Several years ago I started renting audiobooks from Cracker Barrel for road trips longer than about three hours. Then I started downloading them on my iPod Nano to listen to when I run. Now I’m in the middle of a book just about all the time.
The hours I once spent reading books I now devote to writing–either for this blog or adding to my work in progress. Reading and critiquing submissions for my writers group takes a lot of time, too. Throw in the blogs I keep up with, my New Yorker magazine subscription, the daily newspaper and crap I have to read for work and I really don’t have time to read a book for pleasure.
Thanks to an unusual number of road trips, I’ve burned through quite a few audiobooks in the last month. I learned a valuable lesson. Listen to the preview before buying an audiobook. The way the book is read matters.
Let’s start with a great example: Elizabeth McGovern reading The Chaperone, by Laura Moriarty. This is a great novel and one of the best audiobooks I’ve ever heard. Ms. McGovern draws upon her versatility as an actress to create unique voices for each of the story’s many characters. The writing, in my opinion, is superb. There were no sentences or phrases that took me out of the story. The characters were crisp, clear, and original. I was especially impressed by the transformation that Cora, the protagonist, makes from the beginning of the book to the end. Though set in the early 1900s, the story is surprisingly relevant with unexpected plot twists that on two different occasions, caused me to gasp. I hear they’re making a movie and that Elizabeth McGovern will star. Unless Hollywood messes it up, this will be one we’ll hear a lot about. I loved it and will now count it among my all time favorite novels.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is another pretty good example. The writing gave me pause a few times, the most serious being a fight between the protagonist and the unlikeable husband of the woman he loves that to me, just didn’t work. There were also a few adverbs that made me groan, including a tandem in a dialogue tag. These are minor issues all in all, but worth mentioning because doing so makes me feel superior. The story is told by Jacob Jankowski and bounces back and forth between now, when he’s either 90 or 93 years old, and the time he spent in the circus back in the 1930s, each voiced by different actors on the audiobook. I love the old man’s voice, especially his hatred of the other old man in the nursing home. He’s the classic crotchety old man and I fell in love with him. The younger man is your standard hero, doing good, defying evil, coveting his boss’s wife. Without our awareness of him as a frail and nearly helpless old man, he’d be too much. Gruen transports the reader to a foreign place–the world of the circus train where the rules we all know no longer apply. The ending of this story was the most satisfying of perhaps any book I’ve ever read–just don’t think too much about what surely follows.
Now for our bad example. Intrigued by the blurb, I bought Asylum, by Elizabeth Cameron. Hated it. I can’t comment on the story or any of the characters because I couldn’t listen to it long enough. The audiobook is voiced by Paul Cameron who I assume is the author’s father, husband, or brother. He is most certainly NOT an actor. Honey, if you read this, the money you saved using your talentless husband instead of a professional actor cost you a fortune.
My partner isn’t a big fan of audiobooks. He likes podcasts from comedians, so I got Tina Fey’s book, Bossypants, read by the author for our trip to Kentucky. This book reminds me of my own memoir, Glass Houses, in a way that makes me wince. Both are less memoir than collections of essays written for standup comedy routines. Her book got published because she’s Tina Fey. The writing is good–she’s smart. But writing for television is different from writing a memoir. I’ve gotten to know her a bit better through the book, but have learned nothing I didn’t already know. I’m not sure whether hearing it in her voice enhances or detracts from the experience. I expect it’s the latter. I’d hear her voice if I was reading it, without the attitude and inflections that make the audiobook hard to listen to for very long. A little Tina goes a long way, or so I’ve always heard.
I’m going to give I, Michael Bennet, another try. It’s written by James Patterson and some lucky chump who made a small fortune the day his name appeared on the cover with the hugely successful Patterson. I’ve never read a James Patterson novel I didn’t love–until he started pairing up with unknowns. Buying books with his name on the cover is no longer automatic for me. I gave up on this one before I got very far into it because I thought it was poorly voiced. Having since experienced the horribly read Asylum, I’m willing to give it another try.
There’s another Patterson/unknown lucky bastard on deck. Private Games is about the 2012 Olympics in London. I’m not sure I can do two Patterson/nobody books back-to-back. I can always do a little Tina if I get bored, here in…
My Glass House