How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures
read by the author
Little, Brown & Company (December 06, 2022), 5 hours and 41 minutes
$25.96 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
In How Far the Light Reaches Sabrina Imbler has compiled a series of essays that constitute both a memoir and a sort of bestiary of sea creatures. Each essay describes one aspect of life in the ocean and also some part of the author’s (or their family’s) life. (Imbler identifies as non-binary and I use their pronouns of choice.)
Imbler describes a vigilante crusade to go to Petco and persuade customers not to buy goldfish and subject them to life in a small bowl. They then discuss what happens if you flush a goldfish down the toilet or throw it into a pond or stream. Surprisingly, the goldfish will thrive. It will thrive, in fact, to the point of becoming invasive in its new environment.
In an essay about the longest-known animal gestation, an octopus who carried her eggs for over four years, Imbler writes about their mother’s struggle with weight loss. An essay on another invasive species, the sturgeon, also describes their grandmother’s escape from China when invaded by Japan.
Mostly, though, Imbler writes about their own life. In an essay about the sand striker (also known as the bobbit worm) the author describes how men took sexual advantage of them when they were binging on alcohol. Imbler takes the opportunity here to write about social justice. They write they are neither willing to blame the men nor excuse them on account of the system in which they were instilled:
Almost every system we exist in is cruel, and it is our job to hold ourselves accountable to a moral center separate from the arbitrary ganglion of laws that so often get things wrong. This is the work we inherit as creatures with a complex brain, which comes with … the duty of empathy, of understanding what it means when someone is stumbling.
A long essay on how humans kill whales, or how whales sometimes simply beach themselves, describes how scientists do a whale necrology and how they write up those necrologies. Imbler explains they took a class on whales thinking it would be about whale biology and life cycle, when it was actually about whaling, much to their consternation. The author interweaves their own necrology on a failed relationship with a woman, that woman being the reason they signed up for the class in the first place.
Imbler is candid about their own relationship struggles. In an essay about the cuttlefish and how it can change its appearance, Imbler suggests they may have spent too much time changing their appearance to please a partner. Describing a tiny sea creature that travels in swarms Imbler writes about their own participation in the New York City lesbian community.
I enjoyed listening to Imbler’s voice reading these essays, but I am not unequivocally recommending the audiobook version. The print and e-book version contain line drawings which (obviously) are missing from the audiobook. And Imbler’s writing is so vivid and evocative that seeing it on the page or e-book screen is likely to be an equally marvelous experience.
The bottom line is this: If you are interested in marine biology, or if you care about the experience of gay and transgender people, or if you believe in humans looking out for one another, then How Far the Light Reaches should be on your reading (or listening) list.
Declassified: A Low-Key Guide to the High-Strung World of Classical Music
Arianna Warsaw-Fan Rauch
read by the author
Penguin Audio (October 11, 2022), 6 hours and 48 minutes
$14.62 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
The reviewer in The New York Times Book Review who wrote that this audiobook was delightful to listen to had it right. Declassified, part memoir and part classical music primer, is eminently listenable and thoroughly enjoyable.
Arianna Warsaw-Fan Rauch’s father was a professional musician, and Arianna got her love of music sitting underneath her father’s piano as he played. This led to her getting a violin and lessons at age two. Rauch writes about her relationship with the violin and music. She writes about her various violin instructors (some of whom she loved and some of whom she hated), and the path of her music education. Rauch initially auditioned for Julliard but was turned down, so she went to Northwestern. She again auditioned at Julliard for her junior year where she was accepted, and where she got her bachelor’s degree followed by her master’s. The author mentions her stormy relationship with a man she refers to only as Golden Violin Boy or GVB, and how she broke up with him right before a performance. She tells us about a much healthier and more stable relationship with a non-musical German.
Intermixed with the memoir Rauch writes about the world of music in a lighthearted manner filled with wit. She discusses the stories she heard about competition and sabotage at college music programs and how that compared to the reality. (The competition was friendly and the sabotage was a myth.) She playfully lists the stereotypes of various musicians and their instruments. But Rauch writes less playfully about conductors, most of whom (except for the first one she worked with) she held in low esteem. She discusses the relative selling price of various instruments in the orchestra and tells stories about composers and their romances. Rauch provides an overview of the various genres in classical music and offers advice on how to listen to it.
