I’m a fan of literary fiction. What exactly is literary fiction, and how do you identify a work of literary fiction, other than by the fact that you find it in the Literary Fiction section of your local bookstore? I often fall back on Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 definition of pornography – “I know it when I see it”.
I read several outstanding works of literary fiction in 2008. Not all were written this year, and technically, I didn’t read them all. Since discovering audiobooks a couple of years ago, I’ve come to appreciate the richness of the spoken word. Early literature grew from an oral tradition, and today’s audiobooks in many ways continue that tradition. A really good audiobook narrator can enhance our experience of a work of fiction. I came across several excellent audiobook narrators this year.
A Friend of the Earth, T.C. Boyle (read by Scott Brick)
The year is 2025, and T.C. Boyle presents us with a world on the brink of environmental destruction. The threat of global warming has come to fruition. Most animal species are extinct, winter rains in California are torrential monsoons and summers are hellish. Despite this grim situation, the tone of this book is by turns darkly comic, sentimental, and hopeful.
Ty Tierwater, former eco-terrorist and baby boomer turned senior citizen, is the first-person voice of A Friend of the Earth. Ty’s story switches expertly between the 80’s, the 90’s and 2025, describing the rise and eventual failure of the eco-terrorist group Earth Forever! As Ty strives to survive and make some sense of the collapse of the world around him, we become involved and want to learn more about what caused him and his family to change over the years. Ty makes some monumental mistakes throughout his life, but we come to identify with him and care about his survival.
Scott Brick, the audiobook narrator, is a superstar of the spoken word. He has recorded several hundred audiobooks and was named Narrator of the Year in 2007 by Publishers Weekly. He does a fantastic job on A Friend of the Earth. The only person I would enjoy as much as Brick when listening to a T.C. Boyle novel is Boyle himself, who can be heard on the audiobook of The Tortilla Curtain. This is another great T.C. Boyle book which I highly recommend.
Light in August, William Faulkner (read by William Hammer)
Written in 1932, Light in August is one of Faulkner’s most accessible books in terms of language, construction and plot. The themes and characters are nevertheless complex and often disturbing. Set in Faulkner’s imaginary Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi, the novel explores issues of race, prejudice, religion and relations between men and women. The orphan Joe Christmas, rumored to be the product of an illicit mixed-blood affair, is an outsider from society, hated and spurned since birth. The abuse he endures at the hands of his religious-fanatic adoptive father scars him for life and sows the seeds of tragedies which Joe will later play a part in.
William Hammer’s reading of this book gives weight to Faulkner’s words. The language is simple, but it builds and repeats for dramatic effect. The narrative takes detours into the past to examine the roots of different characters. Hammer takes on the role of master storyteller, bringing Faulkner’s unforgettable characters to life.
The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen (read by George Guidall)
Winner of the 2001 National Book Award for fiction, this book sat unread on my bookshelf for a couple of years before I found an audiobook at the library and decided to give it a try. The Corrections examines the history of a single Midwestern family, beginning with how the grown-up (but not quite adult) children deal with the deterioration of their elderly father’s health and mental state, then traveling back in time for a look at how this mixed-up family got the way they are. This books is hilarious, insightful and touching. The characters and their experiences stay with you long after you’ve finished the book.
George Guidall is a pleasure to listen to. He brings a dramatic sense to his reading, imbuing each character with a distinct presence. He has narrated hundreds of audiobooks and twice won the Audie Award (the equivalent of an Oscar in the audiobook world).
Born Standing Up, Steve Martin (read by Steve Martin)
Steve Martin the comedian has already proved himself as Steven Martin the author in books like Shopgirl. Born Standing Up is a witty and insightful memoir of the years leading up to his phenomenal success as a standup comedian. Steve grew up not far from where I live in Southern California, and his descriptions of early jobs at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm in the 1950s and 60s are strongly evocative of those places in that time.
His focused determination to succeed first as a magician and then as a comic, and his almost scientific method for achieving success are detailed in an entertaining way. He also delves into family issues which left him sometimes unable to connect with those he loves, and to the complete loneliness he experienced at the pinnacle of his standup career.
Anyone who was around when Steve Martin’s catch phrases (“Well, excuuuuse me”, “I’m a wild and crazy guy”, etc.) were heard everywhere will find this memoir fascinating. Steve does a great job narrating it, and an extra bonus is his banjo playing at the chapter breaks.
Missing Mom, Joyce Carol Oates (read by Anna Fields)
I had heard of Joyce Carol Oates for years and had read some of her short stories in magazines, but this is the first novel I’ve picked up. MissingMom takes place over the space of a year in the life of Nikki Eaton, a self-described party girl just over 30, as she deals with the murder of her mother. Despite the shocking tragedy of her mother’s death (the discovery of her mother and ensuing capture and trial of the killer are told in gruesome detail), the tone of the book is often darkly comic.
As Nikki moves through all the stages of grief, she realizes she didn’t really know her mother. She even tries on some of the roles her mother played in an attempt to understand her better. It’s a unique approach to grief that changes Nikki as she comes to accept that her mother is gone.
An amazing part of this book is JCO’s ability to get into the head of a young woman like Nikki. No bimbo, but someone who at 31 is still approaching life with a wild teenager’s outlook, Nikki comes across as intelligent, maddeningly self-centered, and often delusional about men. Oates is now in her 70s, but I found Nikki to be very believable and sympathetic.
Anna Fields is an outstanding a narrator on this audiobook. Each character comes alive with her interpretation. Sadly, Kate Fleming (who recorded under the name Anna Fields) died in a flood in her Seattle basement in 2006. A vibrant talent has been tragically lost to us all, but can still be experienced in the many audiobooks she recorded.