Category Archives: Audio books

Top Reads of 2011

For the first time in years, I am all over this holiday season.  I’ve decorated my house, found a gorgeous new wreath for front door, and hung the stockings.  We’ve watched the first half of It’s A Wonderful Life.  The tree has been up for almost 48 hours and the puppy has not knocked it down or eaten the ornaments or been electrocuted by the lights.

As this year winds itself down, I’m taking a look back at my top reading pleasures of 2011.  Here they are, in no particular order:












In making my list I made some discoveries:

1.  I’m growing up.  My preferences have become less highbrow (what I’m supposed to read) and more about what I enjoy.

2.  I read far fewer books in 2011 than I thought I did.  I spent more time engrossed in author interviews and great, long essays.

3.  I tend to read and re-read my favorite authors.  I need to give the lesser-knowns more of a chance.

4.  I don’t like fiction as much as I used to.  In fact, I’m reading a National Book Award winner now and I feel manipulated.

5.  The memoir is not dead.  In fact, it’s barely got it’s sea legs.  Peoples’ real lives, and how they choose to make them into art, are endlessly fascinating.

What did you discover about your reading self?  Have any favorite books to share?

Breaking It Down

From PaperLanternLane

One thing I miss about school is sitting around the table with a group of readers and taking a story — usually a short story — and breaking it down to see how it works.

Today I came across this Podcast at The New Yorker:  it’s my favorite writing teacher, ZZ Packer, reading “Paper Lantern” and then talking with Deborah Treisman about the mechanics.  Here’s the audio link:  Paper Lantern by Stuart Dybek.  If there’s anything that helps me figure out my own writing, it’s seeing how someone else pulls it off.  I started out enjoying the story, ZZ’s voice, and her great big laugh, but ended up with the perfect writing prompt for today.


P.S.  We’ve been talking about the importance of libraries lately.  How about this Dybek quote: “The public library is where place and possibility meet.”  My 10 year old self would have agreed.

Temps Below Normal

The view from here, lounging on the cold white sand, right before losing the shoes.

Yesterday would have been my mother’s 66th birthday, and I decided to mark the occasion with a walk on the beach.  On the hour drive there, I listened to Diana Gabaldon’s DRAGONFLY IN AMBER — a romance about time travel — and watched the digital, outside-temp display on my dashboard drop and drop.  56 degrees.

July 11th, summer, and it was breezy enough for a sweater and a jacket.  Too cold to take off my shoes!  But then Lea wanted to run in and out of the surf and, like follow the leader, I became her follower.  I chased her in.  She chased me out.

No less than 20 people said hello, asked how old my “puppy” was, and urged their dogs to romp and play with mine.  So California, I thought.  My mother would have liked California.

For the drive back home, I called my mom’s favorite sister, Aunt Mary, put her on the speakerphone and listened.

–  Hold on a second, I’m taping a show on the Classics Channel.  Do you watch that?  Back when we were little, we watched all these old movies with your grandma.  Montgomery Clift and Bette Davis.  Elizabeth Taylor in “A Place in the Sun.”  Bette Davis, she was scary!

–  It’s hotter than hell here today.  105 they say.  You can’t get out.  You can’t breathe in this shit!

– I’ve been in this apartment too damn long.  I hate my neighbors.  I only go out my door to get the mail, I tell you.  (she laughs and laughs)  I’m turning into your grandmother.

–  You should see my new Elvis box.  I keep my key chain collection in there.  The last time you called — let’s see, it’s right here on my caller ID — was May 31st.  Is that right?  You were in London?!  I have a key chain from London.  Did you get it for me?

–  I want to be buried out at Cape County Park, where people can drive by and wave!, but it’s too expensive.  I think I can still get a plot over on Perry by Mom and Daddy for $300.  Do you know they bought those plots when we were in grade school?  For $50!

–  Do you remember Dano from “Hawaii 5.0”?  What’s his real name?  I used to remember shit like this.  He was the sidekick, the short one.

–  I’m 68 and I can hardly believe it.  Your mom would have been 66 today.  Shit, we’re old.  Pretty soon you kids will be the old ladies of the family.  You’re too young to be the old ladies!  That doesn’t make a lick o’ sense, does it?

Before I knew it my hour drive was over and I was turning into my driveway.  The sun had come out.  81 degrees by the dashboard light.  Aunt Mary said, Don’t be a stranger! and we hung up.

Like the audiobook on the drive to the beach, Aunt Mary voice — her storytelling — had been my time travel on my way back home.  Her tone, her laugh, her Damnits!  and Shits! and humor and subject-matter so much like her sister.  Her sister.  My mother.  Happy birthday, Mom.

But What Is It About?

Looking up in Barcelona: What is this?

We had book club this week.  And sadly, once again, I did not finish the book.  Heck, I barely even started it (100 pages into Wally Lamb’s 700 page THE HOUR I FIRST BELIEVED).  I’m usually the snob who raises her hackles at those who don’t read the books.  Why be in a book club then? I think.  Not reading the book is rude, like when somebody gives you a nice gift and you don’t bother with a thank you.  I’m disappointed in me.

Everyone who finished the book loved it, but they also said you needed to “get past the Columbine stuff” and 150 pages before it kicked in.  So I guess I can blame myself for a lack of stick-to-it-ness, or no attention span.  I just kept thinking, What in the world is this about? and then I put the book down, threw up my hands, and gave up.


