All posts by Laurie C

I’m a public librarian in Massachusetts who loves to give reading suggestions, whether asked-for or not, a specialty known in library jargon as “reader’s advisory”. I read a lot — mostly literary, genre, and young adult fiction, but also short stories and memoirs — and listen to a lot of audiobooks. Newer favorites include Patry Francis, Donna Tartt, Meg Wolitzer, Lev Grossman, Jennifer Egan, Laurie R. King, Lionel Shriver, Carolyn Parkhurst, Penny Vincenzi, Michael Connelly, Alexander McCall Smith, Orson Scott Card, Patrick Rothfuss, Martha Southgate, Jennifer Haigh, Zadie Smith, and Louise Penny. Some older favorites are Lorrie Moore, Anne Tyler, Ian McEwan, Susan Howatch, and Connie Willis.

7 Audiobooks for Winter Holiday Reading

Looking for audiobooks to listen to while you wrap gifts, bake cookies, or drive around to stores for last-minute shopping? You could always go with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (I like the dramatization by Patrick Stewart, but there are plenty of other readings out there by big names in audio like Frank Muller, Simon Prebble, Simon Vance, Jonathan Winters, and Scott Brick.) but if you’re looking for something different – maybe a little darker or more contemporary, focusing on secular aspects of Christmas more than the religious, more caustic than cozy – you might try these.

A Christmas blizzardA Christmas Blizzard by Garrison Keillor (HighBridge, 2009)
Narrated by Garrison Keillor
Humor with an undercurrent of sadness and satire is trademark Garrison Keillor, and his writing and narration of this short novel (5 CDs) is a good example. (If you’re a Prairie Home Companion listener, think of the News from Lake Woebegon segments, where radio host Keillor hints at the sublime by fondly and mildly ridiculing the inhabitants of a small Minnesotan town.) Mood music rises and falls in the background of the reading of this story about a wealthy man who wants to spend Christmas on his fabulous Hawaiian estate, Kuhikuhikapapa’-u’maumau, with his wife Joyce – away from everyone except for all the servants and personal assistants – while Joyce has more traditional ideas about how to spend Christmas.

The Christmas companionThe Christmas Companion (HighBridge, 2005)
Prairie Home Companion
Like listening to a couple of a Prairie Home Companion Christmas specials back to back, this compilation of stories, songs, and sketches from various years’ shows includes traditional, jazzy, and humorous Christmas songs (including a very funny Twelve Days of Christmas) and funny bits from the show, including a Guy Noir spoof about the noirish private eye tracking down the lactose-intolerant hate group (the Skimheads) that’s been terrorizing dairy-loving Minnesotans. This is a good audio to listen to while you’re busy doing other things because each segment is short, so it’s like having the radio on but being able to rewind if you miss a joke or a song!

Eight white nights : [a novel]Eight White Nights by André Aciman (Tantor, 2010)
Narrated by Paul Boehmer
This absolutely amazing reading by audiobook narrator Paul Boehmer blew me away, but the novel itself might induce claustrophobia in readers who prefer more action and less privileged Manhattanite self-examination. Eight White Nights is narrated by an intensely self-aware young man (left unnamed) who meets a beautiful young woman at a Christmas party and, as soon as he hears her voice, is stricken with desire. They both feel this instant connection, and spend the rest of the party saying clever things, ignoring the rest of the guests. Over the course of this long novel (17 hours on 14 CDs) the narrator obsesses over how to act with Clara (should he call her, when should he call her, what should he say if he calls her, maybe he’ll wait for her to call him, etc.) while maintaining a cool, self-assured exterior so as not to appear needy. This literary exploration of the workings of the human heart and brain cast a spell over me that lingered long after the book ended, so if the vivesection of a Manhattan love affair sounds appealing to you, try Eight White Nights for a change of pace during a frenetic holiday season.

Emily Alone by Stewart O’Nan (Recorded Books, 2011)
Narrated by Andrea Gallo
A follow-up to Wish You Were Here, this novel picks up the story of the widowed Emily Maxwell ten years later. Now in her late seventies, she is living quietly on her own, beginning to take stock of her life, its pleasures and disappointments, its routines and the changes she could make with or without consulting her two adult children, who are busy with their own lives and families. Emily Alone is true-to-life domestic fiction – Emily Maxwell doesn’t hare off to become a spy like Mrs. Pollifax or conduct a love affair à la Bridges of Madison County – and the heroine is thoroughly likeable, though imperfect. The parts of the story that take place from Thanksgiving to New Year’s may seem familiar to anyone who has navigated the treacherous terrain when separate family factions come together for the sake of the holidays, lugging all the baggage from the past with them.

Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard (Sound Library, now AudioGO, 2003)
Narrated by Mark Honan
The hero of Mr. Timothy is Tiny Tim Cratchit from A Christmas Carol, all grown up, sprung loose from the constrictions of his pious childhood and indulging in loose living until his benefactor, “Uncle” Ebenezer puts a hold on the funds, forcing him to make his own living and opening his eyes to new ways of looking at his past, present, and future. This is Dickens gone rogue, with Mr. Timothy taking up lodgings in a brothel and the f-word and c-word making an occasional appearance. It’s a dark London story with plenty of Dickensian characters like ragged orphans, shady villains, brothel keepers, and rough-talking river men with hearts of gold – and you will be rooting for Timothy after the first ten minutes. The novel’s first-person narration and colorful language are perfectly suited to audio, and the audio narration by Mark Honan is excellent!

NPR holiday favoritesNPR Holiday Favorites
Narrated by Susan Stamberg and many others
Introduced by Susan Stamberg, this is one of the few on this list that include Hanukkah- and Kwanzaa-themed stories along with Christmas ones, probably because it’s a mix of fiction and nonfiction segments that have been broadcast over the years on National Public Radio. A highlight, of course, is David Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries about his (brief) stint as a Christmas elf, but there are also some seriously heartwarming pieces mingled with the humorous ones. This would make a great gift for an audiobook lover who loves the holiday season; it’s one you can pull out and listen to again each year.

Image coming soonRumpole at Christmas by John Mortimer (BBC Audiobooks, now AudioGO, 2009)
Narrated by Bill Wallis
Even if you’re not familiar with the gruff English barrister known as Rumpole of the Bailey, these short, Christmas-themed stories will make for amusing, light holiday listening. Rumpole himself narrates the stories, and actor Bill Wallis captures perfectly the gruff pomposity and Colombo-like, deceptive bumbling of the sharp-eyed, skillful courtroom defender of London’s hoodlums and common thieves. The collection is made up of seven stand-alone tales of Horace Rumpole’s defense cases and home life with Hilda, his wife, known in Rumpole’s mind as “She Who Must Be Obeyed.” (Since Rumpole normally spends most of his time at the Bailey or drinking at Pommeroy’s wine bar across the street, home life around the holidays makes him more crotchety than usual, what with the courts closed and Hilda’s expecting him to celebrate instead of going to work.) Listen to a sample or download individual stories or the whole collection direct from AudioGo here.

Let me know what books to add to next year’s holiday listening list! (I’d especially like to add a couple of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa novels or short story collections for adults to this list, so please leave recommendations in the comments if you know some good ones.)

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Fast Times in Navel, Utah: Yikes! Another Quirky Audio Book by Adele Park

cover image of Yikes!For Yikes! Another Quirky Audio Book, a send-up of reality shows, bestselling authors, sex addict editors, and potheads (among other things), longtime radio personality and writer Adele Park, writer and producer of Jitters: A Quirky Little Audio Book, returns to Navel, Utah – home to aromatic orange groves and insular natives who discourage unwholesome outsiders with the ten miles of bumpy dirt road that is the only way into Navel through the desert.

But in this companion book to Jitters, the peace and quiet isolationism of Navel is shattered once again. This time by an invasion of coffee-drinking, marijuana-smoking, scantily clad, exhibitionist performance artists from loose-living places like New York City and Boulder, Colorado.

With backstories straight out of National Enquirer or Soap Opera Digest, the main characters of Yikes! are Blue McKenna, a pot-growing, publicity-shy, bestselling author; her plastic-surgery-addicted sister, Moon; Chet Waterhouse, a sex-addicted NYC book editor who’s jumping ship to television; and Chet’s voyeuristic teenage son, Anthony; who are all involved in taping a pilot reality TV show called Yikes! about performance artists competing to win the prize of exhibiting themselves in a New York gallery. Along with the main characters, the contestants on the show take turns giving their own takes on the producers, the other cast members, and the events of the story.

