Cook, Eat, Repeat

Cook, Eat, Repeat coverCook, Eat, Repeat: Ingredients, Recipes, and Stories
Nigella Lawson
Read by the author
HarperAudio, April 20, 2021
$26.94 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

I have long been familiar with Nigella Lawson. Her cooking shows from the BBC have been rebroadcast on American television for many years. Although there is no disputing her culinary skills, her credibility with me has been less than a hundred percent. One time she said that corn and flour tortillas were interchangeable. Um, really Nigella? No.

Then there was the time she introduced an episode on entertaining after a long day at work from the back seat of a town car. Yes, entertaining after work is much less stressful if your commute is via a chauffeured town car. Few of us had that luxury when we were commuting.

Nonetheless, I enjoy watching her various cooking series when they’re available, and so I paid attention when The New York Times Book Review New and Noteworthy column listed her new book. The writer specifically mentioned how enjoyable the audiobook version was, so I decided to make Cook, Eat, Repeat my next monthly Audible selection.

It was indeed a pleasure to listen to Nigella enthuse about food with her pleasing British accent. Unlike a traditional cookbook, she has an introductory section before each recipe in which she extolls the virtues of the dish and sometimes comments on how easy or difficult the recipe is. In the actual instructions, she elaborates on the process, rather than giving the pared-down steps. She will use phrases like, “as best you can,” or “if you like,” or “I must insist that you not substitute here.”

Many of the dishes are things I would never consider. She includes beef cheeks, oxtail, and rhubarb, none of which I would ever think of cooking. On the other hand, some of her chicken recipes look quite appealing, and she offers several desserts for the holidays.

While Nigella gives all the measurements in metric form in the audio, they are converted to cups and ounces in the accompanying PDF. (Oddly, she says things like “I use an American half cup measure for this.” Odd because cups and ounces are formally referred to as the English measurement system.)

As enjoyable as Cook, Eat, Repeat was to listen to, however, I wouldn’t recommend it as a definitive, must-have cookbook.


Nine Nasty Words

Nine Nasty Words coverNine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever
John McWhorter
Narrated by the author
Penguin Audio, May 04, 2021
$21.44 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

I can’t imagine anyone other than John McWhorter doing the narration for the audio version of a John McWhorter book. I am very familiar with McWhorter’s work, having read a couple of his books, having listened to his podcast, and having completed several of his lecture series from the Great Courses, both audio and video. He has a distinctive voice with a great deal of inflection and cadence. And when it comes to quoting works in Middle English most voice actors couldn’t match his skill.

In the tradition of George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” McWhorter discusses the origin and history of nine “dirty” words. In fact, only one word is on both lists, though McWhorter discusses another of Carlin’s words in the epilogue. Of those nine words, I might occasionally use one or two of them in this blog, though there are more that I use in everyday speech, especially when I am angry or frustrated. Then there are words on McWhorter’s list that I would never use either in writing or in casual speech.

Though intended for a general audience, Nine Nasty Words takes the scientific approach of the linguist as McWhorter discusses the origins and evolution of those words. It’s fascinating stuff, all of it. A bonus is that you get the wit and humor throughout the book that are McWhorter trademarks.

If such things interest you, I highly recommend that you get McWhorter’s audio book version rather than the print or e-book edition. You will thoroughly enjoy having him talking with you in your living room or car.


Rock Me on the Water

Rock Me on the Water coverRock Me on the Water: 1974 – The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television and Politics
Ronald Brownstein
Narrated by Will Damron
HarperAudio, March 23, 2021
$29.94 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

I have never returned an audiobook before, but I had the occasion to do so recently. I had downloaded A Sound Mind by Paul Morley from Audible. I had read positive reviews about the reflections of a rock critic who turned to classical music. The work is longer than many, coming in at twenty-four hours and forty-four minutes (the print edition is 645 pages). I quickly became frustrated with the author’s pace. I switched it on as I left the house for a thirty-five minute drive to the Kaiser facility where I was to receive my first COVID vaccination. By the time I got to Kaiser the narrative had hardly progressed at all. It seemed as if Morley was being paid by the word, just as Charles Dickens was in the nineteenth century.

