Category Archives: Audiobooks

sunday salon/currently… 9/18/2016

Sunday Salon bannerHaving a lazy Sunday today.  I had all good intentions of going the park for a walk/run this morning before the humidity became too oppressive but I woke up feeling blah. Nothing major, just a slight headache and minor stomach woes. It the sort of day where the weather can’t make up its mind: in the course of my writing this paragraph, it has been cloudy, then raining, and now it is brilliant sunshine.  (And 20 miles away at the Steelers game, it was a monsoon.)

Reading/Listening … 
My commute has been rather maddening recently, thanks to a ridiculous amount of construction going on in this town and the hell that is the (now indefinite) closure of the Liberty Bridge. Being that this is the City of Bridges with more than 400 of ’em, you would think one being shut down wouldn’t be a big deal, right? Not quite. This is a major bridge, traveled by 55,000 people each day. I’m not one of them, but if you need to go anywhere in the vicinity of the Liberty Bridge, you’re feeling the pain of some miserable drives. Such times are when and podcasts and audiobooks become your best friend.

being-mortal

This week I started and finished listening to Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. I thought this was an excellent narrative about the many ways our society approaches the end of life. As a physician, Gawande knows firsthand how medicine offers unprecedented possibilities for extending one’s life, no matter what the cost. But that cost can be physically, mentally, and financially significant, and our society still doesn’t have a strong enough support system and options that allow people to age in place.  As a result, the burden on people is tremendous. Gawande illustrates this by sharing the experiences of his patients and family members, and the result is a thoughtful reflection of how we treat the sick and the dying.

Cooking
The Girl and I were out all day yesterday, so I made Salsa Chicken (from Make It Fast, Cook it Slow by Stephanie O’Dea) in the crockpot for dinner. (Because nobody in this house can eat the same thing, The Husband had leftover burritos and rice, and I had a quinoa bowl with tomatoes, corn, black beans and feta.)

While that was cooking, I had a second crockpot going. I keep a bag in the freezer of vegetable odds and ends — tops of bell peppers and onions, gnawed corn cobs, broccoli stalks, ends of string beans, and veggies nearing the end of their prime. When the bag gets full, I dump everything into the crockpot, cover with water, toss in some garlic and spices (basil, oregano, salt, pepper) and simmer for the entire day.  It makes a vegetable broth with much less sodium than commercial brands. I typically freeze this into ice cubes and use the broth for sauteing. Tonight I made minestrone soup and was glad I had the required four cups of broth ready to go.

Writing
I applied for a writing fellowship this week. Might be a bit of a long shot, but one never knows. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

Running
On Thursday I started Week 2 of Couch to 5K. So far, so good!  I keep promising a longer post about this, I know. Maybe later this week.

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a few mini book reviews (95/99)

One of my purposes for doing this crazy 99 Days of Summer Blogging project was to try and clear out my extensive backlog of posts still in drafts.  I have — no lie — more than 200 such posts that need further development or a place in the trash bin.

There are quite a few sparse book reviews in those posts , some dating back as long as five years. I give those to you here, as mini reviews.

The Little SparkThe Little Spark: 30 Ways to Ignite Your Creativity, by Carrie Bloomston
C&T Publishing
128 pages
2014

Take some inspiration, a lot of pretty photographs, a few real-life stories, and a handful of reflective writing exercises and you have both a workbook and motivational guide to jump-start your creativity. Whether your creative urges involve crafty pursuits, writing, painting, cooking or something completely, uniquely your own, The Little Spark offers 30 suggestions of how to get started and sustain your passion.

The MaytreesThe Maytrees (audio), by Annie Dillard
Narrated by David Rasche
HarperAudio, 5 CDs
2007

“Falling in love, like having a baby, rubs against the current of our lives: separation, loss, and death. That is the joy of them.”

Love is the theme of this novel, which takes the reader to the coast of Provincetown, Massachusetts and into the lives of poet Toby Maytree (referred to as simply Maytree throughout this story) and Lou Bigelow. The story spans several decades of the Maytrees’ marriage and how, over time, they change with it. The narrative felt disjointed at times, making for a confusing-at-times listen, but I liked the writing and David Rasche’s narration kept my attention.

The MiniaturistThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton 
Ecco Press
2014
400 pages

I was sold on this by cover, which so perfectly captures the very essence of Jessie Burton’s debut novel, set in 1686 Amsterdam. Petronella (who goes by Nella) is 18 when she marries a wealthy merchant named Johannes Brandt.

