The Possibility of Life

The Possibility of Life coverThe Possibility of Life: Science, Imagination, and Our Quest for Kinship in the Cosmos
Jaime Green
read by the author
Harlequin Audio (April 18, 2023), 8 hours and 25 minutes
$27.94 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

Jaime Green is an experienced science writer whose work has appeared in Slate, Popular Science, and The New York Times Book Review. She is also the editor of The Best American Science and Nature Writing book series. So she has some credentials to write about the possibility of life outside the planet earth. Green says we shouldn’t be asking “whether or not,” but “what if.”

In The Possibility of Life, Green muses on what the chances might be for there to be life on other planets. She interviews a wide variety of scientists in multiple fields and describes their work. She describes how our knowledge of exoplanets has mushroomed over the past couple of decades, so much so that we now know of many planets orbiting stars in what are informally called “Goldilocks Zones,” that is being the right distance from their star that might allow it to support life.

Besides looking at science, Green writes about science fiction, but she is careful to be clear that science fiction is just that: fiction. But she also recognizes that science fiction might give us some clues about what life elsewhere in the galaxy might be like. She knows her Star Trek, both Next Generation and the original series (or TOS as Trekkers refer to it). She discusses the three-part Next Generation series finale, “All Good Things,” in which the omniscient being known as Q shows Captain Picard how life almost didn’t arise on earth. And she writes about the original series episode in which the crew of the Enterprise encounter the Horta, a silicon-base life form. Though she points out that based in the science we know, silicon-based life is not likely possible. Green also discusses several science fiction novels, many of which were unfamiliar to me.

Green writes extensively about Carl Sagan’s book Contact and the subsequent movie. She goes into such detail that if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie you might want to skip that chapter to avoid all the spoilers. She tells us that Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan was an uncredited coauthor of the book. Green discusses the golden records on the two Voyager spacecraft, a project that Druyan managed, and in which Sagan was heavily involved. Green was obviously deeply impressed by her in-person interview with Druyan.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Green read her own work and the enthusiasm that comes through as she discusses the various ideas and concepts that she contemplates. The print and e-book editions, however, have a bibliography, so that is worth taking into consideration. Either way, if you are interested in the search for like beyond earth, The Possibility of Life is well worth your time.

Slow Cooked: An Unexpected Life in Food Politics

Slow Cooked coverSlow Cooked: An Unexpected Life in Food Politics
Marion Nestle
read by Maria Marquis
Audible Studios (October 04, 2022), 7 hours and 35 minutes
print edition published by University of California Press
$17.35 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

I am baffled. How is it that a foodie like me had never heard of Marion Nestle, one of the foremost advocates for healthy eating and a top whistleblower against the negative effects that corporations have in what ends up on our grocery store shelves? It was only when I came across a mention of this book that I first became aware of Nestle and her work. (Nestle pronounces her name like the verb “nestle” and makes clear she is in no way affiliated with the Swiss food manufacturer that places an accent on the final “e.”)

Nestle recounts her childhood as the daughter of two Communists. Although this was the time of McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, they stayed under the radar as they were rank-and-file members and not leaders. Nestle’s father was a promoter of left-wing entertainment acts, but he was not long part of her life, as he and her mother divorced when she was young. She had a difficult time growing up as the daughter of a single parent but was eventually able to get away to college. She married young and abandoned her education to be a housewife and mother. That marriage (where she got the last name that she still uses) ended, and while a single mother herself she was nonetheless able to return to school and get a doctorate in molecular biology.

Her second marriage eventually took her to the University of California, San Francisco. Her husband accepted a job there on the condition that the university also find Marion a job as well. What she learned the hard way was that faculty spouse jobs were not taken seriously and that the departure of the hiring dean meant she was expected to resign her position.

That second marriage ended as well and she ended up in Washington, DC doing a report on nutrition for the government. There she also learned the hard way about politics and bureaucracy, and that corporations and lobbyists had undue influence on what the government published about nutrition. This was in the Reagan era of the eighties so the corporate world had a lot to say about government policy.

