Author: Megan Daum
Title: My Misspent Youth
Narrator: Xe Sands
Publication Info: Dreamscape Media, LLC (2015)
I listened this book of essays on recommendation of Slate magazine’s best audiobooks of 2015 article (although the essays were largely published more than 15 years ago leading to a time warp sensation hearing them). The first few essays are largely autobiographical and detail Daum’s personal experiences with online romance, working in the publishing industry, running up debt to follow her dreams of living New York City, and her hatred of carpets and love of wood floors. In these essays she comes across as a rather shallow and negative person. Later essays have more of a literary journalism feel including a documentation of the everyday lives of flight attendants and interviews with the polyamorous Ravenheart family. While I like these essays better, Daum remains overly sarcastic and dismissive of her subjects in a manner I suppose is intended to be “edgy.” So I didn’t like this book much, but it was a quick read and Xe Sands’ narration skills are excellent.
Recommended books: The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories by Pagan Kennedy
Author: Stephen J. Pyne
Title: Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery
Publication Info: Viking Adult (2010)
I’ve long been fascinated by the Voyager missions to explore the solar system. I kind of grew up alongside Voyager, with the launches occurring just a few years after my birth and the encounters with Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune happening over the course of my life. I was eager to read this book and learn more details of the program and its discoveries. Pyne provides great detail about how the program started in the 1960s to take advantage of a once in a century alignment of the outer planets, funding and development, launch, and the various discoveries along the way.
Unfortunately, the author also has this theory of the Three Ages of Discovery when Western peoples voyaged out to learn what lay beyond their horizons. The first age is in the 15th-16th century and involves mainly Spanish/Portuguese expeditions to find new sea routes, circumnavigate the Earth and colonize the “New World.” The second age is the primarily British 18th to early 20th century efforts to seek the sources of rivers, climb the highest peaks, open up continental interiors and reach the poles. The third age is the 20th-century exploration of space (and to some extent under the oceans). This framework is problematic due to its Eurocentrism and skimming over the details of colonialism and exploitation of “discovered” places and people who long had lived in these lands, although Pyne does tie this idea into the military and propaganda purposes to the United States of the putative global Voyager mission.
The whole Three Ages idea might make a good introductory chapter to the book, but instead every time things about Voyager get interesting, Pyne keeps popping back to talk about Vasco de Gama or Lewis & Clark or Robert Peary. This tends to distract rather than support the main narrative. I think a straight history of Voyager would make a more interesting book than the flabby, half-baked philosophical treatise we have here.
Author: Sarah Vowell
Title: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States
Narrator: Sarah Vowell, with John Slattery, Nick Offerman, Fred Armisen, Bobby Cannavale, John Hodgman, Stephanie March, and Alexis Denisof
Other Books Read By Same Author:
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2015)
This audiobook includes numerous well-known actors performing the quotes of historical figures in addition to the author reading the main text. As the “Lafayette” part of the title implies, this is a biography of Marquis de Lafayette, the young French aristocrat who helped George Washington win the American Revolutionary War. Vowell starts with Lafeyette’s historic tour of the United States in 1824-25 and then flashes back to Lafayette’s experiences in the war. I wish that we learned more about the Grand Tour or Lafayette’s post-American Revolution activities, but the war-era biographical details are solid with a mix of Vowell’s humor and pop culture references. For example, Vowell details the arrival of Baron von Steuben with falsified credentials on a direct continuum to the parade and dance party in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
The universal admiration is contrasted to the “Somewhat United States” where it seems that Americans can never agree on anything or get along. The Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, the Election of 1800, and the Election of 1824 all provide numerous examples of this disunity through which the United States still persevered. It is somewhat comforting that if even the esteemed founders of our country had difficulty agreeing and maintaining cordial relationships that today’s political discord is just par for the course.
The book also takes the form of a travelogue as Vowell and various traveling companions visit sites associated with Lafayette, leading to an amusing side trip in Freehold, NJ to see Bruce Springsteen’s childhood home (both Springsteen and I were born in Freehold), and a very positive experience at Colonial Williamsburg for Vowell, her sister, and nephew. Particularly interesting is an interview with the historic interpreter who portrays Lafeyette and his experience during the Iraq War era when anti-French sentiment was high.
This is an enjoyable popular history which makes a good introduction to Lafayette and his place in America’s cultural consciousness.
Recommended books: Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America by Jack Rakove and Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow