The Sun Is a Compass

The Sun is a Compass coverThe Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds
Caroline Van Hemert
Narrated by Xe Sands
Hachette Audio, March 19, 2019
$20.76 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

The author is a biologist who specializes in the study of birds, particularly species found in Alaska. She married a former college roommate of her sister, a man who loves the outdoors and who would build cabins in the wilderness with his two hands. Caroline was becoming bored with academia, research, and dissertation writing, so the two of them decided to trek across the Alaskan and Canadian arctic.

This was no small excursion. They planned a four thousand mile, six month journey across lands that were not mapped or perhaps barely mapped. Some of the of the segments on their trip many have been most recently mapped decades earlier. Everything had to be carefully planned: how much they would carry with them, where they could pick up pre-arranged re-supply packages, and all sorts of logistical details.

Van Hemert’s writing is flowing, precise, and descriptive. Much of the book reads like a novel as she describes those times when their lives were in real danger. I knew that they would make it through each perilous incident since this is a memoir, not a novel, and she survived to write the account. Nonetheless, I really felt the tension in those precarious moments.

The narrator, Xe Sands, is a skilled voice actor. You hear Caroline’s emotions in her voice and I felt as if I was actually listening to the author herself.

If you enjoy this genre, do not overlook The Sun Is a Compass.


We Wanted to Be Writers

We Wanted to Be Writers coverWe Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop
Eric Olsen and Glenn Schaeffer
Skyhorse (August 16, 2011), 345 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, paperback $11.58
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $1.99

When I came across this book I wanted to read it for two reasons. The first was my love of writing. The second was that this book consists of  interviews with participants in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the mid-1970’s. If you read this blog you know that I am a seventies kind of guy.

The authors interview a handful of participants in the program. They begin with the participants’ earliest love of writing, go on to the application process, spend a lot of time discussing their participation in the program, and talk about life after Iowa. Many stayed in writing and teaching; others moved on to other fields.

We hear from writers with whom you may be familiar: John Irving, T.C. Boyle, Sandra Cisneros, Joe Haldeman, and others. Some participated in the program and then came back to tech. All have a lot to offer with respect to their perspective on Iowa.

This was interesting stuff, but at over 300 pages it was a little too much interesting stuff. There was some repetition, and the book could have stood some trimming. Still, it was a lot of fun to read,


Sapiens

Sapiens coverSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Yuval Noah Harari
narrated by Derek Perkins
HarperAudio, 2017
$23.07 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

The author of this book got his PhD at Oxford and teaches history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has the hubris in this volume to attempt to provide a complete history of the human race. Surprisingly, he pretty much succeeds.

Harari starts with the story of early man, and points out that Homo sapiens was not the only human species. He explains that sapiens competed against other human species, such as Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis. It was not inevitable that Homo sapiens would be the successful species, but it became so for a variety of reasons.

He describes the success of the hunter-gatherers and discusses how that group had a healthier, more varied diet than the wheat farmers. Harari explains how wheat domesticated humankind, and not the other way around because in growing wheat a community could feed more people in a smaller area than its hunter-gatherer counterparts.

The author lays out how empire, for all its faults, was required for culture and that there would be no culture without empire. He goes on to describe the interrelationship between war and capitalism.

In the modern era, Harari discusses factory farming in painful detail and how the system has no respect for the natural needs and desires of the animals involved. That section may make you rethink drinking milk and eating meat.

As he nears the close of the book the author discusses genetic engineering and the cyborg elements of science: combining the organic with the non-organic.

The book is well-narrated by Derek Perkins, and his inflections are in sync with the text. His engaging and authoritative British accent kept my interest throughout.

This is good stuff, though not always easy to listen to.


The Prodigal Tongue

Prodigal Tongue coverThe Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English
Lynne Murphy
Penguin Books (April 10, 2018), 368 pages
Kindle edition $8.99, Amazon paperback $11.55

Lynne Murphy is an expatriate American who lives and teaches in England. As such, she is acutely aware of the differences between British and American English. She makes very clear at the outset that she is not, however, interested in the superficial differences between the two forms of English, such as the difference in meaning of phrases like, “Shall I knock you up in the morning?” or of words such as truck vs. lorry.

