Author: Souad Mekhennet
Title: I Was Told to Come Alone
Narrator: Kirsten Potter
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2017)
Note: I received a free copy of the audiobook for this work through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.
This is the memoir of Souad Mekhennet, a journalist raised in Germany but whose parents are from Turkey and Morocco. Inspired by All the President’s Men, Mekhennet goes to journalism school and enters into the business just as the September 11th attacks change the way a woman of Islamic heritage will be received in Europe and the United States. She covers the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the rise of Al Qaeda and Isis, and the major terrorist attacks in Germany, France, and England. She gains unique access to meet jihadists face to face for interviews, goes into war-torn Iraq, visits the Islamic communities in European cities where the attacks on Paris were planned, and helps people mistakenly captured by the CIA. It’s an interesting life story and offers a unique perspective of the past 20 years from someone is both western and Muslim.
Recommended books: Baghdad without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia by Tony Horwitz
Author: Carrie Brownstein
Title: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl
Narrator: Carrie Brownstein
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2015)
I know Carrie Brownstein as a sometimes music critic on NPR’s All Songs Considered (as well as her work on Portlandia – a show I find only moderately funny) so I knew that her memoir of her life and work with the band Sleater-Kinney would be an interesting work. Brownstein explores the effect of her childhood in which her mother suffered anorexia, her father repressed homosexuality, and Brownstein herself seeks to entertain as way of transforming the sadness around her. A lot of this books is about identity and the Brownstein analyzes her own search for identity in raw detail. The music of Sleater-Kinney is similar in its naked emotion and self-expression and Brownstein details the autobiographical detail that went into that songs. Sleater-Kinney also had to deal with the typecasting and prejudice of being an all-woman band, when Brownstein wants people to recognize them as simply a great rock band. Brownstein also relates her own struggles touring with the band that resulted in anxiety and physical illness. This a very honest and introspective addition to the rock memoir oeuvre.
Author: Mark Twain
Title: The Prince and the Pauper
Narrator: Kenneth Jay
Publication Info: Naxos AudioBooks , 2001
I remember enjoying this book as a child (although I can’t remember what age) and since my son is interested in Mark Twain, we listened to the audiobook on a recent road trip. It was a little bit more complicated than I remembered, and frankly we both had trouble following parts of the story, but perhaps that is a challenge of audiobooks compared with print. The basic story is well-known in which the poor and abused Tom Canty meets Prince Edward and discovering they resemble one another, swap clothing. Through a comedy of errors, they are separated and end up with Tom unwillingly becoming king and the prince having to live life at the very bottom of society. All works out in the end, and Twain is probably too kind on Edward VI’s actual legacy as king, but the book delves into some of the gritty realities of impoverished masses and the court intrigues of the elites.
Author: A.A. Milne
Title: Winnie the Pooh
Narrator: Peter Dennis
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc., 2005
I listened to this audiobook on a recent road trip with my children. It had been a long time since I read Milne’s book with many viewings of Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh in the intervening years. The surprising thing for me is just how much of the dialogue for the film is taken right from the book. Of course there are many differences as well. Rabbit seems to be a meaner character and by the time he plotted to have Kanga and Roo removed from The Hundred Acre Woods, I figured he was the type who voted for Brexit.
The kids enjoyed listening to this book and there was much laughter. I especially enjoy Milne’s playful narration that has the seemingly omniscient narrator interacting with a child presumably listening to him reading, much as a parent may when making up stories using a child’s toys. And Peter Dennis’ audiobook narration is delightful. A forever classic in any format!
Author: Bob Boilen
Title: Your song changed my life : from Jimmy Page to St. Vincent, Smokey Robinson to Hozier, thirty-five beloved artists on their journey and the music that inspired it
Narrator: Bob Boilen
Publication Info: New York, NY : William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 
Bob Boilen of NPR’s All Songs Considered interviews about three dozen musical artists, focusing on the music that influences those artists. The subjects are quiet varied in representing different areas of popular music from Jimmy Page to St. Vincent to Smokey Robinson to Iain Mackaye to Phillip Glass to Lucinda Williams. Some of the influences are what you’d expect, but then they’re surprises like Trey Anastassio of Phish citing Leonard Bernstein or Jenny Lewis drawing on hip-hop. Some of the best interviews are with artists I otherwise knew nothing about such as Hozier and Fantastic Negrito. A significant part of this book is also about Boilen’s own experience as a kid first hearing the Beatles, working in a record store, and starting a band. He frequently relates the artists’ experience back to his own and indirectly to the reader’s as we all have our own experiences of being exposed to music. This is a good book for music fans, and even if you don’t read it cover to cover, it’s worth checking out some of the interviews.