After moving into his mansion, Nella quickly learns that this is a house of secrets. Johannes spends a lot of time either at work or in his study and isn’t very affectionate to Nella. Her stern and unwelcoming sister-in-law Marin is clearly the head of the household, which also consists of Cornelia and Otto, two odd servants. With its themes of feeling trapped and discovering one’s power – and what we do with that power — The Miniaturist is an engrossing read.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #95 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project.

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Currently …Birthdays, Burghosphere, and Books

Chocolate cake

Currently …
Sunday evening, at the end of a busier than usual weekend. The highlights: a dentist visit for an 8:45 a.m. root canal (there’s no better way to spend a Saturday, let me tell you) and a Sunday afternoon hanging out with some of Pittsburgh’s best bloggers at Best of the Burghosphere, which I’ll post more about tomorrow. Afterwards, The Girl and I stopped by Half Price Books for some birthday shopping. As much as this may surprise some of you, I’d never been there before today. It’s now The Girl’s favorite store (and one of mine, too).

Celebrating …
We’re celebrating the kids’ birthdays this weekend. Hard to believe they are 14. We kept things fairly low-key with one of their favorite dinners (a simple version of pasta with chicken in alfredo sauce) and the chocolate cake, pictured above.

Reading … 
I finished two books this week, which is practically unheard of for me — especially given the slow pace at which I’ve been reading.

M TrainAccidental Saints

M Train by Patti Smith, which I enjoyed. This has a very free-form quality to it.  If you’ve ever been part of a writing workshop and the instructor says to write for ten minutes about whatever comes to mind, that’s what this feels like.  (It’s not so easy writing about nothing is the first line and at times this feels as if you’ve stolen a glimpse at a page written in Patti Smith’s notebook.) Non-linear in structure, M Train is what I would describe as a “writer’s book” and it isn’t going to appeal to everyone. It meanders, often in an esoteric way.

Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, by Nadia Bolz-Weber, who is the pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver.  I picked this up at the library after hearing a great interview with the author on NPR’s Fresh Air.  This was more … I don’t know … religious? theological? than I expected. (Also a bit too self-deprecating.)

Not Reading …
Another week, another DNF.  Despite my appreciation for its author, I’m finding the characters in Moral Disorder and Other Stories by Margaret Atwood to be somewhat boring.  I’ve been listening to this collection of linked stories on audio but it isn’t holding my attention. Back to the library it goes.

Anticipating …
Thanksgiving, which comes with a few additional vacation days from work for me.  Plenty of time for Thankfully Reading Weekend!

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Nonfiction November: Nontraditional Nonfiction

Nonfiction-November-2015

During this third week (!) of Nonfiction November, our writing prompt focuses on “the nontraditional side of reading nonfiction.” This week’s host, Becca from I’m Lost in Books, elaborates:

Nonfiction comes in many forms There are the traditional hardcover or paperback print books, of course, but then you also have e-books, audiobooks, illustrated and graphic nonfiction, oversized folios, miniatures, internet publishing, nonfiction short stories, and enhanced books (book itself includes artifacts, audio, historical documents, images, etc.) So many choices! Do you find yourself drawn to or away from nontraditional nonfiction? Do you enjoy some nontraditional formats, but not others? Perhaps you have recommendations for readers who want to dive into nontraditional formats. We want to hear all about it this week!

I will admit that I often don’t think much about the various formats of the nonfiction genre (and fiction, for that matter).  When it comes to reading material, my approach isn’t always based on the packaging, per se, but rather the content inside.

Podcasts are the first nontraditional nonfiction format that immediately came to my mind. I’ve recently become a podcast fan and have written several posts about specific shows and episodes that I’ve found to be especially compelling.  I enjoy podcasts that feature personal stories — Death, Sex, and Money; Strangers; The Moth; and — before it was cancelled — The Longest Shortest Time. The storytelling is excellent and almost all of my favorite podcasts could be categorized as nonfiction in some way.

I also need to give a plug for Creative Nonfiction, the literary magazine. If you’re a fan of this genre — and especially if you write creative nonfiction — you need to be reading this publication. From the description on the CNF website: “Every issue is packed with new, long-form essays that blend style with substance; writing that pushes the traditional boundaries of the genre; notes on craft; micro-essays; conversations with writers and editors; insights and commentary from CNF editor Lee Gutkind; and more. Simply put, CNF demonstrates the depth and versatility of the genre it has helped define for more than 20 years.” I love that it has a global audience and is published right here in Pittsburgh.

