Category Archives: Audiobooks

CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD by Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel, Cruel Beautiful World, is not unlike her earlier books: full of sad, lonely characters who have suffered cruel twists of fate trying to find happiness in challenging circumstances. In this most recent novel, 16 year-old Lucy has run off with her 30 year-old teacher William, a hippie who has been fired for not adhering to the traditional curriculum. It’s the 60s, and William’s talk of running away to be free and in love persuades the immature teenager to leave her sister Charlotte and her much older adoptive mother, Iris. Unsurprisingly, life in the small rural town William takes Lucy to is isolating and boring, while he goes off to work every day but forbids her from talking to anyone or contacting her family because she is underage.

Cruel Beautiful World is a bit of a thriller – what will happen to Lucy? can she escape from angry, controlling William? When it doesn’t all go as planned, who will find out, and will justice be served? Interspersed with Lucy’s story are the offshoot stories of Iris, Charlotte, and Patrick, a widower whom Lucy secretly befriends during her long, lonely days. I enjoyed the explorations of these characters, and I think that is where Leavitt is at her strongest. She takes her time explaining how her characters became the people they are, and she imbues them each with dignity, empathy and just enough hope to keep the reader invested.

The story of Lucy and William was much more problematic for me. William is a child predator: emotionally abusive and unconscionably selfish. I know that Leavitt intends for the reader to understand that about him – in interviews, she said she based him on a real-life controlling partner – but shockingly, she sort of lets him off the hook in the end. It’s as if she wants the reader to wonder if he were really that bad. (!)  (Yes, he was.) Also, I found it unrealistic that Lucy would have kept silent for so long. She had opportunities for escape and didn’t take them. I wasn’t convinced enough of her love for (or fear of ) William that she would have stayed with him that long. She was immature and selfish herself, and I think in the end she would have just done what she wanted.

So Cruel Beautiful World was a mixed bag for me. I loved the classic Leavitt touches but found the underlying plot problematic.

I listened to Cruel Beautiful World on audio. Xe Sands did a masterful, restrained performance, especially during the Iris chapters. Her smooth, understated delivery was perfect for the book. I did wonder whether she was as frustrated with the main characters as I was!

 

OUR SHORT HISTORY by Lauren Grodstein

Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein has an almost unbearably sad premise: Karen Neulander, a 40-something political consultant and single mother to a 6 year-old boy named Jake, is dying. She has had a recurrence of ovarian cancer, and is two years into a four-year prognosis. She decides to write a book – a memoir – for Jake, so that he can read it when he is older and understand who his mother was.

Unbearable, right?

Well, I read Our Short History, and I made it through to the other side. I didn’t even cry until the last few pages (and no, Karen doesn’t die at the end of the book). It is sad, to be sure, but it’s also well-written and funny at times and not needlessly maudlin. Karen is flawed, but realistically human. She is in a terrible situation and she’s trying to make the best of it. She is a dedicated, diligent mother with large – but not infinite – reserves of patience for her son, and she’s smart and determined. She also happens to have Stage IV cancer, which has thrown her a big curveball.

The book opens with Jake asking Karen, once again, to find his father and introduce them to each other. Karen has resisted this request of Jake’s for many years, but he has worn her down, and given her (and his) circumstances, she finally relents. She sends a Facebook message to the man she had dated seven years earlier, whom she had loved but who told her he didn’t want children. Karen doesn’t really think through all of the ramifications of this outreach (which is kind of unlike her) – if Dave wants to see Jake, how often will she let that happen? Will visitation become a regular thing? What rights might he have to custody? Will he try to get custody after Karen dies?

Karen may be frustrating at time, even irrational, but I don’t know who wouldn’t be in the same situation. Grodstein has created an utterly realistic depiction of the choices a mother would reasonably make facing her premature death and the care of her beloved son. Karen loves Jake with a ferocity than even she can’t control sometimes, which pushes her to behave in ways she might regret, but which are oh so understandable.

