Books on the radio

I was invited to be on Wisconsin Public Radio at the end of December to talk about audiobooks: why people might try them, how to find a book (or narrator) they like, when they might even be preferable to print books. Being on the radio was fun! It’s archived on WPR’s Central Time website (though I haven’t listened; I don’t want to hear how many times I said “um”). If you want to download or listen online, it’s from 5:30-6pm (unless you need to catch up on your local Wisconsin news and chit-chat, in which case, go ahead and listen to the whole thing).

I’ve written about audiobooks on this blog in the past; if you missed those posts, don’t worry, you can access them here, because the internet is forever: “I’d listen to her read a grocery list: on audiobooks” (3/12/14) and “Audiobook recommendations for a friend” (10/3/14). Or if you don’t want to click through, here’s the bullet point version:

  • How to get started if you’re new to audiobooks: Try listening to a book you’ve already read; choose a shorter book; listen to the first few minutes of a few different ones to see which narrator’s voice you like best.
  • Remember, taste is subjective: You might prefer a male or female narrator, a full cast production, American voices or other accents, slow or fast talkers.
  • How to get audiobooks: You can buy them, of course, but that gets expensive! Your local library probably offers audiobooks on CD and/or Playaways (a small device that contains one whole book), and may offer downloadable audiobooks as well through Overdrive, hoopla, or another platform. If you’re hearing impaired, you can get access to audiobooks for free in every state.
  • Value-added aspects: Some authors read their own books, which can be especially fun if they are familiar voices already, like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Sarah Vowell, Neil Patrick Harris, or Aziz Ansari. Neil Gaiman and Jenny Lawson also read their own books, which I highly recommend.
  • A social experience: Before school vacations and holidays, lots of people come to the library looking for audiobooks the whole family can enjoy on long car trips. Finding a book everyone will enjoy can be a fun challenge depending on ages and tastes!
  • Seamless switching between formats: I haven’t done this myself, but one of the callers said she switched back and forth between the Kindle e-book and Audible audiobook; Amazon owns Audible so accounts can be synced for seamless transitions between audio and print.

Do you listen to audiobooks? Do you have a favorite genre to listen to, or a favorite narrator?



Audiobook recommendations for a friend

At a recent book club meeting, a friend asked the rest of the group for audiobook recommendations. She’d just gotten a new job (yay!) with a much longer commute (yuck), and she was looking for audiobooks to make the commute more enjoyable. I’m afraid many of us audiobook fans fired recommendations at her faster than she could write them down, so I ended up typing mine up for her afterward, and figured I’d share them here as well.

I’ve already mentioned specific books and narrators before, including Rebecca Lowman, Jim Dale, Morven Christie, and Kate Rudd, but here’s a slightly longer list, reflecting another half-year of reading/listening. Young Adult fiction is overrepresented here, because I usually choose shorter books for my relatively short commute.

Talented narrators matched with great books

  • nightcircus_audioThe incomparable Jim Dale reads the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling, as well as The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. All are magical.
  • Rebecca Lowman reads everything by Rainbow Rowell (Eleanor & Park, Fangirl, Landline) and Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. It occurs to me that I am bad at describing voices and can’t properly convey why Rebecca Lowman is so incredible, but trust me on this one.
  • Morven Christie performs upper-class Scottish “Queenie’s” half of Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, and narrates Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, which is set in Iceland.
  • David Tennant – you might know him as the Tenth Doctor, or the star of British miniseries Broadchurch – performs My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher. If Scottish accents (and heartbreakingly good realistic YA fiction) are your thing, don’t miss this one.
  • Alex McKenna reads Every Day by David Levithan. This unique story requires a special narrator: the main character, A, wakes up every day in a different body, and doesn’t identify as one gender or another. McKenna’s grainy voice is perfect.
  • If I Stay and Where She Went, a pair of novels by Gayle Forman, have two different narrators; Kirsten Potter is Mia in the first book, and Dan Bittner is Adam in the latter. The narrators are well suited to the stories.
  • instructionsheatwaveI’m a sucker for British accents (and Scottish ones, obviously), and John R. Lee does a fantastic performance of Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave. This was the first O’Farrell book I read/listened to, and I was a little disappointed that Lee didn’t read her other titles as well. (Anne Flosnik reads The Hand That First Held Mine and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. She does a fine job, and I’m a huge Maggie O’Farrell fan, so I recommend these as well, but Heatwave was exceptional.)
  • As I’ve mentioned before, Kate Rudd reads The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Here is a case where the book is incredible on its own, but the audio version somehow manages to add even more depth, emotion, and humor.
  • I’ve encountered A.S. King almost exclusively in audio, and all of the readers do justice to her brilliant, slightly surreal yet grounded young adult fiction. Lynde Houck reads Please Ignore Vera Dietz, Kirby Heyborne reads Everybody Sees the Ants, Michael Stellman reads Reality Boy, and Devon Sorvari reads Ask the Passengers.