Audiobooks seem to be the “nontraditional” form of nonfiction that most Nonfiction November participants mentioned. As my friend Trish from Love, Laughter and A Touch of Insanity wrote, I prefer to listen to nonfiction on audio. I’m not quite sure why that’s the case; regardless of whether a book is fiction or nonfiction, I like to have a print copy handy so I can refer to anything I may have missed.

If you need ideas for nonfiction reads, my nonfiction book reviews can be found here.

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Book Review: The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster, by Kaye Gibbons (audio)

The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster 
by Kaye Gibbons 
Random House Audio 
2006
5 hours
Read by Kaye Gibbons


Let me start out by saying this.

This book is the sequel to Kaye Gibbons’s 1987 novel and 1997 Oprah’s Book Club pick Ellen Foster, which I absolutely loved and reviewed here and named as one of my best reads of 2008. (It took me awhile to get to it, despite it being on my TBR shelf for 11 years.) I adored Ellen Foster. So, naturally, you would think (as I did) that I would fall just as much in love with this one.

Not. Even. Close.

I had a hell of a time trying to follow this book, which picks up with Ellen Foster being 15 years old and applying for admission to Harvard. (Her admission letter – written in September 1974 to President Derek Bok himself – is hilarious and is the best 8 pages of the novel.) It’s also a great plot device on author Kaye Gibbons’ part; the reader easily and succinctly recalls much of what happened in Ellen Foster from Ellen’s letter. The voice and wit is the same as one remembers it to be from the 1987 novel, and the reader anticipates that these 218 pages will be similar.

It’s not.  In my opinion (and many others’ on Goodreads), this is a confusing, disjointed, rambling narrative that is very difficult – and at times, completely impossible – to follow. There isn’t anything resembling a plot.  Characters reappear from Ellen Foster, but with little or no reintroduction, so the reader is left pondering how they are connected.

I sought out the reviews of The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster on Goodreads because as I listened to this on audio, I honestly thought the CDs had been mislabeled or that this was actually an abridged version of the novel (it is not) or something was wrong with my comprehension abilities. Apparently, I wasn’t alone in my love for Ellen Foster and my bewilderment as to how this novel wound up so dramatically different.

Aside from the characters and the location, it truly bears little resemblance to its predecessor, which is unfortunate – and utterly perplexing.

 

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Book Review: Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon

Await Your ReplyAwait Your Reply, by Dan Chaon 
Ballentine Books 
2009 
324 pages 

Narrated by Kirby Hayborne
10 hours, 31 minutes 
2009

Finalist, National Book Award

Dan Chaon is one of those authors who I’ve been meaning to read. In general, I’ve heard very good things about his writing and I own several of his books, yet I hadn’t read his work at all – until I picked up the audio of Await Your Reply at the library.

And holy hell … this guy is good.

Really good. Dan Chaon is probably one of the most talented authors you’ve never heard of.

That being said, if you were a victim of the Target credit card breach, you might want to pick a different Dan Chaon book. Await Your Reply includes several shady credit card con artists and computer hackers caught up in a very complicated, interconnected-with-other-characters-in-the-book scheme. It sounds like a techno-mystery-thriller; it has that aspect, but the human element, the emotion behind this is so deep.

From the Amazon.com book description:

Longing to get on with his life, Miles Cheshire nevertheless can’t stop searching for his troubled twin brother, Hayden, who has been missing for ten years. Hayden has covered his tracks skillfully, moving stealthily from place to place, managing along the way to hold down various jobs and seem, to the people he meets, entirely normal. But some version of the truth is always concealed.

A few days after graduating from high school, Lucy Lattimore sneaks away from the small town of Pompey, Ohio, with her charismatic former history teacher. They arrive in Nebraska, in the middle of nowhere, at a long-deserted motel next to a dried-up reservoir, to figure out the next move on their path to a new life. But soon Lucy begins to feel quietly uneasy.

My whole life is a lie, thinks Ryan Schuyler, who has recently learned some shocking news. In response, he walks off the Northwestern University campus, hops on a bus, and breaks loose from his existence, which suddenly seems abstract and tenuous. Presumed dead, Ryan decides to remake himself–through unconventional and precarious means.

