Audiobook Reviews November 2015 by Jonathan Lowe



One of my favorite audiobooks was a now out of print chronicle of black box voice cockpit recordings. My attempts to get that audiobook back into print failed because they’d lost the masters. (Original tapes, not the Masters golf tournament.) But all is well now, with the publication of BLACK BOX THINKING, which is even better than that chilling book because author Matthew Syed (a former Olympian and Oxford scholar…what a combo that is!) connects the dots between failure and success, making the comparison between what happens in the air and what happens on ground…between aviation and the medical industry. Why is it that more people die from misdiagnosis than from car accidents? Syed, through the deep voice of the always engaging narrator Simon Slater, points to the fact that radiologists and doctors do not have a accessible database of failures in similar circumstances in the same way that pilots do. Syed uses examples of actual cockpit decision failures to illustrate his points, as when United Airlines 173 crashed after it ran out of fuel in a holding pattern while trying to determine if the landing gear was down. (It was down, but the indicator light was faulty, and said it wasn’t.) People died because the navigator failed to be forceful enough to the pilot, his superior, with whom he felt deference. Then the Captain seemed surprised to learn they’d run out of fuel, and even the engineer wondered if there was a leak in the fuel tanks. Black box analysis showed there was no leak. The jet had operated exactly as it should. The intense focus of the crew on the non-existent landing gear problem caused them to lose track of time, which neuroscientists can explain. The point of telling this (and other air disaster horror stories like it) is to illustrate what happened next: the airlines learned from this mistake, and from all other crashes. So your chances of dying on a plane is less than one in a million. Under hospital health care your chance of dying or suffering major complications due to a preventable accident is one in less than a hundred. “This is the equivalent of two jumbo jets falling out of the sky every day,” says Syed. “The concealment of errors in medicine is the opposite of the airline industry.” Regarding golf, Syed’s quote is: “You can’t learn how to play golf in the dark.” Examples of medical errors are juxtaposed alongside other airline examples, but Syed is only getting started. He goes into Google, discusses Michael Jordan, Beckham, Mercedes, market forecasters, and others who learned from their mistakes. (Subtitle: “Why Most People Never Learn From Their Mistakes—But Some Do.”) Combine Malcolm Gladwell with Steven Pinker, toss a ball or two into the ring, and you have Matthew Syed, who is also author of the bestselling BOUNCE.


Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersey-Williams are the fascinating stories of how the elements were discovered, got their names, and the uses put to these chemical elements over the decades or centuries. There are surprises in this wide-ranging history, including that Plutonium (the most dangerous element known) was first considered as a possible rare and valuable coin. Plutonium is strictly controlled now, and is far more valuable than platinum, barely exists at all in nature, and is only made with great difficulty by refining uranium 238. Still, there are enough nuclear weapons in existence today to turn the Earth into perpetual nuclear winter 100 times over. Past chemical weapons included chlorine gas, used in WWI, a green toxic haze that attacks the lungs and causes one to choke on their own fluids. Phosphorous bombs were used by Allies in WWII, sucking the air right out of tunnels and basements where Dresden families hid, believing they were safe from attack. Marie Curie’s life and death from leukemia after isolating radium is but one of the stories here. Every one of the elements is covered, from gold to gallium (a metal that melts in the hand), helium to einsteinium. Not only does the listener gain a better knowledge of chemistry, but also of the history of arts which use the elements, and the people behind the uses and dangers involved in using elements whose side effects were not fully understood at the time of their discovery. The author also details his own experiences in investigation and research, and narrator Anthony Ferguson is a good choice of the publisher to deliver the text since his accent and timing create an atmospheric element…no helium voice here for sure. A must hear for listeners with curiosity for understanding how the world works, and our relationship to it.

Next, back in the early 20th Century a Boston spiritualist and medium named Margery was all the rage for creating seances that purportedly resurrected the voices of dead loved ones. She embraced some who tried to debunk her, even from Scientific American. None could do it until Houdini, the legendary escape artist and magician, took aim at her occult trickery. THE WITCH OF LIME STREET, by former screenwriter and astrologer David Jaher, tells the history of the era, and of Houdini, (including the multiple encounters that Margery had with those set on disproving her.) The golden age of the 1920s are the backdrop to this well told and interesting story, lending authenticity to the mood of an era which faded after Houdini died from peritonitis following being punched in the stomach by a man testing his strength. One of the most ironic elements is the inclusion of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, a skeptic who shouldn’t have believed in Margery, but did anyway for his own reasons. (Holmes the detective is known for his observational skills, but Doyle apparently was fooled by the skilled charlatan.) One of the prerequisites of the seances was that the room had to be dark, and Margery could be retained but pulled off her feats anyway. Only Houdini, known to slip out of most any restraint put on him, saw through her. Narrator Simon Vance, with his artistocratic, accented delivery, is the perfect reader for this, and I recommend it to anyone familiar or unfamiliar with magic (including FOOL US magician Penn Jillette) for its slice of life (so to speak) unveiling of a momentous time in American history.

Finally, ”To meat or not to meat, that is the question…” It’s in the news, but the decision is yours. Or is it? Advertising affects subconscious decision making. Coke and McDonalds exploit this. Listen to the following audiobooks and this becomes evident: 1) Meat is much more costly to the environment. 2) Processed meat is worse for your health than unprocessed. 3) Low fat diets are not healthy, and often don’t work. 4) Saturated fat is not bad, and there is no link to heart disease as was taught for decades. Read: ”The Big Fat Surprise.” Only trans-saturated (processed or burned) fats are bad. 5) Cheap meat is anything BUT cheap: hormones and chemicals added, subsidized by taxpayers, factory farm cruelty, rising health care costs, etc. Read: ”Meatonomics.” 6) 96% of meat sold is in that category. 7) Nitrates are not the only contributing factor in cancer. Other additives, and the cooking and curing process too. Sugar is cancer friendly, too. 8) Vitamins are overused in America to the tune of billions as a means to supplement poor nutrition, but they are a poor substitute for whole, natural #food. Cheap vitamins may be fake, as they are unregulated. Read: “VItamania.”

Some new fiction tities that are out this month that seem interesting to me, but I’ve not had time to hear yet are: SLADE HOUSE by David Mitchell (author of the amazing Cloud Atlas; read by Thomas Judd and Tania Rodrigues); NIGHT MUSIC by John Connolly, read by a full cast); GOLDEN AGE by Jane Smiley, read by Lorelei King (who narrates Janet Evanovich); THE BLUNDERER by Patricia Highsmith (new to audio, read by Robert Fass); A STRANGENESS IN MY MIND by Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, read by the always great John Lee); finally, don’t miss my own WHO MOVED MY TV? read by Christopher Vournazos, or, if you want to wait until Nov. 8, it will be included in the ebook TrumpWorld.

Audiobook Reviews Archives Prior to July 2014

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