Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World

Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World coverForgotten Peoples of the Ancient World
Philip Matyszak
read by Michael Page
Tantor Audio, April 13, 2021
print edition published by Thames and Hudson
$14.88 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

This audiobook turned out to be a good choice for listening while I was engaged in other activities: fixing dinner, emptying the dishwasher, doing yard work, etc. That’s because each chapter runs just about ten minutes. The downside to this is that one does not get an in-depth study of the peoples covered, but only a brief vignette.

Author Philip Matyszak divides the book into four sections: The First Civilizations, From Assyria to Alexander, The Coming of Rome, and the Fall of Rome in the West. Within each section he describes the various populations that interacted with the dominant empires. The term “forgotten peoples” is really a misnomer; the book is really about the “minor” civilizations that came into contact with the big powers. After all, Matyszak writes about the Canaanites, the Philistines, and the Samaritans, none of whom are in any way forgotten. He also has a chapter on the Sea Peoples. Anyone who has read about the collapse of Bronze Age societies in the Mediterranean and the Near East is well aware of how closely the Sea Peoples are associated with that mysterious phenomenon.

On the other hand he writes about the Illyrians, the Epirots, the Celtiberians, and the Iceni, to mention just a few. I think I can safely say that these peoples qualify as forgotten. Though the discussion of each civilization is brief, there is a lot of interesting material here. It is sobering, however, to learn about civilizations that simply cease to exist.

The book is skillfully ready by Michael Page. His clipped British accent is ideal for Matyszak’s writing style and makes for pleasant listening.

Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World is worthwhile reading (or listening) for anyone interested in ancient history.


Hollywood Eden

Hollywood Eden coverHollywood Eden: Electric Guitars, Fast Cars, and the Myth of the California Paradise
Joel Selvin
read by Peter Berkrot
Blackstone Publishing, April 06, 2021
$13.99 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

If you would like an inside account of the Hollywood Music business in the late fifties and early sixties this is your book.

Author Joel Selvin opens the book with a portrayal of University High School in Los Angeles during the late 1950s. The children of Hollywood actors, directors, and producers attended the school. He describes members of the school football team singing in the locker room shower after a game, led by Jan Berry and his buddy Dean Torrence. The two eventually became the musical duo Jan and Dean. Nancy Sinatra was another University High graduate. Several University graduates were involved in music and worked together in various iterations.

The formation of some musical groups was delayed, or their makeup altered, by the threat of the draft. While this was in the pre-Vietnam era, the draft loomed large in the lives of the men then. Many joined the National Guard or the Navy Reserve to avoid full-time military service. Some enlisted directly while others drew the short straw and were drafted. Jan had another musical partner until Dean returned from his military service.

Selvin describes how the Beach Boys were a backup band, including for some of Berry’s ventures, before making it big on their own. Berry continued to collaborate with the group as they became headliners in their own right. The author talks about how Beach Boy Brian Wilson had a nervous breakdown on the road and limited his role to composing and studio work while the rest of the group performed on concert tours. He writes that the group which became the Mamas and the Papas arrived penniless from the Virgin Islands only to be introduced to a producer by the person with whom they were staying in Los Angeles.

Selvin writes about the management and business side as well. He tells the story of Herb Alpert and Lou Adler. The two had a small management company which was rather slim on assets. They had a falling out and liquidated the company, agreeing to split the assets. That amounted to Alpert taking the Ampex tape recorder and Adler management of Jan and Dean.

The Los Angeles rock music community was small and everyone knew everyone else. More or less the same group of session musicians played in the recording sessions at the small handful of studios in the city. Selvin reminds us that Glen Campbell was an in-demand session guitarist before he made it big as a country rock vocalist.

Ethical behavior was borderline at best. Producers regularly ripped off tunes and arrangements. Different groups would record the same song that would compete on the charts. A promoter would give a group a name and send one set of musicians out on tour while an entirely different group of musicians would record under the same name in the studio.

The sections on studio sessions are particularly interesting. Both Barry and Wilson were real perfectionists, cutting, rearranging, and remixing. They would do multiple, sometimes a dozen or more, takes on a single song. Wilson would have a recording done and complete while the Beach Boys were on tour, leaving only the vocals to be recorded when they returned.

Selvin provides many interesting trivia tidbits. Nancy Sinatra wanted to get married primarily so she could have sex in an honest and legal manner. She didn’t always follow her own rule, however. It seems that her mother helped her arrange an abortion at some point before she married. When Barry McGuire recorded “Eve of Destruction” it was the third song in the session and thrown in as an afterthought. Even though he didn’t get all the words right, the allocated session time ran out he didn’t get to do another take. It was that version that was released as the B-side of a single and which became that huge hit. Brian Wilson spent weeks working on “Good Vibrations” and it was one of the most expensive singles produced up to that time. The other members of the group were dubious. One of them suggested that either they would be washed up as a group when it came out or it would be the biggest hit ever. You know which one of those happened.

Peter Berkrot’s narration of Hollywood Eden is stellar. His voice and inflection capture the élan of the fifties and sixties Hollywood music scene perfectly. The audiobook version of Hollywood Eden is a superb choice for this book.


A World on the Wing

World on a Wing coverA World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds
Scott Weidensaul
read by Mike Lenz
HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books (March 30, 2021)
print edition published by W. W. Norton & Company
$18.37 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

Scott Weidensaul is not a disinterested observer. By trade he is a journalist and author, but he has a passion for his subject and has been involved with the study of migrating birds for decades.

Weidensaul provides some amazing detail about how birds migrate. He makes clear that the instinct to migrate is genetic; it is not learned. He talks about how birds will bulk up before their flight to such an extent that it would be unhealthy in other species. They know how make unnecessary organs dormant when they are traveling and revive them when they reach their destination. Birds may travel many thousands of miles before they reach their ultimate seasonal habitat, or an before arriving at an intermediate stopping-off point.

The author talks about the many perils migrating birds face. Climate change is one of the most serious, but they also must face predatory species and human foes, both hunters and the clearing of habitat for development.

For his narrative Weidensaul travels the world. He visits Alaska, China, the Bahamas, the East Coast of the United States, Northern California, Cyprus, and India. He participates in the tagging of birds so scientists can follow their migratory patterns. He writes about the heroes in the realms of investigation and conservation.

The narration by Mike Lenz is adequate but imperfect. Lenz does a great job of following cadence of Weidensaul’s narrative and is as good as anyone I’ve listening to at translating dialogue from print to narration. I have also never heard any audiobook reader mispronounce so many words. I noticed mispronunciations of the words gunwale, herculean, Marin (the Northern California county), zooplankton, and gyre. Those are just the ones I noticed. Overall, though, I have to say that Lenz is very pleasant to listen to.

For summer reading (or listening) A World on the Wing is a first-class choice.


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.