Listening to Lincoln

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

3 words: melancholy, gentle, eccentric

 

I’m guessing you might’ve heard this by now, but… this is The Big Audiobook of The Year.

And it’s not because there are more than 160 narrators, though that’s certainly a source of much of the buzz.

And it’s not because the cast contains tons of famous actors, though that’s true, too.

And it’s not because all of this fuss is over the author’s debut novel.

All of those things contribute, but for me, there are three other factors that make this thing so amazing.

First, the story makes you feel all the feels. At one point, I had to turn off the audiobook, because otherwise serious sobbing would’ve ensued, and I was pulling into the parking lot at work. That wouldn’t do.

This book is a magical realism-tinged look at the days following Willie Lincoln’s death in 1862. The Civil War is raging away, and then Lincoln lost his beloved son. And the way Saunders writes, you feel it.

But because this book is narrated by lots of dead people in the cemetery, you also feel lots of other things, because they represent a cross-section of humanity. So there are kind souls and there are brutes, and there’s gentleness and there’s crassness.

Second, the author tells the story in an inventive way. Not only is much of the book narrated by the dead, but there are also sections of knit-together excerpts of writings of the time, describing things like Willie’s death, and the Lincolns’ parenting style, and Lincoln’s personality and appearance. And the opinions differed widely, so you see the difficulty of getting at “the truth” of a person or a situation. But throughout, the greatness of Lincoln shines through.

And third, Nick Offerman. The man’s a narrating genius. He and David Sedaris read the two main roles, and I gotta say: Offerman’s subtle, understated way completely slayed me. The nuance in his voice conveys ten times more than dramatic flailings could even hint at. His character is in denial about his own death, and each time any of the ghosts is about to say “casket,” he substitutes “sick box.” It nearly choked me up.

If you’re going to read this book, I sure hope you’ll listen to it. The beauty of the narration — by all those 166 narrators — adds texture and emotion to an already remarkable story.

Give this book a whirl if you like…Lincoln, cemeteries, ghosts, books that include snippets of real historical accounts, sad stories, a bit of earthiness, The Graveyard Book, The Spoon River Anthology

June is Audiobook Month

It’s Audiobook Month, my friends!

Anyone out there a compulsive audiobook listener who gets twitchy when there are only 2 discs left, and you don’t have the next audiobook queued up yet?

Me, too.

So here’s some help.

This year, I’m focusing on great audiobooks narrated by their author.

Sometimes, when the author reads the audiobook, it ain’t good.

But sometimes, it’s perfection.

Here are some of the happier cases.

If you’re in the mood for…

 

And now I’m wondering… what author-narrated audiobooks would you add to this list?

 

Memoir of a super tough swimmer

Find a Way by Diana Nyad

3 words: forthright, vigorous, candid

Wow. I mean: seriously.

When I heard about Diana Nyad’s historic swim from Cuba to Florida, I was impressed. But reading her account of the lifelong journey she took to accomplish this goal… Wow.

I’m not sure what knocked me over more:

  • It took five attempts (over the course of 30+ years) to complete the swim
  • She began training for the Cuba crossing after a 30-year hiatus from swimming
  • Nyad was 64 years old when she successfully finished the swim
  • The effort that went into engineering the swim so it wouldn’t kill her (a series of jellyfish stings nearly ended her life during a 2011 swim)
  • The sheer strength of will she personified

And then there’s her remarkable backstory. After doing several landmark open water swims in her 20s, Nyad left swimming and became a sports reporter.

It was only when she reached age 60 that she realized she needed to do something momentous to get her life out of autopilot. And then she set about doing that thing.

Nyad also addresses the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. And it’s both horrific that she had to experience such abuse, and inspiring to see how she overcame it. It’s an unexpected part of her story that surprised me and nearly broke my heart.

So when she goes on to live a big, bold life that she built with her own strength and with the love and support of her loved ones, it’s powerful stuff.

Nyad reads the audiobook, and I’m also glad she did. She’s a talented broadcaster, and she brings emotion to her reading.

Finally, this book is a remarkable thing because of the team Nyad assembled to help her achieve the Cuba swim. Reading about the way the team worked together–and especially the key role played by her head handler, Bonnie–I’m awed. It’s a beautiful thing, this story. There’s plenty of shadow, yes, but: the light, people! This story is filled with light breaking through the dark.
Give this book a whirl if you like… swimming, extreme sports, strong women, perseverance, stories of abuse survivors, senior power, living a bold life

 

So, folks… Whose stories have you found completely awe-inspiring?

Gilmore Girls withdrawal cure

Talking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls (And Everything In Between) by Lauren Graham

3 words: quick, funny, entertaining

 

 

You know how sometimes, when you really love a TV show, you kinda dread it when one of the actors writes a memoir? Because what if you don’t like them? What if they’re arrogant or  unrelatable or otherwise incompatible with you? Or what if they simply don’t match up with the way you want them to resemble the character you most adore, and that’s just a big old disappointment?

