January 2009 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe
With parallels to The Great Gatsby, the revived 1961 novel REVOLUTIONARY ROAD by Richard Yates is now a film starring Leonardo DeCaprio and Kate Winslet. As in Fitzgerald’s novel, Yates’ book, recently re-released in paperback (and new on audio), tracks the disillusionment of the times following a major world war. The time is the mid-1950s, but the suburban angst resonates even today, ever more so as we plunge into a new kind of soul searching brought on by the housing crash. Frank Wheeler wants to believe he and his wife April will be happy in consumer driven suburbia, even with his dull job and their mutual lack of fulfillment. Having started a family too early, they feel trapped, and talk of moving to France, even as they pretend moral superiority over the neighbors. Yet the bitter realization of their entrapment, and of time closing in on their dreams, forces them to lash out at each other, even over trivialities. Soon their fate is sealed. As narrated by Mark Bramhall, whose theater experience brings an elevated tone of authenticity to the denouement, the book is both humorous and tragic. Like all great art, it leaves one pondering the complexities and ambiguities of life. Or in the American Dream. (Random House Audio; 11 1/2 hours unabridged)
If you wonder what average Iranians think of us, wonder no more in LAUGHING WITHOUT AN ACCENT by Firoozeh Dumas. In this funny memoir about an Iranian American growing up in Southern California, the cultural clashes inherent between us are all explained with a dry wit and a droll turn of phrase. For example, what’s this American custom of a man with a beard coming down the chimney, anyway? Scary. And Americans put melted marshmellows on yams? Why? Dumas endures American misconceptions of Iranians as terrorists too, even as she takes a road trip to Iowa with an American once held hostage in Iran. Then, as a mother, she faces chaos when she removes the television from her house. (Why is her father addicted to The Price is Right, when it’s all wrong?) As narrator of her memoir, Dumas entertains as Erma Bombeck might, minus any accent. (Audible; 6 hours unbridged)
If you’ve watched much TV, no doubt you’re addicted to excess. Television, after all, is about more and bigger. You’re urged to consume in gluttonous abandon at every turn, never mind the environment or your own health. Even high fat, processed junk foods are touted as “healthy fast food,” although the additives and chemicals in them require paragraphs of tiny print to enumerate. So what to do, once you’ve weaned yourself off the boob tube, and entered the real world in time to save it from crumbling around you? Try GREEN LIVING FOR DUMMIES to start. Editors Yvonne Jeffery, Liz Barclay, and Michael Grosvenor find voice in narrator Brett Barry in compiling a wealth of ideas to pinch pennies while improving your health, and the health of the planet. Covered are the uses and abuses of plastics, CFLs, the reuse of paper, jars, (even birthday cards), plus food selection and packaging impacts related to transportation. Also, why you should avoid eating cod and certain other depressed fish stocks; car sharing; electric bikes; buying new appliances; and exercise. If you put this audiobook on your iPod, and go for a hike while listening, you’ll be far enough away from the TV, too, so you won’t be ordering that deluxe meat lover’s pizza expressly forbidden by your cardiologist. (Harper Audio; 3 1/2 hours abridged)
Do you believe that science can ultimately solve all our problems? If so, you should listen to PROUST WAS A NEUROSCIENTIST. According to Jonah Lehrer, the more we study the brain, the more we realize how little we know about who we really are. His thesis here is that science is not the only path to knowledge, and that art plays as much a role in understanding consciousness. It’s a case of the whole being more than a sum of the parts, because mere molecules and chemical reactions cannot explain what art knows. Lehrer follows Proust, Cezanne, Gertrude Stein, Noam Chomsky, George Eliot, Stravinsky, and even the great chef Escoffier as they discover subtleties of perception which hint at the divine, (or at least at the essence of what it means to experience life). Narrated by Dan John Miller, the audiobook is part biography and part criticism, but its broad approach is appealing in that it makes no case for either art or science being superior. It is about the merging of each into what, again, is a clearer approximation of truth. (Brilliance Audio; 7 hours unabridged)
What do you get when you combine Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, and the Green Lantern? Well, that’s the Justice League of America, of course. (Folks we could use right now to fight terrorists, Somali pirates, and the evil forces pervading Madison Avenue and Wall Street.) In THE FLASH: Stop Motion by Mark Schultz, though, the fireballs from space and the forces causing deaths in Keystone City have nothing to do with sociopathic banking CEO scumbags, but rather an evil scientist or creature who can move even faster Wally West. Is it from another dimension? What has our heroes perplexed, anyway? Not without intrigue, this full cast and sound production is dubbed a movie in your mind, and thereby requires imagination (a muscle rarely used watching television). The effects employed to aid plot movement here are diverse and interesting. With a narrator telling most of the story, accompanied by background sound or snippets of music, this is the kind of escapist fiction which the major publishers don’t have time to produce, as it also includes 19 actors, each with their own distinct personalities. (Graphic Audio; 6 hours unabridged)
Finally, CEOs nab huge paychecks, even as they apply for bailouts. Hedge fund managers score record bonuses, even as the individual investor suffers record losses. In his new book ENOUGH author John C. Bogle decries the recent obsession with speculation on Wall Street. Bogle is founder of the Vanguard Mutual Fund Group, and espouses a return to investing for the long term instead of speculating and day-trading. The latter is what has brought us to the brink of financial meltdown, when a perfect storm amassed to beach the sharks, even amid their feeding frenzy. To return to sanity, we need to realize that when our values are in line, we may discover that we don’t need more, regardless of the incessant urgings of get-rich-quick schemes that turn out to be a dead end. Read on audio by Alan Sklar, with additional commentary by the author, ENOUGH presents a reasoned, rational approach to life and business, devoid of the hype which Hollywood promotes as the only way to succeed. He explores the errors of speculation on all levels, from commodities futures to complex derivatives, and concludes that no one can know the future, or see the proverbial and inevitable black swan approaching. Bottom line? Shortcuts are for criminals and other losers. Don’t believe them. (Highbridge Audio; 6 1/4 hours unabridged)
February 2009 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe
Back in the golden age of radio (before video killed the radio star) stories were routinely dramatized for public consumption. Use of the imagination predated the now ubiquitous made-for-TV movie. For an engaging return to yesteryear, the creative minds over at Blackstone have produced a first edition of THE BLACK MASK AUDIO MAGAZINE, with stories taken from the pages of the original magazine of the 1930s and 40s, and including hard boiled tales by Hugh B. Cave, Paul Cain, Frederick Nebel, Reuben J. Shay, William Cole, and the legendary Dashiell Hammett. The stories are fully dramatized with sound effects and period music, as directed by veteran Yuri Rasovsky, and with sound editing supplied by–among others–Sue Zizza. The talented cast is headed by GROVER GARDNER, and includes Anthony Heald, Lorna Raver, George Guidall, Richard Ferrone, Tom Weiner, Christine Williams, Jeff Woodman, Rochelle Savitt, Malcolm Hillgartner, Richard Allen, Kaitlin Hopkins, William Hughes, and Burt Ross. In one of the best tales, Pigeon Blood, a woman with a dead man on her floor is asked if the guy is drunk, and she replies, “Hammered.” When it turns out that the hammer was hers, she admits, “I was always good with tools.” Twists turn to double twists when, as in the short piece Taking His Time, a policeman with a penchant for legal details has no problem with. . .well, you’ll just have to take the time and hear for yourself. Bravo to Blackstone’s Hollywood Theater of the Ear for bringing back a forgotten genre with fresh new twists of dramatic interpretation. The sound quality is excellent, the acting superb, and the stories themselves seem unpredictably propelled within a backdrop of subtle complexity. Also available on Mp3 disk for easy iPod downloading, the production features “tough gumshoes, rotten yeggs, and dangerous dames.” Not to mention those responsible already listed. (Blackstone Audio; 5 hours unabridged)
Garrison Keillor may seem, to some, a throwback to the age of Ozzie & Harriet or Leave It to Beaver, when television hadn’t yet diminished radio programming to the wasteland of repetitive Top 40 and political talk a la Rush Limbaugh. But if you’ve never heard A Prairie Home Companion, you’ve missed out on a true slice of Americana. With his traveling road show, still heard every week on NPR, Keillor brings his quirky characters to life on the stage, and all of them are funnier than the folks you find these days at your typical suburban shopping mall. Take, for example, those living in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. In RHUBARB and other audio productions taken from the show, you learn about the luxury of rhubarb pie (and why this “weed” is a secret obsession), then you go on a vacation with Myrtle and Florian (whose obsession with thrift gets in the way of relaxation). You discover the perils of prophecy, and why March is the most restless month in town, “a month God created to show people who don’t drink what a hangover is like.” Staring up at the vapor lights of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility with your mind’s eye is somehow more satisfying than seeing it on the boob tube, too, although Garrison did produce a movie starring Meryl Streep about the road show–one which, ironically, also starred Lindsay Lohan. Tune in, or pop in a CD, and you’ll discover, as I did, that there are still people living, even today, in a land that TV forgot (except in syndication on the Andy Griffith Show), and that these folks are entertaining to hear about because, as Keillor puts it, “our women are strong, our children are above average, and as for the men–well, we could look worse.” (Highbridge Audio; 77 minutes unabridged)
Leaving yesteryear can be a pain, especially when you consider our current economy. There is a reason, after all, why Obama’s book was titled The Audacity of Hope, and it’s because there are larger trends at work here which overshadow any Presidential term. In his new book THE GREAT DEPRESSION AHEAD author Harry S. Dent, Jr. outlines these trends in startling detail, and from a wider perspective than merely one political season. Having successfully predicted the crash of Fall 2008 years ago, Dent was also the author of The Great Boom Ahead, published in 1992, when he stood virtually alone in forecasting the unanticipated boom of the 1990s. And now he is saying that the party is over. Dent holds a Harvard MBA, is a Fortune 100 consultant, and is president of the HS Dent Foundation, whose mission is to help business leaders understand change. His analytical techniques have allowed him to predict economic trends with unprecedented accuracy, which is why this latest book is such an eye-opener, and is narrated by the author himself on audio. Among the predictions being made here is that we are at the end of an historic boom cycle, and so while the economy may appear to recover from the subprime crisis and “minor recession” by mid to late 2009, (given Obama’s deficit spending to aid infrastructure and create jobs), it is actually “the calm before the real storm.” By 2010 America will enter a truly Great depression, with stocks not reaching their lows until 2012. Scared yet? Let’s hope he’s wrong for once. Because this means that housing prices will continue to fall along with stocks, and so despite the supposedly “low” valuations of today, he advises selling now if you can, and to rent, waiting to buy again after the housing market hits bottom by 2012. And there’s more. A global bull market will not return until 2020 at the earliest. Still, there is a silver lining here. According to Dent, there are buying opportunities along the way, particularly in long term bonds as inflation’s brief return will cause the Fed to raise interest rates. Also, the depression will cause Congress to act in restructuring entitlement programs and to tax the rich more. An enhanced CD includes a PDF file of various charts and graphs, outlining the major trends of the past, and extending them into the future. State by state breakdowns of population changes and market projections are included, too. Bottom line? The era of conspicuous consumption is over, as leaders cut waste and fraud in an effort to avoid the collapse of the dollar. As all the bubbles pop, we will all be forced to either adapt or perish. (Simon & Schuster Audio; 2009; 6 hours abridged)
Excerpt from my recent interview with Dent:
LOWE: We’ll probably remember 2008 as the year of the Great Banking Crisis, following the subprime bubble. Why do you think so many people–both professional and non–were fooled into believing that the common sense adage “what goes up must come down” somehow did not apply to housing prices?
DENT: The hardest thing to convince people of in the last several years was that house prices could go down a lot! We would show the example from 1925 to 1933 and 1991 to 2005 in Japan. People have seen real estate go up their entire life and with only minor corrections. People can believe our predictions for another major stock or oil crash, but not real estate. Well, obviously, now they do believe it. We are saying that house prices nationally have to go down 50% to 55%, or back to at least the levels in 2000. Hence, there is another major crash in housing prices ahead as well with the worst slide likely from early 2010 into mid 2011. We don’t recommend buying real estate again until around late 2012 or early 2013. The bubble in real estate is the greatest in U.S. history. We wouldn’t see as large a decline if the bubble had not been so extreme. Housing prices only went down around 30% in the Great Depression as there wasn’t a major bubble before the deflation process set in.
LOWE: We still seem to be victims of our own near-sightedness, somehow believing that Washington will save us. Meanwhile, we save very little (if at all) for our own retirements, while the Chinese save a lot. As companies and markets hunker down for the lean years ahead, what can the average person do to survive or prosper in such an environment?
DENT: First of all, the government cannot save us. They did not create this boom, the baby boom generation did – and they can’t stop the steep slide in spending ahead as that generation slows in their spending and accelerates in their retirement. At best we will get a strong temporary rebound, but that will be met with inflation pressures and accelerating oil and commodity prices again. At worst, and more likely, all of this stimulus will only create a modest rebound and that will be seen as a sign of serious weakness with the stock markets and US dollar crashing again. The best thing people can do is to save and to convert their stocks and excess real estate into cash during the temporary rebound in 2009. Our target for the Dow is just below 11,000 between April and July. Sell your investments and wait for all assets to deflate into late 2010 to late 2012. Then buy at the greatest bargains of your lifetime.
Finally, speaking of surviving, Joan Rivers is not averse to turning back the clock through the miracles of plastic surgery. In her new audiobook, which she also narrates, Joan advises women how, when, and why to choose that nip and tuck, with the aid of coauthor Valerie Frankel. Naturally men can be blamed for this obsession with beauty, and so the title is MEN ARE STUPID…AND THEY LIKE BIG BOOBS. Now, I’ve been told that women dress for other women, but I must admit that maybe it’s because men don’t really seem to care what a woman is wearing, they’re too busy trying to imagine what’s underneath. Still, in my opinion, men are stupid because they buy big boob tubes to watch Baywatch reruns. Yet Joan has a point, and she has no trouble poking fun at both the men and women involved, either–especially those in Hollywood who routinely walk the red carpet. How sad it is that the public still embraces this last and so widely accepted prejudice against aging. In the meantime, laugh and do something about it, Joan seems to say. This sometimes funny audiobook is recommended mainly for those who are considering plastic surgery, as it provides information on how to find the right doctor, with horror stories about those who didn’t shop well. A better choice, of course, would be to just accept who you are, and live with it. The problem is, can you accept what other people, men included, may think or not think? (Simon & Schuster Audio; 6 hours abridged)
March 2009 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe
Looking for a true story of adventure, mystery, and horror (in the form of malaria-laden mosquitos, poisonous snakes, and a lost city of gold)? If so, you’re in for an exciting destination that’s best read (or heard) about rather than visited. When New Yorker magazine staff writer David Grann stumbled upon the diaries of British explorer Percy Fawcett, he had in his hands the framework needed for a book on the subject of what’s been called “the greatest exploration mystery of the twentieth century.” The date was 1925 when Col. Percy Harrison Fawcett set out to find the site of a legendary Amazonian civilization reputed to hide the golden kingdom of El Dorado. Fawcett dubbed it THE LOST CITY OF Z, and from the start the expedition was a descent into hell. He writes of “days of toil, nights of torture” in his diaries, which are filled with notes about the various insects which plagued him. Not only did the pack animals suffer, but colleagues succumbed to strange tropical diseases that manifested as festering sores that attracted leeches and vampire bats. What will men do to discover gold? Fawcett’s obsession offers a vivid example, although he himself seems to have been blessed with an extraordinary physical constitution. As the author takes up the mantel to explore the Amazon himself, seeking the truth about what happened to Fawcett, he becomes involved in an adventure of all his own. Actor Mark Deakins narrates this fascinating tale, maintaining the air of fresh discovery throughout. (Random House Audio; 10 hours unabridged)
In NO SURVIVORS, a book that rivals–even surpasses–the Jason Bourne series by Robert Ludlum, novelist Tom Cain continues to develop the character of Samuel Carver, a hired assassin who makes accidents happen, and whom, like Jason, lies–at the beginning–a broken man unsure of his past. When his Russian spy girlfriend is forced to leave him, Carver escapes the sanitarium in which he’s imprisoned only to be hired by a man who wants to get his hands on some deadly missing Russian suitcase nukes. Add a Texas billionaire who hopes to finance Armageddon by blowing up Jerusalem, and what you have is a 007ish take on nuclear terror circa today. Is Cain the new Clancy? Time will tell, but in the meantime John Lee is definitely a great choice as narrator for a suspense set mainly in Europe, and whose accent is no accident. Lee won an award reading Cain’s previous novel, The Accident Man, while Tom Cain is the pseudonym of British journalist David Thomas (a name that perhaps sounds more appropriate for someone reading poetry on Walton’s mountain). Now let’s just hope that there isn’t as much missing nuclear material out there as Cain postulates, Because if there is, we are all in deep, deep trouble. (Penguin Audio; 11 hours unabridged)
Next, Erica Bauermeister’s first novel, THE SCHOOL OF ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS, is not merely about the pleasures of culinary indulgence. Like scientist Jonah Lehrer, her character Lillian has been exploring the mysteries of taste for a long time, and also looking beyond recipes or menus to discover the hidden truths which arise from those mysteries. Her weekly restaurant cooking classes provide her with an audience on which to crystalize her thoughts on food, life, and love. But this is only a springboard from which the lives of her students add spice to the mix. Their stories within Lillian’s main story serve as poignant taste variations added to a subtle base stock. As narrated by actor Cassandra Campbell, this short yet delicious novel becomes a delicacy to be savored as sentence by sentence the hope of those yearning to learn the truths of their lives play out on the chopping block. (Penguin Audio; 6 hours unabridged)
While there are many things you should say “no way” to, when it comes to persuasion what you want is for your clients or potential employers to say YES! Getting them to overcome any reluctance is a matter of psychology, as authors Noah J. Goldstein, Steve J. Martin, and Robert B. Cialdini emphasize in their new audiobook, subtitled 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive. Goldstein is on the faculty of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, Martin is managing director of Influence at Work in the UK, and Cialdini is president of that organization, a professor of psychology and marketing, and the most cited social psychologist in the field. What is most interesting about their research is how seemingly subtle variations in the wording of advertising or interpersonal dialogue can affect outcomes. For example, if you are talking to someone whose background is more collectivist than individualistic (like the culture of Japan), you will receive much more favorable results if you point to what others of their group have chosen in the past, rather than what their own choice should be. Also covered are why hiring someone to tout your merits is better than touting them yourself (even if that person is known to be paid by you!), how mirroring a person’s gestures or style creates a bond with them, and why placement of mirrors to reduce theft or littering actually works. Some of these findings have been outlined in other business psychology books, but there’s a appeal to the wide ranging and entertaining aspect here, with an attention to not getting too bogged down in lecture. This is primarily a book for sales people, but the useful psychological tips cross over into all aspects of daily life. The conclusion you come to after listening is that we are not always the rational beings we imagine ourselves to be, and are instead influenced by what our peers are doing (watching sports on TV), how scarce something is claimed to be (making us want it more, as in “only available for a limited time!”), or just the relentless breaking down of our wills through repetition. You are even more likely to buy this audiobook because I listed the qualifications of the authors above, as one of their case studies involves a doctor who had little success advising his patients to choose healthier diets until he posted his academic credentials in plain view. (Simon & Schuster Audio; 5 1/2 hours unabridged)
Finally, Frank Herbert’s last epic novel gets a new production in CHAPTERHOUSE DUNE, as narrated by Euan Morton, Katherine Kellgren, Scott Brick, and Simon Vance. In this final installment written by Herbert (Sr.) before his death, Dune (Arrakis) has been destroyed, and its heirs to power (the Bene Gesserit) have colonized another world, and are slowly turning it into a desert planet. With fine performances by a talented cast, (including the “Making Of” video included on the final disk), the audiobook is a must-have for all Dune fans, although those unfamiliar with the series should start with the original Dune audiobook, or else they will quickly become as clueless to what’s happening as new viewers to the TV show LOST. (MacMillan Audio; 16 1/2 hours unabridged)
Also recommended: One of the greatest novels of all time, MOBY DICK, now gets a stunning new interpretation by actor Anthony Heald, and is available on Mp3 disk too for quick download to iPod. Join Ishmael and Captain Ahab as narrated by one of our favorite readers, who was nominated for several Tony awards and won an Obie for his theater work. (Blackstone Audio; 24 hours unabridged)