So yes, Our Short History is a sad book, and at times Karen’s plight took my breath away. But I appreciate Grodstein’s writing and her storytelling, which made this much more than a tearjerker. I am a fan of her earlier works, and was not disappointed at all by this one.

I listened to Our Short History on audio. It was performed by accomplished narrator and EDIWTB friend Karen White, who did a great job with this one. She conveyed (fictional) Karen’s desperation and anger as persuasively as she did Karen’s pride and pettiness. I wonder how hard it was to keep her composure when she got to some of the more difficult scenes in the novel. Overall, excellent audiobook.

PERFECT LITTLE WORLD by Kevin Wilson

Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson is not a perfect book, but it’s a really interesting one. It’s about a 19 year-old woman named Izzy who gets pregnant on the eve of her high school graduation. The father is her art teacher, and when she tells him she is pregnant and wants to keep the baby, he has a breakdown and tells her he doesn’t want her to keep it. The teacher’s rich parents, who learn of the pregnancy and want to get Izzy out of the picture, connect her with a new social experiment funded by a very wealthy friend of theirs. In this experiment, ten families with newborns will move into a state of the art group home complex to have the babies raised communally, with all of the advantages they could ever want, to see whether such an upbringing has a significant impact on child development. Determined to have the baby, broke, and with no family to support her, Izzy decides to join the project.

The Infinite Family Project, as it’s called, requires its participants to commit to ten years in residency. The children are not told until their 5th birthday who their biological parents are, and at that time they move in with their parents instead of living in the communal setting. Most of the book is told through the eyes of Izzy, the only single parent there.

Perfect Little World raises a lot of questions about parenting and identity, as these parents grapple with the instinct to be close to their own children despite their commitment to them all. But I think that the book could have gone deeper. Wilson’s parents face a number of challenges – such as some infidelity among the group or differences in theories of discipline – but they are dealt with quickly. With 19 parents involved, realistically there would be more conflict and disagreement about how the children should be raised. And I didn’t feel that I got to know most of the characters other than Izzy and Dr. Grind, the head of the project, very well at all. A few stood out, but most were indistinct. I wanted more dynamics, more conflict, more there there. It also took a long time to get to the project – there’s a lot of setup as Izzy’s circumstances are established – but then the treatment of the project is disappointingly shallow.

Strangely, my issues with Perfect Little World arose after I read it, when I started thinking about what to write in this post. I actually enjoyed the book a lot while I was reading it. Wilson is a good writer: he’s funny, sharply observant, and occasionally gently mocking of the preciousness of the Infinite Family Project. But he has a lot of empathy for his characters, despite the bad decisions some of them make.

My enjoyment of Perfect Little World was undoubtedly enhanced by the exquisite narration of Therese Plummer. Plummer is one of my favorite narrators of all time. She never hits a false note, and her narration seems to be imbued with deep respect for the work she’s performing. She differentiates her characters beautifully, and she gets both male and female characters equally right. From the 80 year-old project benefactor to Izzy’s redneck enemy in the complex, Plummer gave them each a distinctive, memorable voice that was just pitch perfect. It was a pleasure to listen to Perfect Little World on audio. It sounded like Plummer was having a good time too.

Despite its shortcomings, Perfect Little World was worth the time. I wanted more from it, but I did enjoy what I got.

 

 

THE MOST DANGEROUS PLACE ON EARTH by Lindsey Lee Johnson

One buzzy book this winter was The Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson. It’s about a high school in Mill Valley in Marin County, CA, and the very privileged kids who go there. When the book opens, the kids are in eighth grade, and one of them makes a very passionate pronouncement of love to another one. His letter was made public by the recipient, and after the relentless teasing and bullying that ensued, he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. Three years later, the kids are juniors and still dealing with the ramifications of the suicide.