Recommended books: Talking to girls about Duran Duran by Rob Sheffield, How the Beatles destroyed rock ‘n’ roll by Elijah Wald, and High Fidelity by Nick Hornby.
Author: Michael J. Tougias and Alison O’Leary
Title: So Close to Home
Narrator: Elijah Alexander
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, 2016
The severity of the German u-boat campaign on American ships in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico in the early days of World War II is often overlooked. Tougias and O’Leary tell that history through the story of the Downs family of Texas as they sail on the cargo ship Heredia from Costa Rica to New Orleans. The ship is destroyed by torpedoes on the May 19, 1942, and the Downs family are separated in the wreck, each having their own survival journey along with some members of the crew. It’s a very gripping tale, but Tougias and O’Leary have a bigger story to tell based on the records of u-boat captains and the crews who were big heroes in Nazi Germany. This means that the Downs’ story is broken up by long sections about the u-boat warfare in general and the experiences of their crew. Perhaps the Downs’ story was too thin to make a book of its own, but the approach taken here makes the narrative very uneven. Nevertheless, it is an interesting glimpse into an overlooked period in American history.
Recommended books: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Title: Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones
Narrator: Ramon De Ocampo
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2012)
Previously Read by the Same Author: Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians
Six years ago I read the first book in the Alcatraz series and really enjoyed it and meant to continue with the series. Now at last I’ve read the second book in the series and it was worth the wait. Sanderson’s Alcatraz Smedry is an unreliable narrator who keeps interrupting the story to deliberately make the reader question everything. It’s gimmicky but in-universe it works since the concept of this world is that evil librarians control reality. It’s a funny adventure set in the Library of Alexandria, and Sanderson is committed to the idea of the wraith-like curators persistently trying to trick the human visitors into taking a book in exchange for their soul. It’s a clever and enjoyable read and I should not wait so long to continue the series.
Recommended books: A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer and Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins.
Author: Alex Gino
Narrator: Jamie Clayton
Publication Info: Scholastic Audio (2015)
This novel tells the story of George, a fourth-grader coming to terms with identifying as a girl when presenting as a boy. It’s set against a class performance of Charlotte’s Web in which George desperately wants to portray Charlotte. There are a lot of stock characters in the novel, including the school bully, and the former friend who now hangs with the bully. And there’s a temporary falling out between George and her best friend Kelly, as much over Kelly getting cast in the staring role as George outing herself as transgender. But the novel shows even how people with good intentions can hurt – from George’s mother who doesn’t want George to put herself at risk of discrimination, to George’s older brother who was more ready to accept a gay sibling, and George’s teacher who hides behind the idea of fairly parceling out roles in the play to boys and girls. At the end of the novel, George and Kelly get to enjoy a perfect day out with George presenting as a girl for the first time, which is a delightful outcome for the fictional character, and one I hope real life transgender children get to enjoy.
“My point is, it takes a special person to cry over a book. It shows compassion as well as imagination…Don’t ever lose that.”
“The play will begin at six sharp. Parents and family, I hope you’ll stay for the PTA meeting that will follow.” A few parents coughed in response. George knew that coughing was the adult equivalent of groaning.”
Recommended books: Every Day by David Levithan, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, and Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
Author: Naomi Novik
Title: His Majesty’s Dragon
Narrator: Simon Vance
Publication Info: Books on Tape (2007)
I imagine the author read the Aubrey/Maturin series and thought “I’d like to write that same type of book. With dragons.” Set in the Napoleonic Wars, this is a historic novel for the most part, with the exception that dragons are real and used by the British and French for airborne battles. It begins when Naval captain Will Laurence captures a dragon egg from a French ship and forms a bond with the young dragon Temeraire after he hatches. Laurence and Temeraire quickly form a close relationship, but Laurence is forced to resign from the Navy and join the Aerial Corps, which is not only mysterious and dangerous, but has very low social standing. Laurence learns that life in the Aerial Corps is more relaxed than in other branches of the military, and that women are paired with dragons and afforded equal standing, so the book is also a comedy of manners in many ways. Plus, there are cool aerial battles.
I’ve learned that this is the first in a series of 9 books, and while I enjoyed this book, I’m not sure I want to commit to the whole series (I couldn’t even get through all of Aubrey/Maturin). If you’ve read them, let me know if it is worth continuing.
Recommended books: Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian
Author: David Goldblatt
Title: The Games
Narrator: Napoleon Ryan
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2016)
I received a free audiobook copy of The Games through the Library Things Early Reviewers program.