Authors who read their own books

  • sweetheartsYoung adult author Sara Zarr reads several of her own books, including Sweethearts, Story of a Girl, Once Was Lost, and The Lucy Variations. Don’t judge these books by their covers – full of realistic and intense teen problems, they’re far from fluff.
  • Genre-defying Neil Gaiman performs most (all?) of his own books, and his voice is perfectly suited to his stories. Coraline, The Graveyard Book, Neverwhere, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Stardust…
  • Philip Pullman and a full cast read Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass/The Subtle Knife/The Amber Spyglass). I don’t want to say they bring the book to life, because it lives and breathes spectacularly on the page, but they bring the book into the dimension of sound such that each character’s voice is exactly the way I heard it in my head while I was reading.
  • I wasn’t sure if I was going to like Cheryl Strayed’s collected advice columns, but I was utterly hooked after Steve Almond’s introduction. Strayed reads Tiny Beautiful Things: advice on love and life from Dear Sugar, and because many of her stories and anecdotes are personal, it feels like she’s speaking directly to you.
  • Sarah Vowell reads all her own books, including The Wordy Shipmates, Unfamiliar Fishes, Assassination Vacation, and The Partly Cloudy Patriot. Vowell – the voice of Violet Incredible – tends to polarize listeners; some love her voice, some really dislike it. Her audiobooks usually feature cameo performances from other voice actors, including Stephen Colbert and Seth Green.
  • happymarriageThough she doesn’t narrate her novels, Ann Patchett reads her nonfiction, including What Now? (based on her commencement address) and her recent book of essays, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Ann is the writer to whom I wish I was related, or at least the one I’d most want for a next-door neighbor, and her writing is pure wisdom and humor and craft.
  • Perhaps most popular of all in the author-reads-own-book category, Tina Fey performs Bossypants. I haven’t listened to this myself, but I’ve listened to enough friends rave about it that I feel I can recommend it.

So those are some of my favorites. What audiobooks do you like? Leave suggestions in the comments.


“I’d listen to her read a grocery list”: On Audiobooks

It doesn’t take that much endurance to read a picture book aloud. Reading for longer periods of time, however, can be taxing, which makes the work that audiobook narrators do even more impressive. I started listening to audiobooks when I started driving to and from work; I used to commute via subway, where I found that external noise drowned out anything coming through my headphones.

At first, not sure how much concentration I’d be able to spare, I started by re-reading books I’d already read, such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which is performed by the author and a full cast. (It’s excellent.) I moved on to the Hunger Games trilogy, which Carolyn McCormick narrates (she is also excellent). Then I listened to Life by Keith Richards, read by Johnny Depp, Joe Hurley, and “Keef” himself; the switching between narrators seemed random and was somewhat jarring, but each individual reader was very good.

eleanorandpark_audioEventually, I started reading books I hadn’t read before, and I’ve become hooked on audiobooks; as soon as I finish one, I start another. Because my commute is blessedly brief and I’m usually only in the car for half an hour each day, I read a lot of shorter books (7-9 hours), often young adult novels. I’ve started seeking out particular narrators, such as Rebecca Lowman (Eleanor & Park, Rules of Civility) and Morven Christie (Code Name Verity, Burial Rites).

Luckily for me, audiobooks are becoming more popular, and publishers are producing more of them (see “Actors Today Don’t Just Read for the Part. Reading IS the Part,” Leslie Kaufman, The New York Times, June 29, 2013). As for whether listening to an audiobook counts as reading, there is plenty of debate. I would venture to say that as long as one has mastered the ability to read in print, audiobooks are as legitimate a way to consume books as reading them on paper (or on a screen). “We tend to regard reading with our eyes as more serious, more highbrow, than hearing a book read out loud,” T.M. Luhrman wrote in a New York Times  piece called “Audiobooks and the return of storytelling” on February 22. She continued, “The ability to read has always been invested with more importance than mere speech….But for most of human history literature has been spoken out loud.”

TFIOS_audioOne experiences a story differently, and remembers it differently, when hearing it read aloud as opposed to reading the text visually. Partly, audiobooks are a different reading experience for me because I don’t skip over sentences or skim paragraphs; I hear every single word. And a truly talented narrator can bring a book to life: listen to Jim Dale perform the Harry Potter books or Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, or Rebecca Lowman read Eleanor & Park or Rules of Civility. Kate Rudd reading The Fault in Our Stars brought me to tears, though I didn’t cry when I first read the book in print.

I think we are all hungry for stories, whether we read them to ourselves in print, listen to them as audiobooks, or read them out loud to ourselves or each other. If you aren’t an audiobook devotee already, I’d encourage you to give them a try. Libraries usually carry them on CD and sometimes on Playaways, and they are often downloadable in mp3 format too.