Monthly Archives: December 2013

Play it by ear

I read 48 books this year, a number up from last year’s pathetic 28, but helped considerably by my new habit of listening to audiobooks while commuting in the car. I listened to nine books on CD, and they broadened my horizons considerably. Among them were one western and two mysteries, genres I typically avoid.
The passivity of listening to a book may make one more open to experiment, but the experience is different in other ways, too.  For one, the ear is more sensitive to the nuances of language. Think of the expression “tin ear” and you will have some idea of how a clumsy sentence comes off in audio. The smoothest reader cannot hide a cliché or a word repeated in the same sentence. (This is also why writing coaches advise us to read our work aloud as part of revision.) Holes in the plot – actions set up too subtly or not at all – loom in an audiobook, which cannot be easily rifled back through.
Conversely, the best sentences seem to shine more brightly when read aloud. A striking metaphor, or vivid description of landscape or character, forms a picture in one’s head more quickly and completely than when read on the page. (One of my favorites this year, by Sarah Waters, compared a woman’s spiky hair to a wafer stuck in an ice cream sundae. More on her below.) I’m not sure why this is: perhaps because our eyes and brain are negotiating the complexity of decoding language and forming images, our visual side maxes out when reading in the conventional way. The ears, however, seem to travel a different route to the brain. According to my brief research, the finest minds aren’t clear about how we form mental images at all, and my speculation is purely the anecdotal ramblings of someone with no medical training. But anecdotally, it sure feels like something different is going on.
My brief, unscientific experiment tells me that I am picking up writing lessons faster while listening to books than reading them. My memory of them is purely visual – the images I have formed of the story – because I have never seen the text. Yet I also retain a memory of admiration for the variety of some writers’ sentences, the inventiveness of their figurative language, and the momentum of their stories.
The best of the lot would have to be The Thousand Autumns of Jacob Dezoet, by David Mitchell (read by Jonathan Aris and Paula Wilcox). This wide-ranging, multi-layered novel is set in Dejima, an island of Japan where Dutch East India Co. members were isolated in the late 18th century. The Dutch maintain an uneasy alliance with their Japanese trading partners and have to negotiate many rituals in dealing with the magistrates and religious leaders. What struck me most about this novel was the metaphor of translation, which Mitchell uses not only to juxtapose cultural and political conflicts but the hazards of human communication in general.
For a close second I would pick The Little Stranger, by the British writer Sarah Waters (read wonderfully by Simon Vance). Indeed, this Gothic tale of a post-World War II family in Great Britain would have surged to the top of the list were it not for the murky and disappointing ending. Narrated by a Dr. Faraday, the story begins when he is summoned to a rambling estate in the Midlands called Hundreds Hall. He examines a maid who has taken to her bed, mostly to protest being kept in the servants’ quarters, which she is convinced are haunted. The story starts off slowly, with mysterious incidents so subtle that at first we’re not sure if we’re reading a romance or a mystery, neither, or both. Eventually, the “haunting,” if that’s what it is, affects the two grown children – the mannish and homely daughter, Caroline, and her war-traumatized brother, Roderick – as well as their mother, Mrs. Ayres, an eminently sensible woman. Waters is such a sophisticated writer that one begins to imagine all sorts of convoluted endings to this tale, and when the real climax happens, it is oddly disappointing. The reader, or in this case the listener, begins to wonder if something was missed, or if the resolution was intentionally enigmatic. Despite this disappointment, the book unfolds like a finely wrought period movie, and it’s no surprise that some of Waters’s other books have been adapted for British television.
Two of my other audio favorites this year took place during World War II. The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake, is set on Cape Cod and in Europe. It tells the story of a newly married doctor who volunteers to work in London during the Blitz, his pregnant wife, a radio reporter he meets during an air raid, and Iris, the village “postmistress” (the correct term, she tells us, is postmaster). Like The Thousand Autumns …, The Postmistress is told by alternate narrators, and its period details feel rich and authentic.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford, is narrated by Henry Lee, as a child in 1942, and a widower in 1986. When a stash of Japanese family objects is unearthed from the basement of the Panama Hotel in Seattle, Lee, who is Chinese, is pulled back to his childhood, when he had a forbidden romance with a young Japanese girl. If the novel sometimes seems melodramatic, and filled with improbable coincidence, the authentic voice of Henry raises the narrative to a higher plane.
Another narrator not to be forgotten is Flavia, the young British sleuth in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley, read (with great verve) by Jayne Entwistle. Wise beyond her years, Flavia gets revenge on her two older sisters by cooking up concoctions in her chemistry lab. When a dead body shows up in the family garden, and her father is the prime suspect, she must use her mettle to find the culprit and see that he is brought to justice. Flavia’s pluck and sauciness are leavened with an innocent charm, and Bradley’s writing is sharp and fast-paced. The setting, Britain in the summer of 1950, also comes across vividly.
From these and other audiobooks, the lesson I’ve taken away is the importance of an original voice. Whether told in the first person or close third, these novels deliver protagonists with clear problems and unique points of view. They do so in sentences that are at once precise and inventive. So I shall take out my manuscript, read it aloud, and see how it shapes up against these powerful tales well told.

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