After a year in Washington, Nestle got a position running the flagging nutrition and home economics department at New York University. She had her work cut out for her, given a faculty set in its ways and a shoestring budget. But part of her taking the position involved her having tenure from the start, so she dove in and turned the program around. By the time she retired she was running a highly respected nutrition and food studies program.

Nestle also writes about her experience in book publishing. She has written both academic and trade books and is candid in discussing which books sold well and which ones were not successful. But her goal was always to advocate for healthy nutrition and call out corporations for prioritizing profit over the health of the American consumer.

Marion Nestle has had an amazing career, and although she is technically retired from New York University, she still makes public appearances, teaches, and writes a blog every weekday. You can find her blog at

I found Slow Cooked both fascinating and enlightening. Maria Marquis’s narration is nuanced and highly listenable. If you have any interest in food, food politics, or nutrition take the time to read (or listen to) this book.

Have You Eaten Yet?

Have You Eaten Yet coverHave You Eaten Yet: Stories from Chinese Restaurants Around the World
Cheuk Kwan
read by Brian Nishii
Blackstone Publishing (January 13, 2023), 9 hours and 18 minutes
(print edition published by Pegasus Books)
$13.99 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

Author Cheuk Kwan is of Chinese descent, was born in Hong Kong, has lived in Japan and Singapore, and eventually immigrated to Canada where he made his permanent home. Kwan, therefore, naturally takes a global perspective.

Although Have You Eaten Yet was just released this year, the book documents Kwan’s travels as he filmed a documentary in the early 2000s about Chinese people and the restaurants they ran around the world. The first chapter, however, describes a more recent trip he took to attend the funeral of a restaurant owner in rural Saskatchewan whom he had known for many years. Kwan shares his memories of the man, known as Noisy Jim and his life in the community. The locals loved Jim and would hang out in his restaurant. Jim, though Chinese, was not interested in serving authentic Chinese food; his menu contained the dishes that the locals enjoyed. Jim was clearly an integral part of his community.

In the remainder of the book Kwan takes us on a tour to cities and towns around the world where Chinese people opened and ran restaurants. He visited proprietors and their families in Israel, Africa, Turkey, South America, and even Norway. Some of these people left China legally, others illegally. Some left before the Maoist revolution of 1949, others after. Many had ties to Taiwan. Some of the younger people were born in the country to which their parents migrated.

There is a wide range of philosophy about the dishes these people served. Some strove for authenticity, while others adapted their dishes to the tastes of the locals. In Peru, the infusion of Chinese cooking was so great and so widely adopted that the distinction between Peruvian and Chinese cuisine has become blurred. Likewise, the individual stories vary greatly. Many of the people Kwan interviewed loved their adopted country while others would have preferred to return to China or Hong Kong. There are plenty of tales of arranged marriages and of men who left their families in China, finding a new wife and starting a new family in their adopted country.

Kwan admires chef Ken Hom, who introduced the British to Chinese cooking with the TV series Chinese Cookery in the 1980s. His epilogue recounts a Zoom conversation with Hom in 2021, in which they share thoughts about Chinese cooking and global cuisine.

When Blackstone publishes an audiobook you can expect a quality production, and Have You Eaten Yet is no exception. Voice actor Brian Nishii does a superb job of reading the book and he effectively conveys the emotions of the people that Kwan interviews.

My only advice: Don’t read (or listen to) this book when you are hungry.

How Far the Light Reaches

How Far The Light Reaches coverHow Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures
Sabrina Imbler
read by the author
Little, Brown & Company (December 06, 2022), 5 hours and 41 minutes
$25.96 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

In How Far the Light Reaches Sabrina Imbler has compiled a series of essays that constitute both a memoir and a sort of bestiary of sea creatures. Each essay describes one aspect of life in the ocean and also some part of the author’s (or their family’s) life. (Imbler identifies as non-binary and I use their pronouns of choice.)

Imbler describes a vigilante crusade to go to Petco and persuade customers not to buy goldfish and subject them to life in a small bowl. They then discuss what happens if you flush a goldfish down the toilet or throw it into a pond or stream. Surprisingly, the goldfish will thrive. It will thrive, in fact, to the point of becoming invasive in its new environment.

