- Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Documented an Era and Defined a Generation by Chris Turner (abridged)
- World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (abridged, with full cast)
- The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum (unabridged)
- Bossypants by Tina Fey (unabridged)
We had started Planet Simpson before we left on this trip but I am including it here because I haven't reviewed it yet elsewhere. For a family who watches hours of The Simpsons every week, this seemed to be a no-brainer as entertainment. For the most part, it was ridiculously enjoyable since we could all picture the exact sequences that the narrator was discussing as he led us through the show's inception and the many ways that The Simpsons have drawn from and contributed to popular culture.
Toward the latter chapters, we were noticing more repetition and the convention of using the episode numbers was annoying (7F01, 7F11, 8F13... they are meaningless to all but the most hardcore fans). It was also disappointing that for a show that spanned 20 seasons, the book only really discusses the first three or four. Suitable for almost any age though it does delve into some themes such as family values, politics and religion that may be a bit too academic for younger listeners.
Mike had already read World War Z and was disappointed that the audio book skipped over one pretty critical plot point (i.e. how the infection spread globally) but having a full cast (including big names like Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner and Alan Alda) made it more like a radio play than a novel. The story is told through a series of interviews with survivors following a war against ZACK (the Army code for Z, or Zombie). There is lots of descriptive gore from the front line but equal time is given to narrative about global politics and the different styles of warfare in which each nation engages.
While it was nice to have the full cast, I'd have liked the audio engineers to have paid more attention to balancing the levels from actor to actor -- I found myself needing to adjust the volume between each interview. That aside, I was kept entertained for the duration and it made me think about pandemics and how poorly most governments are prepared.
I had heard an interview with Deborah Blum about The Poisoner's Handbook on a Scientific American podcast last year; it had been on my wishlist ever since. The unabridged audiobook is read by Colleen Marlo who does a great job with the script. The book introduces the listener to two of the key players in the development of forensic toxicology: Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler. The two worked in New York from the late 1800s through early 20th century as Medical Examiner and Chief Toxicologist/Chemist respectively. They worked without much of a budget or staff but both were determined to find ways to measure various poisons scientifically and consistently so that the results could be used in court to convict, or clear the accused. They weren't always right and they also made a few enemies (including rather famously New York Mayor LaGuardia) but they did succeed in creating a new field of scientific study that had an immeasurable impact on 20th century criminal investigations.
Toward the end, we were growing tired of the constant discussion about methyl alcohol and its role in hundreds of deaths during Prohibition but aside from that, the story moves through a series of suspicious deaths, murders and crime sprees that mystery writers love and investigators hate. Some, I'd heard of before like the "Radium Girls" who worked in a factory painting glow in the dark paint on watch faces and many that were headlines in the 1920s but would be forgotten were it not for authors like Blum. There are some grizzly sequences, as can be expected and one section that was unexpectedly lurid; parents consider yourselves warned.
Tina Fey is definitely someone I admire -- I totally get her sense of humour and I respect the place she made for herself inside the Old Boy's Club of late-night and prime-time comedy. While she makes fun of her "nerd/librarian" vibe it has worked well for her. In Bossypants, she discusses her life from childhood traumas through her discovery of improv and how it changed her life, to her time with NBC and her life outside work as a parent and a celebrity. It's not a long book but there's not a five minute stretch that I didn't find entertaining.
If however, you are not a fan of Tina Fey you will not be won over by this book. She is, as always, unapologetic about being a woman, being liberal, and moving forward. Of all the books we listened to, this was the most "adult" -- Fey swears and discusses all sorts of subjects easily classified under the "parental discretion is advised" banner.