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.


The Secret Life of the American Musical

Secret Life of the American Musical coverThe Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built
Jack Viertel
narrated by David Pittu
Tantor Audio, March 01, 2016
print edition: Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$19.59 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

The way in which I discovered this book is rather odd. I was searching Google for the exact words that Robert Preston used in introducing “Seventy-six Trombones” in The Music Man: “And you’ll feel something akin to the electric thrill I once enjoyed when…” Google took me to a Google Books copy of The Secret Life of the American Musical where the author quotes the lines in the introduction. I realized I might really enjoy reading (or listening to) this title.

After finishing my last audiobook I looked up the audio version of this book and used my August Audible credit to get it. What a delight!

Viertel describes the formula followed by most American musicals: an opening number followed by an “I want” song, then the conditional love song, and after that noise: an enjoyable song that probably doesn’t do much to move the plot forward. He notes that shows don’t necessarily set out to use that formula, but as the creators are putting the show together it works out that way.

The author points out that he originally planned on calling the book The Secret Life of the Broadway Musical, but that he realized that the British imports don’t follow the same formula. Hence you will find little about Cats, Miss Saigon, or The Phantom of the Opera in this book.

Viertel is a Broadway producer and has his biases. He considers Gypsy to be the model of the American musical and refers to it throughout the book. He dislikes Camelot as he considers it to be about two uninteresting, self-indulgent members of royalty. (I disagree.) He states that the golden age of the American musical began with the opening of Oklahoma and ended with the closing of A Chorus Line, admitting that this is his opinion and is somewhat arbitrary. Viertel is no traditionalist, however. He has much good to say about The Book of Mormon and Spring Awakening, for example.

Voice actor David Pittu does a superb job of narrating the book. Not only does he do an excellent job of reading the main text, but his interpretation of quoted dialog and song lyrics is well done.

I listened to all of The Secret Life of the American Musical in just a week, so I now must wait three weeks for my next monthly Audible credit. But it was well worth it.


Origins

Origins coverOrigins: How Earth’s History Shaped Human History
Lewis Dartnell
Narrated by John Sackville
Hachette Audio, May 14, 2019
$20.76 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

Origins takes a fresh approach to human history. Lewis Dartnell writes about how the earth and its changes have influenced human activity.

He describes how plate tectonics have affected where humans have chosen to live. He explains how continental drift has affected human and animal movements: when there was a land bridge between Asia and the Americas humans went one way and the camel went the other. (Yes, camels originated in the Americas.) He shows how climate in different areas made the difference between the nomads of the steppes and settled agricultural people, and how climate change was in part responsible for clashes between the two types of cultures.

Dartnell discusses how the formation of the continents has affected both wind and water currents and how they affected the voyages of exploration in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He points out that one could sail east or west by changing your latitude in the northern hemisphere, but that in the southern hemisphere you had to wait for the monsoon winds to change.

Narrator John Sackville offers a calm, pleasant reading of the book. Sometimes a bit too calm as I felt inclined to nod off at times, but it was a skilled, listenable narration nonetheless.


The Year 1000

The Year 1000 coverThe Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World – and Globalization Began
Valerie Hansen
Narrated by Cynthia Farrell
Simon & Schuster Audio, April 14, 2020
$13.22 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

In The Year 1000 Valerie Hansen makes the case that humans first began exploring outside their own local regions around that year. She of course discusses the discovery of North America by the Scandinavians and notes that while they didn’t stay on this continent they explored other regions where they did stay. She makes an interesting case that the Scandinavians may have made it as far south as Mexico. While this is argument may be controversial, most of the rest of the book is pretty much standard history.

In addition to the Scandinavians Hansen discusses central and eastern Europeans, Africans, Chinese, and Arabs. One of the more depressing aspects of the book is how prevalent slavery was. The Scandinavian Vikings engaged in it, Africans were complicit in enslaving other Africans, and the Arabs traded in slaves as well. She points out that the Arabs, in spite of their many cruelties, did believe in freeing slaves under certain circumstances. She tells us that because of their large population the Chinese did not need slaves, and were therefore also slow to adopt powered technology in their manufacturing processes.

By necessity Hansen discusses events before and after 1000, but her thesis that globalization began throughout the world around this time is well supported by her narrative.

The book is adequately and listenably read by Cynthia Farrell, though at times her narration is a bit stiff, and she can sound like Siri at moments. Still, listening to The Year 1000 was time well spent.


To the Island of Tides

To the Island of Tides coverTo the Island of Tides: A Journey to Lindisfarne
Alistair Moffat
Narrated by David Rintoul
Naxos AudioBooks, August 01, 2019
$14.21 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

Alistair Moffat spent many years in the television business in the United Kingdom until he decided to take early retirement so he could live on his farm while researching and writing history.

Moffat was fascinated by the life of Saint Cuthbert, who lived in the early 600’s. Cuthbert was an aristocrat who chose to become a monk. He first lived in the region near Moffat’s farm in Southern Scotland at a place called Old Melrose. He then retreated to the Island of Lindisfarne, just off the coast, a place accessible via a causeway at low tide.

Moffat hikes both the Old Melrose countryside and Lindisfarne, trying to get a sense of who Cuthbert was and what the saint might have to say to him. He describes his hikes, reflects on his own life nearing age seventy, and offers ample biographical material on Cuthbert as well as plenty of historical context. All of this is woven together into an eminently readable (listenable) narrative.

The book is masterfully read by David Rintoul who, with his distinguished British accent, effectively channels Moffat’s thoughts and emotions. Moffat insists that he is an atheist and not a man of faith, but I for one found much in To the Island of Tides to be spiritually uplifting.