple, wooden stave churches of Norway. Nor does Cook omit modern churches He shows us an impressive church in Iceland called the Hallgrímskirkja, and two modern churches in Korea, one Catholic and one Presbyterian.
Professor Cook is a practicing Catholic, but he has the utmost respect not only for other Christian denominations, but for other religions as well. As a Great Courses veteran he is an excellent lecturer and he keeps each lecture fascinating and lively.
Rock Me on the Water: 1974 – The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television and Politics
Narrated by Will Damron
HarperAudio, March 23, 2021
$29.94 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
I have never returned an audiobook before, but I had the occasion to do so recently. I had downloaded A Sound Mind by Paul Morley from Audible. I had read positive reviews about the reflections of a rock critic who turned to classical music. The work is longer than many, coming in at twenty-four hours and forty-four minutes (the print edition is 645 pages). I quickly became frustrated with the author’s pace. I switched it on as I left the house for a thirty-five minute drive to the Kaiser facility where I was to receive my first COVID vaccination. By the time I got to Kaiser the narrative had hardly progressed at all. It seemed as if Morley was being paid by the word, just as Charles Dickens was in the nineteenth century.
When I returned home I looked up how to return an Audible selection. It turns out that it is entirely doable; it’s simply a little tricky. You have to go to your purchase history, which is separate from your library. Once there, though, it’s easy to complete the transaction.
Having returned that book as my monthly Audible choice, I instead downloaded Rock Me on the Water. I am, as you may know, a sucker for anything about the 1970s. (Well, except for disco that is. I don’t know how disco made it into the decade.) If the book’s subtitle accurately represented its content I knew it would be right up my alley. It did and it was.
By necessity the author addresses more than simply 1974. He obviously has to in order to provide context. But he makes a strong case that 1974 was a pivotal year in the changing popular culture of America, and that the change in large part originated in Los Angeles.
Brownstein writes about Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty and their shooting the films Chinatown and Shampoo. He describes the careers Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne along with the rise and squabbles of The Eagles and Crosby, Stills & Nash. He extensively discusses Norman Lear and the groundbreaking nature of All in The Family along with its spinoffs (Maude, The Jeffersons, etc.). He discusses other programs that were innovative at the time, such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Brownstein delves into the political scene, describing the career of Jerry Brown and how Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda teamed up and eventually married.
The book discusses how the television and movie industries were dominated by older white men and the struggles women had getting into writing and management positions. He recounts how Black Americans faced challenges in finding roles both in front of and behind the camera.
Will Damron provides a serviceable though not stellar narration. When quoting people who were interviewed for the book his voice sometimes takes on an annoying, breathy pitch, especially when quoting women. Overall, however, Damron delivers a very listenable book.
The bottom line: For a seventies-phile such as I am, Rock Me on the Water was informative and enjoyable listening.
The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything
by Michio Kaku
Doubleday (April 6, 2021), 215 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon hardcover $13.99
I am always interested in books on physics, quantum mechanics, and cosmology, so in reading a review of this title I decided it was worth my time. The author is a working physicist who teaches graduate students, but who also had written several books for the general reader. This is his most recent.
The purpose of the book is to discuss whether a “theory of everything” is possible, something that so far has eluded scientists. Kaku starts by reviewing the history of physics, starting with Newton, and moving on to quantum mechanics. I guess I’ve read more books (or listened to more audiobooks) on the subject than I’ve given myself credit for, because I noticed at least a couple of places where Kaku glossed over things where he could easily have provided a complete explanation. For example, he somewhat simplifies the (in)famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment, when presenting it exactly the way Schrödinger did would have taken perhaps another half paragraph.
Kaku spends some space, appropriately, discussing the race for the atomic bomb during World War II. He describes how Werner Heisenberg was appointed to lead the German effort. Kaku says that the Germans under Heisenberg were well behind the Americans, who were pursuing their secret Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. However, other sources I have read state that Heisenberg knew the correct formula, but deliberately introduced subtle errors, too subtle for anyone but the sharpest physicist to notice, that were just sufficient to prevent the Germans from getting the bomb.
