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.

How You Say It

How You Say It coverHow You Say It: Why You Talk the Way You Do—And What It Says About You
Katherine D. Kinzler
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (July 21, 2020), 253 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $20.99

As a writer and as a reader I place a lot of emphasis on the written word, and I think a lot about writing and styles of writing. However, the spoken word is important to me as well. I spent nearly four years in Toastmasters, leaving only when changes to the program made the organization less appealing to me. A linguist will tell you that language is about the spoken word far more than it is about writing. That was the message in John McWhorter’s Great Courses series on language families which I recently watched. It is the spoken word that interests Katherine Kinzler in this book.

Kinzler wants to understand, and wants us to understand, how the spoken word affects how we perceive other people. She is not a linguist, rather she is a psychologist. However, in doing the research that forms the basis of this book she took a multidisciplinary approach, working with individuals in multiple fields, including linguistics. She writes with the approach of a linguist, saying, for example, “African American English is a dialect of English like any other (including Standard American English).”

The author writes about the misconceptions that people have, for example that an ethic Asian might have difficulty learning a non-Asian language such as French. She describes how bias is pervasive in the media. In children’s movies, such as Aladdin, she points out that the bad guys have accents and the good guys don’t. Kinzler explores how an accent can have a negative impact on a person being hired for a particular job, even when they are fully qualified.

This is interesting material, and it presents an important set of social issues of which we ought to be aware.

Dark Matter and Dark Energy

Dark Matter & Dark Energy coverDark Matter and Dark Energy: The Hidden 95% of the Universe
Brian Clegg
Icon Books Ltd (August 8, 2019), 143 pages
Kindle edition $6.99, Amazon paperback $12.23

This is a slim volume, part of the Hot Science series from Icon Books, a publisher in the United Kingdom. Brian Clegg is a veteran science writer whose language is clear and concise but sprinkled with some enjoyable wit.

Scientists calculate that the matter in the universe that we can see is only a small portion of what should actually be there. We don’t yet know where the rest of it is. Clegg says that it would be better to call it transparent matter. The most recent science tells us that the universe continues to expand and will do so indefinitely. However the amount of energy we can measure is far less than what would be needed for this to happen. Hence dark energy.

Clegg thinks that there are alternative explanations to the existence of dark matter. He is more convinced that dark energy exists.

There are no definitive answers for either phenomenon. The research continues. But Clegg’s book offers a readable snapshot on the state of the research.

In Search of the Lost Chord

In Search of the Lost Chord coverIn Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea
Danny Goldberg
Akashic Books (June 6, 2017), 280 pages
Kindle edition $10.99, Amazon paperback $13.92

Danny Goldberg sees 1967 as the apex of the hippie era. Before that the movement was not fully mature and the following year brought an end to those ideals in the minds of many. That’s because the year 1968 brought us the assassinations of both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the riots at the democratic convention in Chicago, and the nomination of Richard Nixon to head the Republican presidential ticket.

Goldberg covers culture, politics, and music. He talks about the original hippie be-ins, a hippie spoof of the civil rights sit-ins and the antiwar teach-ins on college campuses. He points out that “like much hip language, the device had a short shelf life before going mainstream,” with the advent of the irreverent television program Laugh-In.

He writes about a group called the Diggers, who were a sort of a luddite group, but who provided food and other services to the poor. He discusses political activists such as Jerry Rubin, and documents the criticism of hippies by many, including by quite a few on the left, who felt they were doing nothing to improve society. Goldberg describes how musical groups such as the Grateful Dead were mostly non-political, whereas a group such as Country Joe and the Fish was the exact opposite.

Goldberg was born in 1950, three years before me, so he came of age in the midst of all this. Although he at times documents his own involvement in this world, for the most part he objectively describes the era, even if it is obvious where is biases lie.

Creative Quest

Creative Quest coverCreative Quest
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Ecco, April 24, 2018, 261 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon paperback $14.29

I had never heard of Questlove, aka Ahmir Thompson, until he showed up on the Rachael Ray show one day. Not that I watch Rachel Ray regularly (I wish there was an easy way eliminate all the other goings-on (as they appeared on the show pre-COVID-19) and just watch the cooking segments), but I caught this episode. It turns out that he is the musical director of the Jimmy Fallon incarnation of The Tonight Show, and his musical group Roots is the house band. But you no doubt knew that.

Questlove is also a lover of gourmet cooking and in a pre-COVID19 world he hosted food salons so he could hang out with four- and five-star chefs. He was on Rachael Ray to talk about gourmet holiday potlucks, as I recall.

When I looked him up on Amazon I found this book. Always interested in improving my creativity I bought it. It was a mixed bag for me. I’m not a big fan of hip-hop. Actually, I actively dislike hip-hop. (I never enjoyed the music on Fallon’s version of Tonight the few times that I’ve watched it. Questlove is not Doc Severinsen.) Questlove writes a lot about the creative process in hip-hop and music in general. A music lover I am, but understanding the creative process behind producing music doesn’t interest me in the same way that understanding the creative process in writing does. The author writes about things like ProTools, which, if you are a serious musician, is the ultimate music editing software, or so I understand.

