When it comes to cars, I look for reliability. I don’t care about a sleek shape, a shiny paint job, a flashy color. When I was young, my stepfather handed me down his Riviera which he called a “classic.”
I’ve recently begun the Catie-G’ma Bookclub, an attempt to keep connected with my long-distance 2-year-old granddaughter. It all began a couple months after my Christmas mailing and my son told me that the packages I sent wrapped arrived unwrapped. Standing in line at the post office several months later, I was thinking about a solution to better book sending and missing my little Catie like crazy when I spotted these wild looking festive mailers.
“I can’t stop my children from arguing in the car,” a friend told me recently. “But when I put in an audio, it works magic.” So began my journey into exploring recent audio books that might please her children. Her daughter at 3 loves fiction and her son, at 5, is a nonfiction fan. That’s quite a lot of disparity in terms of age and interest, but made a nice spectrum for young interests. She agreed to take some audios on “test drives,” to see if they could shift her children’s moods from squabbling to shared pleasure.
I used to love a good long read. Fat books almost ensured a setting that claimed me, a character I cared about, an intricate plot and full descriptions along the way. Becoming a book critic changed me. I succumbed to the power of deadlines and the reviewer’s curse, “too little time, too many books.” Length was no longer a delight, but an obstacle.
Every year I judge the Audies, 29 awards given by the Audio Publishers Association for distinctive audio books. I only judge four to six books in Round 2 and feel grateful to those who listened and sorted through 20 or more audios during Round 1. This year, I judged memoirs and noticed a range of styles, worlds, stories that I might not have heard without this opportunity. Here are three of my favorites.
My unexpected favorite was Lawrence Anthony’s “The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild,” written with Graham Spence, read by Simon Vance (Tantor, approximately 11 hours). Anthony, a conservationist owns a wildlife reserve in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, and his story has all the elements that make for an engaging listen. The drama begins right away — if Anthony doesn’t take in an elephant herd known to be troublemakers from another game reserve, they will all be put down. Within days Anthony and his faithful co-workers put in miles of electric fencing to contain these elephants, deal with local Zulu politics, potential poachers and reintroducing elephants who have not been seen there for a hundred years. Despite the speedy accommodations, the elephants’ leader and her son are killed before their transport is arranged.
For me, commuting wouldn’t be survivable with audios. For a month, I drove to schools in Raleigh. Feeling a little lonely in still-dark mornings, I relished the company of good friends: clever writer Alexander McCall Smith, talented narrator Lisette Le Cat, and the heroine of their collaboration, Precious Ramotswe, head of the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency. Mma Ramotswe is one again the primary protagonist in “The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon” (Recorded Books, 8CDs, 9.75 hours).
Anyone who has lingered in the small town of Botswana with the sleuth knows that there are generally at least two mysteries in these novels. In this one, Mma Ramotswe is discouraged in both — she can’t seem to uncover who’s slandering the owner of the Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon and why a female attorney acting as executor is acting far more interested than she should be in the recipient of a trust.
I had a seven-hour solo drive to Atlanta, but I was equipped. Or so I thought.
I was halfway through John Banville’s “Ancient Light” (Random House, 8CDs, 9.5 hours). Banville, a Man Booker award-winner, uses elegant language which came alive with Robin Sach’s skillful reading, and I easily entered the troubled mind of Alexander Cleave. Banville’s reflective novel brilliantly weaves Cleave’s risque affair at 15 with his best friend’s mother, feelings of failure after his daughter’s death, and his introspective thoughts about aging. Sach’s narration meshed all time periods without losing flow and, made the protagonist believable and worthy of compassion.
One of the most complicated and important writing concepts to explain is voice. It’s the way the writer reels a reader in. Voice might be suspenseful, or ironic, or doleful, it makes you want to keep reading. If you add audio voice to the written voice, the power of both grows. This became evident to me in recent reading-listening experiences.
I began with Kathi Appelt’s new book, “The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp” (Atheneum, ages 8-12). It is a perfect read aloud because of its voice. Appelt has written lyrical but darker tales. Now her poetic tone appears in a romping adventure that believably blends fantasy and reality. The sense of place is evocative and the characters are engaging. All of these are beautifully bound together because of Appelt’s voice.
I know the language of picture books well. I cringe at dialogue that doesn't ring true and prose that clunks. I swoon over unusual word uses. I also believe that some of the most glorious art in America is found in its picture books.
I’m often wowed by illustrations, but not always sure why. Recently, I taught a 10-hour continuing education class specifically for art teachers. My goal was to link reading, writing, art and Common Core State Standards. My suspicion was that I would learn more than I taught. I was right. I wasn't alone; those in the class who were non-art specialists had our eyes opened by the superb vision of two amazing art teachers, Deb Cox and Barbi Bailey-Smith. Here’s a small peek at the kind of things we learned.
I have been an Ann Patchett fan for years. I have enjoyed the range and invention of her novels and even suspended disbelief as, in “State of Wonder,” she led me on an unlikely literary journey in the jungles of the Amazon .
I never knew her skill at nonfiction until I came upon her recent collection of 22 essays published from 1997- 2012, gathered in “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage” (book from Harper; audios from HarperAudio, 11 hours, 35 minutes). I listened to all of the essays, some of them a second time and then bought the book so I re-read the many passages that spoke to me. Listening and reading, I found myself in evocative landscapes layered with meanings that lingered and phrases that stopped me with elegance, honesty, or playfulness.
Adult readers may wait out slow starts or overlook overwriting; not younger readers. They demand strong characters, quick-moving plots, authentic dialogue and stories that stay with you after you close the covers. Reluctant readers are even harsher critics.
Matt de la Peña is a writer that young adults can count on.
“How can a year that ends in ’13 possibly go well?” said a colleague after I’d crabbed about various and sundry muck-ups and a painful shoulder that was threatening to freeze up. In addition, I suffered from the negative effect of having eaten and drunk with abandon over the holidays and was rapidly reaching that itchy feeling inside that makes me want to crawl out of my skin. Thankfully, as if one of the Fates heard my misery, I fell into a string of happy coincidences.
Both my son and daughter inherited my husband’s introvert genes and, to be honest, I’ve long guessed I might have a stash of my own. While I thrive on presenting, I get tired quickly in the bustle of the world, am uncomfortable at big parties and lost when it comes to cocktail party conversations. Listening to Susan Cain’s “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” (Random House, 9 CDs, 10.5 hours) clarified and confirmed my feelings.
My childhood holiday memories are a collision — gifts spreading across the living room floor, an alcohol-inspired parental fight, my mother playing Christmas carols on the piano, scarfing one too many of those powdered-sugar nut balls.
I’m captured by memoirs that provide intriguing walks through the lives of others, but the ones that impact me most are those that send me down the paths of my own remembering. Two recent audios touched a deep core.