The Secret Life of the American Musical

Secret Life of the American Musical coverThe Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built
Jack Viertel
narrated by David Pittu
Tantor Audio, March 01, 2016
print edition: Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$19.59 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

The way in which I discovered this book is rather odd. I was searching Google for the exact words that Robert Preston used in introducing “Seventy-six Trombones” in The Music Man: “And you’ll feel something akin to the electric thrill I once enjoyed when…” Google took me to a Google Books copy of The Secret Life of the American Musical where the author quotes the lines in the introduction. I realized I might really enjoy reading (or listening to) this title.

After finishing my last audiobook I looked up the audio version of this book and used my August Audible credit to get it. What a delight!

Viertel describes the formula followed by most American musicals: an opening number followed by an “I want” song, then the conditional love song, and after that noise: an enjoyable song that probably doesn’t do much to move the plot forward. He notes that shows don’t necessarily set out to use that formula, but as the creators are putting the show together it works out that way.

The author points out that he originally planned on calling the book The Secret Life of the Broadway Musical, but that he realized that the British imports don’t follow the same formula. Hence you will find little about Cats, Miss Saigon, or The Phantom of the Opera in this book.

Viertel is a Broadway producer and has his biases. He considers Gypsy to be the model of the American musical and refers to it throughout the book. He dislikes Camelot as he considers it to be about two uninteresting, self-indulgent members of royalty. (I disagree.) He states that the golden age of the American musical began with the opening of Oklahoma and ended with the closing of A Chorus Line, admitting that this is his opinion and is somewhat arbitrary. Viertel is no traditionalist, however. He has much good to say about The Book of Mormon and Spring Awakening, for example.

Voice actor David Pittu does a superb job of narrating the book. Not only does he do an excellent job of reading the main text, but his interpretation of quoted dialog and song lyrics is well done.

I listened to all of The Secret Life of the American Musical in just a week, so I now must wait three weeks for my next monthly Audible credit. But it was well worth it.


Origins

Origins coverOrigins: How Earth’s History Shaped Human History
Lewis Dartnell
Narrated by John Sackville
Hachette Audio, May 14, 2019
$20.76 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

Origins takes a fresh approach to human history. Lewis Dartnell writes about how the earth and its changes have influenced human activity.

He describes how plate tectonics have affected where humans have chosen to live. He explains how continental drift has affected human and animal movements: when there was a land bridge between Asia and the Americas humans went one way and the camel went the other. (Yes, camels originated in the Americas.) He shows how climate in different areas made the difference between the nomads of the steppes and settled agricultural people, and how climate change was in part responsible for clashes between the two types of cultures.

Dartnell discusses how the formation of the continents has affected both wind and water currents and how they affected the voyages of exploration in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He points out that one could sail east or west by changing your latitude in the northern hemisphere, but that in the southern hemisphere you had to wait for the monsoon winds to change.

Narrator John Sackville offers a calm, pleasant reading of the book. Sometimes a bit too calm as I felt inclined to nod off at times, but it was a skilled, listenable narration nonetheless.


The Year 1000

The Year 1000 coverThe Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World – and Globalization Began
Valerie Hansen
Narrated by Cynthia Farrell
Simon & Schuster Audio, April 14, 2020
$13.22 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

In The Year 1000 Valerie Hansen makes the case that humans first began exploring outside their own local regions around that year. She of course discusses the discovery of North America by the Scandinavians and notes that while they didn’t stay on this continent they explored other regions where they did stay. She makes an interesting case that the Scandinavians may have made it as far south as Mexico. While this is argument may be controversial, most of the rest of the book is pretty much standard history.

In addition to the Scandinavians Hansen discusses central and eastern Europeans, Africans, Chinese, and Arabs. One of the more depressing aspects of the book is how prevalent slavery was. The Scandinavian Vikings engaged in it, Africans were complicit in enslaving other Africans, and the Arabs traded in slaves as well. She points out that the Arabs, in spite of their many cruelties, did believe in freeing slaves under certain circumstances. She tells us that because of their large population the Chinese did not need slaves, and were therefore also slow to adopt powered technology in their manufacturing processes.

By necessity Hansen discusses events before and after 1000, but her thesis that globalization began throughout the world around this time is well supported by her narrative.

The book is adequately and listenably read by Cynthia Farrell, though at times her narration is a bit stiff, and she can sound like Siri at moments. Still, listening to The Year 1000 was time well spent.


To the Island of Tides

To the Island of Tides coverTo the Island of Tides: A Journey to Lindisfarne
Alistair Moffat
Narrated by David Rintoul
Naxos AudioBooks, August 01, 2019
$14.21 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

Alistair Moffat spent many years in the television business in the United Kingdom until he decided to take early retirement so he could live on his farm while researching and writing history.

Moffat was fascinated by the life of Saint Cuthbert, who lived in the early 600’s. Cuthbert was an aristocrat who chose to become a monk. He first lived in the region near Moffat’s farm in Southern Scotland at a place called Old Melrose. He then retreated to the Island of Lindisfarne, just off the coast, a place accessible via a causeway at low tide.

