Category Archives: Audiobooks

BORN TO RUN by Bruce Springsteen

Born To Run is Bruce Springsteen’s epic, spiritual, meandering memoir, written over six years as a side project to his touring and songwriting. It starts at Bruce’s birth in Freehold, NJ in 1949 and ends in his mid 60s, exploring not only his musical career but also his relationships and his spiritual and emotional journey through life.

Like many of Bruce’s songs, the writing in Born To Run is rich and poetic. Yes, I think the book could have been edited a bit. (But who wants to tell that to The Boss?) Yes, he repeats himself a lot. But the memoir also intensely personal and introspective, and his perspectives on his working class roots and the demons he’s battled throughout his life are quite moving.

Here’s what surprised me from reading Born To Run:

  • Bruce is a lot more insecure than one would think (I mean, he’s Bruce!), and that insecurity fuels him. He says his 3 1/2 hour shows are because he feels like he has to prove something.
  • He also has a big ego and manages the E Street band more like a autocracy than a democracy. He makes the decisions and the other musicians – as accomplished as they are – have to fall in line.
  • He has dealt with depression throughout his adult life, including some crippling bouts in the last decade that left him paralyzed and unable to work.
  • Patti Scialfa, his wife, is intensely private but more interesting (and patient!) than I realized.

If you’re a fan of his music, Bruce talks a lot about his albums and what he was trying to accomplish on each of them, how/where they were recorded and how they fit into his overall musical evolution. He also spends a lot of time on his bandmates, including “The Big Man” Clarence Clemons, Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren. There’s plenty of fodder for those who are well-acquainted with Bruce’s songs and the guys (and woman) he’s had on stage with him over the decades.

The first third of the book is a little slow, as Bruce gets bogged down in endless details about early bands, gigs and roadtrips. I found that Born To Run picked up a fair amount when his career did.

I listened to 2/3 of Born To Run on audio.  It’s narrated by Bruce, which was a thrill. He infuses his narration with emotion and humor in his distinctive, raspy voice. Unfortunately, it was just too long to do the whole thing on audio, so I switched to print for the last third.

Born To Run gave me a much better sense of the complexity behind this great showman. And I liked how, at the end, he expressed his hopes that reading his memoir would encourage others to take some time for the process of self-reflection. If you’re a Bruce fan or you like rock memoirs, pick this one up.

Apropos of nothing, my top 5 Bruce songs of all time:

  1. Thunder Road
  2. Badlands
  3. Tunnel Of Love
  4. The Rising
  5. Born To Run

GREEN by Sam Graham-Felsen

Green by Sam Graham-Felsen is a novel about David Greenfeld, a sixth grade boy growing up in Boston in the 90s who doesn’t fit in at school. He’s white and Jewish, and while he’d like to go to private school, his hippie parents who “believe in public school” send him to “the King”, a predominantly African-American middle school in Jamaica Plain. David is a frequent target of bullying and teasing by his classmates, and he unsuccessfully he tries to fit in with his black classmates as he navigates the hierarchy of middle school and the complicated world of race relations.

Unexpectedly, David becomes friends with Marlon, a boy from the nearby projects who stands up for him at lunch one day. They share a love of the Celtics and a desire to test into Boston Latin, a public magnet school that would provide an escape from the King and the promise of success and riches down the road. It’s clear that Marlon has a difficult home life, with a mentally unstable mother, but to a naive David, Marlon is just the best friend he never had.

Green is a memorable coming-of-age story that feels authentic and accurate. Graham-Felson grew up in Boston and, like his main character, attended a school in which he was one of the only white kids. (Graham-Felson later served as President Obama’s chief blogger during the 2008 election, so he knows a little something about race in America.) There are so many little details here that lend the story relatability and immediacy – the rants from David’s cranky, Holocaust-survivor grandfather; his father’s Birkenstocks with socks; the bean sprout sandwich that his father packs him for lunch. But the book goes deeper with an insightful look at what it’s like to be in the minority and yet be favored and treated better than most people around you. The principal looks out for David, storekeepers let him loiter in their stores, and he enjoys a home with luxuries around him that many of his classmates can’t afford. And yet Dave’s life is stressful, especially when he is taunted on the bus or mugged on the basketball court. And when his relationship with Marlon becomes distant and awkward, Dave is more alone than ever.

There is a lot of 90s slang in here – did white kids ever talk like that?

Overall I liked Green and am glad I read it. It can get a little slow, but Graham-Felsen expertly captures those awkward years, especially as lived by someone who had a hard time fitting in.

I listened to Green on audio and I have one major complaint. The narrator, Prentice Onayemi, is very good, but he’s African-American, which seemed like a weird choice for a book about the one white kid in a black school. Why not go with a white narrator? The whole point is that David isn’t black and feels like an outsider. I enjoyed the audio but this bothered me throughout.

 

GOODBYE FOR NOW by Laurie Frankel

A fellow book blogger, Catherine of Gilmore Guide to Books, recommended a book by Laurie Frankel as one of her top reads of the year. I am reading that book now – This Is How It Always Is – and when I was researching it, I came across another one of Frankel’s books that caught my eye. That book showed up on audio sooner than the other one, so I picked it up first.

Goodbye For Now is a novel set in Seattle. When it opens, Sam and Meredith are coworkers at an online dating company, Sam a programmer and Meredith in marketing. Sam develops an algorithm that identifies soul mates, which identifies Meredith as his perfect match. They start dating and fall in love, and all goes well until Sam is laid off and Meredith’s grandmother dies. Meredith is devastated, and desperate to make her feel better, Sam creates a program that mines all of Meredith’s emails from and video chats with her grandmother and creates a posthumous, digital version of her capable of interacting with Meredith on her computer. Meredith is horrified at first, but as soon as she finishes their “chat”, she wants to do it again.

From this experiment, a company called RePose is born. The recently bereaved hire RePose to create digital alter egos of their loved ones, and then come to RePose’s office to interact with them. Word of this new service spreads quickly throughout Seattle, and Sam and Meredith find themselves very busy with their new venture.

Goodbye For Now is a thought-provoking exploration of death, grieving and the ways in which survivors try to comfort themselves. There are many types of deaths in Goodbye For Now – sudden ones, deaths after long illnesses, deaths of children, spouses and parents, deaths of friends. There are even non-deaths, as families with loved ones suffering from Alzheimer’s sign up for RePose to be reminded of what they were like before the disease. Does RePose actually help the people left behind? Or does it keep them from moving on? What about the people who can talk more freely and honestly to the RePose version of their dead spouse than they could to the living one, while he was alive? And does RePose put pressure on the dying, who feel they need to create a positive, happy digital archive for their families so that they can have positive, happy conversations after they’ve died?

Heavy stuff. And I haven’t even mentioned the deaths that actually happen in the book.

I love Frankel’s writing and her sense of humor. She’s smart and thoughtful, which shows through in both Goodbye For Now and This Is How It Always Is. I wish we were friends IRL – she seems like a very cool person. (Laurie – friend me!) I also liked Sam and Meredith’s relationship, which was not plagued with conflict (unusual for a novel) but was built on love, attraction and respect.

Overall, I liked Goodbye For Now, though it dragged in places and seemed to take a while to get through. There is a lot of detail and a lot of conversation, some of which could have been trimmed. But it’s a moving and sad book, and it’s one that will stay with me for a long time. If you can stomach the sadness and grieving, it’s a worthwhile investment.

I listened to Goodbye For Now on audio. It was narrated by Kirby Heyborne, and even though it was written in third person, he was the perfect narrator for Sam, the main character. He sounded like a programmer – precise and focused, yet kind and passionate (and emotionally broken, when necessary). The audio was well done and I recommend it, though it too was a little long.

THE FUTURES by Anna Pitoniak

Anna Pitoniak’s The Futures is a novel about a particular slice of life in a very specific point in time: post-college New York City in the late 2000s. Julia and Evan met as freshmen at Yale and started dating after a few months of being close friends. They stayed together through his years as a Yale hockey player, her semester in France, and various college flirtations. After graduation, they move together to Manhattan, where Evan works as an analyst at a prestigious hedge fund and Julia, after a few weeks of flailing, takes an executive assistant job at a nonprofit funded by friends of her parents.  As the year unfolds, their relationship is tested by a number of external forces (the market crash of ’08, Julia’s flirtation with a business journalist, Evan’s long hours) as they try to navigate their adult lives, together and on their own.