April 2009 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe
If the rich are–as it’s said–not like you or me, does our wanting to be rich mean we agree with the assumption that we’re ignorant, lazy, and/or inept by comparison? If you want to leave behind such a delusion, allow the green eyed monster of envy to be impaled on MADNESS UNDER THE ROYAL PALMS, a new book by Laurence Leamer about the sociopathic society mavens, gluttons and sex fiends of Palm Beach. Here, scores of beautiful young women fall prey to the same rich bastards (one of whom finances their breast implants, dumps them upon getting bored, and then sues them for the cost of the operation.) Here, murders can either be hushed or trumpeted, depending on one’s social standing with the editor of the “shiny sheet,” the local paper’s society page, which Palm Beach multi-millionaires read and worship like the Bible. Then there’s the endless dinner parties and shopping excursions along Worth Avenue, the trust fund brats vying for admittance to exclusive clubs that shun Jews, the old money heirs gloating over the scandals or downfalls of rivals, the endless buffets and open bars at charity balls where one can pretend to be virtuous while displaying not the slightest concern for homeless people living only two miles away from one’s protected mansion/enclave. It all begins to erode whatever awe or envy the listener might have entertained, prior to hearing. Because when narrator Todd McLaren has finished chronicling all the pretentious misadventures of the wealthy, (with an ear for irony) it’s difficult not to reevaluate one’s own values. You might even come away not caring about the rich or famous, anymore. Or at least not caring (or hoping) to become one of them. A good companion to this ear-opening expose would be the documentary “Ten Questions for the Dalai Lama,” in which the producer concludes that many of the happiest people on earth have the fewest possessions of all. An enigma until you ask yourself this question: do I really own my stuff, or does my stuff own me? (Tantor Media; 11 1/2 hours unabridged)
If you loved the arcane side of The DaVinci Code, you’ll enjoy Kathleen McGowan’s sequel to “The Expected One” titled THE BOOK OF LOVE. Her earlier novel fictionally explored the mysteries of Mary Magdalene, while this new novel has the character of Maureen Paschal being invaded by a dream telling her to search for a missing gospel written by Jesus himself. Paschal joins her former lover in France, and together they begin to piece together the mystery, following clues which lead them to Italy and Belgium, while being blocked from uncovering the truth by those who want the deepest secrets kept secret. This densely involved story eventually climaxes at Chartres Cathedral, after a lengthy pursuit of the diaries of Countess Matilda of Tuscany. As a Broadway stage and film actress, narrator Linda Stevens does justice to the lengthy text, and although the book might have been cut a fourth for pacing’s sake, if such historical postulations involving the church interest you, you won’t be disappointed. (Simon & Schuster Audio; 22 hours unabridged)
Mystery authors and publishers are enamored of series because it’s a means of retaining their audience with continuing characters. Once you’re hooked on a seres, though, how likely are you to try other series? And how would you know whether you’d like another series less or more unless you try it? This month let’s consider Linda Fairstein’s legal thrillers, the 11th of which is LETHAL LEGACY, featuring an assistant district attorney named Alexandra Cooper, who works out of the Manhattan Sex Crime Unit. Before she became a writer, Fairstein worked in that very unit for over twenty years. Her first novel, published in 1996, introduced the character of Alex Cooper, and was titled Final Jeopardy. In this new novel, with a plot involving rare books and maps, a librarian named Tina Barr is burglarized by a man posing as a fireman, but is unwilling to cooperate with police until a woman is found murdered in her very apartment building. What follows is an investigation by Alex into a family of wealthy benefactors to the New York Public Library. The novel is not as gritty or clinical as, say, Patricia Cornwell, but moves toward cozy with characters who also display their lighter side. Narrator is actress Blair Brown, who won a Tony award on Broadway, and has appeared in many films. Brown is good at dramatizing all angles of a character’s personality, hinting at how they think, while steering the story forward with the appropriate degree of mystery. As for the series itself, it’s not literature in the sense that classic series by John D. MacDonald, Ross MacDonald, or even James Lee Burke are. Mostly it’s believable fun. (Random House Audio)
Next, sometimes the simplest language is the best way to tell a story. In the case of ENGLISH by Wang Gang, the subject is language itself. Originally published in 2004 in China, the novel was a bestseller there, and concerns a twelve year old boy named Love Liu who comes of age during the Cultural Revolution in the town of Xinjiang in a remote northwest province. When a teacher from Shanghai arrives to teach English, Love Liu becomes fascinated with the prospect of studying an English dictionary, which opens a new world for him that he never envisioned in such repressive times. When accusations are made about the phrase “down with Chairman Mao” that appeared written on the wall at the school, the plot turns to one confrontation and sacrifice, while revealing the effects of repression through which maturity can triumph. Narrator is, appropriately enough, a young actor named Michael Sun Lee, who conveys Love Liu’s innocent fascination with remarkable understatement. The book is about friendship and courage against the insanity of one’s times, and shows the effects on individuals from policies that ignore the humanity and dignity that comes from individuality itself. (Penguin Audio; 10 hours unabridged)
Finally, don’t miss A STIR OF ECHOES by Richard Matheson, as read by Scott Brick. A film starring Kevin Bacon is based on this novel about a man whose psychic abilities are awakened so that he can now hear the thoughts of other people. Then, with his existence like a waking nightmare, Tom receives a message from beyond the grave in a ghost story that’s chillingly interpreted by Brick. Scott told me recently: “Richard Matheson has been my favorite author since I was a little kid. Getting asked to narrate one of his books made my heart skip a beat. I was literally stunned. I almost told them, “Don’t tease me!” I actually got to meet Matheson a few days ago at a book signing, and I continually marvel at the amount of amazing material that’s come out of that man’s head. Somewhere In Time, The Incredible Shrinking Man, I Am Legend, Hell House, The Twilight Zone, Star Trek. . . the list goes on and on, and never ceases to blow me away.” (Blackstone Audio; 6 1/2 hours unabridged)
May 2009 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe
The re-publication of ANGELS & DEMONS by Dan Brown is timed to the release of the Ron Howard film starring Tom Hanks, and the audiobook version couldn’t have a better narrator in Richard Poe. In some ways Poe aids in making this book almost as interesting as the mega blockbuster The DaVinci Code, with a plot involving Robert Langdon seeking out the Illuminati before it can blow up the Vatican. Brown here combines particle physics with the usual hunt for clues among the relics of Christendom, but it is Poe’s unerring guidance of the narrative arc that keeps the listener enthralled. A Broadway and film actor, Poe lends a believable presence to the text, while the Mp3 format–a first for the publisher–places all 19 hours of his unabridged performance on just 3 disks, and at a price comparable to the hardcover. So there is no excuse left not to consider the audiobook. (Simon & Schuster Audio)
Next, Vikas Swarup was an unknown author until he penned an unusual novel titled Q & A, which became the even more remarkable movie SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. The story opens in Mumbai, where Ram Mohammad Thomas is being questioned about winning India’s biggest quiz show. The reason why Thomas knows the answers frames the narrative as a brilliant plot device ably performed by Christopher Simpson, who captures the characters with impeccable dialectic mimicry and realism. Unlike the magnificent movie version, this fascinating cultural adventure isn’t so focused a romance, but by juxtaposing Western values against Eastern, it does succeed in codifying the transformation sweeping India while telling a universal tale of survival. (BBC Audiobooks America; 10 hours unabridged)
Stuart Woods is not an easy interviewee, but then his character Stone Barrington probably wouldn’t be, either. Having been booted by the police department and various women in his life, Stone has learned the easy way out, and is mostly looking for the least stressful way to accomplish a job while enjoying all the available amenities. He relies more on wit than brawn, and has acquired a playboy’s taste, so in LOITERING WITH INTENT he heads to Key West with hopes that the job is merely to get some legal papers signed, (only to end up in a fraud case that turns deadly.) The best thing about the Barrington novels on audio is the narrator. Tony Roberts, Stone’s longstanding interpreter and a favorite of Woody Allen, is an actor well chosen for the role due to his conspiratorial tone and sophisticated vocal attributes. There is talent involved in assuming the charming, opportunistic world view that propels Barrington’s–if not Woods’ and Woody’s–ego. (Penguin Audio; 7 1/2 hours unabridged)
Finally, Judith Orloff is a psychiatrist in private practice, and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA. She is author of Positive Energy, Dr. Judith Orloff’s Guide to Intuitive Healing, and Second Sight. She narrates her own new audiobook EMOTIONAL FREEDOM–Liberate Yourself From Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life, a book which presents a spiritual view of emotions while differentiating between various emotional types. Her guidance to overcoming various emotional distresses is linked to understanding these types, and she uses her own relationship with her mother as just one example of dealing with depression, bitterness and death. The objective here is to alleviate pain by understanding the self, and to thwart conflict by discovering those hidden factors which suppress real communication. (Random House Audio; 4 hours abridged)
Jonathan Lowe: You talk about knowing what type of personality one has as a step toward understanding one’s emotions, and how the emotions of others affect our own reactions. If the goal is to become balanced, compassionate, and happy, which types have the hardest time doing so, and which the easiest in changing their old perceptions?
