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January 7, 2010 Edition

The Geography of Bliss, written and read by Eric Weiner

Weiner, self-identified grump and reporter for NPR whose usual assignments take him to wretched, tragedy-torn locations, seized the opportunity to explore cheerier places, including Iceland, India, Bhutan, Switzerland, Qatar, and Holland, which consistently rate higher on the happiness scale than other countries. For balance, he also dipped his toes in more psychologically familiar (to him) spots: Moldova, where residents prize their neighbor’s misfortune more than their own successes, and Slough, in the United Kingdom, “a showpiece of quiet desperation.” Part travelogue, part psychological study, part philosophy, and part comedy, this is a book to savor, especially with Weiner’s chummy delivery taking listeners along for the ride.

The Lost City of Z, by David Grann, read by Mark Deakins

Veteran explorer Percy Fawcett set off in 1925 with the express purpose of finding evidence of an ancient civilization which he believed existed in the jungles of the Amazon. Since Fawcett believed that previous expeditions to the area had failed because of their large size, he took only himself, his 21-year old son, and his son’s best friend. For several months, the world hung on every word of the dispatches Fawcett radioed out. Then, nothing. Over the following decades, other groups went into the jungle to look for Fawcett or the lost city, but were unable to find any clues to Fawcett’s disappearance. Recently while researching another topic entirely, Grann stumbled across dramatic old headlines referencing Fawcett and was hooked. After much research, he tried retracing the expedition’s route and found something amazing. This is both Fawcett’s and Grann’s stories of obsession, exploration, and discovery.

Remarkable Creatures, by Sean B. Carroll, read by Jim Bond

Only 150 years ago, we thought fossils were the remains of dragons and other mythical creatures. Most of our world was unexplored. We knew nothing of DNA or living dinosaur relatives or the amazing explosion of species during the Cambrian period. How did we come so far, so fast? Carroll highlights the work of the men and women who not only found the evidence, but examined it and came to conclusions about our world that built stepping stones for others. From the scientific adventures of Darwin, Wallace, and Bates, to the fossil hunting expeditions of the Leakeys, Roy Andrews, and more recently, Shubin, this is an overview of the most influential discoveries of the past two centuries and the influence they’ve had on current scientific and societal thought.

The Persian Night, by Amir Taheri, read by Robertson Dean

Taheri writes beautifully about his homeland and the illusions Americans hold about Iran. An exile living in London, he was a newspaper editor and has a clear-eyed view of the current regime. He begins with a fascinating explanation of the triple lie: the Islamic Republic of Iran, which he says is not (mainstream) Islamic, only a republic on paper, and no longer culturally Persian. The Khomeinist takeover in the 70s changed everything about Iran and its people. In practical terms, Iran is a nation of people whose goals, sympathies, and religious beliefs are not represented by their government, but this has been well-camouflaged by the government until recently. Taheri’s cautious optimism about the activism this past June by ordinary Iranians becomes contagious in this clearly written, well-researched, and heartfelt book.

A History of Ancient Sparta, written and read by Professor Timothy B. Shutt

Listeners familiar with Frank Miller’s graphic novel “300” (and the movie) have some idea of the ferocity of Sparta’s soldiers. But was their society really so different from others of the time? Shutt, a professor who regularly lectures to packed halls, says it is, and presents a lecture series on Sparta focusing on art and culture, women’s roles, government, religion, history, and one lecture titled: What made the Spartans so different? This is a fascinating look inside another culture that shocked its neighbors for the status of its women and shocks us today for its harsh adherence to a goal of military excellence.

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