Still, Questlove has some interesting insights into the creative process, and he is candid about his failures in addition to noting his successes. He suggests that in a world of the internet and Google “the brain is more a hunter-gatherer and less a farmer.” He cites William Klemm, of Texas A&M University:

quote[Klemm] defines creativity as the process of drawing water from a deep well. I’m paraphrasing. He said that “creativity comes from a mind that knows, and remembers, a lot.” We don’t have those brains anymore. Instead, we offload our knowledge to our phones and computers, to Wikipedia, to Shazam. It’s a great convenience, but what’s lost in the process?

Questlove, born in 1971, the year I graduated from high school, ought not be worrying about aging quite yet, but I like the fact that he references Dick Van Dyke, now in his nineties, saying as we age we ought not avoid (for example) using the stairs just because it hurts a little. I’ll remember that the next time I ache getting up off the floor when I’m arranging Tasha’s food on the bottom shelf of the cabinet.

The author writes in a light, breezy style. He has a “with” co-author in Ben Greenman, but I assume that the self-deprecation and dry wit are Questlove’s and not imposed by Greenman.

Not one of my favorite books, but there are some good insights here.

Who We Are and How We Got Here

Who We Are coverWho We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past
David Reich
Vintage (March 27, 2018), 356 pages
Kindle edition $7.99, Amazon paperback $13.68

Our ability to interpret the human genome has advanced our scientific knowledge in a wide range of disciplines. In these recent stay-at-home pandemic months I have streamed on my Roku Great Courses lecture series on evolution, Native Americans, and linguistics. All of them have touched upon genetic evidence as part of the material presented.

Author David Reich is a working scientist who complains at the outset about taking time away from preparing papers for professional journals to write a popular book. The general reader, however, is better off for his having done so. He provides a readable outline of the state of genetic research today.

Reich discusses early human history and describes how modern humans carry genes from both ancient Neanderthals and Denisovans, something that helped early modern humans survive in new environments. He writes about the migrations of people and the interbreeding between hunter-gatherers and farmers. The author then describes research into the distribution of human populations today. Throughout the book he talks about work done in his own lab and gives proper credit to individual researchers.

Near the end of the book Reich complains about the politics and academic disputes that arise in the world of research. This was somewhat frustrating reading, but the bulk of the book, in which he lays out how the science of genetics has helped flesh out our understanding of humankind, was fascinating stuff.

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.

Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms

Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms coverArthur and the Lost Kingdoms
Alistair Moffat
Birlinn (November 1, 2012), 308 pages
Kindle edition $10.99, Paperback $27.93
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $1.99

Alistair Moffat spent many years as an actor and as an executive for the Scottish equivalent of the BBC before retiring to live on his farm in southern Scotland and work as an amateur historian. This book is a product of that second career.

There is far less allure to the book than the title might imply. Much of it focuses on the early history of southern Scotland, describing the comings and goings of the Romans, Angles, and Saxons and their interactions with the native Britons. Moffat also has an ax to grind. It is important to him to establish Arthur’s origins in Southern Scotland, and he goes out of his way to do so.

Moffat writes that there is more evidence for the historical existence of Merlin than there is for Arthur. Yet he then uses place names and historical documents from a couple of hundred years after the supposed time of Arthur to describe the battles he led, to state that Arthur considered himself to be a military leader and not a king, and even give a specific year for Arthur’s death.

Moffat’s efforts are in the end unsatisfying and unconvincing. Despite all the efforts he and others have put into unearthing a historical Arthur, I’m not sure we’ll ever find him. Far better, I think, to enjoy and savor the myth and the legend.


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 Unexpected Universe

The Unexpected UniverseThe Unexpected Universe
Loren Eiseley
Library of America, 254 pages
originally published in 1969
Kindle edition $8.99, Amazon paperback 11.59
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $0.99

Back in my Claremont cockroach days, the era that began after I graduated from Pitzer College but stayed in Claremont and ended when I headed off to Laredo, Texas to open a B. Dalton Bookseller store, I was a big fan of Loren Eiseley. I loved his writing on nature, natural history, and the happenings of everyday life. I was delighted to discover, then, that much of his work is back in print. I learned this when I saw his book The Unexpected Universe in an Early Bird Books email. I bought it immediately.

Eisley is a skilled essayist. In the opening piece he interweaves Odysseus and Darwin as he discusses their respective journeys, one fictional, one real. In another essay he describes a man on a beach in Mexico throwing starfish which had washed up on shore back into the ocean to give them another chance at life.

He writes beautifully about humankind’s connection to nature:

quoteI saw the drifting cells of the early seas from which all life, including our own, has arisen. The salt of those ancient seas is in our blood, its lime is in our bones. Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments, or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war.

Eiseley is not unaware of the destruction caused by humans: “We have become planet changers and the decimators of life, including our own.” And this in 1969. Nonetheless, there is so much beauty, wonder, and awe in Eiseley’s writing that reading his work makes for a most enjoyable diversion in these turbulent times.