Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Audiobook Review: So You've Been Publicly Shamed

So You've Been Publicly Shamed (2015)
Written and read by Jon Ronson
Publisher: Audible/Riverhead
Run Time: 7 hours 26 minutes

At it's best, the internet is a wonderful engine of creativity, thought, imagination and ideas. But at it's worst, the internet can be, as Obi-Wan Kenobi described the Mos Eisley Cantina in "Star Wars", a "wretched hive of scum and villainy."

Journalist Jon Ronson explores the latter side of the World Wide Web and social media in his newest book So You've Been Publicly Shamed. Using several high-profile cases, Ronson traces the epidemic of public shaming and efforts by some groups to undo the damage. One of the cases involved a woman making an ill-advised tweet before she boarded a plane at London's Heathrow airport. The tweet went viral and there were even hashtags joking about whether she had landed yet. She was fired from her job the moment she landed. Ronson managed to interview the woman and see what happened in her life after the fallout.

The book was very thought-provoking and can challenge readers who use social media: Have I been part of the problem or part of the solution? Ronson also points out that social media users may even constrain themselves in what they say or do online in order to avoid any possible shaming.

Besides a chapter on S&M I could have done without, the audiobook breezed by and Ronson narrates with compassion toward the victims of public shaming.

Grade: 4/5 stars. Should be required reading for social media users.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Audiobook Review: Elephant Company

Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II (2014)
Written by Vicki Constantine Croke
Narrated by Simon Prebble
Publisher: Recorded Books/Random House
Run Time: 9 hours 43 minutes

In Disney's animated version of The Jungle Book, Colonel Hathi comically leads his elephant troop through the jungle. Most of the other animals are bothered by the marching and would rather the pachyderm parade go elsewhere. But Mowgli the mancub is curious as ever and at one point joins in on the march.

In Vicki Constantine Croke's Elephant Company, elephants march and a man is curious about them, but not for slapstick comedy. A British employee working in the jungles of Burma (Myanmar) named Billy Williams works with logging elephants through the Great Depression and World War II. Despite the mention of the war in the book's subtitle, it isn't really discussed until the last third or so. Before then, the book is a wonderfully rendered biography of Williams building his life in the jungle while deepening his relationship with the elephants. As the book progresses, he goes from company man to married man to jungle warrior, using the elephants and trails he knows well against the Japanese onslaught.

Croke touches on some universal, but beloved themes in nature writing in this book, namely man's relationship with animals and the cost of human conflict on the animals themselves. The research is thorough and first-rate, which is par for the course for Croke, who has been featured on NPR and wrote in The Boston Globe for more than a dozen years. The narration by Simon Prebble can drone on occasionally, in part because he repeats the same vocal cadence in how he reads sentences, but is otherwise a good read.

Rating: 4/5 stars. An enjoyable, even-handed history of a man's relationship with elephants through economic and global strife. I especially recommend this one to animal lovers and those curious about exotic places, since the book also acts as a bit of a micro-history to Burma.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Audiobook Review: All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See (2014)
Written by Anthony Doerr
Narrated by Zach Appelman
Run Time: 16 hours 2 minutes
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio/Scribner

When All the Light We Cannot See debuted last year, I predicted it was going to be one of the key books of the year. The story seemed tailor-made to my tastes since I'm a World War II-story junkie. As the buzz grew and it was shortlisted for the National Book Award, I anxiously downloaded it for my Kindle, where it then sat for months as my appetite for reading on a digital device waned.

After a family member raved about the audiobook and implored me to read it that way, I gave it a shot. Halfway through me reading the audiobook, Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize and the audiobook itself is up for an Audie Award (winners will be announced May 28). The novel has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 52 weeks, as of this writing.

Doerr wrote a lyrical tale of Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French girl who escapes Paris for Saint-Malo with her father who may or may not be in possession of a famous jewel coveted by the Nazis. Meanwhile, in Nazi Germany, Werner Pfennig is raised in an orphanage in a coal mining town, destined to be a miner until he is discovered to be a prodigy with radios. As these two characters journey toward their eventual meeting in Saint-Malo, they meet a number of characters along the way who have been scarred or twisted by the war.

War stories can be brutal and this one has its moments of showing humanity's brutality towards one another. But it has two of the most likable characters I've read in a long time in Marie-Laure and Werner. Both of them are extremely intelligent, overcome obstacles and have strong moral centers while the adults around them degrade into war. It has often been said that "war is hell" and as each minute passed, I was rooting for both of the main characters to survive the conflict.

Zach Appelman provides great narration work here. Rather than using voices, he opts to use subtle voice inflection with slight accents to differentiate the characters and it generally works. The one exception I can think of is the character of Nazi officer Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, who often sounds like a close relative to Hugo Weaving's Red Skull in the first Captain America movie. It was mildly distracting at first, but given the characters' similarities of being treasure hunting Nazis, it works.

It pains me when I talk to friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances who say, "Oh, I don't read much." As a result, I am occasionally asked about books that would cater to those that are not frequent readers. One of the beauties of this novel is that the chapters are very short, perfect for brief nighttime reading or those with shorter work commutes.

Bonus points to the folks at Simon & Schuster Audio for using Claude Debussy's "Clair de Lune" as the intro and outro music for the audiobook. "Clair de Lune" is one of my favorite pieces of classical music (I've written most of this review while listening to an extended version). It certainly doesn't hurt to start a book with the tender piano melodies of Debussy's masterpiece, especially when the song factors into the novel itself.

Rating: 5/5 stars. Why, oh why, did I torture myself and wait so long to read and review this book? The novel is terrific and worth every accolade.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Audiobook Review: The Closer

The Closer: My Story (2014)
Written by Mariano Rivera with Wayne Coffey
Narrated by Michael Kay
Run Time: 7 hours and 25 minutes
Publisher: Hachette Audio/Little, Brown

In my years of being a baseball fan, I have always rooted against the Yankees (I'm a D-Backs and Red Sox fan, but of course, as I write this, the Sox are getting swept by the Yanks). Yankee players like Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi and Roger Clemens have earned my dislike over the years for a variety of reasons, but there were two Yankees that I had the utmost respect for: Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera.

Rivera's autobiography The Closer is a terrific read, even for us born-and-raised Yankee haters. His humility is on every page, from his upbringing in Panama through his minor league career and into his days of walking out of the Yankee Stadium bullpen to Metallica's "Enter Sandman." A devout Christian, Rivera leaned on his faith throughout the highs (five world championships, 13 All-Star appearances) and the lows (injuries, key losses) of his career. I can't say I was all that bummed about hearing his losses since two of his big ones came against my teams, but hearing his descriptions of the games made me realize how personally he took them. He felt he let his entire team down and that sting didn't leave.

Role models in sports are hard to come by, especially in a sport that has been wracked with steroid scandals, egotistical players and contracts totaling north of $250 million. But Mo was never any of these things. I genuinely enjoyed hearing how he came up to the big leagues and had to adjust to living in America. His love for his wife Clara is evident every time he talks about her and how much of a pillar she was for him during his playing days. He mentions his faith often and it was a welcome perspective in my view, but it never felt overbearing.

I typically don't care for Michael Kay when he announces games (his victory chant of "Thaaaaaaaaaa Yankees win" is particularly annoying), so I proceeded with caution. He wasn't all that bad, but I got the sense that he was more comfortable recalling in-game moments. Considering the book is short in audiobook terms, clocking in at less than 8 hours, Kay reads Rivera's story at a quick and steady pace. I listened to it in one sitting as I was doing some house work.

Rating: 4/5 stars. Yankee fans will obviously enjoy this one, though there are universal themes of faith and perseverance in it that should make it accessible to everybody. Even us Red Sox fans.

The book is available in hardcover, ebook and audiobook formats. A paperback version from Back Bay Books is set to hit bookshelves May 5.