15 July 2011

Roadtrip entertainment: four audiobooks

During our recent roadtrip travelling the highways through British Columbia and Alberta, our choice of entertainment was audiobooks. We finished four during the 10 days of travel:

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.


08 July 2011

Focus by Leo Babauta

Leo Babauta, creator of zen habits, subtitled Focus “A simplicity manifesto in the age of distraction.” It’s an appropriate title for a collection of essays extolling the benefits of slowing down, clearing your mind, clearing your desk, and picking one thing to do at a time.

Babauta never claims it will be an easy task and even admits it’s not going to work for everyone in every situation. He does suggest that if you have even a small sum of control over your workflow, you can make meaningful changes and get more done with less stress.

I have to confess: I read this book in fits and starts in transit and on breaks and wherever I could find 10 minutes at a time until I was finally able to finish the last third in one extended uninterrupted sitting. As I write this review, I have the television on and am constantly switching my attention from one screen to the other. I fear actually tallying the number of hours I spend checking the black holes of Facebook, Twitter and Gmail. And clutter? I am its queen. If there is a target audience for this book, I’m in it.

Almost everything in Focus makes sense to me and yet I can’t yet visualize myself doing most of it. Specifically, two key parts would require me to make huge changes to my outlook: decluttering and disconnecting.

Decluttering is something I have struggled with my entire life. My parents bought in bulk and hung on to things “just in case” they came in handy, and they often did. As a kid, I just assumed this was how everyone lived, surrounded by Stuff. There is nothing new to me in Focus that I haven’t already read and tried to implement at some point over the years.

However, in one of the bonus chapters at the end of Focus, “How to create a minimalist workspace to find focus” by Everett Bogue is this sentence that I think I need to cross-stitch and hang somewhere obvious:

“Just in case” is a place in the space-time continuum that invokes clutter, but not much else that’s useful.

Or is creating the cross-stitch just adding clutter? Oh well.

Disconnecting is do-able for me, but I always feel, as Babauta suggests, like I am missing something. He rightly points out however that we are not omniscient beings and online or not, we are always missing many somethings. It’s an important concept to keep in mind.

These are just my personal hang-ups of course and it may yet be possible for me to overcome them if I wanted to. Is Babauta’s book the answer for me? No, but it is a solid building block. toward a happy medium, I suspect. He even offers some tips on how parents can focus without blocking out their kids and how to work with spouses and bosses in order to find focus.

Focus is a springboard book – it offers some key concepts in how to find and keep one’s mind open and clear by stepping back from some of the worlds’ distractions. If you are looking for somewhere to start, this is as good as any other you’ll find on the self-help shelves.

On the other hand, if you're thinking all this is BS, you're not alone. Penelope Trunk thinks Babauta's minimalist lifestyle is boring and requires too many sacrifices to be realistic for most people.


Buy the full book at focusmanifesto.com or follow the links to Amazon below for other formats: