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Audiobooks I Love.

Big news yesterday! Hard to think of much else. Whether the outcome of the election was in your favor or not, I hope we can focus on the many things that unite us and make America beautiful.

Starting an audiobook habit has proven to be one of the best parts of 2020. I listen while doing the dishes, walking Tilly, and showering, and it has transformed those chores into episodes of delicious distraction. Sometimes I wonder if I am blotting out too much of my free time to think — to just sit alone with my own thoughts — by re-appropriating it for my audiobooks. Most of the time, though, ever the “Type A” busy bee, I am glad to be redirecting what once felt like tote zeit (German for “dead time”) into something that makes me feel good. I also read two times as many books!

I find that I am particularly drawn to audiobooks that optimize the medium — that is, that take advantage of the fact that they are being read ad alta voce (out loud). By this I mean that I am drawn to memoirs performed by their own authors, novels narrated by famous actors, or stories read in regional accents, as all of these renditions offer a little something more than I think I would get from reading the book on paper. Standouts from my listening list in 2020:

+Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, narrated by Tom Hanks. The characters are exceptional on their own (full, glowing review here) but hearing them read by Tom Hanks is a delicious treat. His voice is so familiar and reassuring and pleasant, and I love the way he will suddenly slow.down.his.pace. in admiration of a particularly meaningful passage. Exquisite storytelling.

+Beth Kelb’s Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, narrated by Beth Kelb. This is a poignant love story between a grandmother and a granddaughter full of wit, wisdom, and warmth. Kelb interweaves selections of her grandmother’s emails and voicemails with her own remembrances, family lore, and renderings of what she imagines her deceased grandmother might say to her from beyond the grave. Kelb has spectacular comedic timing (she is an Emmy-nominated writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live) and is a riveting storyteller. You will laugh out loud and you will probably cry, too.

+David Chang’s Eat a Peach, narrated by David Chang. I was caught off guard by this memoir, which was nothing like I expected it to be. The book grapples with mental health, leadership, success, the perils of the restaurant industry, family, and race, but in ways that felt refreshingly candid and honest given what could have been well-worn territory. I emerged deeply impressed by his bravery, ingenuity, and radical honesty. He puts it all out there. And hearing it read in his own voice was a revelation — sections that might have come off as gloating read with sincerity. And other bits come off surprisingly funny.

+Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, narrated by Rachel McAdams. If there is anything that will transport you out of 2020 and make you feel like all is right in the world, it is Anne of Green Gables read by Rachel McAdams. Oh my God, what a joy to listen to! I cherished this series as a girl and it was almost twice as delicious to revisit as an adult, both because of the nostalgia element and because it is a winning story about girlhood, imagination, independence, and — reading. The book tells us a lot about reading people in a way that I think empowers girls to be good readers (of texts and beyond). And as far as I’m concerned, Rachel McAdams could read the phone book and it would hold my interest. Her reading is delightful. She does such an exceptional job projecting Anne’s dreaminess and curiosity in the way she carries her voice. Oh! I loved this rendition!

+Lucy Foley’s The Guest List, narrated by Jot Davies, Chloe Massey, et al. I would say this book is a peg below the other books listed here simply because it wasn’t as rich of a text, but I still thoroughly enjoyed listening to a thriller on tape. There was something vaguely dramatic about it — walking around, on the edge of my seat, while walking Tilly on a chilly fall night! Foley manages to handle jumps backward and forward in time and between narrators with deftness and clarity, and uses it to her suspense-building advantage. This is an enormous feat given that I was listening to the book and it is much easier to lose track of narrative threads when you are unable to flip back a few pages to revisit something that happened earlier. I think it was wise to have so many narrators (five different ones, I believe, many with different accents!), as this enabled me to keep the characters and plotlines straight with relative ease. And it was just a treasure to listen to the accents, full-stop!

+Ruth Reichl’s Save Me the Plums, narrated by Ruth Reichl. The book felt a bit slow-to-start, but the food writing is exceptional and it is a treat to hear those sections read in Reichl’s own voice, which is redolent with knowing resignation that can only come with age, experience, and a fair amount of world-weariness. I loved to hear her occasional bright excitement jump out against the pining, mildly plaintive note more commonly found in her reading of her own memoir. You can tell when she is really excited about something, and that earnestness is damn endearing. Did I mention that the food writing is out of this world, too?