Full-cast audiobook productions are a different experience than listening to a traditional audiobook. With a traditional audiobook, one or maybe two narrators essentially read a book aloud (often with great skill) but full-cast audio is more like listening to a radio show, minus the sound effects. On the one hand, a badly voiced character can be a problem in a full-cast audio. (In this case, for me, it was the voice of Anthony; it sounded too old and too much like the actor was reading from a script, carefully enunciating each word with a put-on Brooklyn accent.) On the other hand, the voice that bothered me is only one of many, so it doesn’t spoil the whole experience the way a solo narrator who gets on a listener’s nerves would.

There’s an occasional reference to events from Jitters (the first book set in the fictional town of Navel from Adele Park and Straight to Audio Productions) but Yikes! stands on its own and has almost completely new characters. As with Jitters, there is absolutely nothing enriching, educational, or heartwarming about Yikes!. It’s entertainment for adult audiobook listeners who enjoy the broad, occasionally offensive humor of Saturday Night Live or The Onion. Its satirical humor might make you think briefly about your own views on social issues such as reality TV, gay rights, or marijuana legalization, but a moment later, the crazy plot takes over and you’re off on another wild tangent. As Adele Park says herself in a guest post at Life Between Pages:

Using satire, I explore issues ranging from gay rights to freedom of religion.  By exploiting the absurd, I try to illustrate the effect certain attitudes and acts of discrimination have on society.  But mostly, I’m just going for the grins and giggles.

Be sure to enter the giveaway to win a copy of Yikes! on MP3-CD. (U.S. only)

Disclosure: I received several copies of Yikes! on MP3-CD from the author for review, to give away, and for the public library.

Other Opinions (all good)
Audiobook Fans

Surviving the Worst Fear of Parents: The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison (Audio)

Book cover imageThe Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison, narrated by Jeff Woodman, will definitely go on my list of Best Audiobooks of 2012. It is a wonderful novel, narrated in an award-worthy performance by Jeff Goodman, who perfectly captures the voice of Ben Benjamin, a man cast adrift by grief and remorse.

At age 39, Ben has lost his family, his home, his job, his whole former life – and is about to hit bottom. Barely able to pay the rent on his tiny, rundown apartment and trying to get his heavy drinking habit under control, he takes a training course to become a personal care assistant – one of the few jobs low-paying enough for him to apply for with his lack of job experience and his vague liberal arts degree.

Although Ben tells readers right away that his kids are gone, the story of exactly what happened is revealed very gradually, so I won’t say anything more about it, except what we learn at the beginning – that he bears a horrible burden of grief and guilt. Recognizing all that he has lost, he still hopes for a reconciliation with his wife. Unable to accept that what has happened is final, he had been drinking himself into oblivion most nights, out of denial of the past and to escape a torturous present.

Jeff Woodman does an incredible job as narrator of this novel. He also did the audio edition of the young adult novel I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier and switched easily in that one between the youthful first-person narrator, Adam, and the dry, stern persona of the doctor/official interviewing him in recorded sessions. Here, he has to do the voices of Piper, Ben’s young daughter, and her younger brother Jodi. These must have been tricky voices to do, since Jodi has a speech impediment of some sort that makes him impossible for anyone but Piper to understand. Piper comes across as whiny, but that seems to be intentional, reminding listeners that family life is never perfect, even in retrospect.

I was so gutted by this book that I put off writing the review for a long time, to get a little distance from my emotional response to the story before trying to describe it. It’s a heartbreaking story, but also very funny, with that kind of dark humor that makes you laugh and feel sorrow over the human condition at the same time. When Ben applies for and gets the job with Trev, a horny nineteen-year-old with a progressive, incurable form of muscular dystrophy that confines him to a wheelchair, who lives with his mother Elsa, you might expect all three of these lonely people to be heartwarmingly transformed over the course of the book. Maybe even a medical miracle or two. But, no. While very moving, it’s not that kind of uplifting.

If you liked the oddball comedy of the movie Little Miss Sunshine, or the dark humor and slacker narrative voice of This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper, you will probably like this novel.

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving
Evison, Jonathan
Woodman, Jeff (narr.)
HighBridge Audio
August 2012
978-1611748994
9.25 hours
$34.95 U.S.

Listen to an excerpt from the audiobook here.

Other opinions (all excellent):
Jenn’s Bookshelves
The Literate Housewife
Under My Apple Tree

Disclosure: I received a review copy of The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving on CD from HighBridge Audio through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.