The author does not hide her biases. For example, she hates medieval music. (I personally rather like Gregorian chant). Because Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” uses a similar musical framework, she also hates their music. Nor does she hide the fact that she is a movie fan. Movie references abound throughout the book, culminating with a list of classical music related movies at the end of the book.
Interestingly, what prompted Rauch to write this book was not her life as a professional musician, but her giving up that life. She writes about a Mendelson violin concerto which
set me down the path of becoming a serious violinist, a path that would ultimately take me away from my early love of music and into a prison-like labyrinth of technical pressures and demands.
After learning that she was pregnant she completed one last concert tour and then put her violin away in favor of becoming a listener and teaching her child an appreciation of music.
Accompanying the audiobook is an extensive PDF that provides comprehensive resources on genres, composers, works, and movies. I assume all of this content is somehow integrated into the print and e-book editions.
If you are acquainted with classical music you may find some passages rather basic and simplistic, but any classical music lover would, to my mind, find it difficult not to enjoy this book.
The California Days of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Brian C. Wilson
read by L.J. Ganser
Tantor Audio, 8 hours and 35 minutes
print edition published by University of Massachusetts Press (May 27, 2022)
$15.30 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
The California Days of Ralph Waldo Emerson, documenting a railroad trip that the Sage of Concord took to California late in his life, shows us that Emerson was not as New England-centric as we might believe.
Emerson had been slated to give a series of talks at Harvard, but aging as he was, he struggled with preparing those lectures. Emerson’s friend, railroad magnate and philanthropist John Murray Forbes suggested a railroad trip to California for which Forbes would make the arrangements. Those making the trip included Emerson’s daughter Edith and her husband, Forbes’s son. Fortunately, Emerson’s friend, James Bradley Thayer was in that group as well because it is to him we owe much of our knowledge of the expedition. Few of Emerson’s letters home to his wife Lidian survive, but we have Thayer’s (puzzlingly unsuccessful) book A Western Journey with Mr. Emerson along with letters to his wife Sophie to document the events.
Forbes was not one to do things in a small way. For the trip he arranged for the party to travel in a private Pullman car which would meet them in Chicago. The car had a sitting space which was converted into a dining room for meals, a separate sleeping space, and a full kitchen. The car was fully staffed with employees of the Pullman company.
Author Brian C. Wilson goes into detail about the trip and describes the travelers’ daily routines and the operation of their private car. In Utah, the group made a detour to Salt Lake City so Emerson could meet Mormon leader Brigham Young. Wilson makes a long diversion into the history of the Mormon religion and Young’s establishment of Salt Lake City as the center for the religion. Odd, as all this is somewhat tangential to Emerson’s thought and interests and to the trip as a whole.
Wilson’s detail about the group’s journey across the continent and through the Sierra Nevada is such that that their arrival in San Francisco seems almost anti-climactic. Once there, the men in the group make an odd choice for entertainment. They visit some rather sleazy venues in Chinatown. But it wasn’t all about slumming. Although Emerson gave up his role as a Unitarian minister early in his career, the Unitarians still claimed him, and when San Francisco Unitarians learned of his arrival they insisted he offer lectures. Anticipating this, daughter Edith had made sure several lectures made their way into Emerson’s trunk.
The travelers split up their San Francisco time with a visit to Yosemite, a journey that the time took four days. Wilson writes the trip would be difficult, “requiring travel by ferry, railroad, stagecoach, wagon, and finally horseback.” (Terry and I would drive to Yosemite from the South Bay in five hours or so.) Not only did they enjoy the beauty of the region, but a young John Muir wanted to meet Emerson and took the group on a trip through the region.
The author tells us that there is little record of the journey home and concludes the book with an account of Emerson’s final years. He also recounts the lives of his traveling companions after the trip.
When a book is produced in its audio format by Tantor you know it will be a quality production. This is no exception. L.J. Ganser’s narration is superb. I could quibble about his pronunciation of the term “placer mining” and of Kearney Street in San Francisco, but his work is so listenable and so professional that these lapses are insignificant.
If Emerson and the Transcendentalist world fall within your realm of interest, do not miss this book.
Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution
Carlo Rovelli, translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell
read by David Rintoul
Penguin Audio (May 25, 2021), 4 hours and 31 minutes
$18.38 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
I must be some kind of a glutton for punishment. I keep reading Kindle books and listening to audiobooks about quantum theory. Sometimes I think I have something of a grasp of quantum mechanics and other times I think that I haven’t a clue. And still I read (and listen) on.