Each chapter basically focuses on a different character, and by the end, the reader has a pretty good sense of the whole group, as well as some of their teachers. For the most part, the kids are privileged, entitled, indifferent and spoiled, with little respect for their teachers or even each other. There are overachievers (intense ballerinas and academic stars) as well as hippies, drug dealers, misogynistic athletes and thugs. Their parents are either neglectful or cloying. Johnson does manage to show other sides of these kids, eventually, but in the end it’s hard to find a redeeming person in the whole book.

What I liked:

  • Beautiful writing
  • Realistic incorporation of social media and other realities of teenage life today
  • Good pacing

What I didn’t:

  • Overall, it was pretty superficial.
  • Characters were rarely revisited (one simply disappears altogether) so there isn’t much continuity
  • Adults were very disappointing, as were parent-child relationships
  • The kids never learned lessons or changed their ways; some of them got worse over time

I kind of wonder what the author’s point was. To make us all despondent over the fate of humanity, if these kids represent our future? To try to get to the heart of teenagers? To shame us into better parenting? I’m not sure.

I’d read more by Lindsey Lee Johnson just because of her writing, but this was a bit of a disappointment.

I listened to The Most Dangerous Place On Earth on audio. It was narrated by veteran narrator Cassandra Campbell. She did an excellent job with the voices, differentiating them for each kid and sounding as natural with the boys as she did with the girls, which isn’t always the case with narration. She’s precise and easy to listen to, and and she moved the story along nicely. It’s funny – I just looked up books that she has narrated and many of them are sitting on my bookshelf. I know I’ve listened to other Cassandra Campbell performances but I can’t remember which they were.

Others seemed to have enjoyed The Most Dangerous Place On Earth more than I did. If you read it and liked it, I’d love to hear why.

 

THE TURNER HOUSE by Angela Flournoy

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy is about a large African-American family in Detroit. Viola and Francis Turner lived on Yarrow Street in Detroit for fifty years, where they raised 13 children and saw the neighborhood turn from vibrant to dilapidated. Francis is now dead, and Viola, in ailing health, lives with her oldest son, Cha Cha, in the suburbs. The house is still standing, though, and Viola owes more money on the mortgage than the house is worth. The question of what to do with the house sets the plot of The Turner House in motion, as the Turner siblings deal with their own feelings about the house, their parents, their siblings, and the state of their lives.

I had heard good things about The Turner House before I picked it up, and in theory, I should have liked it. It’s about a large sprawling family, told from shifting points of view, with complex relationships between siblings. But honestly, I found it pretty boring. There’s a large subplot about the haints, or ghosts, which have plagued Cha Cha since he was a teenager. I couldn’t really get into it. I enjoyed following Lela’s story, the youngest sister who has a gambling problem. But that wasn’t enough to save this book for me. I slogged through it and was happy when it was done. Too many siblings, many of whom never got any airtime or distinguished themselves from the others. Too little resolution – we don’t even find out what ultimately happens to the house in the end. And frankly, not enough conflict. The family is big and messy but they basically all get along and no one really does anything too terrible.

I would have enjoyed hearing more about growing up with 12 siblings and how it impacted each of the kids. I would have enjoyed hearing about what meals were like, what doing homework was like in a small house with 15 people in it.  Instead, I had only a shadowy sense of this family, and way too much information about Cha Cha and the haints.

I listened to The Turner House on audio. It was narrated competently Adenrele Ojo. She did a good job differentiating the featured siblings and I liked her voice and narration. But she couldn’t save a boring, meandering plot.

Sadly, I can’t recommend The Turner House. Based on the reviews I read, a lot of people enjoyed it. It just wasn’t for me.

 

 

THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

I just finished The Girls by Emma Cline, which was one of the hot books of 2016 that got big advances and lots of attention. The Girls is about a summer in the late 60s when a teenager named Evie got involved with a group of other young women living on a ranch under the thrall of a charismatic musician named Russell. The reader learns early on that, at Russell’s direction, members of the group committed a quadruple murder in California (an act based on the Manson murders). The Girls explores how Evie got involved with the group and how that involvement reverberates through her life for decades to come.

First, I will say that Emma Cline is a beautiful writer.  She has a way of describing rooms, scenes, people, actions that make you feel as if you’re seeing it unfold right before you in vivid, sensual detail. I’ve seen some people criticize this book as too flowery, but I thought the writing was its greatest strength.

Clines’s storytelling is not quite as strong. I suspect she looked up “why do people join cults?” and then created a story to satisfy each of the criteria that can lead to susceptibility to cult leaders like Russell. Evie’s parents were separated; her best friend turned on her; she was rejected by the boy she liked; she was bored. Cline sets up Evie’s involvement with the cult perfectly on paper, but I was never really convinced of it in action. Evie’s devotion to Russell and his clan is also premised on her love for Suzanne, one of the girls in the group. Her infatuation with Suzanne is what brings her back to the ranch, over and over, and what landed her in the car with the others when they headed out on the night of the murders. But I didn’t really believe in the ardor, the passion that Evie had for Suzanne, who was basically a hippie from a rich family who stole from strangers and passed her hours stoned and disconnected.

Without a really convincing reason at its core for Evie to lose herself in Russell and his hippie ranch dwellers, The Girls loses its import. Why tell this story, after all? I wanted more – more of Suzanne, more of Evie’s loss of objectivity and judgment. As written, it’s a beautifully told story without a lot of substance.

I listened to The Girls on audio, mostly, and it was one of the rare times where I thought the audiobook detracted from the experience of the book. The narration by Cady McClain was fine; it’s just that Cline’s writing – almost poetic at times – was easy to miss on audio. I found myself re-reading passages in print to make sure that I fully appreciated her imagery and descriptions. I’d recommend the print over the audio for this one.

Was The Girls worth a $2 million advance? I don’t think so. It’s good, but not that good.

 

KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST by J. Ryan Stradal

If you think you share my taste in books, based on reading this blog or knowing me in real life, then I highly recommend you check out J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens Of The Great Midwest. I suspect that it will be one of the top two or three books I read in 2017. It’s that good.

Kitchens Of the Great Midwest follows the life and career of Eva Thorvald, a girl born in Minnesota to a chef with a very refined taste for ingredients and the preparation of food. The story is told through chapters that jump forward in time, and Eva is often just a bit player in those chapters. Stradal changes the focal character each chapter, though characters recur throughout the whole book. Each chapter also features a different ingredient – sweet pepper jelly or venison, for example – which is central to the plot of that chapter. And those ingredients also become a part of Eva’s life and her history. Eva evolves into becoming a world-renowned chef with a sought-after pop-up dinner party that ultimately costs $5,000 per person, and the book culminates in a dinner that incorporates each of the ingredients from the preceding chapters.

I didn’t expect to like Kitchens Of The Great Midwest as much as I did. I don’t generally like books with “quirky” characters or books that focus on food. I’m not much of a foodie. But I absolutely loved this book. Stradal is a beautiful writer with excellent pacing and an unexpected edginess that I adored. (“Since then, he seldom came to mind; she’d thought of him only when she’d made certain mistakes with men in her unmarried years, and the Napa Cabs and Central Coast Pinots he introduced her to had their sentimental associations smudged away after years of repeated exposure.”) Each character was beautifully fleshed out, even the ones who only showed up for one chapter. And if you’re from the Midwest, I think you’ll love this even more than I did.

The structure of the book may be unusual, but it worked beautifully here. I couldn’t wait to see who would show up next.

I listened to the first half of Kitchens of the Great Midwest on audio, and then I couldn’t resist and had to finish the rest in print (though I read it slowly and in limited bursts so as to draw it out). The audio was fantastic, with some chapters narrated by Michael Struhlbarg and some by Amy Ryan (you may remember her as Michael Scott’s girlfriend on “The Office”). I especially liked the narration in “Venison” – authentic accents and a lot of sympathy for the characters. I loved the audiobook and I loved the print.

What a treasure this book is.