In an essay about the longest-known animal gestation, an octopus who carried her eggs for over four years, Imbler writes about their mother’s struggle with weight loss. An essay on another invasive species, the sturgeon, also describes their grandmother’s escape from China when invaded by Japan.

Mostly, though, Imbler writes about their own life. In an essay about the sand striker (also known as the bobbit worm) the author describes how men took sexual advantage of them when they were binging on alcohol. Imbler takes the opportunity here to write about social justice. They write they are neither willing to blame the men nor excuse them on account of the system in which they were instilled:

quoteAlmost every system we exist in is cruel, and it is our job to hold ourselves accountable to a moral center separate from the arbitrary ganglion of laws that so often get things wrong. This is the work we inherit as creatures with a complex brain, which comes with … the duty of empathy, of understanding what it means when someone is stumbling.

A long essay on how humans kill whales, or how whales sometimes simply beach themselves, describes how scientists do a whale necrology and how they write up those necrologies. Imbler explains they took a class on whales thinking it would be about whale biology and life cycle, when it was actually about whaling, much to their consternation. The author interweaves their own necrology on a failed relationship with a woman, that woman being the reason they signed up for the class in the first place.

Imbler is candid about their own relationship struggles. In an essay about the cuttlefish and how it can change its appearance, Imbler suggests they may have spent too much time changing their appearance to please a partner. Describing a tiny sea creature that travels in swarms Imbler writes about their own participation in the New York City lesbian community.

I enjoyed listening to Imbler’s voice reading these essays, but I am not unequivocally recommending the audiobook version. The print and e-book version contain line drawings which (obviously) are missing from the audiobook. And Imbler’s writing is so vivid and evocative that seeing it on the page or e-book screen is likely to be an equally marvelous experience.

The bottom line is this: If you are interested in marine biology, or if you care about the experience of gay and transgender people, or if you believe in humans looking out for one another, then How Far the Light Reaches should be on your reading (or listening) list.


Declassified: A Low-Key Guide to the High-Strung World of Classical Music
Arianna Warsaw-Fan Rauch
read by the author
Penguin Audio (October 11, 2022), 6 hours and 48 minutes
$14.62 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

The reviewer in The New York Times Book Review who wrote that this audiobook was delightful to listen to had it right. Declassified, part memoir and part classical music primer, is eminently listenable and thoroughly enjoyable.

Arianna Warsaw-Fan Rauch’s father was a professional musician, and Arianna got her love of music sitting underneath her father’s piano as he played. This led to her getting a violin and lessons at age two. Rauch writes about her relationship with the violin and music. She writes about her various violin instructors (some of whom she loved and some of whom she hated), and the path of her music education. Rauch initially auditioned for Julliard but was turned down, so she went to Northwestern. She again auditioned at Julliard for her junior year where she was accepted, and where she got her bachelor’s degree followed by her master’s. The author mentions her stormy relationship with a man she refers to only as Golden Violin Boy or GVB, and how she broke up with him right before a performance. She tells us about a much healthier and more stable relationship with a non-musical German.

Intermixed with the memoir Rauch writes about the world of music in a lighthearted manner filled with wit. She discusses the stories she heard about competition and sabotage at college music programs and how that compared to the reality. (The competition was friendly and the sabotage was a myth.) She playfully lists the stereotypes of various musicians and their instruments. But Rauch writes less playfully about conductors, most of whom (except for the first one she worked with) she held in low esteem. She discusses the relative selling price of various instruments in the orchestra and tells stories about composers and their romances. Rauch provides an overview of the various genres in classical music and offers advice on how to listen to it.

The author does not hide her biases. For example, she hates medieval music. (I personally rather like Gregorian chant). Because Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” uses a similar musical framework, she also hates their music. Nor does she hide the fact that she is a movie fan. Movie references abound throughout the book, culminating with a list of classical music related movies at the end of the book.

Interestingly, what prompted Rauch to write this book was not her life as a professional musician, but her giving up that life. She writes about a Mendelson violin concerto which

quoteset me down the path of becoming a serious violinist, a path that would ultimately take me away from my early love of music and into a prison-like labyrinth of technical pressures and demands.