When I returned home I looked up how to return an Audible selection. It turns out that it is entirely doable; it’s simply a little tricky. You have to go to your purchase history, which is separate from your library. Once there, though, it’s easy to complete the transaction.

Having returned that book as my monthly Audible choice, I instead downloaded Rock Me on the Water. I am, as you may know, a sucker for anything about the 1970s. (Well, except for disco that is. I don’t know how disco made it into the decade.) If the book’s subtitle accurately represented its content I knew it would be right up my alley. It did and it was.

By necessity the author addresses more than simply 1974. He obviously has to in order to provide context. But he makes a strong case that 1974 was a pivotal year in the changing popular culture of America, and that the change in large part originated in Los Angeles.

Brownstein writes about Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty and their shooting the films Chinatown and Shampoo. He describes the careers Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne along with the rise and squabbles of The Eagles and Crosby, Stills & Nash. He extensively discusses Norman Lear and the groundbreaking nature of All in The Family along with its spinoffs (Maude, The Jeffersons, etc.). He discusses other programs that were innovative at the time, such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Brownstein delves into the political scene, describing the career of Jerry Brown and how Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda teamed up and eventually married.

The book discusses how the television and movie industries were dominated by older white men and the struggles women had getting into writing and management positions. He recounts how Black Americans faced challenges in finding roles both in front of and behind the camera.

Will Damron provides a serviceable though not stellar narration. When quoting people who were interviewed for the book his voice sometimes takes on an annoying, breathy pitch, especially when quoting women. Overall, however, Damron delivers a very listenable book.

The bottom line: For a seventies-phile such as I am, Rock Me on the Water was informative and enjoyable listening.


The Possessed

The Possessed coverThe Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Elif Batuman
Narrated by the author
Penguin Audio, March 14, 2017
Print edition: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (February 16, 2010)
$24.46 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

I had read and enjoyed Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot and picked up this volume based on a brief mention in The New Your Times Book Review. Batuman specializes in Russian literature, as you might surmise for the book’s subtitle. As to the book’s content, the subtitle does not mislead.

Batuman opens the book describing the beginning of her post-graduate studies at Stanford, and how she came under the influence of the leading scholar of the Russian author Isaac Babel, of whom I had never heard until listening to this book, and how said scholar hooked her into the study of Babel. Babel wrote in the first part of the twentieth century but fell afoul of the Soviet authorities and was executed in the Stalin era. Batuman writes about her encounter with Babel’s two daughters, who are invited to Stanford for a Babel conference. I learned far more than I cared to about Isaac Babel.

She also writes about a summer spent in a language immersion program in Uzbekistan, about lost luggage, and the people she encounters there. Passing off her boyfriend, who wanted to tag along, as her husband caused her to make up some fabrications about their nonexistent marriage.

We hear a lot about other, better known, Russian authors and their writing: Tolstoy, Chekov, and Dostoevsky. Since Russian writers write a lot about grim topics such as illness, poisoning, and death we hear a lot about those topics. Too much. I didn’t know that there was a debate about whether Tolstoy’s death was due to poisoning or that depending on one’s own views one could be labeled a Tolstoyan (or not).

Batuman writes about academic politics, the unsettled lives of graduate students at Stanford, and her own untidy personal life. Although I did not enjoy The Possessed nearly as much as her novel, the book was nonetheless interesting reading, especially since we hear it in the author’s own voice.


