On the road again.

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope 2012 has been treating you well so far.

My past several weeks have been spent relaxing, communing with family and friends, baking, clearing out the DVR and being generally productive during my days off. As is always the case at the holidays, I’ve also spent most of that time on the road. I’ve crisscrossed the Carolinas several times to see a friend’s new baby, to stay with family at the holidays and this weekend to recuperate at the beach after one week back at work. (Because, wow, it was a slap in the face after so much vacation.) Those are roads and routes I regularly drive, and I’ve usually been content to call friends or listen to whichever radio station is in service to help pass the time. Until now.

My friend Angie is an avid consumer of audiobooks, and frequently buys or rents them when she makes long trips. While I’ve always been a book reader, I was never all that interested in audiobooks. When I flew for work a couple of years back, I did take advantage of some free Audible selections and sporadically listened to them on my flights or on walks to work. But I was never hooked. There’s just something about a real book, holding the paper in my hands, absorbing the words on the page and completely concentrating on the story as I build it in my head. I viewed audiobooks as unnecessarily expensive, intangible, listened to while multitasking and, worst of all, abridged.

A couple of months ago, I loosened up a little and opened myself to trying an audiobook. First up was Chelsea Handler’s “Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea.” I adore Chelsea and watch her show nearly every night. So I thought her story would be light, frothy and funny and would help the time go by. It did, but I quickly realized how crucial the audiobook reader is — how he or she can completely make or completely destroy enjoyment of a story. I hate to admit that I didn’t much like Chelsea’s interpretation of her book. Where the text is probably laugh-out-loud hilarious in the book, she read it with a sort of deadpan delivery. It all fell kind of flat for me.

After that, it took me a couple of months to try again. But on a drive to the mountains in October, I turned on Emily Giffin’s “Love the One You’re With.” For as many years as I’ve passed her books on the “chick-lit” displays in the bookstore, I’ve never actually read any of them. I saw the movie version of “Something Borrowed” this year, which I thought was an interestingly complex, layered portrayal of love and friendship, and the story seemed to have more substance than most in that genre.

I’ll now give Emily Giffin, and especially the reader, Kathleen McInerney, credit for changing my life. They pulled me fully onto the audiobook bandwagon. Kathleen McInerney brought all of the characters to life, and not in the cheesy, overly dramatic or annoying ways I’ve heard since. Her portrayal was spot-on, and she brought Emily Giffin’s story to  life. It also helped that I was immediately swept into the story. In it, Ellen is a photographer, married to her best friend’s brother, and living in New York City. She’s plunged into a crisis of faith when her former boyfriend Leo, with whom she never had relationship closure, reenters the picture.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt as connected to a character before — it wasn’t direct identification with the story per se, but I found myself thinking, “Me too!” in response to most of Ellen’s personality traits, points of view and outlooks on life. Or it could be that she was vaguely my age and lived some of the same experiences in the era I was also in NYC. Regardless, I became obsessed. I filled my 4-hour roundtrip mountain drive listening to the audiobook, and then finished the rest of the 11 hour and 15 minute run on drives to work, errands around town, while taking a shower, getting ready in the morning or going to sleep at night. I haven’t been captivated by such a book in any form in quite a long time. And I’m probably an Emily Giffin (and Kathleen McInerney) fan for life.

My next foray into audiobooking was on my December drives — a neighbor recommended Lisa See’s “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” which I had never even heard of. My neighbor said she “rents” audiobooks from the library, so I hopped on my library’s website to see if I could reserve it. I stumbled on a really handy feature that allows you to “check out” audiobooks online, download them to your computer and then transfer them to a portable device. It took several hours of software and file downloading, and up to three conversions, but it worked, for free. I checked out “Snow Flower,” a Kate White chick-lit book and Carl Hiassen’s “Nature Girl.”

On my holiday drive, I started “Snow Flower,” which is about Lily, a Chinese woman who tells her life story in flashback. As a child, she is paired in friendship with Snow Flower, a girl from a neighboring village and a wealthier background. I could tell that the book is probably better absorbed in reading than in listening, even though the reader did a commendable job. I listened to several hours of it, through some excruciating detail about Chinese foot binding (if you don’t know about this, Google the images! Whoa.), but it just felt a little too heavy for the holiday season. Hopefully I’ll just check out the hard copy book soon.

I listened to a couple of hours of the Kate White book, which was fine but obviously predictable and no great work of fiction. I just didn’t care about the outcome. On this most recent drive to the beach, I started “Nature Girl.” While I could take or leave Carl Hiassen, I know that his books are well written. I read “Skinny Dip” several years ago, which was full of wild characters and outrageous plot twists and was funny in a really off, wrong way. That man has a skewed sense of humor. Luckily, I immediately got in to “Nature Girl” and pretty easily followed the intersecting characters and storylines by ear.

That’s the thing about audiobooks — it’s a lesson in control, having to surrender to another person telling you a story and interpreting the voices and pace of the language. But it’s a decently efficient way to make it through your reading list. I don’t think I’ll ever listen to books I want to own and keep, and I will never, ever buy abridged versions. Authors deliberate and pore over every word they produce, and I hate to think that any part of their art or imagination has been edited to fit a certain time limit. But I can now assuredly say I’m a convert to the audiobook revolution.

If you are too, let me know books or readers that you love! I’m always open to recommendations.

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5 thoughts on “On the road again.

    • Funny! I just found a book club that meets in January and that’s the assigned book. I won’t make it in time but I’ll still put Hunger Games on my list. Thanks!

  1. I’ve been trying to open my mind to audiobooks too, though I haven’t fully succeeded yet. But one audiobook/series I absolutely LOVE is “Ladies of Letters.” It was originally a BCC Radio series, and has been released on CDs (I think there’s 10 or 11 series in total) read by Prunella Scales and Patricia Routledge (aka Hyacinth Bucket). It’s staged as a series of letters (and later emails) back and forth between these two old ladies – full of misunderstandings, malapropisms, sometimes bitchiness, and lots of funny stuff. I highly recommend (especially given our shared love of things British). [They also adapted into a TV show, but it was very not good, so I say skip that.]

  2. You’ve got me convinced that I need to try audiobooks! I love Emily Giffin novels…you can’t out them down! Yesterday I bought The Help, which I hear is a great book too.

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