Tag Archives: audiobook

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.

HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi

One of the books with a lot of buzz going in to BEA this year was Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi. It is definitely one of the hot books of June, and for once, I actually read a book right when it came out! Shocking.

9781101947135Homegoing is a sweeping book about the legacy of slavery in Ghana that covers 300 years tracing the ancestors of two half-sisters. One, Effia, married a British colonist and moved to a life of relative luxury, while her half sister, Esi, is sent to America ship via the slave trade, where her children and grandchildren are raised as slaves. The book follows the two threads of the family tree as the generations are born and the decades pass. The chapters alternate between Ghana and America, with each chapter devoted to one person from each generation.

Homegoing is an admirable novel, and I enjoyed it and am very glad that I read it. Gyasi powerfully depicts the shameful legacy of slavery and racism in so many contexts, providing a rich and, at times, almost unbearably painful picture of how deeply they have affected society over the last few hundred years. The African chapters trace European colonization, the slave trade, tribal warfare and poverty, while the American chapters loko at slavery, Jim Crow, racism, the Great Migration and the civil rights movement. The two threads come together in the end, when the present day descendants of Effia and Esi meet and decide to return to Ghana and, unwittingly, the place where their ancestors were originally entwined.

This is not a light read.

I commend Gyasi for her meticulous construction of these parallel paths, and how the dual plots unfold in lockstep despite the thousands of miles and cultural abysses that separate them. Her chapters are almost like short stories, since each one introduces a new character (and a new type of injustice), but the stories are linked both in theme and in genealogy. I think that the wide cast of characters may have made the book less enjoyable for me, as every time I had to re-establish where I was in the family tree (luckily included at the front of the book) and the historical context for the latest installment. This construct made the book a little harder to get into.

At the same time, I learned a lot that I didn’t know before, such as that freed slaves in the South were routinely convicted of petty crimes and forced to work in coal mines for years to pay off their fines, effectively reestablishing slavery despite its illegality. There is a lot of unforgettable horror in here, but there is also love and hope. Homegoing is not a simple book: Gyasi offers a textured portrayal of black Africans who traded their own people to Europeans and light-skinned black Americans who forsook their roots and abandoned their children to avoid the impact of racism.

I listened to Homegoing on audio. The narrator, Dominic Hoffman, ably handled both continents, adopting one accent for the African chapter and another for the American ones. I thought he did an excellent job. HIs voices for men, women, children, white, black – all seemed accurate and authentic.

Overall, I really recommend Homegoing. It’s not a beach read, so save it for when you’re looking for something you can really think about and digest.

(I went to a Q&A with Yaa Gyasi a few weeks ago, which I will write up here in a few days.)

 

 

THE AFTER PARTY, by Anton DiSclafani

9781594633164The After Party is a buzzy book this spring, one that I’ve seen on a few “Summer Must Read” lists, and I jumped at the chance to get the audio version a few weeks ago. I never read DiSclafani’s earlier novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls, but had heard great things about it.

The After Party takes place in the mid-1950s in Houston, and it is about two women: CeCe Buchanan, the narrator, and Joan Fortier, her best friend. CeCe and Joan grew up together, inseparable. CeCe always admired Joan’s wealth and beauty, but felt she fell short on both counts. When CeCe was fifteen, her mother was diagnosed with cancer and passed away. Her father had moved out of the house earlier to be with another woman, so CeCe moved into Joan’s huge house and was supported by Joan’s parents until she reached adulthood and married.

The After Party is about the strange, tortured relationship between CeCe and Joan, which followed a similar pattern: Joan acted out, CeCe tried to tame and protect her, Joan pushed CeCe away, Joan left for some significant period of time, Joan returned without warning and Joan kept CeCe at arm’s length but permitted just enough closeness to keep CeCe in her life, but always wanting more. This pattern continued for years. CeCe got married and had a son, but Joan was always a looming presence – or absence – in her life. The book is about CeCe’s coming to terms with this imperfect friendship, and her ultimate understanding of why Joan acted the way she did.

So here are my issues with The After Party:

  • CeCe was frustratingly inconsistent. She’d insist that she didn’t care about Joan anymore, that she was through with her, and that she loved her husband and son more than anything, and then a paragraph later she’d contradict herself. I understand that this was DiSclafani’s way of conveying Joan’s power over CeCe, but it was frustrating as a reader.
  • I didn’t buy into the Joan Fortier mystique. She was self-centered and not a particularly supportive friend. I did understand why CeCe felt so indebted to Joan (I won’t spoil that here in the review), but why she was so enthralled, I don’t know. This is the type of friendship that runs its course when people grow up.
  • The book needed more editing. There were certain phrases that were repeated over and over. Aside from my eventual fatigue with hearing the name “Joan” so many times, I also grew tired of hearing CeCe say the same things. Perhaps she was trying to convince herself that she was happy in her life? Whatever the reason, the book needed another good read-through with a red pen.