+Andre Leon Talley’s The Chiffon Trenches, narrated by Andre Leon Talley. Talley’s tell-all about Vogue, Anna Wintour, and countless celebrities of the fashion world is as juicy as it is heartfelt. Alongside the drama and intrigue, Talley shares his lifelong struggles with body image, sexuality, and childhood trauma as well as the racism he faced (and continues to face) in a predominantly white cultural space. Talley is sharp, aware, and nearly always quick to offer others the benefit of the doubt in a way that I have carried with me since first listening. I would do well to remember the empathy with which he leads his life. And hearing the memoir read in his distinctive, empassioned, loud (!) voice was just the icing on the cake. He is a national treasure.

+Anne Glenconner’s Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown, narrated by Anne Glenconner. A true reminder of the fact that no one is sequestered from the threats and tragedies of life. Glenconner, in spite of her considerable privilege, has not had an easy life. She speaks openly about negotiating her way around a domineering husband prone to cruel outbursts of temper and coping with the devastating misfortunes that meet several of her children, alongside some of the extravagances and incredible experiences her life as Princess Margaret’s lady in waiting. All rivetingly told in a way that reminded me to maintain a sense of perspective no matter what 2020 throws our way.

+Jessica Simpson’s Open Book, narrated by Jessica Simpson. I’ve talked a lot (too much) about this book already, but Jessica’s easy companionship and winning, breathy storytelling got me through the worst of COVID-19. If you watched “Newlyweds” as religiously as I did in my college years, you’ll absolutely devour this tell-all about her rocky relationships with Nick Lachey, John Mayer, and her parents; her sexual abuse as a teen; and her struggle with alcoholism. A Magpie wrote something along these lines about her: “I did not know I needed to hear from Jessica Simpson, but I did.” I agree with that assessment: hers is a surprisingly touching and inspiring story.

Notes on Starting an Audiobook Habit.

+I have an Audible subscription that permits me one credit (one title) per month, which is just about the right cadence for me. Sometimes I finish early and splurge on an extra book (they are pricey!), but most of the time, an audiobook/month is a good cycle.

+I nearly always listen on my Airpods but have been eyeing one of these waterproof speakers to keep in my shower, as I currently turn my iPhone up to top volume when listening in the shower and therefore cannot always hear the narrator. I would prefer one of these speakers by Bose (such a good sound system company, and this particular model is available at a pre-black-Friday special price), but it lists itself as “water-resistant” rather than “waterproof” and I’m dubious as to whether permanently keeping it in the shower is the best idea. However, the shower-friendly JBL model gets very good reviews — I gave one to friends for Christmas last year and they raved about it!

+As a side note, I’m fascinated by the way AirPods, Kindles, and other digital reading devices have impacted readership and also the perception of readership. I know there are a lot of Magpies out there who prefer the sensory experience of reading a hard copy (and I agree that you for lose something in the digital experience — specifically, going digital tampers with the heuristics of reading), but I am at heart a pragmatist and I find myself reading much more on a Kindle / via AirPods. I do worry about the impact this will have on my children in the sense that one reason I learned to love reading at such a young age was — I am confident — because my parents modeled that practice themselves. To this day, they are never without a book in arm’s reach, whether killing time in a doctor’s office or relaxing at home. My children will instead see me sucked into yet another screen, and the omnipresence and proliferation of screens in my own life is mildly disturbing. Yet. I find myself unwilling to cede the expeditiousness of a device (and my commensurate enjoyment as a reader) in order to make a point? Is that wrong of me? I can’t tell. Do I trust that my children will still be book-lovers by dint of the prolific amount of reading we do with them? I make a big to do about how the Kindle is a kind of book, and that I’m reading, but I’m not sure if it’s clicked and it feels forced anyhow. Sigh. It’s also interesting that the Kindle and AirPods secret, or hide, the reading material on hand. You never know if someone is reading Proust or a non-fiction expose on climate change or Fifty Shades of Gray. (And on that latter point, I had several friends who reported that they could “only” have read Fifty Shades of Gray on a Kindle — they were too embarrassed to be seen reading it in public! I don’t know what to say about that?) And AirPods — is it the latest Ariana Grande or the David Chang memoir? There is something about the design of these devices that erases or hides readership in an interesting way.

+I think I’ve cottoned to audiobooks so quickly (and permanently) because I grafted the habit onto daily chores. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought about listening while cleaning the dishes before, but once I did, it was a revelation. I wonder if there are similar pockets of tote zeit in your life that could be repurposed for listening in small doses. For a time, I listened on the Subway, but I feel like it’s best to keep my wits about me and my ears open down there. But in general, commutes, housekeeping, laundry-folding, bed-making, etc are great opportunities to tune into a book.