Well, my friends… if you’re a fan of The Gilmore Girls, your mind can rest easy. You can safely enter into this reading experience, knowing that it will all turn out fine in the end.

Because it turns out that Lauren Graham–the actor and real-life human being–is delightfully similar to the fictional character Loralai Gilmore.

I know: weird.

But also: wonderful.

There’s lots of talk about the delight of creating The Gilmore Girls not only once, but twice. But also a candid (and often very funny) description of life as a struggling actor–the strange part-time jobs, the horrible tiny apartments, the hoping against hope.

And more funny stuff about the life of a reasonably successful actor–trying all the diets, being single for a long time (not necessarily totally by choice), and learning that your show’s reboot is happening by reading about it online.

If you’re going to read this book, don’t. Listen to it instead. Lauren Graham reads it herself, so it’s like you’re hearing Loralai telling you the story of Lauren’s life. It’s pretty terrific.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… celebrity memoirs, a chatty tone, and the quick wit of The Gilmore Girls

 

So tell me… what celebrity memoirs have caught your eye lately?

LaRose: quiet and surprising all at once

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

3 words: somber, interwoven, lyrical

This is one of those books where you hear the premise and you go, “Whaaaaaaaaaaaat?”

Here’s the premise: a man accidentally kills his neighbor’s young son while deer hunting, so he gives his own child to the neighbor to balance things out.

The hunter is Ojibwe, and this is an old tradition that he’s honoring, in order to repay his debt. A very old tradition, carried out in the current day.

I gotta say: I had to suspend my disbelief that anyone would do this. But then I thought: everyone else is not me.

And while the giving of the child is at the heart of the book, the story expands to encompass the lives of both families — with a focus on the two marriages and the teenage girls in each family — and the priest on the reservation, and a retired teacher, and a ne’er-do-well who’s stealing medication from the older folks.

There’s all kinds of drama coursing through this book, but even so, the book is quiet.

Maybe this came through extra much because I listened to the audiobook, which is read in lovely fashion by the author. She keeps the story sedate, even as people make choices that are fairly eye-popping.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… stories of complicated family situations, reading about contemporary Native American life, mild doses of magical realism, and exploring the effects of long-held traditions

 

I know it happens to us all…  What’s the most recent book that made you suspend your disbelief?

JFK time travel extravaganza

Photo credit: Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston11/22/63 by Stephen Kin

11/22/63 by Stephen King

3 words: wide-ranging, wry, absorbing

 

Stephen King, where have you been all my life?

Actually, I know the answer to that one.

Dude’s been on the bestseller list most of the years I’ve been a reader. But I associate him with horror, and I can’t handle the horror.  

But ever since reading On Writing, my eyes have been opened.

Then my friend chose 11/22/63 for book club, so we could test whether King actually practices what he preaches.

I’m thinking he certainly does.

This book knocked my socks off.

It’s more than 800 pages long (which translates into 25 CDs of audiobook, which translates into a full month of listening at my usual pace), and I would’ve been perfectly content if it had been longer.

…cuz this book has it all goin’ on.

Rip-roaring plot: CHECK!

Likeable, relatable, memorable characters: CHECK!

Engaging narrative voice: CHECK!

A well-researched historical setting: CHECK!

Creative use of language: CHECK!

This book… it has all the things.

Here’s the quick rundown of this wonder:

Jake Epping is a high school English teacher whose buddy at a local diner shows him a wormhole into the past. His friend’s goal was to travel back in time to avert the JFK assassination, so the world could be a better place, and his dying wish is for Jake to carry out the mission. So… Jake dives back in time to 1958 and starts living a new existence in the past.

And King paints a vivid picture of that era — the good and the bad. There’s food that tastes terrific (and there are segregated restrooms) and there are kind and neighborly folk (and there are lots of people smoking).

In spite of the bad parts, Jake begins to feel at home in the late 1950s and early 1960s. And he falls in love. (That wasn’t exactly supposed to happen.)

So as he gathers intel about whether Oswald acted alone, Jake’s living a double life. And that always creates interesting dilemmas.

I’m a JFK geek (each of those four words links to a different JFK post… and that ain’t all of ’em) going way back, and I’ve read an embarrassing number of pages about his life and death. And I’m here to tell you… King got stuff right.

Dude not only researches the living daylights out of a topic, but then he’s careful about the way he sprinkles in the knowledge… like perfect seasoning.

This book… it far exceeded all my expectations.

I just wish I could read it again for the first time. Cuz: wow.

Give this book a whirl if you like… time travel; long, unfolding stories; reading about the JFK assassination; first person narrative; a mix of historical fiction, fantasy, adventure, suspense, and romance

So, kind readers… what book most knocked your socks off?

Ann Patchett for reals

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

3 words: warm, candid, conversational

Ann Patchett not only writes a wickedly good novel and owns a ridiculously beautiful bookstore, but the woman can scale a wall.

For reals.

Her dad was an LA police officer, and she went through the police academy there, which required that she leap over a wall. And she started training, and then she did that thing.

