I now live in a place where driving time is measured by doubling, and sometimes tripling, the mileage between where you are and where you are going. My 19-mile commute takes me on roads with maximum speed limits of 40mph. Which means when I need to be at work at noon and I want an iced latte from Dunkin’ (which is quite often), I gotta leave my house an hour early. Commuting around here is no joke but at least the scenery is pretty.
During my first week of commuting to my job, I discovered my XM radio is kind of useless. I’m surrounded entirely by trees and rock walls against the roadside. There is hardly an open space for a satellite signal to reach me. If I’m driving anywhere else it works, though. But I’m rarely driving anywhere else. Occasionally I drive to the dentist (35 minutes away to the north) or to my brother’s place in Portsmouth (55 minutes away to the south). Sometimes I visit my daughter at work on the weekends (20 minutes away to the northeast). Distance is measured in time out here. And spending that time and distance with no working radio and only the thoughts in my head was starting to make me a little crackers.
The library I work for has a limited catalog of audiobooks, and audiobooks were never something I listened to before. I can barely pay attention to podcasts when I’m cooking or vacuuming because my attention is elsewhere, like focused on cooking or vacuuming. But a couple of months ago I gave audiobooks a chance (rest assured, I am still focused on driving), simply because I had no other options. And you guys! There’s some good stuff out there.
1. Still Alice by Lisa Genova
This was my first audiobook ever, and it’s a story that I kind of wish I had read in print form. The author is the narrator and I had a really difficult time in the beginning getting used to Genova’s lack of emotion while telling the story. This might have been why I wish I had read it myself. I learned an incredible amount of medical knowledge (for someone who hasn’t had to deal with Alzheimer’s disease in any way, directly or otherwise), and I hope the compassion this book compels its reader/listener to have is something I gained in the process. Genova is a gifted writer and Still Alice is a remarkable book. I just wasn’t a fan of the narration.
2. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
All of my fretting over narration and wondering if I would be able to get into another audiobook were pointless with this story. It’s narrated by B.D. Wong. HE’S INCREDIBLE! Every book should be narrated by B.D. Wong. Aside from my excitement over the narration, this was a truly lovely story. And I know for a fact that I would never have been as enthusiastic about reading Sijie’s novel as I was about listening to it as I drove back and forth from work. Balzac is a story about stories – the ones we read, the ones we tell, the ones we write, the ones we hide – and it follows three main characters as they grow up in re-education camps during China’s Cultural Revolution. And Four Eyes was probably one of my favorite characters ever, even if he was nothing more than an opportunistic little twerp. Maybe B.D. Wong had everything to do with that.
3. When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
Published in 2011, years before the rise of Trump and the need to make television series like The Handmaid’s Tale, When She Woke is a pretty realistic interpretation of what could be our near future. Hannah has had an abortion, a criminal offense in the new church-controlled America. As a result, she, and every other criminal in the country, are chromes, sentenced to live in their newly-colored skin that reflects the severity of their crimes. Hannah is a red, a murderer. However, When She Woke is just as much about Hannah’s past as it is about her future, and how she still holds steadfast to certain moral obligations (but not others). When I was finished with this one I felt…unsatisfied. There were just moments when I wanted her to do the exact opposite of what she was doing and it was unbelievably frustrating. I ignored that, though, simply because I couldn’t wait to back to this story everyday. As a matter of fact, I’m still rooting for Hannah.
4. Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford
Ford’s first novel Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is one of my favorite works of historical fiction. There is no other author out there who can take some of the worst things that America has done to a culture, that Americans have done to immigrants and minorities, and turn them into a beautiful story. Love and Other Consolation Prizes covers a lot of ground, from China to Seattle, and unfolds over the span of decades, moving back and forth. The transition from the 1900s to the 1950s and back is simple to follow, thanks to a gifted narrator. Jamie Ford also lends his voice to his final notes on the story, emphasizing the historic event on which the story is centered and how much we haven’t really changed. It is a hopeful story, but heavy with regrets and the acceptance of how life plays out.
5. Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal
I’m only on the second disc, but I already know this will be a favorite. Remember Holly from The Office? That’s Amy Ryan, and she’s a prominent narrator in this story! And my goodness, she’s fabulous! Unfortunately, I had a four-day break from work so I had to find ways to drive here, drive there, drive somewhere just so I could get a fix every day or so. The characters in Kitchens are tremendously likeable, even when they’re being awful, because Stradal just knows how to write them as simple people with not-so-simple problems.
My favorite quote so far: “Even though she had an overbite and the shakes, she was six feet tall and beautiful, and not like a statue or a perfume advertisement, but in a realistic way, like how a truck or a pizza is beautiful at the moment you want it most.”
Part of me wants to get my hands on the print book just so I can continue reading where I’ve left off in the car. The only problem with that is I would totally miss out on the narrator’s glorious attempts at mimicking the Upper Midwest accent from my Upper Michigan childhood. Think Fargo, but in an argument. It’s so darn polite.
I have been reading a ton of book books, too, and I hope to put together an update on my most recent reads. Last year, I joined the Book of the Month club, in which I pay $14.99 each month and get to choose a new release (or more books from the archives). I recently considered cancelling my subscription because I have read so few of my actual selections. The new books just pile up and continue to exist on my shelves unread, so what was the point? Then I laughed and quickly got rid of the idea of getting rid of my Book of the Month membership.
Only a few weeks after I moved here I started a book club with a few local women and we’ve been meeting each month. Including my audiobook (Kitchens…) I am currently involved in a five different books. There were only four books until I hit a wall, you know when you just can’t get your head into anything? So I browsed the stacks of my local library (not the one I work in) for some new inspiration and found it: Roxane Gay’s Hunger. I likened this successful trip to the library to eating something someone else cooks. Sometimes it’s just better when someone else makes it.