All of these characters are connected, and Dan Chaon does a masterful job of keeping his reader guessing until the very end as to exactly how their stories fit together. (I thought I had it figured out … not so much.)

This is one of those reviews that is best told in the multiple quotes that I loved from the book. Everything means something more than what it seems.

“Growing up, he and Hayden had friends who were both appreciably poorer and appreciably richer than they, and their father told them that they should pay attention to the homes and families of their peers. ‘Learn what it is like in another life,’ he said. ‘Think hard about it, boys. People choose their lives; that’s what I want you to remember. And what life will you choose for yourselves?'” (pg. 79)

(I read this during the time of the Target credit card breach – not knowing, of course, that this was going on. That makes the following passage even more chilling.)

“An invader arrives in your computer and begins to glean the little diatoms of your identity.

Your name, your address, and so on: the various websites you visit as you wander the Internet, your user names and passwords, your birth date, your mother’s maiden name, favorite color, the blogs and news sites you read, the items you shop for, the credit card numbers you enter into the databases —

Which isn’t necessarily you, of course. You are still an individual human being with a soul and a history, friends and relatives and coworkers who care about you, who can vouch for you; they recognize your face and your voice and your personality, and you are aware of your life as a continuous thread, a dependable unfolding story of yourself that you are telling to yourself, you wake up and feel fairly happy – happy in that bland, daily way that doesn’t even recognize itself as happiness, moving into the empty hours that probably won’t be anything more than a series of rote actions: showering and pouring coffee into a cup and dressing and turning a key in the ignition and driving down streets that are so familiar you don’t even recall making certain turns and stops – though, yes, you are still present, your mind must have consciously carried out the procedure of braking at the corner and rolling the steering wheel beneath your palms and making a left onto the highway even though there is no memory at all of these actions. Perhaps if you were hypnotized such mundane moments could be retrieved, they are written on some file and stored, unused and useless in some neurological clerk’s back room. Does it matter? You are still you, after all, through all of these hours and days; you are still whole —

But imagine yourself in pieces.

Imagine all the people who have known you for only a year or a month or a single encounter, imagine those people in a room together trying to assemble a portrait of you, the way an archaeologist puts together the fragments of a ruined facade, or the bones of a caveman. Do you remember the fable of the seven blind men and the elephant?

It’s not that easy, after all, to know what you’re made up of.”  (pg. 88-89)

Dan Chaon begins his chapters with quotes.  This is one:

“Whatever his secret was, I have learnt one secret too, and namely: that the soul is but a manner of being – not a constant state – that any soul may be yours, if you find and follow its undulations. The hereafter may be the full ability of consciously living in any chosen soul, in any number of souls, all of them conscious of their interchangeable burden.” – Vladimar Nabokov, “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight”  (pg. 93)

In each character in the book, Chaon returns to the theme of people not being who we think they are. The foreshadowing is abundant, yet the reader doesn’t realize it until the end. I love that.

“And it was natural that a person would turn out to be a little different when you really got to know them. No one was exactly what you thought they would be.” – Lucy (pg. 103)

“‘Regrets are idle.” he said at last. ‘”Yet history is one long regret. Everything might have turned out so differently.’

He gave his reflection a small, wistful smile.

‘It’s a good quote, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘Charles Dudley Warner, a very quotable old buzzard. Friend of Mark Twain. Totally forgotten these days.'” (pg. 110)

“The life she had been traveling toward – imagining herself into – the ideas and expectations that had been so solid only a few weeks ago – this life had been erased, and the numb feeling crept up from her hand to her arm to her shoulder and the sound of the barking next door seemed to solidify in the air.

Her future was like a city she had never visited. A city on the other side of the country, and she was driving down the road, with all her possessions packed up in the backseat of the car, and the route was clearly marked on her map, and then she stopped at a rest area and saw that the place she was headed to wasn’t there any longer. The town she was driving to had vanished – perhaps had never been there – and if she stopped to ask the way, the gas station attendant would look at her blankly. He  wouldn’t even know what she was talking about.

‘I’m sorry, miss,’ he’d say gently. ‘I think you must be mistaken. I never heard of that place.’

A sense of sundering.

