Category Archives: Audiobooks

MODERN LOVERS by Emma Straub

modern-lovers-review-ewOne of the hot books this past summer was Modern Lovers by Emma Straub. It’s about a group of college friends who, twenty years later, live near each other on the same street in Brooklyn. Andrew and Elizabeth are married with a son, Harry, who is in high school. Zoe is married to Jane and they have a daughter, Ruby, who has just graduated from the same high school. Andrew, Elizabeth and Zoe were bandmates in college, but have now settled into more middle age pursuits – owning a restaurant, real estate, parenting, etc. When an movie agent comes calling, hoping to get them to sign over their “life rights” so that a biopic can be made about the fourth (now dead) member of the band, the three come to face the fact that their kids are now almost the age they were when they met, and that they are no longer the same people they once were. Is what they have enough? Are they happy? Or should they be making some dramatic changes?

Typical middle age angst.

Here’s what I liked about Modern Lovers: clean, descriptive writing full of realistic details and observations (typical of Straub’s books); a mildly suspenseful plot that makes you want to keep reading (but not too fast); some humorous sendups of Brooklyn stereotypes, like the cult-like people at Andrew’s yoga studio and the private school kids; and Straub’s exploration of middle age.

Here’s what I didn’t like as much: the whininess of the main characters (except Harry, who I liked); the #firstworldproblems that they can’t stop complaining about; their preciousness (Ruby! Oy); and did I mention the whininess? It’s hard to get really invested in these people, with their ennui and the mild discontent that taints their whole existence. I don’t mind books about middle age angst, but I’d like for them to have something to really angst over.

I am not sure why Modern Lovers got all the fanfare and attention that it did. I liked it enough, but I certainly didn’t love it.

I listened to Modern Lovers on audio, and I thought the gentle but precise narration by Jen Tullock was excellent. She developed distinct accents for the different characters that conveyed their personalities well. (I especially liked her voice for Dave, the scammy yogi.) I recommend the audio if you want to give Modern Lovers a try.

CAROUSEL COURT by Joe McGinniss, Jr.

Carousel Court is one amazingly bleak book.

The novel, carousel-court-9781476791272_hrby Joe McGinniss Jr., is about a couple – Phoebe and Nick – who move from Boston to Southern California in search of a better life. In Boston, Phoebe was a pharmaceutical sales rep and Nick a documentary filmmaker. They lived in a cramped apartment with their toddler, Jackson. Lured by the promise of sunny weather, an easier pace of life, and the untold riches that would come from flipping a suburban LA house, they make plans to leave it all and head west. Just before they are scheduled to leave, Nick learns that the job he has been promised in California has fallen through. So by the time they arrive in LA, they are already stressed and under the gun.

LA is nothing like what they hoped it would be. The real estate crash has left the economy decimated, with no jobs and suburbs full of empty, bank-owned houses. Phoebe, who had hoped to take a few months off to be with Jackson, just resumes her pharma job on the west coast. Nick, unemployed and increasingly desperate, takes on work cleaning out abandoned houses so that the banks can take them over. He works during the night, filling dumpsters with furniture and trying to avoid roving bands of pillagers who break into empty homes and pillage them during those same dark hours.

Bleak, huh? Well, the real bleakness of Carousel Court comes from Phoebe and Nick themselves. Phoebe, furious at her husband for his failure to provide for them, increasingly relies on anti-anxiety meds, sleeping pills and alcohol to get her through her long days of driving on LA freeways, calling on doctors’ offices to push her company’s medicine. She belittles her husband and carries on a sexually charged long distance text relationship with her former boss (and flame), a finance guy in Boston who toys with her, promising to swoop in and save her with a new job, a new house. Relations between Nick and Phoebe grow increasingly more hostile as he suspects her affair and has to compensate for her inability to parent Jackson or be supportive in any way.

The stress level of the book is ratcheted even higher by the constant threat of violence that surrounds this fractured family – from looters, from coyotes, from wildfires, from the next door neighbor who is staked in a tent with a gun on his front lawn all night long.

Plus there’s the fact that both Phoebe and Nick are both pretty hateful people.

And all of the bleakness. Is. Unrelenting. It’s not cyclical, because it never ebbs. It just flows, constantly.

If you want to learn more about the real estate crisis, watch The Big Short, which is just as illuminating but more enjoyable. Carousel Court was too long, too bleak, too tense.