Goldblatt’s history of the modern Olympic Games from 1896 to the present is a top-down overview of the International Olympic Committee and organizing committees more than the stories of participants in the games and particular events that I had hoped for. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting look at general trends and growth of the Olympics. For example, in the early 20th century the Olympics were more of a sideshow to World’s Fairs (Paris, St. Louis, London) held over several months rather than discrete sporting events. Yet, the Intercalated Games of 1906 in Athens, which were inline with the Olympic movement’s founder Pierre de Coubertin’s vision of a quasi-religious sporting ceremony, yet Coubertin refused to attend. The Olympics came into their own in the 1920s and Los Angeles and Berlin used the games to make major vision statements for the future. After some quieter, austere post-war games, Rome, Tokyo, and Munich all used the Olympics to reintroduce their countries to the world, while Mexico City and Montreal attempted to introduce themselves to the world stage. The Lake Placid and Moscow games are the clearest examples of how the Olympics being outside politics was never true. The Los Angeles and Barcelona games showed that the Olympics could make a lot of people a lot of money, but Atlanta, Beijing, Sochi, and Rio showed that the Olympics makes money through the most exploitative and neoliberal practices possible.
Goldblatt’s narrative makes it clear that whatever lofty goals the Olympic movement professes the contemporary games fail to live up to them, and that this is pretty consistent with the Olympics’s history. Whatever joys the Olympics bring, it does more harm than good.
Football Against the Enemy by Simon Kuper, How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer, and Eight World Cups by George Vecsey
Author: Ann Patchet
Title: Bel Canto
Narrator: Anna Fields
Publication Info: Blackstone Audiobooks, 2001.
This novel is set in an unnamed Latin American nation that lures a powerful Japanese business man to a birthday party in his honor with an intimate performance by his favorite operatic soprano. A group of revolutionaries attacks the mansion and takes everyone hostage and settle into a hostage situation that carries on for months. Patchet is great at narrating the interior lives of various characters – hostages and captors alike – and the relationships that grow among them until rather surreally they settle into patterns where the lines between the two groups are blurred and daily life becomes something of a prosperous summer camp. Patchet is great with the character work – the Japanese businessman and the opera singer are joined by the gracious host of the Vice President, a shy girl among the terrorists, the indispensable translator, and the Swiss Red Cross negotiator among others. The plot grows increasingly absurd and stretching credulity in the latter parts of the novel, but nevertheless an entertaining with even doses humor and underlying tension.
Author: David McCullough
Title: The Great Bridge
Narrator: Nelson Runger
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2006)
Previously Read by the Same Author: John Adams, 1776, and The Wright Brothers
What’s the longest period that a book has been on your “to read” list before you actually read it? For me, it may be 33 years as I got a copy of this book around the time of the Brooklyn Bridge centennial in 1983, looked at the pictures a lot, but never got around to reading. Since my copy of the book is falling apart, I listened to it as an audiobook. It’s a straightforward history of the planning, construction, and aftermath of Brooklyn Bridge and it’s effect on the cities of New York and Brooklyn. Central to the story are three people: John Roebling – the great bridge builder who designed Brooklyn Bridge but died as construction was beginning in 1869, Washington Roebling – who emerged from his father’s shadow as chief engineer but suffered greatly from illness and injury that kept him away from the job site, and Emily Roebling – who stepped in to manage the chief engineer responsibilities when her husband was indisposed. The construction of Brooklyn Bridge faced many challenges including the physical demanding work of the laborers leading to injury and death (particularly the notorious caisson’s disease), a rivalry with James Eads – then constructing a bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis, and the revelations of corruption of the Tweed Ring that were tied up in the bridge project. All three of these things lead to efforts to remove Washington Roebling that would be defeated. If there’s one flaw to this book it’s that McCullough tends to pile on the details and repeat himself in ways that make this a less engaging read than it could be, but otherwise it’s a fascinating story of a significant monument in American history.
Recommended books: Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York by Kenneth D. Ackerman, 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York by Clifton Hood, A Clearing In The Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century by Witold Rybczy, and Five Points by Tyler Anbinder
Author: Russell Shorto
Title: Amsterdam : a history of the world’s most liberal city
Narrator: Russell Shorto
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2013
Shorto’s history of the Dutch city of Amsterdam is built on a principle that the city defines liberalism in both senses of the word. There’s economic Liberalism – the principle of laissez-faire in free market capitalism, and there’s social liberalism – which values communal action and individual liberty. While these two interpretations of liberalism are at odds with one another in much of the world, Amsterdam is a place where individual enterprise and community spirit work together surprisingly well. This may have its origins in the creation of the city itself, literally reclaimed from the water by dint of communal work, and yet the new land became property of individuals at a time when most land was owned by royalty or the church. Shorto describes how the notable Dutch tolerance is based on the idea of gedogen, turning a blind eye rather than strictly enforcing the law.
