Audiobook Advice from an Audiophile (io9)


This was an inspiring find during a recent break in my daily hacking and trolling eating and Netflixing routine: io9’s list of 10 audiobooks “worth getting for the voice acting alone.”

At some point in the last two years, I went from an occasional audiobook listener to a devout fanatic, finishing a range of titles from Bossypants to Robinson Crusoe to Veronica Mars: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line and then lecturing everyone around me on the benefits of this (convenient! entertaining! eco-friendly!) format. I’m already excited to pick up Sissy Spacek’s reading of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Stephen Fry’s take on Harry Potter, as soon as a few Audible credits free up.

As much as I love the concept, though, I’ve learned the hard way that some books lend themselves better than others to an audio format. If you’re in the market for a great new listen, I’d recommend sticking first of all to books narrated in first person. Memoirs and autobiographies go down particularly well, along with travelogues and diaries. Standard novels in first person are fine, too, in many cases.

The reason? It’s pretty simple, really: Third-person narratives can be confusing, especially in dialogue, and especially if the voice actor doesn’t clearly and consistently differentiate individual characters’ voices. Multiple perspectives might well be a disaster of biblical Tuesday-esque proportions (though I’ve never tried it myself).

The second consideration when it comes to audiobooks is plot. This is NOT the format for complex dramas, convoluted mysteries, non-linear structures, or any other kind of stories-as-puzzles. If you suspect that the book atop your TBR will leave you wishing you could refer back to previous sections, you’re better off with the paper version. Remember that, with audiobooks, you’re depending entirely on your own (frayed, threadbare) memory to gather up all the plot essentials—and some studies show that our minds are prone to wandering when we “read” passively vs. actively.

In terms of style, quick and easy (usually modern) reads are your safest bet. Short chapters are a blessing, as are short sentences. If you prefer non-fiction or the classics, don’t worry—it CAN be done. You just need to choose your titles carefully. The Russians are famous for casts of characters so large they require their own appendix. Stream-of-consciousness ramblings and long-winded descriptive passages are difficult enough to get through on paper. So don’t be a masochist, OK? Limit your plate to more straightforward, easy-to-swallow fare.

Obviously, the voice actor will play a major role in your enjoyment of any audiobook. It’s always a pleasure to listen to the author read their own work (the way the story was “meant” to be told, we can assume), especially when it comes to celebrity memoirs and/or humor. Also: Character accents are a gift and a half to the literary listener—and they help a lot with the recurring problem of distinguishing among diverse voices.

My last piece of advice: If you have multiple options of voice actors for your next audiobook purchase (as is often the case with classics), it’s worth listening to any available samples. I have, on occasion, found low-pitched voices difficult to hear distinctly, especially when competing with other ambient noises (e.g., traffic, the dishwasher, the neighbor’s cat, particularly crunchy scones).

For those of you who aren’t quite sure when/where you can work audiobooks into your daily habits, I am currently drafting a list of times/places to squeeze them in—if only for a few minutes. Those minutes add up quicker than you’d think. And, if you choose carefully, audiobook narration can make your reading experience even better than what you get on paper. So happy listening, from me to you!

Reading California

I spent the end of September in California and came back laden with books:

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The theme of my souvenir shopping spree was, of course, California itself. Charles Bukowski spent many years in Los Angeles, as did Ray Bradbury (most of them on roller-skates, apparently, in Bradbury’s case). Henry Miller lived in Big Sur from 1944 to 1963 (a “Memorial Library” and arts center bearing his name stands among the redwoods along Highway 1). Jack London was born in San Francisco, lived in Oakland, and attended UC Berkeley before settling down on a ranch in Sonoma County. Lawrence Ferlinghetti famously went on trial for publishing Allen Ginsberg‘s “obscene” collection Howl and Other Poems at City Lights Books in San Francisco.

All of them are going on my shelf.

I also bought this tiny City Lights publication printed on vintage construction paper:

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The best one starts off like this:

Having been told I have an excelling command of the English language (and this is not making fun of you – I know how many semi-illiterate people there are floating around on the internet), here goes…

In addressing California’s literary legacy, I wouldn’t want to leave out Robert Frost, a native San Franciscan. For the length of my trip (that is, 1300 miles), I couldn’t get this evocative post-Gold-Rush line out of my head:

I was one of the children told
Some of the blowing dust was gold.

Well, that, and The O.C.‘s iconic theme song.

Happy reading, and happy weekend!


The Best #BoozyBooks Tweets from Last Friday


This is not me. Unfortunately.

Of all unholy trinities, books, booze, and wordplay might be my favorite. So let’s just cut to the chase(r):

(Un)Remembrance of Things Pabst

The Hunt for Red Oktoberfest

Fifty Shots of Grey Goose

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margarita

Bridget Jones’s Daiquiri

Last of the Mojitos

Beer and Loathing in Las Vegas

The Hungover Games

Pint and Prejudice

Here’s the full feed, in case you missed it. I don’t know about you, but most of these books sound delicious.

Happy reading (and boozing)!

Why Would I Even Bother Writing Titles Anymore


When I was a senior in high school, I opted to take an elective called “Novels.”

Novels was the god of all blow-off classes—the class every other blow-off period would strive to be if they weren’t all such slackers. It was quite literally an hour and a half at the end of the day set aside for reading. We could choose any book we wanted off a long list of popular novels, spend as long as we cared to reading it, and then move on to the next at our leisure.

We weren’t even tested on them, or required to write reflective essays. We just had to “conference” for ten minutes with the woman who called herself our teacher but spent every afternoon holed up in her dim office wearing sunglasses, complaining of a light sensitivity.

The “conferences” went like this:

Teacher: So, you read Little Women.

Student: Yes.

Teacher: So, what are your plans after graduation?

Student: Like, college.

Teacher: You should go to Prague instead.

Student: OK?

Teacher: When I graduated, I went straight to Prague.

Student: …

It was during the course of this class, Novels, that I discovered Edith Wharton for the very first time. Just one page of The Age of Innocence later, and I was a goner. My friends and I were truant for a lot of Novels as the semester dragged on, but that book kept me in my seat for days at a time. I had never read anything quite like it, in all its wrenching irony, devastating romance, and exquisite disdain.

In college, I read The House of Mirth for an American Literature course (the legitimate kind, this time) and fell in love with Wharton once more, for exactly the same reasons. I look forward to finding her again and again over the years to rekindle our passionate affair. And when an opportunity came up, in the form of a Headstuff assignment, to investigate the lives and legacies of world-famous writers, I immediately chose Mark Twain and Edith Wharton herself.

Wharton seems, at least by my impression, to be one of those names everyone has heard but doesn’t know anything about. This, of course, is exactly why I chose her. I was not disappointed or bored for a second in my research on her life and writing—but with both articles behind me now, I can say with all certainty that biographies are not my calling. I take pride in milking tedious material and churning out entertaining results, but biography has left me coming up empty.

Maybe it just can’t be done? I’ll have to read Bill Bryson’s biography of Shakespeare and find out.

Anyway. Remember when I frantically wrote my Mark Twain piece in firework bursts of panic, and Headstuff casually rejected the title? I managed to be microscopically offended, even though they simply wanted to keep the titles consistent across the series (“The Open Book”).

Well, this time around, I didn’t even supply the outstanding and click-worthy title I had come up with—”Edith Wharton: Accomplished Writer, Comprehensive Badass,” it went—to save myself another infinitesimal agony. AND THEN THEY GAVE IT A DIFFERENT, NON-SERIES TITLE ANYWAY—something standard and competent that Edith Wharton would have liked.

The very nerve.

I’m OK, though. I’m coping. I’m even considering a trip to Prague.

It is, after all, long overdue.

#69 The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins


“This is the story,” Wilkie Collins writes in the opening lines of The Woman in White, “of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.”