Always a Song

Always a Song coverAlways a Song: Singers, Songwriters, Sinners, and Saints: My Story of the Folk Music Revival
Ellen Harper
Narrated by Janina Edwards
Chronicle Prism, January 26, 2021
$24.91 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

I follow my alma mater, Pitzer College, on social media. One recent post mentioned an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross that featured Ellen Harper and her son Ben Harper. Ellen married Leonard Harper, who was an administrator at Pitzer College in the seventies. He was in some respects a pioneer, as an African American in a college administration role early in that decade. Ellen is a graduate of Pitzer through the New Resources program, which offers a degree path to people who are past traditional college age. Her son Ben is a famous musician (of whom I had never heard until listening to the interview). Ben’s younger brother Joel is a Pitzer graduate as well. Ellen and Ben were on the show to promote Ellen’s new book, Always a Song. There were so many familiar names and places mentioned in the interview I knew I had to get the book.

Ellen’s childhood began in Massachusetts in the fifties when the House un-American Activities Committee was active and people were busy trying to root out Communists. Her father was a schoolteacher who had associations with the Communist Party. He eventually lost his job because of that. Both parents had lives focused on music. Her father repaired musical instruments and her mother gave banjo and guitar lessons. Family friend Pete Seeger (yes, that Pete Seeger) suggested that they move to California and set up a shop to repair musical instruments. They did just that. Thus the Folk Music Center in Claremont, a place with which I was quite familiar during my years there, was born.

It amazed me to read about the prejudice in Claremont in the late fifties and early sixties. Ellen’s mom went looking for a house to rent with the kids and found one place that looked ideal. The landlady looked at them and said that she had rented it. When her dad called the landlady on the phone she said, “Oh, you’re Jewish, that fine. I thought they were Mexican.” The family had an African American neighbor who was a doctor. He faced a great deal of prejudice. When he was renting a house in town he was barely tolerated, but when he bought a lot on which to build a house he received serious threats. Scripps College, the women’s liberal arts school of the Claremont Colleges, expelled a stellar student in the early sixties simply for having a same-sex relationship with a graduate student. Not the Claremont that I loved so much in the early and mid-seventies.

Ellen eventually married Leonard Harper. What I didn’t know, what very few if any of us knew at the time, was that Leonard was an alcoholic and abused Ellen. They had three sons together, but she eventually left him and raised the kids on her own. The Leonard Harper we knew at Pitzer was a popular administrator who was well-liked by the students. Sadly, he died an alcohol-related death at a young age.

Music pervades this book. Ellen herself played the guitar and gave lessons. Growing up she worked the front counter at the Folk Music Center. Well-known musicians regularly showed up there and were guests in the home of Ellen’s parents. Ellen never knew what well-known musician she might find in her in her living room when she came home from school. Perhaps a traditional folk musician in the lineage of Lead Belly, or perhaps the likes of Jackson Browne. Joan Baez’s father taught at the Claremont College’s science and engineering school, Harvey Mudd, for one year. One day a high school-aged Joan showed up at Ellen’s doorstep wanting to see her parents. She was upset because traditional Dad wouldn’t let her boyfriend spend the night with her at their house.

When her sons were grown, after getting her B.A. at Pitzer Ellen did the additional work to get her teaching credential. She was successful and popular as a schoolteacher. Ellen went on to get an advanced degree and moved into teacher training. She describes her frustration at dealing with the bureaucracy in the Bush II administration’s No Child Let Behind program. Ellen doesn’t use the term, but I can’t help but thinking that she would appreciate the label the late, incisive Molly Ivins gave to the program: “No Child Left Untested.”

Janina Edwards reads the book capably and effectively. After the first hour I felt I was listening to Ellen herself. I found Always a Song to be a delightful listen.


A Place for Everything

A Place for Everything coverA Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order
Judith Flanders
Narrated by Julia Winwood
Basic Books, October 20, 2020
$25.94 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

A Place for Everything is, as the subtitle makes clear, a study of the history of alphabetical order, and it is a fascinating one. The author reminds us early and often that alphabetical order is not necessarily the most logical way in which to arrange material. In the introduction she points out that in the eighteenth century colleges that we now refer to as Ivy League schools did not list their students in alphabetical order, but rather in descending order of the social status of their parents.

