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.

A Brief History of Earth

A Brief History of Earth coverA Brief History of Earth: Four Billion Years in Eight Chapters
Andrew H. Knoll
read by Tom Parks
HarperAudio, April 27, 2021
$17.96 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

This book is 277 pages in the print edition, which translates to four hours and fifty-seven minutes in the audiobook version, rather short by audiobook standards, but long enough for Andrew Knoll to get his message across. The print and Kindle editions contain several charts, diagrams, and photos. Fortunately, purchasers of the audiobook version can download a PDF file with these images.

Knoll does indeed condense the history of planet earth into eight chapters, and he arranges them logically. His eight chapters are:

  • Chemical Earth
  • Physical Earth
  • Biological Earth
  • Oxygen Earth
  • Animal Earth
  • Green Earth
  • Catastrophic Earth
  • Human Earth

The author does a nice job of tracking the history of the planet from its earliest days shortly after the formation of the solar system. Although the first chapter is titled “Chemical Earth,” Knoll refers to chemistry and chemical elements throughout the book.

He offers some interesting material. For example, he describes how life had to first form without oxygen before oxygen breathing animals could evolve. He describes one of the great extinctions, when there was an unusual amount of volcanic activity on the planet. This, he says, created an environment that allowed the dinosaurs to evolve. Then, of course, that infamous meteor hit what is now the edge of the Yucatan Peninsula, causing their extinction.

Knoll describes the geological evolution of the planet, and how the continents moved and shifted until we got the geography that we know today. The first seven chapters offer an interesting blend of history, chemistry, geology, and biology.

Then the author gets to the final chapter: “Human Earth.” He paints a grim picture of what humans have done to the planet, and how human beings are responsible for global warming and climate change. He paints an alarming picture about the impact that these changes will likely have on the planet and society. Although he ends on a hopeful note, it’s clear that humankind needs to take bold action to protect the planet and our environment.

Tom Parks does a superb job of reading the book. He allows Knoll’s voice to come through while creating an enjoyable listening experience.

Dessert Can Save the World

Dessert Can Save the World coverDessert Can Save the World: Stories, Secrets, and Recipes for a Stubbornly Joyful Existence
Christina Tosi
read by the author
Random House Audio, March 08, 2022
$21.44 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with a Audible credit

I found this book when the “Newly Published” column on page 4 of the New York Times Book Review mentioned it as a noteworthy new audiobook. The reviewer was spot on in saying that this book deserved attention.

Christina Tosi writes about her obsession with dessert. When she was a child she would eat her grandmother’s raw cookie dough, ignoring warnings about salmonella. Her grandmother stored baked cookies in the freezer in the basement until it was time to serve them, but Christina would sneak down there and steal the wrapped cookies. When she was in high school she delighted in developing her own creations. She was always a rebel. She writes, “I knew from a relatively young age that I was going to be uncool, which I was totally cool with.”

After high school when she realized it was time to leave home, she went to New York City where she attended culinary school by day and worked in a restaurant at night. She describes in detail the grueling work and the long hours in the restaurant business. But her rebel nature showed itself in these jobs. Head coverings were of course required in the kitchen, and there was a standard white cap the chefs expected staff to wear. Tosi one day, however, donned a colored scarf. She got away with it.

Tosi writes about how she worked in all aspects of the culinary world: on the line in the kitchen, the front of the house, and the dessert corner of the kitchen. This confirmed for her, she says, that it was the dessert part of that world she loved the most.

Tosi was working at a high-end New York restaurant as the head pastry chef when the landlord evicted the tenant next door. She took that as the opportunity to open her own bakery, Milk Bar. What she was not prepared for was the immediate success of her venture. She writes about the ridiculously long hours and the challenges she faced. She describes her stubbornness while finally realizing that: 1) she could automate the baking processes, and 2) she could rely on others and not carry the whole burden herself.

The author includes an interlude on what she calls dirty dessert secrets. These are taking snack and cookie items from the grocery store (or the gas station minimart, or even, she says, from the dollar store) and mashing them up with other items found in the refrigerator, freezer, or pantry. Most of those sounded unappetizing to me. She insists that everyone has a dirty dessert secret and says she wouldn’t believe you if you told her that you didn’t have one. I have to say, though, that I don’t. I’m quite happy with the chocolate chip cookies I bake from the tub of cookie dough I buy at my Winco supermarket. (For a while it was Snickers fun size, but for now I’m stuck on the cookies.) Really, I don’t need a mashup.