+Next audiobooks on my list: Protocol: The Power of Diplomacy and How to Make It Work for You, authored and narrated by Capricia Penavic Marshall, President Obama’s former Chief of Protocol, on the fervent recommendation of a Magpie reader. This book jacket copy had me hooked: “From arranging a room to have an intended impact on the participants to knowing which cultural gestures earned trust, her behind-the scenes preparations laid the groundwork for successful diplomacy between heads of state around the world and tilted the playing field in her team’s favor.” Fascinating! I’m also intending to listen to Mariah Carey’s memoir on tape, which made my fall 2020 reading list.

Now onto my most urgent query: what audiobooks do you love?!

P.S. A propos of nothing else, a few items I am seriously eyeing right now: Wolford Matte 80 Denier Opaque tights and turtleneck bodysuit (on the evangelical recommendation of style guru Nellie Diamond), a second pair of these Nikes, and a pair of Jennifer Behr huggie earrings. I’ve never worn that style of earring before but I love that particular pair for everyday.

P.P.S. This melamine plate set is one of the most popular items on my gift roundup. I want it for myself TBH.

P.P.S. Adding two last-minute splurges to my Sephora cart while the promotion is still valid: this Ilia Super Serum Skin Tint, which people seem to be going wild over (will use this in lieu of tinted moisturizer on the days I’m not using my Westman Atelier Foundation Stick) and Charlotte Tilbury’s Airbrush Flawless Filter Finish Setting Powder, on the recommendation of Courtney Grow, who has the most fantastic skin and pledged was a match made in heaven with Westman Atelier Foundation Stick. (Intrigued, especially as she specifically commented that she’d never worn powder before.)

36 Comments

    1. Thank you so much, Traci! Added to my list immediately. What did you like about it? I’ve heard about this book a few times and am intrigued.

      xx

  1. I love your blog so much. You make me feel smarter when I read your writing (even though I have to look up most of the big words you say! Love it). So funny because I was just telling me sister what audiobooks she needs to read about an hour ago and then I came to check your blog and saw this post! I couldn’t agree more about Jessica Simpson’s book. I also read and loved Save me the Plums. Other faves of mine have been: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, Becoming narrated by Michelle Obama, Promise Me Dad narrated by author Joe Biden (!!), Educated, Crazy Rich Asians, and To all the Boys I’ve loved before and the sequel (for a fun easy read!). I have 2 toddlers and also LOVE listening to Audible or podcasts while doing household chores. It’s almost like you want to keep cleaning so you can keep listening!!

    1. Gina! Thank you so much for the incredible compliments. So happy to have you here! And thank you for all the book recs. I wish I hadn’t read Michelle Obama’s book in print first — I think it would have been so interesting to hear it narrated in her own voice! Maybe I’ll give it a listen even though I’ve read the book! I absolutely loved the movies “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” and it’s sequel — hadn’t even thought about listening on tape. That could be a good rainy day backup when I needed something that just feels good and distracting to read.

      xx

  2. The Guest List and The Dutch House are both on my holds shelf through Libby based on your earlier recommendations – looking forward to both!

    I have struggled to pick up a book and read for a few months – I’ve only finished 2 or 3 I think so far this year? – but I’ve finished 6 audiobooks since I started listening in September. I have been surprised how much I enjoy listening and how easy it was to fit in to my day. I’m the same as you; I usually listen while doing something – getting ready, cooking dinner, painting my nails, etc – and it is so enjoyable.

    Thank you for sharing Jen! Your comments on audiobooks this year definitely encouraged me to try them. I always thought I wouldn’t like listening to books? Not sure where I got that idea from, but very happy to be wrong about it!

    1. I totally hear you – it’s almost an easier habit to stick with because you can graft it onto those moments where you’re engaged in doing other things, whereas it always feels like reading a print book is in competition with answering emails, or watching TV, or working on a project, or what have you.

      I’m so excited for you to read The Dutch House!! Please let me know your thoughts.

      xx

  3. I just finished listening to The Inheritance by Dani Shapiro. She also narrates, and it is a story that has stuck with me! Jessica Simpson’s memoir was also an unexpected treasure.

    I’m here to advocate for a shower speaker! Mine is water-resistant, and I just set it on the edge of the tub between the liner and shower curtain. I haven’t had any water issues with it, and it is a game-changer! I might be addicted to optimizing “tote zeit” pockets, but it does feel like a special treat to listen to an audiobook or podcast, even music!, while in the shower and getting ready.

