Audiobook Reviews November 2016 by Jonathan Lowe


If you can’t stomach Stephen King’s IT (in a new audiobook production, and a remake movie next year), try UTOPIA IS CREEPY by Nicholas Carr, a great collection of essays by the Pulitzer Prize finalist from his blog Rough Type and elsewhere. The subjects are wide, including social media, advertising, corporate spying, computers, and artificial intelligence. As everyone knows, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram represent but the surface tension of a Googlized public which more often prefers to live online rather than in real life. The internet and endless new television shows have taken over our culture, and these provide an alternate world in which we validate our identity by sharing likes and posts, gain an ego boost, and…get dumber and more anxious? That wasn’t part of the deal, but studies have shown that depression is prevalent among those whose life is lived online the most. Real reading is being reduced to one-liners on Twitter. Entire election campaigns are now run there, with slogans substituting for actually reading biographies of the principals, written by professionals or even independents. On Youtube one person’s opinion is as good as another’s, and you can be shouted down for introducing logic or the scientific method. What happens when the dumbing down is complete? Something creepy, and far from Utopia. Interestingly, Carr also talks about self driving cars: in Silicon Valley one of the fav pastimes is driving race cars on private tracks, while they engineer hands-free cars for us. The motive is to drive us to distraction by limiting the time we “waste” NOT on our devices (even in traffic.) Any time reading or contemplating things is lost to them, too, and their profit depends on our surfing the web as much as possible, “leaving crumbs of data along the way.” The “information superhighway” can replace the real one with self-driving vehicles. Narrated by voice actor and fourth-degree black belt Steve Menasche, the audiobook shows that “resistance is never futile,” although mere “likes” are, like, meaningless. Science may win in the end, but only if a new Dark Age can be avoided, with its static culture and burning of books (or any people with new ideas.) So listening to audiobooks beats frustration or Top 40, and also can become your own resistance.


A GAMBLER’S ANATOMY by Jonathan Lethem: With all the craziness in the news, one often needs an escape. If culture is becoming dumber due to not reading, books provide information you can’t get on TV—not even on PBS. When too many young people either take selfies or watch TV sports and McNews, we all lose in the long run. (I watch NOVA, but rarely learn much since it must be dumbed down for those who don’t read science books like the recent debunking of TIME TRAVEL by James Gleick, THE CRASH DETECTIVES (about why planes crash, and the role of human error,) or THE FIX (about solving global warming with new ideas and technology.) There are biographies that bring us closer to those who have changed the world for the better, and inspire new thoughts (not just more stats in some record book.) A Gambler’s Anatomy is narrated by Mark Deakins, an award winner. In it, handsome, impeccably dressed Bruno Alexander travels the world, winning large sums of money from amateur “whales” who think they can challenge his peerless acumen at backgammon. Fronted by his pasty, vampiric manager—Edgar Falk—Bruno arrives in Berlin after a troubling run of bad luck in Singapore. Perhaps it was the chance encounter with his crass childhood acquaintance Keith Stolarsky and his smoldering girlfriend Tira Harpaz. Or perhaps it was the emergence of a blot that distorts his vision so he has to look at the board sideways. Things don’t go much better in Berlin. Bruno’s flirtation with Madchen, the striking blonde he meets on the ferry, is inconclusive; the game at the unsettling Herr Kohler’s mansion goes awry as his blot grows worse; he passes out and is sent to the local hospital, where he is given an extremely depressing diagnosis. Having run through Falk’s money, Bruno turns to Stolarsky, who, for reasons of his own, agrees to fly Bruno to Berkeley, and to pay for the experimental surgery that might save his life. Berkeley, where Bruno discovered his psychic abilities, and to which he vowed never to return. Amidst the patchouli flashbacks and Anarchist gambits of the local scene, between Tira’s come-ons and Keith’s machinations, Bruno confronts two existential questions: Is the gambler being played by life? And what if you’re telepathic, but it doesn’t do you any good?

Finally, there is MARS: Our Future on the Red Planet by Leonard David, narrated by Andrew Reilly. This is a National Geographic miniseries made into an official companion audiobook, three and a half hours on audio describing NASA’s plans and considerations in undertaking a mission to our nearest possibly habitable world (although Matt Damon didn’t have much luck.) While some scientists argue that we aren’t “there yet” in terms of technology (to be planning a Mars mission), others do want to go sooner rather than later (who knows when funding to NASA may dry up.) In an anti-science political environment it is difficult to imagine it would even happen, which is why NASA has gone on the offensive in capturing the public’s imagination with documentaries and pop science shows. This companion book describes the difficulties being encountered by scientists in fighting radiation, weightlessness, medical and psychological factors, equipment for life support, physics, food, and the scientific experiments they hope to conduct. Many robot missions have been to Mars, even from India and (soon) Dubai. Why go there with humans, other than for bragging purposes? “Hands” say the authors. Human hands operated by human minds actually working on the planet are the most needed tools. This is particularly useful for drilling operations, which robots have not done well. Surface water is nearly non-existent on Mars, and life improbable on the surface due to harsh conditions, but subsurface water is suspected for several reasons. And there is an abundant mineral that could be heated to release water. NASA is hoping to reach Mars with astronauts sometime in the next 25 years, if current technology improvements continue on track. Narrator Reilly is a skilled and listenable reader, a multilingual drama teacher who has traveled widely. Author David is an award-winning contributor to space related sites, and co-authored Buzz Aldrin’s biography.

(Audiobook reviewer and former Postal employee Jonathan Lowe is the award-winning author of Postmarked for Death, Fame Island, The Methuselah Gene, and The Miraculous Plot of Leiter & Lott.)

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