Fortunately, however, there are a lot of more conventional dessert recipes in the book, many of which are very appealing. If you listen to the audiobook you can also download a PDF file containing the recipes.

Tosi writes a lot about making others happy, whether it be her own customers or people in need. At the end of the book, she discusses the work that her company has done to support charities and social justice. She says:

quoteInvite in the joy whenever, however, wherever, it comes along, be it dessert or anything else. And go all out to spread that joy to as many people in as many ways as you can. Because one act, by one person, sparks the change that, when shared, generates a revolution.

I love that Tosi narrated the book herself. Her joy in creating desserts and her enthusiasm are apparent. After listening to Dessert Can Save the World I would buy her desserts.

Minor Characters

Minor Characters coverMinor Characters: A Beat Memoir
Joyce Johnson
read by Samara Naeymi
Brilliance Audio, March 16, 2021
$21.99 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

Joyce Johnson’s memoir has gone through multiple iterations. Houghton Mifflin first published the book in 1983. Johnson wrote a new introduction for the book on the occasion of a 1994 reissue. Then Ann Douglas penned a thoughtful and illuminating introductory essay about American women in the 1950s for a 1999 edition. Finally, Samara Naeymi recorded the unabridged audiobook version, which Brilliance Audio released only last year.

When we read about the Beat Generation of the 1950s, we generally encounter the names of men: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and Neal Cassady, to name the most prominent figures. You will find all these men mentioned in Johnson’s book. But the prominence of the men diminishes the role women played in the movement. Johnson writes about her own involvement close to the movement but behind the scenes, and about how her close friend Elise Cowen and the wives of the Beats were very much a part of that world.

Johnson recounts her childhood and how her mother desperately wanted her to be a success in musical theater. That was not what Joyce wanted. She describes how she and her friend took the subway to Washington Square to participate in the folk music scene, telling their parents that they were doing something more wholesome. Her father was a corporate accountant who got little pleasure out of life other than playing the horses with the bookie at the newsstand and stopping by the bar for an occasional beer.

Johnson’s mother was intent that Joyce attend Barnard College, making her one of the few Jewish people to attend what has then an all-women’s school. (She was born Joyce Glassman.) Johnson spent four years at Barnard but did not graduate because the school had a physical education requirement that she ignored.

The author describes finding secretarial work after her non-graduation and maintaining a social life. Margaret Sanger had recently opened her birth control clinic in New York City, and the word among the young, unmarried Barnard alumna was that one could visit the clinic using a made-up married name to obtain the necessary services. Johnson admits that there was no logical reason for her hesitancy to do that herself. That omission had its consequences, and she describes in detail her experience of obtaining an illegal abortion by a seedy doctor in an unpleasant part of the city.

Elise Cowen and Johnson were close friends in college and maintained that friendship after their Barnard days, sometimes sharing an apartment. Cowen met Allen Ginsberg, with whom she immediately became infatuated. This was shortly before Ginsberg acknowledged his homosexuality, but Cowen never gave up hope, futile as that was.

It was Ginsberg who brought Johnson and Jack Kerouac together. Kerouac, constantly without money, suggested that he stay in Johnson’s apartment, something to which Johnson readily agreed. Kerouac was not one to stay in one place for long, however, and was always off to one place or another, whether it be Mexico, San Francisco, or Florida at his mother’s house. But he always had a place to stay with Johnson when he was in New York City.

Johnson makes a point of noting that Kerouac, always on the road (book reference intended), never headed out with a woman. Except for his mother. He moved her from Florida to San Francisco, back to Florida, and then to the New York countryside once his income from On the Road permitted his purchase of a house there. Loyalty to his mother transcended all other loyalties. He invited Johnson to visit their new home in New York, but afterward told her not to come back. His mother did not like her much. Among other things, she used too much hot water washing the dishes.

The author is clear-eyed in her perception of herself and others. She recognizes Kerouac had no romantic interest in her. (Sexual interest was a different matter.) She writes about how Kerouac kept insisting that they were “friends.” She also admits that she would have immediately taken him in had he chosen to commit. Johnson tells us that Kerouac never owned a typewriter. He always borrowed someone else’s, or very occasionally rented one. I have written here about how Kerouac famously composed On the Road on a scroll, and I have said that Kerouac scholars have said that the scroll consisted of sheets of paper taped together. Johnson says that he actually used a teletype roll that one of his friends obtained for him.