That said, I do think DiSclafani is a good writer, the repetition aside. She expertly conveyed CeCe’s loneliness and her anxiety about her young son, who had not spoken a single word well into his 3s. There were two chapters that I found incredibly moving: when CeCe’s mother was dying, and when CeCe meets up with her childhood nanny, ten years later. Those two chapters were excellent. I also liked the author’s depiction of high society Houston in the 1950s, and how it trapped women into certain roles and expectations.

But I was angry by the time I finished The After Party – angry at CeCe and angry at the book. My friend Nicole called it “claustrophobic”, which is a perfect description for it.

I listened to The After Party on audio. I thought the narrator, Dorothy Dillingham Blue, did an excellent job. I loved her Texas accent. (It’s not her fault that I had to hear the name Joan so many times!) I would definitely recommend the audio if you want to give The After Party a try.

NOOKIETOWN by V.C. Chickering

download (26)I have been putting off writing this review of Nookietown by V.C. Chickering for several days, mostly because I am not sure where I stand on the book. While some parts of it were entertaining, some parts were enraging, and I felt like I had to collect my thoughts on it before I wrote them down.

Here’s the premise: in a suburban New Jersey town, a bunch of married women friends sat at dinner one night complaining about having to keep up with their husbands’ sex drives. They were tired, they said, and just weren’t up to having to satisfy their husband’s needs. Meanwhile, the one divorced woman at the table, Lucy, complained about the opposite problem: not having a man in her life to sleep with. Then came the inevitable peanut butter-and-chocolate epiphany – why not have Lucy sleep with one of the husbands so that the wife doesn’t have to? Then everyone would be satisfied.

Lucy, incredulous at first, warms to the idea and makes an “appointment” with her friend Nancy’s husband Ted. The appointment goes so well that Nancy and Lucy decide to go into business, matching up sexually frustrated husbands with needy divorcees. There are a lot of rules – no money can change hands (but the divorcees enjoy all sorts of perks like free yardwork, homemade meals, and good deals on cars); no one can get emotionally involved; no one can get pregnant. The business takes off, and by the middle of the book, all of the people enrolled in The Program are walking around happy and harmonious.

What could go wrong? Well, a million things, and of course they do, and the second half of the book is about Lucy trying to put the pieces of her life together after it implodes.

So here’s what’s good about Nookietown. It can be pretty funny, and there are lots of wry observations about suburban married life, dating after divorce, and, of course, sex. It’s thought-provoking, for sure. And it’s a pretty breezy read. It certainly made my commute go by faster.

Yet Nookietown also me angry. Chickering tries really, really hard to establish that what Lucy and the other divorcees is doing is not prostitution, and that they are in control and in fact benefiting just as much as the wives and husbands. But Lucy – who vacillates between wounded ex-wife, devoted mother, oversexed woman-on-the-prowl, and single woman with low self esteem – ultimately turned into a pretty anti-feminist woman. She was passive, letting things happen to her without much affirmation or choice, or even the realization that she could say no. On the other, she jumped into The Program with desperation to be with someone (anyone!), which bothered me. She didn’t have much respect for herself, and she didn’t have much respect for the men she was with either. She was insecure around the few available (single) men, dismissive of the married men in the program, and oh, I forgot to mention the married man she was involved with while all of this was going on… AND her desire to have another baby!

Sigh.

I think you probably know by now whether this book appeals to you or not. It can be a funny, interesting read at times, but it can also be irritating at the same time. There is also a lot of sex in this book so if you’re not comfortable with that, then don’t read it.

I listened to Nookietown on audio. The narrator, Julia Duvall, was very good. I kept wondering what she must have been thinking as she recorded the audio.  I guess if you’re an audiobook narrator who performs a lot of romance novels (which she appears to do), you get used to it.

Mixed bag, Nookietown was. Still glad I read it.

 

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout

I am a big fan of Elizabeth Strout’s; I read a few of her novels before she won the 2009 Pulitzer for Olive Kitteridge, including Amy and Isabelle (pre-blogging) and Abide With Me, and I was really looking forward to her latest, My Name Is Lucy Barton. It was well-reviewed by critics and Goodreads readers, so I bumped it up the TBR list this winter. Unfortunately, when I finished it, I was left wondering what I had missed.

My Name Is Lucy Barton is about a woman in her late 20s living in New York City in the 80s who develops a mysterious illness after an appendectomy. She ends up spending nine weeks in the hospital in a mostly feverish state as her doctors try to figure out what’s wrong with her. Her husband is busy with work and their two young daughters, so Lucy spends a lot of time on her own in her hospital room. One day, she looks up to find her mother sitting in the room – a woman she hasn’t seen in many years and from whom she is basically estranged.

Most of the book relates what Lucy and her mother talk about during the week her mother spends by her side. Lucy’s family was very poor when she was growing up, and her parents were cold, withholding people who rarely showed affection or love to their children. Her father fixed farm machinery, and her mother took in sewing. Lucy and her siblings never had much, and were often embarrassed at school by their clothes and appearance. Lucy worked hard and earned a scholarship to college, and from there lived her own life, getting married and having children, with little contact with her family.

