Reading By Ear
In case you haven’t already figured it out, I’m talking audiobooks. It’s a controversial subject for many like me who love the turn of a deckle-edged page, an exquisite cover, elegant interior design, the comfort of a well-fingered volume lying by my bedside, bookmark in place, ready to rescue me on sleepless nights.
But over the last three years I’ve had issues with my eyes, and reading bound books or eBooks has not always been possible or comfortable. That’s when I turned to audiobooks and discovered a whole new obsession. Not only did how I was reading change, but what I was reading also changed.
In the past, very long books frightened me. I did, however, read The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova (592 pp), A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (543 pp), and Possession by A.S. Byatt (555 pp), two different times. But when a former lover, on my 57th birthday, gifted me with his favorite book, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, inscribing: To amazing Rachelle, a writer who can appreciate this, on this her birthday 12/11/03 with lots of love and plenty of affection…at 1,088 pages, I ran in the other direction. Eventually, so did he. All the way across the country. Another man afraid of his own magnificence. Ha. With audiobooks, it’s the opposite. I savor having a long story to listen to.
My initial venture into reading by ear was in 2012, when I took a 30 day free trial on audible.com. At that time, the first book I chose was Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, 24 hrs and 9 min long. These days, in addition to audible.com, I often download books from the NC Digital Library, scribd.com, and occasionally audiobooks.com.
The first thing I do after choosing an audiobook is listen to a sample which is usually two or three minutes long, enough to tell if I want to go any further. Sometimes there are books I really want to read, but I absolutely can’t abide the narrator’s voice and will move on. And sometimes an actor who I adore will narrate a fine book, but the reading style or character interpretation or something I can’t even put my finger on sounds “off” to me. This unfortunately happened with The Book Of Magic by Alice Hoffman. The narrator is Jennifer Ehle (think 1995 Pride and Prejudice with Jennifer Ehle and the delicious Colin Firth). I can’t exactly say what it was about her narration that annoyed me, but being an Alice Hoffman fan, I did listen all the way through.
When I began reading by ear during the pandemic, I mostly looked for my usual fare — literary fiction in all its flavors. I’ve read a lot of books in three years, especially since, for long periods of time, I couldn’t comfortably watch television. Here’s a small sampling of literary fiction I enjoyed:
- The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
- Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
- Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
- The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani
- The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George
- The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen
- The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant
- Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
- In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume
- A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier
- Circling the Sun by Paula McLain
- A House Among the Trees by Julia Glass
- The Peacock Emporium by Jojo Moyes
- The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
- The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave
- The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
But the genre I got most hooked on surprised me —
This was probably in part my mother’s doing, her niggling “suggestion” from beyond the grave. Mysteries were her obsession. When I was a kid, I couldn’t imagine there were enough mystery books in the library to cover all the years I watched her devour them. She’d take out five or six at a time. I remember that she read Erle Stanley Gardner (her beloved Perry Mason) and Ellery Queen. But she could have also been reading Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Ruth Rendell. She worked during the day, so her reading was limited to evenings and weekends. The books were often piled on the coffee table in the living room, where she read, while my father, sister, and I watched television.
As I sojourned into mystery writers, I came to appreciate both the art and the craft of the genre. One of the things I love about the authors I read is that there’s a whole series by each, with masterful plots and a superbly developed family of characters whose relationship evolves over time. Writers of the genre whose series I follow include:
- Louise Penny and the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache Series (18 Books)
- Donna Leon and the Commissario Guido Brunetti Series (31 Books)
- Anne Cleeves and the Vera Stanhope Series (11 Books)
- Jaqueline Winspear and the Maisy Dobbs Series (17 Books)
- Elizabeth George and the Inspector Lynley Series (18 Books)
- Deborah Crombie and the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James Series (20 Books)
I’ve actually been into Louise Penny for many years, previously buying the hardback versions of her books as soon as they came out. The Quebequois characters — Armand Gamache, his wife Reine-Marie, his second in command Jean-Guy Beauvoir — with their unique voices and wonderful French accents have all been conversing in my head for decades. When I started the audiobooks, however, it took me a while to get used how they sounded sans French accents through original narrator Ralph Cosham. And when he unfortunately passed on in 2014, British actor Robert Bathurst took over (think Downton Abbey, Sir Anthony, Edith’s older, injured fiancé who sadly leaves her at the altar) with his slightly more elegant narration that has made the Gamache books even more alive for me.
Along with Robert Bathurst, two of my other favorite narrators are actors David Colacci with his consummate Italian accent reading the Guido Brunetti mysteries, and Orlagh Cassidy, the perfect voice of Maisy Dobbs in Jacqueline Winspear’s novels.
While all my favorite mystery writers are engaging story tellers, I do admit that some of their subject matter is often gritty and deals with difficult, even gruesome, crimes not easy to take in. Even so, during these past few years, in my darker moments (and there have been many), I told myself that listening to, and yes, re-listening to these favorite mystery authors gave the busy mind something to do other than play out worst case scenarios about what might be happening in my own body or in my life or in the world.
But lately, there’s been a shift in awareness, a lift in mood, and I’m not craving gritty mysteries as much as I did when I was flailing around in the mud puddle of my own making. And with new writing muses showing up, I’m not reading as much as I was before. Also, there’s a danger for me in reading too much while I’m writing, especially listening to a lot of books by the same author. The style and rhythm of what I’m reading can seep, unbidden, onto my own page.
I remember a long time ago when I was addicted to Tom Robbins, I’d find five line long, multi-semi-coloned narrative sentences — although untouched by his wit or genius — appearing on the pages of my novel manuscript where they did not belong. And now that I’ve been listening to years of British mysteries, don’t be surprised if you find the occasional sneaky That’s brilliant or I’ll sort it out or Don’t be daft showing up on this blog.
Despite slowing down on my reading, a good mystery by a favorite author can still lure me in. In fact, it already has. The new Deborah Crombie mystery, The Killing of Innocents, just became available, and I must admit I’ve already downloaded it to my iPhone ready to read.
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