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.


Flashes of Creation

Flashes of Creation coverFlashes of Creation: George Gamow, Fred Hoyle, and the Great Big Bang Debate
Paul Halpern
read by David Stifel
Basic Books, August 17, 2021
$25.94 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

In this highly listenable volume Paul Halpern traces the history of cosmology in the twentieth century through two of its most famous researchers and popularizers: George Gamow and Fred Hoyle.

The two men were alike in many ways and different in others. Gamow was one of the developers of the big bang theory of the universe while Hoyle advocated a steady-state hypothesis. Both were capable researchers and both were popularizers of astronomy and cosmology. Gamow appeared on television in the United States and wrote a “Mr. Tompkins” series of books: a sort of “for Dummies” set long before that line existed. Hoyle did radio programs in the United Kingdom and wrote novels. Gamow loved riding motorcycles and Hoyle was a hiker and mountaineer.

Along the way Halpern writes about many others involved in twentieth century cosmology. He discusses Edwin Hubble and his discovery that the universe is expanding. He gives plenty of attention to Einstein, who leaned toward a steady-state universe until he met with Hubble and learned of his findings. Halpern recounts how Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation. This discovery essentially confirmed the big bang theory of the creation of the universe and discredited Hoyle’s steady-state theory. Stephen Hawking appears in the book, and we learn that, ironically, early in his career he had applied to work with Hoyle but was turned down.

Halpern discusses the B2FH team: Margaret Burbidge, Geoffrey Burbidge, William A. Fowler, and Hoyle. The Burbidges were a husband-and-wife team who wanted to work in the United States as it was impossible for Margaret as a woman to get telescope time in England. The team, though steady-state proponents, did some highly credible work regarding the formation of the elements in stars. Sadly, Hoyle could not accept the rejection of his steady state theory and kept coming up with more and more bizarre permutations of steady-state as evidence for the big bang increased.

I read a lot of astronomy and cosmology when I was in elementary school. I no doubt read about the big bang theory, but I specifically remember reading some of Fred Hoyle’s work and his discussion of the steady state theory. I know I read one of his novels. It was in that context that I found this joint biography engaging.

David Stifel capably reads Flashes of Creation and wisely avoids too much vocal inflection when voicing the words of the individuals the book discusses. Listening to this audiobook was time well spent for me.


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.