Flanders gives her chapters titles such as “A is for Antiquity” and “Y is for Y2K.” The material is largely in chronological order, though she does circle back at times. She tells us that the ancient Greeks accepted that their alphabet had a set order, though they did not necessarily arrange content that way. The author does demonstrate that the idea of alphabetizing material began very early on, but for many centuries it was used inconsistently.

We learn that in medieval times scholars had a variety of ways of organizing material. For example, a list of characters in the Bible might be in the order in which they first appear. An encyclopedia-like compendium of information might be arranged hierarchically: God, archangels, angels, humankind, animals, etc. Flanders tells us that as monasteries began to build up their libraries they might have a list of the books they owned, but it was not a catalog in the sense that the list didn’t tell one where to find the book on the shelves. She explains that in the early modern era a wealthy gentleman might catalog his library by noting a book could be found five volumes to the right of the bust of Cicero.

I was interested to read that in the eighteenth century playing cards were cheap and abundant, and that the backs were blank. They were, therefore, used like 3 x 5 cards were in the twentieth century. A major government cataloging effort in France used playing cards, but the project was never finished due to the French Revolution.

Flanders finishes the book by noting how, in the twentieth century, we simply assumed that alphabetical order was the correct way to arrange material. She then states the obvious, describing how, with Google and Wikipedia, alphabetical order is in some respects irrelevant.

Julia Winwood does a marvelous job of reading the audiobook, and it was a delight to listen to her pleasant English accent. If you enjoy the pleasures of language and literature you will like this book.


Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece

Thebes coverThebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece
Paul Cartledge
Narrated by David Timson
Blackstone Publishing, September 22, 2020
print edition published by Abrams Press
$13.99 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

The study of ancient Greece in large part focuses on the history and culture of Athens and its relationship with its sometime ally, sometime enemy Sparta. Certainly that was my experience as a classics major at Pitzer College in the 1970s. It so happens, however, that Thebes was central to the history of ancient Greece as well, both in its own right and in its interactions with Athens and Sparta.

Paul Cartledge, Emeritus A. G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Clare College in the University of Cambridge, goes a long way to correcting that omission in this book. He looks at both the Thebes of myth and the Thebes of history and provides some insight into the importance of the polis in the ancient world.

The author reminds us that the Oedipus myth cycle comes out of Thebes, and the god Dionysus had a close association with the city. He points out that Hesiod, the early post-Homeric author of The Works and the Days and the Theogony was from Thebes. He explains that the lyric poet Pindar made his home in Thebes as well.

Cartledge describes Thebes in its political alliances, sometimes allied with Sparta and other times with Athens. He discusses in detail the importance of Thebes in both the Persian and Peloponnesian wars.

The book is ably narrated by David Timson, who delivers an enjoyable listening experience, keeping up a lively pace even at those few points when the text is dull. The downside to listening to the audiobook is that the illustrations, of which there are a couple dozen, are missing. Still, if you enjoy ancient history you will find this book very much worth your time.


See No Stranger

See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love
Valarie Kaur
Narrated by the author
Random House Audio (June 16, 2020)
$22.05 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

I had not heard of Valarie Kaur until she gave a brief message on All Saints’ Day at a virtual service presented by the the Episcopal National Cathedral. (The service was entitled Holding on to Hope. Valarie’s remarks begin just after the 48 minute mark.) It was shortly afterwards that I saw mention of this book. And a long book it is. The print edition is 375 pages, and the audiobook is over thirteen hours.

It is also a challenging book. Valarie is a Sikh by birth and upbringing. (I’ve always heard it pronounced “seek” but she pronounces it with a short i: sĭk.) She opens the book with a chapter on wonder, but quickly shifts to the prejudice and bullying she faced growing up in the rural Central Valley of California. She also describes the struggles her Sikh father and grandfather faced.

Kaur discusses her life as an activist, and her documentation on video of the hate crimes that Sikhs and other people of color faced after 9/11. She talks about her college and post-graduate career, originally wanting to be an academic, but ultimately choosing the law to further her activism. She writes about how a Sikh medical student (and later doctor) with whom she was in love refused to accept her activism. And she tells us about her life with a Muslim who supported her in her filmmaking and activism, the man she eventually married.

