Category Archives: Audiobooks

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.

 

THE BEST KIND OF PEOPLE by Zoe Whittall

Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind Of People looks at what happens when a respected father, husband and teacher in an affluent suburb is accused of sexual misconduct with students at his school. George Woodbury is arrested and put in jail while awaiting trial, leaving his shocked wife, daughter and son to carry on as they wonder whether he is guilty of the crimes of which he’s been accused.

I got sucked into The Best Kind Of People early on, as the Woodburys’ lives unravel and each one breaks under the stress of the accusations. Wife Joan tries to be strong for her kids, but her faith and trust in her husband are deeply shaken as she comes to terms with her own doubts about his innocence. Daughter Sadie, a senior in high school, is ostracized by her classmates and turns to marijuana and a crush on an older man to escape her own disappointment in her father. And son Andrew, who has moved away and become a lawyer in Manhattan, has his own demons to wrestle with as his visits home to see his mother unearth painful memories of being a closeted teen. The book raises the question of how well we know the people we love, and what secrets might they be keeping? How would we react if we learned those secrets? Could we forgive them?

The Best Kind Of People had promise but ultimately didn’t live up to its potential. I found some of it to be pretty unrealistic, such as a subplot where the boyfriend of Sadie’s boyfriend’s mother decides to write a novel about the scandal and barely conceals Sadie’s identity as one of the characters. (Who would do that?) Some threads were picked up and dropped with no resolution, like that involving Andrew and his former coach and secret boyfriend. And the group of women (!) who defended George unconditionally and blamed the teenage victims was a little hard to take.

The resolution of George’s guilt was rushed and confusing, as it ignored several of the original complaints against him with no explanation.

My verdict: strong start with an intriguing premise, but too many holes, unanswered questions and unrealistic characters. It was a quick read that kept my attention but it ultimately didn’t hang together well and came to an unsatisfying conclusion.

I listened to The Best Kind Of People on audio, with narration by Cassandra Campbell. Campbell as always does a good job of differentiating voices and creating dramatic tension in her storytelling. I have written before that she tends to over-enunciate certain words, and this time was no exception, which I found a little distracting. I also don’t love her portrayal of moms – they always seem nagging and manic. But like I said, this audiobook kept me interested and entertained.

THE MISFORTUNE OF MARION PALM by Emily Culliton

So, someone in my neighborhood was recently found to have embezzled $35K over the last two years from the school-parent association at my son’s elementary school while serving as treasurer. I don’t know her – I don’t even know who she is, or even if she’s a she – but this development may have accelerated the rise of The Misfortune Of Marion Palm up my TBR list. Emily Culliton’s novel is about Marion Palm, a woman living in Brooklyn who goes on the lam after embezzling $180k from her daughters’ school.

This is an odd book. The story is told in a series of short chapters, told in the alternating viewpoints of Marion, her daughters Ginny and Jane, her husband Nathan, some of the people who work at the school and a detective who is investigating Marian’s departure. There is not a single likable character in this book, nor are they even relatable. Marion is oddly cold and unfeeling, admitting easily that she doesn’t miss her children after going underground. Nathan, her husband, is pretty pathetic until he launches a lifestyle blog about being a single dad, and then he’s just an opportunist. The daughters are cold and weird (and we see a glimpse of their future and it isn’t particularly bright). The school board members are gossipy and self-absorbed.

Culliton DID do a decent job of exploring how Marian started with the embezzling – and why she stuck with it – which was of course why I wanted to read the book. So that was satisfying. But I found the process of reading The Misfortune Of Marion Palm quite a slog. I wasn’t rooting for Marion or hoping she’d get away with the crime, because she was so unlikeable and didn’t have a plan of any sort for the money. Culliton has a sharp eye for detail and spares no one with her snark, but that didn’t make the story worth it for me.

I listened to The Misfortune of Marion Palm on audio. Narration by Saskia Maarleveld was fine, if a bit flat. She didn’t infuse much emotion into the characters, but it’s hard to fault her for that, given how they were written. Honestly, I just wanted to finish it and move on.

I’d be curious to hear from someone who liked The Misfortune of Marion Palm. There are a number of 5 star reviews on Goodreads so they are clearly out there. What did you like so much about this book?

 

THE WINDFALL by Diksha Basu

The Windfall by Diksha Basu is about the Jhas, a middle-aged Indian couple in Delhi who move from their middle-class apartment and neighborhood to a fancy new house when Mr. Jha sells his website for a lot of money. They are sad to leave their old friends behind and experience some growing pains as they get used to a bigger house and being able to buy whatever they want, but Mr. Jha in particular is eager to show off his wealth to his new neighbors. Meanwhile, their son Rupak is failing out of graduate school in America and hiding his American girlfriend from his parents.

That’s pretty much the whole book, other than a subplot about a young widow (neighbor to the Jhas) who finds love with the brother of the Jhas’ new neighbors.

So, I *really* didn’t like The Windfall. The characters were vapid and materialistic, caring only about appearances and keeping up with the rich neighbors and impressing the old ones. They don’t talk about anything of substance, ever. There is one time when Mr. Jha seems to question the purpose of life to Mrs. Jha, but that lasts about 2 sentences and is over before she can even respond. Rupak is aimless, inconsiderate and lazy, and when he gets booted from Ithaca College for smoking dope, his parents welcome him back to India and seem almost proud that he’s back living on their dime, because it shows that they are rich enough to support him. He at least seems a little more introspective than his parents, who just bicker and whine at each other.

There was so much potential here – The Windfall could have been funny, incisive, biting, wry, or even just plain interesting – and it was none of those things. There was no tension or suspense, and one out-of-character meltdown right at the end of the book seemed totally implausible and out of place, rather than serving as some sort of dramatic peak.

I didn’t even get a good sense of Delhi from this book – just the fancy new neighborhood of Gurgaon and the Jha’s new sofa.

I listened to The Windfall on audio. Narration by Soneela Nankani was fine – she did different accents for different characters, particularly people of different social levels – but I wonder if her narration exacerbated my issues with the book. Even she seemed to be irritated by the characters. She probably could have toned the performance down a little bit, just to make it all seem a little less absurd, but I am not sure it would have redeemed the book for me.

Cute cover, at least.