After learning that she was pregnant she completed one last concert tour and then put her violin away in favor of becoming a listener and teaching her child an appreciation of music.

Accompanying the audiobook is an extensive PDF that provides comprehensive resources on genres, composers, works, and movies. I assume all of this content is somehow integrated into the print and e-book editions.

If you are acquainted with classical music you may find some passages rather basic and simplistic, but any classical music lover would, to my mind, find it difficult not to enjoy this book.

The California Days of Ralph Waldo Emerson

The California Days of Ralph Waldo Emerson coverThe California Days of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Brian C. Wilson
read by L.J. Ganser
Tantor Audio, 8 hours and 35 minutes
print edition published by University of Massachusetts Press (May 27, 2022)
$15.30 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

The California Days of Ralph Waldo Emerson, documenting a railroad trip that the Sage of Concord took to California late in his life, shows us that Emerson was not as New England-centric as we might believe.

Emerson had been slated to give a series of talks at Harvard, but aging as he was, he struggled with preparing those lectures. Emerson’s friend, railroad magnate and philanthropist John Murray Forbes suggested a railroad trip to California for which Forbes would make the arrangements. Those making the trip included Emerson’s daughter Edith and her husband, Forbes’s son. Fortunately, Emerson’s friend, James Bradley Thayer was in that group as well because it is to him we owe much of our knowledge of the expedition. Few of Emerson’s letters home to his wife Lidian survive, but we have Thayer’s (puzzlingly unsuccessful) book A Western Journey with Mr. Emerson along with letters to his wife Sophie to document the events.

Forbes was not one to do things in a small way. For the trip he arranged for the party to travel in a private Pullman car which would meet them in Chicago. The car had a sitting space which was converted into a dining room for meals, a separate sleeping space, and a full kitchen. The car was fully staffed with employees of the Pullman company.

Author Brian C. Wilson goes into detail about the trip and describes the travelers’ daily routines and the operation of their private car. In Utah, the group made a detour to Salt Lake City so Emerson could meet Mormon leader Brigham Young. Wilson makes a long diversion into the history of the Mormon religion and Young’s establishment of Salt Lake City as the center for the religion. Odd, as all this is somewhat tangential to Emerson’s thought and interests and to the trip as a whole.

Wilson’s detail about the group’s journey across the continent and through the Sierra Nevada is such that that their arrival in San Francisco seems almost anti-climactic. Once there, the men in the group make an odd choice for entertainment. They visit some rather sleazy venues in Chinatown. But it wasn’t all about slumming. Although Emerson gave up his role as a Unitarian minister early in his career, the Unitarians still claimed him, and when San Francisco Unitarians learned of his arrival they insisted he offer lectures. Anticipating this, daughter Edith had made sure several lectures made their way into Emerson’s trunk.

The travelers split up their San Francisco time with a visit to Yosemite, a journey that the time took four days. Wilson writes the trip would be difficult, “requiring travel by ferry, railroad, stagecoach, wagon, and finally horseback.” (Terry and I would drive to Yosemite from the South Bay in five hours or so.) Not only did they enjoy the beauty of the region, but a young John Muir wanted to meet Emerson and took the group on a trip through the region.

The author tells us that there is little record of the journey home and concludes the book with an account of Emerson’s final years. He also recounts the lives of his traveling companions after the trip.

When a book is produced in its audio format by Tantor you know it will be a quality production. This is no exception. L.J. Ganser’s narration is superb. I could quibble about his pronunciation of the term “placer mining” and of Kearney Street in San Francisco, but his work is so listenable and so professional that these lapses are insignificant.

If Emerson and the Transcendentalist world fall within your realm of interest, do not miss this book.


Helgoland coverHelgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution
Carlo Rovelli, translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell
read by David Rintoul
Penguin Audio (May 25, 2021), 4 hours and 31 minutes
$18.38 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

I must be some kind of a glutton for punishment. I keep reading Kindle books and listening to audiobooks about quantum theory. Sometimes I think I have something of a grasp of quantum mechanics and other times I think that I haven’t a clue. And still I read (and listen) on.

