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Audio Buzz, Past
Audio Book News
By Jonathan Lowe

MARCH 2013
by Jonathan Lowe

Scott Brick narrates SALT SUGAR FAT by Michael Moss, a Pulitzer Prize winning author and reporter for the New York Times. Here is the story of how the food giants hooked Americans into consuming more highly processed junk foods at the expense of our health. Starting with a secret meeting between CEOs from Kraft, General Mills, Cargill, and other conglomerates, Moss unravels a narrative in which deception and repetitive advertising takes precedence over moral obligation. Transforming basic substances into nearly toxic food additives, the kings of corn focused on manufacturing products designed to addict and delight, irregardless of the negative consequences on childhood obesity, diabetes, and cancer rates. As a result, profits have soared, with sales of $1 TRILLION per year for the industry, making it one of America's largest. Health care costs due in part to consumption of these products? $300,000,000,000. So that cheap burger or soda is anything but cheap in the long run. Moss takes each substance in turn, telling its story or part in the bigger picture. His research is exhaustive and backed by source notes (included in a special PDF on one of the disks.) Most surprising? How the processors analyzed how best to deliver their engineered molecules to light up the pleasure centers in the brain, much like drugs. (Along with the tests they conducted on babies.) And how they sought out Philip Morris, a tobacco giant, to advise them on how best to fight concerns over health. A must-hear. As a footnote, narrator (and friend) Scott Brick contracted throat cancer last August, but is already in recovery due in part to a radical change in diet.

Dave Barry reads his often amusing new novel INSANE CITY, which is a zany ride to the altar for one Seth Weinstein, a ne'er-do-well who's snagged a beautiful lawyer (a flip of the usual plot), but gets involved in more antics than the guys in The Hangover could imagine, including Russian gangsters, strippers and pimps, pirates, a python, a possible gorilla, and a group of powerful businessmen. It's like a big wind-up toy with lots of nutty characters (and a Haitian mother looking to make it safely to America.) Barry takes the characters, winds them up tight, and releases the button to see what happens. What happens is nuts, wrapped up with a coming-of-age denouement that reflects on life, marriage, and Miami, among other locales. The story mostly works, but would have been better had Dick Hill been the narrator instead of Barry himself. As a reader, Barry is a good writer. Meaning that, at least for his novels, Barry isn't a great actor and should leave fiction to those who are. Like Jim Dale, who read his Peter & the Starcatchers, or Dick Hill, who read his Big Trouble. It's okay to read personal memoirs, or non-fiction, but usually (albeit not always) it is the professional actor who should read novels, not the author. This is not to say Barry does a poor job reading, just that others could have been better.

We humans believe we are vastly superior to animals, while in fact there is only a 1% DNA difference between us and chimps. Considering how violent and competitive we are, prone to congregate into groups that fight each other over even smaller differences, can we really use the word "vast" anymore? In her book ANIMAL WISE author Virginia Morell reveals the intelligence of animals we eat for food, just as they eat other animals for food. At the top of the food chain, we human animals need to consider the implications and responsibility we have in the treatment of other species, and what our excesses bode for our own survival. Morell is nature writer, and also author of "Wildlife Wars" and "Ancestral Passions." Here she reveals the results of cognitive studies done around the world in mapping animal intelligence. The surprising conclusions are that animals can feel emotions, and they remember. Chimps actually grieve over loss. Birds practice songs in their sleep. Crows improvise tools. Dogs have vocabularies. Yet to produce cheap meat, we herd cows and chickens into pens where they can barely move, and feed them grains they weren't meant to eat until they get sick, then we slaughter them. Kinda like Nazi concentration camps. This book doesn't say this, and is not primarily about ethics. Still, it is a reflection that's hard to avoid in the listening. Who's the animals? We all are. Time for us to evolve and progress past our limited understanding of our natural world, and the impact we have on it. Narrated with usual aplomb by Kirsten Potter, this audiobook provides an intimate look at various animals, each chapter covering a different species. It's a complex subject, and scientists don't have all the answers. But we have learned much, and there is much here that many would be surprised to learn.

The flipside of the police procedural is the criminal procedural. GHOST MAN by Roger Hobbs is a new example of this subset, a debut thriller about a casino heist gone wrong, two dueling crime kingpins, and the independent "ghost" between them, trying to understand his mistakes related to another heist five years prior. Narrator Jack Weber is superb both in conveying the downtempo tone and in animating the characters with appropriate and believable accents. If you liked The Sopranos you'll like this book, as it shows the simplistic criminal mind in action, always looking for shortcuts to the wallets of "suckers" and "losers" like you and me. As for me, I did not care for The Sopranos, however. I always feel a queasy disgust watching or hearing about guys who pretend their jobs are just as good as yours while pouring drano down the throats of the innocent. A narrative that is sympathetic to that viewpoint begs criticism. And here the "ghost man" is never really revealed. Jack takes risks for the adrenalin rush of it, not for the money. For the feeling of power he gets, which of course is an illusion. And you are expected to accept that this is different enough. Not enough, I say. But that's just me. So while I can't fault the writing, and especially not the engaging narration, I do fault the emphasis on weapons and ammo and the how-to theme (over the motivations of the characters, who are base and deluded rather than complex.) If these guys are so smart, how come they don't get jobs on Wall Street and fleece good people for many millions more than can be gained robbing armored cars of Federal bank shipments?

Finally, narrator Cassandra Campbell is the best reason to buy THE LOST ART OF MIXING by Erica Bauermeister, a followup to her "The School of Essential Ingredients." The story is character driven, and features Lillian, a chef and restauranteur dealing with the pressures of change and loss, who comes to depend on the new people in her life. Lillian runs a cooking school, and has friends who may sometimes resemble the cast of episodes on Kitchen Nightmares, but who must all accept change and work together to succeed. Campbell as reader is a talented performer with an innate sensitivity toward what motivates people, and so does much more than merely read the words, as many self-read authors or amateur readers do. (As mentioned above, it is my contention that authors should not read their own novels, although biographies and non-fiction is appropriate, and, of course, there are a few exceptions to this rule. An example of one whose author should not have read her novel is the recent Scent of Darkness by Margot Berwin. A rather boring monotone is taken which would have been transformed into a memorable listening experience by the skills of a Campbell or a Barbara Rosenblat. Few writers are also good actors, nor do they apply the same techniques of story arc and fleshing out the characters in audible format that they may have achieved on the page.) The new Bauermeister novel has no murders or chase scenes, and so is not "a page-turner," as they say. Rather, it is a reflective novel combining the love of food with the love of company, with insights into friendship and how to accept what life offers, which is not merely cheap thrills. That mix, these days, is becoming a lost art.
If you liked the movie ARGO, you will like Fame Island, narrated by Emmy winning actor Kristoffer Tabori. Like Argo, there is a hostage rescue, a crew pretending to be Hollywood producers in order to gain access to a corrupt regime, and it is partly based on a true story. In addition, George Clooney, one of Argo's producers, has a cameo role in the audiobook.

2013 Past Columns