It’s my turn to host book club for May, which also means I picked our next book:  LIT, a memoir by Mary Karr.  We don’t really read memoirs in this group, so it will be, well, interesting.  I’ve read it twice, and listened to it on audio a few times as well; that’s how much I love the story and the way only Mary Karr can tell it.  Yet, when I tried to describe what it’s about to that roomful of book-clubbers, I had a hard time.  So I sent them this great video:

Inside my head, the proverbial light bulb flashed:  I also have a hard time stating, succinctly, what my own WIP is about.  What’s your book about? people ask (seeming truly interested) and then I gawk at them with the blankest of blank faces while I struggle to spit out something unintelligible.  Watching this Mary Karr video over and over again is helping me find my words.

Excuse Me, Madame

I’m well into the latest translation of MADAME BOVARY by Lydia Davis, and I couldn’t be happier.

Josephine Carr suggested the other day that I listen to it on audio — as it’s read by Davina Porter, and my god Davina is one of the best — but Davina’s version is not available for download and the local library copy is checked out.  So I’m waiting for the audio, and reading instead.

You know what’s so great about the story so far?  How much Flaubert trusts his reader to be smart and able to follow the complexities.  I thank him for that.  Here is my favorite paragraph so far:

Before her marriage, she had believed that what she was experiencing was love; but since the happiness that should have resulted from that love had not come, she thought she must have been mistaken.  And Emma tried to find out just what was meant, in life, by the words “bliss,” “passion,” and “intoxication,” which had seemed so beautiful to her in books. (p. 30)

Which had seemed so beautiful to her in books.  Any thoughts?

In Didion Land

I first read THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING in 2006.  I read it in two days.  I think I read it in two days.  I don’t know if this is true, but that’s the way I remember it.  Two days.

Since then I’ve listened to it on audio no less than 5 times.  If you follow this blog, you know this is not unusual and you won’t be surprised to learn that I’m listening to it yet again.  Every time I hear it, I appreciate something new.  Last time around it was the circular motion of the narrative, how she makes you feel like you’re spinning around in the memory vortex with her, and how the constant repetition of these lines keeps you in her grasp:

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

You’re safe.  I’m here.

I tell you that I shall not live two days, Gawain said.

Why do you always have to be right.  Why do you always have to have the last word.  For once in your life just let it go.

This time I’m focused on the simplicity — the seeming simplicity — of her sentences.  In her 2006 interview for The Paris Review, Ms. Didion talked about how she admired Hemingway from an early age (11 or 12):  “There was just something magical to me in the arrangement of those sentences.  Because they were so simple — or rather they appeared to be so simple, but they weren’t.”

Amen.  I’m off to walk my dogs around the neighborhood and listen (learn) some more.

February Fools Day

It’s not April 1st, but I’m all too ready to jump out of January.  Call me restless.  Here’s my oddball mix to start the month off right:

1.  I am reading way too many books.  Too.  Many!  I’m talking 10.  Or is it 12?  And they range from CUTTING FOR STONE (the book club pick), UNBROKEN (which I need to get back to), WENCH (which I wish I loved more), Lorrie Moore’s SELF-HELP (for the 3rd time), Lee Child’s KILLING FLOOR (finally trying to figure out what this Jack-Reacher-character is all about) — I’ll stop there.  You get the crazy.

2.  What’s with all the nay-saying about memoir?  (Thank you, Betsy, for your defense — you have a hell of a sold-list).  Before I even started writing my own memoir (more than 7 years ago), I gravitated to them in the bookstore and on-line.  Real lives, re-imagined.  I buy books of author interviews, like CONVERSATIONS WITH WILLIAM STYRON and CONVERSATIONS WITH CAPOTE, the PARIS REVIEW INTERVIEWS.  I’m addicted to The Actor’s Studio with James Lipton, who starts every interview with, “Where were you born?”  Real life.  Over at Dystel & Goderich, Stacey says she’s looking for narrative nonfiction and memoir, though she does say that memoir is becoming much harder to sell.  Really?  I have 2 full library shelves and counting …

3.  Memoir-wise-speaking, I have a confession:  I did not read the dreadfully self-indulgent EAT, PRAY, LOVE because the whole concept pissed me off.  All that whining about her unhappy love life and having to buy (gasp!) size 8 jeans — too much wine and pasta and pizza! — broke my pizza-packed piggy bank.  Can I say this story is dreadful, even without reading it?  I say yes.  I saw the movie.  (I hate when people say that, but there it is.)  I saw the movie.  A beautiful, skinny, hot blonde living large and getting laid and looking for “real” experiences, while manufacturing said experiences.  What a crock of bullshit.

4.  But hey, EAT, PRAY, LOVE sold bazillions, so what the hell do I know?

5.  Deep breath.

6.  To fight the good memoir-fight, I’m also reading Caroline Knapp’s PACK OF TWO and APPETITES (thank you for those suggestions, Lisa G).

7.  Lucky Seven.  I’m listening to Joan Didion’s THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING while walking my dogs.  Today, this line about the death of a parent stuck with me:  Despite our preparation, indeed, despite our age, [a parent’s death] dislodges things deep in us, sets off reactions that surprise us and may cut free memories and feelings that we had thought gone to ground long ago.  We might, in that indeterminate period they call mourning, be in a submarine, silent on the ocean’s bed, aware of the depth charges, now near and now far, buffeting us with recollections. It’s not a hot blonde getting laid in Bali, but …

All Audio Books, All the Time

It’s official.  I have tipped over the edge.  I’ve ditched music on the car radio for audio books.  My current just-for-fun favorite is Outlander by Diana Gabaldon — all adventure, and it’s read by an actress who does the British and Scottish accents perfectly!  Love it.  I’ve also been listening to Stephen King read his own book, On Writing, which is also pretty entertaining.  I’ve never read a Stephen King book, but I love this one on the craft of writing.  He’s so irreverent.