The Helgoland of the title is an island that Werner Heisenberg visited as a way of coping with his allergies. While he was there he recognized that the orbit of an electron around its nucleus required a table rather than a simple equation to describe it. Author Carlo Rovelli explains how this occurred and then discusses theories of other early quantum theorists and the conversations among them, people such as Niels Bohr and Erwin Schrödinger.
Rovelli proceeds to discuss superposition, the idea that a subatomic particle can be in two places at once. He reviews the three primary theories of quantum mechanics: many worlds, hidden variables, and wave collapse. I won’t describe these here: you can find ample online resources if you want to understand them. Suffice it to say that Rovelli finds all three theories lacking.
The author goes on to state that objects only can be measured, and that they only have meaning, when they interact with one another. Rovelli writes, “Quantum theory describes the manifestation of objects to one another.” He states, “The properties of any entity are nothing other than the way in which that entity influences others.” This seems to be the primary thesis of this book. Rovelli insists that this is true no matter what the scale, unlike most quantum theorists who believe that quantum phenomena happen only at the subatomic level.
In the second half of the book Rovelli delves into philosophy. He discusses Alexander Bogdanov, the Russian Bolshevik and philosopher, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. He devotes a chapter to Nāgārjuna, the Indian Buddhist philosopher of the second century. It seems that Nāgārjuna believed that reality was experienced through interaction. (I’m reminded of Martin Buber: “All real living is meeting.”)
Rovelli wrote Helgoland in Italian (though apparently while living in Canada), and it appears the book required two translators to render it into English. I question how much of Rovelli’s voice comes through in this audiobook version. David Rintoul delivers a beautiful rendition in highly listenable British-accented English, but how much of that is Rovelli? Rintoul’s voice tells us that American physicist David Bohm was “sacked” from his job at Princeton, clearly a British colloquialism. I wonder if the Italian word Rovelli used was equally informal.
For a lucid discussion of quantum mechanics one might be better off reading the likes of Sean Carroll.
In any given month my audio listening time on my iPhone is divided into two segments: audiobooks and podcasts. On the tenth of each month I receive my Audible credit and select an audiobook, which I listen through to completion. Since an unabridged audiobook might be anywhere between eight and fifteen hours long, the portion of the month spent listening to audiobooks varies greatly. From the time I finish my audiobook until I receive my next Audible credit I listen to podcasts. I write here regularly about my audiobooks, but I haven’t said much about podcasts. I thought my podcast listening deserved some attention.
One of my two favorite podcasts is Word Matters, produced by the good folks at Merriam-Webster. It’s all about language from the perspective of the dictionary. In early August, after their one hundredth episode, they announced they were going to take a break. I thought they would be back after Labor Day, but here it is the end of September and still no new episodes. I’m disappointed.
The other podcast on my top two list is Lexicon Valley, produced by linguist John McWhorter. McWhorter discusses all things linguistic, and since moving to his current podcast home at Booksmart Studios he has delved into matters political as well. Also enjoyable is Lingthusiasm, hosted by linguists Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne. They can get fairly academic, but I do like listening to their podcast. Staying in the realm of language, Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl podcast is much lighter weight, but informative and worth listening to.
As a foodie I must of course have my food podcasts. Food Network has its official Food Network Obsessed podcast, and Ellie Krieger has her independent One Real Good Thing podcast. Both are very listenable.
In the realm of religion I am awaiting season two of Amy Frykholm’s In Search Of podcast from The Christian Century. I have just started listening to the Jewish Chutzpod! podcast, appropriate because we are right now in the midst of the High Holy Days.
If I don’t have an audiobook to listen to I have plenty of podcast choices.
The Window Seat: Notes from a Life in Motion
read by the author
Recorded Books, May 18, 2021 (8 hours and 30 minutes)
Print edition published by Grove Press
$21.43 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
I had never heard of Aminatta Forna when I saw this book mentioned. It turns out, however, that she is an established author of literary fiction who has won multiple awards. Where have I been?
Forna grew up with a complex family situation. Her father was an African from Sierra Leone, and her mother was Scottish. They divorced when she was very young and both quickly remarried. Her father married a woman from Sierra Leone and her mother married a man who worked for the United Nations, but who was from New Zealand. Her father was politically active in Sierra Leone, and was eventually arrested and then executed. Forna’s stepfather was posted to various countries around the world, and was serving in Iran when the Shah left the country and Ayatollah Khomeini returned. Forna was living with her mother and stepfather in Iran in the midst of these events.
