Sunday, March 30, 2014

Audio book round-up

In my old life of managing a coffee shop, I'd get up at 4:55 everyday. I dressed in the dark, brushed my teeth, etc, and was out the door by 5:15, at work by 5:25. I never thought I'd say this, but--those were the days.

These days I can sleep all the way until 6:20. I can drink a cup of coffee, maybe eat some oatmeal, turn on a light to see if my clothes match...and then I spend 35-45 minutes in the car getting to work. It's not a super stressful drive (at least, it won't be if it ever stops snowing), but it is very. dull. Which makes it extra embarrassing how long it took me to finally try audio books. I guess I was thinking I'd have to buy every book I listened to. I forgot for a minute that my city has one of the best public library systems in the country and that we're home to the headquarters of OverDrive, a company that specializes in getting e- and audio books out to book stores and libraries. No purchase necessary. Score.

My first foray into the wonderful world of audio books was written by BJ Novak.
Yes, that BJ Novak.

Turns out he studied creative writing at Harvard and in between writing for The Office and acting in The Office (and whatever else he was up to during this period in his life, which I'm totally not Googling right now), he was writing down the ideas that eventually turned into this short story collection.

 So, okay--I pretty much only read print books. I've used the Kindle app on our iPad a few times and  I borrowed my mom's Nook to take on our honeymoon, but 98% of the books I read are, well, books. So I was really happy to listen to One More Thing and find that it made the perfect audiobook. It just wouldn't have been close to the same experience to read the physical book.

BJ Novak himself reads it, with some help from friends like Mindy Kaling, Rainn Wilson and Julianne Moore, along with a few others. And they all did a fantastic job, Novak in particular. His delivery on each story was fantastic. It's a hilarious collection and improved my commute so much.  I'm not usually the biggest fan of short stories, but--note to self--it seems like I enjoy listening to them a lot more than reading them.

Next up was The Engagements, by J. Courtney Sullivan, read by Kimberly Farr. My first audio novel tells the stories of four marriages spread over five decades, along with the story of Frances Gerety, the real woman who came up with the slogan "A Diamond is Forever."

I liked this book. I like reading about relationships, but the Frances chapters were my favorite. She was one of the first women to work in the creative side of advertising, and it was fascinating to realize what an impact her job had on the current tradition of the diamond engagement ring. Frances never married and wasn't a particularly romantic person, but her ideas made a hell of an impact. She wasn't really recognized for her work until late in life, and I just really enjoyed (in an occasionally rage-filled way) reading about what it was like for women to work in such a male-dominated field in the 1940s.

In Jennifer McMahon's Don't Breathe a Word, we move back and forth between the present day and fifteen years ago, the summer that twelve-year-old Lisa Nazzaro disappeared in the woods behind her house. Some believe she was taken by the fairies it was said inhabited the woods. In the present day, we meet Phoebe, who lives with Lisa's brother Sam, and who has some secrets of her own. Together, she and Sam, along with Sam's cousin Evie, try to piece together what really happened to Lisa that summer. Was it the fairies, like Evie believes? Or something closer to home? 

This was the book that really showed me the importance of the reader. As I already said, BJ Novak was great fun to listen to. Kimberly Farr was lovely, bringing out the different accents of the characters in The Engagements so you could always tell who was speaking. I wasn't as big a fan of the reading style of Lily Rains on Don't Breathe a Word. Like the other readers, she created different voices for the characters. Unfortunately, a lot of those voices--particularly of the male characters in the novel--were kind of unpleasant to listen to. Sam, the main male character, always sounds kind of sulky and childish, which makes it hard to really root for him as a character the way we're meant to. It sounds like such a small thing, but by the end I was really ready to be done listening to these characters because I found most of their voices so grating. As a result, I'm not really sure what I thought of the book. Would I have enjoyed it more as a physical book? There were definitely some creepy parts to the novel, which I like, and there were some good twists along the way. I think I may have to start listening to samples of audio books before I commit.

So, the verdict?
  • I'm going to try listening to more short stories and nonfiction books. I think I'll find it easier to stop listening when I'm not driving (rather than wearing my headphones around everywhere because I hate stopping in the middle of a novel when I'm enjoying it!), and also to get myself out of my reading comfort zone a little.
  • The reader matters--so much that I find it's harder for me to think critically about books I listen to because I have trouble separating my reaction to the reader from my reaction to the story. I don't know if I would have enjoyed One More Thing or The Engagements as much if I'd read the physical books, and I don't know if I would have enjoyed Don't Breathe a Word more if I had. And I guess I don't know if it matters. So much of my reading enjoyment seems to come down to my mood at the time anyway--does that say any more about the quality of a book than how much or little I like the sound of the person reading it?
  • It's difficult for me to write about audio books in detail--I'm so used to thumbing through books to make sure I get the details right when I review! I actually listened to a fourth audio book, Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, and that one has to get its own post, so I need a physical copy first. Spoiler: I loved it.

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