Sapiens

Sapiens coverSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Yuval Noah Harari
narrated by Derek Perkins
HarperAudio, 2017
$23.07 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

The author of this book got his PhD at Oxford and teaches history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has the hubris in this volume to attempt to provide a complete history of the human race. Surprisingly, he pretty much succeeds.

Harari starts with the story of early man, and points out that Homo sapiens was not the only human species. He explains that sapiens competed against other human species, such as Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis. It was not inevitable that Homo sapiens would be the successful species, but it became so for a variety of reasons.

He describes the success of the hunter-gatherers and discusses how that group had a healthier, more varied diet than the wheat farmers. Harari explains how wheat domesticated humankind, and not the other way around because in growing wheat a community could feed more people in a smaller area than its hunter-gatherer counterparts.

The author lays out how empire, for all its faults, was required for culture and that there would be no culture without empire. He goes on to describe the interrelationship between war and capitalism.

In the modern era, Harari discusses factory farming in painful detail and how the system has no respect for the natural needs and desires of the animals involved. That section may make you rethink drinking milk and eating meat.

As he nears the close of the book the author discusses genetic engineering and the cyborg elements of science: combining the organic with the non-organic.

The book is well-narrated by Derek Perkins, and his inflections are in sync with the text. His engaging and authoritative British accent kept my interest throughout.

This is good stuff, though not always easy to listen to.


Save Me the Plums

Save Me the Plums coverSave Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir
Ruth Reichl
narrated by the author
Random House Audio, 2019
$19.60 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

I read My Kitchen Year, Ruth Reichl’s memoir cum cookbook, when it came out in 2015, so I was keen on reading, well, listening to, her latest book. My Kitchen Year is Reichl’s story about her life in the year after Gourmet magazine, of which she was editor-in-chief, was shut down, and in it she included a number of recipes that helped her make it through that year. Save Me the Plums is her narrative about her decade at Gourmet.

This is one of those audiobooks that is made far better by being read by the author. Reichl describes being lured to the Condé Nast publication from her job as food critic for The New York Times. She describes how she helped revitalize the magazine, which had become staid and stale. She talks about the lavish expense accounts and other perquisites that came with being part of Condé Nast. She talks about the politics of publishing and the idiosyncrasies of Condé Nast owner S.I. Newhouse. She describes the belt-tightening that came with the Great Recession and Newhouse’s decision, sudden and unexpected, to shut down the magazine. Throughout it all Reichl offers a variety of recipes.

This book will appeal to a variety of audiences: foodies, lovers of food writing, and those with an interest in the magazine publishing business. Enjoyable, engaging listening.


Almost Everything

Notes on Hope coverAlmost Everything: Notes on Hope
Anne Lamott
narrated by the author
Penguin Audio, 2018
$12.25 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

I have not read an Anne Lamott book for several years. When I decided to add an Audible subscription to my Amazon account, however, this is the first book I purchased with one of my credits. I was past due for an Anne Lamott fix.

The book did not disappoint. I was very familiar with Anne’s voice from her many appearances on the late, lamented West Coast Live, a highly intelligent public radio program that Terry and I faithfully listened to each week. It only made sense that she narrate her own book; another voice would not have sounded right.

Anne writes about family, friends, recovery, and writing. She writes about people whose lives were cut short by disease. But she also talks about community, about faith, about grace, and, naturally, about hope. She says people who engender hate want exactly that: for us to hate them, and we should thwart them by not doing so. That makes me seriously reconsider my own feelings about the current occupant of the White House.

She writes about grace. “We can’t logically get from where we were to where we are now. I think that is what they mean by grace.” She calls grace “spiritual WD-40.”

There is not a lot new here. Anne Lamott is Anne Lamott, although I did learn for the first time about her son’s struggle with addiction and recovery. If you are an Anne Lamott fan, however, you will find yourself in familiar and comfortable territory with this book.


This is Audible

If you have ever purchased an audiobook from Audible you know that every book starts with a familiar voice saying, “This is audible.” (Rather like the “You’ve got mail” from the heyday of AOL. Someone whose voice became familiar to millions and who probably got paid very little for recording the phrase.) That Audible voice was present in the early days of the company and it is still very much present today in the Amazon-owned era.

AudibleI wrote a couple of weeks ago about my audiobook dilemma. I liked the fact that I could download audiobooks from the library at no cost, but I disliked the fact that most new titles were unavailable, being already checked out by others, and that I was under time pressure to finish the book. I said that I didn’t have a problem in principle with the Audible monthly fee, but I didn’t want to put yet another monthly subscription on my credit card.

Here’s was I did. I was already aware that I was in overwhelm mode with my streaming video options, so I decided that was a good place to cut back, allowing me in good conscience to take on the Audible subscription.

My first impression: I am delighted. When I was an Audible subscriber many years ago the selection was somewhat limited. I had a credit that I had to use each month or lose (they later began to allow credit rollovers), but there wasn’t necessarily a book available that month which I wanted. These days almost every new book that comes out has an audio version, as well as print and ebook editions. Amazon makes it easy because when you search for a book the entry displays all the various formats that are available. I am not by any means going to give up reading print books in Kindle format, but many books do lend themselves to the audio format. While I will continue to read my Kindle books in the evening, I have audiobooks which I can listen to while walking, driving, doing yard work, or simply doing daily mundane tasks. It’s nice to be able to listen to an audiobook while emptying the dishwasher.