The author describes various aspects of her life in these exquisitely written and wide-ranging essays. The title essay is also the opening essay. She opens the book with the statement, “Here are four words you rarely hear these days: I love to fly.” She has that right. Certainly any of us who have had occasion to fly since 9/11 are not fond of the process. Forna, however, writes about the pleasure of flying as an unaccompanied minor. She did a lot of that, as her father insisted that she be schooled in England. She describes how well the airlines treated unaccompanied minors in earlier decades.
In another essay she discusses the similarities between the way her parents and Barack Obama’s parents met. Both had to do with westerners assisting in African development and becoming acquainted with the locals.
Forna’s writing can cover a lot of ground in a single essay. In one essay she discusses contemporary bias against people of color and then describes how the slave trade was managed in West Africa in the eighteenth century. In another, she starts with a discussion of urban foxes in London and moves on to describing the proliferation of coyotes in the United States. (They’re not only in the West.)
The author also provides some delightful travelogue. Forna writes about how she and her brother took their mother on a trip to the Orkney and Shetland islands in Northern Scotland before she could no longer travel.
Given that she reads her own work one might wonder what sort of accent the author with an African father and a Scottish mother might have. The answer lies in the fact that her entire schooling was in England. (“I went to boarding school [in England] at six and left at eighteen for university in London.”) Forna, then, reads with a clipped English accent, but she doesn’t hold back emotion when emotion is appropriate. This is certainly the case in an angry essay about the perils of women walking alone in the city.
If you decide Window Seat is your cup of tea, and I hope you do, the audiobook is a superb option.
Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age
Robert D. Kaplan
read by Arthur Morey
Random House Audio, April 12, 2022
$27.56 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
Decades after working in the region as a reporter Robert Kaplan returns to the lands bordering the Adriatic Sea as a sort of tourist, though he still has something of the reporter in him.
In Italy, Kaplan visits Rimini, Ravenna, Venice, and Trieste. He makes a point of visiting the major architectural and archaeological sites and his words evoke the power and beauty of the cathedrals and other structures. He throws in a lot of history and explains how the past created the foundation for later centuries. He also invokes literature, discussing Dante while in Vienna and Frazer’s Golden Bough in Ravenna. We also hear much about James Joyce and TS Eliot.
Once he leaves Trieste he travels to the the Balkans: countries that were once satellites of the former Soviet Union. Here he abandons his solitary journey and reports his conversations with the residents of the various countries. He begins with everyday citizens, but ultimately ends up talking with the power brokers in the post-Soviet landscape. He doesn’t abandon history but put his focus on more recent events.
I enjoyed the first part of the book and the combination of travelogue, history, and literature as Kaplan visited the various cities in Italy. Once he started traveling in the Balkans, however, I had a hard time caring much about the politics and infrastructure struggles of the region.
Kaplan has an odd fascination with Ezra Pound. He has obviously read the complete Cantos and admires some of them while thinking less of others. He also is highly critical of Pound’s fascist sympathies. Given Kaplan’s distaste for Pound’s politics it’s rather odd that the author gives Pound the amount of attention that he does.
Kaplan’s perspective is one of age and maturity, looking back on his earlier life as a reporter. As such, Arthur Morey’s mature voice delivers the ideal narration for Adriatic. He takes ownership of Kaplan’s feelings and emotions and channels them expertly.
The book is an odd mixture of genres, though the author warns the reader at the beginning that he will delve into modern politics after providing the historical background. Still, the book holds together, though I would have been happy with the Italian portion of the journey alone.
A Brief History of Earth: Four Billion Years in Eight Chapters
Andrew H. Knoll
read by Tom Parks
HarperAudio, April 27, 2021
$17.96 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
This book is 277 pages in the print edition, which translates to four hours and fifty-seven minutes in the audiobook version, rather short by audiobook standards, but long enough for Andrew Knoll to get his message across. The print and Kindle editions contain several charts, diagrams, and photos. Fortunately, purchasers of the audiobook version can download a PDF file with these images.
Knoll does indeed condense the history of planet earth into eight chapters, and he arranges them logically. His eight chapters are:
- Chemical Earth
- Physical Earth
- Biological Earth
- Oxygen Earth
- Animal Earth
- Green Earth
- Catastrophic Earth
- Human Earth
The author does a nice job of tracking the history of the planet from its earliest days shortly after the formation of the solar system. Although the first chapter is titled “Chemical Earth,” Knoll refers to chemistry and chemical elements throughout the book.