The history of Amsterdam is broad and Shorto both compresses a lot of detail and tends to overstate Amsterdam’s significance, but appropriate to Amsterdam’s characteristic of establishing individual identity, he focuses historical periods through the eyes of specific historical Amsterdam personages. These include:
- Rembrandt van Rijn – the portrait artist who explored human interior life
- Baruch Spinoza – rational philosopher who foresaw modernism
- Frieda Menco – a contemporary of Anne Frank who also went into hiding in Amsterdam and then to concentration camps. Shorto refers to extensive interviews with Menco
- Robert Jasper Grootveld – anarchist organizer of the Provo movement who helped make the 60s counter-culture a permanent facet of Amsterdam
- Ayaan Hirsi Ali – a feminist activist known for her outspoken opposition to Islam
I found this an engaging history of this fascinating city.
Recommended books: Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City by Geert Mak and Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by David Winner
Author: A.J. Jacobs
Title: The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World
Narrator: Geoffrey Cantor
Publication Info: Highbridge Audiobooks (2004)
Books Read by the Same Author: The Year of Living Biblically
A.J. Jacobs sets out to “become the smartest person in the world” by reading the Encylopedia Britannica in its entirety from A-to-Z. If you think this is a book about a man reading an encyclopedia and listing the facts he learns, well that’s exactly what it is. But to be fair many of the facts are interesting and/or funny. In between encyclopedic entries, Jacobs narrates his personal life. This includes his relationship with his wife as they try to conceive a baby. Then there’s his absolutely hilarious father who is also greatly interested in learning. And Jacobs has a nemesis in his brother-in-law who is an even bigger – and more confident – know-it-all. Along the way Jacobs attends adult education courses on speed reading and memorization, visits the Britannica publishing offices in Chicago, and appears on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? I expect that Jacobs might be a tad bit annoying if you met him in person, but in his writing he is funny and charming and this is an enjoyable book for nerds like me.
Recommended books: The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester, Book Lust by Nancy Pearl, Dishwasher by Pete Jordan and Because I Said So! by Ken Jennings
Author: Oscar Wilde
Title: The Picture of Dorian Gray
Narrator: Paul Lincoln
Publication Info: Dreamscape Media, LLC (2016) [Originally published in 1890]
Sometimes you decide that you should make up for having never read any works of Oscar Wilde and learn that this book is far weirder than you ever imagined. The Picture of Dorian Gray is highly melodramatic and is tuned to Victorian era sensibilities of morality. This portrait in this book famously ages while it’s subject remains young and beautiful, but the story is not about aging but the representation of Dorian Gray’s evil acts in the visage of his picture. I was also surprised about how frank this book is about homosexuality for the time. At any rate, it’s a nice surprise to finally read a book you think you know what it’s about, only to find yourself very surprised.
Recommended Books: Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
Author: Stephen Coss
Title: The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics
Narrator: Bob Souer
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster (2016
I received a free advanced readers copy of this audiobook through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review.
1721 is a pivotal year in Boston history. Coss details how a popular party of elected representatives challenge the rule of the Royal Governor establishing the ideology and some of the organizations that would be used by the Revolutionary generation 50 years later. At the same time, The New England Courant is launched as the first colonial newspaper completely independent of the government’s imprimatur and challenges the political and religious leaders of the time. Tying them together is an epidemic of smallpox and the effort of some learned people in the town to try to fight it using a new idea, inoculation.
There are five pivotal figures in this book:
- Elisha Cooke, Jr., the popular party politician whose election as Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representative leads to a showdown with Royal Governor Samuel Shute, who dissolves the House and calls for new elections.
- James Franklin, publisher of The New England Courant, who publishes opinions that scandalize the established elites and religious leaders of the colony, while also aiming for a more entertaining and literary journalism than offered by the two existing newspapers. While generally on the side of reason against tradition and superstition, Franklin’s Courant comes out strongly against inoculation.
- Benjamin Franklin, James’ much younger brother and apprentice who educates himself with materials at the print shop and makes his first impression by anonymously submitting the Courant‘s most popular opinion pieces under the pseudonym of Silence Dogood. Franklin, of course, is a direct connection to the Revolutionary period of the 1760s & 1770s.