ORLOFF: THE EMOTIONAL EMPATH IS THE EMOTIONAL TYPE I DISCUSS IN THE BOOK THAT HAS THE HARDEST TIME BEING BALANCED. (IT’S MY TYPE, SO I HAVE A PARTICULAR INTEREST IN IT.) THE EMPATH IS LOVING, INTUITIVE, COMPASSIONATE BUT IS AN EMOTIONAL SPONGE, TAKING ON THE STRESS IN THE WORLD INTO THEIR OWN BODY. THIS CAN CAUSE EXHAUSTION, DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY UNTIL HE OR SHE LEARNS HOW TO CENTER AND NOT ABSORB FROM OTHERS. THE GUSHER IS THE TYPE THAT HAS AN EASIEST TIME IN CHANGING OLD PERCEPTIONS. GUSHERS ARE IN TOUCH WITIH THEIR EMOTIONS AND EXPRESS THEM READILY BUT NEED TO LEARN TO GO INSIDE, AND TRUST THEIR INTUITION A BIT MORE BEFORE PICKING UP THE PHONE TO CALL A FRIEND AND EMOTE.
Q: Have you known many emotional vampires? They are certainly more prevalent than blood sucking ones, despite the popularity of Stephanie Meyer.
A: YES INDEED, I’VE KNOWN EMOTIONAL VAMPIRES. THE KIND THAT REALLY GETS ME IS THE CONTROLLER/CHRONIC TALKER. THIS PERSON CLAIMS TO “KNOW WHAT’S BEST FOR YOU” AND DOESN’T HESITATE TO TELL YOU. I GUESS BECAUSE MY MOTHER WAS SO CONTROLLING AT TIMES I HAVE A PARTICULAR SENSITIVITY TO THIS. NOW IT’S EASIER FOR ME NOT TO REACT AND KEEP MY CENTER WITHOUT FEELING LIKE MY POWER IS DRAINED. THE NARCISSIST IS THE MOST MALIGNANT TYPE I TALK ABOUT IN EMOTIONAL FREEDOM. EVERYTHING IS “ALL ABOUT THEM”. THEY CAN BE INTELLIGENT, CHARMING AND SEDUCTIVE UNTIL YOU DON’T GO ALONG WITH THEIR PLAN. THEN THEY BECOME COLD AND WITHHOLDING AND LACK EMPATHY.
Q: Depression is a huge factor in society today, and perhaps it results partly from a realization of the futility of anger. What is the hope you bring for finding techniques to transform depression?
A: IN EMOTIONAL FREEDOM I WANT TO DIGNIFY DEPRESSION TO PRESENT IT AS A SPIRITUAL PASSAGE, A TRUE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL–IT’S NOT JUST A BIOCHEMICAL IMBALANCE, THOUGH THAT MIGHT PLAY A PART. IT IS THE NOBLE STRUGGLE OF FINDING LIGHT IN DARKNESS, FINDING COMPASSION WITH THE SELF AND ALL WE GO THROUGH ON EARTH. DEPRESSION CAN LEAD TO THE SWEETNESS OF REBIRTH AND NEW POSSIBILITIES. THERE IS ALWAYS HOPE. MY JOB AS A PSYCHIATRIST IS TO BE A BEARER OF HOPE.
Q: How do you keep yourself calm and focused, personally?
A: I MEDITATE. I SIT QUIETLY, CALM MY MIND, BREATHE–YES, BREATHE–IT FEELS SO BEAUTIFUL. AND I DRIFT, CONNECT, INTUIT SOMETHING LARGER AND MELT INTO IT. I WOULD GO CRAZY WITHOUT MEDITATION–THE MIND NEVER SHUTS OFF AND IT CAN DRIVE YOU BATTY WITH ALL ITS OPINIONS AND FEARS. I YEARN FOR DREAMS, FOR INTUITION, I AM ATTRACTED THERE, AND FOLLOW THAT FLOW TO MY HEART.
Q: Your audiobook has worksheets and extras in a PDF file on the final disk. Should listeners go to that first, maybe do the quizzes there?
A: IT IS VERY USEFUL TO TAKE THE QUIZZES EITHER BEFORE LISTENING TO THE AUDIO, OR TO PAUSE AND TAKE THEM AS YOU APPROACH A TOPIC IN THE AUDIO. FOR INSTANCE, IN THE EMOTIONAL VAMPIRE SECTION, IT WOULD BE GREAT TO READ THE QUIZ “AM I AN EMOTIONAL VAMPIRE?” AS YOU READ THIS SECTION. THE SAME GOES WITH WORRY OR FEAR –TO READ THE QUIZ “HOW FEARFUL AM I”. THE POINT IS TO ESTABLISH A BASELINE SO YOU CAN GROW AS YOU PRACTICE THE TECHNIQUES IN EMOTIONAL FREEDOM.
June 2009 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe
Dave Cullen spent a decade researching COLUMBINE for release on the anniversary of the tragic high school attack. The effort shows, and with as much dispassionate authority as an episode of Frontline. How were two antisocial students able to plan and execute this act of terror, utilizing multiple guns and explosive devices, without attracting attention? How and why did the media get the facts wrong? Culler busts the myths prevalent at the time, exposing a complicity of ignorance in stereotyping the killers. They were not gang members or vindictive outcasts seeking revenge on certain school jocks. Dylan Klebold was a manic depressive consumed by self loathing, and Eric Harris a charming psychopath craving the destruction of society itself. Both kids wanted and intended to die in a blaze of “glory.” Planned as more than a mere shooting, the attack would have produced many more than 13 casualties had the boy’s bombs actually worked. Not satisfied with mere reportage, Cullen lays out all the ethical and sociological arguments inherent in the case. Narrated by Don Leslie to engaging effect, the audiobook version moves like an inexorable lawnmower, covering parallel ground from all points of view so as to cut down all the high grass and weed out the hidden bugs. Why do these tragedies happen? Because we fail to apprehend the hidden complexities of disturbed young people weaned on sex, violence, and apathetic materialism. (Blackstone Audio; 14 hours unabridged on 1 Mp3 disk)
Speaking of apathetic materialism, Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist, has written a new novel excoriating the vain and idle rich. Titled THE WINNER STANDS ALONE, the book chronicles one day in the life of a mad Russian entrepreneur at the Cannes Film Festival as he murders people in order to attract the attention of his estranged wife, who has proved to be unfaithful. We use the word “mad” to describe him since no sane person would imagine that shooting a needle dipped in curare to kill a film producer would ultimately convince one’s wife that he’s a great guy with whom to spend the rest of her life. While the book is interesting to listen to, particularly given the understated performance of actor Paul Boehmer, it’s basically a reaffirmation that the rich are not like you or me, and that maybe we shouldn’t be so entranced by a lifestyle achieved through ruthless pragmatism. Ironically enough, Coelho is now a multi-millionaire with a film deal himself, inspiring awe among those so inclined. We’ll have to wait and see if he donates his money to charity or buys a yacht to park off Cannes. (Blackstone Audio; 12 hours unabridged on 1 Mp3 disk)
It has been said that a large percentage of the population would rather die than give a speech in public. Not Jeffrey Gitomer, for sure. In his new book is GETTING YOUR WAY, Gitomer advises joining Toastmasters, recording yourself, and offering to give presentations whenever and wherever possible. Subtitle of the book is “How to Speak, Write, Present, Persuade, Influence, and Sell Your Point of View to Others.” He says nothing about how to determine whether your point of view is the correct one to take. He assumes that you’re a thinking professional with a well defined agenda, wanting to persuade others to buy what you’re selling. This “Little Green Book” is a followup to the bestselling “Little Red Book of Selling,” and naturally it is narrated by the author, who uses his congenial persuasive ability to convince you to drop the fear and stand up behind that podium, soap box, or supervisor’s desk and lay out your case. Or get in the casket. Your choice–but just be sure that, if you do decide to give a speech, you don’t memorize it. Rather, know the material cold, anticipate questions or objections, interject humor, and understand your audience. Simple enough, right? Well, maybe you should keep an outline handy just in case you forget your own name. (Simon & Schuster Audio; 4 hours unabridged)
A former FDA commissioner has written a scientific explanation of why dieters find it so difficult to lose weight. THE END OF OVEREATING: TAKING CONTROL OF THE INSATIABLE AMERICAN APPETITE by David Kessler is read by Blair Hardman. This could be a thriller involving conspiracies within the food industry, since the method here is similar to what the tobacco industry did in duping the smoker, and so the truth is also more frightening. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we have been conditioned to overeat by those who want to sell the most highly processed, nutritionally vacant foods. Indeed, our brains set up patterns that are easily repeated. If sugar, fat, and salt are layered in just the right combination, our reward mechanism is triggered, while ads on TV call to us like siren songs. Can we restore our self regulating system, and regain control of eating? Kessler shows how with Blair Hardman’s help. (Simon & Schuster Audio; 7 hours unabridged)
In WICKED PREY by John Sandford a family in Wisconsin is murdered by the “Iceman,” a killer whose identity is a mystery blurred by the ice sheets of winter. Contrasts abound, as the killer also likes to burn things. Lucas Davenport, Sandford’s ex Minneapolis cop, arrives amid all the local buzz, and gets on the killer’s track while dabbling in a romance with a local doctor. Although the ending is something of a letdown, the novel is quite observant and multi-faceted, and as such lends itself to the careful appraisal inherent in the tone of longtime Sandford mystery reader Richard Ferrone. (Penguin Audio; 6 hours abrdiged)
Finally, Clive Cussler, with the aid of several co-writers, has been churning out adventure novels for over three decades. His thirty-eighth book is MEDUSA, a Kurt Austin suspense written with Paul Kemprecos (a professional diver and undersea mystery author). Depending on whether you prefer the bare bones action sequences or the full text (with more character development), you may choose the abridged version as narrated by actor Richard Ferrone, or the unabridged as read by veteran Scott Brick. The plot involves the disappearance of an undersea lab conducting experiments on a rare jellyfish that can provide vaccine for a deadly virus. The Chinese underworld is involved, and with all the plot twists of a James Bond film. Ferrone is used to narrating mysteries, and so is best suited for laying out those elements in a straightforward manner with an air of curiosity, while Brick conveys an element of awe to the proceedings in telling the full story. Either way, it’s typical Cussler, and an escape from the more mundane (if more relevant) aspects of real life chronicled by those with higher literary aspirations. (Penguin Audio; 6 and 13 hours, respectively)
LOWE: Tell us about your collaborations with other writers.