Johnson was at the center of the media frenzy after the publication On the Road. Kerouac had just returned to New York City and was living with her at the time. Johnson fielded telephone calls, sorted through the mail, and made sure Kerouac arrived on time for radio and television interviews. He was neither a gracious nor a pleasant guest for his media hosts.

Near the end of the book Johnson writes about breaking up with Kerouac (as if they were actually a couple in any genuine sense of the term). He had taken up with another woman and Johnson had reached her limit. It was outside a restaurant in New York City when she told him that enough was enough.

The final chapter is about the women in her world. In particular, she writes about how Cowen, who had been in a mental hospital, committed suicide rather than move to Florida with her parents. Although Johnson saw success as a writer, she tells us that the decade of the sixties did not hold she same attraction for her as the fifties did.

Samara Naeymi is superb in her reading of Johnson’s work and Johnson has structured her memoir with the flow of a novel. Listening to Minor Characters was time well spent.

Four Lost Cities

Four Lost Cities coverFour Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age
Annalee Newitz
read by Chloe Cannon
HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books, February 09, 2021
print edition published by W. W. Norton & Company
$15.30 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
Purchased with an Audible credit

Annalee Newitz takes on the issue of urban life in human history. Her method is to document the rise and fall of four very different cities in four disparate parts of the world across four different eras.

Çatalhöyük was a Neolithic city in what is now Turkey. People built their homes side-by-side with city shops and common resources on the roofs above their homes. Residents buried their dead beneath their sleeping areas. They sometimes abandoned their home, in which case they filled it in before leaving. Sometimes abandoned homes were used for trash by others; sometimes another family took it over. Çatalhöyük lasted for a thousand years, but eventually people abandoned the city for the countryside. The population in the countryside continued to use the site for burials, however.

You know about Pompeii and its fate in 79 CE. Newitz, however, offers insight into what the city was like at its height. It was a tourist town with many elegant homes and prosperous businesses. There was even one dedicated brothel. There were plenty of phallus figurines, and much of the art on the wall was bawdy in nature. Pompeii was a cosmopolitan city, influenced as much by North Africa as by Rome. While many people perished, survivors made new lives in nearby cities. Slaves whose masters were killed in the eruption were often freed and able to carry on their masters’ businesses.

Angkor in what is now Cambodia was a site where the preconceptions of Western archaeologists gave them a skewed picture of what was really there. The temples fascinated them and they failed to see what was around those temples. Modern archaeologists have used Lidar, light detection and ranging, to observe what traditional archaeologists missed. Using this laser-based technology they discovered a whole city of common people who lived and worked there.

Outside what is now St. Louis, Indigenous people built a city archaeologists called Cahokia, named for a later people who claimed no credit for the original site. Cahokia went through a variety of iterations over a long stretch of time, changing, apparently, as the form of government and their society’s values evolved. Like Çatalhöyük, residents eventually abandoned the city for the countryside.

Newitz uses these four cities as a cautionary tale for our modern world, and although she at times paints a grim picture, in the end she holds out hope for human resilience.

Chloe Cannon provides a clear, highly listenable narration for Four Lost Cities. There are a couple of issues with the audiobook edition, however. There are apparently images in the book that are obviously missing in the audiobook. There are also many place names and architectural terms that I would be hard pressed to look up as their spelling is not at all clear from the pronunciation. It may be that Four Lost Cities is better read in print or e-book format than listened to as an audiobook.


Scientist coverScientist: E. O. Wilson: A Life in Nature
Richard Rhodes
read by Lincoln Hoppe
Random House Audio, November 09, 2021
$24.50 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

The print, e-book, and audio versions of Scientist came out last November 9. Edward O. Wilson died the day after Christmas. Make of that what you will.

Wilson lived a long and productive life. He had a tough childhood as his parents kept shipping him off to live with others while they worked on sorting out their own marital issues. When he graduated from high school he tried to enlist in the military, but this was just after the end of World War II, when the services had reinstated tougher physical standards. The army rejected Wilson because he had only one good eye. (He had lost the sight in one eye in a fishing accident as a child.) He also had hearing loss in the higher frequencies, but these encumbrances did not stop him from constantly pressing ahead.

When the army turned him down he ended up at the University of Alabama and ultimately at Harvard where he got his PhD and became an assistant professor. An offer from Stanford prompted Harvard to give him tenure and he of course attained full professor status.