- Cotton Mather, the conservative Puritan preacher and theologian, seeking redemption for his part in the Salem Witch hysteria. Surprisingly he is also a man of science who initiates the call to attempt inoculation against small pox which he learns of from his African slave Onesimus and the writings of physicians in Europe.
- Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, a middling physician who answers the call to attempt inoculation and continues to do so despite strong opposition in the town and threats to his life. Boylston ends up successfully inoculating nearly 250 people for smallpox despite being a provincial doctor with no formal training and doing so before anyone in Britain had attempted to do so.
While I was familiar with a lot of the aspects of this history, I found it fascinating how Coss tied them together and showed how they influenced one another and lasting impact on Boston and Colonial America. It’s a fascinating and engaging historical work.
Recommended books: The Pox and the Covenant: Mather, Franklin, and the Epidemic That Changed America’s Destiny by Tony Williams, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore, and The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff
Author: Jenny Offill
Title: Dept. of Speculation
Narrator: Jenny Offill
Publication Info: Holland, OH : Dreamscape Media, LLC, 
This work is an experimental novel about a writer in Brooklyn, her marriage, and parenthood. It’s written in a series of short chapters and vignettes. Sometimes it feels like the narrator is going on about little things, but then sometimes there is a sentence or two that pithily captures a truth about the human condition. No one in the story has a name – just the wife, the husband, and the daughter. The child grows and changes, the husband commits adultery, they move to the country. Everything is kept at a distance only to be periodically punctured by pain and regret. I appreciate what Offill is trying to do, but on the other hand this book didn’t really resonate with me.
Recommended books: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Monkeys by Susan Minot, and Severance: Stories by Robert Olen Butler.
Author: Andrea Cremer
Title: The Inventor’s Secret
Narrator: Leslie Bellair
Publication Info: Listening Library (2014)
This is the first in a series of an alternate universe dystopia in which Great Britain suppressed the revolution in the American colonies and have created a deeply stratified industrial tyranny. I actually thought it was supposed to be set sometime in the far future, but since its in the steampunk genre, it’s supposed to be in the 19th century despite the advanced technology. The protagonist is Charlotte, a 16-year-old member of the resistance living with other children in camp hidden away from the empire. When a mysterious newcomer arrives, it moves forward a plot for Charlotte, her brother and other companions to infiltrate the imperial society in New York. It’s an interesting concept, but the story didn’t engage me . I could see it’s appeal for younger readers interested in a mix of fantasy, alternate history, and romance.
Author: Jill Lepore
Title: The Secret History of Wonder Woman
Narrator: Jill Lepore
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2014)
Previously Read by Same Author:
The story of Wonder Women begins as a creation of William Moulton Marston, a something of a quack psychologist previously known for inventing the lie detector test. Marston worked closely with his wife Elizabeth Hollaway and Olive Byrne who lived with them in a long-term relationship (and continued living with Holloway after Martson’s death). Through Byrne they were also connected to her aunt Margaret Sanger who looms large in this book and the history of Wonder Woman. Lepore shows how the triad’s interests in feminism and unconventional sexuality are expressed through Wonder Woman comics which contains themes of ruling with feminine love and bondage and submission. Lepore relates an interesting history of Marston, Hollaway, Byrne, Sanger, and others in the women’s rights movements of the 20th century, and Wonder Woman’s unexpected role in the center of it all.
Recommended books: The Mad World of William M. Gaines by Frank Jacobs, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories by Pagan Kennedy
Author: Anthony Horowitz
Narrator: Julian Rhind-Tutt and Derek Jacobi
Publication Info: HarperCollins Publishers and Blackstone Audio (2014)
Horowitz follows up on his authorized Sherlock Holmes novel House of Silk with this mystery set in 1891 immediately after Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarity are believed to have fallen from Reichenbach Falls. The narrator is Frederick Chase, a Pinkerton detective who travels to Switzerland seeking American criminal mastermind Clarence Devereux whom he believes will rendez-vous with Moriarity. In the wake of the supposed deaths of Moriarity and Holmes, Chase joins up with Scotland Yard detective Athelney Jones who displays a skill in deductive reasoning. Based on the title, one wonders if Jones is Moriarity in disguise? Or Holmes in disguise? I won’t tell. Chase and Jones return to London to continue the search for Devereux and find themselves pulled into the brutally violent underworld of expatriate American criminals. It’s a gripping mystery with a lots of twists and turns, and a great companion to the Holmes’ canon. The performance of Rhind-Tutt and Jacobi on the audiobook is particularly entrancing.
Recommended books: The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Martin Harry Greenberg,Sherlock Holmes and the Red Demon by Larry Millett, and A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin.