Category Archives: Audiobooks

FOLDED NOTES FROM HIGH SCHOOL by Matt Boren

I was flailing around for an audiobook a few weeks ago, and I happened upon a review download on Penguin Random House Audio’s Volumes app called Folded Notes From High School by Matt Boren. It ended up being an entertaining, if quick, listen. I think it’s probably a YA novel, which I don’t usually read, but I liked it anyway.

Folded Notes From High School takes place in 1991 in a high school outside Boston. Tara, a popular, pretty girl, is starting her senior year. She expects to play the lead in the upcoming school musical, Grease; go to the prom at the end of the year with her hot hockey player boyfriend; hang out with her best friend Stef; and get into NYU, her first choice for college. Nothing goes as planned. As the title suggests, Folded Notes From High School unfolds though a series of handwritten notes to and from Tara and left in lockers, backpacks and on desks. It’s 1991-1992, so there are no cell phones, texts or emails. These kids communicate by notes and messages on answering machines. It all feels very retro, which is a lot of fun.

Tara is an unreliable narrator – narcissistic and deluded – and she runs hot and cold with everyone in her life. She is thrown off-center when a freshman named Matt Bloom tries out for – and lands – the part of Danny Zuko. She develops a crush on Matt, but when he doesn’t readily return her romantic attention – and in fact starts dating Tara’s rival – she becomes unhinged. The rest of senior year plays out with lots of melodrama, with Tara conniving and manipulating the people around her.

This was definitely a light read, but it was entertaining. I enjoyed the different voices of each character, and Tara is someone you love to hate. She gets what’s coming to her in a few different, humorous ways. One issue: the book ends pretty abruptly – at first I thought it was a mistake – and I would have enjoyed a bit more resolution.

Folded Notes From High School was excellent on audio. There’s a different narrator for each character, and they were each perfect! Selma Blair in particular was very funny – breathy and dramatic – and the actress who played Tara, Taylor Spreitler, was excellent. This was a very good ensemble cast production and it kept me interested throughout.

 

STILL ME by Jojo Moyes

Most people have heard of (seen? read?) Me Before You (reviewed here), Jojo Moyes’ wrenching novel about Louisa Clarke and Will Traynor, the paraplegic whom she served as a personal companion and who opted for assisted suicide at the end of the book. Moyes followed up her bestselling novel with After You (reviewed here), about Lou’s life in England after Will’s death. And the third book in the trilogy, Still Me, takes Lou to New York City, where she is hired to be a companion to a rich woman on the Upper East Side.

So here’s the deal with Still Me. It’s not nearly as good as Me Before You, and not as good as After You, but it’s still dependably entertaining Jojo Moyes. She knows how to tell a good story. In this installment, Lou faces her share of challenges and issues, but overall the book punches a much weaker emotional wallop than its predecessors. It’s nice to see Lou gain more confidence and navigate some moral quandaries, and still come through on top in the end. The characters, from enigmatic Agnes to MBA pretty boy Sam, are memorable and occasionally surprising. But you pretty much know that things will end up OK for Lou, and they do.

If you’ve read the other two books and you want to see what happens next to Lou, then pick up Still Me. But don’t start off with Still Me – you’ll be missing out on the emotional core of her story.

I listened to Still Me on audio, which I recommend. It was narrated by Anna Acton, who narrated After You, and to me, she IS Lou Clarke. She had a slightly hard time with the American accents, but I loved her precise English delivery of the rest of the novel. The story kept me interested throughout, which made for an engaging audiobook.

THE FEMALE PERSUASION by Meg Wolitzer

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer is about Greer Kadetsky, a young woman at a second-rate college in Connecticut who, on a fateful night, attends a lecture by a prominent feminist named Faith Frank. Greer, who has already begun to look at how men treat women on campus with a newly critical and analytical eye, is forever changed by Faith’s lecture, and a few years later, when she is a new graduate with little direction, she reaches out to Frank for advice. Her timing is good; Frank has just shuttered her longstanding feminist magazine and is now launching a speaker series about women’s issues funded by a famous, prickly venture capitalist.

And so, Greer goes off into the world under Faith’s tutelage, learning how to be an adult and how to work in the world. Meanwhile, her high school boyfriend Cory experiences a sad diversion in his own professional plans, while her best friend Zee similarly tries to find her own path while rejecting her parents’ expectations. And Faith herself finds her commitment to her ideals tested in a way that threatens her relationship with Greer.

The Female Persuasion is billed as a novel for the #MeToo era, one that takes on modern day feminism and explores the power constructs that have allowed gender discrimination to persist. But I found The Female Persuasion more successful on a less grand level. Like Wolitzer’s earlier books, The Female Persuasion is a dense, richly detailed chronicle of a personal relationships – romantic, friendship and professional – and how they evolve over time. There are certainly flashes of the more universal themes of feminism and empowerment, but they were not the most persuasive elements of the book. I always appreciate Wolitzer’s rich detail, gentle humor and observant eye, as well as the incredibly realistic world she creates for her characters. That’s what I took away from The Female Persuasion. Greer can be annoying at times – she seems incapable of acting unless something is handed to her – but Faith, Zee and Cory are interesting and memorable characters and I cared about what happened to them.

I listened to The Female Persuasion mostly on audio, which was narrated by Rebecca Lowman. She did an excellent job with a long book and many characters. Her precise, measured delivery was a good match for this detailed, absorbing book.

I went to a Q&A with Meg Wolitzer at Politics & Prose here in DC last week, and here is some of what I learned:

  1. Wolitzer wanted to write about “the person who sees something in you and changes you” and “idealism, the motor that sends you off when you start out”.
  2. In Cory, she wanted to explore one version of doing good and making a difference, but by a male character.
  3. In fiction “what we remember isn’t plot but character”. (For most books, I think that’s true.)
  4. Reading breeds empathy by showing readers how other people live. (Yes!)
  5. She didn’t try to keep up with current events in this novel, though she does refer to the Trump administration at the end as “the big terribleness”.
  6. As for feminism: there are many generations of feminists in this book, and she wanted to explore the conflict between these different ages.
  7. She agrees that this book is about characters, not necessarily the broad swaths of feminism.
  8. She believes in “writing the way you go through your life” and “writing about what obsesses you”. (I love this. It sounds so obvious, but it clearly isn’t always how authors approach their work.)

 

THE BOOKSELLER by Cynthia Swanson

Ugh – over 2 weeks since my last post. I’m here, I’m reading – I just have a lot going on and haven’t been able to keep up the same pace as the first 2 months of 2018. But I have a lot of good books coming up on my TBR and hope to pick up the speed a little.

I did finish The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson last week. The Bookseller is a Sliding Doors-esque novel in which a single woman in her thirties, Kitty Miller, wakes up day from a strange dream in which she is married with three kids. In the dream, she lives in a suburban part of Denver in the 60s, whereas in her real life, she lives downtown and runs a bookstore with her best friend. She finds the dream intriguing – who is this handsome architect she has married? – and in the subsequent weeks, she finds herself returning more and more frequently to the alternative dreamscape in which she has a different identity. Ultimately, the reader finds herself questioning which version of Kitty is real, and which is imagined?

I don’t want to give away too much of the story, because the fun of The Bookseller is figuring out how the two lives unfold and affect each other. The dual tracks of Kitty’s life turn out to be zero-sum; very little that exists in one life also exists in the other. And this is intentional, setting up a painful contrast between the two and ultimately a difficult choice as Kitty has to commit to one or the other.

The Bookseller of course requires some suspension of disbelief, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it magical realism. I enjoyed Swanson’s storytelling and the depiction of life as a single woman a half-century ago in Denver. Kitty is a bit simplistic at times – Swanson’s depiction of parenting and marriage was cliched –  but I liked this story, which is on the lighter story and provided a more upbeat antidote to the sadder books I read right before The Bookseller.

I mostly listened to The Bookseller on audio. Narration by Kathe Mazur was fine and I found myself engrossed in the story and eager to get back to it.

If you want a lighter read and are willing to tolerate some ambiguity, give The Bookseller a try. It’s not terribly deep but serves as a great palate-cleanser.

 

 

NOMADLAND by Jessica Bruder

Nomadland by Jessica Bruder looks at a relatively invisible American demographic: a mobile workforce, made up mostly of people in their 60s and 70s, who live out of vans and cars and follow low-wage seasonal employment opportunities around the country because they can’t afford homes. I wasn’t aware of this demographic before I read about Nomadland, and once I read the book’s synopsis I knew I wanted to get hold of it.

In Nomadland, Bruder looks a range of employers and job opportunities that have attracted nomad workers, including: Amazon, who hires hundreds of workers (“Camper Force”) at warehouses across the country to handle holiday season order fulfillment; national parks who hire “camp hosts” to staff campgrounds over the summer; amusement parks; the sugar beet industry, who needs seasonal harvesters; and more. These employers hire nomad workers who descend on their locations, setting up temporary mobile home communities while the work is still paying. When the work dries up, the vans pull out and the communities disappear. The work is usually tedious, physically taxing and low paying, but the workers come anyway. They need the money.

In addition to looking at the jobs, Bruder spends a lot of time on the nomads’ way of life. Where do they shower? Park? How do they get mail?  Bruder did an incredible amount of research for Nomadland, including getting her own van and spending time on the road with her subjects. She even took a job at Amazon as part of Camper Force to truly understand the experience of nomadic work. The result is a very thorough and empathetic view of the challenges of this type of lifestyle.

Bruder focused on one nomad – a woman named Linda – throughout Nomadland to lend the book a narrative structure. Linda went from a national park in California to a casino to an Amazon warehouse in search of income. The depiction of Linda’s story really captures the dichotomy of the nomadic lifestyle. On one hand, Linda enjoys an untethered existence, free to come and go as she wants, while still enjoying the benefits of a vibrant community of friends. Without rent to pay, she is unshackled from some of the financial stress that her peers share. Yes, she lives on a tight budget, heading to Mexico for cheap medical treatment and postponing needed repairs on her van, but she is debt-free and able to support herself. But Linda’s story is emblematic of so many Americans whose fortunes were decimated by the 2008 financial crisis. They lost jobs, savings, retirement plans, and the comfort of knowing that their needs would be covered into old age. Faced with financial uncertainty, they take to the road because they tave no other options. And while living on the road may sound romantic, it’s also hard in many, many ways.

Nomadland was a fascinating book. There were a few places where Bruder veered off course a little and I found myself losing focus. The chapters focusing on Linda were the easiest to follow, but some of the other nomads’ stories tended to ramble a little. That said, I still found this to be an interesting and disturbing read. Of the many casualties of the financial crisis, these older Americans without good options are among the saddest.

I listened to Nomadland on audio. It was narrated by my friend Karen White, who gave it just the gravity it needed. Her precise delivery, verging on alarmed, conveyed the substance and urgency of the topic, yet she handled the book’s wry and humorous moments just as well.

 

 

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.