CUSSLER: They are spinoff series. I come up with most of the plotting and they’ll start the writing, and I’ll edit, that sort of thing.
LOWE: So you switch off with Craig Dirgo or Paul Kemprecos or Jack Du Brul.
CUSSLER: Right. We did a fiction book which has nothing to do with NUMA or Pitt or anything. In one book, “Flood Tide,” I had this ship that looked like an old beat up tramp steamer, had all the exotic gear, and people who ran it were like corporate mercenaries, they go around the world, like a Mission Impossible plot.
LOWE: Where did the name Dirk Pitt come from?
CUSSLER: My son’s name. He was six months old when I started writing. His name is Dirk, and I used it for fun, really. I was looking through an encyclopedia about the British prime ministers during the Revolutionary war, Pitt the younger and Pitt the elder. So I thought, well, that works, ’cause I wanted a one syllable name.
LOWE: I was thinking, you know, like one letter less than James Bond, and easier to type than Brandon Tartikoff or something.
CUSSLER: (laughs) Well, that’s it. It’s easier to say “Pitt jumped over the wall” than that. I think that’s why Fleming wanted a simple name. James Bond. There was an ornithologist by that name too.
July 2009 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe
Was there ever an actor more iconic than Paul Newman? Since the star’s death in the Fall of 2008, author Shawn Levy has been compiling anecdotes and opinions for his new book PAUL NEWMAN: A LIFE. What he reveals is a man of contrasts. A rebel yet devoted husband, Newman was also a Hustler and philanthropist–an average student who took acting seriously and became Nobody’s Fool. Like his colleagues Steve McQueen and James Dean, Paul also loved fast cars, but not Hollywood glamour. So he became one of those rarest of stars who cared little for stardom, and therefore surprised everyone by actually being kind and giving to everyone on the set. (As opposed to the egocentric Madonna, as revealed in her brother’s recent biography.) Levy is in obvious awe of the man, and since there is little here on the negative side of the ledger, this biography sounds like a love poem to one’s favorite actor. Of course there’s not much negative to say about this blue-eyed charmer, either. (As opposed to, say, Sinatra). On audio, the book is narrated by Marc Cashman, a voice-acting coach who has dubbed foreign films and created voices for video game characters. From his tone on this generous production, it’s a sure bet that both author and narrator consume plenty of Newman’s Own spaghetti sauce and popcorn. (Random House Audio; 6 hours abridged)
Next, if you remember when you were fifteen, you can probably relate to feelings of angst. Few teens have a sense of perspective, and so problems seem magnified at a time when peers can seem cruel and vindictive, and self esteem at an all time low. For Colie Sparks in KEEPING THE MOON by Sarah Dessen, summer in a seaside town in North Carolina–while her mother tours Europe–naturally portends disaster. Saddled with a bad self image to begin with, Colie expects the worst. But this is a summer that will change her life forever, with the help of new friends at the waitressing job she takes. Dessen also drafts a cool eccentric to help Colie, in the form of a nonjudgmental aunt. The young adult novel boasts believable characters enhanced by a spirited performance by Stina Nielsen. Nothing too dramatic or evil happens here, except that, in the eyes of a teen, everything that happens–particularly romance–has infinite repercussions. (Penguin Audio; 6 1/2 hours unabridged)
Imagine that a gathering of billionaire corporate big wigs, meeting for a private party at a ski resort in Montana, gets invaded by an armed militia seeking to put them on trial for greed and environmental pollution. The trials are broadcast live on the internet, and everyone gets to vote on the executions. That’s the premise of TRIPLE CROSS by Mark T. Sullivan, author of Labyrinth and Serpent’s Kiss. As the markets crash on the news, an FBI financial crimes specialist, (along with the exclusive Jefferson Club’s director and his three children), seek to undermine the plot and uncover a twisting secret. Narrator Lloyd James interprets the character voices, adding color to the text, although not without a few glitches (including a couple repeated lines not caught by the editor). Nothing stunning here, either, just an original plot that could have been more deftly written, knowing how hostage stories always seem to rely on the usual cliches of language, surprise (“no, no, noooo!”), and pedestrian romance (“wasn’t I good?). (Tantor Audio; 12 hours unabridged)
SF author Robert Sawyer’s 2000 novel CALCULATING GOD has won a recent Audie award for its production at Audible. The plot features a curator for the Royal Ontario Museum who encounters a spiderlike alien paleontologist named Hollus, and begins an in depth conversation about science and religion. Hollus is only one of three species of alien, and proves to be a surprise in several ways. One, he turns out to be a she–and a mother–despite assumptions to the contrary. Second, Hollus believes in God, and argues proof linked to astronomical events common to both of their worlds. So it’s intelligent design vs. natural selection, but not in the context of limiting God to a short history or having to dupe man by creating light waves en route to Earth from distant galaxies. Curator Jericho is dying of cancer, which adds tension and urgency to an understanding of these deep mysteries, but although one of the races has a near light speed spaceship, none of them can cure Jericho. What they do is even more astonishing, though, and explains why they can’t cure him. Great books have big themes, and push the envelope, and this one certainly does. Is it great? Well, it’s better than most, and with the narration of Jonathan Davis, whose talents encompassed both Star Wars on audio and Snow Crash–a true masterpiece–you can hardly do better. (Audible; 10 hours unabridged)
Finally, a London financier named John Stone either fell to his death or was murdered, and it’s up to the journalist hired to write his biography to find out in STONE’S FALL by Iain Pears. Given the scope of this epic multi-generational historical mystery, however, finding out the truth will take time. Lots of it. Moving backward from London in 1909 to Paris in 1890 to Venice in 1867, the full telling of the tale requires three separate narrators: John Lee, Roy Dotrice, and Simon Vance. What is revealed is more ambitious than any mere whodunit, too, for the real story here is the evolution of international finance and the eventual arms race. Money and politics figure high as the theme of this triptych, unfolding amid an age that saw the birth of espionage. The narrators are all first rate, equipped with the requisite vocal and pacing skills to keep the tale engrossing. You need narrators like these, too, considering that a full day is needed to listen, nonstop. Pears is author of An Instance of the Fingerpost, and The Dream of Scipio, as well as much non fiction in the field of finance and history. (Random House Audio; 24 hours unabridged)
August 2009 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe
Buzz Aldrin relates his own personal experience of the first moon landing of Apollo 11 in MAGNIFICENT DESOLATION, an audiobook co-written with Ken Abraham, and narrated by Patrick Egan, chosen for his no-nonsense delivery (since the book is told first person.) The first two CDs chronicle the mission itself, from launch to touchdown and back, leaving little out that one might want to know about the mechanics of what actually happened. It’s the kind of account you might pay to hear in an auditorium, and not regretting afterward the price of admission. Included here are reactions to the tense moments when everything has to work precisely or else. Like when they arrived, and Neil drifted over acres of boulders looking for a good spot to put down, and then were forced to land within thirty seconds or run out of fuel and crash. Or when Buzz used his pen to unstick a faulty switch prior to liftoff from the moon. You wonder what that must have been like, for sure–knowing that if the engine doesn’t fire, there would be no rescue, just a short wait until air runs out as you stare across what Buzz described as “magnificent desolation” toward a distant, blue Earth. After the first two CDs, then the audiobook slows down, and the remaining narrative branches out from the actual feat accomplished to reveal (in depth) what Aldrin and his fellow astronauts faced, coming home: the hordes of journalists that awaited them to emerge from quarantine. The endless parades in New York, Chicago, and around the world. How it all began to seem as though they were puppets on display for NASA’s public relations department. The alcohol and depression that this led to, in Aldrin’s case. And how he coped. Finally, there is reflection on what it all meant, and what it means today. Aldrin admits that not much space science was achieved by Apollo 11, and although the missions that followed to the moon had more science, they also got far less press. Should we go to Mars, and what is the cost of going or not going, considering that engineering science would no doubt benefit? The book attempts to give a big picture to all these subjects, yet asks more questions than it answers. But that’s okay. It’s honest and gutsy. . . although, granted, 40 years have elapsed. Egan, as a narrator, disappears as he should, and if you didn’t know Aldrin’s voice you’d believe it was him speaking: an engineer, weary yet optimistic, eyes open to the moment, yet seeing beyond his own horizon. (Random House Audio; 13 hours unabridged)
Another chronicle of how the moon landing happened, (as well as an examination of what the country was like at the time, for those too young to remember). can be found in ROCKET MEN by Craig Nelson, a look behind the scenes at NASA, and into the living rooms of all the astronauts involved. The “one small step” that Neil Armstrong took was also the giant leap for mankind that President Kennedy envisioned, and although (as stated above) not much in the way of space exploration was achieved by the mission, it did pull together the country (and the engineers) to accomplish a monumental technical and political goal. A former editor and winner of the Henry Adams prize for his book Thomas Paine, Nelson is rigorous in his research, methodically examining the Cold War space race while uncovering all the minutia that went unnoticed by the press. Narrator Richard McGonagle is a good choice to read the chronology, replete with its many interesting anecdotes, since his masculine voice would also be ideal for a sports biography. Essentially, that’s really what this was: a touchdown on the moon. No one really cared about the moon landings that followed, as most Americans were too busy watching ball games on TV. Buzz Aldrin’s story, being part of this history making event, gets told too, although Aldrin’s own full biography is obviously more detailed in that regard. (Penguin Audio; 17 hours unabridged)
Next, it makes sense that two lonely geeks at Harvard with an interest in girls would be the founders of Facebook, the upscale social mega website (whose less upscale rival, MySpace, has animated ads featuring young girls staring alluringly into computer screens, hoping to score the most credit card numbers.) In THE ACCIDENTAL BILLIONAIRES, Ben Mezrich (the gambling author of “Bringing Down the House”) chronicles how a couple of rowing jocks with an idea to meet the babes of Harvard online defer to a computer geek named Mark Zuckerberg, who in turn develops his own framework for something more than the jocks called “The Harvard Connection.” Mark, prior to meeting them circa 2003, had hacked the university’s computers as a crank, collected women student photos, and started up a crank website he called Facemash. before being forced to shut it down. So the jocks needed the geek to write code for them. What happens next is detailed in the subtitle for the book–sex, money, genius, and betrayal. The story is told chronologically, with enough anecdotes to keep the somewhat imagined narrative moving, using creative hypothesis to reconstruct Zuckerberg’s thoughts and actions, given statements from Mark’s one-time partner and friend, Eduardo Saverin. (Incidentally, the university’s hacked student database was called Facebook, the very name Mark eventually adopted as Facebook.com, with the idea of creating an actual interactive social destination like those from which he’d been denied entry.) The book is narrated by Mike Chamberlain, a stage and voiceover actor. Obviously it is not the full story, since Zuckerberg refused to cooperate with interviews for the book, but if you like your fiction with more than a grain of truth behind it, you could do worse. (Random House Audio; 7 1/2 hours unabridged)
Next, Clive Cussler takes the helm from James Patterson for a new compilation of suspense stories called THRILLER 2. The choices are marked more by subtlety than mere shock or bloodletting, as eleven narrators deliver short fiction by twenty-three authors, including Jeffrey Deaver, Lisa Jackson, Ridley Pearson, R.L. Stine, and Philip Margolin. Of particular originality is a suspense blended with SF titled “The Fifth World” by Javier Sierra, and Kathleen Antrim’s “Through a Veil Darkly.” Don’t have other things on your mind, or you might miss some of the subtlety here, and be forced to backtrack. Such is usually the case with short stories, which are finely focused gems with little wiggle room for inattention. Narrators are mostly on target in this iPod ready collection introduced by Cussler, and include Susan Ericksen, Mel Foster, David Colacci, and Jim Bond, among others. (Brilliance Audio; 14 1/2 hours unabridged)
Finally, in the new book CHEAP–The High Cost of Discount Culture, Ellen Ruppel Shell describes how we have fallen for the deceptions of discount stores, thinking we are getting a bargain. What is actually the result here, though, is low quality, low wages, and a richer rich. On the tube, we are constantly shown sales, sales, and more sales, with price the most important point being touted, while such a concept as price is meaningless by itself, and is instead an elusive (and profitable) tool used to manipulate us. This book, narrated by Lorna Raver on audio, is a fascinating look at how we are brainwashed and diverted from the big picture. Of particular attention for Shell is Ikea, described as the most environmentally unsustainable company on the planet. She also quotes studies made by Dan Ariely, author of “Predictably Irrational” about how we fear any loss even more than we seek a gain. Do we know that if we paid 24 cents more for a $20 shirt, a sweatshop worker in China could get a 30% pay hike, and be able to feed his or her family? No, we don’t, because these facts are kept from us by merciless market forces which dictate competition among giants like Wal Mart. And then there’s the food industry, where price point is the entire game, irrespective of secondary considerations like nutrition. Getting stuffed cheaply seems to be all that matters, and with hidden trans-fats and saturated fats married to salt and diabetes-inducing high fructose corn syrup. (Hey, ya gotta die sometime, pal, might as well be sooner than later, right?) Narrator Raver keeps the right level of urgency throughout the production, neither slipping into dull recitation nor over-the-top dramatics. (For my interview with Raver, see JustSayNoWay.com) The listener comes away with a new perspective on advertising techniques, and finds new questions popping up too, like a) Why are Floridians importing shrimp from the Far East when a superior product is available off their own coast? b) How can a giant hamburger cost only 99 cents, without there being something inferior about the meat involved? (Corn fed beef means higher fat, and like “Atlantic” salmon which never sees the ocean, the cows never see a grazing field). Finally, c) Whatever happened to the phrase, “you get what you pay for”? (Actually, you don’t, anymore–you get considerably less than you paid for, which is the whole point of the discounting shell game, well researched by this revealing Shell.) (Tantor Media; 11 1/2 hours unabridged)
September 2009 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe
THE ANGEL’S GAME by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a puzzling novel set in 1920s Barcelona, about a poor writer named David Martin, whose patron becomes famous while he himself languishes at the end of a leash, so to speak. When a commission comes to write a book that may prove dangerous, David is soon suspected of several murders, which he may or may not have committed himself. As teller of the tale, Martin is both comical and a bit sinister, as a balancing act must be decided by the reader or hearer, thereby providing the suspense. Much atmosphere and fine writing compliment the mix, with stage actor Dan Stevens presenting the audio rendition in a manner suited to the complicated narrative arc of the story. Thumbs up. (Random House Audio; 15 1/2 hours unabridged)
In EVERYTHING MATTERS by Ron Currie, Jr. the problem for the protagonist Junior Thibodeax is to discover meaning and a reason to go on living in a world which he knows will end on a certain date just 36 years from his birth. The mysterious voice that tells him this secret also reveals other things about his family, about disease, about violence. Junior cracks under the strain, but manages to eke out a life amid the gathering ashes funneling down from his subconscious. There is a lot to tackle here, by this award winning author of God Is Dead, and the multiple viewpoints can be tedious at times, but the ending is great, with its backward countdown. Hope, in this offbeat novel, is a last lifeline thrown into the void. Narrators are Abby Craden, Mark Deakins, Lincoln Hoppe, Hilary Huber, Arthur Morey and Doug Wert. (Penguin Audio; 13 hours unabridged)
Next, have an intriguing Paris adventure listening to non-fiction set in the romantic city of lights, with VANISHED SMILE—THE MYSTERIOUS THEFT OF MONA LISA, by R.A. Scotti, read by Kathe Mazur. This is the true story of the shocking disappearance of what would become the most famous painting in the world. The theft, which occurred at a time of lax security in August of 1911, would be blamed on none other than the young Pablo Picasso, and on provocateur Guillaume Apollinaire. But who really did it, and how? The answer is surprising. During the nearly two year absence of Da Vinci’s masterpiece from the Louvre, French detectives investigated the case, using newly developed fingerprinting techniques. Author Scotti delineates the mood of the public at the time, offering glimpses into the backstory of the principals and suspects. Of particular fascination are the lifestyles of painters working in Paris, going back to a traveling Da Vinci himself. Explored, too, is the beguiling nature of this nearly perfect (yet odd) portrait of a Florentine woman, whose subtle smile hides secrets of her own. (Random House Audio; 7 hours unabridged)
Finally, we all know about the French paradox when it comes to food, but what about everything else? An intriguing new book on the subject of love and life (including mindset) is WHAT FRENCH WOMEN KNOW by Debra Ollivier, a freelance journalist who lives in Paris and Los Angeles. She says that the French secret to happiness in and out of bed is simply not to care about the things American women usually do. Like being forever young. Or being rich and popular. There is no war of the sexes in France because French women do not expect men to understand them, not do they berate them. They love men, just as men love them. (Vive la difference!) They are the opposite of American women in that they place more value on enjoying the present moment instead of fixating on the past or the future, on acceptance over resistance to aging, and on the art of love over the stereotypically American obsession with following dating rules, (or doing what everyone else is doing). In short, French women don’t give a damn what others think of them, they are too busy living their lives. Want more shock? Being ambitious, or having money and possessions, comes in last place on their list of desires. But if you’re fat in France, don’t expect people not to notice and to comment on it. They won’t be commenting behind your back, either, because being fat is the one real taboo, unlike in America, where big is considered best, and practically everyone gulps their food instead of savoring it. Narrated by the author, who does her best with what at times reads like literary essays, the book is nonetheless a real eye-opener or ear-opener, full of many borrowed sayings like “American men marry women hoping they’ll never change, while American women marry men hoping they will change. . .both are disappointed.” Or: “Animals (and Americans) eat, while the French dine.” The French way is not the only way to live, obviously, but it is definitely more relaxed, without all the ridiculous obsessions we are constantly instructed to add to our list of hang-ups. A French woman? She would rather laugh and say, “who cares?” or simply “Bof!” (Penguin Audio; 5 1/2 hours unabridged)
October 2009 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe
In THE DEEP BLUE SEA FOR BEGINNERS author Luanne Rice introduces an influential family headed by Lyra Davis, who left her wealthy family in Rhode Island to find a new life on the island of Capri. The daughters she left behind begin to wonder what secret their mother may have hidden in leaving them to be raised by their adoring father. So Pell Davis goes to Capri to discover the truth, and instigates some new complications to Lyra’s life there, while inducing guilt, affection, and also desire among the boys on the island. The novel, like many of Rice’s, is mainstream literary in nature, unclassifiable in genre. Meaning family relationships, and how they play out, (rather than suspenseful life-or-death plots) make up the substance of these stories. The characters learn to understand and accept themselves, and so grow in ways the typical romance cannot delineate. The writing is descriptive and accessible, walking a tightrope above sentimentality, while the narrator, actress Blair Brown, is a perfect choice to enunciate all the changing emotional discoveries. Having acted in movies like Stealing Home, Ms. Brown is well attuned to how families operate, and the abridgment is particularly deft at honing the text without losing the story’s intent. My only complaint is not with this novel, but with novels like this in general: why are these families usually rich? Why not a novel about families set in a trailer park? If you don’t have money, are you not still alive, with feelings? A good writer should be able to make such families interesting, too. One might argue that the poor lead more tragic and dramatic lives than the rich, too. Although, granted, they aren’t flying off to Rome for the weekend. (Random House Audio; 6 hours abridged)
Next, Dr. Andrew Weil’s new book is his most urgent and important yet. It is titled, simply, WHY OUR HEALTH MATTERS, and in it he describes the nightmares afflicting the American health care system, then offers solutions. Dr. Weil is a graduate of Harvard Medical School, and is the founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. In the book he exposes the costly myths that have set us on a course to disaster. The first myth is that we have the best and most efficient medical care on the planet. Actually, the United States ranks 37th, on par with Serbia, (how’s THAT for a startling secret!) and if we continue to rely on the kind of high-tech, last-minute emergency interventions exclusively dramatized on TV medical shows, (as opposed to prevention via lifestyle changes and nutrition), the current system (along with the American economy) will go bust. This is inevitable, Weil says. Health care costs are spiraling out of control, due to our reliance on costly pharmaceuticals (some pills running $100 each) along with crisis surgeries like heart bypasses. With chilling detail despite Weil’s matter-of-fact tone as he narrates the book, many case studies are outlined, revealing that doctors in U.S. medical schools are only taught practices that treat diseases after they occur (with risky end-stage emergency medicine), and are taught virtually nothing about prevention of disease. Under this for-profit system, and with medical malpractice lawsuits rising, doctors are forced to encourage expensive, unnecessary CT and MRI scans as a means to protect themselves (while increasing radiation exposure to the patient.) They perform unnecessary surgeries, too, and prescribe fix-it drugs for all ailments, which do little but cause more problems. Meanwhile, the drug companies get rich, legitimate claims are denied, and little is said to the patient about cutting out junk food, taking vitamins, exercising, and getting more sleep. After all, says Weil, a doctor’s life in a hospital today is all about lack of sleep, bad cafeteria food, and lack of exercise. How can we expect them to recommend what they themselves can’t practice, especially when their paycheck is tied to the frequent use of high-tech medical intervention procedures? “We have to stop paying for failure,” Weil says, before detailing what the American medical system should be doing. I recommend you send this audiobook to your Congressman after hearing it. (Penguin Audio; 6 hours unabridged)
It never fails to amaze me how easily people can be swayed into believing in something for nothing. No doubt television can be blamed for some of this, given its gamut of game shows and focus on the easy riches flaunted by celebrities. But how can even the rich and famous be taken to the cleaners by investment advisors who promise ways of beating the odds? In his book HOW TO SMELL A RAT author Ken Fisher, along with Lara Hoffmans, detail the “Five Signs of Financial Fraud.” Bernard Madoff’s $65 Billion Ponzi scheme was certainly the inspiration for the book, but there are other scams over previous decades from which the authors cull their simple rules. Rule #1 is that you shouldn’t allow your decision maker to also have access to your money. Surprisingly, this rule is often overlooked by investors. Money gets pooled together, and before long the hedge fund manager, who may have started out innocently enough, runs into negative returns that he is loathe to report, and so he dips into the new investment stream for some liquidity to save the vines that are withering. Such was the case with Madoff, whose evil began small and good-intentioned, only later blossoming into a giant, man-eating fungus that could no longer be hidden. As narrated by Scott Thomsen, this book is mainly for those whose common sense is limited, or whose predilection for taking risks is above average. The rats are out there, for sure, and they will take whatever cheese you have, be it only crumbs. Don’t expect the S.E.C. to protect you, either. They might be at a convention in Miami, while your investment advisor is set up in the Caymans. (Highbridge Audio; 6 hours unabridged)
Next, Larry Niven is an author best known for his Ringworld SF series. He has now teamed with Edward M. Lerner to pen JUGGLER OF WORLDS, about a paranoid Earth agent hired to uncover the schemes of other races. The Puppeteers, an advanced race with superior technologies, have vanished after detecting a core explosion at the center of the galaxy that will one day envelope Earth. But one of the Puppeteers has remained behind, with schemes of his own. What will Sigmund Ausfaller’s fate be now, and how is his fate linked to the Earth’s? Narrator of this science fiction tale is Tom Weiner, whose alien voices can create startlingly idiosyncratic characters, although he has less success with female voices. Elucidating all the strange and sometimes funny instruments utilized in this future society, Weiner, reading Niven and Lerner’s words, succeeds in transporting the listener beyond our own mundane, violent world into one which is even more strange and engrossing. (Blackstone Audio; 13 hours unabridged; available on single Mp3-CD)
Finally, LEVEL 26–DARK ORIGINS by Anthony E. Zuiker and Duane Swierczynski is the publishing world’s first attempt at combining a book with a movie. They call it a Digi-Novel, in which you can follow “bridges” in the text with actual dramatized scenes online at Level26.com. (Code words allow access.) In the audiobook version, an extra DVD disk containing both the full narration and those acted scenes is included, along with the standard CDs. (Penguin Audio; 9 1/2 hours unabridged) The plot concerns a serial killer whose crimes are so horrific that an unnamed and clandestine task force has been created to deal with him. Headed by a brilliant operative named Steve Dark, who works just as slowly and methodically as the killer, this group knows no laws but its own, and is not averse to executing operatives who fail to deliver the goods. In this, Dark’s first tale, (to be continued, alas), his nemesis is named Sqweegel, a smarmy killer who wears a latex suit more appropriate for a kinky sex worker. Out of a possible 25 levels of evil, as classified by law enforcement, he’s also the only person to merit a 26. In the digi-movie, he’s portrayed as a tall, skinny wannabe contortionist (played by Daniel Buran) who enjoys hiding under his mostly female victim’s beds, waiting until they’re in deep sleep, and then he sniffs them throughly before waking them up for some slicing and dicing. He also likes to hog-tie his victims and question them before the fun begins. He’s done 50 people this way (female and male) over the years, and no one even knows who his is, or why he’s doing it. Enter Zuiker’s creation, Steve Dark, whose pregnant wife is the next target. The novel itself is Zuiker’s first, so the main reason all the stops (up to and past publishing’s level 25) were pulled out on this project is because he’s the creator of “the most watched television show in the world.” Namely, CSI. How’s his writing style? Well, picture James Patterson on steroids. It’s all about turning that page, or inserting the next CD. What you get at the end is nothing really new or meaningful, you’re just along for the ride. Which is why I’m recommending this only for TV addicts who don’t read much, or anyone who isn’t yet burned out on serial killer books (like this reviewer). Regarding the digi-movie, the atmosphere is certainly intriguing, the acting passable, and although an earlier showing of the characters to the reader might have avoided the surprise of learning that the people your own imagination just created aren’t the same as those on the screen, overall it’s very stylish. Actor John Glover’s audiobook narration is particularly captivating, too, along with the sound effects employed in transitions. Rarely heard as a narrator, Glover is a gifted screen and Broadway actor with a great sense of character and timing. Other actors in the video clips are Michael Ironside, Glenn Morshower, Bill Duke, Kevin Weisman, Daniel Browning Smith, and Tauvia Dawn. Bottom line: my problem is not with the style, but rather the substance. Of course commercial TV is all about style over substance, and since the authors say that the killer may ask for your phone number from their website, to “reach you directly,” I thought I’d present Sqeegel with some questions of my own:
1) Okay, so I’ll assume you had a horrid childhood, given what a sick puppy you are today. What can you tell us about that?
2) At what point did actually sticking pins in caterpillars stop working for you, and why?
3) Have you ever thought of slicing your own neck, or wrists?
4) What is this fascination you have with knives, anyway? What about forks and spoons? Or would you be too fat, then, to fit into that latex suit?
5) Have you ever thought of visiting James Patterson?
6) What are your favorite TV shows? And have you ever considered putting the remote down, and going for a walk in the park with an iPod playing a great book? Maybe you wouldn’t be so screwed up, then.
7) Do you like the name Sqweegel, and what’s with the funny spelling?
8) Is the whole point here not to know why you’re doing this, because if we did learn the truth we’d be laughing our heads off, and then crying about all the time we wasted?
9) Have you ever given to charity? It might put a more interesting spin on your persona…maybe get you on the cover of PEOPLE instead of just POLICE DIGEST.
10) Do you know Satan personally, and if so, is he Level 27? Or is he just bored?