He offers some interesting material. For example, he describes how life had to first form without oxygen before oxygen breathing animals could evolve. He describes one of the great extinctions, when there was an unusual amount of volcanic activity on the planet. This, he says, created an environment that allowed the dinosaurs to evolve. Then, of course, that infamous meteor hit what is now the edge of the Yucatan Peninsula, causing their extinction.
Knoll describes the geological evolution of the planet, and how the continents moved and shifted until we got the geography that we know today. The first seven chapters offer an interesting blend of history, chemistry, geology, and biology.
Then the author gets to the final chapter: “Human Earth.” He paints a grim picture of what humans have done to the planet, and how human beings are responsible for global warming and climate change. He paints an alarming picture about the impact that these changes will likely have on the planet and society. Although he ends on a hopeful note, it’s clear that humankind needs to take bold action to protect the planet and our environment.
Tom Parks does a superb job of reading the book. He allows Knoll’s voice to come through while creating an enjoyable listening experience.
Dessert Can Save the World: Stories, Secrets, and Recipes for a Stubbornly Joyful Existence
read by the author
Random House Audio, March 08, 2022
$21.44 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with a Audible credit
I found this book when the “Newly Published” column on page 4 of the New York Times Book Review mentioned it as a noteworthy new audiobook. The reviewer was spot on in saying that this book deserved attention.
Christina Tosi writes about her obsession with dessert. When she was a child she would eat her grandmother’s raw cookie dough, ignoring warnings about salmonella. Her grandmother stored baked cookies in the freezer in the basement until it was time to serve them, but Christina would sneak down there and steal the wrapped cookies. When she was in high school she delighted in developing her own creations. She was always a rebel. She writes, “I knew from a relatively young age that I was going to be uncool, which I was totally cool with.”
After high school when she realized it was time to leave home, she went to New York City where she attended culinary school by day and worked in a restaurant at night. She describes in detail the grueling work and the long hours in the restaurant business. But her rebel nature showed itself in these jobs. Head coverings were of course required in the kitchen, and there was a standard white cap the chefs expected staff to wear. Tosi one day, however, donned a colored scarf. She got away with it.
Tosi writes about how she worked in all aspects of the culinary world: on the line in the kitchen, the front of the house, and the dessert corner of the kitchen. This confirmed for her, she says, that it was the dessert part of that world she loved the most.
Tosi was working at a high-end New York restaurant as the head pastry chef when the landlord evicted the tenant next door. She took that as the opportunity to open her own bakery, Milk Bar. What she was not prepared for was the immediate success of her venture. She writes about the ridiculously long hours and the challenges she faced. She describes her stubbornness while finally realizing that: 1) she could automate the baking processes, and 2) she could rely on others and not carry the whole burden herself.
The author includes an interlude on what she calls dirty dessert secrets. These are taking snack and cookie items from the grocery store (or the gas station minimart, or even, she says, from the dollar store) and mashing them up with other items found in the refrigerator, freezer, or pantry. Most of those sounded unappetizing to me. She insists that everyone has a dirty dessert secret and says she wouldn’t believe you if you told her that you didn’t have one. I have to say, though, that I don’t. I’m quite happy with the chocolate chip cookies I bake from the tub of cookie dough I buy at my Winco supermarket. (For a while it was Snickers fun size, but for now I’m stuck on the cookies.) Really, I don’t need a mashup.
Fortunately, however, there are a lot of more conventional dessert recipes in the book, many of which are very appealing. If you listen to the audiobook you can also download a PDF file containing the recipes.
Tosi writes a lot about making others happy, whether it be her own customers or people in need. At the end of the book, she discusses the work that her company has done to support charities and social justice. She says:
Invite in the joy whenever, however, wherever, it comes along, be it dessert or anything else. And go all out to spread that joy to as many people in as many ways as you can. Because one act, by one person, sparks the change that, when shared, generates a revolution.
I love that Tosi narrated the book herself. Her joy in creating desserts and her enthusiasm are apparent. After listening to Dessert Can Save the World I would buy her desserts.
Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir
read by Samara Naeymi
Brilliance Audio, March 16, 2021
$21.99 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
Joyce Johnson’s memoir has gone through multiple iterations. Houghton Mifflin first published the book in 1983. Johnson wrote a new introduction for the book on the occasion of a 1994 reissue. Then Ann Douglas penned a thoughtful and illuminating introductory essay about American women in the 1950s for a 1999 edition. Finally, Samara Naeymi recorded the unabridged audiobook version, which Brilliance Audio released only last year.
When we read about the Beat Generation of the 1950s, we generally encounter the names of men: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and Neal Cassady, to name the most prominent figures. You will find all these men mentioned in Johnson’s book. But the prominence of the men diminishes the role women played in the movement. Johnson writes about her own involvement close to the movement but behind the scenes, and about how her close friend Elise Cowen and the wives of the Beats were very much a part of that world.
Johnson recounts her childhood and how her mother desperately wanted her to be a success in musical theater. That was not what Joyce wanted. She describes how she and her friend took the subway to Washington Square to participate in the folk music scene, telling their parents that they were doing something more wholesome. Her father was a corporate accountant who got little pleasure out of life other than playing the horses with the bookie at the newsstand and stopping by the bar for an occasional beer.
Johnson’s mother was intent that Joyce attend Barnard College, making her one of the few Jewish people to attend what has then an all-women’s school. (She was born Joyce Glassman.) Johnson spent four years at Barnard but did not graduate because the school had a physical education requirement that she ignored.
The author describes finding secretarial work after her non-graduation and maintaining a social life. Margaret Sanger had recently opened her birth control clinic in New York City, and the word among the young, unmarried Barnard alumna was that one could visit the clinic using a made-up married name to obtain the necessary services. Johnson admits that there was no logical reason for her hesitancy to do that herself. That omission had its consequences, and she describes in detail her experience of obtaining an illegal abortion by a seedy doctor in an unpleasant part of the city.
Elise Cowen and Johnson were close friends in college and maintained that friendship after their Barnard days, sometimes sharing an apartment. Cowen met Allen Ginsberg, with whom she immediately became infatuated. This was shortly before Ginsberg acknowledged his homosexuality, but Cowen never gave up hope, futile as that was.
It was Ginsberg who brought Johnson and Jack Kerouac together. Kerouac, constantly without money, suggested that he stay in Johnson’s apartment, something to which Johnson readily agreed. Kerouac was not one to stay in one place for long, however, and was always off to one place or another, whether it be Mexico, San Francisco, or Florida at his mother’s house. But he always had a place to stay with Johnson when he was in New York City.
Johnson makes a point of noting that Kerouac, always on the road (book reference intended), never headed out with a woman. Except for his mother. He moved her from Florida to San Francisco, back to Florida, and then to the New York countryside once his income from On the Road permitted his purchase of a house there. Loyalty to his mother transcended all other loyalties. He invited Johnson to visit their new home in New York, but afterward told her not to come back. His mother did not like her much. Among other things, she used too much hot water washing the dishes.
The author is clear-eyed in her perception of herself and others. She recognizes Kerouac had no romantic interest in her. (Sexual interest was a different matter.) She writes about how Kerouac kept insisting that they were “friends.” She also admits that she would have immediately taken him in had he chosen to commit. Johnson tells us that Kerouac never owned a typewriter. He always borrowed someone else’s, or very occasionally rented one. I have written here about how Kerouac famously composed On the Road on a scroll, and I have said that Kerouac scholars have said that the scroll consisted of sheets of paper taped together. Johnson says that he actually used a teletype roll that one of his friends obtained for him.
Johnson was at the center of the media frenzy after the publication On the Road. Kerouac had just returned to New York City and was living with her at the time. Johnson fielded telephone calls, sorted through the mail, and made sure Kerouac arrived on time for radio and television interviews. He was neither a gracious nor a pleasant guest for his media hosts.
Near the end of the book Johnson writes about breaking up with Kerouac (as if they were actually a couple in any genuine sense of the term). He had taken up with another woman and Johnson had reached her limit. It was outside a restaurant in New York City when she told him that enough was enough.
The final chapter is about the women in her world. In particular, she writes about how Cowen, who had been in a mental hospital, committed suicide rather than move to Florida with her parents. Although Johnson saw success as a writer, she tells us that the decade of the sixties did not hold she same attraction for her as the fifties did.
Samara Naeymi is superb in her reading of Johnson’s work and Johnson has structured her memoir with the flow of a novel. Listening to Minor Characters was time well spent.