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.


Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us

Tragedy the Greeks and Us coverTragedy, the Greeks, and Us
Simon Critchley
Narrated by John Lee
Random House Audio, April 16, 2019
$17.15 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

As a classics major in college I took a semester-long Greek Tragedy course and read Greek tragedies in other classes as well. I was intrigued, then, when I read a positive review of this book.

Critchley offers some interesting insights here. He points out that in Greek tragedy the deceiver and the deceived have more insight than the non-deceiver and the non-deceived (Oedipus). He discusses how women in Greek tragedy are the polar opposite of how they were treated and expected to behave in classical Greek society (Clytemnestra, Antigone). Critchley is no elderly, doddering classicist. He makes references to social media, punk rock, and the Marx brothers. He sees Greek tragedy in the light of today’s world.

The author discusses how Greek tragedy was influenced (apparently) by the Sophists, and spends a lot of time analyzing Plato and Aristotle’s perspectives on tragedy. Plato saw no role for tragedy (or poetry) in his “just state” as set forth in The Republic. Such diversions would, Plato believed, take men’s (and only men in classical Greek society) minds away from more essential pursuits. Aristotle, on the other hand, analyzed tragedy in considerable detail and discussed what tragedy should and should not be.

The book is expertly read by John Lee, who does so in a rather declamatory manner, appropriate for both the subject matter and Critchley’s text. This was time well spent.


What is Real?

What is Real?What Is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics
Adam Becker
Narrated by Greg Tremblay
Blackstone Audio, Inc., March 20, 2018
$13.99 for Audible members, more for non-members

Adam Becker is a science writer with a PhD in astrophysics and a B.A. in philosophy and physics. As such, he is well qualified to write this book, which discusses both theories in quantum physics and the lives of those involved in developing those theories. He goes back to the beginning, with a lot of attention being given to Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. Bohr was one of the originators of quantum theory, while Einstein questioned it. Becker takes us through the twentieth century, documenting Hitler and his anti-Jewish policies (which robbed Germany of many brilliant physicists), the creation of the atom bomb, and the effect that military spending and the cold war had on the direction taken by physics.

Becker discusses the Stockholm interpretation of quantum theory, which essentially says that the quantum subatomic world behaves differently from the physical world that we perceive with our senses, and we shouldn’t worry about why. He talks about those who developed alternatives to the Stockholm interpretation and the poor reception they got. David Bohm was blacklisted due to his activities with the Communist party in his younger days and ended up teaching in Brazil. Hugh Everett left academia for the Pentagon and industry because he preferred fine dining and sexual affairs to debating theoretical physics. At the end of the book Becker wonders how these debates might have turned out differently had these two remained in the conversation.

The book is capably narrated by Greg Tremblay. His convention of changing the tone and pitch of his voice when reading quotations was slightly annoying, but, I suppose, necessary to distinguish that material from the the author’s narrative. In some respects I might have been better off with a print or Kindle edition so I could flip back and review certain material, but for the most part this was enjoyable and educational listening.


Trick Mirror

Trick Mirror coverTrick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion
Jia Tolentino
Narrated by the author
Random House Audio, August 6, 2019
$22.05 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

There is a perception that for many woman of the Generation X era feminism was not a compelling or urgent cause, as they felt comfortable being able to create the lives and careers that they wanted without any significant barriers or obstructions. This may or may not be true, but the perception exists.

Things seem to be different for the Millennials  If Jia Tolentino speaks for her generation then feminism is front and center for Millennial women. Tolentino, a culture critic for The New Yorker, is sharp and insightful in this collection of essays. The author is literate and perceptive, never holding back in expressing her own opinion. The book is timely, including multiple discussions of the repercussions of the 2016 election along with mentions of public figures such as Kate Middleton and Megan Markle. Tolentino knows her literature, nineteenth century, twentieth century, and contemporary. She is well versed in the writings of Simone de Beauvoir and Gloria Steinem. She writes about appearing in a reality television show while in high school and about how Queen Victoria’s wedding had a profound effect on how weddings have been performed since.

Throughout her essays Tolentino describes how women have not made the gains that society perceives them to have made, and how their rights and autonomy continue to be under attack. The final essay makes clear that Tolentino has no use for marriage. She argues that historically marriage  has benefitted men and has been detrimental to women.

The fact that Tolentino reads her own essays in this audio version made the book all the more engaging for me, but I believe it would be just as effective in print, either paper or electronic. If you want to know what one segment of the Millennial generation is thinking this book is the ideal place to start.


Hippie Food

Hippie Food coverHippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat
Jonathan Kauffman
Narrated by George Newbern
HarperAudio, January 23, 2018
$20.27 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

I started college in 1971 and was surrounded by people who were into natural foods and vegetarian eating. At Pitzer College it was written into the food service contract that each dinner meal had to have one vegetarian entrée. My senior year, when I lived off campus, I had a copy of the first edition of Diet for a Small Planet, and I was very much in tune with Frances Moore Lappé’s philosophy that we should get our protein from plants rather than animals.

Hippie Food, then, addressed a subject in which I was very interested. Kauffman really covers the waterfront on the topic. He writes about the early Seventh Day Adventists in the nineteenth century who believed in a vegetarian diet. He discusses the natural food and vegetarian restaurants in Los Angeles in the 1940’s that attracted the elite in Hollywood. He talks about Stephen Gaskin and The Farm commune. Kauffman accurately describes how vegetarian cookbooks evolved, from Lappé’ to Mollie Katzen and her Moosewood Cookbook as well as those between and beyond. Near the end of the book he chronicles the food co-op wars of the seventies and eighties, describing the debate over healthy for the few versus affordable for the working class. He explains how Whole Foods arose out of all that.

It’s all fascinating stuff and narrator George Newbern delivers the material in an extraordinarily pleasant and engaging manner. I found it a most enjoyable listening experience.