Scientist discusses all aspects of Wilson’s life. The book documents his fieldwork as an entomologist and his travels around the world collecting samples. It talks about the evolution of his work from the study of insects to the social behavior of higher animal forms. The author does not shy away from the controversy that surrounded the publication of Wilson’s book Sociobiology, which stemmed mostly from a misreading of the book’s intent and from certain political agendas. We get a good view of academic politics. James Watson (yes, that James Watson, co-discoverer with Francis Crick of the structure of the DNA molecule) became an assistant professor at Harvard the same year as Wilson. He believed researchers should conduct science in the lab and not in the field. He was furious when Wilson got tenure before he did. (The biology department at Harvard ultimately split into separate theoretical and evolutionary departments.)

Author Richard Rhodes is a capable journalist, himself the winner of a Pulitzer Prize. Scientist is an authorized biography, and Rhodes spent many hours interviewing Wilson. Near the end of the book Rhodes admits his admiration of Wilson. Though not a hagiography, there is very little in the book that is critical of Wilson. Still, Rhodes paints a complete picture of Wilson the man and Wilson the scientist.

Lincoln Hoppe offers a capable and low-key reading of the book, making for enjoyable listening.

The title of the book pays tribute to Wilson’s own memoir, Naturalist. This is great material for anyone interested in such topics.

Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean

Tides coverTides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean
Jonathan White
read by Dan Woren
Blackstone Audio, Inc. (February 14, 2017)
print edition: Trinity University Press (January 16, 2017)
free for Audible members, $14.95 for nonmembers

In his introduction to Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean, Jonathan White describes leading an educational tour on his ship Crusader when it ran aground. This despite his being an experienced sailor who well knew that he had be familiar with and respect the tides. The passengers had to be rescued by a fishing boat while he and a crew member stayed with the ship which eventually righted itself.

This incident prompted White to study the science behind the tides, and he embarked on a multi-year endeavor, taking him around the world. He visited the Bay of Fundy in eastern Canada, where migrating birds ate tiny shrimp, all in tune with the tides. Those mud shrimp must come out from under the sand to eat and mate, despite the risk of being consumed by the birds. But they must do so in sync with the tide, and their timing must be precise. White visited Mont Saint-Michel on the coast of France where tourists and supply trucks must time their visits in accordance with the tides. He traveled to the mouth of the Quintang River in China, home to the frightening Silver Dragon tidal bore. Returning to Eastern Canada he explored gathering mussels under the ice with an indigenous hunter. Off the coast of Panama he talked to native peoples whose islands are falling victim to rising sea levels, and he learned how the people of Venice are learning to cope with the same.

White spends a lot of time discussing the history of how humans have tried to understand the tides. He talks about Aristotle, the Plinys (father and son), Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. I found these passages to be less interesting, and in some places questioned White’s research and credibility. He states that Pliny the Younger’s work was translated into Latin in the Middle Ages. Really? I read Pliny’s letters in their original classical Latin when I was in college.

His discussions of science and technology were more engaging. White explains that while we tend to think of the tides as being solely controlled by the moon he tells us it is more complicated than that. He notes that while the Atlantic Ocean is largely controlled by the moon, the sun has a greater influence on the Pacific. He points out that the oceans are vibrating basins that respond to the influences of the moon and sun. The earth’s rotation has an influence as well. How the tides act depends on both the moon and sun up there as well as the fluid dynamics in the ocean down here.

White talks about European tide mills in earlier centuries that worked similar to windmills, but used the power of the tides rather than the wind. He describes seeing a nineteenth century tidal flour mill in action. The author discusses modern-day attempts to use the tides to generate electricity, something that is tricky, both because of the power of the tides beating on the equipment and due to the complicated environmental implications.

Voice actor Dan Woren expertly reads the book. He is a pleasure to listen to and White’s material is fascinating.

Searching for Sunday

Searching for Sunday coverSearching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church
Rachel Held Evans
read by the author
Thomas Nelson, April 21, 2015
$20.96 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

I had long known of Rachel Held Evans when I read of her hospitalization in 2019 with a strange infection, and was, like so many others, saddened by her subsequent death at a time when we needed her wisdom and insight. I had, however, not read any of her work.

I was interested, therefore, to learn of the posthumous publication of a new book entitled Wholehearted Faith. Her husband discovered she left behind extensive notes and unfinished writing on her computer, so he called on her writing collaborator, Jeff Chu, to craft what was there into one final book. When looking at her books, however, I was attracted by an earlier work of hers, Searching for Sunday. She writes about her own spiritual path; it seemed to me to have parallels to my own.

She divides the book into seven sections, corresponding to the seven sacraments: baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing the sick, and marriage. (The Episcopal Church considers communion and marriage to be sacraments, while it calls the remainder sacramental rites.) Within each section she writes both about her spiritual path and her reflections on church and society. A couple of the chapters amount to her own liturgical litanies.

She writes about growing up at the evangelical Grace Bible Church in Tennessee and being baptized there as a teenager. The pastor at Grace later presided Rachel and her husband’s wedding, and they attended the church until leaving when the doctrine there became incompatible with their own beliefs. The members of their church and others in their small town made this a topic of conversation. When someone emailed Rachel telling her she had heard that Rachel had become a Buddhist, Rachel responded, “I’m not disciplined enough to be a Buddhist!”

She and her husband did some halfhearted church seeking, but she admits that on many Sundays they ended up television binge-watching. When the former youth pastor at Grace decided to form a mission church in Dayton Rachel and her husband joined in. The mission didn’t last, and after its closure she and her husband didn’t spend a lot of time in church search. Rachel’s weekends were busy meeting with church groups and attending conferences resulting from the popularity of her first two books. (I’m sorry to say that her California hosts could not convince her of the sacred nature of the In-n-Out burger.) She writes about a stay at a monastic retreat house, where the guestmaster was completely accepting and her lunch table-mate was taken aback that Rachel had doubts (and that she wasn’t Catholic). Ultimately, Rachel and her husband found an Episcopal church a half hour away from their home which they attended semi-regularly.

It was delightful listening to Rachel tell her story in her light Tennessee accent. She makes you think she is the kind of person with whom you would like to have a long after-dinner conversation. Not that everything is upbeat and pleasant about the church for Rachel. She suggests that the church should be a place where a person feels safe but not necessarily comfortable.

It is a tragedy that Rachel Held Evans is no longer with us, but if you have ever had doubts about your own spiritual path get the audiobook and listen to Rachel’s comforting voice. You will feel better about your own struggles.

Places of Mind

Places of Mind coverPlaces of Mind: A Life of Edward Said
Timothy Brennan
read by Timothy Andrés Pabon
Tantor Audio (March 23, 2021)
print edition published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$21.43 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

Edward Said (pronounced saī-eed) was a major figure in the intellectual life of the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. This book offers a comprehensive biography.

Said grew up in Cairo, although he was born in Jerusalem. His mother insisted on giving birth in Jerusalem because she lost a previous child at birth due to incompetent medical care in Cairo. Said’s father was an Arab who attained American citizenship, hence making Said a citizen at birth. His father was in the office equipment business and made a lot of money selling his merchandise to the occupying British government in Egypt.

Said’s parents sent him to school in the United States. He attended private institutions for his high school years, did his undergraduate work at Princeton, and received his doctorate from Harvard. He spent his entire teaching career at Columbia University, though he had regular sabbaticals and spent a lot of time abroad, particularly in the Middle East.

His life was in many ways bifurcated. He spent a good deal of time and energy supporting the Palestinian cause not only with his writing and speaking, but also being actively involved in organizations that supported the Palestinian people. At the same time his academic specialty was Western literature. He wrote his dissertation on Joseph Conrad, and he spent many years studying Jonathan Swift, never publishing the major work he had planned. His early work Beginnings discusses philosophy and intellectual pursuits, drawing on Western philosophy.

The work Said did both in his Palestinian efforts and in academia did not isolate him from popular culture. It seems he liked American network television and enjoyed programs like The Mary Tyler Moore Show. If a family member needed a new stereo he took the lead in making the trip to the electronics store.

Said learned the piano as a child and played it all his life. While early on music was not part of his public persona, later in life he let that part out once he received a cancer diagnosis. He formed a partnership with conductor Daniel Barenboim and they structured an organization to provide music education to Palestinian young people.

Author Timothy Brennan was one of Said’s students at Columbia, but he is straightforward about Said’s faults. Said often treated his family poorly, and his ego could be oversize. While sometimes encouraging students he could also be unnecessarily harsh.

Timothy Andrés Pabon capably reads the book, skillfully navigating the many foreign phrases and names, although sometimes his cadence and rhythm do not seem to match the structure of the sentence. And he slips up here and there. He absolutely clobbers the names of both violinist Yehudi Menuhin and composer Leoš Janáček. In retrospect, given some of the complex philosophical concepts that Brennan discusses along with all the details about Said and those he encountered, it may be that one is better off reading Places of Mind in paper or e-book format.