    1. Envious! Definitely on my shopping list this month!!

      Thanks also for the Shapiro book rec — added to my tsundoku as well!

      xx

  4. I’m a HUGE audio fan! I started listening at night when I was trying to go to sleep. I had Soooooo many things on my mind I would have trouble getting to sleep. Insert audio books and it really helped take my mind off of issues and fall asleep with ease. I set the book audio timer and it shuts off after I’m asleep.
    Just love it! I listen to a variety of genres, and most narrator’s I like and a few not so much. Glad to see so many others love an audio version too.

    1. I love this, Cynthia! I’ve also used audiobooks as a way to wind down before bed. Something SO relaxing about laying in bed with a cup of tea, just listening to a story.

      I love how many audiobook lovers we have here!

      xx

  5. I love audiobooks (or BOTS – books on tape – as my best friend and I call them, even though they are no longer actual BOTs). I am an equal opportunity reader and read with my kindle, in print, or via my ears. I prefer listening to nonfiction than fiction. For some reason I focus better on nonfiction.

    I agree with the reader above that there is often able-ist language used to describe reading. Audio and e-readers opens up a world of stories to so many people. Moreover, referring to reading as only comprehension of words on a page is not how story-telling began; it was first a spoken ritual. People also understand at a higher reading level when hearing the words as opposed to only seeing them on a page.

    As far as the effect seeing you read digitally may have on your kids: I wouldn’t be too worried. If anything, my students who know firsthand about the availability of audio and e-books seem to understand how to access MORE books, and it certainly hasn’t taken away from their enthusiasm for reading the printed page. Access is a huge thing I deal with with my students (and by this I don’t mean affordability or a dearth of available books, although that is definitely a huge issue for many) – simply knowing how and where to find books is an obstacle to getting books in hand! I have to explicitly teach and model these skills to my middle school students.

    1. Thanks, Annie, for weighing in here. Such a good point about story-telling beginning as a spoken ritual. Love the idea that audiobooks in some ways reprises those origins.

      xx

  6. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and also read by her! 🙂 I listen to little chunks of it whenever I need doses of writing encouragement.

    1. Oo! I know you’ve sung this book’s praises in the past. Love that she narrates it herself. Added to my list! So many good books to look forward to!

      xx

    2. I love her, Jen! I’ve never even read “Eat, Pray, Love” (oops) and thought “City of Girls” was a fun read, but nothing spectacular. But I just LOVE her philosophy/approach to creativity and life. At my old bagel shop in Park Slope I once crossed paths with her (!) and conversed with her a bit (and gave her a hug!) and it was truly the most starstruck I’ve ever been!! Haha. Would love to hear your thoughts on Big Magic. 🙂

    3. Yes! I for sure will. Love how inspiring she’s been to you and can’t imagine having had the opportunity to meet her IRL. I’m actually astonished you had the wherewithal to approach her and make coherent sentences — I know from experience crossing paths with a couple of celebrities that I turn into a weird robotic version of myself and cannot quite articulate anything! Haha 🙂 xx

  7. I have not yet dipped my toe into audiobooks, but this post has me seriously considering this. My days as a preschool director are full of lots of “noise” — mostly joyful! — so I lean toward the quiet of reading a hard copy or on my Fire. But now I feel like I’m missing out on some good listening… thanks for sharing!! xo
    PS: your conflict over what your children are seeing is a real thing — might I suggest loading a few children’s books on your Kindle that you can share with them? We also use an audiobook or two to help our older preschoolers hone their listening skills. Just food for thought!

    1. Thank you, Heidi, as always, for your gentle and practical suggestions in the realm of parenting. Great idea. Just downloaded a children’s book to look at with Emory tonight before bed.

      If you do decide to listen to an audiobook, let me know what you think! I think “The Dutch House” is kind of the perfect introduction. I was so blown away. It transformed me into a full-on audiobook evangelist.

      xx

  8. Her name is Bess Kalb! And yes, she’s hilarious 🙂 Like others, the library has been my #1 source of audiobooks. I also like libro.fm, which follows the same model as Audible but supports independent bookstores instead of Amazon.

    1. AHHH — Daci, how horrifying that I botched her name. Updated — thank you for the catch. I also just visited your Instagram page and have to say — how did you find that Book It pin?! OMG. Book It (and the free pizza lunch at Pizza Hut it entailed) was EVERYTHING to me in grade school. Amazing.

      xx

  9. I’ve been using the skin tint for almost 2 weeks now and I’m not the biggest fan. The directions say to apply with your fingers which I find makes it cling to any dry patches I have. The finish looks better when applying with a sponge or brush but they do soak up some of the product so you’ll go through it faster. Since it’s a tinted SPF it doesn’t having staying power and I found it looked patchy on me as it broke down. It’s good for a running a few errands kind of day but other than that I’m sticking to my beloved It Cosmetics CC cream!

