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September 26, 2018

Reading : Five Amazing Audiobooks



I've been asked by a bunch of people recently for audiobook recommendations, and I love that so many people are listening to books.  I love talking about audiobooks and why I love them so much.  I've talked a lot about it generally--the layers of tone and character that oral narration adds, the ability to integrate language and narratives during other parts of your day, the slowing down of story when you read it aloud.  But it's hard to describe exactly why they are so great without some examples.  Also, it really takes the right book to get you into listening. Sometimes people are worried about being able to pay attention, and I agree it takes some getting used to, and if you start with the wrong book it can be off-putting (the first I tried was, randomly, Faulker's Light in August and it took me years before I tried again).  There are some books that I really feel are better experienced on audio, and here are five of my very favorites.

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The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
This holds a special place for me as the first audiobook I ever really loved, and one of the few I've listened to more than once.  It's about a college baseball team: the dynamics of the team as a whole, but more so about three individuals and some of the people with whom they connect.  Henry Skrimshander, whose small size masks his immense talent until he's recruited by Mike Schwartz; Mike Schwartz, the team's captain whose pursuit of success in sport and school wears away his body and mind; Owen Dunne, whose affair with the college president is deep and difficult.  I don't know anything about baseball and never watch sports, but I was blown away by how naturally Harbach creates emotional depth alongside, and within, technical descriptions of the game. Also, it's super funny. If I had to choose one thing I value most in audiobooks it would be the ability of one narrator to adopt the voice, tone and personality of different characters, and it is so good in this book.


The Nix by Nathan Hill 
Another really funny book with an amazingly talented narrator, who can embody both the ennui of an English professor trying to instill the love of literature in bored college students while he himself doubts the value of old stories, and the ennui of one of those bored college students.  The loose framework of the plot is about the English professor trying to unearth the story of his mother who left him in childhood.  But it's one of those books that has very little to do with actual plot and much more about the character and context in which it's written.  So that it becomes a book about American life through various historical eras (post-World War II, 1960s radicalism, post-9/11, the current age of tech), geographical areas (cities and suburbia), and through the lens of so many different types of people who find themselves limited and traumatized by our world.  If you're concerned about a book that's not plot based being boring, don't be--this is the funniest and most entertaining book I've listened to in a long time.  (Though if you don't have a lot of time or patience I wouldn't recommend it as your first audiobook because it is almost 22 hours long. But it's really the audio-equivalent of a page turner and I blew through it in a week).


Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
I know this book-turned-movie is old news, but even if you're read it or seen it, I would recommend listening to this because it is so, so funny and well-done.  (Yes, I do see all these recommendations are funny books.  While I don't consciously seek out humor in fiction, when it's there it's really special, and it's especially appreciated on audio).  I looked forward to my commute just so I could listen to this book, and was always bummed when the drive was over.  The story about living in virtual reality is innocently sweet and moving, at the same time it's honest about how dark life can get in the hands of humans.  Among the recommendations I give, people often choose this one, and it's definitely a good first audiobook.


Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
This book is not funny, but it is beautiful.  Even though one of the things I appreciate about audiobooks is the ability to listen while doing something else, I fell so hard for Hamid's voice that I would sit on the couch and just listen to him read his book.  Besides having the perfect voice to match the story's depth, it's always an added layer to hear the story told by the source.  It tells the story of a young couple, Saeed and Nadia, living in an unnamed country where a civil war between the government and religious rebels forces people to flee their homes for fear of their safety.   The dangers and violence are concrete, which contrast with the unreal way Saeed and Nadia escape their country and enter others: through magic doors that transport them to Greece, England, then America.  This seeming ease of migration is undercut by the obstacles of assimilation that Saeed and Nadia face in each place.  As their environment changes, they change as individuals and as a couple.  I love how intimate their story feels, even as they traverse large spans of time and geography.  

Hamid is an amazing writer, and this book has the perfect combination of powerful story with powerful words.  He has this unbelievable skill of packing abstractions into sentences that feel close, real, and beautiful even when they are hard because they're so true.  The sentences are long, carrying along until you start to feel breathless too.  I have a habit of listening to audiobooks on increased speed, but the language in Exit West was so loving that I listened to it at normal speed.  It's also short, which makes for a good first venture if you're in the mood for a more somber book. 


Echo by Pam Munoz
Because music is central to this book, listening feels the most experiential way of reading it.  It tells three distinct stories of children growing up in different places at different times, who are connected by their possession of a special harmonica and their gift of playing it.

Friedrich is a twelve-year-old boy growing up in the throes of Nazi Germany. The birthmark on his face and his family's anti-Nazi politics make him a literal and conceptual target of Hitler's regime. His only source of power comes from his unique ability to play a harmonica, an instrument small enough to keep close at all times and with sound loud enough to give him voice in a world that otherwise wants to shut him out.

The harmonica makes its way to a young orphan named Mike living in Pennsylvania during the Great Depression.  His main mission in life is to find a family and home that will keep him together with his younger brother Frankie.  Again it's music, and the harmonica, that play a literally instrumental role in trying to achieve this. 

Later, the harmonica is in the hands of Ivy, the American-born daughter of migrant farm workers from Mexico. As her father takes over the farm of a Japanese-American family that has been sent to an internment camp, she witnesses the fear-driven racism resulting from Pearl Harbor.  And as she is segregated into an inferior school as part of an "Americanization," program, she experiences the racism personally.  Like the children before her, she finds space for herself with her harmonica.

I love how each child's story is narrated by a different voice, and how the sound of the harmonica throughout wordlessly connects all three stories.  Each person is vibrant and full in character, and each has a uniquely touching relationship with music.  Sometimes the music plays like a soundtrack and sometimes it takes center, and it all feels very organic in the way that noise and melodies shift in and out of view in real life.  Because you get so immersed in each person's individual story, you don't realize until the end how expansive the book is--covering so many World War II themes of persecution and capturing so many different arenas of suffering.  At the end, the stories come together with ease and heart, in a way that only a children's book can.

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These are all fiction because besides that being what I love most, I think audiobooks lend more nuance to fiction than nonfiction.  But I do listen to and love non-fiction audio too, and books I've really enjoyed include Missoula by Jon Krakauer about rape culture in college towns, Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick about North Korean defectors, and We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (narrated by the author whose voice is at once unique and speaks for all of us, and the short 40 minute running time makes for a good introduction to listening).

And if you don't already have this, get Libby!  Don't pay $30 for an audiobook when you can borrow it from your library.  It's true that you often have to wait for the popular ones--every week, I just put a few on hold (don't place too many at once because then they'll all come at once and you won't have time to listen to them all before they're due in 21 days).

Happy listening, and please give me recommendations too!

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