 

Off the bat I’ll say that there are some things I didn’t like about The Futures. Julia is whiny and self-pitying, so paralyzed by indecision that she’s constantly susceptible to the motives and whims of others. She’s incapable of doing anything on her own, and the only characters she interacts with other than through work are people she knew before she came to NY. She blames everyone else for her problems and refuses to take responsibility for herself. Evan’s not much better. He does have a moral compass, but he turns out to be pretty unfeeling and unsympathetic. Meanwhile, as noted above, the book is about a very small, specific New York world: privileged Ivy League twentysomethings living in fancy NY neighborhoods.

 

So what’s good about this book, if its two main characters are unlikable and its purview is so narrow? Well, first, Pitoniak is a very good writer. I loved her little observations and details; she knows how to describe a room or a character and make it come to life in the most vivid way. Second, I am many years removed from those untethered, often depressing first years out of college, when you don’t know what to do with yourself and you’ve lost the safety net of classmates and the college routine, but I remember them well. I, too, lived in New York during those years, and I remember that feeling of being surrounded by people who had a life and a plan, while I didn’t. Pitoniak captured that all pretty well. The story unfolded nicely, and I was eager to know what was going to happen. The alternating narrative between Evan and Julia was pretty effective, and certainly helped to underscore the growing distance between the two.

The Futures is not a cautionary tale about the financial crash, but instead a smaller book about a few casualties of it. It may not be perfect, but it was entertaining and well-written, and I am glad I read it.

I listened to The Futures on audio, and I can’t really recommend it. The performer who narrated Julia, Sarah Mollo-Christensen, chose to use a breathy, dramatic delivery that I found distracting (and that only enhanced Julia’s irritating qualities). The narrator for Evan, Michael Crouch, was better. Despite these complaints, though, I zipped through the audio and was eager to get back to it when I had to stop listening.

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere is the latest novel from Celeste Ng, who wrote the popular Everything I Never Told You (reviewed here) in 2014. Little Fires Everywhere takes place in idyllic Shaker Heights, OH, where Elena Richardson lives with her husband Bill and four kids, Tripp, Lexie, Moody and Izzy. The Richardsons are well off – they have a big house and their kids drive fancy cars, do lots of activities and apply to Ivy League schools.  When the book opens, someone has set fire to the Richardson house, and everyone suspects Izzy. But why?

Izzy’s anger at her mother – building for years – is stoked when Elena leases a small rental house the family owns to a mother and daughter, Mia and Pearl, who move to town with few belongings under a shroud of mystery. Elena is immediately suspicious of Mia, an artist who has lived her life on the move and who embraces none of the traditional trappings that Elena has always sought. Mia and Pearl’s lives become increasingly intertwined with the Richardsons’ when Mia starts cleaning their house and Pearl becomes close with three of the four siblings. Izzy, meanwhile, is drawn to Mia and becomes an apprentice of sorts to her, which drives a wedge even further between her and her mother.

Ng is a good storyteller, letting the connections between the two families slowly grow deeper as the pages turn. There is a side plot involving the adoption of an abandoned Chinese baby by a white family, but while I expected that story to be more central to the novel, it wasn’t. Elena and Mia wind up on opposite sides of the controversy over the adoption, but the real story here is about the relationship between the two families.

Little Fires Everywhere has been very well-received, but I have to admit that I didn’t love it. There were too many neat parallels involving motherhood and pregnancy for the story to remain plausible to me. Elena – a reporter – got access, often too conveniently, to information that she shouldn’t have known, and everything ultimately got resolved too abruptly and dramatically in the end. Some of the characters became more one-dimensional over time, particularly Elena, making them less sympathetic and the story less complex. So while I enjoyed the process of the story unfolding, I found in the end that it lacked substance. I didn’t take away much from the book.

I listened to Little Fires Everywhere on audio. Jennifer Lim’s narration was precise and empathetic, though at times a little too upbeat for the subject matter. But she moved the story along nicely, and the hours went by quickly. I just wished the promise of the story had held up throughout the book.

