Posts Tagged ‘Bill Bryson’

“Reading” audiobooks

March 11, 2012

Last week I finished listening to my second audiobook.

I listened to my first one last summer, when I drove down to L.A. to pick Sam up from the AIDS LifeCycle ride. Normally I don’t spend enough time in the car to  do much more than turn on NPR. But my new job involves a commute across town of about 15 minutes, which is just enough time to plug in an iPod and listen to a bit of an audiobook.

Image by Jeff Daly / Creative Commons

I’m intrigued by how the experience of listening to a book differs from that of reading a book. (Particularly when the listening coincides with trying to drive, observe surrounding traffic, watch out for sudden movements by pedestrians and bicyclists, etc.)

I’ve loved the two audiobooks I’ve listened to so far — The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot  and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, both nonfiction.

I had also tried a third audiobook, Bill Bryson’s At Home, and while I’ve enjoyed Bryson’s other writing, the audiobook didn’t work for me at all. I stopped after about a chapter and a half.

So what makes for a successful audiobook?

The Bryson book, a discursive history on the furnishings of the modern home, didn’t have enough narrative flow to keep me focused in the car. It rambled along through various interesting factoids and digressions but had no clear direction. I would get distracted by a traffic maneuver and then re-focus with no idea what he was talking about or where it was going. Unlike a print book, the audio version didn’t let me glance ahead to see how long a particular digression would last and whether I wanted to skip over it.

Both the Henrietta Lacks and Glass Castle books had much stronger narratives. Glass Castle is a memoir about an extremely bizarre and dysfunctional family, where the author manages to convey both the horrific nature of her childhood and also the love she felt for her irresponsible, alcoholic, narcissistic, eccentric parents.

Henrietta Lacks is a brilliant combination of scientific and social history — interweaving the story of HeLa cells, a set of fast-growing cancer cells that have been the basis for huge quantities of medical research over the past fifty years, and the dirt-poor, barely-educated African American family from whom the cells were taken with no explanation or consent. The writer tells both the family and medical stories in the context of her own journey — tracking down the source of the original HeLa cells, and trying to build a relationship with the justifiably suspicious and aggrieved members of the Lax family.

In any case, they both had plots. 

But they were also both non-fiction. Which is interesting, since probably 90 percent of what I read is fiction.

I’ve found myself reluctant to choose fiction for audiobook listening. With fiction, I care a lot about the way things are written. If there’s a nice phrase or image, I want to stop and read it again or savor it. Which I can’t do while my iPod is babbling merrily on into the next paragraph and I’m steering the car around  a double-parked garbage truck on Alcatraz Avenue.

I suppose I could listen to novels that are more plot-driven than literary, where I wouldn’t care much about the writing — detective novels and so on.  But somehow I haven’t wanted audiobooks where I would get too caught up in the plot, since I have to turn them off after each 15-minute commute.

When I’m reading a print book in bed, I can just keep going if it’s really gripping. (Haven’t we all had the experience of staying up until 1 a.m. with a novel we just can’t put down?)  But again, you can’t do that with an audiobook on your daily commute.

Plus nonfiction makes me feel like I’m doing something “productive” with my otherwise useless commute time. I’m learning facts about something in the real world. This is completely spurious. But it appeals to my multitasking, Type-A, overachiever self.

So… my ideal audiobook, it seems, is a well-written, accessible work of nonfiction with a strong (but not too strong!) plot or narrative.

Any recommendations?

And do you find that your reading tastes vary between print books and audiobooks?

Come to think of it, if you use a Kindle or similar e-reader device, has that influenced the types of books you like to read?

What books would you give as holiday gifts?

November 27, 2010

I’ve had this conversation a lot lately. Someone asks, “Read any good books lately?” and I am at a loss.

I read constantly, almost all of it fiction. But strangely, I don’t end up with a lot of things to recommend.

Partly that’s because I read a lot of novels for “work.” They have a theme or structure similar to what I’m working on, so I want to check them out. Or they’re new and getting lots of publicity (e.g. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall). Most of the time I’m underwhelmed.

But I just finished a couple of books that I loved. Loved enough to want to give as holiday gifts. So I figured, why not make a list of some books that I could envision giving as gifts this year?

Here’s a short list of books that I enjoyed enough to want to share. They were either published/updated in 2010, or else I read them for the first time in 2010:

  • Someone Not Really Her Mother, by Harriet Scott Chessman. This is one of the books I just finished and loved. It’s a novel about how the Holocaust filters down through three generations of women – centering on the grandmother Hannah, sole survivor of a family of French Jews who is now living in a nursing facility in Connecticut with dementia that makes her past more real to her than her present. It is subtle, beautifully written, and wise. The bad news: It came out in 2005 and is now out of print. The good news: Of course you can still find copies on the web.
  • By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham. Cunningham wrote The Hours, his novelistic homage to Virginia Woolf, and this new novel of his also reminds me of Woolf. If you don’t like interior monologue, stay away!  It’s an insightful look at the marriage and midlife self-doubt of an art gallery owner and his wife, who are thrust into crisis when her eternally-adolescent and gorgeous younger brother comes to stay with them.
  • The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. A cancer doctor who is also a terrific, accessible writer, Mukherjee leads us through the history of the struggle to understand and cure this dreaded disease. I found it really interesting to see how my own experiences with cancer (for instance, my mom died of ovarian cancer in 1986) fit into the bigger picture of what was happening at that time in cancer study and treatments. It’s an illuminating look into the process and politics of medical research in general. And any non-fiction book that holds me for 470 pages has got to be well written.
  • My Lie: A True Story of False Memory by Meredith Maran. Imagine if one of the girls who made the Salem witch accusations later wrote a memoir admitting she had been making it all up. That’s what Maran has done, only her accusations were of incest rather than witchcraft. Maran, a progressive Berkeley writer, tore her family apart in the 1980s when she became convinced that her father had molested her. Over time, she realized that she had succumbed to the group-think of her feminist, abuse-conscious milieu and she tries to make amends. A fascinating inside look at how an otherwise smart, skeptical person can be sucked into mass hysteria.
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I mentioned this book in my recent interview with Rabbi Mates-Muchin. Bryson’s scientific explanation of how life on Earth manages to exist is, to me, the definition of a spiritual book. There’s a new edition out which costs more but has lots of nifty diagrams and pictures – I just bought it for a friend’s 60th birthday.
  • The Devil’s Company by David Liss. This is Liss’ third novel about Benajmin Weaver, a Jewish boxer-turned-detective in early 18th century London. I absolutely love this character, a noir-style outsider to his society, and I love Liss’ crime/mystery plots centered on the machinations of early capitalism. Smart, gripping, fascinating! If you haven’t read them, start with his first one, A Conspiracy of Paper.
  • This is Where I Leave You (or anything else) by Jonathan Tropper. Tropper writes funny, clever novels about alienated young men who are forced by circumstances to reconcile with their dysfunctional suburban families. Having read three, I’m starting to feel like they are all a little too similar. But he makes me laugh out loud – which is not easy.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy by Stieg Larsson. Okay, no point giving these as gifts because everyone in America and Europe has read them already. And they’re not great literature. But I tore through them– great beach reads even without a beach.
  • Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. Earlier this year I blogged on this book about the post-Katrina tributions of a Syrian-American family in New Orleans. You can read that post here.
  • To the End of the Land by David Grossman. Okay, I just started it so I don’t have an opinion yet on this new novel by one of Israel’s top writers. But I really want to like it. Does that count?

Hmm. It seems like I must have read some other novels this year that knocked my socks off.  But nothing pops into mind right now.

How about you? What books did you read this year that you loved enough to want to share?