There’s another benefit that having an Audible subscription provides. I get my one credit each month, but if I come to the end of a book before I come to the end of the month the cost of that second audiobook is considerably less for Audible members than it is for non-members.

I think the value of the subscription is going to be well worth the cost.


The Origins of Creativity

Origins of Creativity coverThe Origins of Creativity
Edward O. Wilson
narrated by Jonathan Hogan
Recorded Books, 2017
Audiobook $17.95, Kindle edition $8.98
audiobook borrowed from the Santa Clara County Library System

This was enjoyable listening. Edward O. Wilson is a distinguished Harvard scientist who first made his name in the field of entomology (the study of insects – as opposed to etymology, the study of word origins). In particular, he is one of the foremost experts in the world on ants.

This book goes far beyond the ant world, however. His thesis is that we can do a lot to salvage culture and society by the coming together of science and the humanities. In this discussion, he describes storytelling in hunter-gatherer societies, the social conventions of insects, the evolution of the genus homo, and archetypes in movies. Wilson also discusses religion, though not always in a favorable light. At the same time, he has some positive things to say about religion and even admits to a couple of moving religious experiences in his own life.

The narration by Jonathan Hogan is excellent. His inflection, cadence, and pace make this a very enjoyable book to listen to. I did at times think that maybe I should be reading the print version; there were times when I wanted to flip back a few pages, something that is easier to do in print than with audio.

Overall, however, this was a delightful and educational listening experience.


Love, Loss, and What We Ate

Love, Loss, and What We Ate coverLove, Loss, and What We Ate: A Memoir
Padma Lakshmi
narrated by the author
HarperAudio, 2016
Audiobook $28.95, Kindle edition $9.99
audiobook borrowed from the Santa Clara County Library System

I have been getting my audiobooks from the Santa Clara County Library System. As a result I find myself borrowing books that I might otherwise not listen to as the newer, popular books are usually checked out. That was definitely the case with Love, Loss, and What We Ate.

I wasn’t familiar with Padma Lakshmi before listening to her memoir. I am a foodie, as you well know, but if you have been reading this blog for a while you know that I also hate competition cooking shows. Lakshmi is best known as a judge on Top Chef, which airs on the Bravo network. It turns out, however, that she has done a lot more than that.

Lakshmi’s mother is an immigrant from India who put herself through nursing school and then devoted herself to the profession. Padma found herself somewhat at loose ends after college and more or less stumbled into a career in modeling. That led to some acting gigs which led to an anchor role on the Italian equivalent of the Today show. Lakshmi writes with honesty about many aspects of her life, including her short-lived and tempestuous marriage to author Salmon Rushdie and a long-term relationship with one of the pioneers of the leveraged buyout, many decades her senior.

She also writes about her own personal health. She describes her battle with endometriosis in excruciating detail which made me, as a male, uncomfortable. But I am sure that part of her motivation in writing the book was to make her own struggles public as a means of raising awareness and helping other women with the same disease, which seems to be frequently misdiagnosed. In fact, she helped found the Endometriosis Foundation of America. And in the larger picture, that was a small, even if somewhat lengthy, part of the book.

I listened to an NPR piece on audiobook production a number of years ago. The segment included David Sedaris, who records the audio versions of his own books, explaining how one should not try to take on the voices of others when reading dialog, but rather continue on in one’s own voice. As much as it was a delight to hear Lakshmi tell her own story, I wish she had followed David’s advice. The Indian accent she used for her female relatives sounded affected at best. Her attempt at taking on the accent of her Turkish gynecologist sounded, well, just strange.

Nonetheless, the book was for the most part enjoyable. While I grew weary hearing at times of Lakshmi’s jet setting ways, she still has led an interesting life that lends itself to pleasant listening.


audiobooks and the best way to get them

My history of listening to audiobooks goes way back. I was an Audible member many years ago, back when Audible was a separate entity and not inextricably integrated into the Amazon infrastructure as it is today. I enjoyed listening to audiobooks on my walks, but when I found The Great Courses I liked their thirty-minute lecture format and the conversational tone of most of the lecturers. I ultimately cancelled my Audible plan.

AudibleAs much as I love The Great Courses, I have run through pretty much all of the courses in which I am interested that are suitable for an audio-only format (and a few for which I should have purchased the video version) and in fact have listened to a number of courses more than once.

So these days I have switched back to audiobooks, but have been getting them from the Santa Clara County Library System. I am reluctant to pay Amazon the $14.95 a month they want for Audible. I am not opposed to the fee in principle, but I have enough monthly subscriptions as it is; I don’t really need another one.

Still, there are limitations to using the library. I find myself borrowing books that I might otherwise not listen to as the newer, popular books are usually checked out. This can be good, in that I very much enjoyed The Olive Tree and Padma Lakshmi’s Love, Loss, and What We Ate, neither of which I would have been likely to listen to otherwise. On the other hand I hate being restricted in that way.

There are other disadvantages to the library as well. Library books must be turned in within a specified time frame. The point for me in having an audiobook (or a Great Courses lecture series) is to have something to listen to when I am out on my walks or when I am doing yard work. Since I have a time limit on audiobooks from the library, I find myself listening to them at other times as well. That’s not entirely bad, I suppose, but I do feel somewhat pressured.

So the answer? As the (misquoted) Jack Benny phrase goes, I’m thinking, I’m thinking.