And that’s just one of the completely unexpected facts you learn when you read this book (or listen to it, which I recommend, because Patchett reads it herself and her voice is perfect for the reading of the books).

While the title essay is about her marriage (and the way, and the reasons, she resisted marriage for a long time), the other essays are about things like this: her loving care of her grandmother, and the time she drove around in a motorhome she was supposed to detest (but fell in love with it instead), and how she concocted the plot of her first novel while waitressing at a TGI Friday’s.

And one of the essays describes how she became a bookstore owner. And I was enraptured. And now all I can say is…

Nashville and Parnassus Books… I’m coming for you.

The Dear Man and I have a date with a donut, and we intend to keep it.

Last time we were in Nashville, we made these two mistakes: 1) I forgot that Ann Patchett and her bookstore live there, and 2) We blew past the very enticing Donut Den even though we really wanted to go to there. The Donut Den, which is like 3 feet away from the bookstore! We’re gonna fix this.

Give this book a whirl if you like… authors describing what it’s really like to do their work, memoirs of women’s lives, and some serious candor

What author do you wish would write a memoir?

Reading recent Morrison

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

3 words: complex, unsettling, layered

You know how some books improve after you’ve read them?

This is one of those.

As I was reading, I was reasonably engaged with the story and the characters. But when I finished the book… wow.

It became something altogether better.

The flavors all melded. The storylines converged. The layers lined up (though not too neatly).

This is also a book that surprised me, because I thought I knew where it was going–a story of a woman and her mother. But then it took some unexpected turns — not in the “Oh my gosh, what a plot twist!” way, but in a way that was more like real life, where the story unfolds in ways we just don’t expect.

This is the story of a woman who names herself Bride, who dresses all in white to set off her blue-black skin. And it’s the story of the mother who was ashamed of her. And the man who abandons her. And the friend who might not be a friend to her.

And then there are hippies living off the grid, and a woman torching bedsprings, and all of these things make sense.

I listened to the audiobook, which Toni Morrison reads herself. Her voice is quiet and expressive, but in a mild way. She lets her words do the work, and her voice is just the vehicle. It works just right.

Give this book a whirl if you like… literary fiction, multiple narrators, hints of magical realism, and a story that’ll keep you thinking long after the reading is done.
So, readers… What’s a book that improved after you read it?

Feeling all the feels: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Actual real-life small town in actual Iowa

3 words: stark, moving, somber

 

Oh, Marilynne Robinson… you make me so sad. And so happy-sad. But mostly so sad-happy.

 

If you’re reading a book by Marilynne Robinson, here’s what to expect: lovely writing, deep and quiet inner lives, and an in-depth examination of the ways we care for–and sometimes fail–each other.

 

She puts her characters, with their harsh lives, into a mean world and then comforts them with other characters. But then the mean world barges in and threatens to mess things up.

 

And since the characters have become people we care about… this is tough to take.

 

Yet: I keep coming back for more.

 

But only at measured intervals, because my heart can only take so much.

 

Like the other two Robinson novels I’ve read, Gilead and Home, this book revolves around the lives of the Ames and Boughton families in small-town 1950s Iowa.

 

In this book, Lila, the “old man” preacher’s young wife, is the central figure, and her story is a sad, sad, sad one. She’s probably an orphan, and she’s homeless, and she doesn’t know her actual last name. Dear heaven.

 

It’s the kind of book that made me specially grateful for the simple things, like my sturdy-roofed little house with running water. It’s even got electricity this house!

 

So there’s Lila’s resilience and self-reliance. And there’s the unlikely love story of Lila and Rev. Ames. And there’s the simplicity of the story, plus its complexity.

 

It leaves me feeling wildly melancholy yet hopeful.

 

What about you? Ever read a book that made you feel so emotionally conflicted?

 

Neil Gaiman: the true story

 

The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman

3 words: wise, impassioned, bookish

Two minutes into listening to this audiobook, I got a little verklempt.

And really, this should not surprise us, cuz when Neil Gaiman writes about the importance of books and reading and libraries, it’s powerful stuff. And when a person listens to him reading those words aloud… holy Toledo, people.

Get out the tissues, my fellow readers.

So this book starts out with essays and speeches about the power of books. And then there are oodles of other topics: graphic novels, introductions to the works of various fantasy authors, and creativity.

And while I thought I might bog down during the introduction to the work of H.P. Lovecraft, I found that I just kept learning new things.

And then I started to curse Neil Gaiman, because I kept adding books to my already too huge TBR. Books like The 13 Clocks by James Thurber. And Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones.

And then, toward the end of the book, there’s his famous “Make Good Art” commencement address.

It made me want to make good art.

 

 

So, if you’re anything of a Neil Gaiman reader, and especially if you’re a Neil Gaiman devotee, this book is rather a treat.

And if you’re an audiobook listener, I highly recommend the audio version, cuz Gaiman reads it himself and he’s seriously skilled at the narrator thing.

What’s the best author-narrated audiobook you’ve listened to?