Valarie is honest and unblinking in her description of her personal life and her own body. Some of the material in this book is deserving of an NC-17 rating, both in her description of her own sexuality and health and in the description of violence instigated against non-white people. I chose the audiobook version of the book because Kaur reads it herself. Not only does her emotion come through, but she does a beautiful job of singing the Sikh shabads, the religious chants and prayers. Of course the NC-17 portions were hard to listen to, and I couldn’t skim over them as I could with a print or Kindle edition. Overall, though, I was more than happy that I chose the audio version in order to hear Valarie tell her life story in her own voice.

Bottom line: this is an important book in documenting the ongoing fight for social justice.


The Ancient Celts

Ancient Celts coverThe Ancient Celts, Second Edition
Barry Cunliffe
narrated by Julian Elfer
Tantor Audio, February 05, 2019
print version published by Oxford University Press
$17.47 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

Often when we think of the Celts we think of the cultures in Scotland and Ireland. Perhaps that’s because those areas are where Celtic culture has survived in its purest form. As this book describes, however, Celtic peoples lived throughout Europe in the ancient world. In fact, the Celts reached as far as Asia Minor, modern day Turkey. The people that Julius Caesar called Gauls were Celts, and Celtic people lived in Iberia, modern-day Spain.

Cunliffe considers a wide range of evidence. He spends considerable time looking at the archaeological record. He discusses the first-hand accounts by Caesar and the descriptions of the Celts by the Roman historians. Cunliffe is a careful scholar, pointing out where the archaeological account is lacking, and reminds us that Caesar and the ancient historians had a particular point of view and agenda.

The author spends a chapter discussing Celtic religion and mythology and its interaction with Roman mythology and religion. Fascinating stuff.

The book is expertly read by Julian Elfer, who kept the book interesting even through the parts of it where the material was quite dry. Of course listening to the audio version meant I missed the spelling of certain words and terms, but Elfer’s narration made this book a thoroughly enjoyable experience.


The Sirens of Mars

Sirens of Mars coverThe Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World
Sarah Stewart Johnson
narrated by Cassandra Campbell
Random House Audio, July 07, 2020
$19.60 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

I guess one can say that one has truly become an audiobook aficionado when one decides to listen to an audiobook based on the narrator.

The book The Sirens of Mars caught both Terry’s and my attention when we read about it. Terry bought the hardcover at Barnes & Noble. I had finished my most recent audiobook and was looking for the next, so I pulled up the title on Amazon. I saw the audiobook was read by Cassandra Campbell, who narrated the biography of Dorothy Day that I enjoyed so much. That clinched the decision to make The Sirens of Mars my next audiobook.

Campbell is an accomplished voice actor, who has narrated many audiobooks, most notably that long-time bestseller Where the Crawdads Sing. She does a skilled job of reading this book, making me feel as if the author was doing the narration. Even the best readers make errors, however. At one point she used the word epithet when it should have been epitaph. (I recently saw someone make the opposite error in print. What is it about those two words?) But this does nothing to diminish Campbell’s superb skills as an audiobook narrator.

Author Sarah Stewart Johnson is a planetary scientist, one of the few women in that field. She beautifully interweaves three stories: the observers of Mars from the nineteenth century on, the various NASA Mars missions, and her own life story. The latter two converge, as she was on the science teams of a couple of the Mars Rover missions.

I was particularly sensitive to the author being involved in the search for possible life on Mars as I wrote an essay in 1976 which I titled “Gazing Towards Mars” about the Viking Mars mission. I tried to sell the piece but was unsuccessful. I said we were lonely here on earth and wanted evidence that there was life elsewhere in the solar system. That hasn’t changed in the past forty-four years.

It was only two decades after I wrote that essay that the rovers found water and gave us hints that life might once have existed on Mars. The Sirens of Mars offers a thoughtful and enlightening perspective on human attempts to understand the Red Planet.