Lucy is very surprised to see her mother in her hospital room, and the two women spend most of their time together talking about people they knew in their small Illinois town. Divorces, scandals, tragedies – Lucy’s mother is most comfortable relating the misfortunes of other people, rather than addressing her own behavior as a mother and her relationship with Lucy. And Lucy doesn’t press the issue. She turns into a little girl again in her mother’s presence, calling her “Mommy” and becoming the unassertive, passive child she was in Illinois. Ultimately, nothing is really resolved between the two of them. Whenever Lucy inches toward something uncomfortable – raising a painful memory or questioning her mother’s distance over the years – her mother basically shuts down and changes the subject. Lucy knows her mother cares about her, as evidenced by her getting on a plane for the first time and flying to be by her side, but her mother still shows little affection.

My Name Is Lucy Barton meanders its way to its end. Strout’s writing, which I admired in the past for its spare elegance, is repetitive, with sentences literally repeating themselves with a word or two reversed. The conversations between Lucy and her mother meander, and the chapters that take place in the present meander too, with Lucy jumping from topic to topic, memory to memory. I got really frustrated with the writing as I made my way through My Name Is Lucy Barton – I think it needed a good edit.

I appreciate the book’s treatment of messy, unresolved relationships, and the way that a lack of resolution and clarity can eat at you over the years. But other than that, I didn’t take away much from My Name Is Lucy Barton. Lucy was passive and seemed emotionally detached from her own life at times, perhaps a symptom of the cold childhood she endured. But she was sort of frustrating to follow as a reader.

I listened to My Name Is Lucy Barton on audio. It was narrated by Kimberly Farr, and I think she did a decent job with the material. Her narration took on a meandering quality, like the book, and she gave life to a rather passive character. She was good at conveying when Lucy felt lonely and sad, and her voice inspired empathy. Her narration enhanced my enjoyment of the book.

 

GOLDEN AGE by Jane Smiley

I did it! I made it to the end of Golden Age, last book of the Jane Smiley century trilogy (the first two were Some Luck and Early Warning). The books are about the extended family and progeny of the Langdon family of Denby, Iowa. Each chapter covers a year in the century spanning 1920-2020. Some Luck covered the Depression, World War II and the 50s, with most action centered in Iowa until the young generation started moving away. Early Warning took us through the 80s, touching on Vietnam and the 60s, as the family proliferated through marriages and children were born. Golden Age goes from 1987 to 2020, where the Langdons’ story ends (for now, anyway).

First, I will talk about Golden Age, and then the trilogy overall. Golden Age was my least favorite of the three books. Smiley got a little too political for me. The Iraq war, 9/11, the mortgage crisis, global warming – these plot tentpoles are each seen through the lens of Smiley’s progressive politics, a little too conveniently: a family member dies on one of the planes headed toward the Pentagon, another suffers PTSD post-Afghanistan, family fortunes are lost in 2006 during the mortgage crisis. It all felt a little heavy-handed to me. But like the others in the series, Golden Age is also full of smaller, quieter moments – the moments that make up a life, or a whole bunch of lives. This makes Smiley’s chronicles so poignant. One character in her 70s is asked whether she thinks she has lived through a “golden age”, and she decides that it was a patchwork of sensual memories – stars, a pan of shortbread, her husband – that made her life a golden age, not the global events – wonderful or terrible – that had taken place during her lifetime.

Golden Age, like the period it covers, is darker, more ominous and much less hopeful than the two books that came before it. The last four chapters – 2016-2020 – are downright scary, with glimpses of a dystopia brought about by the accelerating impact of climate change and vigilante violence that cannot be addressed due to budget shortfalls. Scary stuff. I think I would have preferred Smiley end the series when she actually finished the books. The futuristic stuff was a bit too bleak for me.

Reading the trilogy, however, was a very positive experience. As I said in my Some Luck review, I am in awe of Smiley’s imagination, and how she layered this rich, enormous fictional family over her factual knowledge of farming, the environment, politics, the CIA, horse-riding, PTSD… the list goes on and on. It was an admirable experiment, and one Smiley executed beautifully. There were some characters who I enjoyed more than others – Claire, Andy, Jesse – and some who befuddled me – Michael and Richie, Arthur – and others who were just unpleasant. (Janet!). But I feel deeply embedded in their collective lives, and I can’t really believe it’s all over.

I know reading these three books is an investment and it seems kind of overwhelming, but I really recommend the series. It’s a rewarding experience and quite enjoyable at the same time. A crash course in American history!

Like the two books before it, I listened to Golden Age on audio. I had issues with the narrator, Lorelei King, during the first installment, but I got so used to her by the end that those complaints went away. I now can’t imagine having experienced these three books another way. King must have gotten to know these characters so deeply – I’d love to talk to her about what she thought of them. 14 discs is a long time (and that’s just the last book!) but I enjoyed them quite a bit. The brevity of the chapters and even the various threads in each chapter made the audio move along nicely, so even when there were some sections that dragged, they were over quickly.

Great work, Jane Smiley. I hope these books are read widely and for many years to come.

Depressing-o-meter: Too sweeping to be really depressing. 4 out of 10.