In one life, there was a city you were on your way to. In another, it was just a place you invented.” (pg. 119-120)

“I’m thirty-two years old, Lucy. You might not realize that yet, but you pass through a lot of different stages in that amount of time. I’ve been a lot of different people since then.’

‘A lot of different people,’ she said.

‘Dozens.’

‘Oh, really?’ she said. And she was aware of that wavering shadow passing over her once again, all the different people she herself had wanted to become, all the sadness and anxiety that she had been trying not to think about now shifting to her like an iceberg. Were they merely bantering again? Or were they in the midst of a serious conversation?

‘So–‘ she said. “So — who are you right now?’

‘I’m not sure exactly,’ George Orson said, and he looked at her for a long time, those green eyes moving in mirrow darts, scoping her face. But I think that’s OK.'” (pg. 126-127)

Await Your Reply was one of my favorite books I read in 2013, and I would highly recommend the audio version. There are some very gruesome scenes, ones that had me cringing behind the wheel as I drove to work. And, you do not want to start this one on a full stomach. Trust me on this.

 

 

 

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The Sunday Salon: Sex, Food, and Death

The Sunday Salon

Sex, food, and death.

There’s your summary of my reading week, baby, right there.

(What can I say? I read about only the important stuff in life.)

Mating CallsI started the week with the very fun and highly entertaining Mating Calls by Jessica Anya Blau, consisting of two short stories: “The Problem with Lexie” and “No. 7.”  Mating Calls is one of the first offerings from Shebooks, the new e-publisher of short stories, essays, short memoirs, fiction, and long-form journalism written by women and for women.

(I’ll have much more to say about Shebooks in a separate post with my full review this week about Mating Calls, but suffice it to say that I am a fan.)

I adored both of these stories, which I read while waiting for my daughter at gymnastics practice on Monday. In “The Problem with Lexie,” this chick – that would be Lexie – is one hell of hot mess. She’s a high school guidance counselor who is having an affair with the father of one of her students. Her life is a bit out of control, to say the least.

Flashbacks to high school resurface in the second story, “No. 7,” when now-grown up Zandra runs into someone she once knew intimately. The reasons why are sad, and how she handles the situation is brilliant.

Pandora's LunchboxFor my audiobook this week, I’ve been listening to Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal by Melanie Warner. This jaw-dropping book, about all the crap (chemicals, additives, preservatives) in our food and how and why they got there, is the modern-day equivalent of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. I’m not kidding. This is making me want to eat … well, nothing. That’s kind of the point. Nothing is safe. This is packed full of information and it is unbelievable.

CNF41_coverA much more palatable read on the food front has been Issue 41, Spring 2011 of Creative Nonfiction, which I’m still working my way through. I mentioned in last week’s Sunday Salon that I’m reading back issues from the library, and this one has essays all related to the topic of food. Heather A. McDonald’s piece “How to Fix Anything” is a highlight of this issue. I’m really getting hooked on this quality literary, top-notch magazine, which has an international reach and is published right here in Pittsburgh.

The Viewing Room

Finally, there was a DNF this week. I really wanted to like the short story collection The Viewing Room more than I did. Jacquelin Gorman won The Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for this, which is certainly impressive, but I found The Viewing Room difficult to get through – and I say this as someone who usually can handle books with heavy topics. I made it through “The Law of Looking Out for One Another” about baptizing an infant who died from shaken baby syndrome and “Ghost Dance,” about a spiritual woman with an array of medical complications, including gangrene.

However, “Having Words” – which references a 10 year old girl’s suicide – did me in after just a few sentences. We all have things we can’t handle and that crosses my personal tolerance threshold, right there.

All of these characters have one thing in common: they all wind up in the viewing room of the hospital where Henrietta is the on-call chaplain. This is as much Henrietta’s story as those who are dead. She’s new on the job and unsure of herself (at least in the first 30 pages) and we get the sense she isn’t quite living her life as much as she should be. There’s a holding back, of sorts.

It’s a good concept (it reminded me of “St. Elsewhere,” still my all-time favorite show to this very day) and the writing is okay, but this one just wasn’t for me.

Bloggiesta-MiniW14

In other news, today is the second and last day of the Mini Bloggiesta. Aside from getting two posts written (including this one) and 135 blog posts in Feedly read, I’ve been a sluggish participant this time around. We’ll see how much of my to-do list I get through today, although other chores around the house are beckoning, too.

Enjoy your Sunday (and if you’re snowbound like we are, you have my sympathies).

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