November 2009 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe
Jim Cramer is host of Mad Money, and a columnist for TheStreet.com. He was taken to task by Jon Stewart for not adequately predicting the crash of Oct. 2008, and here defends himself in GETTING BACK TO EVEN, which he wrote with Cliff Mason, another Mad Money writer. Actually, he says that he did tell his audience to sell stocks prior to the fall (just not far enough before–only days instead of months). In this audiobook, which Cramer also narrates, are his stock picks for recovery, as well as his strategy for reversing one’s own losses into gains (which he himself claims to have done). The subtitle is Your Personal Economic Recovery Plan, and while he might sound like a male version of Susie Ormond, with a driving, urgent delivery, his focus is more on investing and understanding how the market operates than in personal expenditures and lifestyle. So while his every sentence carries an exclamation point, as does Ormond, he’s not talking to you like you’re a daughter or son in need of council, but rather an equal who needs to know all the shenanigans utilized by Wall Street insiders to keep you from playing the market like they do. Do you buy-and-hold? No, no, no, says Cramer, that’s a such way to lose in a downturn. His motto is buy-and-homework. The more you know the better your chances. Knowledge is power, as any self employed person instinctively learns. The corporate CEOs who reap millions at your expense know that the less information you have the bigger their bonuses. If they can keep you a sheep, you can be fleeced again and again. Which, of course, if what we say about television. (Simon & Schuster Audio; 6 hours abridged)
Paolo Bacigalupi has, up to now, been primarily known as an SF short story writer, praised for his original and confrontational vision. With his new novel THE WINDUP GIRL he has vaulted himself onto the center stage, alongside science fiction’s longstanding icons. Here is a novel postulating an unflinchingly corrupt and degradative near-future society in southeast Asia, where powerful corporations vie for control over rice yields, wielding bioengineered viruses as tools of profit. Environmental disasters, terrorism, and the unrestrained cruelty of prejudice backdrop the story of an engineered “new human” girl bred for resistance to the newly perpetrated plagues, and to serve her masters in all demeaning ways possible. The reader, and particularly the listener to Jonathan Davis as narrator, comes to feel every bitter debasement and shame that unfeeling men can inflict on a sensitive, innocent creature, albeit designed to submit to it. Davis is particularly good at infusing the manufactured (yet very human) girl with a pathos that is heartbreaking, as when an admirer mistakes her for a regular human, then recoils in revulsion when he discovers from her jerky “tick tock” movements that she is “only a toy, a filthy animal worthy only of mulching.” The windup girl soon curls into a ball, wishing to be thrown away with the trash, after her rape and humiliation by heartless murderers, and we are made to feel her exquisite pain, and to crave for her eventual resistance. In a way, the novel is reminiscent of the movie A.I. (the Pinocchio story) in which the little manufactured boy seeks to become a real boy. Brilliant and literate, it is also a fascinating tale, well told, and a cautionary extrapolation of how evolution can drag humanity backward if we are unwilling to seek higher ideals. Not to be missed. (Audible)
Next, Dennis Lehane burst onto the literary scene with Mystic River, and his 2003 novel SHUTTER ISLAND has just been re-released in new packaging with Recorded Book’s narrator Tom Stechschulte reading, all due to the Paramount release of the movie version starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Here is a psychological thriller with a twist reversal, set in 1954, and featuring a hospital for the criminally insane on an island facing a hurricane, and two men trying to make sense of the evidence at Ashecliffe before it’s too late. Stechschulte is a great choice as narrator for two reasons. One, this plot would crumble into an incomprehensible and unbelievable pile of sea foam were it not for Tom’s deft handing and direction of the narrative, knowing just how much surprise to show, and what he needs to do to hide what’s coming. More importantly, though, his natural, understated delivery is complimented by an unerring sense of character, and he juggles these multiple personalities in his own mind, drawing each to the surface at will–with all their eccentricities and liabilities of knowledge or education or delusion intact. No easy task. So when the end comes, you really are astonished at the sleight of hand. Or rather mouth. (Harper Audio; 9 1/2 hours unabridged)
If you’re starting (or have already started) a permanent audiobook collection, one classic that should be included is THE GREAT GATSBY as narrated by Anthony Heald. The 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald follows Nick Carraway into the love triangle of Daisy, Tom, and Jay for a story about how marrying for money can prove to be tragic, especially for those whose eyes are blinded by love. The book carries the endorsement of one Ernest Hemingway, whose impressions of it are recorded in his memoir “A Moveable Feast.” The narrator of the audiobook version carries the endorsement of this reviewer, who is struck by Heald’s capacity to render fresh what will be forever lovely. A theater and film actor, Heald is supremely gifted in conveying a character’s idiosyncrasies through the clues of their articulation, and in creating believable, living beings in the space between script and microphone, utilizing a seemingly boundless spontaneous imagination. (Blackstone Audio; 5 hours unabridged)
If there is a winery that can be said to dominate the U.S. market, it is Gallo. For sheer volume of product sold, and the number of other wineries it has gobbled, stretching from Modesto to the Napa Valley, the empire established by Ernest and Julio Gallo in the early 20th Century ranks number one. And so it is appropriate that the title of a biography on this family’s story is GALLO BE THY NAME. This billionaire family synonymous with cheap wine sold by the gallon has indeed a storied past, involving Al Capone, prohibition, murder, and even rumored suicide. Written by Jerome Tuccille, it is narrated by actor Grainger Hines, whose carefully enunciated sentences unravel a twisted tale about an old man whose cheap, unremarkable rot gut flowed like a river into world markets, while he battled the competition and played games with labelling and suing anyone remotely encroaching on his trademark, including makers of ceramics. The bitter rivalries and family feuds are all chronicled here, from the early days until the present, as granddaughter Gina transforms the winery into something more prestigious, bringing award winning vintages to market, along with a new responsibility to the environment and the workplace, thanks to business savvy and a focus on the word “inexpensive” rather than “cheap.” The story is fascinating, and the reader’s voice not too oaky or tannic. A good compliment to the movies Sideways and Bottle Shock, to be sure. (Phoenix Audio, 8 1/2 hours unabridged)
Finally, Winnie the Pooh, first published in 1926, became an instant children’s classic. Several other Pooh books came out soon after, in 1927 and 1928. Given how so many other bestsellers have had sequels published soon after release, and often the very next year, it is surprising that it has taken 80 years for us to have an authorized sequel of new Pooh stories. Has it been worth the wait? Absolutely, given that the narrator here is none other than Jim Dale, the Grammy and Audie award winning reader of the Harry Potter series. Dale is nothing less than astonishing in his versatility in character voicing, and his rendering of RETURN TO THE HUNDRED ACRE WOOD includes all the Pooh characters, plus the new character of Lottie the Otter. Ten stories follow Christopher Robin’s return, and, oh yes, Pooh goes in search of honey too. English writer David Benedictus has produced previous adaptations of Pooh, and the only thing missing here are the full illustrations from the print version, so you’ll want to pick that up too for your kids. Just don’t miss Dale, because he really brings the characters to life, as he did with Harry Potter. (Penguin Audio; 3 hours unabridged)
December 2009 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe
Is it fair to call the Dalai Lama a wise guy? He certainly doesn’t seem like a holy man, although that is what he’s considered to the people of Tibet. To us in the West, he’s the closest thing we have to the proverbial wise-man-on-the-mountain, although he’s now in exile in India. In his new book THE ART OF HAPPINESS IN A TROUBLED WORLD, written with Dr. Howard C. Cutler, who interviews him and supplies both context and commentary, the Dalai Lama discusses in depth the philosophy and science of achieving peace of mind, using anecdotal examples to illustrate his points. What is happiness, and how can we overcome the “us” versus “them” conditioning that we use to separate each other into stereotypes to foster racism and aggression? There are logical answers here that are as simple and beautiful as Einstein’s equation E=MC2. That they come from the mouth of the Dalai Lama, through the voice of narrator Marc Cashman, seems both appropriate and ironic in that, while the message is down to earth and filled with compassion evoking equality, it comes from a man usually addressed as “His Holiness.” (Random House Audio; 14 hours unabridged)
Is it right that a person should complain when required to pay taxes on part of their income after having their yacht taken away, and after living in luxury for almost one hundred years at taxpayer expense? No, you might agree, it’s not right. And so Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes Lyon did not complain, nor did her daughter. She merely ordered another drink. A martini. As THE QUEEN MOTHER, officially chronicled by William Shawcross, Elizabeth I enjoyed an idyllic childhood, a very long life, the admiration of her subjects, plus she got to wear the Crown Jewels to state functions and endless appearances, parties, and celebrations. Even her daughter’s Golden Jubilee was an unmatched procession of floats, bands, and aircraft at which Donald Trump might have salivated. As read by the author, a famous BBC broadcaster, (along with Sophie Roberts, who supplies quotes or passages in the Queen’s voice), this biography not only recounts the splendor of being royalty (a fading anachronism in our modern age), but tells Elizabeth’s personal story, including her refusal to take refuge during the bombing of London, and her disinclination to comment on various later scandals. That she loved the military, horse racing, and music is quite obvious in this extensive and approved biography, and Shawcross maintains an almost regal English viewpoint throughout, his tone only changing when describing the horrors of WWII, and the Crown’s reaction to it. Unlike pop stars of today, who are our only royalty, Elizabeth did not comport herself inappropriately, but led a full yet discretionary life as embodiment of her country. Knowing her role well, she also passed that knowledge on to her daughter, although whether it will continue is anyone’s guess. Shawcross has obvious affection for the subject, as he has written extensively about the Royal Family in the past, and his natural British accent also bears the seal of Royal approval, being the genuine article. (Random House Audio; 10 hours unabridged)
Next, that aging hippie and comedian by the name of George Carlin is gone now (he died in June 2008), but his legacy and history remain to be plumbed in LAST WORDS, a new biography written with friend Tony Hendra (a British comedian and author). Narrated with similar gruff gusto by his brother Patrick Carlin, the audiobook recalls George’s very earliest memories on the streets of New York, and includes his days on the road in various clubs from Dayton to Hollywood, his battles with censorship, his unusual meeting and marriage to his wife Brenda, her succumbing to cancer, his drug use, and his search for a new voice, after being associated as much with the 70s as platform shoes and disco. Carlin’s subject matter moved from the typical to the political in the 1980s and 1990s, when he appeared often on the Tonight Show, HBO, and SNL, culminating in his 2001 Grammy win for Brain Droppings, and he also loved to play with words and ideas, with zero respect for anyone or any institution. Carlin was also hard on himself, and sadly, some of this book relates to his hopes to continue doing standup into the future, which was not to be. Patrick Carlin sounds a lot like George, both in voice and in mindset, and no one could have related George’s thoughts and words better. The audiobook also features opening commentary with Tony Hendra and Kelly Carlin-McCall about her father. (Simon & Schuster Audio; 6 hours abridged)
Finally, while it might be difficult to sort out all the characters in a P.G. Wodehouse tale, the attempt is a genuine pleasure, given the masterful interpretations of narrator Martin Jarvis. In SUMMER LIGHTNING the ninth Earl of Emsworth fears his prize pig with be snatched by Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe, while Parsloe fears Clarence’s debauched brother Gally will publish scandalous memoirs implicating him. Set in a castle, there is a butler named Beach, a romance involving Clarence’s niece Millicent, along with some private eye detecting regarding the thefts, and patently absurd dialogue from a great British humorist, all brought to amazing life by the inimitable skill of stage and screen actor Jarvis. How does Martin do it, knowing instantly the correct inflection, tone, voice, and mental states of a dozen very, very quirky characters? We’ll have to ask him, won’t we? (CSA Word; 5 hours unabridged)