Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Nonfiction Audiobook Medley

As the month of January is drawing to a close, I've been racing through nearly a half-dozen audiobooks. Here are three pleasant nonfiction selections that I've finished that span the memoir, travel and history genres.

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride (2014)
Written by Cary Elwes and Joe Layden
Narrated by Elwes and most of the film's cast
Run Time: 7 hours
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio/Touchstone

For many summers growing up, I would often go to Christian camps in the mountains north of Los Angeles. Like clockwork, they would show a movie on select nights. The film would always be, without fail, The Princess Bride. It got to the point where I was burned out on the movie, but luckily, as time has passed, my liking toward the movie has returned. It is indeed a classic, as Cary Elwes points out in his book on multiple occasions.

What made the audiobook so enjoyable isn't necessarily what was written, but rather that Elwes managed to get most of the cast back together. So when the parts involving Billy Crystal's Miracle Max character pop up, it's Crystal talking about it from his perspective. Ditto with Robin Wright's Buttercup and Wallace Shawn and director Rob Reiner. In that sense, it almost takes on the persona of a radio play. Elwes' writing has a few of my pet peeves in it, such as teasing the reader with "more on that later," but again, the audio experience and the genuine affection the cast conveys toward the film and each other make up for any flaws. Have fun storming the castle with this one. Grade: 4/5 stars (Also available in ebook and hardcover formats).

The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change (2014)
Written by Adam Braun
Narrated by Kirby Heybourne
Run Time: 7 hours, 32 minutes
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio/Scribner

We often hear about the plight of people in developing regions of the world, but seldom do people actually do something about it. Braun, to his credit, did something and launched Pencils of Promise, a charity dedicated to building schools in impoverished regions of the world. He takes readers from New York to Laos to Central America to Ghana and back again as he grows his charity. A hybrid of memoir, travel and business writing, the book tries to cater to multiple audiences.

I had a couple of issues with the book. First, the subtitle usage of 'Ordinary Person' is a huge stretch considering Braun previously worked at Bain and Company as a business consultant before starting PoP and was Ivy League-educated at Brown. He may have started very small, but he used the business management skills he learned from Bain to rapidly grow his charity to where it is now. Second, the book has multiple sections that can come across to some readers as self-congratulatory. Overall, I liked the book, but can't give it the full-throated, enthusiastic approval I hope to give every book I pick up. Grade: 3/5 (Also available in ebook and hardcover formats; paperback edition debuts next week.)

Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition and Survival (2014)
Written by Peter Stark
Narrated by Michael Kramer
Run Time: 10 hours, 55 minutes
Publisher: Harper Audio/Ecco

When the originators of the expression "Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong" coined that phrase, you'd think the tale of Astoria was in their minds. The story of the journey to establish a colony at the mouth of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1800s, Astoria has the makings of a tour-de-force read. Bickering settlers, nationalistic rivalries, deadly winters and a wealthy backer bent on seizing the world's fur trade should make for a compelling story, considering it was known by most Americans in the mid-1800s via writer Washington Irving.

However, for every harrowing description of the overland and sea journeys and character studies of the various men and women involved, the writing pounds into your skull repeated phrases like "John Jacob Astor's West Coast empire" that dulls the rest of the story. As a result, the book gets monotonous fast. It should also be noted that contrary to the subtitle, Jefferson's involvement was more of a blessing of the enterprise rather than any hands-on action. It's not a bad book, but it makes you wonder what could have been were it not for the incessantly repeated phrases that make it seem as though the author didn't trust his audience to be able to follow along. Grade: 3/5 stars (Also available in ebook and hardcover formats; paperback edition debuts Feb. 10.)

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