Moffat hikes both the Old Melrose countryside and Lindisfarne, trying to get a sense of who Cuthbert was and what the saint might have to say to him. He describes his hikes, reflects on his own life nearing age seventy, and offers ample biographical material on Cuthbert as well as plenty of historical context. All of this is woven together into an eminently readable (listenable) narrative.

The book is masterfully read by David Rintoul who, with his distinguished British accent, effectively channels Moffat’s thoughts and emotions. Moffat insists that he is an atheist and not a man of faith, but I for one found much in To the Island of Tides to be spiritually uplifting.


Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day coverDorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century
John Loughery and Blythe Randolph
Narrated by Cassandra Campbell
Simon & Schuster Audio, March 03, 2020
$19.84 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

To say that this biography is comprehensive is an understatement. The print edition is 442 pages and the unabridged audiobook is over seventeen hours. The authors document Dorothy Day from her birth to her death after a long and productive life.

The book is far from a hagiography. I was tempted to write that Day was no saint, but in fact her canonization is very much in process today, as the postscript to the book documents. I will simply say that Dorothy Day had her faults and this biography does not try to hide them.

Her younger adult life was spent at various jobs, many of them in journalism. She was drawn to left-leaning publications and was skilled as a reporter and writer. She always had an attraction to religion in general and Catholicism in particular but was never quite sure what to do with that attraction. It was only after her daughter Tamar was born that she fully embraced Catholicism. And it was only after meeting the French transient and philosopher Peter Maurin that she found her vocation. He had a vision of a newspaper focused on social justice and of a place where the poor and dispossessed could find shelter. Her conversations with Maurin finally spurred the the founding of the newspaper The Catholic Worker and the establishment of St. Joseph’s House in New York.

The authors describe how Day felt that everyone should be welcome at her houses of hospitality (others sprang up across the country) and how she insisted that, unlike other similar organizations, there were to be no consequences for failure to pitch in and work or to follow the rules. Day was also a horrible mother and pretty much neglected her daughter, which resulted in much misery Tamar’s adult life.

Nonetheless she was at the forefront of the anti-war movement and the fight against racial and economic inequality. On the other hand, she had no tolerance for homosexuality, while ironically multiple dedicated workers at St. Joseph’s House and The Catholic Worker were gay or lesbian. They simply knew not to raise the subject.

Dorothy Day encountered and was admired by some of the most highly visible activists and spiritual leaders of the twentieth century, including Abbie Hoffman, the Berrigan clan, Caesar Chavez, and Thomas Merton.

Day was a complex woman, and the authors provide a nuanced and complete profile of her life and personality. The audiobook is capably read by Cassandra Campbell, who narrates the material in a highly listenable manner, making it sound as if it were her own.


Incarnations

Incarnations coverIncarnations: India in Fifty Lives
Sunil Khilnani
Narrated by Vikas Adam
Tantor Audio, September 20, 2016
print version published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$20.97 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

I had saved this book in my collection of Kindle samples a while back. When I was looking for the next audiobook to load on my iPhone Incarnations seemed like a plausible candidate. I was not disappointed.

The author delivers profiles of fifty individuals who were significant in the history of India. He starts with Gautama Buddha, who lived, as best as we can tell, in the fifth century before the Common Era. He ends with the industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani, who died in 2002. Perhaps ironic or perhaps appropriate, as the Buddha was all about simplicity while Ambani was all about the acquisition of wealth.

The book offers a fascinating history of India through the lives of the individuals that shaped it. We see Hindus, Muslims, British, and even a black African. The latter portion of the book provides an enlightening perspective of pre- and post-independence India.

The author does not pretend to be objective. He has strong opinions about liberals, conservatives, and Indian nationalists. I had no problem with this. I would rather know about his biases than have them hidden in a pretense of objectivity.

The audiobook is ably narrated by Vikas Adam. He has just the slightest trace of an Indian accent, but capably and accurately pronounces all of the Indian names and terms. If you are interested in the history and culture of the Indian subcontinent Incarnations is well worth your time.


Still Here

Still Here coverStill Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch
Alexandra Jacobs
Narrated by Andréa Burns
Macmillan Audio, October 22, 2019
$24.98 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

Still Here is a comprehensive, deeply researched, exquisitely written book about the life of Elaine Stritch. The author takes us from Elaine’s birth (before it actually, describing in too much detail her parents’ wedding night) to Stritch’s final breath.

Stritch had a big ego that started in childhood and lasted throughout her life. She called attention to herself, constantly annoyed and frustrated the other actors with whom she worked, had trouble remembering her lines, frequently ad-libbed in scripted shows, and audiences loved her.

She was somewhat (somewhat?) neurotic, drank in order to be able to go on stage, had a series of not so healthy relationships, and made unreasonable demands upon her producers, many of which were agreed to. She didn’t marry until age forty-eight when she wed John Bay. Bay was an actor whose family ran the Bay English Muffin empire (used in the Egg McMuffin), but who had no access to the family wealth. Bay was gay, but Stritch stayed with him until his death. In fact, she was buried next to him.

Still Here is one of those titles that works superbly as an audiobook. Voice actor Andréa Burns does an exceptional job of reading Still Here. Her ability to perfectly channel the whiskey voice of the mature Elaine Stritch is absolutely delightful and makes the audio book a real pleasure to listen to.

Lovers of show biz will love Still Here.


The Seine

The Seine coverThe Seine: The River That Made Paris
Elaine Sciolino
Narrated by the author
Audible Studios, October 29, 2019
$17.47 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

The Seine: The River that Made Paris opens with the author describing how she arrived in Paris, recently divorced, as a correspondent for Newsweek, new to the city with a shaky grasp of the French language. Listening to this book one learns that she matured into a seasoned journalist, mastered French, and built a long-lasting marriage with two daughters.

These things, however, are incidental. The book is about the Seine, and the author describes the river and its history beautifully. She takes one from the river’s source in Burgundy to its mouth at La Havre in the English Channel. She goes back in time to the native inhabitants of Gaul before the arrival of the Romans and takes us up to the present day. Sciolino describes the Seine in books, movies, and song, even including a chapter on sex on the Seine. She shows us the lives of the barge owners, an occupation that no longer exists in the form it once did, and describes the booksellers in their stalls on the banks of the river, while offering a glimpse of what it takes to be in law enforcement on the Seine. She does not hide her love for Sequana, the goddess of the Seine.

There is much in this book that is timely. She writes about cruise companions who are fans of the current occupant of the White House. Sciolino also includes an Afterword describing the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral. The cathedral, after all, sits on an island in the Seine, and Seine water was instrumental in dousing the flames.

The book is ably read by the author. The slightly affected way in which she marks off quotes by others is a bit annoying, but overall The Seine is a delight to listen to.


Music: A Subversive History

Music: a Subversive History coverMusic: A Subversive History
Ted Gioia
Narrated by Jamie Renell
Basic Books, October 15, 2019
$20.76 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

This is a substantial work. The print version is 480 pages, and the audiobook is 17 hours and 55 minutes. But Gioia covers a lot of territory here. He starts with primitive humans in their hunter-gatherer societies and continues up to the present day with YouTube and streaming music.

Gioia explains how music had its origins in hunting and war, and how both musical instruments and musical conventions reflect that. He describes the way in which music was often initially subversive, a product of the poor, slaves, the underclass, and how it was ultimately appropriated by the ruling class for its own purposes. He talks about how women’s voices were suppressed and their creations co-opted. For example The Song of Songs in the Old Testament, clearly an erotic love song, became a poem describing God’s love for His people, or if you are Christian, perhaps Christ’s love for his church. He documents other similar occurrences in the ancient world.

He explains how the composers of the classical music era had their own agendas and how they benefited from their patrons but often when their own way. He is highly critical about the way in which the early documenters of folk music failed to accurately transcribe what they found. Gioia describes how publishers of sheet music catered to the kind of music folks with pianos in their homes wanted to play.

In the modern era Gioia moves from blues to jazz to rock to country in a single chapter and describes their impact on American society. He notes how MTV revolutionized the music industry and how Apple and Google (which purchased YouTube) revolutionized it once again. Throughout, over and over again, he documents how music that is initially intended to be revolutionary ends up becoming mainstream.

The book is ably ready by Jamie Renell, although his occasional mispronunciations of names, particularly in the ancient world, can be jarring. Still Renell reads with cadence and clarity that effectively communicates Gioia’s text.


Something Deeply Hidden

Something Deeply Hidden coverSomething Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime
Sean Carroll
Narrated by the author
Penguin Audio, September 10, 2019
$14.99 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

Perhaps I am a glutton for punishment, but this is the second audiobook on quantum mechanics that I have listened to in the past couple of months. The previous book was What is Real?. The books cover some the the same material, but are really quite different.

The author of What is Real, Adam Becker, has a degree in physics but works as a writer and journalist. Sean Carroll, author of the present book, is a working physicist, although he is well known for his popular books on science. Becker discusses the history, people, and politics around quantum theory in addition to the theories themselves, while Carroll sticks mostly to the science, touching on those other matters when necessary. Becker tries for a balanced approach to the various theories, which can get confusing. Carroll, on the other hand, openly advocates one theory, which can get confusing.

The dominant school of quantum mechanics is the Copenhagen interpretation, while the school that Carroll advocates is known as “many worlds.” The Copenhagen interpretation says that we should accept the the mathematics of quantum mechanics and not try to understand what is actually going on behind it (“shut up and calculate”). The other schools, including many worlds, try to explain why we get the results that we do.

The book is capably read by the author. Since he wrote the book he knows what to emphasize and what requires less stress. You can hear in his voice when he is frustrated or exasperated by a particular approach or theory.

This is not light material, and is perhaps better read in print (paper or electronic), but it’s all fascinating stuff.