But back to the theory of everything. Kaku “has a dog in this fight,” as linguist John McWhorter likes to say, and Kaku admits it. He tells us he has been researching string theory since 1968 and believes that it offers the best candidate for a theory of everything.
Near the end of the book he also tells us that string theory continues to uncover new layers, and a final, definitive version of string theory has yet to emerge. Kaku hopes that a definitive version of string theory will provide us with a neat, mathematically complete theory of everything.
Somehow, though, as I finished the book I was left disappointed and unconvinced.
We have some new items to make things simpler and easier around home.
I first saw these Swedish cellulose sponge cloths in Bon Appétit magazine. They looked as if they made a lot of sense, and Amazon had them in a variety of packaging configurations. The best way to describe them is to say that they are large, flat sponges. They work really well and can be thrown in the washing machine and reused. The best thing about them is that they have allowed us to cut back drastically on our paper towel usage. That is a Good Thing.
Then there’s our new compost bucket. A few years ago our trash and recycling company allowed us to include food waste in our yard waste Toter when they opened a new state-of-the-art facility that turned all of that stuff into natural gas and fertilizer. (Another Good Thing.) At the time they provided food waste buckets for the kitchen counter. Ours worked serviceably but was always somewhat awkward and unwieldy. It finally reached the point where the lid would not stay upright as we were scraping food into it. I found this composting bucket on Amazon and bought it along with a roll of one hundred compostable liner bags. Simpler, cleaner, and easier.
Finally, there was that floor lamp in the bedroom. It had two circular fluorescent tubes which were a pain to replace, and it was not always easy to find the replacement tubes. When one burned out recently Terry suggested we replace the lamp. There was no argument from me. I found this LED floor lamp on Amazon which has a remote control and allows me to control both the brightness and the warmth of the light. It produces a brighter, cleaner light than the old fluorescent unit. I really love it.
A few little things that make domestic life easier and a little more pleasant here at home.
Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art
Rebecca Wragg Sykes
Bloomsbury Sigma (August 20, 2020), 409 pages
Kindle edition $9.02, Amazon hardcover $20.99
For a long time people used the word “Neanderthal” as a pejorative term, and I suppose they still use it that way sometimes. What we have learned in recent years, however, is that Neanderthals were a close relation to us Homo sapiens and that we coexisted for several millennia. The title of this book makes clear the author takes that perspective. Sykes is a scientist who actively works in the field, but she has made Kindred very much accessible to the general reader.
The author does an outstanding job of describing what we know and what we don’t know. Archaeology can tell us a lot about where Neanderthals lived, what kind of tools they made, and what sort of clothing they wore. It seems clear that they were nomadic, but that they returned to certain locations at about the same time each year. DNA research tells us which groups were related to other groups, something that is not always obvious based on archaeological evidence.
Sykes leaves unresolved as to whether Neanderthals buried their dead. There is a site called Shanidar in Kurdistan where researchers once believed a skeleton was surrounded with flowers and hence likely formally buried. That thinking has changed, and the consensus is now that the pollen accumulated naturally. The evidence is ambiguous, however, and Sykes in unwilling to say that Neanderthals didn’t bury their dead. She notes, “Although Shanidar isn’t exactly a Neanderthal necropolis, there’s absolutely more going on than the remains of those who perished by rockfalls.” The same chapter shows there is, sad to say, evidence of cannibalism at times.
The author opens each chapter with a short vignette, a sort of literary speculation about how Neanderthals might have perceived their world. It sets the tone for the scientific material that follows in the chapter.
The world of DNA evidence has been an enormous boon to many disciplines in science, as you’re no doubt aware. You likely know that there is between 1.8 and 2.6 percent Neanderthal DNA in modern humans not of sub-Saharan Africa origin. You may remember from high school biology the fact that we define a species as two individuals who mate and produce fertile offspring. Since Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens are clearly different species the obvious question is: how is this possible? Sykes fortunately provides an answer: “Modern zoology’s concept of allotaxa may be more appropriate for what Neanderthals were to us: closely related species that vary in bodies and behaviors, yet can also reproduce.”
This is all interesting stuff, well written and easy to understand.