I listened to Carousel Court on audio, and I would get out of my car in the morning in a tense, unfulfilled mood because of the book. The narrators were fine – Joy Osmanski and Corey Brill – but they did not offset the bleakness of this book. In fact, like the book, they were sort of relentless – relaying the parade of horribleness with a staccato precision that made the experience even less relaxing.

I’m moving on.

THE EXCELLENT LOMBARDS by Jane Hamilton

b99706513z-1_20160422123210_000_gcmfb5tk-1-0I don’t want to spend any more minutes of my life than necessary on Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards, so this will be short.

I did not like The Excellent Lombards. It’s about Mary Francis, a girl growing up on an apple orchard in Wisconsin with her family. Her dad shares the farm with his brother, so there are issues about who gets what, who makes the decisions, and who will work the orchard in the next generation. Her mean great aunt and various cousins come and go, as does a middle school teacher she develops a crush on. The book ends with the question, will Francis go to college or stay on the farm?

Honestly, The Excellent Lombards was so boring I can’t even summarize it. I didn’t care at all about any of the characters, especially Mary Francis, who was selfish and self-absorbed and didn’t expand her worldview at all during the book. It was a chore to get through it. I could barely follow the characters or the anemic plot, and I just wanted to get the book over with so that I could move on to something better.

I’ve enjoyed others of Hamilton’s novels – A Map of the World, The Book of Ruth – and I can’t believe this was written by the same person.

I listened to The Excellent Lombards on audio. The narration was fine, but honestly the book was so boring and meandering that it didn’t keep my attention. I finished it off in print today and there was no improvement.

There are a lot of glowing reviews of this book on Goodreads. It just wasn’t for me.

 

 

YES PLEASE by Amy Poehler

513gpyqm6bl-_sx324_bo1204203200_My family has been been on a Parks and Recreation binge over the last few months, so I’ve been watching a lot of Amy Poehler. I received an ARC of Yes Please when it came out last fall, but hadn’t gotten to it yet, so I decided to listen to it on audio a few weeks ago. Many hours of Amy Poehler in the car!

Yes Please is Poehler’s memoir about her childhood, her early years in comedy in Chicago, her time on SNL and (thankfully) her experience on Parks and Recreation. Along the way, Poehler shares her insights on being a working mom, her divorce (a little), her children, and some celebrity gossip from SNL and various awards shows. Yes Please is well-written and, if not chronological, at least loosely organized around themes and phases of Poehler’s life.

I read Tina Fey’s Bossypants 5 years ago (review here), and I just re-read my review of it. On the surface it sounds an awful lot like Yes Please. But I liked Poehler’s book better. I think there’s more substance, and more to take away from it. Maybe I identify more with Poehler, with her 80s childhood and her pop culture influences. Maybe it’s because it was narrated for me by Poehler. Regardless, I think it hangs together better as a book. Poehler is relatable and funny and imperfect. She is generous to others and grateful for their roles in her life. And part of her is Leslie Knope, and who doesn’t love Leslie Knope?

I could have done without all the whining about how hard it is to write a book.

Yes Please isn’t the deepest or most satisfying book I’ve read recently, but it was a lot of fun and certainly made my commute go by faster. As for the audio narration – it’s really fun to hear it all in Poehler’s voice. She has a few guest narrators – Seth Meyers, her parents, the creator of Parks and Recreation – but I like her solo sections the best.

BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK by Ben Fountain

billy-lynns-long-halftime-walk-paperback-by-ben-fountain-_sl1500_Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk takes place on a cold, rainy Thanksgiving Day at Texas Stadium, where the Dallas Cowboys are taking on the Chicago Bears in a game being televised nationally. Among the attendees at the game are the eight members of Bravo Squad, who are on leave from their posting in Iraq on a national victory tour celebrating their fight with insurgents, which was recorded by a Fox News crew and has turned the eight men into national heroes. The book is told mostly from the perspective of Billy Lynn, an 19-years old from a small town in Texas.

Ben Fountain skewers all of the people who want a piece of Bravo for their own agendas, from the Hollywood producer trying to sell their story to the owner of the Cowboys who parades them around for his rich ticketholders and the pro footballers who want to hear about what it’s like to shoot someone but scoff at the idea of serving in the military.

This is a rich, incisive, angry novel that spares no one in its cynical view of the military complex and America’s need for heroes and constant justification for war. Fountain’s writing is beautiful: descriptive, funny, poignant and (sometimes slyly) harsh on everyone who crosses his path (except for Billy). You won’t look at the military the same after reading Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

I really can’t recommend this book enough. In addition to being entertaining, it’s an important read.

One passage that really stuck with me: Billy and a fellow Bravo are taken on a tour of the Cowboys’ equipment room, where they learn about the massive amount of gear needed for the football team to play one game. Billy says what we’re all thinking: do we devote the same amount of resources and attention to our soldiers in battle as we do for our professional athletes?

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk came out in 2012, but it’s just as relevant now. While writing this, I am also watching a baseball game on TV, and I just saw three gauzy commercials (insurance, insurance and insurance) featuring soldiers and vets. Our relationship with the military is as fraught as ever. This may explain why Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk has been made into a movie coming out this fall (on Veteran’s Day, of course). I am a little concerned about this adaptation and am worried it will become Hollywood-ized and lose its potency and edge. Ang Lee, please prove me wrong.

I listened to Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk on audio, which was brilliantly narrated by Oliver Wymer. With the exception of the women’s voices, he simply nailed everything else, including sound effects, Texas accents, and Lynn’s own tentative voice. I highly recommend the audio.

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr

Welcome to 2014! Yes, I finally read All The Light We Cannot See.

What more can I say about this book that hasn’t already been said?

all-the-light-we-cannot-see-9781476746586_hrIf you’re inexplicably unfamiliar with this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, it’s the story of two young adults – Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French girl who escapes Paris with her father at the start of the Nazi occupation, and Werner Pfenning, an orphan boy who earns admission to an elite German military academy before joining the Nazis as a radio technology specialist. All The Light We Cannot See traces Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s experiences both leading up to and during the war through short chapters that rotate among several characters and subplots.

All The Light We Cannot See has been incredibly well-reviewed and acclaimed, so I was a little leery going in. Would it live up to the hype? Yes, there is a lot to like here. Doerr is a masterful storyteller, with the main plots teasing slowly to keep the reader quite involved. I found this book almost unbearably suspenseful at times, as I waited to learn the fates of these characters. The story is of course quite sad and very difficult at times, with Nazi horrors and violence in abundance. But there is goodness in these main characters, and by the time their lives intersect as the Allies bomb St. Malo, you’ve grown to care deeply about both of them.

You have to suspend your cynicism when you read All The Light We Cannot See. Some of it is just a bit too coincidental, and the story about the jewel that protects its custodian while destroying those close to him is more of a fable than a plot. Instead, enjoy the luminous prose and let yourself get caught up in the heart-pounding suspense and the triumph of humanity.

I listened to All The Light We Cannot See on audio, which was beautifully narrated by Zach Appelman. It’s a long book, so you’ll get to know Appelman’s voice. No complaints – perfect accents, good job with both male and female characters, calm delivery despite some horrific and scary moments. I highly recommend the audio.

 

THE NEST by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

This book cover image released by Ecco shows "The Nest," a book by Cynthia d’Aprix Sweeney, about four adult siblings whose inheritance is in jeopardy. (Ecco via AP)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this summer, you’ve heard of or possibly read The Nest. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney got a massive advance for this debut novel, which she wrote in her spare time, about four siblings in New York fighting over their lost inheritance. Leo Plumb, the bad boy, got into an accident driving drunk with a waitress in his car, and had to use the whole inheritance to settle with her. Meanwhile, Jack, his brother, needs his portion of the money to pay back a hastily obtained home equity loan, while their sister Melody needs to pay for her twins’ college education. Bea, the fourth Plumb, doesn’t need the money as much as she needs some inspiration to buoy her flagging career as a novelist.

The Nest is a relatively light, entertaining read. While it’s tempting to dismiss the Plumbs as self-absorbed one percenters, as the novel went on I found myself caring about them and their predicaments. They they start out as just another dysfunctional family, but they eventually grow to care more about each other and even try to find ways to help each other out of their bad situations. (Leo remains pretty despicable.) They are both easy to mock, and easy to like.

Layered into the family drama are Sweeney’s insightful observations about New York, publishing, parenting and relationships. The plot moves along quickly, as she weaves from character to character and shows their different perspectives.

I listened to The Nest on audio and really enjoyed it. Mia Barron was the perfect narrator for this book – precise, urbane and wry, but sympathetic when she needed to be. I highly recommend the audio for The Nest, though I did read a few chapters in print and enjoyed them just as much.

If you want a fun summer read with some substance and heft, give The Nest a try and help Ecco justify that huge advance.