02 August 2012

Sound Recommendations: Now and Then (Nonfiction)

Today's edition of Sound Recommendations returns to nonfiction, with two science books, one biography, and one history. Hope you find something new to listen to.

If you like geology, learning more about North America, and meeting interesting people, then you must listen to John McPhee's Basin and Range, the first book in his Annals of a Former World series. In this book, McPhee talks about his travels with geology professor Kenneth Deffeyes across Route 80 from the East Coast to California. McPhee explores the geology of North America by looking at road cuts, which reveal how unstable the land around us can be. Here we see evidence of upheaval, plate tectonics, ancient seas, and long-dead organisms. We also meet other experts and learn not only about geology but also about history, the concept of time, and much more. Basin and Range is read by veteran nonfiction narrator Nelson Runger, who adds just enough expression to keep you engaged without getting in the way of the information. I should mention, however, that Runger is one of those narrators whom people seem to love or hate; thus you might want to listen to a sample before buying.

In Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick starts in the Old World and follows the passengers on the famous ship across the ocean to Plymouth Harbor and through the first rough decades after the establishment of the colony. Mayflower is an eye-opening book (at least it was to me). For example, I was surprised to learn that the ship did not land where it was supposed to and that the passengers, especially the women, were so distraught that they refused to travel any farther, even though scouts had discovered a better harbor (Boston) to the north and their original charter was to the south (near the mouth of the Hudson). The book also details the evolution of Pilgrim-Native American relationships, the colonists' personalities, and daily life in the settlement. The narrator is George Guidall, who does an excellent job bringing the history alive, and I was particularly impressed with his handling of Indian languages.

Unlike previous Einstein biographies, Walter Isaacson's Einstein: His Life and Universe is based on the scientist's personal letters. Rather than concentrate solely on Albert Einstein's theories, Isaacson shows us the person behind the famous equation and crazy hair. We meet Einstein's family, the women he loved, his life in Europe and then in the States, and his struggle to find his footing in the academic world. Of course, no biography of Einstein would be complete without an exploration into physics, and Isaacson does an amazing job of conveying complex concepts to the layperson. Edward Herrmann's expressive and well-paced reading helps listeners connect to both Einstein the man and Einstein the scientist. Even when the book turns to quantum theory, Herrmann avoids sounding professorial, maintaining a friendly tone and helping the listener along.

Have you read Mary Roach yet? I started with her Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. This wasn't that odd of a choice for me, given my academic background, but I was surprised by how much I loved Roach's writing style and how fascinated I was with the various ways cadavers are used to further research in a wide variety of fields. With respect and humor, Roach tells us about a body farm (to research decay and help with forensics), gross anatomy classes, NASA research, and surgical research. I couldn't stop listening. Shelly Frasier is the perfect narrator for Roach's prose. She accentuates the humor, remains respectful, and enhances Roach's informal style. Frasier reads as if she were telling a story, which is just the right way to approach Stiff.

12 comments:

Tea norman 8/2/12, 6:41 AM  

I really like John McPhee's....For some reason have developed an interest in Geology. I also would like to hear the personal letters written by Einstein. These are good audiobooks. Not brave enough to visit the benefits of the dead yet. LoL.

bermudaonion 8/2/12, 7:42 AM  

I'm not sure about nonfiction on audio. I think if I tried one, it would be one of Mary Roach's but I'm not sure Stiff is the one I'd start with!

Daryl 8/2/12, 8:01 AM  

these, especially Mayflower, sound fascinating ..

Sandy Nawrot 8/2/12, 9:18 AM  

I actually read Mayflower in print and absolutely loved it. And this is just not the type of book I normally read. It was history made interesting and exciting. And I just finished Stiff a couple of weeks ago. I LOVED it!!!! It was much better than Spook. The narrator was a perfect match, and never before would have imagined that a book about dead bodies would be so hilarious and fascinating.

createyourworld.me 8/2/12, 9:40 AM  

The first two sound great, I love books that make history come alive! I already have Stiff on my shelf, but I haven't had the courage to read it yet...I'm not sure I ever will!

Zibilee 8/2/12, 10:22 AM  

Stiff is one of my favorite books of all time. I read it rather than listened, but I had such a great time with it. It's a very odd subject, but Roach handles it with style. I also really want to listen to Mayflower now. It sounds really interesting! Great mini-reviews today. I really enjoyed them!

Debbie 8/2/12, 1:58 PM  

I live in the Great Basin...so that might be interesting. I also read STIFF for a book club last year. I enjoyed it very much.

Julie P. 8/2/12, 3:12 PM  

All new to me, except I did read STIFF in print form.

Barbara 8/3/12, 1:19 PM  

I don't listen to audiobooks, but I will read anything by John McPhee. He is just brilliant at making me fascinated by subjects I would have considered totally boring before. I only look at the title before picking it up in order to make sure I haven't previously read that book.

Trish 8/3/12, 2:16 PM  

Stiff! I forgot about that one. I remember JoAnn reading it a few years ago (listening I believe) and being fascinated by it. Honestly I'm not sure I knew that Mayflower was non-fiction! I've seen it around dozens of times but always assumed it was historical fiction. Shame on me.

JoAnn 8/3/12, 10:10 PM  

Last year I joked about making Mayflower required reading for Thanksgiving dinner... maybe if I bring it up again now, it may actually happen! I though Stiff was an excellent audiobook, too.

Nichole Bernier 8/4/12, 8:45 AM  

Ah, thanks for reminding me of McPhee. He was my first exposure to so-called New Journalism, or literary journalism. It was his transporting essay “Travels in Georgia,” which manages to make a portrait of a rural roadkill collector hilarious and poignant. I read it in journalism school, and realized that journalism could be many things, didn’t have to be straight news and magazine articles. Changed the course of what I would aim for in a job.

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