Category Archives: Audiobooks

UNDERGROUND AIRLINES by Ben Winters

winters_undergroundairlines_hcUnderground Airlines by Ben Winters imagines an America where the Civil War never took place. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while fighting to abolish slavery, and modern day America is now made up of 46 states where slavery is illegal and 4 Southern states where it is not.

The narrator, Victor, was a slave in a meat processing plant in one of the Hard Four, and he managed to escape several years before the book opens. He was eventually caught in Chicago, but instead of going back to the factory, he made a deal with the U.S. Marshals: he’ll become a slavecatcher – someone who tracks down runaways – and has a chip inserted into his neck so that the government can always find him. He’s free, but not free. He’s a slave, but not a slave.

When Underground Airlines opens, Victor has been assigned to find a runaway in Indianapolis. As the case evolves, he discovers details missing that suggest that the man he is looking for – Jackdaw – is not the typical runaway slave. From there, Victor is drawn into an increasingly complex web of underground abolitionists, double agents, unethical government agencies and people willing to give up their lives to the cause of undermining the slave economy. He finds himself ultimately returning to the South and going back “behind the fence” to try to solve the case, although who he is working for – and whose directions he is following – shifts throughout the book, keeping the reader guessing.

I commend Winters on the creativity behind Underground Airlines. His depiction of institutionalized slavery is chilling and deeply offensive, but also sadly realistic. He included the fictional legislation ensuring slavery will continue legally into perpetuity, and also traced the global economic forces brought on by U.S. slavery and their ramifications throughout the 46 free states. I am always impressed with writers of dystopian fiction who are able to conjure up whole worlds different from our own and convey many layers and levels of those societies.

Victor was a complex and interesting character, and I also liked being in his head.

I am not a big fan of thrillers, so I wasn’t as crazy about the parts of the book involving escapes and gunfights and beatings and violence. Not my thing. It wasn’t gratuitous in Underground Airlines– slavery is violent – but again, not my favorite thing to read. That said, the violence was relatively contained so I was able to get through the book. I also had trouble tracking a few of the plot twists, but ultimately, I think I understood it. There’s a pretty big reveal at the end that explains why the stakes were so high in this particular recon mission, and I am proud to say that I followed it! Yay me.

I listened to Underground Airlines on audio, and the narration by William DeMerritt was SO good. His ability to transform realistically into so many different characters – white or black, young or old – was pretty amazing (though I didn’t love his narration of a female character named Martha). He did an excellent job with this book, conveying Victor’s anger, helplessness and intelligence as needed throughout the story, and like Victor, he never lost his cool or his consistency. I highly recommend the audiobook of Underground Airlines.

This was a pretty good read, overall. I am not sure I would have picked it up had I known it was as much a thriller as dystopian/moderately realistic fiction, but I am still glad I read it. Thought-provoking, especially at a time when so many of our institutions seem to be at risk.

NOT DEAD YET by Phil Collins

phil-collins-not-dead-yet-photoPhil Collins came out with his memoir, Not Dead Yet, this fall, joining a crop of rock bios that have been getting a lot of attention recently. I was a big Genesis/Phil Collins fan back in the 80s, so I was excited to get my hands on the audio version of Not Dead Yet.

Collins narrates the audio version, which enhances the sense of intimacy the listener feels with him throughout the book. It opens with his early days in suburban London and tracks his family life and his childhood/early adulthood obsession with music. From there, the juggernaut of Collins’ career kicks in: joining Genesis, touring larger and larger venues, taking over frontman status from Peter Gabriel, more Genesis albums, his explosive solo career, more Genesis albums, Disney soundtracks, hit movie songs, and on and on. There is a reason Phil Collins seemed ubiquitous in the 80s and 90s – he was. He was also a workaholic who couldn’t say no to any opportunity – to sing, to compose, to produce, to collaborate. He would travel the globe while on world tours, and then return to his home base where he would jump immediately into the next project without stopping.

This lifestyle took a toll on his personal life, which Collins does not gloss over. Three marriages, three divorces, long distance relationships with his five kids – these all weigh on Collins, and he perseverates on them throughout the book. He takes the blame for the failure of his marriages, though he manages to make himself look OK at the same time. Collins was criticized by the media when all of this was going on, particularly his delivering his request for a divorce from wife #2 via fax, and his affair with a woman half his age while on tour. Collins takes the blows here, for sure, but it’s clear that he is relieved to finally be telling his story.

He also shines a light on some other personal stuff, like his obsession with the Alamo and the physical ailments that plagued his later career, like an ear stroke that caused him to lose his hearing in one ear and the hand and back issues that put an end to his prolific drumming. The toughest section comes at the end, when Collins describes in painstaking detail his slide into alcoholism in the early 2010s and the terrible toll it took on his body and his family.

I thoroughly enjoyed Not Dead Yet, especially the behind-the-scenes look at the music, the bands and the touring. On many occasions, I paused the audio to call up a song on Spotify or a video on YouTube, which definitely enhanced my enjoyment of the book. I am addicted to 80s nostalgia, and Not Dead Yet did not disappoint. If you were even a casual Genesis or Phil fan, I think you’ll enjoy this book.

Collins is apologetic about his ubiquity – almost overly so. He suggests that his transatlantic dual performances on Live Aid in 1985 were almost accidental, and he distances himself from the coincidence of having hit songs with two bands on the charts at the same time. He basically says, “I get it – I was sick of me too.” (Sometimes this is a little too much.)

Collins is clearly an emotional, complicated guy, and Not Dead Yet shows him in the most flattering light possible. I’m sure there are other sides to a lot of his stories (and in fact I heard a few of them at Thanksgiving dinner from someone who knows him), but I liked hearing (and believing) Phil’s version for 10 hours. I mean, that’s the point of a rock memoir, right? To clean up the reputation?

Collins’ albums have all been recently remastered, and if you listen to them on Spotify you get a new cover, a closeup of Phil’s sixtysomething face instead of the thirtysomething faces I remembered from the original covers. It’s kind of creepy, but it’s reality – our rock gods are aging. Not Dead Yet at least gave me glimpses of that younger guy, and for that I am grateful.

(And yes, I found out what “In The Air Tonight” is about. Not this:)

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.