The Helgoland of the title is an island that Werner Heisenberg visited as a way of coping with his allergies. While he was there he recognized that the orbit of an electron around its nucleus required a table rather than a simple equation to describe it. Author Carlo Rovelli explains how this occurred and then discusses theories of other early quantum theorists and the conversations among them, people such as Niels Bohr and Erwin Schrödinger.

Rovelli proceeds to discuss superposition, the idea that a subatomic particle can be in two places at once. He reviews the three primary theories of quantum mechanics: many worlds, hidden variables, and wave collapse. I won’t describe these here: you can find ample online resources if you want to understand them. Suffice it to say that Rovelli finds all three theories lacking.

The author goes on to state that objects only can be measured, and that they only have meaning, when they interact with one another. Rovelli writes, “Quantum theory describes the manifestation of objects to one another.” He states, “The properties of any entity are nothing other than the way in which that entity influences others.” This seems to be the primary thesis of this book. Rovelli insists that this is true no matter what the scale, unlike most quantum theorists who believe that quantum phenomena happen only at the subatomic level.

In the second half of the book Rovelli delves into philosophy. He discusses Alexander Bogdanov, the Russian Bolshevik and philosopher, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. He devotes a chapter to Nāgārjuna, the Indian Buddhist philosopher of the second century. It seems that Nāgārjuna believed that reality was experienced through interaction. (I’m reminded of Martin Buber: “All real living is meeting.”)

Rovelli wrote Helgoland in Italian (though apparently while living in Canada), and it appears the book required two translators to render it into English. I question how much of Rovelli’s voice comes through in this audiobook version. David Rintoul delivers a beautiful rendition in highly listenable British-accented English, but how much of that is Rovelli? Rintoul’s voice tells us that American physicist David Bohm was “sacked” from his job at Princeton, clearly a British colloquialism. I wonder if the Italian word Rovelli used was equally informal.

For a lucid discussion of quantum mechanics one might be better off reading the likes of Sean Carroll.

audiobooks and podcasts

In any given month my audio listening time on my iPhone is divided into two segments: audiobooks and podcasts. On the tenth of each month I receive my Audible credit and select an audiobook, which I listen through to completion. Since an unabridged audiobook might be anywhere between eight and fifteen hours long, the portion of the month spent listening to audiobooks varies greatly. From the time I finish my audiobook until I receive my next Audible credit I listen to podcasts. I write here regularly about my audiobooks, but I haven’t said much about podcasts. I thought my podcast listening deserved some attention.

podcasts on iPhoneOne of my two favorite podcasts is Word Matters, produced by the good folks at Merriam-Webster. It’s all about language from the perspective of the dictionary. In early August, after their one hundredth episode, they announced they were going to take a break. I thought they would be back after Labor Day, but here it is the end of September and still no new episodes. I’m disappointed.

The other podcast on my top two list is Lexicon Valley, produced by linguist John McWhorter. McWhorter discusses all things linguistic, and since moving to his current podcast home at Booksmart Studios he has delved into matters political as well. Also enjoyable is Lingthusiasm, hosted by linguists Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne. They can get fairly academic, but I do like listening to their podcast. Staying in the realm of language, Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl podcast is much lighter weight, but informative and worth listening to.

As a foodie I must of course have my food podcasts. Food Network has its official Food Network Obsessed podcast, and Ellie Krieger has her independent One Real Good Thing podcast. Both are very listenable.

In the realm of religion I am awaiting season two of Amy Frykholm’s In Search Of podcast from The Christian Century. I have just started listening to the Jewish Chutzpod! podcast, appropriate because we are right now in the midst of the High Holy Days.

If I don’t have an audiobook to listen to I have plenty of podcast choices.

The Window Seat

The Window Seat coverThe Window Seat: Notes from a Life in Motion
Aminatta Forna
read by the author
Recorded Books, May 18, 2021 (8 hours and 30 minutes)
Print edition published by Grove Press
$21.43 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

I had never heard of Aminatta Forna when I saw this book mentioned. It turns out, however, that she is an established author of literary fiction who has won multiple awards. Where have I been?

Forna grew up with a complex family situation. Her father was an African from Sierra Leone, and her mother was Scottish. They divorced when she was very young and both quickly remarried. Her father married a woman from Sierra Leone and her mother married a man who worked for the United Nations, but who was from New Zealand. Her father was politically active in Sierra Leone, and was eventually arrested and then executed. Forna’s stepfather was posted to various countries around the world, and was serving in Iran when the Shah left the country and Ayatollah Khomeini returned. Forna was living with her mother and stepfather in Iran in the midst of these events.

The author describes various aspects of her life in these exquisitely written and wide-ranging essays. The title essay is also the opening essay. She opens the book with the statement, “Here are four words you rarely hear these days: I love to fly.” She has that right. Certainly any of us who have had occasion to fly since 9/11 are not fond of the process. Forna, however, writes about the pleasure of flying as an unaccompanied minor. She did a lot of that, as her father insisted that she be schooled in England. She describes how well the airlines treated unaccompanied minors in earlier decades.

In another essay she discusses the similarities between the way her parents and Barack Obama’s parents met. Both had to do with westerners assisting in African development and becoming acquainted with the locals.

Forna’s writing can cover a lot of ground in a single essay. In one essay she discusses contemporary bias against people of color and then describes how the slave trade was managed in West Africa in the eighteenth century. In another, she starts with a discussion of urban foxes in London and moves on to describing the proliferation of coyotes in the United States. (They’re not only in the West.)

The author also provides some delightful travelogue. Forna writes about how she and her brother took their mother on a trip to the Orkney and Shetland islands in Northern Scotland before she could no longer travel.

Given that she reads her own work one might wonder what sort of accent the author with an African father and a Scottish mother might have. The answer lies in the fact that her entire schooling was in England. (“I went to boarding school [in England] at six and left at eighteen for university in London.”) Forna, then, reads with a clipped English accent, but she doesn’t hold back emotion when emotion is appropriate. This is certainly the case in an angry essay about the perils of women walking alone in the city.

If you decide Window Seat is your cup of tea, and I hope you do, the audiobook is a superb option.


AdriaticAdriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age
Robert D. Kaplan
read by Arthur Morey
Random House Audio, April 12, 2022
$27.56 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

Decades after working in the region as a reporter Robert Kaplan returns to the lands bordering the Adriatic Sea as a sort of tourist, though he still has something of the reporter in him.

In Italy, Kaplan visits Rimini, Ravenna, Venice, and Trieste. He makes a point of visiting the major architectural and archaeological sites and his words evoke the power and beauty of the cathedrals and other structures. He throws in a lot of history and explains how the past created the foundation for later centuries. He also invokes literature, discussing Dante while in Vienna and Frazer’s Golden Bough in Ravenna. We also hear much about James Joyce and TS Eliot.

Once he leaves Trieste he travels to the the Balkans: countries that were once satellites of the former Soviet Union. Here he abandons his solitary journey and reports his conversations with the residents of the various countries. He begins with everyday citizens, but ultimately ends up talking with the power brokers in the post-Soviet landscape. He doesn’t abandon history but put his focus on more recent events.

I enjoyed the first part of the book and the combination of travelogue, history, and literature as Kaplan visited the various cities in Italy. Once he started traveling in the Balkans, however, I had a hard time caring much about the politics and infrastructure struggles of the region.

Kaplan has an odd fascination with Ezra Pound. He has obviously read the complete Cantos and admires some of them while thinking less of others. He also is highly critical of Pound’s fascist sympathies. Given Kaplan’s distaste for Pound’s politics it’s rather odd that the author gives Pound the amount of attention that he does.

Kaplan’s perspective is one of age and maturity, looking back on his earlier life as a reporter. As such, Arthur Morey’s mature voice delivers the ideal narration for Adriatic. He takes ownership of Kaplan’s feelings and emotions and channels them expertly.

The book is an odd mixture of genres, though the author warns the reader at the beginning that he will delve into modern politics after providing the historical background. Still, the book holds together, though I would have been happy with the Italian portion of the journey alone.