WHAT HAPPENED by Hillary Rodham Clinton

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, and rarely political non-fiction, but I made an exception for Hillary Clinton’s new book, What Happened, which is her post-mortem on the 2016 election.

Full disclosure: #I’mWithHer. Have been from the beginning – even the 2008 presidential race. My husband worked for Hillary for four years at the State Department, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet her, as have my kids. So I went into What Happened already a big fan of Hillary’s. And I went into it as someone who was existentially disappointed after the 2016 election and who has been depressed and angry ever since. So that’s the prism through which I read the book.

Even though What Happened got me angry all over again, I really enjoyed it and am glad I read it. There are several sections of the book: some background on her decision to run for president in ’08 and ’16, some chapters about her personal life, a fair amount (too much?) about her policy positions, and, of course, a detailed dissection of the months leading up to Election Day 2016. There is a lot of coverage of Comey and the emails, and a very alarming chapter on Russia’s tampering in the election. But she doesn’t just blame her loss on Bernie and the emails and the Russians. Hillary takes on a lot of responsibility for the way things turned out. She knows there are a lot of people who don’t like her (as hard as that is for her), and she acknowledges missteps she made during the campaign, such as her controversial comment about coal mining. She also offers a lot of theories for why certain groups voted for Trump, why some didn’t vote at all, and how campaign tweaks might have flipped key districts that ended up sealing the deal for Trump.

It’s so clear to me that Hillary was absolutely qualified to be president and that our world would be such a different, safer and better place than it is now, had she won. What Happened confirmed all that, of course, but it also gave me a better sense of who Hillary is as a person, which I appreciated. Her humor shows through in the book, as does her intellect and her passion for public service and making the world a better place, particularly for the disenfranchised and disadvantaged.

Here are some of the criticisms and reservations I’ve heard about this book: “I can’t read it. Too soon.”; “She’s not going to talk about her role in losing the election.”; “Enough from her already.”; “It will make me too upset”. I get it; yes, she did; it’s never enough; and yes, it’s beyond upsetting. But it was oddly reassuring to hear her perspective, and to hear her say that we’ll get through this and that things will get better again. I hope she really believes that, because I am depending on that hope.

I listened to What Happened on audio. It’s narrated by Hillary, and hearing this all in her words and in her voice made for a very powerful experience. I highly recommend the audio on this one. I am not going to go into her narration – you know what Hillary sounds like. (I will confess that I sped it up a little bit because she talks pretty slowly. It’s a long book!)

My guess is you’re either going to read this book or you’re not. I can only say that if you’ve been hesitating because you’re worried you’ll be too upset, give it a try. You may be surprised by how it makes you feel.

STAY WITH ME by Ayobami Adebayo

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo is a moving novel about a marriage tested and strained by infertility, secrets and the pressure of tradition. When the book opens, Yejide and Akin, a modern Nigerian couple who met at college, are in love and have a respectful marriage of equals. After several years of marriage, Yejide is not pregnant, and Akin’s family pressures him to take a second wife to produce a child, even though he promised Yejide that she would always be his only wife. The introduction of that wife, Funmi, sets into motion a chain of events that does lead to pregnancy, but also brings heartbreak and tragedy.

There are layers of secrets and betrayals to be revealed, the cumulative effects of which drive a wedge between Akin and Yejide that causes them to separate for a decade (which is made clear in the first chapter). This is a terribly sad story, with two people who love each other deeply but who are also desperate to get what they want as well, by whatever means necessary. Ultimately, this modern couple cannot escape tradition – the traditional pressures to have children, the looming spectre of polygamy, even the genetic disease that Yejide carries – and that pull of tradition dooms them.

Adebayo is a masterful storyteller. The book took some turns I didn’t expect, and her slow revealing of Yejide and Akin’s history was enthralling. But I often had the sensation of being in a downward spiraling eddy, as things got worse and worse with little hope of redemption. I kept wanting things to get righted, and they don’t.

I listened to Stay With Me on audio. The narration by Adjoa Andoh was just perfect –  so many accents, dialects, tones, moods, each done beautifully. I really enjoyed the performance and felt that it really enhanced my understanding of and appreciation for the book.

Stay With Me has gotten a lot of acclaim this year, and rightly so. I recommend it – just be emotionally ready for it.