Murphy really gets into the subtleties of the differences between the two forms of English, delving, for example, into whether the use of the subjunctive is more British or American. She points out that many words and phrases that the English consider Americanisms in fact have their origins in British English.

While there are many interesting passages in this book, such as her discussion of Noah Webster and his (highly successful) quest to Americanize English, some of the material is so arcane as to be downright boring, even to an avowed word nerd such as myself.

While much of the information is fascinating, to my mind had the book been cut by twenty-five percent it would have been far more readable and engaging.


Route 66 Still Kicks

Route 66 Still Kicks coverRoute 66 Still Kicks: Driving America’s Main Street
Rick Antonson
Skyhorse Publishing; August 15, 2012, 385 pages
KIndle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $11.91
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $1.99

I have a long history with Route 66. My family lived in Barstow during the years I was in first through fourth grade. Route 66 ran through Main Street in the town before the Interstate was built. When I attended Pitzer College the northern border of the campus was Foothill Boulevard, which was the old Route 66 in the area. During my years in Oklahoma my first wife Ruth and I, on one trip from Tulsa back to Oklahoma City, abandoned the turnpike, an Interstate highway, and traveled Route 66 through the old towns that the turnpike bypassed.

When I saw that the Kindle edition of this book was on sale for $1.99 I of course immediately bought it. And what a delight it was.

Rick Antonson got a bee under his bonnet and decided that he wanted to drive as much of the old Route 66 as possible. He recruited a friend, Peter, and they rented a Mustang in Chicago for their trip. They discovered that much of the old highway was hard to find, but it was findable nonetheless. They took risks, sometimes venturing down unpaved parts of the road. They seemed to have an aversion to shaving and to Laundromats. They met interesting people and they ate good food. Mixed in with all this was some fascinating history of people, places, and of the highway itself. Not to mention a detailed discussion of that iconic Nat King Cole song.

If Route 66 and its history resonate with you, you will find this book a kick.


Daisy Jones & The Six

Daisy Jones and the Six coverDaisy Jones & The Six: A Novel
Taylor Jenkins Reid
Ballantine Books (March 5, 2019), 368 pages
Amazon hardcover $15.99, Kindle edition $11.99

I actually read this book in hardcover, not as a Kindle e-book. Terry and I both read the review in the New York Times Book Review and thought it would be a fun read. She picked up the hardcover at Barnes & Noble and I read it when she was done. We were right. It was a fun read.

The book is presented as an oral history of a seventies rock band, with each member of the band presenting his or her perspective of events. The band’s supposed songs are even printed at the end of the book. There might be a tendency to view this as a fictionalized history of Fleetwood Mac, although there are probably more differences than similarities to that band’s history. Daisy Jones herself is something of a Stevie Nicks, although even here there are as many differences as similarities.

The book is a fast, enjoyable, and engaging read. There is something of a surprise near the end of the novel when we learn who the supposed interviewer and author is. And at the book’s conclusion I had tears in my eyes. I don’t cry at the end of novels. I did this time.

If you are a fan of seventies pop music you will find Daisy Jones & The Six well worth your time.


Save Me the Plums

Save Me the Plums coverSave Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir
Ruth Reichl
narrated by the author
Random House Audio, 2019
$19.60 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

I read My Kitchen Year, Ruth Reichl’s memoir cum cookbook, when it came out in 2015, so I was keen on reading, well, listening to, her latest book. My Kitchen Year is Reichl’s story about her life in the year after Gourmet magazine, of which she was editor-in-chief, was shut down, and in it she included a number of recipes that helped her make it through that year. Save Me the Plums is her narrative about her decade at Gourmet.

This is one of those audiobooks that is made far better by being read by the author. Reichl describes being lured to the Condé Nast publication from her job as food critic for The New York Times. She describes how she helped revitalize the magazine, which had become staid and stale. She talks about the lavish expense accounts and other perquisites that came with being part of Condé Nast. She talks about the politics of publishing and the idiosyncrasies of Condé Nast owner S.I. Newhouse. She describes the belt-tightening that came with the Great Recession and Newhouse’s decision, sudden and unexpected, to shut down the magazine. Throughout it all Reichl offers a variety of recipes.

This book will appeal to a variety of audiences: foodies, lovers of food writing, and those with an interest in the magazine publishing business. Enjoyable, engaging listening.