And vice versa, I would add, because this is also the story of two people—a man and a woman—determined to seek justice at whatever cost. It’s a harrowing, nail-biting drama of thwarted love, stolen identities, secrets, madness, memory, power, and truth.

And, being English and old-fashioned, it is ever so polite about it.

The Woman in White is structured as a series of testimonies—some long, some short—relating to an Event that occurs about midway through the book. We hear from uncles and housekeepers, doctors and criminals, all describing their eyewitness versions of What Happened. But, mostly, we hear from Walter Hartright.

Walter, an art instructor, travels to Cumberland to take up a new post as drawing master to the young and beautiful Laura Fairlie and her fierce, clever half-sister, Marian Halcombe. En route, Walter encounters an enigmatic woman dressed all in white. The woman, Anne Catherick, has escaped from a mental institution—and bears an extraordinary resemblance to Laura.

Walter and Laura have just enough time to fall in love before Laura marries Sir Percival Glyde, a baronet, out of obligation. Glyde and his Italian friend, Count Fosco, conspire to switch Laura’s identity with Anne Catherick’s out of their own “pecuniary interests.”

When Anne Catherick dies, Laura is committed to the asylum in her place, and Anne is buried as Laura. Glyde and Fosco throw a money party (or so we can assume). The rest of the novel describes Walter and Marian’s efforts to restore Laura’s identity—an impossible feat if it weren’t for a few well-buried secrets.

The shortest summary I can offer of Collins’ masterpiece? It rocks.

The so-called “sensation novels” of the 19th century laid the foundation for today’s mystery/detective/crime genre. Panned by critics but wildly popular among lesser humans, The Woman in White appeared in serial form throughout 1859 and 1860 in All the Year Round, a weekly magazine owned by one Charles Dickens. Collins followed up his best-loved novel with three more in the decade that followed: No Name, Armadale, and The Moonstone. In each, he grappled with the diverse social issues of the period, from inheritance to the treatment of servants.

Collins, a supporter of women’s rights, folds a multi-layered, utterly self-aware feminism into the pages of The Woman in White. Marian Halcombe, in particular, is a credit to Collins and to her gender—even in fiction. It comes as a pleasant surprise (which is sad in itself) that Collins was able, 150 years ago, to understand and express the plight of women so passionately and eloquently through Marian:

Who cares for his causes for complaint? Are you to break your heart to set his mind at ease? No man in heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women. Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace—they drag us away from our parents’ love and our sisters’ friendship—they take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel.

Collins, notably, opposed marriage as a system both unfair and disadvantageous to women—a theme laid bare in The Woman in White. And while the novel’s feminism contains plenty of holes—angelic, victimized Laura, for her part, is as passive as a broom, before and after her protracted rescue by a devoted gentleman—modern women readers will still find themselves tempted to cheer aloud at Marian’s barely restrained, anti-patriarchal rage:

If I only had the privileges of a man, I would order out Sir Percival’s best horse instantly, and tear away on a night-gallop, eastward, to meet the rising sun—a long, hard, heavy, ceaseless gallop of hours and hours, like the famous highwayman’s ride to York. Being, however, nothing but a woman, condemned to patience, propriety, and petticoats for life, I must respect the house-keeper’s opinions, and try to compose myself in some feeble and feminine way.

Yes, it’s long. Yes, it drags out events that could have been related in half the time. But The Woman in White is the Victorian novel at its finest, innovatively structured and rivetingly told.

Don’t take my word for it, though. See for yourself.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Independent of context, maybe not. But as one of the first mystery novels to grace the literary stage, I’m happy to give it a spirited round of applause.

Favorite Quotes:

“The future may depend,” I suggested, “on the use we make of the present.” 

Such is the World, such Man, such Love. What are we (I ask) but puppets in a show-box? Oh, omnipotent Destiny, pull our strings gently! Dance us mercifully off our miserable little stage! 

Read: 2015