    1. Ooooo no! OK, well, good thing Sephora has a generous return policy. Will test with your caveat in mind. Perhaps tinted moisturizer is the better way to go here! Thanks for the feedback/warning.

      xx

  10. audiobooks!!! Yaaassss!!! This has been such a lifesaver for me during the pandemic. Thanks for the recommendations! I pretty much look for any book narrated by Simon Vance – he’s incredible. I love the dimension that the narrator brings to the book and how much it changes the experience. I would be remiss if I also didn’t plug my favorite audio book app – Chirp audiobooks! (It also happens to be the product that my wife works on, so I may be biased )

    1. Ooh – thanks for this tip, Cleo! I have heard a little bit about Chirp, by virtue of living in Boston, but together with Jen’s recommendation about grafting the habit onto chores, I think this may be the push I need to get into audiobooks. Love that they offer such good deals AND aren’t associated with Amazon.

    2. Hi Cleo!! Thank you for chiming in here! Which Vance book do you recommend? What do you like about his narration?? I honestly did not realize until some of the comments on this post that there is such a thing as a celebrity audiobook narrator, but it makes complete sense.

      Thanks also for the Chirp mention!

      xx

    3. The first series I listened to with Simon Vance narration was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which was a great mystery series albeit intensely violent, and since then I’ve listened to several others, mostly fantasy series. If you are looking for that kind of content, The Lightbringer series is an addictive universe with an incredibly diverse set of characters and a rich magic system. I think he narrated across a broad range of genres though.

      As for the narration style, I find his lilting accent easy to consume, and I love the character voices he uses. They are distinct and make the dialogue come alive. I also really appreciate that he does not infantilize women’s voices when he reads them.

      Give Simon Vance a try and let me know what you think!

  11. I really enjoyed “There There” by Tommy Orange. The audiobook has a full cast. It’s also a timely listen during the month of November because it is Native American Indian Heritage Month. Also, anything read by Bahni Turpin.

    I believe it’s problematic to say that listening to an audiobook takes away from the “heuristics of reading.” This is ableist language. For people with disabilities, audiobooks make reading accessible. When you listen to an audiobook, your children are seeing you model that learning can happen through different modalities and that’s great!

    Like the poster above, I also borrow audiobooks for *free* via Libby and the DC Public Library.

    1. Hi Ana! “There There” has been on my reading list for awhile — thanks for the nudge. I think I’ll bump it up on my list. Tell me more about Bahni Turpin! Which titles are your favorites? What do you like about her narrator skills? I just saw that she’s an award-winning audiobook narrator and am intrigued.

      I appreciate the correction here. Re-reading the way I described listening to audiobooks vs. reading books in print does imply a hierarchy of modalities. I’ll be attentive to that moving forward — thank you. However, I do still believe that the medium changes the heuristics of reading. For example, we use the fact that there are more pages on the left hand side than on the right hand side as a short-cut or cue that the plot is at a certain point of development and to anticipate the denouement. Conversely, audiobooks often make shifts in narrator much easier to grasp. I think, though, your point still stands that I must be careful in not assigning these differences a value and appreciate the prompt.

      xx

    2. Jen,

      I love your response. I agree with you and Ana both. We don’t want to assign more or less value to different modalities, but I agree with you that the skills exercised with each format can be different!

      I so appreciate that your comment section is a dialogue where seeking greater understanding is the goal, rather than a debate’s goal of being right. You have fostered a Dweck-ian community here. I wish we could all get drinks or coffee (or convene in a socially distant manner in a park!) together and have these educative conversations in person.

    3. Hi Annie – Wow! What a compliment for this entire community. I agree! I have learned so much here and routinely read aloud sharp, insightful comments from Magpies to my parents and my husband. Thank you for being a part of it, and for being a part of this specific exchange on ableism and reading here.

      xx

  12. I too love audiobooks so really love my library – the audiobooks are free via Libby or the Overdrive apps (at least here at my library in VA) and the selection is very good. Highly recommend.
    Currently listening to His & Hers by Alice Feeney and just finished The Searcher by Tana French.

    1. Thanks, Jenn — let me know what you think on both of those titles in audiobook form!! Any standouts from your recent listening history?

      xx

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